Newsletter: March 2021

Hello everyone,

We’re about halfway through the winter session of online philosophy classes now. In “’Know Thyself’: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy,” we’re making the shift from ancient Greece to the modern world, starting today with two great writers of the late nineteenth century, Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde, who couldn’t have been farther apart in terms of what they took the purpose of literature to be. (Tolstoy: “[T]he evolution of feeling proceeds through art—feelings less kind and less needful for the well-being of mankind are replaced by others kinder and more needful for that end.” Wilde: “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.”) In “How Should We Live?: Answers from the Ancient World,” we’re shifting from Greece toward Asia, where we’re looking at the Chinese mystic, jokester, and sage Zhuangzi and the sublime vision of a universal self in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad.

The days are getting longer and, at least in British Columbia, the first signs of spring are starting to appear, with crocuses peeking up through the grass. A shift from mid-February, where Valentine’s Day delivered a heavy dump of snow. Galiano Island’s Bluffs Park was an enchanted winter wonderland.

I’ve had occasion in the past month to think about the problem of free will. In “Know Thyself,” we discussed the tragic figure of Oedipus, whose attempts to outrun his own fate only lead him to fulfil it. The class discussed whether Oedipus and his mother/wife Jocasta could rightly be held responsible for this outcome if it had been fated from the get-go. Coincidentally, around the same time a friend of mine reached out to ask me my thoughts about free will. She’s spent a good deal of her working life in conflict zones and was reflecting on the troubling case of Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, who was recently convicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Can someone who was abducted as a boy and brainwashed by a violent cult really be held responsible for his actions?

The problem of free will as it’s traditionally understood by philosophers consists of a pair of claims, both of which seem hard to deny but which also seem hard to reconcile with one another. The first claim is the thesis of free will: people can freely choose what they will do. To say I made a choice means that I could have done otherwise than I in fact did. The second claim is the thesis of determinism: every event has a cause. Nothing happens spontaneously, and of everything that happens we can point to some prior event or set of events that precipitated it. (In case you’re wondering, quantum mechanics doesn’t undermine the thesis of determinism as I’ve presented it here: it just states that some causes operate probabilistically.)

The problem, then, is this. If every event has a cause, presumably my choices are caused as well. Just as an apple that detaches from a tree can only fall in one direction, some combination of brain chemistry, upbringing, social forces, and the rest cause me to make the choices I make. But if, as the thesis of determinism suggests, I couldn’t have done otherwise than I in fact did, then I didn’t really make a choice at all.

What would it take for me to say I have free will? Saying that my actions are uncaused would be no reassurance. Supposing that I act totally at random doesn’t make me any more free than supposing that my actions are in lockstep with rigid determinism. In effect, what free will requires isn’t that my actions be uncaused but that the cause of my actions be nothing other than I myself. In a symbolic way, this is what Oedipus attempts in killing and supplanting his own father: he wanted to be his own progenitor, to be dependent for who he is on no one but himself. To be truly free, on this way of thinking, I would have to be an uncaused cause, a source of action that originates in myself. The idea of an uncaused cause has some currency in the philosophical tradition but unfortunately only one being is said to have this characteristic. We call that being God.

Does that mean there’s no such thing as free will for mere mortals? Some people seem to think so. But anyone who thinks a morning’s work can dispatch the thesis of free will faces a dilemma as soon as they get up from their desk: what should I have for lunch? Suddenly the whole problem of human choice comes flooding back in.

To my mind, a more promising route to addressing the problem of free will is to ask what the concept of free will is for. Why talk about free will in the first place? The idea of free will seems closely linked to the idea of responsibility: to say you did something freely is to say you’re responsible for having done it. If I hit a pedestrian with my car because I was talking on the phone while driving, you can blame me for the injury I caused because I could have done otherwise: I shouldn’t have been talking on the phone. But if I hit the pedestrian because my brakes failed unexpectedly, I’m less liable to be held responsible. Really we’re asking, when something goes wrong, to what extent was that within my control?


In cases of negligence or brake failure it’s pretty easy to say how much of the problem was within my control. But things get murky fast. Was Dominic Ongwen responsible for the choices that led to him becoming a killer? And for that matter, is any of us really responsible for what we do? Ultimately, I think the problem here has less to do with metaphysical questions about free will and more to do with moral luck, a puzzle first raised in now classic papers by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel. As much as we might identify moral responsibility with matters that lie within our control, closer inspection reveals that much of what we hold people responsible for has a lot to do with chance. Ongwen’s life was marred at an early stage by a stroke of staggeringly bad luck. Is he to blame for that bad luck? According to a panel of judges in The Hague, he is.

Best wishes for the month of March,

David

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: