FGF Op-Ed
The Reactionary Utopian
February 4, 2016

Free Will and Freedom
A classic by Joseph Sobran
fitzgerald griffin foundation

[Classic: June 2003] — In one of his typically incisive essays in Freedom Daily, Sheldon Richman examines some fashionable arguments that human beings can’t help what they do. We are predisposed to obesity, alcoholism, and other ills by our genes, of which we are the helpless playthings. Such arguments imply that we have no free will and can’t be held responsible for our own choices; consciousness and rationality are mere illusions, epiphenomena, that don’t really control our decisions. We are mere products of a mechanistic physical universe.

These arguments are, as Richman notes, “congenial to the would-be dictator.” They are also self-evidently false, though new variations on them constantly occur with scientific and technological advances: DNA and the computer have bred a new generation of them. As Samuel Johnson told Boswell, “Sir, we know the will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” We are directly conscious of consciousness itself, of our reason, and of our freedom to choose one course of action or another.

In a moment of crisis, the person decides whether to be a saint or a sinner, a martyr or a coward.

 

The fallacy of determinism has been refuted many times. If it were true that thought itself is the helpless product of irrational forces, how can the determinist himself claim truth for his own position? By his own logic, he can’t help believing in determinism any more than his opponents can help believing in free will. Why are his epiphenomena preferable to anyone else’s? Is he an exception to his own universal iron laws of causation?

True, people do have habits and temptations, some idiosyncratic, many of them shared with other people, making them individually and collectively predictable. Social scientists, pollsters, and market researchers look for these massive patterns of behavior.

But the patterns don’t disprove what we know from immediate experiences: the individual person is free. In a moment of crisis, the person decides whether to be a saint or a sinner, a martyr or a coward. Moral experience would be meaningless if all choices were reduced to compulsions. There would be no need for reflection, indecision, or guilt.

 

They imply that the state is somehow endowed with all the faculties of free will, rationality, responsibility, self-control and self-comprehension, impartiality, benevolence, and even immortality that they deny to the individual.

But why should this style of thought appeal to the would-be dictator? Because it reduces his subjects to pawns of their environment, which he is all too ready to shape for them. But again, the peculiar blindness of the determinist-dictator is that he never applies his universal laws to himself.

As man shrinks to nothingness, the State rises to superhuman dimensions.

 

If all human beings are passive before outside forces (including inner compulsions of which they are unaware), mustn’t this be true of society as a whole, including its rulers? Why should we suppose that they are any more rational and responsible than the rest of us? Metaphysician, heal thyself!

Abstractly, determinism is a philosophy. But in practice, it functions as the ideology of a class of people seeking power over others. Its votaries usually turn out to have a curiously tenacious faith in the State. They imply that the state is somehow endowed with all the faculties of free will, rationality, responsibility, self-control and self-comprehension, impartiality, benevolence, and even immortality that they deny to the individual. As man shrinks to nothingness, the State rises to superhuman dimensions.

In the real world, dictators like determinism, and determinists like dictatorship. Often this takes the form of passionate, almost religious devotion to a single charismatic dictator — a Stalin, a Mao, a Castro, even a Franklin Roosevelt; a cult of personality that sits ill with the philosophy itself. For are these rulers any more rational than those they rule? How can they be?

 

Our rulers … are driven by their craving for power, which they will acquire and augment by any means.

The more we learn about our actual rulers, the more comical it seems that they should be presumed uniquely rational, let alone impartial and benevolent. They are driven by their craving for power, which they will acquire and augment by any means. And this drive for power, far from making society as a whole more rationally organized, only complicates the life of society by imposing burdens and obstacles on the ruled. Supporting the State becomes the chief duty of the subject. Promising to pursue the common weal, the State itself becomes the common woe.

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This column is among 117 others in a new collection of Sobran essays titled Subtracting Christianity: Essays on American Culture and Society (fgfBooks, 2015). It was printed in the June 2003 edition of Sobran’s: The Real News of the Month newsletter, published by Griffin Communications.

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Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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