On the third day of Advent, we remember the story of the Fall. It seems to me the kernel of this story is the concept that wrong action and right action are both possible actions; in other words, the story is (at least in part) about ‘freedom of choice’, or ‘free will’.
In the 20th century, the nature/nurture conundrum was one of the great debates in educational philosophy, criminology, and psychology. Were we the products of our genes or our parents, our dna or our upbringing? Or were all of our actions and decisions a combination of the two? Twin research showed that our tastes, our hobbies, our behaviours, and even the timing of life decisions can be inherited, and other studies show – within the defined scope of our genetic predispositions – tastes, hobbies, behaviours, and life patterns can be learnt from our social context, particularly our family.
So between genetic determinism and social determinism, where is there room for free will? Have I chosen to believe in God, working my way to that decision through rational processes? Or have my beliefs been predetermined by my genetic and social circumstances? And if that is true of me, what about KA? Or Chris? Or Toad? Why complain about someone else’s beliefs if they have no choice in the matter?
What of people who behave in ways we find unacceptable – burgle our houses, seduce our daughters, sell drugs to our sons, cheat us in business, beat us up in dark alleys? If they have no choice in their behaviours, we obviously have the right to stop them (on the ‘your right to wave your arms stops where my nose begins’ principle). But do we have the right to claim that they are wrong?
To take a step beyond that, if career criminals have no choice in their actions, is it economic, rational, fair, or kind to lock them away? After all, they act according to their nature – so punishment makes no sense. And rehabilitation is clearly a very long shot, since they can’t be other than they are. So what’s the solution? Drown them at birth?
Yet we clearly believe – we speak and act as if we believe – that we make our own decisions, our own choices (within the constraints of our nature; but free at some level). In fact, we clearly distinguish between choices that we feel we make freely, and choices that we feel impelled to make.
“Certainly in the case of actions in which I have a distinct consciousness of choosing between alternatives of conduct, one of which I conceive as right or reasonable, I find it impossible not to think that I can now choose to do what I so conceive, however strong may be my inclination to act unreasonably, and however uniformly I may have yielded to such inclinations in the past ”
– H. Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics
The same studies I mentioned above – both with twins and with non-twin siblings – show that the known factors are not enough to explain the often substantial differences between people with similar or the same genetics and similar upbringings. Personal responsibility; personal decisionmaking; also count.
In this respect, the key difference between us and our closest relatives – not to mention the rest of the animals – is that our instincts are weak. We can override them; we can ignore them and do something else. Social conditioning and (perhaps) genetic factors strengthen or weaken our ability to exercise free will – and we can deliberately strengthen our free will by believing in it and practicing it – but we are (or can be) more than merely the products of our genes and our upbringing. In a very real sense, we make and remake ourselves, as collaborators with the Creator God.