Is the will free or determined? Ruthless Criticism

A continually burning question for psychologists, educators, and philosophers – but wrong nonetheless:

Is the will free or determined?

[Translated from Sozialistische HochschulZeitung #29, June, 2006]

Philosophers are simply incapable of getting to work on an object and explaining it. They never do without a guiding principle under which the matter can first be seen to be interesting. Philosophical treatises about the will, if they even comment on the matter at all and do not talk about how one would have to talk about it, always drift around in the boring alternatives of freedom and determination, just as if that is what needs to be explained in expressions of the will; or as if it were an explanation of some act that someone does what he does because he wants to, or because he has to.

Inquiring about what lies behind the will

One knows from daily life that these are not the answers that are expected when people ask why someone one does something. Even more, the alternative answers above are downright repudiations of the question, a refusal to explain oneʼs reasons to the questioner.

Answers that are therefore always expressed with irritation: “I just want to!” (play football, protest), give no information and disclose only one thing: I have my reasons and you have no business judging me. The other way around, “I simply have to!” (throw my arms around you, give you a slap in the face), means: I have important reasons that you are not allowed to doubt. In these questions and in the dissatisfaction with the answers, everyone knows how things stand with freedom and determination of the will: freedom of the will consists in the fact that the will, the practical side of consciousness, knows its content.

“The theoretical is essentially contained within the practical … for one can have no will without intelligence. On the contrary, the will holds the theoretical within itself. The will determines itself. … whatever I will, I represent; it is object for me.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right § 4, elaboration, p. 19, White translation)

That is, the mind knows and judges the reasons by which determines itself. (It will drop purposes it recognizes as pointless, put aside less important ones, etc.) On the other hand, freedom of the will is realized in the very decision on a content that is agreeable, useful, or in some way desirable. There is no freedom separate from and opposing the content of the will.

“The I here makes the transition … to the positing of a determinacy as content and object. I do not merely will, I will something. A will that … wills only the abstract universal (its empty freedom) wills nothing and is therefore no will at all.” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right § 4, elaboration, p. 22)

Philosophers, who also definitely know this, appear definitely disinterested in this determination of “empirical freedom.” They ask what lies behind the determinations in which they have found nothing to criticize:

“As a result of the empirical concept of freedom we have: ʻI am free, if I can do what I willʼ and the freedom is already decided by this ʻwhat I will.ʼ But now since we are asking about the freedom of willing itself, this question should accordingly be expressed as follows: ʻCan you also will what you will?ʼ” (A. Schopenhauer, Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will)

As much as the good Schopenhauer knows the stupidity of asking for reasons behind reasons ...

“This appears as if the willing depended on yet another willing lying behind it. And supposing that this question were answered in the affirmative, there would soon arise the second question: ʻCan you also will what you will to will?ʼ and thus it would be pushed back to infinity ...” (ibid.)

... just as little does he want to do without it, since the non-empirical “concept of freedom of the will” that Schopenhauer is out for on behalf of his guild is only to be had by this mistake: his question is now no longer “What do you will?” but rather “Can you make anything you like, something completely indeterminate, the content of your will?” = “Can you do without any determinate content of the will?” Only this freedom of a person from his own needs, benefit, and interests seems true freedom to philosophers.

“If therefore, the matter of volition, which can be nothing other than the object of a desire that is connected with the law, enters into the practical law as the condition of its possibility, there results heteronomy of the elective will, namely dependence on the physical law that we should follow some impulse or inclination. In that case the will does not give itself the law, but only the precept how rationally to follow pathological law.” (Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, §8, Pluhar translation)

The false alternative of whether the will is really free or determined denies not only freedom of the will, a freedom which lies in the fact that everyone knows his needs, ideas and the circumstances of his action, and decides with reasons on something definite. It also denies it with the wrong argument that the will finds itself determined by something external, foreign to itself with the reasons a person accepts for himself when he sets on a purpose – as if freedom of the will did not consist just in giving itself a definite content that one knows about. And with that they construe freedom as something that is realized only apart from and in opposition to every – because taken from the outside – content in empty self-reference.

The struggle of the two self-canceling determinations of the will

In this way, an image of the will is drawn in which every reason for action (= every “reasonable” content of action) refutes the freedom of the will: every act for which there are reasons is “heteronomy”; the reasons are represented as independent powers – “drives, motives, inclinations,” etc. – against the will, to which the latter is subjected. The question is, what kind of longing for freedom is supposed to be subjected there if the action is envisioned as a mechanism having nothing of self-consciousness and judgment, determined by external drives and inclinations. The diagnosis of the unfreedom of the will assumes on the contrary its opposite: if one wants to imagine the act as free, one must conceive it as chosen free from all reasons (correctly illustrated in the senseless, or totally anti-useful, act), so that freedom itself should be the reason for the determined action. Here the question is how this empty freedom, whose entire determination is supposed to consist purely negatively in not being “determined” by any objective content, by any reason, could fling itself out of sheer freedom, i.e., by chance into a specific content.

