Can We Have Political Beliefs With No Free Will?
Part 2: The Source of Conflict
By Wil Forbis
June 1, 2018
Last month, in the first part of this article, I made two claims. One: there is no such thing as free will. Two: this is a problem for all mainstream political belief systems. I dealt with the first claim in part one, now I’ll address the second.
Why a Lack of Free Will is a Problem for Mainstream Political Belief Systems
First, a caveat. Discussing any political belief system can easily eat up thousands of pages. To avoid that, I’m taking a broad view of the three I discuss below---libertarianism, conservatism and progressivism---and generally rely on the popular conception of each belief, not necessarily how each is defined by various key documents and statements. In short, I’m operating at the level of forests, not trees.
I’m also focused specifically on how these ideologies tackle issues of autonomy and blame and punishment. I’m not interesting in a specific ideology’s view on, say, climate change (aside from how that ties in with blame and punishment.)
Libertarianism and Free Will
Of all modern, mainstream political ideologies, libertarianism* most strongly advocates for the notion of individual autonomy. According to the libertarian view, people are free to make whatever decisions they wish---and reap the rewards or tribulations from those decisions---as long as those decisions don’t directly harm other people. So, a libertarian government would not limit drug use, prostitution, or any other activities in which free individuals enter without coercion. Libertarians also oppose actions like income redistribution or the military draft that are often defended as being necessary for the “greater good.”
* One could quibble about whether libertarianism is really a mainstream belief, but I feel this article makes the case that a sizeable amount of U.S. citizens have libertarian leanings even if they don’t use the title.
The problem here is pretty clear. Libertarianism is entirely dependent on a robust notion of free will. Even the notion of people being merely influenced by their circumstances or environment---as opposed to being outright controlled like puppets by the fates of the universe (which is my view)---is generally ignored by libertarians. (In fairness, one can dig up academic discussions of the topic in libertarian circles but I get the impression participants most would rather the problem simply went away.)
To give an example of the conflict here: A Libertarian would argue that a person who injects heroin is freely making a choice and since that choice directly affects only them, they should be free to do so. I make no comment on the “shoulds” of the situation*, but I argue (for the reasons laid out last month) that there is no real decision going on. The state of that person’s brain can lead to only one action and that action is shooting smack.
* More accurately, I feel like the very notion of “shoulds” is nonsense. If there’s only one possible outcome, talking about “shoulds” is pointless.
Conservatism and Free Will
Like libertarians, conservatives also feel people have robust autonomy and deserve responsibility for their actions. A core part of this belief is again the notion that people deserve the fruits of their labors and punishment for their crimes. As a result, conservatives frown on income redistribution, controlled markets, rehabilitation programs for criminals and so on.
Unlike libertarians, conservatives are willing to put the “good of society” above the individual, in some situations. For example, conservatives condemn illegal drugs and prostitution on the grounds that they spread discord in society. According to a conservative, our heroin shooting exemplar above should be jailed because of the indirect harm his habit inflicts. (His family and society at large may suffer because of his activities.) Again I say his drug use was his only possible fate.
Progressivism* and Free Will
* I should note that I wasn’t quite sure the best term to use here. I was tempted with liberalism, but the term “classical liberal”, which these days basically means libertarian, confuses things. There’s also a certain amount of discord between mainstream liberals and progressives that muddies the waters. As it is, I use the term progressivism to refer to the wide swath of the modern left, from its centrist components like the DNC of the Democratic Party, to more radical groups like communists.
Progressives are willing to at least entertain the notion that our free will is limited. It is taken for granted that individuals are not the sole arbiters of their fate and that nature and nurture play a part. In determining criminal punishment, progressives will often consider mitigating circumstances such as poverty, racism, a terrible childhood, brain damage as leading someone to a life of crime.
But progressives are a bit selective as to whom they apply these limits of autonomy. Try telling a progressive that Donald Trump has no responsibility for his actions or that Harvey Weinstein was programmed by his environment/genes to be the man he was and see where that gets you. According to progressives, the oppressed have limitations placed on their free will; the oppressors not so much.
Generally speaking, the progressive the ideology picks at the edges of free will but is far from throwing it out. Blame, praise and responsibility still have their place in the progressive canon.
So now what?
