What is Freedom? (14): Do We Have Free Will?

The evidence seems to say “no, there is no free will”. The notion of free will has been the object of criticism and even ridicule for as long as it exists, but it has recently become the target of a truly continuous and seeming devastating scientific onslaught. Study after study argues that we really don’t want what we do or do what we want, that we have no choice in a lot of things we do, and that we don’t decide to act the way we act and can’t act otherwise even if we want to. Here’s a short summary of the evidence:

  • Priming. People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. And it’s not just images. If a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed (source). If it’s this easy for other people to decide how we act, then we can assume that we often act in ways that they decide.
  • Stereotype threat. When the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. Again, this makes it easy for others to change how we act.
  • Anchoring. In one study, German judges first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months. Yet another example of how we often act not because we freely want (or “willed”) our actions but because of external pressure and manipulation.
  • Learned helplessness. Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. A failure of the will, but a failure determined by outside forces.
  • Adaptive preferences. We settle for second best and call it the best, not because that is our free choice but because the thing that we really believe is best is out of reach. Free will? Meh.
  • Peer effects. Group membership and the presence of role models determine what is the “natural” way to act.
  • Justificational reasoning. When we defend our so-called free and freely willed actions, we tend to do so after the fact and with special attention to the good or bad reasons justifying our actions, at the expense of reasons justifying other kinds of actions. This suggests that we didn’t weigh all the reasons for all possible actions beforehand, and that our actions are therefore not actions we chose to want on the basis of good reasons. Perhaps then our actions are caused by something else, such as habit, conformism, reflexes, tradition etc. Free will is incompatible with those causes.
  • Poverty of willpower. Power of the will seems to be a finite resource that can be depleted. No willpower means no free will.
  • And then there are Benjamin Libet’s infamous studies showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before people are consciously aware of their desires.

I could go on, but this will do. Of course, none of this proves that there is no free will. At most, it makes us realize that free will is severely constrained: if it exists at all, it’s only a partial and intermittent faculty, present in unequal degrees in different people at different times in their lives.

And yet, despite all this evidence, we continue to act as if all people, , with the exception of minors and the mentally handicapped; have free will all of the time. We constantly blame people, we punish and praise them, and we say that they deserve what they get. If I – being a mentally healthy adult (at least according to some) – were to hit the person sitting next to me now, I would be castigated because everyone agrees that I could have acted otherwise. I probably could have, but perhaps I couldn’t. Who’s to tell? Perhaps a little less blame and praise could be one good outcome of psychological research. But I’m not holding my breath. We can follow this advice, or we can all act otherwise, unfortunately.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (33): A Full Human Life

Again, I feel the need to rewrite an older post. Not a good sign. Still, here we go.

One way to look for an answer to the question in the title of this post is to focus on the kind of life we can achieve with the help of human rights. Ideally, most of us want a life that isn’t just mere existence or survival. Not even decent survival or a successful struggle for life is enough. We want a full human life. However, a full human life has a different meaning for different people. It’s a controversial notion, and we probably will never agree on the definition of a full human life.

Human rights won’t be able to help achieve all visions of the good life, and rightly so because some visions are destructive and harmful. However, they do give us the freedom and capabilities to try to achieve a very wide range of visions of the good life. Perhaps part of the good life is precisely this ability to make a free choice between a wide set of visions of the good life, to pursue that choice, to have the capabilities to do so and to have a reasonable chance of success whatever our choice. It’s now widely accepted that “a full human life” should be left to individual choice and can’t logically mean something that would be imposed on people.

Human rights give us the choice of a good life, the capabilities to pursue it, and a good chance to do it successfully. But how exactly do they do that? In order to pursue our self-chosen vision of the good life, we need some degree of freedom so that our life plans aren’t dominated, controlled or imposed by others, by governments, religious leaders, etc. For example, we need to be able to decide freely which kind of religion we want to practice, where to live, what job to do etc. Also, if we are to be able to plan our life freely, our choice of plan must be a real choice. Hence, we need a minimum of education, information and physical resources and capabilities (e.g. good health) in order to make an informed choice from a wide range of options, and in order to try to realize our choice. All these resources and capabilities are protected by human rights.

