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Slavery is Freedom

February 27th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’d like to return to the topic of Nature, Nurture, and Free Will that I wrote about two weeks ago to say a few more things about Free Will and personal responsibility.

In trying to determine the extent to which we can no longer blame our genes or our upbringing on the kind of people we turn out to be, I argued that a large part of our identity is due to the choices we make as free agents. You may have had a rough childhood or been cursed with genes that predispose you towards aggression, I wrote, but that does not absolve you of the responsibility for making the choices you’ve made in life. You may be predisposed to act violently, but because you have the power to resist your inclinations, you are ultimately responsible for any violent acts you commit.

There are two possible objections to this reasoning, both of which say something interesting about the nature of responsibility. The first objection is metaphysical determinism. One could argue that everything that happens in the universe has been predetermined from the very beginning, either in God’s master plan or due to the inviolability of the laws of nature. If everything operates according to physical laws, then every combination of atoms and molecules, every formation of every star system, every genetic mutation in living organisms, and every firing of every neuron within a human brain happens exactly the way it has to happen and had to happen in a universe with these laws and properties.

If this is the case, then no one is responsible for anything. A rapist could not have possibly prevented himself from committing this crime because it was foredoomed from the beginning of time. That he would be born couldn’t have been avoided. That he would develop violent inclinations and the desire to act on them could not have been avoided either. And finally, even though he made what appears to be a conscious decision to commit rape, this was the result of neurons firing just as they had to have fired due to every previous firing of every neuron since his brain’s formation.

There is no fool-proof metaphysical argument against this kind of absolute determinism, but practically speaking, there need not be. Whether or not our actions have been predetermined since the beginning of time, it’s quite clear that the only way a society can function is to condemn and punish bad behavior. Whether or not the rapist had any control over his actions on the deepest metaphysical level, he must be punished if only to prevent him from having the chance again, and to serve as an example to others who might be inclined to commit rape—to cause their neurons to perhaps fire differently than they otherwise would have. In any case, rape ought to be condemned because of the suffering it causes, and the rapist condemned for his decision to rape, whether or not the decision was predetermined.

The second objection is far more relevant politically speaking—that Free Will is relative, and therefore so is personal responsibility. For instance, a mentally handicapped person is far less responsible for his actions than a person in full control of one’s mental faculties, just as a child is far less responsible for her choices than a fully grown adult with years of experience upon which to base her decisions.

Free Will is never absolute in any case. It is always limited by one’s physical or mental limitations, and beyond that it is limited by the laws of nature. Just because I have Free Will doesn’t mean I can choose to fly. We may be free to make a great deal of decisions but there are always an infinite number of decisions we are not free to make, such as teleporting across the universe or living forever.

But far more important than the physical limitations to Free Will are the political limitations, as these limitations are actually subject to change. One can not legitimately deny that the President of the United States has far more lee-way in which to exercise his Free Will than a woman in Afghanistan. Both are capable of making positive changes in that country—the president by providing money for education and infrastructure, the woman by rising up against the forces of oppression within her patriarchal society. But the woman has about a million obstacles in her way, and is likely to be harmed or killed for even trying. The president has only a few procedural obstacles to overcome in order to provide funding which would change the lives of millions. Clearly, the president has far more responsibility over what happens in Afghanistan than any average Afghan citizen, especially women.

The same goes for rich and poor within our own country. A person born to wealthy parents has far more room to exercise Free Will than a person born to low-income parents. The wealthy are free to go anywhere in the world, to meet nearly anyone they want, to pay for a platform with which to express their ideas and opinions to a wide audience, and to really make a major impact on the world they live in. The poor can’t travel the world because they have to stay in one place and work for a living, they can’t meet anyone they want because they are too ordinary to matter to anyone of importance, and the best they can do to express their ideas and opinions is start a blog and hope people will read it. The potential impact they can have on the world is very small. Their Free Will can only be exercised during the few small portions of the week in which they are not working, eating, sleeping, or doing any of the hundreds of trivial things they have to do just to survive.

At the heart of conservative ideology lies the principle of personal responsibility, which I obviously believe is extremely important. Where my opinion diverges from that of most conservatives is my insistence that personal responsibility is directly proportional to Free Will, and that the wealthy are far more responsible for the state of affairs in the world than the poor.

Conservatives can rightly argue that this kind of political Free Will is available to everybody who chooses to pursue it. The poor may not start off with much Free Will but they are capable of figuring out a way to turn their lives around, earn lots of money and all the power and Free Will that comes along with it.

Contrary to the typical conservative, I believe that one of the responsibilities of the currently powerful is to make it easier for the powerless to become powerful. You can’t justify your stranglehold on political power by saying others can have political power too if you are doing everything you can to prevent others from having any. The master can’t just say, “Well if my slaves want to be free they can just free themselves” while at the same time making it impossible for them to do so.

The current forces of power in the world are constantly funneling the wealth from the lower and middle classes to the already wealthy, usurping and consolidating all of the power that comes with that wealth. Soon enough, the gap between wealthy and poor, powerful and powerless, will become so great that it will be virtually impossible for one born to powerlessness to rise to power. The political freedom of most of humanity will be completely wiped away, and our world will be one of masters and slaves. For the slaves, Free Will will mean little more than the ability to decide what food to eat, which clothes to wear, and other trivial choices of daily life. The political power-structure of the world and the fate of humanity will be completely out of their hands.

But what threatens us most is not the desire of the already powerful to solidify their hold on power, but the lack of resistance on the part of powerless as they do so. This lack of resistance is a result of many factors, but underlying all of them I believe is a subconscious desire for slavery. Without Free Will, there is no personal responsibility. If one can not change the world no matter how hard one tries, then one no longer has the burden of trying to change the world.

So perhaps one day very soon we can all feel justified in doing nothing to stand up against the powerful because that fight will be hopeless and doomed to failure. If we find ourselves in some kind of dystopia resembling that of 1984 or Brave New World, a system of control so perfect that it cannot be destroyed, we can all rest easy and resign ourselves to our fate. Chant with the others as we extol the virtues of the Big Brother who oppresses us. Take comfort in the fact that we no longer have a reason to think about anything, so let the television do our thinking for us. And if we ever do find ourselves depressed about the predetermined nature of our lives, just pop a soma pill and vegetate for awhile, appreciating the peaceful bliss of ignorance and acquiescence to forces beyond our control.

But we’re not quite there yet. As long as we are still capable of standing up to the powers-that-be, we are responsible for not doing so. Future generations may not have any Free Will or personal responsibility, but we do, and we’re wasting it. I’m certainly wasting mine by blogging about this instead of actually doing something about it. My only excuse is that my Free Will is limited by my lack of talent, and it requires many talents to be able to gain and use political power. My only talent is a moderate ability to write clearly, so that’s what I do. As for finding real solutions for the real problems the world is facing today, I leave that to those with more practical minds and better social skills. I accept my share of the responsibility for what this world becomes, but my only defense is that there are people far more capable of making big changes, and that those people are therefore far more responsible than I am.

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