Differences aside, these three main political ideologies presume free will to be fundamental; they believe that people deserve praise or blame for their actions. But, if our actions are predordained because of the deterministic nature of the universe, the notions of praise and blame become unsupportable.
Where does that leave us? A number of philosophers have attempted to find ways to determine morally correct behavior, to maintain blame and praise, in a world without free will. I’ll capture the gist of a few here.
The compatibilist philosophers, of who David Hume was a prime example, lead one famous attack on the lack of free will problem. They do this by redefining what the term “free will” means. Compatibilists accept the determinist nature of the universe but take free will to mean something more like “unforced.” So, if you aren’t in prison or have a gun pointed to your head, you have free will. Some thinkers expand on this and argue that if you grew up in a positive environment and were told you could accomplish anything you wanted, you are, in some sense, freer than someone who grew up in a ghetto and internalized self-limiting messages. It’s fair to say this argument is unsatisfying and it certainly hasn’t settled the debate.
Modern philosopher Daniel Dennett is probably the most famous compatibilist of the moment. His arguments are, um, confusing at best. < ahref="https://www.quora.com/Free-Will-What-are-the-differences-between-Sam-Harriss-determinism-and-Dan-Dennetts-compatibalism-Which-do-you-agree-with-and-why">This quote from a commenter on the web site Quora nicely captures the frustration many have with Dennett’s arguments.…in his book "Elbow Room," [Dennett] holds out the promise of proving that free will and determinism are compatible, but by the end of it, his promise turns into, "Well, of course the traditional sort of free will isn't compatible with determinism, but this other thing is, and let's call that free will!" So it's a kind of last-minute switcheroo.
Some writers, Sam Harris and David Eagleman in particular, take an approach that maintains some form of praise and blame while acknowledging that free will is a sham. They’ve spilled much ink on the subject but the basic argument is that even if people have no free will and can’t be blamed for their actions, other people are still within their rights to seek protection from bad actors. So, if a serial killer is going around killing people (which they must, by definition), society should lock up the killer to protect everyone else. The killer is incarcerated not for reasons of retributive justice but out of herd protection. Additionally, determining whether a criminal should be released from prison is not a question of whether the criminal has “paid his dues” but of how likely they are to reoffend. (In his book, Incognito, Eagleman described some ways we can use statistics make those predictions.)
This approach is sensible enough, even logical, but for most people, myself included, utterly unappealing. We want bad people to suffer, not just be relocated somewhere. We want to feel the thrill of our moral superiority, not view criminal acts as no different from an acts of nature. I suspect it will take great effort by the anti-retributionists to get their ideas taken seriously.
One of the more intriguing views that seeks to square determinism with morality is illusionism. As stated in this Atlantic article, illusionism mandates that….
…the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend. The idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower. Only the initiated, behind those walls, should dare to, as he put it to me, “look the dark truth in the face.” Smilansky says he realizes that there is something drastic, even terrible, about this idea—but if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.
Why are they so desperate to hold onto, if not free will itself, at least belief in it by the masses? Because not believing in free will is associated with numerous social ills and personal deficits. Studies show that, compared to free will exponents, determinists (like myself) are less likely to help others, unhappier, more nihilistic and less likely to perform well academically. Additionally, as the aforementioned Atlantic article notes:Believing that free will is an illusion has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.
Suddenly the deliberate falsehood inherent in illusionism is a lot easier to defend.
We must note that these all these discussions are all sidelined to academic philosophy. No mainstream political organization will indulge them, at least anytime soon. It’s surely not that the ideologues in mainstream politics fail to recognize the problem. Many of them went to college and took the courses in philosophy, ethics and law that tackle these issues. Rather, in politics there’s gentlemen’s agreement in place to not bring up the concerns over the lack of free will. Libertarians, conservatives and progressives willingly do battle with each other, often fiercely, but they won’t “go there.” Because they realize that doing so would not only harm their enemy, but also themselves, as well as cause the entire arena to collapse around them.
And so the answer to the question that set all this off would appear to be, “No, we cannot have political beliefs without free will.” Determinism is rather like an enzyme that slowly unhooks the arguments and precepts that have been fastened together to form a particular political belief system. It is certainly understandable if a person, while observing this process, has to look away in terror.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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