Against free choice

Common sense tells us that we’re morally accountable because we have free will. In reality, the opposite is the case — a free will is attributed to us so that we can be viewed as morally accountable. Put more briefly: we don’t blame people because they have free will, we say they have free will so we can blame them.

I know that some readers are already objecting, thinking in terms of the intellectually fruitless debate between free will and determinism. I am far from viewing human beings as machine-like — indeed, the only people who seem to believe human beings are machine-like are economists, who assume that the right “inputs” (incentives, information, etc.) will always necessarily lead to the right “outputs.” Humans consistently respond to situations in surprising and unpredictable ways, which do not conform to any algorithm we’re likely to find.

Even if we decide that humans are “free” in the sense of not being fully determined by a saturated field of knowable causal laws, however, it’s still an additional step to claim that “freedom” in that sense carries with it moral responsibility — that I can be justly shamed or punished precisely because I can do something called “making a choice.” The one does not follow from the other. Indeed, we often shame or punish people when nothing like an informed free choice is in play, as when we punish someone for breaking a law they do not know (and virtually none of us knows even a significant percentage of the laws in our jurisdiction). We punish or shame children not because we believe that they have the same ability to “make choices” as adults, but so that they will begin to experience themselves as having free choice.

The concept of free will was most insistently developed in medieval scholasticism, and the really puzzling thing in retrospect was that essentially none of the scholastics doubted that each individual’s fate was completely predestined by God’s eternal inscrutable will. Here above all we can see that free will works as an apparatus to justify punishment, most especially in the various narratives of the fall of the devil. Aquinas settles on the position that the devil cannot be evil from the first moment of his existence, because then God would be to blame for his evil nature — rather, God gives the devil a good will in the first instant, and then in the second instant the devil falls away through an excessive willing that implied the sin of pride. The needle has been threaded: God has been absolved of responsibility, but the devil is also as thoroughly evil as possible. Anselm works similar magic on original sin, making it a heritable defect in the will — yet because it is a matter of will, it is a punishable sin just as much as what we more usually think of as willful sins.

The apparatus of free will in medieval theology allowed for a world not unlike our own. Free choice condemned the vast majority of human beings to a hopeless fate, while a privileged elite gained rewards — in both cases, despite the fact that God had predetermined everything, theologians were confident that everyone had gotten what they deserved. God’s justice was vindicated, and his glory assured. Our version is less grandiose. We want to vindicate something called “the market,” which always makes the right choices if only we allow it to, and in place of the glory of God we have the shifting numbers in various market indices and economic indicators. We are also content to let people waste the one life they have in this world, rather than imagine them suffering beyond death through all eternity.

Yet this deflated vision makes our attachment to the value of freedom all the more puzzling. I can see living and dying for God — but why would anyone devote their lives to making certain numbers go higher? Why would we sacrifice everything — the very livability of this finite world itself — so that the rate of change in those numbers would not decrease?

Here the medieval worldview might be helpful as well, because part of the pleasure of being among the heaven-bound elect was the prospect of watching, with great satisfaction, the punishment of the damned. Human decency leads us to assume that the suffering of the poor, the thwarted hopes of the young, the pending mass death of countless millions through the disasters of climate change are “bugs” in the system — but what if they’re features? What if part of the pleasure of being among the elite is to gaze upon the deserved fate of all those pathetic losers, knowing that the same market justice that redeemed you is vindicated when it punishes them? What if the unprecedented spectacle of global suffering is not an unfortunate side-effect, but the goal?

13 thoughts on “Against free choice

  1. This is great. Growing up in a neo-reformed, black, Southern Baptist family, I was frequently appalled by the ways predestination and it’s logic really has no response to black suffering except to use this idea of free will as both an out for white supremacy and white culpability and a way of denying calls for redress. It’s pretty clear that predestination’s increasing traction in White and upwardly mobile or middle class black communities and communities of color is closely tied to a way of getting in good with those who have the power and the privilege of watching the punishment of the damned while they also watch their own wealth steadily increase.

  2. Very good post, this issue troubles me very much. I would just add that might be useful to distinguish between “choice” and “decision” – the former being connected with (subjective) “freedom” eventhough it is predetermined in advance (it is “immanent”). Is there a “more effective way” how to control “fate of human beings” than by pressing them to prove that they are not guilty? From this point o view it is necessary to say that “economy” is our “religion” and economists (who subscribe to this point of view) are our “priests”…

