Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency

Photo by Ted Mallory

Freedom, from an existential perspective, cannot be separated from responsibility. With freedom comes responsibility. Yet, it is common for many people to seek freedom while trying to avoid responsibility. While, at times, it appears that people may be able to succeed at this, there remains a psychological consequence. This consequence is often not very noticeable but may find expression through guilt, anxiety, depression, or even anger.

Existential freedom is not the same as freedom in the political sense we often think of it in America. In fact, political freedom could be view to be a rather shallow, though not unimportant, type of freedom. A person can be existentially free despite not being politically free, and a person can avoid embracing their existential freedom despite being offered great political freedoms.

Frankl (1984), in the story of his experience in the concentration camps, provides a powerful overview of this distinction. While all his political or social freedoms were taken away, he gives credit for his survival to his psychological freedom. This psychological freedom allowed him to find and embrace meaning in the midst of what appeared to be meaningless suffering.

Ways of Avoiding Responsibility

There are several common examples of how people avoid responsibility in American culture. Conformity is one good example. Americans pride themselves on being autonomous individuals to the point of idealizing individualism. However, upon closer analysis, Americans find extremely creative ways of giving up their freedom. Americans conform through blind allegiance to various organizations and institutions including political parties and religious institutions. This is not to say that being dedicated to either of these are bad. In fact, often they can lead to very positive outcomes. The problem comes with blind allegiance where a person gives up their responsibility to critically think through the beliefs, perspectives, and values of the organization. When this happens, the individual’s values are no longer authentic.

When a person gives their allegiance to an external belief structure, they may go in one of several directions. First, they often will become very rigid in their allegiance to the organization or structure to which they have committed. This type of conformity can be seen through various forms of fundamentalism — religious, political, psychological systems, etc.

Second, they may present as being very committed to a belief system or organization, but they feel very comfortable bending the rules where it does fit their desires. It becomes easy to bend the rules because they are not really committed to the underlying values system. However, when a person is deeply committed to authentic moral or value principles, they are less willing to act in ways that contradict these principles. The principles are authentic.

Another way avoids responsibility can occur through the belief that one is powerless. There can be many factors that are seen to render a person powerless. A person can perceive themselves as a victim of their environment, of various supernatural or spiritual forces, their unconscious, or a victim of their biology/genes. While an existential approach will recognize that all of these factors may influence a person, none of them render a person powerless or completely control them.

The Ability to Choose Freedom

Otto Rank discusses the issue of freedom beautifully. Essentially, Rank states that the degree to which a person is unaware of those forces which influence us, they are controlled by them. Stated differently, the degree to which we are unaware of how our drives, instincts, unconscious, and environment are influencing us, they control us. However, if a person chooses not to be aware of these influences, even if done so passively or unconsciously, a choice has still been made.

Self-awareness, in Rank’s conceptualization, is a commitment people make which can enhance their freedom. Yet, most people choose to live a life of being unaware. It can be frightening to deeply know who we are and the realities of our existence. Yet, it can be even more rewarding. The movie the Matrix provides a parallel to this understanding of freedom and awareness. While many choose to avoid living in the realities of life, a few choose to live more fully in awareness. The existential question then becomes do you choose the blue pill? Or will you take the red one?

Self-Awareness and the Ethical Life

If we accept Rank’s views on freedom, the unconscious, and the will, then to live a responsible life is to live a life committed to self-awareness. If the choice made is to merely be a product of our biology, our unconscious, and our environment; then the choice has been made to live an inauthentic and irresponsible life. This commitment is not always an easy one, but, again, the rewards can be great.

The inauthentic and unaware life limits a person in so many ways. First, it limits a person’s ability to live an ethical life. Second, it limits the potential for authenticity. A third loss, which is necessarily connected to the second loss, is that we are limited in our ability for intimacy and relational satisfaction. It is only through knowing ourselves that we can be authentically in relationship with others. However, the ironic paradox remains that the only way we can come to know ourselves is through relationships with others.

In returning to the discussion of ethics, it can be seen that this is a profoundly different approach to ethics than the one typically embraced by American society. A close look at America’s value system reveals that it typically is based on a) conformity to rules and ethics codes, b) what benefits the individual or their family the most, or c) what is more financially beneficial for the individual.

I would maintain that an existential approach to ethics must be counterculture in American society. As existential thought tends to be anti-structural, it will focus on broader principles instead of rules. These principles may be derived from a religious or spiritual system, but not necessarily so. They would embrace respect for human existence, but also the broader environmental and natural systems (nature) of which human existence is a part. Love, compassion, and a commitment to social justice (not in the punitive or avenging sense, but rather in seeking to change the evils of society) are the principles that are foundational to existential theory.  While many individual principles may also be a part of different peoples’ values system, I would maintain that these principles are essential to existential ethics.

Self-awareness is needed to live in accordance with these principles. However, the lack of self-awareness is not an acceptable excuse for a person’s behavior.

Freedom & Responsibility in Therapy

The process of change cannot begin until a person accepts responsibility. This is one of the difficult challenges of growth. In order to grow, a person must accept responsibility for what they have done to contribute to where they are at in life. If they have no responsibility, then they have little ability to change.

When applied to therapy, this could be taken to mean that the therapist must break through the walls of defense in order to help the client take responsibility. This is generally not consistent with the existential approach. Bugental (1987) provides some of the best illustrations of this. With his profound respect for the client, Bugental also shows respect for the client’s defenses. Instead of forcing through defenses, they can be used as a guide to help the therapist know when the client is ready to go deeper into an issue. When the defenses are strong, the therapist respects the need for the defense and does not push on that issue at that time. However, when the defenses are lowered the therapist then can recognize that it is a good time to move deeper.

This is not to suggest there is never a time to confront or challenge a client’s defenses. Rather it recognizes that before this is done the therapist must recognize the value of the defense. It also suggests that defenses can be challenged or confronted in a softer manner. I like to use the metaphor of the invitation here. The job of the therapist is to continuously invite the client to examine the defenses and the issues which the defenses are protecting, yet always respect the client’s desire to not accept the invitation.

The Will and Agency

The will and agency are common words used to describe aspects of freedom in existential thought. ‘Will’ is a word that most people recognize, but have difficulty defining. One way of defining the will is to state that it is that aspect of the self that chooses or is free. In stating that people have a free will does not necessitate that they are entirely free. Rather, it is affirming that people are at least partially free. Few, if any, existential thinkers will deny that our biology, culture, and environment influence our actions and our will. However, none of these can take away the reality of some degree of personal freedom.

The idea of the will is an important point of divergence from classical psychodynamic/psychoanalytic perspectives which generally are much more pessimistic about how free a person can be (some approaches to contemporary or relational psychoanalysis are notable exceptions). This, in part, is due to conceptions of the unconscious. While both theories generally agree that we have an unconscious that can never be fully known, existential theories typically believe that the unconscious can be much more known than what psychodynamic theorists believe.

Agency is a complex term that many people struggle with. In essence, a person is acting as an agent when they are exercising their will. Human beings sometimes act in a manner that is completely passive. That is, although they have the potential for will, they do not exercise it. In these instances, they are not acting as free agents; instead, they are merely acting as automatons or products of those forces which influence the individual. Therefore, the potential for agency is part of the human condition, but it is a part often not utilized.


Freedom and responsibility are discussed first because they are foundational in understanding the human experience. If we are not free, then the other existential questions take on a very different purpose. It would also require a very different approach to therapy. However, if people are free, then issues of meaning, relationship, and human limitation take on a very different meaning.

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Created 2004; Never been updated.