Why Free Will Matters

Tibor R. Machan

Let me once again quote George Orwell, who reportedly noted that “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.”

The idea that without free will there can be no morality is one of those obvious facts that bears repeating. It was Kant who famously insisted on this but others have signed on as well. For instance, it is arguable a point made by Aristotle, too.) In an age that is highly respectful of the opinions of scientists, even opinions that do not arise from their work as scientists, seem to contradict this but even scientists have affirmed the point!

For a simple view of what nearly all scientists believe is that everything that happens in the world has to happen exactly as it does happen. In short, scientist are supposedly committed to determinism which is, at least in its usual meaning, incompatible with free will.

Free will involves being the originator of one’s actions or conduct. Unlike physical objects, plants and most animals, human beings are supposed to have free will in that they normally initiate what they do. Their conduct is not fully explainable by reference to impersonal factors such as their genetic make-up, their history or race or gender, etc., etc. They are, instead, agents of much of what they do, of their behavior.

Now this idea seems incompatible with how scientists view the world, although in fact scientists aren’t supposed to be prejudiced in favor of determinism or free will, for that matter. Whether human beings have free will is something to be discovered, not assumed.

If nature is so constituted that it makes room for free actions, we human beings would be good candidates for being able to act freely, on our own initiative. Why not? Well, some think that because everything is moved by something else, that holds for what people do as well.

But is this right? Do our thoughts, for example, about free will or political liberty or child raising all spring forth impersonally, without our own agency having a role in the process? Is what we think about free will and determinism or anything else no different from the movement of the planets or atoms? Or could there be some entities in the world that possess the capacity to initiate some of their conduct?

Perhaps one such area of self-movement is where human thinking and intending occur, in our minds, just as the criminal law and morality sees it. If this is denied, what we believe about everything is itself just an impersonal event, not something we produce with our thinking!

OK, much more can be said about this but the gist of it is captured in the few paragraphs above. For now what matters is that if we lack free will, then we also lack personal responsibility. We are, in short, not the source of what we think and do. It is all que sera, sera!

But nature could well be rich enough in its possibilities that agent causality makes perfectly good sense. Some, perhaps few, entities start to act on their own. (This is a capacity usually ascribed only to God but there is no reason why people couldn’t have it!)

Needless to say, free will is necessary for moral and legal praise and blame as well as all the great varieties of creativity evident in human affairs, for good or ill! This includes the activity of trying to figure out whether free will exists!

But one unwelcome results of the existence of free will is that millions of people could act differently from how they actually act, could have acted differently as well, etc., much better than they have acted. Not everyone welcomes this for it leads to the idea that some folks are guilty of misconduct while others are praiseworthy for acting properly, even heroically.

In short, the idea of free will implies, among other things, that egalitarianism is false, something that those who would embark upon regimenting us in life do not like to admit.