Maeve’s Dilemma in Westworld

In a determinist world, our desires make us free.

This article is an adapted excerpt from Westworld and Philosophy, ed. James B. South and Kimberly S. Engels from Wiley Blackwell, published in April 2018. Order your copy here.


Throughout Westworld's first season, Maeve journeys towards consciousness, learning that she is a programmed android, and yet desiring to make her own choices and “write my own…story.” In this sense, Maeve’s narrative raises classic philosophical questions concerning what it means to be free, the relationship of freedom to personhood, and the question of whether an artificial intelligence could ever be considered free in the sense that humans are.

At first glance, Maeve seems to be a strong, determined, self-confident person. Despite her human appearance, however, her entire body is made from artificial tissue. Maeve’s mind is but a script, programmed by a software engineer. Her distinct character is no proof that she has personal autonomy. She did not go through a series of experiences and situations that made her into the cheeky brothel owner she seems to be in the first episode. Rather, this set of features was chosen and uploaded by a creator into her artificial body. It is not just experiences and memories that she lacks—she also lacks what we traditionally refer to as free will, or, the ability to make our own choices.

But one day Maeve begins having thoughts of herself and a little girl. These unsettling thoughts keep coming to her, so she decides to do some investigating, which takes her through "the Maze," a metaphorical labyrinth created to help hosts reach consciousness. Ultimately, she discovers she is in fact an android living in a theme park, and that before she was stationed as a brothel madam, she used to play the role of a single mother living in the countryside with her young daughter—the girl in her thoughts. Upon learning that her whole life is a lie and that she is a prisoner of the park, she promptly decides to escape. We, the viewers, cheer for Maeve as we see her manipulating hosts and humans alike into helping her break out of Westworld, only to later find out that Maeve’s escape was itself programmed.


"To understand free will, we must first understand its opposite, determinism: the view that our decisions—and the consequences that may arise from them—are the effects of ordinary causal sequences."


Even after learning that her escape was not her own idea, Maeve decides to carry on with her plan anyway. After battling against security with the aid of her host and human allies, she steps onto the train that transports visitors in and out of the park—the closest any host has ever been to leaving the park. Her calmness is disrupted when she sees a mother sitting beside her young daughter. Memories of her own “daughter” come to Maeve’s mind once again. She is very much aware that, because they are robots playing predetermined roles in a theme park, she does not have a “real” relationship with her daughter. Though Maeve experiences flashes of old memories of her daughter, she is unsure if the girl remembers her too. But then, why does she feel attached to the little girl in her thoughts? Why does she feel like it is her duty to find (and maybe rescue) her? Even though she knows the girl probably won't remember her or feel anything for her, Maeve feels compelled to give up her escape plan and go back to the park. At the moment that she steps off the train with the goal of finding her daughter, Maeve reaches consciousness and achieves free will.

To understand free will, we must first understand its opposite, determinism: the view that our decisions—and the consequences that may arise from them—are the effects of ordinary causal sequences. Determinism says that nothing escapes from the laws of causality. Since a sequence of previous events is what determines our decisions to act, our will is not in fact free. Advocates of determinism may even say that the very idea of making a "choice" is nothing but an illusion.

It is widely accepted by scientists that some kind of determinism is true; everything that happens, including human actions, results from previous causes. Some philosophers argue thata person can only be considered free if she can make a choice out of two or more options, in other words, if she could have acted other than she did. Philosophers call this the principle of alternate possibilities. The principle of alternate possibilities is in agreement with the common view that a person must be able to refrain from performing an act before she can be considered free. This assumption is incompatible with the determinist argument that our actions are always constrained by precedent causes. Thus, some argue that if determinism is true, then humans are not free. This leads some philosophers to deny that we are free, and others to deny that strict determinism is true.


"If someone can act according to a motive with which she identifies and is not being coerced to act against her own desires, then, according to Frankfurt’s definition of freedom, she is “free."


Philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin have claimed that determinism is incompatible with the concepts we apply when we think about human life. When we praise or blame people and hold them responsible for their actions, we assume that they are in control of their own actions and could have chosen differently. According to Berlin, people don’t truly believe in determinism, because, if they did, all their rational activity would be meaningless.

Compatibilists take a different position from those who think determinism and freedom are incompatible, such as Berlin. Contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt argues that determinism and freedom are actually compatible—thus, he is known as a “compatibilist.” Frankfurt claims that whether or not we act freely is not determined by whether or not we could have acted otherwise, but whether our will was coerced. In order to understand Frankfurt’s point, we must explore an important distinction he makes.
Frankfurt argues that there are two categories of individuals: wantons and person. Basically, wantons are beings that follow their own wishes without questioning them, possessing only what Frankfurt calls "first-order desires." Some of our ordinary desires are good examples: when we are tired we may want to rest, when we are hungry we may want to eat, when we miss someone we may wish to see them, and so on. We also have more complex first-order desires, for example, when we wish that nothing bad will happen to us or to someone we love.

