Political ideology and perception of free will

[Content note: mention of many political issues with overly-simplistic descriptions of competing positions on them.  Issues involve classism, drug addiction, state-sanctioned death, homophobia, abortion, and guns.  Mentions of alcoholism, social justice, and racism elsewhere.]


My favorite topic in philosophy has always been the subject of free will.  I think this is because I think it’s the issue whose ramifications are most crucial to making actual life judgments (occasionally I break the stereotype of theoretical math and philosophy enthusiast by not always cheering for more abstraction and disconnect from real life).  I’ve lost what little academic knowledge I had about the free will debate and probably can’t argue my position on it very well, but I think I can still explain how I think it applies to other ideological divides at least.  I wouldn’t be in any particular hurry to write about this, but as I’ve been thinking over every other topic I had in mind to discuss here, most of them wind up boiling down to the perception-of-free-will issue in my mind, so it seems like something I should try to put into words sooner rather than later.

I. Determining freedom

The great metaphysical question pretty much boils down to this: is it possible to “freely” make choices, or is everything in the universe (including our choices) completely determined by prior events and physical laws?  Note that I put “freely” in quotation marks above because half the battle is in deciding how to define the notion of freedom.  For almost as long as I can remember seriously considering the question, I’ve always been some sort of a compatibilist.  I believe that, whether or not we act completely deterministically, our intuitive notion of freedom can be explained via deterministic mechanisms, and moreover, this is the only really sensible way to define what it means to be free.  There is simply no coherent way to define non-deterministic freedom.  But it is possible to define freedom from a purely naturalistic and deterministic perspective: it would be something like “a free decision is an event in which the XYZ chemical processes happen in the brain”.  This sounds messy and inelegant from the purely abstract point of view, but it should translate to something within the human experience that does coincide with free decision-making.

This might look like nothing more than playing with words.  Why do we care about whether or not we have free will, apart from some academic interest in metaphysical questions (which, as I’ve implied above, isn’t usually sufficient for me to want to seriously investigate something)?  We care about it, because we want to know how to place responsibility (and attributes that commonly come with it, like virtue or blameworthiness) on people for their choices.  And at first, my hand-wavy definition above doesn’t seem to actually give us any kind of practical answer to that.

But now, the idea is to stop thinking of attributes like praiseworthiness or blame as somehow cosmically-ordained properties and instead consider the act of bestowing praise or blame as a physical event in and of itself, and then consider whether that event results in good or in harm.  In other words, when considering whether a particular moral judgment is warranted by someone’s choice, ask yourself whether reacting according to that judgment (praising or condemning that person’s behavior in a certain manner) will result in maximum good done for the world.  In this way, it boils down to an application of utilitarian principles.

Now the naive way to make this kind of evaluation would be to say that if someone’s choice most likely resulted or will result in net harm, then you should react with condemnation, while if it most likely had or will have a net positive result, then you should react with praise.  But sometimes a particular expression of condemnation (or praise) of a bad (or good) choice won’t actually maximize utility, and this is where the practical issue of degrees of… free-ness comes in.  (See what I narrowly avoided there?)