However, this thin and at the same time all-encompassing vision of a full human life may already be too specific and controversial. Some cultures or individuals may not want to give their female members the choice of deciding to shape their own vision of the good life. So how do we reply to that concern?

Perhaps we may get somewhere if we rephrase the question in the title of this post so that it states “why do I need human rights?” instead of “why do we need human rights?”. People usually are more willing to accept reasons for the importance of their own human rights than they are to accept reasons for the importance of the rights of others. More specifically, when the possibility to shape your own life is the reason for accepting human rights, there will be few people rejecting this reason as long as it’s about their own lives.

Once we can convince people of such a reason for the importance of their own human rights, we can then try to take the next step and try to convince them of the importance of the rights of others. At that moment, we may use elements outside of the system of human rights. Perhaps we can’t convince them of the importance of the rights of others when we focus on those rights, but maybe we’ll be more successful using other, non-rights based moral imperatives. These imperatives then apply the value people see in their own rights as a means to persuade them of the value of the rights of others.

For instance, the old maxim called the Golden Rule – “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” – does have some power of persuasion, but in this context it requires that we first convince people that human rights are necessary for themselves as human beings and that they view other human beings as human beings. Since we’re dealing with people who deny the rights of others, we may run the risk of including the conclusion in the premise. In other words, people who believe in the Golden Rule probably don’t need to be convinced of the general importance of human rights, and those who need to be convinced may not be swayed by the Golden Rule.

Similarly, we could try to persuade people of the importance of the rights of others by appealing to Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”. But again, this may fail, since it’s very unlikely to find a Kantian who isn’t already convinced by the general importance of human rights, or to find an opponent of the rights of others who can be convinced by Kantian arguments.

Still, you don’t know if you don’t try, so let’s leave aside these worries for the moment and go back to the first step in this strategy: how can we convince people that human rights are important for themselves? I still think a description of the ways in which these rights can help them to achieve a self-chosen vision of a full human life is promising, even if the definition of this full human life has to remain very abstract and vague and can’t include anything more specific than the capacity to choose your own path through life and your own final goals and perspectives.

This kind of justification of human rights, because it builds on a vision of a full human life that is very vague and that only includes the free choice of what it means to have a full human life, holds across a wide range of different individuals, ideologies and cultures. A vision of a full human life that is paradoxically “thin” can justify human rights, at least as long as we limit the ambition to egocentric justification, i.e. a justification of people’s own rights. Justifying rights as something that people need to respect in each other is then the next and more difficult step. Also paradoxically, this thin version of a full human life doesn’t justify a thin set of human rights but rather a set that contains many rights that are still controversial, even among those who generally view human rights in a positive way.

More on justifications of human rights here.

What is Freedom? (4): Increasingly Demanding Types of Freedom

Freedom can be defined in different ways. Depending on the definition, it’s something that is more or less demanding. Definitions of freedom differ in the things that are required to make us free. Here’s an overview of a number of different definitions that you can find in the literature, from the least demanding to the most:

1. Absence of voluntary goal frustration

A basic, minimalist definition postulates freedom as the absence of goal frustration. We are free if no one blocks our goals, if we can do what we want and what we have set out to do, without anyone – in particular the government – frustrating the realization of our will or our goals. In this basic form, the frustrating agent always acts in a deliberately frustrating manner.

For example, a wife in a patriarchal society – call her Mary – wants to work outside of the household, is formally allowed to do so (there’s no choice frustration) but achieving this goal is made very difficult for her; both her husband and the government put a lot of obstacles in her way.

2. Absence of involuntary goal frustration

A slightly more demanding vision of freedom includes among the frustrating agents those who frustrate goal realization, not because of voluntary obstruction but because of other reasons not inspired by the will to frustrate or obstruct.

For example, although Mary has successfully divorced her husband and migrated to a more liberal county, she finds that none of her skills are marketable in her host society. Hence, the people in her host society involuntarily frustrate her goals and make her less free than she could be.

