by Barry Klassel

I remember discussing this topic in 9th grade with some precocious friends, but with the publication of Sam Harris’ book called (what else?) Free Will, there is new interest in the debate.  I think it’s important to present a humanist perspective.

What is the ‘will?’  To put it as simply as I can, it is the conscious power to make choices and control one’s actions.  I believe there is an important sense in which humanists should embrace the notion of free will for ourselves, our children and others, i.e. by increasing, as much as we can, the degree of freedom human beings have in exercising their wills.

Free will involves making decisions and decisions always have realistic constraints.  We can’t choose chocolate ice cream if only vanilla is available.  Someone may not be able to attend their college of choice if the financial aid doesn’t come through.  Average citizens can’t choose their leaders if their society isn’t democratic; women can’t vote if the law excludes them.  What we should support is…


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  1. Thomas O'Rourke says:

    I agree with this more-or-less wholeheartedly (well, except causality. I don’t believe in causality). There is however one thought I think needs to be delved into a little further: the antagonism between positive and negative liberty, when they conflict.

    As we are both fans of the pipe, what are we to make of the availability of tobacco? on the one hand , the option to smoke increases our choices, but on the other hand addiction often leads to the constraint of future choice. Which (the presence or absence of tobacco in society) makes for more free will?

    • Barry Klassel says:

      It’s helpful to apply my argument to a real life situation – pipe-smoking. What should we do about the availability of tobacco products (or other potentially addictive substances) to adults and how does that affect the ideal of maximizing our free will?
      In my post, I injected the notion that the use of good and appropriate decision-making skills is wise when evaluating our range of choices. Perhaps I should have made it even more explicit – the two aspects go hand in hand if we are to maximize our free will. This is true whether it is a matter of personal choice or public policy.
      As I said, we needn’t ‘ignore our likes and dislikes’ when making our choices. In a more serious sense, we shouldn’t ignore our tendencies to addiction when choosing to go down one path or another. There are constraints that are placed upon us by our own natures and, at a particular moment, in a given situation, these are important considerations that should not be avoided.
      Taking these ‘prior-constraints’ into account, I still say that we should maximize the choices available and encourage good decision-making. Let’s take the scenarios one by one. If a non-addicted smoker is deciding what to do, he or she should become aware of the virtues and hazards of various types of tobacco there are, have access to literature on the dangers of smoking and access to his or her own health records. An addicted smoker should, in addition, be able to attend therapeutic programs regardless of ability to pay. And a legislator who is to vote on a proposal banning or limiting tobacco sales should have all relevant research and data as well as a familiarity with arguments on balancing personal liberty against social need.
      Thus, in each case, choice is maximized and decision-making is of the highest caliber. I can tell you I’ve stopped smoking but I’m not going to say which way I would vote.
      – Barry

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