One of the key tenets of individualism is that of free will, and by extension, personal responsibility, a phrase that has seen plenty of use by New Right pundits and politicians when discussing issues of social mobility and discrimination. The reason for this is that conservative ideas often seem fairer than they are when you see people not as the result of their environments, understanding that many complex and nuanced experiences shape our decision making, but as individuals first and foremost, who have the power to shape their own destinies and thus deserve rewards for their successes and punishment for their failures. Reasons and causes for bad life decisions become excuses, because at the end of the day, you are accountable for your own behaviour. This perspective is highly fallacious, and provides hateful people with euphemisms for their agendas, so in this article I would like to deconstruct the idea of free will from a philosophical perspective and speculate on what a society where the non-existence of free will is accepted would look like.
Free will as a concept is fundamentally at odds with the concept of causality, the idea that events must be caused by previous events. This correlates with the basic understanding of physics we develop throughout life. Something will only move if something else exerts a force on it. This makes the physical world we perceive around us very deterministic; if the cause for an event remains exactly the same, so will the event. This is very different from how most people see their own decisions. Free will requires us to be able to make different decisions even when our environment does not change, because otherwise we are not free to make our own choices. What allows these two beliefs to coexist is the complexity and apparent vagueness of our emotions and thoughts, which seem fluid compared to the simpler interactions of the physical world, where one can clearly observe cause and effect. However, when examined, the distinction between the simple physical world and the complex world of our minds begins to break down. Our minds are simply electromagnetic signals racing through neurons, which are a part of the physical world, and thus should be obeying causality. Furthermore, our opinions and ideas are derived from our experiences of the world around us and our biology, which are both deterministic. Mental interactions are just vastly more complex versions of the physical interactions we accept as deterministic, and thus are also deterministic.
The way this manifests in layman’s terms is that all actions that people take are the result of reasons, whether conscious (eating because one is hungry) or subconscious (having a fondness for a colour because your mother wore it frequently when you were a child). The idea of “doing something for no reason” becomes impossible, the actor must just not be aware of their reasons for doing something. Sadly for conservatives, this means that it is no longer fair to reward people for their successes or punish them for their failures. If you have succeeded, it is from no merit of your own, causality has simply conspired to put you in that position, and any good qualities you have are derived from your environment or your biology. Those who have better education or better genes (depending on which side of the nurture/nature debate you fall on) will do better than those without. For an example of a less obvious cause that can account for the exceptional individuals who manage to break free of the disadvantages of their class, race or gender etc. (that conservatives love to tout as evidence that discrimination can easily be overcome through hard work), perhaps they were educated in a low quality school, but were driven to work harder by the pleasure they derived from a teacher’s praise.
This disproves conservatives’ beliefs about social problems to do with, for instance, higher crime rates in majority black urban neighbourhoods in America. The claim that individual black people are just deciding to commit more crimes, and therefore the problem is the fault of those individuals cannot be true, because at some point down the line there must be a cause that is out of their control. I say “at some point down the line” because even if the cause is, as some moralising conservatives say, that black communities have a culture which promotes criminality, there has to be a cause for that culture; and eventually the cause will be something black people cannot be held responsible for.
Recently a counter argument using the theory of quantum uncertainty has been used to rebut determinist theories of free will, so I believe it is necessary to defeat this counter argument. To greatly oversimplify, quantum uncertainty states that quantum particles can be indeterministic, existing in multiple possible states at once. However, the state they settle in appears to emerge from chance, which is as much anathema to free will as causality. In addition, even if causality does not apply on a quantum level, the many layers upon layers of events between there and our decision making, none of which seem to defy causality in the same way, render our decisions deterministic. So, assuming this theory is correct, it only means that our decisions are determined by many factors which are eventually caused by chance very far down the chain of events.
This line of thinking may seem dangerous to many people who believe our current society is at least functional, wherever they may lie on the political spectrum. Doesn’t this undermine the basis of so many of our institutions and morals? Surely if this is true we would have to drastically re-structure the world we live in? Surprisingly, no. First, our society should follow the truth and conform to what is right, not the other way around. Secondly, lovers of the status quo can rejoice, as while it is certainly not moral to reward those who succeed or punish those who fail based on some perceived quality of their characters, it is both moral and necessary to incentivise or deter certain behaviour through promise and deliverance of punishment or rewards. Nearly every social mechanism that does this can still be justified as an incentive to behave well. The effect this mindset, if widely adopted, would have on our society would be subtler and more nuanced than just, for instance, doing away with prisons. Rather, prisons must be re-designed without the purpose of vindictive punishment of criminals, instead focusing on rehabilitation and being an effective deterrent. For example, the argument for death row in prisons is an entirely vindictive one. Killing prisoners is not cheaper or more efficient than imprisoning them, it is not better at protecting the public from dangerous criminals than a life sentence, and as a deterrent it is highly excessive, if anything promoting violence and retribution towards those you deem in the wrong. All you can say in its defence is that those people deserve to die, which as we have previously established, they do not. They have committed their crimes because of their biology and environment, and any other person would have done exactly the same under the same influences.
If anything, the greatest effect of the acceptance of determinism on our society would be that new right propagandists would no longer be able to portray the inequalities suffered by minorities as anything other than unfair, and that is a world I would like to live in.
Written by Cameron Powell