For example, suppose that you arrive at a colleague’s office (let’s assume there’s no power differential between you) at an agreed-upon time for a very important meeting with them, but they never show up.  Now the most virtuous way for you to react depends entirely on the mechanics behind their decision to not get to their office at that time.  They may have just not bothered because they didn’t recognize the importance of the meeting or because they lacked any sort of consideration for you.  In this case, blame is warranted: in fact, you would probably do the most good by confronting them and making it clear that such irresponsibility is unacceptable.  (There is the unlikely case that their lack of consideration seems to be part of a larger problem in which they are seemingly “unable” to acknowledge that other people have needs or understand what those needs are, which is to say that angrily confronting them has no chance of improving their future behavior.  Then the most virtuous action on your part might be to get them some other kind of help.)  On the other hand, they may have just forgotten and feel really embarrassed to have missed the meeting.  In that case, outright condemnation is less justified (although they are still “to blame” in the usual sense), and instead it might make more sense to express disappointment that they aren’t more organized, which will hopefully shame them into finding better strategies for remembering appointments; if they’re really struggling, you might even want to help them find such strategies.  Or maybe they didn’t show up because they have a problem with addiction and got really drunk the night before.  In that case, they “can’t” refrain from drinking even hours before important events, which is to say that angrily telling them that their behavior is unacceptable probably won’t result in their changing it and may only make things worse, whereas finding them help for their alcoholism is much more likely to have a positive effect.  Or maybe they left their home on time but got into some kind of accident along the way to the meeting.  In this case one can investigate to what extent they were at fault in the accident, but it’s clear that they didn’t “choose” to miss the meeting, and if you react by holding them in any way responsible for their absence, you will of course be doing harm.

The above scenarios are all deterministic explanations for a certain event which can also be morally evaluated, in the sense that a particular morally judgmental reaction to each is correct from a utilitarian point of view.  And each correct reaction is a reflection (and in some sense defines) the amount of “freedom” your colleague had in “choosing” not to show up to an important event.  To me, this is the only sensible way to define free will as well as moral responsibility, and it’s entirely compatible with determinism.

Of course, what I’m saying is nothing new.  I’ve been really slow about reading rationalist literature and haven’t gotten to the free-will-related installments of the Sequences, but I get the impression that a lot of people in the surrounding community already agree with this and are probably able to express it far more eloquently than I just tried to.  Maybe I’ll feel up to making rigorous arguments in its favor one day, but at the moment I feel like I lack the philosophical writing chops, and I don’t intend it to be the main thesis of this post anyway.

II. My perception of how free will is perceived

Now I just said that probably many members of the rationalist community assume roughly the same stance as I do on the issue of free will.  But I don’t think that most people, rationalist or otherwise, consciously consider the metaphysical issue in the way I laid it out above every time they make a decision of how to judge their own or another’s actions.  At the same time, most of us are constantly making judgment calls regarding people’s behavior, and a major element of what goes into these judgment calls is how “free” we perceive the choice involved to have been.  We recognize many different degrees and flavors of free-ness.  And this is the case regardless of philosophical stance on the whole free will question (or lack thereof).  Even most of those who in philosophical discussion identify as incompatibilists and believe in a completely deterministic universe react at times with moral judgment in response to the behavior of themselves and others.  And even someone who insists that libertarian free will exists will still recognize some determinable causes and effects behind the behavior of themselves and others and, in certain cases where those causes have obviously played a large enough role, will still abstain from making moral judgments.

Yet, individual people still vary widely in terms of how much “freedom” they attribute to certain acts.  And I believe that this is a major, major factor behind most human conflicts, large and small.

One of the most obvious ways in which differences in free-will-perception create drama is the natural tendency to believe that other people have lots of free will (at least with regard to negative behaviors) but that one’s own actions are highly determined.  Inasmuch as that assumption involves some degree of hypocrisy, I don’t want to pick it apart right now.  But even if we assume no hypocrisy on anyone’s part, it’s clear that different people hold different assumptions regarding degrees of free-ness that drive various behaviors.

Between two individuals, there are a good number of factors which may lead each to believe that a particular action is or isn’t “free”.  Personal experience almost certainly plays the largest role here.  But I find that when I look at large groups of people divided by differences in ideology, one subgroup tends to err in favor of assuming that actions are “free”, while the other subgroup tends to err in favor of assuming they are determined.  (From now on, I’ll refer to the former mindset as “free-will-leaning” and the latter mindset as “determinism-leaning”.)  This fascinates me to no end, and is the reason why I think the free will debate is significant not only to one-on-one drama but to larger-scale conflicts as well.

