Free Will, Determinism, and Morality
First off I would like to say that this is my first time posting an article, so I hope you all enjoy! I recently wrote a paper for my English class on the moral implications of free will. I think you guys will find it very interesting, however note that any references to books or any stories were simply a public school requirement.
Breaking the Illusion of Free Will
This is an issue that touches everything we think about in this world. We often assume that when a person does something bad, they chose to do what they did. When we see ourselves in a situation where we can either choose chocolate or vanilla ice cream, we think that if we could go back to that moment, we could chose the opposite of what we actually did. It may seem this way but scientists have now put this concept deemed “Free Will” under pressure. Many experiments in neuroscience show that this idea is false, but people still believe it for seemingly mental health reasons. In 1980 Benjamin Libet proved in a study that before people are aware of a seemingly voluntary decision (ex: pushing a red or blue button) there is unconscious activity in the brain taking place leading up to it. (Libet) Some scientists even take this experiment further and predict the outcome of the voluntary choice seven seconds before it even happens with significant accuracy. (Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain) These studies put a lot of pressure on the idea of free will. Causal determinism is the philosophical idea that the laws of nature and chains of cause and effect make up our will. I will be referencing the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the short story A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, and also A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell to demonstrate examples proving the validity of my ideas on this topic. I believe the true nature of how we act is in a deterministic way, and I’m going to make the case that believing in the illusion of free will is bad for society.
The first major reason free will is such a bad idea for society is it causes immense hatred through revenge. This is shown in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare when Laertes comes back to find out his father was killed. In the text he states “To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the worlds I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged”(Shakespeare Act 4 Scene 5 Lines 134-138). Why is Laertes acting in this way? The answer seems obvious to the average person. Hamlet is responsible for killing Laertes father. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation in which Hamlet was found to have a brain tumor that caused him to kill Laertes father. How would Laertes react in this situation? He still might be angry that this happened but certainly not at Hamlet. In a way he would take pity on Hamlet for being the unlucky guy with random fits of rage. Now let’s go back to the regular context of what happened in the play, except this time we can see the microstructure of Hamlets brain and we see the neurons misfiring due to the trauma he experienced from Claudius killing his father and marrying his mother. As I talked about in the introduction scientists have significant evidence that our unconscious motivations determine our voluntary behaviors. So how could Hamlet be responsible for his actions? If we say Hamlet is responsible for all of his bodily functions then certainly if he had any kind of cancer it would be considered suicide, which would be considered ridiculous. The reason Laertes sought out revenge was he assumed that Hamlet as a free agent chose to kill his father. Imagine if Laertes went to bed that night knowing that it was all more or less an accident. It would make him feel tremendously better than how he does now. A second example of how this also applies is when Hamlet wants Claudius to burn in hell after he is murdered. In the play Hamlet it says “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying, And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven, And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d, A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven”(Shakespeare Act 3 Scene 3 Lines 73-78). Here Hamlet is expressing the extreme anger he feels simply because he truly believes that Claudius was just being evil out of his own choice, similar to Laertes thinking about Hamlet in the previous example. If Hamlet had really understood that Claudius was not responsible for the evil he has done, he would not want to take revenge on him. Hamlet would still however want to lock Claudius up not because of punishment, but simply for the progress of society. This really goes to show how the idea of free will can affect not only our ideas about good and evil, but it also has a lot to do with moral responsibility.
