The free will debate has real-world consequences

Free will is political

Debates surrounding free will in analytic philosophy often seem divorced from the realities of everyday life. Yet when applied to the real world it is clear to see that people’s ability to exercise free will varies depending on circumstances far beyond their control. Free will should, therefore, inevitably be seen as a political concept, writes Lewis Waller.


Philosophers have long been caricatured as elbow-patched stuffy professors favouring abstract proofs and logic over the everyday lives of individuals. The Free Will vs Determinism debate is no exception. It's usually framed as a philosophical, psychological or maybe neuroscientific debate; esoteric and divorced from everyday life. But the way we talk about freedom – one of those words that means many different things – has a direct effect on everything from our personal lives to national politics.

In liberal societies, where freedom usually means freedom from interference, in the philosopher Isiah Berlin’s influential formulation, we should be more aware about how certain freedoms require more than just governments, despots, or bullies getting out of our way. Freedom also requires a favourable context to exercise that freedom. What use is liberty if one's basic needs are not met? If one is not fed, watered, and fit?

Of course, ‘freedom’ and ‘free will’ are different. But one informs the other, and when we prize a certain type of liberal freedom – being left alone - it’s no surprise that we also foster a culture that conceptualises a certain type of ‘free will’, one that’s most often formulated in the following way: that we, as individuals, have the freedom to choose, by ourselves, unencumbered, unrestrained, and uncaused by outside forces; to be the authors of our own thoughts and actions.


These factors are far beyond the control of any single individual and yet each contributes to every decision we make


However, looking at the literature on free will, it’s hard to find any coherent account of freedom at all. Any choice we make – from deciding what to eat, to texting a friend, to choosing a film to watch – is caused by something preconscious; whether that’s a pang of hunger, what was on offer in the supermarket, hearing something a friend will find funny or seeing a trailer for a new film. Every choice we make has a cause that precedes it. The entire universe, including ourselves, is determined by a long chain of cause and effect.

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Everything we do is moved by previous states of the universe. We are like snooker balls, knocked around not just by our genetic inheritances, our upbringing and environment, our education and friendship circles, but also by the social and political conditions we are born into. These factors are far beyond the control of any single individual and yet each contributes to every decision we make. In and amongst this morass of influence it’s difficult to see where individual free will fits in.

That ‘every effect has a cause’ is a fundamental law of the universe. As the psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote, ‘a small part of the universe is contained within the skin of each of us. There is no reason why it should have any special physical status because it lies within this boundary.’

Where might we find free will? Any coherent framing must position it in some metaphysical or psychological space that escapes the laws of cause and effect that govern the rest of the universe. Free will must be located in some ‘free place’ uncaused by anything that precedes it. We must become prime movers, unswayed by the forces of desire, appetite, and inclination, the masters of our own minds, personal gods.


Ultimately our desires and our whole character are derived from our inherited equipment and the environmental influences to which we are subject at the beginning of our lives


Many people find this view deeply uncomfortable. They state that I still have my personality, my ideas, and my likes and dislikes. They’re the basis from which I make my free choices. Yes, responds the philosopher Paul Edwards, this is true, but ‘we must go on to ask where they come from; and if determinism is true there can be no doubt about the answer to this question. Ultimately our desires and our whole character are derived from our inherited equipment and the environmental influences to which we are subject at the beginning of our lives. It is clear that we had no hand in shaping these.’

Instead of finding this disturbing – as if we’re slaves to the causes that went into making us who we are – I find it broadening. To understand how and why we act the way we do, we should look outwards. For the determinist, looking to our upbringing, genetics, education, and current context as well as the rewards and appetites that sway us, they all provide a more coherent framework for understanding how we think or act than free choice.

Let’s take an example. The choice between eating a slice of cake or going for a run. It’s in this moment that way we talk about ‘free will’ as a cultural, social, and political concept becomes apparent. It's here, in judging the person for capitulating to their base desires and choosing the cake that we say that ‘a person had the free will to do otherwise’.

It's in this moment of weakness that we see that ‘free will’ is usually about ‘will power’. It’s here, in the most mundane of decisions, that the philosophical debate affects our daily lives. In saying, for example, that person X should have had the will power to apply for jobs instead of going to the pub, what we are really saying is that they did not exercise their free will in the way expected of them by society. In other words, the idea of free will is almost always associated with making the ‘correct’ choice; without personal and moral responsibilities.

In fact, in their survey of the topic, philosophers Michael McKenna and Derk Pereboom define free will as the unique ability of persons to exercise ‘the strongest sense of control over their actions necessary for moral responsibility.’

