Is Free Will the Matter of Being Able to Express Your "REAL SELF"?

Updated: Feb 25

Taken to the classical view, I define our ‘real self’ as a repository of our desires and motivations. The view that this entails freedom, because it exercises intentional agency and causal control, is one that I do not agree with. Vulnerability to external influences reduces first-order desires and motivations to the mark of subjugation - not freedom. This essay argues that though higher-order desires can also be externally influenced, it is their fulfilment through the manipulation of our 'self' that is free will. In other words, free will is not the matter of being able to express your 'real self', rather it is the ability for self-manipulation.

We Are Not Always Free as Simple Intentional Agents

In order to know what free will is, we must understand what it is not. Here I am not arguing that pursuit of desires does not entail freedom. I am questioning the ownership of those desires.

Admittedly, both intentionality and agency are fundamental requisites of free will. Without agency, we would not be able to do anything—we will simply have things happen to us. Like an apple, which has no say in when it will fall from its tree, or a car that has no idea when it will move, examples of non-agential entities show that agency is necessary for moving around an environment. Intentionality, described by Franz Bretano as "aboutness", is our agency conforming to our desires. Eleanor Knox simplifies the concept of intentional agents as “systems that have intentional states […] desires to bring stuff about”.

An intentional agent has some representations of its environment; has motivations (what it would like to achieve in that environment); and is consequently able to interact with that environment in pursuit of its motivations and goals. We intuitively recognise this as an autonomous self that enjoys positive liberty; described as a “condition of liberation from social and cultural forces that are perceived as impeding full self-realization” (Blackburn, 2016). It is also congruent with the Frankfurtian mantra that 'the will that you want is the will that you have' (Frankfurt, 1971).

However, what if the will we want is a false will, one that is informed from external forces? This is the concept of false consciousness. We are born into a world of influence that informs our thoughts and desires, to fulfill them would be a form of subjugation to sociopolitical forces. That 80% of content watched on Netflix is recommended to us or our voting preferences shift by 37.1% according to search result rankings on Google, exemplifies how our actions—that are based on first-order desires—do not belong to us. They lie far outside the realm of ‘the self’ and in the clutches of systemic powers that direct our goals via programmed algorithms.

In a world where our decisions are influenced by social media, do we really have free will?

Furthermore, certain environmental influences can take hold despite our best personal interest. For example, stereotypes often reflect repressive and unjustified caricatures of people’s capabilities and motivations. They are constructed by the zeitgeist of the time. Studies on the phenomenon of stereotype threat found that reminding women or people of colour of their gender or racial identity before a test artificially reduces their scores (Steele and Quinn, 2006). When certain tropes are reinforced, we conform to them and internalise a belief which is foreign to our ‘real self’. We succumb to expectations rather than achieving our desire to succeed.

Consider: are we supposed to think that a woman, who chooses to remain silent on her sexual abuse out of fear of the punishments society will sanction her with, is free? Her goal of job security motivates her to commit to the instrumental desire of keeping quiet. She is in every sense an intentional agent, yet we cannot say that she is liberated from patriarchal conditioning.

Consequently, our first-order desires can be incredibly vulnerable to external influences. We are not always free as intentional agents, therefore intentional agency and the expression of ‘real self’ does not seem sufficient to entail freedom of will.

Higher-Order Desires can be Free from External Influences

I will concede that higher-order desires can also be inherited from external influences, but unlike first-order desires, we can exert a measure of control over our higher-order desires; they are malleable. First-order desires are rigid — we have no choice but to either wait till they abate, or indulge in them.

Say I acquire the first-order desire to eat Swiss chocolate after having eaten it for the first time a few days ago. Experience of the desire is necessary as we cannot desire that which we do not have knowledge of. I want to eat Swiss chocolate. But my higher-order desire may be to abstain and keep a clean diet, which in itself could have been established by a targeted healthy-eating Instagram ad.

You could argue that my abstinence (higher-order desire) would be a result of external influence just like first-order desires. However, I have the choice to either agree with this higher-order desire or re-evaluate it. I can influence the influencing force. On the other hand, I cannot exert control on my first-order desires on their own — upon eating Swiss chocolate for the first time, I am genetically predisposed to my opinion of it.

The point of the matter is, desires are not free if they are immune from external forces. Interactions between desires and external influence is inevitable. Desires are free when we are able to influence the influencing forces. And we only have the ability to manipulate higher-order desires. This is what I call a moment of self-manipulation.

The desire to want chocolate (higher-order) can be manipulated with self-restraint; we can exert control, thus showing the capacity for free will

Moments of Self-manipulation

We are occasioned to manipulate ‘the self’ after a moment of crisis, where preconceived notions of our ‘self’ is challenged. This could be from enticing influences or what other people think of us, our goals and desires. One study on a community in Utah targeted women; one group was called and told that other community members thought of them as uncooperative and lacking a community spirit — challenging their conceptions of their own ‘self’. The other group had their self-image consolidated when the researchers said that other community members considered them helpful. Upon the second call, when the researchers asked for help on a local project, the women in the first group were twice as likely to offer help (Steele, 1970). This shows that when the integrity of the self is attacked, we are forced to rationalise our ideas of ‘self’. We either accept a change in our motivations, goals, personal values - and therefore manipulate our ‘self’ - or we reaffirm those values.

The Frankfurt example which shows the transition from a willing addict to a willingly dry addict also highlights how self-manipulation entails free will. When the addictive first-order desires die down, a person is forced to introspect and consider whether those actions are reflective of their ‘self’ — all their desires, goals and motivations. If the answer is no, that person shifts their higher-order desires, becoming an unwilling addict. According to Frankfurt’s definition of free will, this transition goes from a free state to an unfree state (unwilling addict), as the will they want is different from what they have.

Though little is known about the transition of the unwilling addict to a willingly dry addict, what is clear is that a shift in higher-order desires (or self-manipulation) precedes attainment of free will, when the willingly dry addict is liberated from addictive desires and the will they want is the will they have. Therefore, one can only begin to overcome addiction if they manipulate the ‘self’, shift their higher-order desires and become cognitively aware of their new will.

To conclude, fulfilment of first-order desires can be an expression of slavery to systemic powers - it does not originate from the ‘self’. Higher-order desires are different in that they can be influenced by external forces, but we wield the power to influence the desires in turn. Forces of influence do not injure my choice in manipulating higher-order desires. If external influencing forces were hard determining forces, we all would have the same set of desires. That we are individuals with separate degrees of desires and motivations implies an internal level of control, where we are able to manipulate our higher-order desires. And this is what free will is: self-manipulation.

We cannot control the winds, but we can adjust the sails.


  1. Webb, R. (2020). Your decision-making ability is a superpower physics can't explain. [online] New Scientist. Available at: [Accessed 23 April. 2020].

  2. freedom, positive/negative. Oxford Reference. (2020). Retrieved 29 April 2020, from

  3. Frankfurt, H. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal Of Philosophy, 68(1), 5.

  4. (2020). Retrieved 29 April 2020, from

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