Philosophers Chris Horner and Emrys Westacott point out in Thinking Through Philosophy, that “When I make certain choices, whether they be trivial or momentous, it usually seems to me that I could have chosen otherwise and am thus responsible for my decision. When I order a drink I have it in my power to order either tea or coffee. If I give evidence at a trial I can choose to tell the truth or to lie.” Throughout history, philosophers have tended to favor either free will or determinism, more or less. Though determinism has much weight on its side, I have to believe that free will is not an illusion.
Imagine there were a god or a supercomputer which could predict with 100% accuracy what I was going to do, 100% of the time. Would I be responsible for my behavior? Could I be praised to doing right or blamed for doing wrong? Is my free will my own, or an illusion? The main reason for believing that if God or a supercomputer could predict my behavior with absolute certainty, I would not be responsible for my actions is that responsibility necessarily entails freedom to choose, to act.
Horner and Westacott show that “In holding ourselves responsible, we imply that we are in control of our actions, that we might act otherwise, and that in adopting one course of action over another, we make a free choice. But determinism would seem to rule out the very possibility of this sort of freedom.” However, “A second reason for upholding the idea that we have free will is that all our moral principles and institutions rest on the assumption that we are free.”
Not acting because it would be extremely difficult to act is not a reasonable reason for not acting.
The philosophical concept of retributive justice is where the crux of freedom lies. Our whole system of jurisprudence is based on the idea that a person – even despite their upbringing, rewards and punishments, and social pressures – are ultimately responsible for criminal actions. To do otherwise would be to invite absolute chaos and a societal maelstrom of excuse-making.
“Boldly asserting the reality of freedom is one way of cutting the Gordian knot in the tangled controversy over free will and determinism. This is, in effect, the step taken by one of the twentieth century’s best known champions of metaphysical freedom, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre” (Horner and Westacott). The extremely influential Sartre believed that existence precedes essence. “We have to choose for ourselves what actions to perform, what values to embrace, what lifestyle to adopt, what goals to pursue,” Horner and Westacott note. The hard-to-grasp phrase means that one exists before (more fundamentally) than one has an essence, or any predetermined way of being. In a word, we can choose how to act; we are not forced.
For what is liberty but the unhampered translation of will into act?
I noted that responsibility necessarily entails freedom for the following reason. Primarily, if one did not possess actual, practical free will in any given situation, they would not be able to justly be held responsible for their actions. Again, this is the very nature of freedom vis-à-vis modern jurisprudence (i.e., the “insanity defense” obviates finding a defendant guilty if they were not capable of doing otherwise due to mental defect).
Perhaps life, like the philosophical experiment known as “the trolley problem”, is a combination of determined antecedents and existential choice, but freedom of choice is an inextricable part of responsibility. Every parent believes, when disciplining, that their child chose incorrectly and ought to do it differently next time. If one has a developmentally disabled child, do they not have to exercise a certain restraint, not punishing the child for failing to “make good choices”? I think so, and the reason is that such a child’s choices are relatively foreclosed, and we perceive their responsibility as minimal.
As well, we tend to want to lock captured criminal sociopaths and sex offenders up and throw away the key because we perceive them as unable to will change in their behavior. Their brains have been damaged and have grown such that free will isn’t much of a viable possibility for these individuals.
Jean-Paul Sartre coined the phrase bad faith: when one fails to exercise the freedom to decide – to act – that the universe has saddled each and every human being with. If some kind of force can predict what we will do with absolute accuracy, then in such a case, actions are completely determined, and one possesses no true freedom – or responsibility.
If a god or a supercomputer could predict with 100% accuracy how one will act in the future, in every instance, then by definition there is no room for free will in that scenario. Responsibility necessarily entails freedom of action. If one constructs a rat maze such that 100% of rats run it in a particular way 100% of the time, then the rat is not able to choose its path; it is determined for it.
However, rats are not capable of the kind of rationality and metacognition that human beings are capable of. A person, put into a maze by an omnipotent experimenter, can choose to sit down, cross one’s arms, and not participate. Rats’ actions are determined by positive reinforcement; they can’t possibly resist. Their first-order desires are ineluctable, as Harry G. Frankfurt might say.
Think of the length to which then-prisoner Nelson Mandela was capable of going, driven by the goal to not lose his freedom to choose his reaction to his oppressors. We praise him as a moral hero. Or consider Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, able to choose at least how to perceive his situation; how to be. He found choice in the most austere of places. I think we have to believe that the future is not mapped out for each and every one of us; predestination was debunked long ago, and I don’t think even Star Trek would hold that our actions are thoroughly predictable. Though determinism holds a lot of philosophical water, if you will, I think that philosopher Robert C. Solomon was correct about fatalism when he wrote:
Our ultimate discomfort with all varieties of fatalism has to do with the apparent conflict with freedom and responsibility. As Daniel Dennett put the matter, overgeneralizing to make fatalism sound absurd: “No agent can do anything about anything.”
Another quote from Solomon: “As an existentialist, I take it that one of the most important messages that philosophy has to give is that the importance of individual freedom and responsibility, not as a matter of metaphysics, but as a matter of practical necessity. When people appeal to fate or fatalism they often give up responsibility and refuse to take resolute action. Fate and fatalism thus provide a convenient excuse for what Jean-Paul Sartre calls ‘bad faith‘: refusing to act and take responsibility and rationalizing this refusal with an appeal to dubious external circumstances.”
I am not leaving. You do not have the power to release me, least of all to release me to gratify yourselves. I shall not leave this place until I hear that everybody else has been released, and that all the laws of the tyranny have been stricken from the books.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in numbers, but offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to determine one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way.