This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 16/4/2012.
The concept of free will — that is, the capacity to choose, make moral decisions and construct one’s own destiny — is cherished deeply in our society. In Western popular culture, the philosophy of self-determination is tirelessly promoted, while the commercial mass media reinforce folk concepts such as the dichotomy of good and evil. In religion, particularly, the freedom to choose is a near-fundamental premise — thus, while the Abrahamic faiths begin their texts with a story of wilful disobedience in the Garden of Eden, Buddhism stresses the importance of moral decision-making and the process of karma. Under these conditions, it is little surprise that many people see free will as practically axiomatic.
In fact, it is anything but. When carefully considered, it is quite likely that free will doesn’t exist at all. Although its philosophical opponent, determinism — the claim that every event is the inevitable result of existing factors — is still far from universally accepted, there are compelling arguments that suggest that human behaviour, at least, is wholly deterministic in nature.
One such contention is moral relativism: the view that, in simple terms, morality is a social construct. A cursory glance at global and historical customs seems to bear this out. Polygamy, homosexuality, infanticide, slavery, paedophilia and consumption of certain meats are just a few of the many practices that have been considered immoral in some cultures whilst actively endorsed in others. Even a relatively universally condemned act such as murder is prosecuted in a highly inconsistent manner; see, for instance, the widespread institutionalisation of capital punishment, assassination and organised warfare.
What these examples affirm is that morality has one primary purpose: to maintain societal functionality. In most societies, moral absolutism is invoked in order to reinforce societal codes and instill a sense of cultural superiority. Religion is essential to this process because, in absence of a clear moral code ordained by a specific religious tradition, claims to objective moral authority have little basis. Needless to say, it’s hard to be an atheist moral absolutist.
Some try to get around this problem by arguing that real morality is a personal affair — an innate comprehension of ‘right and wrong’ — and is separate from cultural morality. This assertion has little psychological basis. The role of cultural and familial influence in our mental development is well-documented, such that it is impossible to disentangle our individual psyches from social conditioning. There is no reason why our private moral codes should be an exception. Furthermore, the emotions typically associated with moral thought — guilt, compassion, anger — are entirely subjective. A Jewish child can feel genuine guilt over eating pig meat, just as President Truman was able to assert that he didn’t lose a night’s sleep over the bombing of Hiroshima.
Moral relativism may not address the core principles underlying the free will debate, but it does undermine the very essence of the philosophy of self-determination; for, if moral superiority is unfounded, there is no scope to attain a state of righteousness, nor to pass moral judgement on others’ lives. Under these conditions, free will would be nothing but a matter of mere causality.
It is important here to note that we do, of course, make conscious decisions that affect the course of our lives. The problem that the determinism debate addresses is whether or not these choices are ‘free’, or simply the inevitable result of our biological predispositions combined with social upbringing and environment.
One of the more famous debates in psychology is that of nature and nurture: that is, the degree to which our personalities can be sourced to genetics or socialisation. The argument is ongoing, but the most important implication from a philosophical perspective is that neither factor is within our control. We obviously have no say in the structure of our DNA, nor our upbringing or childhood circumstances. Thus, the decisions we make do not exist in a vacuum; they are a combination of who we are and what we perceive to be the correct choice in a particular situation. We can, to some extent, seek to change our behaviour or environment, but that too requires existing conditions; say, a disposition to want to change combined with a means and an external support network.
This is why the philosophy of self-determination is so flawed. Even pushing to one side all the external factors that might lead someone to become, say, a drug addict (some/all of low socio-economic background, addictive personality and high exposure to drugs), the decision to take one’s first hit of heroin is not an independent choice in any sense of the phrase — it requires a situation and a pre-existing mentality. The self-control, reasoning capability or cautiousness required to decide against injecting either exist or they don’t. These are not qualities we choose for ourselves — we can try to develop them, but such a decision requires the existence of other dispositions; and so on. We are, in essence, victims of circumstance.
Many find this conclusion troubling. After all, if this is so, there is no personal responsibility; perhaps more frighteningly, we have no real control over our lives. That can be a hard thing to accept, but it needn’t be. Like all living organisms, we are solely motivated by self-interest; fortunately, we also crave the safety of groups. The only decision we ever make is that which we perceive, under the circumstances, to be the best for ourselves, which can just as likely be translated into acts of love or kindness as aggression or harm. It is only through a combination of strong predispositions and a healthy upbringing that we can tend towards the former.
Human society was created and developed by self-interest, and it is intelligent, educated self-interest that must be called upon to build happier, more accepting and progressive societies. Rather than fear the inevitability of a deterministic world, we would do better to reject the fallacies of free will and self-determination, and cease using them as an excuse to withhold empathy for others or to entertain fantasies of moral superiority. The first, crucial step must be to understand ourselves.