I mean, even when looking at the two competing ideologies I described within my group of colleagues in graduate school in section III of my last post, it’s obvious to me that the “orthodox liberals” could sort of be defined as relatively determinism-leaning while the “anti-emotion rationalists” could sort of be defined as relatively free-will-leaning, even though both camps held similar secular liberal ideologies within the grand scheme of things.

But the main point I want to get to, which I don’t think I’ve seen explicitly suggested anywhere else, is that these different leanings in free will perception can be used to define the two most prominent political ideologies in America pretty well.

III. A free interpretation of left/right ideology

Let’s consider modern American liberalism and conservatism and analyze the respective platforms (vastly over-simplistically, of course) on various issues through the lens of free-will-perception.  (I don’t know enough about politics outside of America to be able to say whether my analysis would make sense for describing politics in other countries, but it might well be a generally valid way to interpret left-wing versus right-wing ideals everywhere.)  I’m going to refer to these two ideological groups as the “Left” and the “Right”, since “liberal” and “conservative” each tend to have other implications; “Democrat” and “Republican” are names of political parties, not ideologies; and “Blue Tribe” and “Red Tribe” refer to full-blown subcultures rather than pure political outlooks.

  • Fiscal policy:  The Left says, “Poor people become poor mainly through a set of bad circumstances, so it’s only fair to have government take care of them.”  The Right says, “Poor people have the ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to become less poor, so if the government takes care of them, we will actually be perpetuating a class of lazy poor people.”
  • Health care: The Left says, “People can’t help having health problems, so access to healthcare is a fundamental right which we should all pull together to support.”  The Right says, “In a lot of situations, health problems can be prevented by responsible living, so those with health problems shouldn’t be a financial burden on the rest of us.”
  • Foreign policy:  The Left says, “Other countries who threaten us arrived at their anti-American sentiment because of things we did to them, as well as through various historical events and sociological circumstances, so we should try to understand them and apologize for anything America may have done to hurt them.”  The Right says, “Other countries who threaten us are plotting to follow through on their own chosen evil objectives, so we should take strong and aggressive measures to keep America safe.”
  • Crime: The Left says, “People turn to crime due to complex socioeconomic conditions in their environment, so we should go out of our way to protect the rights of criminals as well as improve those toxic conditions.  Moreover, we should provide rehabilitation rather than jail time for drug addicts.”  The Right says, “People turn to crime, including drug use, through their own poor choices and should take responsibility for them.  Do the crime, do the time!”
  • Death penalty (related to above): The Left says, “The convict is still a human being whose actions were shaped by upbringing and circumstance and deserves to be treated with basic humanity even given such an extreme situation.”  The Right says, “The convict freely chose to do something obscenely evil which resulted in the loss of life, so they’ve lost the right to their own life.”
  • Access to contraception and abortion: The Left says, “We should all try to practice safe sex, but stuff happens.  Women deserve to be able to prevent pregnancy from occurring or stop an existing pregnancy.”  The Right says, “Women can choose whether or not to practice safe sex, so they should take responsibility for whatever happens by bearing the consequences.”  (Yeah, there are a whole lot more ins and outs to the debate, but this is one major aspect of it.)
  • Same-sex marriage: The Left says, “Gay people don’t choose to be gay, so they deserve the same rights as the rest of us.”  The Right says, “Homosexuality is a choice, so there’s no reason to expand the definition of marriage for gay people.”
  • Social justice issues / identity politics: Need we say more?
  • Gun control: The Left says, “People should use guns responsibly, but stuff happens and the fact is that higher availability of guns results in more deaths.”  The Right says, “Guns don’t kill people; people do.  By their own free choice.  So we should crack down on those people [see “crime” above], and meanwhile, law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have their rights curtailed because some bad people would choose to abuse these rights.”

The pattern is clear.  On a variety of issues, both social and fiscal, the Left takes the determinism-leaning stance while the Right takes the free-will-leaning stance.

