Freedom is a big word in our country and all too often the notion is taken for granted. Elsewhere I have written on the need to weigh the implicit negative rights of the historically marginalized against the positive rights of those who are privileged. Now, I would like to consider the so-called ‘will’ behind all of our rights and actions.
Usually, people split into one of two camps, those who believe in free will, that individuals will an action to happen and those who assert hard determinism, that the action was going to happen regardless. This is not to say that people apply the same beliefs on free will to all circumstances. It can vary with the given situation: you have absolute control over some things (e.g. whether or not you wake up on time for class) and other things were simply meant to happen (e.g. that great relationship of yours that is going to last forever).
The problem I have with the free will v.s. hard determinism debate is that the result should not, and cannot, possibly matter. We will never (I assume) be able to discover whether we were pre-destined to do certain things. Is this not why most agree that the plans of God, or the gods, or “the natural order,” are nothing but elusive? Unlike other big unanswerable questions, like “what is the meaning of life,” there is only one practical answer to the question of whether or not free will exists: it does not matter.
If we accept hard determinism, we can no longer be held accountable for their actions since some external force predetermined those actions. How exactly do we punish a murderer if they were destined to commit murder all along? Hard determinism removes the possibility of living a moral life. Because of this, we must always accept that some degree of moral autonomy exists for the average human and we must always take responsibility for our final decisions and actions. Of course, this comes with some exceptions, such as the mentally handicapped who do not choose to have a mental illness, young children who are not in control of their actions, and the senile elderly. On the other hand, to what degree is individual will truly “free?” I would contend that two otherwise identical individuals presented with the same dilemma would not make the same decision due to their different social backgrounds. Simply consider two intellectual high school students who are both presented with two college offers: one to a prestigious school that offers no financial aid and another to a less prestigious school that offers a full ride. Is the decision of the kid whose parents cannot afford to pay full tuition as “free” as the individual whose family is much more financially well off?
So, we must accept that most individuals are somewhat responsible for their actions, but those actions are not fully free. But is this not inherently paradoxical? How do you hold someone accountable for something they did not “freely” do? While talking about the existence of free will seems nonsensical to me, discussing the degree to which an individual’s will is “free” could not be more paramount.
During one of my philosophy classes last semester, we began talking about prostitution. Multiple people (men) in the male-dominated class spoke along the traditional libertarian line that we must respect an individual’s free will to do something, even if that something is morally questionable, so long as it does not harm someone else. I ask why we speak of free will along a binary of free and not free. I ask why we focus on the final decision without talking about the factors that led to that decision. I ask not whether the prostitute freely chose their particular line of work, I ask what kind of conditions resulted in that choice. Only then do we get to talk about the different level of coercion present within society, whether that be the strong influence of parental figures or the socioeconomic conditions manufactured by the patriarchy.
A lot of people say nothing is free. And they are right. There is no such thing as absolute freedom in a coercive society, but the degree to which something is free is something we really can, and should, talk about.