The concept of free will is a source of constant debate and has been a major focus of philosophical and religious discourse for more than two millennia; the concepts of determinism and free will are among the oldest known philosophies. In the modern age, compatibilists like Laura Ekstrom have argued that the possibility to have chosen a different action — even if the action itself is predetermined — renders moral responsibility possible in a wholly determined universe (Ekstrom). Conversely, incompatibilists have argued that moral culpability is incompatible with determinism; arguing that it is fundamentally impossible to be held responsible for an action one has no control over. In this paper, I will demonstrate that both free will and moral responsibility are issues of semantics[i] and are therefore unrelated to the philosophic and religious study of free will and moral responsibility.
The problem of free will is a problem faced only by those who freely choose to do something wrong, not those who freely choose to do what is right. Specifically, one is only held morally responsible for acts the other[ii] has deemed inappropriate; those acts which are a willful denial of the social norms or laws a society has constructed to ensure its smooth operation. This link between free will and acts of willfulness — acts against the ideological binary construct of right versus wrong — is where I will begin my examination.
What exactly does it mean to have a free will? To answer simply, a free will is a will that can make choices; a will that can choose the course and direction of the individual to which the will belongs. In other words, to have a free will is to be completely free to choose whatever one wants whenever one is presented with a choice. And as such, the expression of free will only becomes a problem when one chooses to do wrong; free will is only a problem when one acts willfully against the construct of right. This being the case, what exactly does it mean to act willfully? In a purely logical sense, if one has a free will every act should therefore be willful, but one is only said to have acted willfully when one has done something wrong; one’s free will is only called into question when one is made to account for their actions. Therefore, it is only when one chooses to do something wrong that free will is transformed into the ‘problem of free will.’
Conversely, simply because someone must choose to do something wrong before their free will is called into question does not mean those who choose to do good do not have free will. The fact that free will is only a ‘problem’ when one does something wrong does not mean that the ‘problem of free will’ is a problem of semantics. Moreover, the controversy surrounding free will is about whether one can make choices and whether these choices are truly choices, not the compatibilist’s illusion of choice or the hard determinist’s total lack of choice. If this is a problem of semantics, are the lack of consequences when one chooses to do good not the result of one’s free choice to do good? Does free will only apply to those who freely choose to do wrong? This is to say, a lack of negative consequences does not render free will a problem faced only by those who choose to do wrong.
On the contrary, one does not choose to do right, one continues to obey the rules and ideologies of others. Specifically, one is coerced into doing right by the dominant ideology in which one exists; one can choose to be willful (to disobey) or one can continue to obey the ideology which has been imposed on them. For example, the actions of young children — before middle school age — are completely impulsive and lack any understating of future consequences; children simply do: doing what they want, when they want, with no thoughts for any consequences their actions may have. Therefore, to return to my argument, children embody both the concepts of free will and willfulness simultaneously, and it is extremely difficult to argue that the actions of children are determined in any way.
Rousseau addresses the problem of the willful nature of children and how this willful nature relates to free will in his book Émile. For Rousseau, the problem of free will is a problem of pedagogy; free will is only a problem when an individuals’ willfulness has not been correctly instructed — or educated — in their formative years. In the most notorious example of willfulness in Émile, the narrator describes how he takes charge of a child who “was accustomed not only to have his own way, but to make everyone else do as he pleases” (Rousseau 101). Additionally, like many children, this willful young boy preferred to play outside instead of studying. Thus, causing the narrator to call the child “capricious” (ibid.): a word which, uncannily, derives from ‘wild goat.’ In the narrator’s estimation, the problem of the willful child is not his willfulness, but the need for the narrator to convince the child to act appropriately on the child’s own free will. For this reason, the narrator pays other children to accost the young boy whenever he chooses to leave his studies and play outside in the school yard. This accosting eventually causes the willful child to choose — apparently of his own free will — to stay inside and continue his studies. But, the ‘choice’ the child is presented with is not a choice, he has been coerced by forces he doesn’t understand into believing that his choice to study is, in fact, his choice. In this short selection from Rousseau, the problem of the child’s willfulness and how his willfulness relates to his free will is made starkly apparent. Notably, the child believes he has chosen to stay inside, but, in fact, was coerced by the will of forces outside his control. To return to the problem of free will as it relates to semantics, the narrator assumes the existence of the child’s will — the freeness of his will is taken for granted — and his will only becomes a problem when he acts willfully. This is to say, the problem is not whether the child has a free will, but that the child’s will is a problem. Furthermore, his will is only a problem when he chooses to act against the will of the more powerful (or in this case more clever) other; one is always acting freely, but only when one acts freely against the will of the other does the nature of free will become a problem.
However, the existence of the child’s free will is not what is being argued. How does the child’s willfulness make free will a problem of semantics? In both cases the child makes a choice, just because he chooses to do good as a result of faulty information does not render the problem of free will a purely semantic problem. For example, in the story the child chooses to do good and consequently stays inside to study; both choices have real consequences and, even given that the child does not have all the available information, this does not render the problem of free will a problem of semantics.
