Free will is best characterised by the assumption that individuals in society are capable of exercising agency (Ginet, 1997). Therefore, as active social agents, individuals are capable of exerting free will over their own decision making processes. The logical outcome is therefore that each individual has the innate natural power to dictate their personal outcomes (Ginet, 1997). Although this initial definition would seem to provide a succinct assessment of free will, philosophical debate has raged for millennia as to whether it is truly possible for individuals to exercise free will and thus assume the role of the active agent (Maritain, 2005).
Given the above, the purpose of this work is to address the question of whether individual free will exists. Given the widespread and protracted nature of philosophical debate on this issue, it will be necessary to provide the discussion which follows with a strong element of focus. As such, the focus of this work will centre on whether free will is possible in light of the numerous and obvious constraints which impede the actions of individuals in society. The debate over determinism is thus essential to philosophically addressing the issue of free will. Thus, this work is formed on the thesis that determinism in society acts as a clear inhibitor to the preservation and propagation of free will. Given this, the central thesis of this work also dismisses philosophical attempts to unite determinism and free will, such as that undertaken by John Hume (Hume, 1977). Finally, although the debate over free will has developed over many centuries, the thesis of this work offers concurrence with the economic determinism as outlined by Marx. Above all, free will can only be understood on the basis of the economic, political and social phenomena which direct and impact upon it. Thus, the ability of individuals to exert active agency over their lives though the use of free will is seriously curtailed by the presence of powerful external forces. Therefore, it is the writer’s conviction that Marx’s assessment of historical materialism remains the most effective indictment of the free will concept in complex capitalist societies.
A prudent place to begin this discussion is with the assumptions made by the seventeenth century philosopher Rene Descartes. Descartes argued that free will was essentially based on the ability to exercise freedom of choice (Pink, 2004). As such, Descartes suggested that the ability to do or not do something personified the foundation of free will itself (Pink, 2004). Nature itself dictated that free will of this kind could not be constrained or inhibited by any external force. In many ways, Descartes is viewed as being the father of modern philosophy, however, it is impossible to ignore the fact that his assessment fails to adequately account for the presence of determinism. Determinism suggests that free will can never exist is a pure state because there is always some form of external influence which will impact upon the agency of the individual (Warburton, 2004). Therefore, given that obvious constraints on the actions of individuals in society have existed for the majority of civilised human history, it is difficult to see how the individual agent can exercise free will.
Descartes assumption on free will is therefore countered rather effectively by the presence of determinism. Indeed, although determinism as a philosophical position has rarely succeeded in forming a theoretical outlook in its own right, the presence of external forces invariably impacts upon the prescriptions of other theoretical outlooks and such is certainly the case with the utopian outlook of free will as prescribed by Descartes (Warburton, 2004). Naturally, philosophers who have attempted to argue that free will is both desirable and possible have sort to address the dialectic between a free state of being and the structures which prevent free will being exercised in its pure form, a school of thought which has become known as Compatibilism (Williams, 1980). For example, the English philosopher John Locke attempted to address the issue of freedom and free will through reference to the social contract (Williams, 1980). Thomas Hobbes was the first to outline the theory of a social contract been the individual and state (Williams, 1980). Although Locke’s understanding of the social contract differs from the monarchical preoccupation of Hobbes, the essential argument remains the same. Ultimately, a measure of free will in society has to be given up in order for peace, order and stability to be maintained. Thus, the power of the state to prevent free will is sometimes desirable over the anarchical alternative (Williams, 1980).
As such, Hobbes, Locke and Hume all attempted to address the dialectic between free will and determinism using a variety of theoretical and analytical techniques. However, one gets the overriding impression that a successful conclusion to the dialectic cannot be found in the assumptions laid down by these philosophical theorists. Above all, this failure rests on the fact that a plethora of external forces serve to directly affect the ability of the individual to exercise agency on the basis of free will. As such, in line with the thesis of this work, free will cannot truly exist in the manner outlined by Descartes as long as such limitations persist. Moreover, if the free will of the individual is to be achieved, then fully conceptualising and understanding deterministic limitations would seem to be the most prudent way forward. Indeed, it was the assessment of such forces which preoccupied Karl Marx for the majority of his life.
In order to fully support the thesis of this work, it is necessary to provide detailed assessment of historical materialism as outlined by Marx. As suggested above, free will cannot exist in any significant measure as long as determinist limitations prevail. Hobbes and Locke maintained that a measure of free will could exist provided that it did not impede upon the social contract between individual and state (Pink, 2004). However, if the state itself were to act as a consistent and continuous inhibitor to individual agency, then free will would surely be impossible?
Given the above, Marx argued that the state itself served to maintain an unequal social order based on the exploitation of one class over another (Marx, 1994). Marx thus suggested that underlying such inequality there lay a firm economic foundation. Therefore, the free will of individuals in the subjugated class was directly prevented by the capitalist forces of production. Moreover, the state itself served to perpetuate this lack of free will on the subjugated class. Therefore, Marx viewed free will as being impossible, not only in the capitalist system but also in other historical epochs (Marx, 1994). He thus concluded that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx, 1994; p. xviii).
Although Marx’s economic determinism has often been subject to philosophical counter attack, the thesis of this work remains convinced that the Marxist outlook remains the most effective in terms of explaining the constraints that are placed on the free will of the individual agent. Marx himself was heavily critical of the ability of individuals to exercise agency within the determinism which exists in society (Williams, 1980). In addition, although heavy emphasis was placed on classes as being the engines of historical change, Marx had difficulty ascribing particular classes with active agency (Williams, 1980). Therefore, using the Marxist interpretation of history and society, it is possible to see how severe limitations exist regarding the ability of individuals to exercise free will. In particular, the utopian outlook of free will as suggested by Descartes cannot be possible when social structures consistently undermine the agency of the individual. Moreover, Locke’s attempt to address this dialectic through reference to the social contract does little alter the essential nature of the problem itself. Thus, determinism continues to act as the ultimate problem for those who wish to argue in favour of free will among human beings.
In conclusion, although this work has at times outlined the assumptions of philosophers who championed free will, the essential thesis remains unchanged. Above all, the ability to act as a purposeful agent on the basis of free will cannot be possible when deterministic constraints exist which serve to prevent such individual action. Free will must therefore be understood on the basis of its wider social connotations and the social structures which act against the propagation of individual agency. Marx’s use of an economic foundation to social injustice is undoubtedly a useful starting point for this analysis, along with the interrelated assumptions of historical materialism. It is of course the case that Marx himself often failed to account effectively for how such lack of free will could be addressed (Ginet, 1997). However, in terms of outlining the structural constraints and limitations which prevent the exercise of free will on the part of the individual, the Marxist critique remains as relevant today as when it was first penned. Thus, this work concludes that social structures and the state mechanism itself serve to directly affect the ability of the individual agent to exercise free will. Of course, whether or not this position should be altered is a separate debate.
Ginet, C (1997) ‘Freedom, Responsibility, and Agency’, The Journal of Ethics 1, pp. 85-98.
Hume, D (1977) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New York: Hackett Publishing.
Maritain, J (2005) An Introduction to Philosophy. London: Continuum.
Marx, K (1994) Selected Writings. New York: Hackett Publishing.
Pink, T (2004) Free Will: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Warburton, N (2004) Philosophy: the basics. London: Routledge.
Williams, C (1980) Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue. New York: Hackett Publishing.