Mark Balaguer on Free Will

Into the fray of recent books on whether or not we humans have free will jumps Mark Balaguer’s sprightly book, one of a series on current vogue topics published by MIT Press, intended for a nonspecialist readership. In other words, Balaguer is not writing for other philosophers, but for you and me—and this audience may account for the book’s jauntiness, inasmuch as it appears that authors, and/or their editors and publishers, believe that the only way that the common man or woman can be induced to swallow and digest cogitations on the great questions is by talking to him or her as if he or she were a child. One sometimes imagines the author as rather like a sitcom daddy explaining mortality or sin as he tucks in his four-year-old daughter.

You can tell that I find that style annoying. But despite that, Balaguer does more or less accomplish his goal, which is basically to show that the anti-free will arguments advanced today by such luminaries of the genre as Daniel Wegner and Sam Harris don’t amount to much. Primarily because they tend to assume what yet remains to be proven. Balaguer does an excellent job of exposing the holes in the determinist arguments, as well as going back to some of the studies that constitute the supposed proofs of those arguments, such as those of Benjamin Libet, and finding that they do not in fact offer such proof. I won’t go into his explanations, as the reader can do that easily enough on his own, especially since the book is short (a mere 126 pages of text) and free of arcane jargon.

Much as I welcome Balaguer’s poking of holes in the determinist hot-air balloon, I do have a bone to pick with his argument, namely that he seems to have a trivial notion of what free will is. Apparently, Balaguer thinks that free will is synonymous with consumer choice; his primary and repeated example is a scenario of someone entering an ice cream parlor and considering whether to order vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Even in his interesting distinction of a “torn decision,” i.e., one in which the options are equally appealing or equally unappealing, he repeats the chocolate vs. vanilla example. In this he is like Sam Harris, the determinist who uses tea vs. coffee as his example. And like Harris, he says nothing about the fact that free will is an ethical concept and as such has nothing to do with consumer choice—and a lot of other kinds of common, everyday choices as well.

So let me offer a scenario in which the question of free will is truly interesting: Imagine that you are a young man in the antebellum South, say about 1830, and you are the sole heir of a large plantation on which cotton is grown with slave labor. Let’s say you’re about 30 years old and that for all those 30 years you have lived in a social and ideological environment in which slavery has been a natural and God-given institution. You therefore assume that slavery is good and that, when your father dies and you inherit the plantation, you will continue to use slave labor; you will also continue to buy and sell slaves as valuable commodities in their own right, just like the bales of cotton you sell in the markets of New Orleans. Further, you are aware that cotton is an important commodity, crucial to the manufacturing enterprises of the new factories of the northeast and England. You are justly proud (in your own estimation, as well as that of your social class) of the contributions the plantation system has made to the nation and civilization. Because of your background and experience, perhaps at this point you cannot be said to have free will when it comes to the question of whether or not slavery is morally just.

Then one day you learn of people called abolitionists, and perhaps quite by chance you come across a pamphlet decrying the practice of slavery, or perhaps even you hear a sermon by your local preacher demonizing abolitionists as atheists or some such thing, though in the course of that sermon the preacher happens to mention that these atheists presume to claim Biblical authority for their heretical beliefs. Maybe you rush to your copy of the Bible to prove them wrong, only to come across St. Paul’s assertion that there is neither slave nor freedman in Christ. Perhaps you ignore these hints that what you have always assumed to be true may not be; or perhaps they prick your conscience somewhat, enough to make you begin to look around you with slightly different eyes. Maybe you even become fraught, particularly when you consider that some of the younger slaves on the property are your half-siblings, or perhaps even your own offspring—how could my brother or my son be a slave while I am free? Who can say what nightmares these unwelcome but insistent thoughts engender? At any rate, for the first time in your life, you find that you cannot to be a slaveholder without considering the moral implications of the peculiar institution. For the first time, you must actually decide.

The above is certainly an example of what Balaguer calls a torn decision, but unlike chocolate vs. vanilla, it is a moral decision, and therefore profound rather than trivial. And it is in such moral dilemmas, when something that is taken for granted emerges into consciousness, that the concept of free will becomes meaningful. It would therefore seem that scientists, qua scientists, can’t be of much help in deciding whether or not we have free will. Try as they might (and some have, sort of), they cannot design laboratory experiments that address moral dilemmas—it is only in living, in the real world with other people and complex issues, that morality, and therefore free will, can exist. Of course, that does not mean that in exercising free will everyone will always make the morally right decision—we cannot know if the young man of the antebellum South will free his slaves or keep them (or even perhaps decide that the question is too difficult or costly to be answered, so he chooses to ignore it, likely leading to a lifetime of neuroses)—but we do know that once the question has risen into his consciousness, he has no choice but to choose.

Free will, then, operates when a situation rises into consciousness, creating a moral dilemma that can be resolved only by actively choosing a course of action or belief on the basis of moral principles rather than personal preference or benefit. There are dilemmas that superficially resemble moral dilemmas, such as whether or not it I ought to lose weight or whether or not I should frequent museums rather than sports bars, but which are in fact matters of taste rather than ethics. Chocolate vs. vanilla is of the latter kind. To say that I ought to have the vanilla is very different from saying I ought not to own slaves, even though both statements use the same verb. It is disappointing that philosophers fail to make the distinction.

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