i don’t believe in freedom of the will

The concept of freedom is not relevant in ethics and should be only used to refer to political freedom. Let me explain: Political freedom is the freedom not to be physically coerced by someone else(s) to do something you do not want to do. This is a robust idea of freedom and one that is fundamental to the societies in which we live.  The moral idea of freedom, especially in its guise as freedom of the will, is a weak concept that has been borrowed from politics and should be returned intact.

There are two main ‘things’ to which ‘freedom’ refers when used in moral contexts. The first is ‘freedom of the will’. This is the supposed freedom we have to decide between A and B: Do i kill him or do i not? This is a weak version of freedom if only because it also applies to number of non-humans. The dog also asks itself: Do i pee on the carpet or do i not? This is no kind of freedom to get excited about.

In the end, this freedom is no more than society (or your master) teaching you (more or less forcefully) what it wants you to do. Your decisions will usually be more or less random, in the sense that you will decide for A or B depending of tiny, unrelated happenings in your far or recent past (what side of the bed you woke up on). There is no fundamental indeterminacy here, only low-level, bodily urges conflicting with more educated urges. Your decision is much more a complex calculation of What Would Happen Ifs than it is an act of unimpeded freedom.

What is actually special about this kind of freedom in human beings is that we are more conscious of making the decision than other animals are. We can watch ourselves as we calculate. This is not, however, a special feature of freedom, but of self-consciousness, which is a whole other matter.

The second type of freedom that appears in moral discussions is the higher level freedom to decide: Henceforth i only want to decide to do good things. That is, you decide not each and every time to do A or B, but you decide once and for all to only do B-type things and never do the A-type ones, no matter what the situation. This freedom is somewhat more like the robust political freedom in that it is some kind of fight between different inclinations within yourself. Nevertheless, even this meta-decision can be simply explained as society teaching you not only that you should do the good but also that you should want to do the good (this was, among others, Christianity’s big novelty).

In the end both types of moral freedom come up wanting. The first is no more than rules bumping up against one another in your brain; the second is a higher-order rules bumping up against all other rules in your brain. There is no good reason to call either of these situations free because they are no more than more or less successful socializations: you are not fighting against foreign powers in order to be able to do what you want to do, you are fighting against yourself, and at someone else’s behest at that.


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