The second of the major issues free will causes is a false notion of moral responsibility. In the context of all this evidence, it’s hard to imagine anyone is responsible for their own behavior, but this is often applied to the real world. This first example shows a situation that arises to not fit this line of thinking. In the short story A Jury of Her Peers there is a woman who kills her husband in self-defense for beating her. It comes down to a point where it is up to the women to decide to give the evidence over or to not give the evidence over that would convict her for murder. In the text it says “Mrs. Henderson said, coming out that what was needed for a case was a motive” (Glaspell Page 615). This quote shows that people recognize there are causes and effects for people’s actions, and that the women knew sometimes people aren’t responsible for their actions when they just act on fight or flight impulse response. This all ties back together because it proves sometimes people recognize the truth of determinism and see that people have no moral responsibility in a situation. The only thing I am trying to show is how this is only a special case in which this notion becomes recognized, just like the brain tumor case with Hamlet mentioned previously. If people have no free will, in what way could they be responsible? A stronger case can be made for this if we carefully examine another story called A Good Man is Hard to Find. In this situation there is an evil character named “The Misfit” who is meddling with our protagonist “Grandma” after she gets into a car accident with her family. She recognizes him somehow and knows he is a troublemaker. They are talking about good and evil and then the misfit say something very interesting which makes a great point towards my argument “I was never a bad boy that I remember of…but somewhere along the line I got sent to the penitentiary.”(O’Conner Page 458) It is also worthy to note that when the misfit was a child he talked about his parents being good people. Many psychologists accept that environment plays a large role in how we feel and act. So my contention is that the misfit had acted normal as he says until he went to the penitentiary and met all of these people who had committed terrible crimes. This probably largely determined who he became since we know how other peoples influence can affect our own subconscious decision making. I showed in the beginning how scientists have tested and shown with great evidence that our subconscious mind is aware of our decisions before our conscious mind, so it all adds up. However, I do recognize there was probably a rare untapped biological influence until this point also, since most people that go to prison do not come out murderers. Another thing that we can pull out of this is that through basic speculation is we can tell that if the misfit had been placed in a different context, he might have succeeded greatly using leadership skills in a positive manner like his own parents had with his family. This in a sense show us that sometimes we need to almost feel pity for a person under such circumstances. The most important thing to be noted just leads straight back to the point of the argument, people cannot be morally responsible if they are just the puppets of their own genetics and environmental experiences.
The last and most impacting way that free will is bad for society is that it tries to convince us that there could be no morality without free will, however this is false. When talking about good and evil it is important to define terms and lay down some philosophical grounding. Good will be defined as the promotion of the well-being of others and the avoidance of causing unnecessary suffering of conscious creatures, morality will be defined as the value of moving towards a desirable society for everyone, and evil as the promotion of unnecessary suffering and the avoidance of promoting the well-being of conscious creatures. Now that the groundwork is laid I will go into my first example, this example is from the same story A Good Man is Hard to Find. At the end of the story Grandma tries to be good by saying he is not a bad person and trying to empathize with him, this then follows, “The misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest”(O’Conner Page 460). So without free will how can we evaluate this situation to make the most sense of it? First to start off we know that we cannot blame the misfit for being the murderer he is, as I have previously shown. So now you may be asking how can I call him evil? The tricky part about this is I can call him evil, he is just not responsible for doing evil actions. The idea of a world without free will generally just assumes no one can do good or bad since no one actually causes what they do, but this is just a misrepresentation of my definition of morality, good, and evil. Nothing about my definition of morality states that we have to be responsible over it ourselves for it still to be valid. Whether or not the misfit is responsible for his own actions is simply not a part of the question. What he did was objectively evil by my definition, since he caused an immense amount of unnecessary suffering. Another example of how free will infringes on the reality of morality is it doesn’t allow us to love our neighbors. In the play Hamlet, Hamlet makes a claim about love “Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.”(Shakespeare Act 2 Scene 2 Lines 114-117) What Hamlet is saying is that you can deny anything but love is so important that you cannot deny it. When I speak about love I am obviously not talking about loving people for their actions because that certainly would not make sense. When I talk about love, what I mean is that there is a certain love felt for people just being present in our lives. The idea of free will undermines this because we could become astray just liking people for what they do for us, and not actually loving them. If you genuinely believe in this concept, it is easy to find company with others even in the presence of pure evil. Many famous contemplatives have spoken about this path most notably Jesus and the Buddha in particular. The idea to “Love you neighbor as yourself” makes complete sense in this context. This is the best reason behind why free will is a bad idea for society.
Overall, the three main arguments I made against the idea of free will were: the issue of revenge, the issue of moral responsibility, and the true understanding of good and evil. Some people may read this and find this truth to be extremely depressing, but others like myself see it as all them more reason to fight evil where it stands and also to empathize with the people behind evil. Nothing about this paper should make you want to lay in bed all day but if you find this to be the case, it is a misunderstanding of what is actually occurring. No one can ever step out of this stream of causes and effects, so why not enjoy the movie of life as best you can? Nothing about this paper will take away from any knowledge or intelligence you have so use it the best you can. Some people are simply born unlucky and become mass murderers that are misunderstood, so strive to be best moral advocate you can be. I believe that one day in a society where no one believes that we are free, we will finally be free.
1. Glaspell, Susan. A Jury of Her Peers. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
2. Libet, Benjamin. Time of Unconscious Intention. N.p., 1 Sept. 1983. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/106/3/623>.
3. O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
4. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print
5. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. N.p., 13 Apr. 2008. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v11/n5/full/nn.2112.html>.