There is a consistent stream in our culture that everything is determined by circumstance: genes, conditioning, wealth… But most aside from genes, all those are the product of people acting on each other. The free will debate can also be framed as a responsibility debate. Who is responsible? If there is no free will, does that mean there is no responsibility? Or the other way around: if we choose our destiny, does that mean we’re to blame if something goes wrong? Like an earthquake?
In the philosophical debate there are few contenders on the outskirts. Few argue that everything in our lives is free will. Those who talk about The Secret and The Law of Attraction are very close to this extreme view. They feel we are responsible for everything that happens in our lives. Whether it’s a financial crisis, unemployment, alcoholism or Katrina.
On the other side of the spectrum there is an equally small group that argues that people are totally determined in what they do: genes, God and circumstance determine everything. Most philosophers are somewhere in the middle: there are things outside our control, but there are also things we actively choose.
Even theologians generally don’t think God’s omniscience implies lack of free will on our part. They’ve created a view called ‘middle knowledge’. God knows our options and our free will and choose to let us make our own mistakes. This does not necessarily mean He knows the outcome. (I hope I summarized that correctly)
The second world war brought the debate to a head: who among the many colluders were really responsible? To what extent can Germans a nation be blamed for what happened? The Nuremberg trials were an exercise in trying to determine the extent of moral and legal responsibility. Based on the idea of ‘crimes against humanity’, they were revolutionary in trying people for things that were legal for them to do. This illustrates, as the movie ‘the reader’ does too, that there are few black and whites in these things. The result of the whole social process was black, but on an individual level most people lived in grays. That’s the most scary thing about the Second World War: that it was so easy for things to turn out awful.
Politicians, philosophers and theologians chose, en masse, to put individual responsibility first after that. Cultural relativity can only go so far. Mass murder and genocide are evils that needs to be fought.
Or in other words: ethics and law are not the same thing, but ethics became law at Neurenberg. For a while.
This is the first in a series I’m doing on free will.
What do you all think: do we have free will? Do we have responsibility? Are we determined by genes, neurology and circumstance?