3. Absence of resource-based goal frustration

A step further: the blocking factors are not only agents but also a lack of resources. The resources can be either inner our external resources:

  • Inner resources: if we lack discipline, a good work ethic or a good education, we may be unable to reach our goals. Our passions, emotions and other tendencies may overwhelm our other tendencies that we require for the realization of our goals. In this case, our goals and freedom are frustrated not by external agents but by aspects of ourselves.
  • External resources: if we lack food and shelter, we may also be unable to reach our goals.

For example, Mary’s goal of finding employment is blocked by her inability to work in a disciplined way and/or her lack of means of transportation.

We are free to achieve our goals if there is no obstruction

  • by agents voluntarily frustrating our achievement,
  • by other agents involuntarily frustrating our achievements,
  • caused by the absence of internal or external resources (or the presence of obstructing “resources”).

4. Absence of choice frustration

The first 3 definitions above take for granted that we want something and try to realize it, even though we’re faced with obstacles of different kinds. The focus is on our ability to get it or on the factors inhibiting our ability. A fourth, still more demanding definition of freedom stipulates that we are free only when there is no goal frustration and when we have an unfrustrated choice between different goals or objects of volition.

For example, Mary’s only objective is caring for her family and she didn’t choose this objective from a certain range of possible desirable goals, for example because certain goals are not allowed. In this case, we will not call her free, not even if she wants her objective and can achieve it without frustration. She’s not free because she didn’t choose her objective from a range of possible objectives of unequal value.

A lack of freedom in this 4th sense can be caused by agents voluntarily or involuntarily limiting the range of options, or by a lack of resources.

For example, Mary only has one possible goals, caring for a family. Other valuable and desirable goals, such as becoming an artist or traveling the world, have been blocked by the cultural or legal norms of her society or by a lack of internal or external resources: she does not have the income, education or discipline necessary to make an evaluative choice among a larger set of options. Mary is less free than she would have been had the other desirable goals been possible options – possible in the sense of not having been removed from the set by agents, or in the sense of being backed up by the necessary resources.

As in the case of goal frustration (types 1, 2 and 3), choice frustration can be caused by interference or by the absence of resources or capabilities.

5. Absence of distortions in option formation

An even more demanding notion of freedom: freedom requires that agents or the absence of resources do not block options, but also that there are no distortions in option formation (as opposed to option choice). People are free if they can freely establish a wide set of possible desirable goals, then freely choose from them without someone or something frustrating certain options (#4), and then freely pursue the chosen options without frustration (#1-2-3).

So freedom is not just goal achievement or goal choice but also the ability to set up a range of possible choices.

For example, some options do not even cross Mary’s mind. Her option formation may be inhibited by early childhood nurturing that has removed certain possible goals from the option set. Or she may erase options from her mind: her realistic assessment of possibilities makes her adapt her preferences and choose those options which are approved by her patriarchal circumstances.

Such distortions in option formation – settling for the options that are feasible or just choosing from those options that have been instilled in us from early childhood on – may make us more happy since we’ll stop agonizing about the impossible, but it won’t make us more free.

6. Absence of the wrong options

And finally, the most demanding form of freedom stipulates that people should have the ability, not to choose from an undistorted set of options or to pursue the chosen options without hindrance, but the ability to choose the right options, i.e. only those options that are moral or those that make one’s life better.

This is the kind of freedom that makes sense of the paradoxical phrase “forcing one to be free”: only by forcing people to make the right choices can people become free.

For example, if Mary was given the freedom to choose between educating herself and working in the sex industry, then Mary would only be free if she chose the first option. The second option, although possibly profitable, would not make her free because it would not allow her to make her life better.

That last sentence makes it obvious that the conception of freedom as the right choice depends on controversial assessments of the “good life”. People cannot be free to decide on their own view of the good life, because then this conception of freedom would collapse into the previous one (#5). Some authority must decide what is the good life and force people to choose the right options. Hence, it’s unclear whether this conception of freedom still deserves the name. The paternalism and perfectionism inherent in the conception are more at home in authoritarian forms of government.

Just a small remark to end: although these 6 types have names that use negative language (“absence”), this does not imply that they are all negative types of freedom in the traditional sense.

More on different types of freedom here.