The Responsibility of Free Will

I’m taking way too much philosophy this term (3 courses), so my head is a jumble of the “Big Questions” much of the time. I might need to take up some inane things to balance this out, such as cartwheels or… I can’t think of anything! Help! I’m too serious!

I just read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism” for one class today, and I actually enjoyed it, despite Sartre’s (somewhat deserved) bad reputation in Christian circles. Sartre argues that people only become what they are by first existing, and then deciding. Their essence is not some kind of universal “human nature” but is rather the sum total product of their free choices. As to that, I am not so sure, but when Sartre develops the implicit ethic of this stance, I can only agree:

If we were to say… that [soft, weak, cowardly and sometimes bad people] are that way way because of environment, society, because of biological or psychological determinism, people would be reassured. They would say, “Well, that’s what we’re like, no one can do anything about.” But when the existentialist writes about a coward, he says that this coward is responsible for his cowardice. He’s not like that because he has a cowardly heart or lung or brain; he’s not like that on account of his physiological makeup; but he’s like that because he has made himself a coward by his acts. There’s no such thing as a cowardly constitution… what makes cowardice is the act of renouncing or yielding. A constitution is not an act; the coward is defined on the basis of the act he performs. People feel, in a vague sort of way, that this coward we’re talking about is guilty of being a coward, and the thought frightens them. What people would like is that a coward or a hero be born that way. (Sorry about the lack of inclusive language, but it was too much hassle to reword things)

And later, he adds:

If we have defined man’s situation as a free choice, with no excuses and no recourse, every man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, every man who sets up a determinism is a dishonest man.

This notion that to affirm free will is to also affirm that we are responsible for our actions and what kind of person we become has some profound implications for the way that we think and live. What do you think?

6 responses to “The Responsibility of Free Will”

  1. That sounds compelling indeed, yet I’m hesitant to commit to his notion of determinism, that we are solely and exclusively the product of the choices we make. I think it’s too mechanical, too simple.

    A community of cowards shares a common thread of inaction, of “renouncing or yielding”. Yet within their common thread there remains other factors in their cowardice. They will have different demeanors, dispositions, and likely have different reasons for their cowardice.

    I think there needs to be room for factoring in that certain predispositions will be more prone to cowardice. A man who is small in stature, who has a soft, quiet demeanor will be, I think, less likely to be assertive and act in a situation that will cause him to fall under the coward or hero banner. Genetics, it seems, have worked against him, giving him less reason to believe that, say in a fight, he could be a person of action and not cowardice.

    It’s quite possible that this man has been ragged for his small stature and, some would say, effeminate demeanor. Perhaps this has contributed to his cowardice; but it’s, in this case, a physical disposition (his stature and voice) that he is powerless to change.

    Nonetheless (I’m rambling a bit. sorry.), I suppose he could, as a free being, still by his choices rise above his circumstance. I’m still uncomfortable with the view of us as merely mechanical, cause and effect, deterministic beings.

    Anything to add? What do you think?

    Sorry. I should be igniting an urge for inanity :)

  2. I think that Sartre would allow for our environmental factors, and say that such a group has simply ignored their ability to choose otherwise.

    For me, one of the biggest problems with Sartre is that he turns us into God. There is no place for admitting that we are in some ways determined by how we have been made, and how we have been raised. Also, there is no room for admitting brokenness and asking for help from God and others. For me, free will includes the recognition that we are not in control of everything.

  3. Exactly!!

    Too damn mechanical. We are largely self-determined, even more, I think, than we’d like to admit, since the recognition/acknowledgment of our determinism immediately carries with it a hefty amount of responsibility on how you live your life, the decisions you make, etc.

    But yeah, I couldn’t agree more, there needs to be a “place for admitting that we are in some ways determined by how we have been made”.

  4. In other words, Sartre would have problems with the possibility of their existing a ‘coward gene’. What implications does his philosophical stand have on the contemporary (I would argue, soon to be) consensus, that physiologically there exists in certain individuals ‘gay,’ ‘criminal,’ and many other genes, that make that person who they are.

    What then are the implications for salvation? Or, am I completely missing the point?

  5. Yes, Sartre would not allow for a coward gene, or a gay gene for that matter. For him, everything was a choice, even if there might be physiological factors that pressure us in a certain direction.

    Sartre himself would not have expounded any implications for salvation, as he was a staunch atheist. As a Christian, I don’t think that we can allow for the degree of free will that Sartre claims and still call God sovereign in any meaningful way. I do still believe in a very large amount of free will in people, and what I’m especially interested in here is how Sartre underscores that having a free will means that we are responsible for the decisions that we make.

    Most people today don’t want to take responsibility for their actions (it’s all my parents’ fault, the media’s fault, etc) but also want to claim that they have free will. As Sartre shows, they can’t have it both ways. I need to remember this the next time I’m tempted not to take responsibility for my actions.

  6. As we listen to the tales of the Winter Soldiers, returning from Iraq, I can only come up with one answer as to who is cowardly. It is ME. It is YOU. It is We, the People, who have not stood up to our leaders, (who are not our representatives) and have allowed this illegal war to continue. How can we stand by and shop, while our brothers and sisters are ordered to kill innocent people. We have lost our standing in the world, but worse, we have lost our standing with ourselves. Although writing this makes me fearful, I MUST take responsibility for my actions. If I don’t, I am not a human being, but a part of a cult. If my leader tells me to swallow the poison, I would go along with my orders.

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