On morality and free will

I finally finished reading Atlas Shrugged today. I’ve spent most of the last month reading this book, reading a chapter here and a couple chapters there. Think the longest stretch I read was about four chapters. It’s a very powerful book, and it has a very simple premise: what if all the doers and thinkers went on strike? What would happen to society?

I can see the book’s appeal to libertarians. The main heroic characters eventually accrue to a place where they can act of their own free will, unencumbered by regulations but trading in things they value. The remainder of characters (save one) can only ride along as their society descends through the stages of socialism, totalitarianism, and finally anarchy as no one wants to assume any sort of responsiblity. The last stage occurs when the final heroic character realizes there’s nothing left to save in that world.

The book also made me think about the interactions of faith, morality, and free will. It’s obvious to me without reading any biography of Ayn Rand that she was an atheist, or at the least agnostic. Her depiction of faith in the book leaves little question of her attitude. But I began to wonder if all three are mutually exclusive.

It’s fairly clear that morality and free will are opposites in the sense that for one to have absolute free will would leave them unencumbered by morality; at least morality as expressed in commonly accepted terms like the Ten Commandments. These are used as guideposts to what one should not do, or, limits to absolute free will.

But one can be absolutely moral and at least have some free will in the matter, if only by choosing to continue to be absolutely moral. However, that choice would bring one off the extreme of absolutism if they elected, even for a moment, not to be absolutely moral – a hollow choice. Thus, morality and free will are not quite polar opposites. But they are close.

Faith and morality tend to interact in a way where, the more faithful one is, the more moral one is. But there are exceptions. An atheist can be almost absolutely moral (as defined by the Ten Commandments.) A priest can be a pedophile.

An interesting question can be asked when one considers the interaction of faith and free will. There are many out there who believe in predestination. I received an e-mail from a friend where she stated that, in her belief, God had chosen who she would marry and when the time was right that man would come to her.

But would not a belief in predestination then eliminate the incentive for free will? Why choose to do anything when the result is already written in stone someplace but you’re not free to see it? You become an automaton, drifting through life on someone else’s plan. Of course, that’s probably the extreme in faith. But, in order to be faithful to most religions, one gives up some of their free will.

Most people have a little of each of these components in their lives. Even the homicide bomber, who acts as the warrior of his absolute faith by killing those of other creeds and the final destroyer of his morality by killing himself and those around him, retains his free will of whether to blow himself up or not until the instant of his detonation.

One of the final passages in Atlas Shrugged details a judge busily rewriting the Constitution to add protections to commerce from government.

It is wonderful how the Founders came up with a document that is supposed to protect the rights of the governed from their government. But there is a paradox in this: they assumed that the governed would be those who value highly their morality, and they enlisted their faith in Providence to ask that the entire enterprise be showered with His blessings. Thus, the free will of the people who were delivered from the tyranny of the Crown to the freedom of being governed by and with their consent was still kept within the boundaries of morality and faith. Still, it was much better and provided much more freedom than being subject to the cruel whims of an emperor.

So is it any wonder that, in a nation where morality and faith are in shorter and shorter supply, that the government no longer operates by and with the consent of the governed? It is now a single man who can turn aside the will of the people, by declaring something they duly voted for null and void because that proposition conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution and what it says (and doesn’t say.) Instead of a crown, this man wears the black robes that once signified justice.

And the downward spiral of society profiled in Rand’s book has began in some quarters. The absolutism of right and wrong is eroded by the waves of political correctness and secularism. We are asked to consider the root cause of a criminal and blame ourselves for his crime when it was, very simply, the decision of the bank robber to attempt to take money that does not belong to him at the point of a gun.

But by the absolutism of the Eighth Commandment; thou shalt not steal.

And by the absolutism of laws that are based on the United States Constitution (as well as indirectly in the Fifth Amendment;) bank robbery is illegal.

Even if the bank robber is only attempting to get money to further his crack habit, or to feed his starving kids because he’s lost his job through no fault of his own, it’s still illegal and immoral. It’s a place where free will cannot go – to enable one’s free will to be accomplished, he prohibits others from enjoying theirs.

For anything other to be acceptable, it becomes only a matter of time before the strike begins.

Author: Michael

It's me from my laptop computer.

2 thoughts on “On morality and free will”

  1. With regards to your philosophical conundrum “Predestination vs. Free Will” consider this:
    Faith and worship in all beliefs includes sacrifice. The old testament, the sacrifice was to be blood. That which belongs to God is given to God. The new testament, the sacrifice is “Free Will”. A Free Will sacrifice. It is the only acceptable sacrifice – “Thy Will Be Done.”
    When you are submissive to your God (Jew, Muslim, and Christian), then you accept divination. Directing your footsteps, and that leads us to our predestination.
    Of course to explain the “non-submissives” destiny, we say they go to Hell.

  2. Actually, it depends on the faith. I recall (from learning this in college) Puritanism held as a tenet that only a chosen few went to heaven, thus even if you were the most pious and never committed a sin, it would still be predestiny that you would be consigned to Hell if you weren’t among the chosen.

    But generally, my main point was that faith and free will generally work in opposition to each other so your comment is pretty close to agreement. As for predestination, I believe in that to some extent but not absolutely. It’s like a psychic that “sees” a future event and tells someone that it would happen – that person would still have the power to change it.

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