“In opposition to the certitude of this abstract self-determination, determinism has rightly pointed to the content that, as something simply found, is not contained in that certitude and so comes to it from outside, although “outside” in this case means drives, ideas, or, in general, consciousness so filled…” (Hegel, Philosophy of Right, §15, remark, p. 27)

If freedom of will is the ability to abstract from all the content of the will, to do without, then this freedom also presumes just such determinism. Thatʼs when one wants to answer the question – about the reasons out of which the will gives itself its content – with general reflections about the will.

Popular thought experiments involving the question of “freedom or determinism” are no better: “But you really have to eat, one is not free in that case …” – Well yes, that’s why everyone wants to so much! And is so free! That is already a ridiculous theory: it takes the same content of the will, eating, as an indication of unfreedom when it is carried out, and as an indication of freedom when it is not carried out.

In the end, the parties to the dispute still refute their opposing positions through their dispute. The determinist attempts it at least with arguments and does not fiddle around with the genes or “milieu” of his philosophical opponent, thus assuming in practice that what a person thinks and does is due to his access to reasons. And the man of freedom, who likewise argues, thereby reveals that what the will is able to determine is definitely something familiar to him: namely, theoretical information about how things are in the world. Nothing would be more absurd than to want to convince one another of something if everyone always only wants what they want because they want it.

From reason to blame – a thoroughly moral question

The achievement of the wrong question should not, however, be forgotten just because of its mistake: if what a person does is considered under the alternative, “Does he will, or must he do, what he does?”, then in light of the obvious fact that everything one brings about not just by accident is something one also wills, then this is really the doubled question: “Do you really will what you will?” But this is no longer the question about the reasons for an act, but rather about how someone regards his action, whether he acknowledges it as his own or not. In truth, it is therefore about the question of whether one vouches for his action! It is the question of whether the person – in his freedom also not to do the act – understands this as an act of his freedom separate from the content and thus the reasons for his deed, i.e., is willing to accept responsibility for his deed. With the question about responsibility, each act is referred to a second standard external to the act itself: it's obvious that the actor expects to gain a benefit, a pleasure, or whatever else from what he does. Whether he can also take responsibility for it is asking about whether he can, should and/or wants to justify the action in light of a second, higher standard that contradicts the immediate materialism of the act. Responsibility is always about good and evil, permitted and prohibited, and the question of whether the person is to blame.

This equation of freedom and responsibility is the other, positive side to the way philosophy likes to discover freedom of the will only in the “No” to each definite, rational content of the will. The idea that the will is unfree if it makes something its content, and only free if it gives itself a content of its own accord against any “external” determination, conceives of the “free” will as always referring to a content appropriate to itself – otherwise it would be empty self-reference. This content appropriate to the “freedom” of the will consists then, in a ludicrous manner, – in this case, rational reasons indeed signify unfreedom and determination for philosophers – in, of all things, (groundless) values and norms that the will submits to of its own free will! This is the way jurists look at things, for whom nothing is more self-evident than the postulate that the mind has to relativize every act to the established rules and should even regard that as reasonable; and and it aims at satisfying an “epistemological” interest equally well-known from the legal system: the question about being able to be held criminally culpable.

In contrast to the legal question about the responsibility of the perpetrator, however, the person as such faces the (philosophical) expert in matters of culpability; and so it is not the possible drunkenness, madness, etc., of a lawbreaker that comes under discussion, but answers of a more fundamental nature:

“What could one say in favour of the assumption that the consciousness of self-determination is an illusion? It would imply on the part of man a radical misunderstanding of himself, an over-valuation at the centre of his being, a kind of metaphysical megalomania. In naive fashion and by necessity he would be ascribing to himself an autonomy which he does not possess, he would feel that he had a power which was not his, but which, to the contrary, was on its side making sport of him. (If this were true, it could not remain a secret to man, no matter how determined (from outside) he is. But the philosopher of freedom is not one to criticize ludicrous thought constructions, preferring Morgenstern's line: “For, he reasons pointedly / That which must not, can not be.”* So:) We should accordingly find ourselves in the grasp of ethical scepticism. For with the disappearance of freedom the meaning of moral values would vanish.” (Nicolai Hartmann, Ethics, volume III, Moral Freedom, p. 149, London, 1932)

An enlightened determinist will not put up with such a value ethics–oriented, moral come-on. So he hands it back:

“If decisions were causeless there would be no sense in trying to influence men; and we see at once that this is the reason why we could not bring such a man to account, (but something “we” want as a matter of course!) but would have only a shrug of the shoulders in answer to his behavior.” (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, New York, 1939)

In this, he is also no less right against the other party than the other party against him. Anyone who acts for no reason at all also throws moral “influence” away. Which, the wrong alternative suggests, is again another good moral reason for determinism. But which again “cannot explain” the responsibility of a product of genes or environment. And so on and so forth …. So each accuses the other of pursuing — by a false theory! — the abolition of something that avowedly lies terribly close to everyone's heart, fosters in this way the bit of artificial excitement that is part and parcel of a debate among bourgeois ideologists staged in full consciousness of its “relevance,” and is at the same time absolutely content to also have its place in the concert of opinions as the other side of the other side.