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But what could willpower, free will, and moral responsibility mean if we are not in control of the contexts, appetites, and upbringings that went into making us? Having a particular FGF21 gene, for example, makes us 20 per cent more likely to have a sweet tooth (a gene I highly suspect I’ve been gifted with). I find it harder to resist sweet temptations when I’m tired, when I’m ‘comfort eating’, or when it’s cheap and available. Conversely, I find it easier to resist when I know the health risks, when I’ve exercised more and feel healthy and fit, when I’ve had the benefit of learning how to cook (and having the time to cook) a healthy, filling, nutritious meal.


The Ancient Greek formulation of akrasia as a weakness or lack of will power raises another question: where does this weakness of will come from? If we are all caused by causes that precede us, surely our akrasia comes from somewhere, too?


Somewhere, though, in all of this, we still hold onto the belief that we have something called ‘will power.’ That somewhere, inside of us, we are ultimately in control of resisting or giving in to temptation.

The Ancient Greeks called a lack of willpower akrasia – a weakness of the will, a lack of self-control, an absence of some type of strength. Plato likened our souls to a chariot being drawn by two horses. A white horse – reason – pulls the soul upwards, towards resisting that cake or applying for that job. The black horse – appetite – pulls it down, towards laziness, hedonism, or greed. But, as Socrates believed, it wasn’t a lack of will power but a lack of knowledge that made people choose poorly. Plato wrote that ‘when people make a wrong choice of pleasures and pains—that is, of good and evil—the cause of their mistake is a lack of knowledge. What being mastered by pleasure really is, is ignorance.’

In other words, if we knew that the next job application was the one that would be successful, and if we had the knowledge and skills that made writing our CVs easier, then we would be in a better position to resist the temptation to watch television instead of applying for that next job.

However, the Ancient Greek formulation of akrasia as a weakness or lack of will power raises another question: where does this weakness of will come from? If we are all caused by causes that precede us, surely our akrasia comes from somewhere, too?

Desires, temptations, and cravings - those supposedly ‘wrong’ choices - are often imagined as if they are pressuring us, bearing down upon us, forcing us to act, or drawing us in like magnets. Will power is often thought of as being like a muscle in that it requires a degree of strength to resist those temptations. This is a useful metaphor; if we think of will power as a muscle then we can conceive of it as being weaker or stronger from time to time, context to context, and person to person. The question becomes: what makes this muscle stronger or weaker?

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Does strengthening our will power require a ‘will power gym’ where we can train it, be educated about it, where it can be fed and sustained? Like the rest of our health, we can look at a lack of akrasia as having causes that need to be diagnosed. Maybe the person with akrasia is overworked, fatigued, and weaker; maybe they’d had a hard week at work and find it impossible to fit anything else in their schedule; maybe they lacked the knowledge to understand the benefits of applying themselves; maybe they lacked the confidence; perhaps there wasn’t the help or encouragement they needed.

Ultimately, when we analyse the concept of will power, we find more contextual information and background knowledge, more of those previous causes and effects. If I’m happy, healthy, balanced, and well-educated, if there are good prospects for a job, and I have the help I need, the chances that I’m going to effectively choose to fill out the job application rather than go to the pub increases, my will power is strengthened. Will power consists in being in a certain healthy condition, in a healthy social and political context, in having the appropriate knowledge, the right incentives, and in there being, for example, a favourable job market. In short, ‘will power’ is contextual.

So if we want to strengthen the social glue that holds this context together, if we want to increase the will power of all of us, if we want to make sure individuals are in a position where they’re more likely to make free decisions, then free will is an inevitably political concept. If will power is like going to the gym then you’re more likely to be successful if you’re well fed, watered, healthy, well-educated, and employed with enough hours left over to be energised. Will power becomes social, it becomes about making sure the resources that make us all stronger are as widely available and of as higher quality as possible.

Accepting that we are determined beings doesn’t destroy our idea of freedom, it enlarges it. Broadening our idea of freedom leads to a politics that focuses on where our choices are constrained; whether that’s through fuel poverty, poor wages, decaying infrastructure, or underfunded healthcare.

Free will is about allowing people the choice to make choices. This is a liberal framework that’s not reducible to the government ‘getting out of people’s way’, but instead acknowledges that if freedom is about a broader range of choices, then intervention is preferable than inaction when its goal is to expand those choices. If we are all determined, we can at least make sure we are determined by good health, education, and a basic level of welfare, rather than constrained by poverty, fatigue, and isolation.

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