Of course, I didn’t cover every major political issue above, and that’s partly because some of them clearly don’t directly stem from the determinism-leaning or the free-will-leaning outlook.  I would claim that most of those issues still result indirectly from other issues which can be explained in terms of determinism/free-will-leaning.  For example, the cause of environmentalism is strongly aligned with the Left.  But clearly it became aligned this way because environmental regulations hurt big business, and the Right cares a lot about defending big business, because of its fiscally conservative stance, because “poor people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and so on.

Interestingly, some particular factions of the Left and the Right might embrace certain positions via long chains of related political stances which can be originally traced back to positions which follow the pattern I’m proposing, but such that the position at the other end of the chain doesn’t necessarily follow the pattern very well.  For instance, one vocal faction of the Left is comprised of a certain type of mostly internet-based opponents of social inequality (often branded with the label of “Social Justice Warriors”) who, in their zeal to protect the oppressed from the oppressors in accordance with a blatantly determinism-leaning mindset, wind up bestowing a lot of personal responsibility on certain members of the “oppressor class” and advocating for more severe punishments.  Meanwhile, there is a sinister faction of the Right in which racially-correlated differences in intelligence and other genetically-based traits are constantly being proposed and defended, and so they characterize large classes of people as genetically determined to be inferior-performing citizens.  Of course, if one focuses on these outlying examples, my interpretation breaks down and the mechanisms behind the left/right divide start to look quite different.  I suspect that this is the reason why Scott Alexander, who has interacted far more than most with members of the above two outlying factions, suggested almost the opposite interpretation of the left/right divide from mine in his article Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable.

And I’m not claiming, by the way, that this determinism-leaning/free-will-leaning split, among all philosophical conundrums, should most naturally lead to fundamental ideological division.  For instance, it might seems more obvious a priori that an ideological schism should have its origins in pushing for different levels of state power.  Taken to the extreme, this forms the distinction between anarchists and supporters of dictatorships, while within the Overton window of American political positions, it divides libertarians (fiscally on the Right, socially on the Left) from populists (fiscally on the Left, socially on the Right).  But note that, at least in modern-day America, people have clustered mostly into two large clumps comprising the Left and the Right, while libertarians, populists, and other political factions form much smaller groups.  It’s natural to ask why this is: why should opposition to government intervention in the economy be so strongly correlated with support of greater government intervention in social issues?  My determinism/free-will interpretation answers this question.

At any rate, this is a phenomenon I’ve come to see as a driving force not only behind political differences in America, but behind differences on all scales between humans everywhere, and I’ll be referring to this hypothesis in future posts.

2 thoughts on “Political ideology and perception of free will

  1. I broadly share your general views in free will, but I seriously doubt it makes sense to see it as the basis for a right-left divide. Your model of left-determinism vs. right-freewill seem to invert if you change “determinator” from “society” to “biology”. I rather suspect that both poles of the political spectrum can construct both determinist and anti-determinist argumentation based on what they want the conclusion to be. That would suggest that there is something else at the core.


    1. Certainly I agree that the left pushes “society” much harder than “biology” as a driver of human behavior. But I would suggest that this has more to do with the fact that hardly anybody on either side of politics pushes the “biology” explanation nowadays. This is no doubt because it usually leads to unsavory-sounding conclusions rather than productive plans of action (we can work to change societal conditions, but how can we change biology without proposing something that sounds Nazi-esque?). Granted, where “biology-leaning” ideologies do exist, they are typically identified as far-right, but I’ve already acknowledged that my model starts to break down (or at least provide only very indirect explanations) when we move to the outskirts and consider some extremist positions.

      I should stress again that this was meant to be an explanation of how different political stances cluster as they do in present-day America. I’m sure that the clusters have formed based on a variety of other criteria in different places over different time periods — including, for instance, during some periods when scientific racism was rampant.

      I claim that right-wingers today are far more likely on the whole to use anti-determinist argumentation than left-wingers are. To defend this further would require sifting through a bunch more examples, of course. 🙂


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