Nevertheless, the problem is that the child’s will is only completely free when he chooses to do something the narrator disagrees with. To illustrate this, the child can freely choose to go outside and — baring some external factor that makes this choice unpleasant — will continue to choose to go outside regardless of the narrator’s disapproval. It is only when the narrator distorts the child’s free will (therefore compromising it) that the child is no longer acting willfully. Once the child has been coerced into staying inside and studying, his will is no longer perceived as a problem. In other words, after the free will of the child has been compromised, his free will (or willfulness) is no longer a problem. Thus, the problem of free will is a problem of semantics. To explore this further, one’s will is only considered a problem when one acts in direct opposition to the other’s ideological definition of ‘right’ and ‘good.’ Moreover, if one acts in ways defined as ‘right’ and ‘good’ their free will is never called into question, no one is ever said to willfully (by their own free will) obey the status quo.
To continue, by exploring the problem presented by free will and its relation to the problem of moral responsibility, both concepts will prove to come apart into separate, incompatible signifiers. Moreover, the problem of free will is not a problem of whether one possesses free will, but a problem of what one does with their free will and how one can then be held morally responsible for their actions. As the story of the child demonstrates, one is not acting freely when they are being coerced into obeying the dominant ideology or tricked into doing the bidding of others. Thus, the child can only be said to be free when he’s not doing what the more powerful other wants him to do. Furthermore, if one’s will (or willfulness) only becomes a problem when it is exercised — and one can only exercise their free will when one acts in opposition to the dominant other — the problem of free will is not a problem of philosophy, it is a problem of opposing meanings. Moreover, as one must assume a subject’s[iii] free will exists before one can discuss any problems resulting from a subject’s free will, analyzing ‘the problem of free will,’ is in fact an analysis of ‘the problem presented by those who choose to defy the status quo’. Therefore, the problem of free will is not a problem of philosophy or religion, but a problem of semantics. To simplify, because the existence of a subject’s free will must be assumed before any religious or philosophical discourse can begin (one must be able to choose before a choice can have any meaning whatsoever) the problem of free will is a problem related to one’s ability to freely choose to do wrong, coupled with the need to hold one responsible for any wrongs they choose to do. The foundations of this problem arise from the need for one to freely choose to do good before doing good can have meaning; if everyone is created with a core of goodness (and therefore only capable of doing good) then from whence comes evil? Therefore, it is the problem of human nature, and not the problem of free will, that is being called to account when one examines the ‘problem of free will.’
In conclusion, I have argued that the relationship between free will and moral responsibility is semantic in nature and not a problem that can be answered through religious or philosophic discourse. Furthermore, when the seemingly one-sided nature of my argument — one is only free when one chooses to do wrong — is questioned I have shown this objection to be specious. Specifically, one does not choose to do the right thing, one is coerced by powers beyond one’s control to obey the status quo or, more specifically, to do good. When the semantic nature of the problem of free will is questioned, I have shown the relationship between free will and the ‘problem of free will’ to lie in the incompatible constructs of free will (or willfulness) and moral responsibility. To illustrate, the problem of free will does not question the existence of free will, but rather why people choose to do wrong. Therefore, the existence of free will must be assumed before one can discuss or question the exact nature of free will. The exact nature of free will – the ability to make choices – is a concept which must be assumed to exist before the actions of others can have any meaning at all. Consequently, if free will does not exist, we must question the moral and ethical foundations upon which our society is built. In view of this fact, the problem of free will is not whether free will exists, but how we deal with the fact that free will must exist. Thus, in the absence of free will the immortal words of Shakespeare: “all the worlds a stage, / and all the men and women merely players” (Ado 2.7.139-140) become literal; in a world without free will we are all merely acting out our scripted roles and waiting for the curtain to fall. Therefore, as one must first assume that free will exists to debate the nature of free will, ‘the problem of free will’ is semantic in nature and not religious or philosophical.
Ekstrom, Laura Waddell. “Indeterminist Free Action.” Agency and Responsibility: Essays on the Metaphysics of Freedom, Westview P, 2001, pp. 138–157.
Greenblat, et al., editors. The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays * The Sonnets. Third Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016.
Hegel, George Wilhelm Friedrich. “Phenomenology of Spirit.” Norton Anthology, edited by Leitch et al., 1867, pp. 541–547.
Leitch, Vincent B., et al., editors. The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism. Second Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Émile. Translated by Barbara Foxley, Everyman, 1993.
Saussure, Ferdinand De. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehay, Translated by Wade Baskin, The Philosophical Library, Inc., 1959.
Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” Norton Shakespeare, edited by Greenblat, et al., 1590, pp. 405–477.
[i] Regarding semiotics, signs, signifiers, etc. (Saussure). Specifically, I use the meaning of words to deconstruct the opposed/incompatible meanings of ‘free will’ and ‘moral responsibility.’
[ii] Regarding Hegel’s concept of the other (Hegel).
[iii] Regarding Hegel’s concept of the subject (Hegel).