The concept of a free will is a powerful one. After all, what we do, think, and say is not controlled by anything or anybody – but us. We are the masters of ourselves and in accordance to many widely respected sources, such as the Bible, that has been the case since the dawn of man. What has changed is the level of individualism which people in wealthy and well educated societies experience today. We can choose our jobs, our partners, our houses, our cars, our styles, our hobbies, etc. In addition we are the designers of our own life – creating something that is unique and truly individual. However, if you are consistent and take the concept of a free will further you would also have to admit that it comes with certain duties, such as the personal responsibility of your own actions. The funny thing is, when it comes to the downsides of individualism and the freedom of will, people suddenly tend to turn a blind eye and look for excuses and justifications. Besides the usual arguments such as “he has had a hard childhood” or “she was influenced badly”, the idea of giving the responsibility for your own actions away has already been elevated to the highest possible level – you can screw up big time in your life but accept the lord as your savior and you will be forgiven. It was nobodies choice but yours and hence it was your free will that made you mess up – or wasn’t it?
Is there such a thing as a free will?
There are various ways to tackle this question. First, let us consider the theological argument. Free will was given to man by God. This was inevitable in order to keep the credibility of the creator up. Without this loophole, how could one justify why God created a world so full of injustice, death, and suffering? Why does the climax of creation, man, do such horrible things and why does it need to be punished so severely throughout history? The answer is: God is not responsible for this because human beings chose freely to disobey the holy rules and caused misery and pain. How convenient! Now, there are several fundamental fallacies which should strike anyone who is confronted with such an apologetic argument. If God is omnipotent, can he foresee the future? If he can, why didn’t he see what man would do with its free will? Was there no possibility to design human beings in a way that they would be incapable of committing atrocities? Of course, one could still say that our mortal life with all of its hidden persuasions and traps is one big test to prove if we are worthy to proceed to heaven. However, it doesn’t change the inevitable circumstance that God created something and knew all of the bad things it would do but still carried on. Is life and human behavior just a sick piece of entertainment for a bored celestial dictator who punishes or rewards living beings arbitrarily? The bottom line is this: Saying that God has nothing to do with the bad things that are done by human beings because of the free will of man does not suffice. We are either ill designed or just morbid entertainment.
However, coming back to the question if such a thing as a free will exists, the theological argument does not lead to a positive answer. In order for something to be free, you need to have the chance to decide freely. Did man choose to get its free will from God? Or was it forced upon human beings? The Bible teaches us that man was neither asked nor did he have a choice if he wanted a free will or not. So how can something be free that was forced upon someone?
In connection with the theological argument, but partly independent from it, the next question is as follows: Can we choose not to have a free will or could man have chosen to give its free will back to God? It is hardly possible to claim that we can choose not to have a free will and if that is the case, the whole concept of a free will collapses. Comparably, we can’t know that we know nothing because if we do, we already know something. If we can’t choose to have a free will, it is not free.
Last, on a more practical level, the inevitable influence of our environment should not be ignored when talking about the concept of free will. If there actually was such a thing as a free will, our environment would not influence our decisions at all – but it does! The clothes that you wear, the food that you eat, the music that you listen to, the status symbols you acquire, the way you think about other people – it is all influenced by our environment. Still, people might say that they decided freely to get their iPod – but where do they get the idea from that an iPod is desirable? Our decisions are constantly influenced unconsciously by our instincts as well as by our environment. Even though many people might not like such a statement, the throne from which we look down from on all other living things is not as high as we would want it to be. Why is a German more likely to become a beer drinker than a Frenchman? Why is an American more likely to kill animals in the woods with guns than an Austrian? Why is an Aborigine more likely to live in peace with nature than a white Australian? If the concept of a free will was real, yes or no would be an equally probable answer to any question. It is certainly not, thanks to what nature and society has turned us into. None of our decisions are made freely since they always depend on our history and our instincts.
So despite mainstream opinion, the indefensibility of the concept of free will is an argument that should not be discarded prematurely. However, for the sake of the argument let’s follow the herd and assume that free will exists because it leads to a major point that is often conveniently ignored: If one claims that they have a free will, do they accept the responsibility for their actions? On first sight, the question might sound trivial. Nevertheless, regarding the many excuses and justifications which people make up for their personal acts by which they deny the independence of their decision making process, the question gets more complex.
Is individualism genuine?
The equation is simple: If something good happens to me, I have earned it and I deserve it because I have worked hard for it. After all, that is the upside of individualism. On the other hand, if something bad happens to me, I was out of luck and I expect somebody else to help me. When things go downhill, individualism suddenly gets a transforming touch. Things that go well are my achievement, but things that go wrong should not be handled by me alone. People are always quicker to say that they couldn’t do much about their failure than they are when they talk about their success. For the sake of visualization, let’s start with a very harsh example.
When the 1930s and 1940s witnessed the darkest chapters of German history, many people who tried to fight the Nazis from within were glorified after the war as individuals who stood up and tried to give the horrible events a turn for the better. In that case, one could surely say that it was their free will that, despite the danger of prosecution and death, made them stand up against the atrocities committed by their fellow man. Those men and women risked their lives and died for their convictions. There is not much debate about the question if those individualistic acts should be honored or not. The peculiarity of how differently we evaluate individualistic behavior arises when we look to the other side – the common people who followed the Nazis. As in many other cases as well, historians or sociologists would try to explain the behavior of the German people by the desperate circumstances of that time: The financial crisis, a high unemployment rate, a suffering dignity due to the Versailles Treaty, etc. Hence, the Germans (and other groups in different examples) are rather treated as an entity than a collection of individuals. All of these attempts that try to explain the behavior of the common people at that time ignore one simple fact: Human beings are individuals and we all decide as individuals. Where would our free will be if we didn’t? Every single German had to decide for themself if they wanted to participate in the annihilation of the Jews and a war that devastated the whole of Europe. Hitler didn’t turn decent people into monsters over night. Rather, a mob of monsters brought forth Hitler and his henchmen. If 99% of the Germans had decided not to follow such a maniac, what could he have done? It is an inconvenient truth; one that is not usually uttered. Looking for excuses for the behavior of the masses is not the right way to go. If you decide to be or support a murderer, you are responsible for people dying. Nothing can justify that. In that context, it is more than obvious that individualistic acts which lead to something good are evaluated differently than those which lead to something bad. Essentially, they are the same. People should not be able to be excused if their decisions lead to something malicious.
The coward excuse of weaknesses
We make many decisions every day. The concept of a free will and our individualistic lifestyle has given us the chance to take our lives into our own hands, so it seems. Every now and then, however, our free will seems to be limited. As stated before, human beings are individuals who make decisions for themselves and who therefore should be responsible for their actions. If people steal a car, they shouldn’t blame their upbringing. If people do drugs, they shouldn’t blame their addiction. If someone molests another, they shouldn’t blame their sexual urges. People make decisions every single time they are confronted with a problem. Using weakness or addictions as excuses is nothing but cowardly. Would they then admit that they actually do not have a free will? It is always easier and more convenient to blame others for your bad decisions. How can someone blame a fast food chain for his obesity instead of accepting the responsibility for his own diet? How can a single mother with five children who has never had a bright outlook expect the government to give her more money instead of using contraceptives, sending fewer children into a bleak future? How can someone justify beating up their child by referring to their own violent upbringing, knowing how much they had suffered themself? How can a religious fanatic plead not guilty in court because a higher power had advised them to blow up an abortion clinic?