  3. Interesting! Thanks you for this thought-provoking critique of neocolonialist capitalist economics as paralleling the ‘bad’ side of medieval dogmatic theology. It resonated with me as it brings to the fore the oft-taken for granted reality of how global multidimensional poverty might have been influenced indeed by obsessive orthodoxy that does not translate into liberating orthopraxis. The triumph of your analogy, however, depends on the assumption that all Medieval theologians firmly believed in predestination, i.e., the belief that God’s will determines everything, and carried a dualistic worldview. Certainly, that is not the case, since some of these Medieval scholastics are also acutely aware (1) that, in reality, there is suffering and death, and (2) that a lot of these were caused by injustice and inequality. That is why there were scholastics, such as Augustine, who advocated for the doctrine of free will, and that is not because they were simply desperate to have someone else other than God (namely, the Devil or man’s sinful nature) to be blamed for all the evil in the world. Surely, it would have been easy for them to realize: If God is God, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, then God does not need anyone to defend GodSelf. If their theologizing is to bear fruit that matters, then it should be in the event that they succeed somehow in breaking free from the horns of an exclusively dualistic point-of-view. In fact, modern theologians who follow Augustine’s thought has developed the understanding of original sin as manifested in structural and systemic sin, i.e., beliefs/practices/institutions/laws that perpetuate social inequality and injustice. But you are certainly right: there must be a connection between America’s dominant brand of Protestant theology and its First-World neocolonialist capitalist justification of global and multidimensional poverty. The former (America/the First-World) does not parallel God, of course, nor does its ‘dogma’/economics even reflect the richness of Medieval scholastic theology. You might be better off citing John Calvin rather than going with the bandwagon of imputing all bad theology to the Medieval (‘Dark’) Ages.

  4. Augustine is an example of a theologian who maintained both free will and predestination. Indeed, it’s extremely strange that you would put him forward as an exception to the rule that medieval thinkers held predestination — he was the primary influence who made predestination a mainstream view!

  5. As I identify myself as a sort of liberationist theologian, I can see the intent of your project and appreciates it sincerely. May I then clarify: Are you satisfied with putting forward a brilliant but loose analogy, or just putting out a thought experiment on whether punishment does actually come first before ‘free will’? I am thrilled that you actually made the claim that our present age worships ‘the market’ in place of God, and blindly accepts the global capitalist neocolonialist economics as an overarching dogma, from which no one is exempt and no one could escape. I simply want to make your thesis stronger by challenging you to zero in on demonstrating how the religious ‘dogma of free choice’ came to influence the present form of global capitalist neocolonialist capitalism. It just appears to me that where your argument is strongest is where it is prone to leak. Certainly, there ought to be a great deal of contextualizing and nuancing so as to be more historically precise. Great as you are, please don’t fall into the shameless bandwagon of imputing almost everything ‘dark’ and wrong about our present age as having developed in the Middle Ages. It is indeed extremely strange that you would consider Augustine “THE primary influence for making predestination a mainstream view,” after acknowledging that he was one who maintained both the free will of humans and the sovereignty of God. I would be most interested in your source for making this claim.

    Even a cursory reading of the entry on “predestination” proved helpful for me. See:

  6. My goal is not at all to deride the Middle Ages or to blame medieval theologians for our current predicament. Nor am I denying that Augustine embraced free will — my whole point was that medieval theology tried to maintain both total free will and total predestination, even though we modern people view the two as incompatible or contradictory.

    I do not need to cite a particular source for the claim that Augustine was the primary influence for Western theology’s embrace of predestination; it is a well-known fact. It’s strange to me that you apparently view it as somehow controversial or questionable.

    In this post, I am relying in part on Agamben’s analysis of divine providence in The Kingdom and the Glory, where he makes a connection between theological ideas of providence and modern ideas of government and economy but does not fully demonstrate it. You’re correct that more work needs to be done — I wouldn’t claim my post is complete by any means.

  7. You mention Calvin above — even though he was a radical predestinarian, he also fully embraced free will, because free will is the only way for God to hold humans morally accountable. In the tradition, the two views are not mutually exclusive — just the opposite! Only in modern theological debates (such as between John Wesley and later Calvinists) do the two come to seem like competing views.

  8. Where you take this line of thinking in the final paragraph reminds me of an aside in Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality:

    « I could show that among these four kinds of inequality, personal qualities being the origin of all the others, wealth is the one to which they are all reduced in the end; for, as riches tend most immediately to the prosperity of individuals, and are easiest to communicate, they are used to purchase every other distinction. By this observation we are enabled to judge pretty exactly how far a people has departed from its primitive constitution, and of its progress towards the extreme term of corruption. I could explain how much this universal desire for reputation, honours and advancement, which inflames us all, exercises and holds up to comparison our faculties and powers; how it excites and multiplies our passions, and, by creating universal competition and rivalry, or rather enmity, among men, occasions numberless failures, successes and disturbances of all kinds by making so many aspirants run the same course. I could show that it is to this desire of being talked about, and this unremitting rage of distinguishing ourselves, that we owe the best and the worst things we possess, both our virtues and our vices, our science and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers; that is to say, a great many bad things, and a very few good ones. In a word, I could prove that, if we have a few rich and powerful men on the pinnacle of fortune and grandeur, while the crowd grovels in want and obscurity, it is because the former prize what they enjoy only in so far as others are destitute of it; and because, without changing their condition, they would cease to be happy the moment the people ceased to be wretched. »

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