Moralityʼs contradictory view of human nature

The contradiction of the moral world view everyone shares demands and forbids actually both positions equally. If one thinks of coercion as a well-founded, reasonable thing, as appropriate to a coerced will, i.e., identifies freedom with performance of duty, then one must deny breach of duty the character of a free act. Conditions have asserted themselves intrusively. If that is so, then performance of duty was also not free, but dependent on the absence of the intrusive conditions. Hence the will is determined, there is no identity of freedom and performance of duty. If performance of duty is supposed to be free, so must also be the breach of duty. Then the will is free. But then obedience is not its law, freedom and performance of duty again do not coincide. The will must therefore really be both, free and determined…. A “nest of contradictions” in which each extreme refers to the other and neither achieves what it should. The thousand and one variants and attempts at mediation cobbled together in this field differ now simply according to the radicalism with which the claim is stressed, a radicalism that lies in thinking of each content of the will as only a means for realizing the abstract freedom of the will. The idealistic freedom faction has quite a bit of confidence in “the person” in the matter of detachment from his own purposes. The “scientifically minded” realists warn against excessive expectations.

“The will is free”

He wills, therefore, what he wills. The lie that this tautology aims for is the assertion that everything done with free will, that therefore every content set by a will, is done out of free will, has its fundamental reason in the freedom of the will. If a person hands over his money because the options, “Your money or your life!” are presented to him, it is maintained that this is done out of free will. Proof: he could certainly have chosen the greater evil. Philosophy cannot do without this cynical proof of the impossibility of coercion because its interest in constructing a quite fundamental human culpability requires a concept of freedom of will that sees the latter realized only in submission to values understood to be “reasonable.” Freedom, according to this definition, is the ability to renounce every purpose a will sets itself, out of “insight into its necessity.” Freedom consists in nothing other than wanting to act morally against all material reasons. With this definition, an offense against those moralistic honorary titles in whose names renunciation is called for is declared to be the purpose of a disobedient will. By this logic, the thief does not want the money he steals, but rather the theft. Proof: He certainly didn’t have to commit the theft, therefore it was what he wanted. According to this thought, the act of the thief is not gauged by a (legal) standard external to it and opposing it, a standard without which this act would incidentally not be designated theft at all. Instead, the will of the thief is brought to justice when he is held responsible. The philosophical concept of freedom of will as the general ability to do without in the name of higher standards declares the task of the will itself to gauge its material content in standards opposing it; and it thereby justifies the duties and the associated universal assigning of guilt to a will that does not master the impossibility of aligning its content with that which opposes it. It would therefore also be quite unphilosophical to ask about the reasons for such an opposition in order to abolish that along with them.

And, by the way, it also justifies the use of force.

“The will is determined”

The thief doesn’t want the money in this case, too; he simply must have it. His childhood, education, environment, or even genes have made him a thief. Every socialization theorist knows that a bit of strict Catholic upbringing leads anyone exposed to it, with irrefutable necessity, to become a well-behaved sheep — or else a rebel, an ambitious manager, or an order-obsessed fascist … That is to say, a very convincing necessity that always leaves all possibilities open and nevertheless is a foregone conclusion. This inevitable nature of the will is just a deliberately created lie, which everyone immediately sees through as a hypocritical calculation on mitigating circumstances when the offender in the courtroom justifies his theft spree with the lack of warmth and security in his parental home. It's quite different when the moral-philosophical anchoring of duty in the will is undertaken. In our science, things end up like in court. This time, the defense pleads criminal incapacity. The thief despises the theft proper, but alas he couldn’t do any differently. The fact that people do not abide by the established rules of decency, even though they should, being appropriate to their will, does not disturb the claims of moral philosophy. With the alternative — determinism — the need it postulates for performance of duty is upheld as the actual nature of the will: that no one in fact acts out of duty just proves that he must have been prevented from this performance of duty, otherwise he would have remained decent. In this way, the dogmatic equation of will = performance of duty turns into the argument of denying the person the will in the presence of “violations.” Someone who does not want the duty can not have wanted to do what he does. This is how culpability becomes the problem one absolutely has to deal with; but in turn one must be warned against believing in one's own construct of a determined will because a general pardon so construed would impede the general program of charges found to be important. But, the other way around again, that does not mean that the “totalitarian” conception of the realizability of the moral ideal is not also supposed to be dangerous. The character of the “nobody” also has its permanent place in the moral image of man.

* Christian Morgenstern, "The Impossible Fact."