Thursday, June 09, 2005

Free Will and Liberty


Is a belief in free will just an excuse to hold people wholly responsible for their actions? While free will is often framed against nihlistic Determinism, I don't think that Determinism is what people have in mind when they are typically talking about someone not being responsible for their own actions.

Determinism, the idea that people have no true choice over their actions due to fundamental physical laws, contains implicitly a rejection of morality. If there is no choice, then no person is truly good or bad, as they are not the authors of their own actions.

Let us take this example of someone with a reduced sense of free will. Jerry is overweight, and has low self esteem. He is unable to conceive of achieving the kinds of things achieved by fitter, more confident, more wealthy, "better" people. He is unable, in a very real sense, to overcome his own mental limitations. These problems are not necessitated by any physical laws (disregarding fundamental deterministic issues), but are the result of his choice. Jerry appears to have chosen his own situation, because others of us can see how me might have chosen differently.

Someone subscribing wholly to free will might hold Jerry to be entirely responsible for his position. While he might have undergone a difficult past, the reaction to that was open to his free will. He could have chosen otherwise, and the free will advocate must place the final responsibility with the agent of choice. The expression "agent" or "agency" refers to this idea that Jerry is the one who has manufactured his own mental state.

How does this relate to liberty? There are many ways, and here is a short list

1 By forcing someone into a particular mental state, if possible, one can reduce a person's freedom. Indoctrination is a tool for affecting a person's freedom if one does not hold the position that people have perfect free will
2 By accepting that a person's free will is affected by their environment, one accepts that freedom is not merely a matter deliberate opposition
3 Two people with different mental states can be in the same situation, but have different levels of freedom
4 A political party can make people free by changing their mental state, not just their situation
5 People can *blame* a political party for their degree of freedom
6 Poverty, as a statistical determinant of many psychological problems, becomes a tool for freedom or constraint
7 By virtue of (3), equal opportunity is not necessarily sufficient for equality of fairness

This is a thought in progress...



Anonymous Paul said...

How is it possible to force someone into a given mental state? What is the mechanism, since there is no physical contact with their mind? Surely the person has a sensory impression and then makes a judgement about it (albeit perhaps an habitual one) which results in a mental state. The element of judgement means that it is our choice to link the impression with the mental state and therefore our choice what our mental state will be.

6/20/2005 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Well, it might be said that parents force their beliefs onto their children, for example.

It's not like one has straightforward control of another's minds, but one can control someone by influencing them.

For example, you can control someone's mental state through misinformation - propaganda would be one example.

You can also control someone's mental state through abusive or loving language, or through drugs.

Educational programs can control a person's beliefs.

Popular culture controls people's desires...

etc etc

p.s. thank you for your many comments. There is a limitation to the email notification system which means I can't tell what is being replied to, other than by working it out from the context. My apologies if I don't always reply.


6/20/2005 04:10:00 PM  

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