Thought #25. On free will.

One of the big questions of philosophy is whether free will is tantamount to free action or not. People’s perception of freedom blurs the distinction between will and action because, unless you have lived in a dictatorship or any other kind of system based on the deprivation of liberty, you may not have been confronted with any situation that could undermine your sense of being in control of your thoughts and actions.

Free will is the power of acting without constraints. But will is not action. No matter how much effort you were willing to put in on sunbathing, it would be literally impossible in an overcast winter morning. Many distinguished scholars and renowned philosophers have been trying to unravel the secrets of freedom, and yet the discussion remains inconclusive.

On the one hand, the theory of determinism speculates that everything that happens is predestined to happen in a particular way and nothing could be done to avoid the fate. Should determinism be a sound theory, will would have never existed and, consequently, we should not make value judgments about others’ actions however good or bad they were. Consequently, being morally responsible would be impossible.

But in my opinion, the future, unlike the past, is not yet written; it can be changed. Only in this way  can we set the building blocks of will, actions, and responsibility. Yesterday I read an essay by George Orwell entitled “Shooting an Elephant”. It just so happens that after reading Orwell’s narration of the elephant’s assassination I ended up a bit shocked. Was he trying to convey the message that sometimes people do not have any option but to act against their own will? I have slept on this question.

“Shooting an Elephant” is, like “1984”, a must read. I do not want to spoil your appetite for an excellent essay so I encourage you to actually give it a try. Personally, it has made me reconsider some of my unatoned sins. Sometimes, people are somewhat forced to act unwillingly. Orwell’s essay is full of clues to understand the message he is trying to pass on; if I had to choose a single representative quote from the text, it would be this one:

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”  — George Orwell.

However, to err is human and you can always make the effort to change your ways.