Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Free Will Reconsidered

All right I admit it. The title is misleading. This is not a possible defense of Freedom Of Will or any other such silliness. Rather, I'd like to put forward a criticism of the belief in the autonomy of one's will/choices. I find the moral critique of freedom of choice put forth by Nietzsche and other thinkers. Namely, that freedom of will provides a rationale for punishment and guilt. It is also a cover for laziness.

I would like to consider freedom of choice again [hence the "reconsider" in the title]. If freedom of will is such a blatant rationale for punishment why is it believed at all? What is so attractive about to its adherents, religious and non-religious alike? Most people passively accept some notion of freedom of choice. It is a report of subjective experience. I appear to have a choice. I don't have the time or inclination to consider whether I really do or don't. In a largely Calvinist, post-Christian, how could it be otherwise? Freedom of Choice and Personal Freedom are foundation upon which consumer society rests.

One of the corollaries of belief in some notion of freedom of choice is that the feelings and thoughts that accompany a decision and its implementation are very, very important. In many people's naive reckoning these largely, if not completely determine an act's value, meaning, and even what the act really is. Willing and choosing take some kind of mental effort, so the thinking goes.

By way of empirical examples, consider these examples. It seems hardly a week goes by without some citizen (and they're always white, btw) saying some god awful stupid thing laced with derogatory racial epithets but explaining to anyone who will listen that they aren't racists. The only example I can find through DuckDuckGo is Paula Deen. I vaguely recall remarks of officials in Mississippi, Texas, and Florida making similar remarks. Even a cursory glance at the hullabaloo over the Confederate Flag will provide a wealth of examples.

Falling back on "intent" and "what I 'really' meant was ..." simply avoids recognition of the likely effect of words and actions. One of the motors of the controversies surrounding emotional issues like the Confederate flag is that it is driven by differing interpretations of words and deeds. It always seems to be the perpetrator of some stupidity that tries to deny racist (or sexist, or ableist, or genderist, or whatever discriminatory category) intent because without racist intent there is no racism. The really interesting element of this controversy is that the various side interpret actions so as to divine the perpetrator's intent. And that leads easily enough to "are my interpretations of my actions and intentions necessarily better, more accurate, insightful etc. than anybody else's just because they are mine?

If you are inclined to answer yes, this also means that ignoring the views, opinions and knowledge of others is probably a good idea and at the least, perfectly understandable. Maybe I'm overly optimistic about human nature, I don't think most people who do racist things are evil or racist, so much as they are lazy. They never thought much about themselves or about their inner life [= those thoughts and feelings that we rarely share with other people]. They simply don't want to take responsibility for themselves. A person who finds their inner life perplexing and not at all transparent (as most people seem to do) is by far the exception.

Reliance upon intentions as authoritative in explaining one's actions is simple laziness. It is too much trouble to examine examine motives and alternate understandings of one's (good) intentions. It is an avoidance mechanism to hide from troublesome thoughts and dizzying uncertainties.

Reliance on intention means that the past (personal, cultural or historical) is at best theoretical. There is no possibility of the recognition of the importance of one's past or the past. In a Christian context, especially, I am only responsible for those actions that I myself have committed, not those of my parents and family, "heritage," my church, my government, my culture (however you wish to define it) or anything else. Reliance on intent as the sole arbiter of the morality of one's actions is, as I said before, a tool for escaping responsibility for the fruits of the bad acts of others, our ancestors' especially.

Sometimes I think the history of race in this country is a secret all of white America shares. No one talks about it, but everybody knows, whether they want to or not, whether they admit it or not. This blind spot is very much a part of what it is to be white in America. Not wanting to know. Willful ignorance of our own past, the good and the bad of it. Like Martin Luther said, We should have courage before our sins and not cower in slavish terror.

The present is the culmination of the past and the raw material of the future.

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