THERE'S NO FREE WILL, AND THAT'S A GOOD THING, 1/17/2020
Free will is a touchy subject for many, because they believe that if they were to find evidence against the idea of free will, their quality of life would decrease significantly. If this were true, then it would be worth approaching this topic with some caution. However, most of the purported negative consequences of deterministic thinking are really just leftover fears and anxieties from free-will-centric thinking mapped onto a shallow understanding of a deterministic universe. To truly grapple with determinism can only lead to positive outcomes.
Before diving into the moral implications of determinism, I want to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that my position is accurate. If free will is the idea that an individual can make their own choices, then we need to look at the factors that go into the development of an individual’s choice making apparatus. Without exception, the individual making the choice, however noble or evil that choice is, is a culmination of all the factors that led to their conception and birth, which they did not and could not have chosen. The meeting of their parents, the meeting of each of their parents, and the environmental factors influencing each of them every step of the way all play their roles in creating an individual. The individual themself is absent from this process. A person, animal, or god for that matter, never gets a chance in life to step away from the circumstances that determine their choices, which will in turn influence their new set of circumstances, and decide what they would really like to do and be. Whether we can ever individually assess the infinite number of factors that go into developing a person and their “will” is a different question, but we at least know that there is not now and will never be a technology allowing us to escape them.
Sounds bleak, huh? Consider this.
Though many maintain that the determinist position would excuse and permit immoral and harmful behaviors, it actually does much to prevent them. Acknowledging the factors that lead up to a person’s actions encourages us to avoid unnecessarily spiteful and vengeful responses. If someone commits a murder, a deterministic view of the world encourages us to restrain them and prevent them from causing further harm. However, it does not encourage us to seek revenge in the form of torturous punishments that further stretch the society’s threshold of acceptable violence, cause unnecessary suffering, and almost never bring any form of closure or solace to the victim’s family.
In a worldview that accepts free will, desire for revenge runs rampant. If a society believes that an unshakeable “will” exists within certain people that drives them to do wrong, then regardless of the severity of their transgressions, people will naturally gravitate towards solutions that focus on terminating that individual’s influence in society, either by locking them in prison for an arbitrarily determined amount of time, sentencing them to death, or some other similar form of punishment. When we acknowledge the circumstances that led them to their actions rather than pretending they are simply a bad apple worthy of scorn, we can steer them onto a better path and prevent others from doing the same. Only individuals who accept determinism on some level can do this.
In some cases, this kind of analysis may even reveal that their actions were not wrong at all. If a person must steal food to survive, it is hard to argue that starving and dying would be “the right thing to do” on their part. They can not possibly be acting of their own free will when death is their alternative, and putting them in jail turns a blind eye to the circumstances that will lead to more stolen food in the future.
However, most criticisms of deterministic morality don’t focus on examples such as this. Rather, they focus on heinous crimes from which no good can come. Most often, they choose gruesome, unprovoked murders.
Determinism does not lead us to the conclusion that dangerous criminals should run free. Rather, it considers whatever measures are necessary to prevent more harm as necessary evils rather than moral triumphs. Whether or not releasing them back into society after an attempt at rehabilitation is worth the risk must be assessed on an individual basis, but working towards rehabilitation will yield better results in either case.
Yet again, critics warn that this line of thinking will result in an inevitable moral collapse. If criminals are not treated cruelly, won’t criminal activity increase? In a word, no.
Determinism may hold that individuals are not truly responsible for their actions, but when fully understood, this discourages individuals from harming others, who are exactly like them, and encourages them to work towards improving others’ circumstances, increasing the chances that such a safety net of human compassion will be available for them in their darkest hours as well. Humans do not always act rationally, and a deterministic worldview will not prevent all future crimes and conflicts. However, it does a great deal to improve everyone’s quality of life. The idea that determinism will result in moral decay stems from the misconception that accepting determinism will result in a loss of free will, here equated with a person’s morals and good judgement, when in fact it is simply the realization that such a phenomenon as “free will” never existed in the first place. We should all be able to agree that the validity of free will or determinism is in no way influenced by the one that we choose (or don’t choose) to believe.
Here is the most beautiful part: If this essay persuaded you, then not only can you stop blaming yourself for past actions you regret, but you can also use your new knowledge to help yourself and others create a better future in little ways every day. It is the best of both worlds.