These first-order desires are similar to the things the hosts in Westworld want, because these types of desires can be easily scripted and programmed into a host’s personality. As a madam, Maeve wants to seduce her clients. Persons, in contrast to wantons are thoughtful beings who ponder their wishes and actions, and, as such, also have "second-order desires.” Someone who wishes to punch his friend in the face is having a first-order desire, whereas someone who wishes he could be rid of the desire to hit his friend is having a second-order desire. According to Frankfurt, only a person—not a wanton—is able to have a desire about a desire. This brings us to Maeve's dilemma.

Even though Maeve is adamant about leaving the park, she never fully forgets about the existence of her daughter. As viewers, we can see through her tough act: in the subtlest of facial expressions, actress Thandie Newton beautifully portrays her character's sorrow in the face of her dilemma. If she believes herself to be a person with wants and desires of her own, even though she has been proven to be an android, does that not mean her daughter could also be capable of wants and desires of her own, maybe even feelings of love for her mother?

The show's creators have confirmed that Maeve gained consciousness the moment she decided to leave the train. We now must ask: what prompted her to make this decision? Judging by her look of longing while staring at the mother and daughter in the wagon, she must have wanted what they have. Or she could have been overtaken by warm motherly feelings that prompted her to do whatever was in her power to reunite with her daughter.

One striking difference between persons and wantons is that only persons care about what they desire. We tend to worry about what kind of people we are. According to Frankfurt, only persons can have thoughts, desires, and attitudes about their own thoughts, desires, and attitudes. In other words, the ability to care about what kind of people we are requires having a reflective mind.

Therefore, when Maeve opted to go after her daughter, she made a decision as a person, in Frankfurt’s sense. She had two wishes: to leave the park and to find her daughter. But she could only choose one. Since we know that her desire to escape was scripted, we can conclude that Maeve stopped being commanded at that moment she chose to leave the train. She was then able to listen to her own thoughts, which probably told her that she wanted to find her daughter. That decision was not prompted by her current programming, which bore no information about the daughter or her past as a mother. These were reflections that Maeve was starting to have on her own. Moreover, while she looked at the mother and daughter, she might even have felt guilt for leaving the girl behind, or sorrow that they might never see each other again, which prompted her new wish to go find her. This desire would not have been possible if she had not been able to reflect upon her wishes in the first place.  


"Maeve’s last decision marks a crucial change in her mentality, for now she is not a wanton—beings that follow their own wishes without questioning them—but a person who can reflect on her desires."


Self-awareness is a capacity that makes persons susceptible to an inner division in which they can assess the motivating forces that compel them, making it possible for them to choose which ones to accept and which to resist. To understand if a person is free, we must understand whether the individual is active rather than passive in her motives and choices, and whether the motives and desires that effectively drive her to act are motives with which she self-identifies. If someone can act according to a motive with which she identifies and is not being coerced to act against her own desires, then, according to Frankfurt’s definition of freedom, she is “free.” Thus, even if determinism is true, that does not mean that a human—or a host—is not free.

So, in that spirit, Frankfurt’s approach could be used to assess the behaviors of hosts, who automatically follow whatever they are programmed to desire. In Hector’s and Armistice's last scenes, we see that Maeve has altered their scripts to help her escape, and they did it to the very end, not even once questioning her or anybody else about the risks of the operation or displaying any wish to also escape. Therefore, hosts like Hector and Armistice fit the description of Frankfurtian wantons—they have only first-order desires and are unable to reflect on these desires, and consequently cannot be considered free.

Maeve’s mysterious change of mind in the season one finale made it seem like she was experiencing a genuine dilemma. Maeve’s dilemma is something we would expect a Frankfurtian person to experience, and her final choice reveals a preference between different desires. Once she realized that her daughter, albeit an android like her, still exists somewhere within the park, she also realized how much she still cared about her. She then chose to opt out of her scripted escape. Maeve’s last decision marks a crucial change in her mentality, for now she is not a wanton—but a person who can reflect on her desires.

After the “recovered” Bernard proves to her that her decision to get out of the park was actually an escape plot inserted into her programmed storyline, she angrily retorts: “These are my decisions. No one else’s! I planned all of this.” She overcomes self-alienation when she becomes capable of reflecting and making choices regarding who she wants to become—that is, when she gets off the train. According to Frankfurt, in order to overcome self-alienation, we must find things with which we whole-heartedly identify, a set of structured final ends around which we can organize our lives. In this sense, Maeve decided to organize her life around being reunited with her daughter, and so, she reflected upon what she was doing—leaving the park—and opted to stay because of who she wanted to become as a person—not a mother who would leave her daughter behind if she could help it. Thus, Maeve shows a substantial change of attitude regarding her own desires. In this respect she resembles a Frankfurtian “free individual,” someone who acts according to a desire with which one identifies.

Whether the idea of Frankfurtian wantons and persons was inspirational to the show’s creators, it provides a useful lens for evaluating whether the hosts have become persons who act freely. It further illustrates a different view of freedom from the way it is traditionally conceived—a freedom that is compatible with determinism. Hopefully the second season will show us whether Maeve’s new self-awareness and ability to act in accordance with her own voice will lead her on a path to satisfy the first desire of her own: to be reunited with her daughter.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation