What is free will exactly? If free will is the ability to make choices and decisions of one’s own accord, that is, free from outside interference then I contend that the concept is illogical. How does one separate the choices and decisions one makes from one’s environment and background? How does one separate ‘free’ decision making from one’s own personality, which is itself a combination of genetic and cultural factors which no one got to choose before their birth? This may seem like an illogical dichotomy, but if one’s personality is allowed to be part of the decision making agents’ process, then the causal nature of one’s personality invades the bubble of autonomy in which free will must exist in solitude to escape the forces of causality. How does one reach a state in which they only make decisions of their own, individual accord? I contend that free will is illusory and thusly the idea that productive action confers entitlement is illogical and the inequality it creates is not philosophically justifiable.
(I will refer anyone wanting a further discussion of the nature of free will to Google with the terms ‘hard determinism’ and ‘metaphysical libertarianism’. The point of this particular post is not to defend determinism. Such an undertaking will take place in the near future.)
We all inhabit a deterministic universe; one in which the totality of existence is subject to the law of cause and effect. As evidence for this I propose a question: which objects, materials or processes in our universe arise without cause? It is not necessary to dwell on this question long before an answer becomes clear: Nothing, there is nothing in existence, be it an object, a material or process that was not caused to come into existence. With respect to human beings this fact leads to some uncomfortable
conclusions. Namely that one is not in fact the masters of one’s own fate. To borrow an example from Sam Harris: can you take credit for the fact that you did not inherit the genetic makeup of a psychopath? Can you take credit for the circumstances into which you were born? Can you take credit for the adults who shaped your early childhood? Can you take credit for the fact that you haven’t been the victim of a mentally debilitating disorder? I think you can infer where I am going with this line of reasoning.
From this I conclude that autonomous human decision making (free will), because it has arisen within a deterministic universe and because it is incapable of isolating itself from causality, is in fact an illusion. What will your next thought be? Obviously that is a question without an answer because to answer it you would have to think your next thought before you thought it. Thus if you can’t choose your next thought then it follows that you were not able to choose the thought before it, nor the one before it and so on ad nauseam. Thus a regression of causality is at work which persists back to the first thought one ever had. And this original thought itself arises from causes which themselves arise from the infinite regression of causes before them. So if one cannot take credit for the content of one’s mind, as one similarly cannot take credit for the content of one’s genetic makeup, then one cannot take credit for one’s circumstances in life either.
Once one can accept that free will is an illusion the underlying source of a secular defense of equality and justice becomes clear. Rejection of free will is the great equalizer. No one chose their country of birth, parents, genetic make-up, disposition or level of ability, ambition and industriousness; these endowments (or lack thereof) are conferred upon us by cause and effect. In light of this the workmanship ideal (the idea that entitlement is conferred by productive action) loses all credibility unless one can explain how someone is responsible for either being in possession of or lacking in natural ability, ambition or industriousness. How can one take credit (material, financial or personal credit) for one’s ability, ambition or industriousness in a deterministic universe? It would be like me taking credit for being born with brown eyes or an inclination to intellectual pursuits. I may find a sense of pride in it but my pride would be constructed upon a foundation of sand.
The fact that we find ourselves in a creator less, deterministic universe does not, contrary to popular opinion, mean that all morality is relative. Many of our moral judgments may be relative in nature but not all of our moral judgments need be relative. We can conceive of the universal lack of autonomous human decision making, our collective lack of free will, as the equalizing element of our deterministic existence. From this it follows that inequality, of any kind, is almost impossible to justify without resorting to consequentialist reasoning.