When reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, readers often recognize that Lennie Small is not morally responsible for the death of Curly’s wife when he accidentally snaps her neck because Lennie has significantly diminished mental capacities. He did not intend to kill her, and he did not realize that his actions could be so deadly. In fact, it’s clear throughout the novella, that Lennie doesn’t quite understand what death is. Conversely, when Lennie’s friend George Milton murders him, it seems obvious that George intends for Lennie to die and that (had he been an actual man and not one who was determined by Steinbeck’s storytelling) he could have done otherwise. While some view George’s action as justified or as an act of mercy, most still nonetheless contest that he could have chosen not to kill Lennie, and, as such, he bears the moral responsibility for Lennie’s death. There is an obvious difference in the intentions of Lennie and George, but what is less obvious is the origin of those intentions. To be held morally responsible, one must be responsible for their actions and what they intended. If they are not, there may be a reason to think that George is no more morally responsible for the death of Lennie than Lennie is for the death of Curly’s wife.
Ever since I read Thomas Nagel’s A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy during my senior year of high school, I have been plagued by the question of whether humans possess free will. At the time that I read Nagel’s work, I identified as a Christian and, by default, accepted free will as a fundamental element of my faith. By freedom, I meant what most people mean and what philosophers call libertarian free will which is that freedom of the will is the ability to have done otherwise in a given situation. If people lack that type of free will, many believe that would undermine justifications for holding people to account for their actions. Not all Christians feel that a lack of freedom undermines their faith. Some ascribe to theories of predeterminism, but often, even those people feel as if individuals somehow deserve guilt derived from their actions. Our society (sometimes poorly) attempts to set itself up to deliver punishments for actions that are “bad” and rewards for actions that are “good” because people deserve punishments and rewards. A lack of free will may not undermine the need to provide punishments and rewards, but it would undermine the notion that people deserve them.
My initial forays into the subject have led me to think freedom, so construed, is an illusion. In the strict sense, I identify as an incompatibilist. Roughly, incompatibilists believe that the notion that prior causes determine the actions of individuals is inconsistent with the free will defined above. Compatibilists think that while the universe is determined, there remain varieties of free will worth considering. Philosophers like Dan Dennett fall in this camp. This idea’s significance strikes at the heart of the way many understand the world, the way they relate to each another and, to a significant part, in the way they justify responses to the actions of others.
Certainly, it will be the case that this deep dive into the subject will be quite shallow, and I will likely fail to elucidate any solutions to the free will query, but that is not the purpose of this venture. Rather, I hope to explore deep into this subject matter, attempting to set aside preconceived notions and to arrive at clarity that can help frame my worldview. I seek not to be right and further justify my rightness, but to discover rightness wherever it may be. In that hope, I will dig into the following essays/texts during the next two months:
“Freedom and Resentment” by P.F. Strawson
“Is Determinism Self-Refuting” by Joseph M. Boyle, Jr.
Hard Luck by Neil Levy
Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel Dennett
A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought by Michael Frede
“An Argument for Incompatibilism” by Peter van Inwagen
“Freedom” by Thomas Nagel
I attempted to choose works that both challenged and bolstered my current thoughts on free will. I hope to test these works appropriately and develop critical responses to them. Deep dives will be posted each Wednesday with most of them being between 1000-1500 words. I will appreciate your responses to my thoughts as I dig through this topic.