By: Frank Zheng

In some ways, I believe the debate about the existence of free will is akin to another debate of the centuries, albeit a much more amusing one—whether tomatoes are fruit or vegetables. In fact, this question about tomatoes was so important that it was brought to the US Supreme Court, and in 1893, the Court ruled that the tomato, in all practical senses, is a vegetable (this case was raised because vegetables were being taxed at the time but not fruit). Likewise, the debate about free will is also the case; in all practical senses, free will exists (just as how the tomato is a vegetable in all practical senses).

In modern philosophy, the debate about the existence of free will is often divided into two arenas: debating its existence in the practical form of the public sphere and debating the existence of a kind of inner freedom an idealized freedom without the influence of exterior world. The essence of the practical sense of free will what Kant calls “the freedom to make a public use of one’s reason” (Kant 59). Consequently, free will, practically speaking, is inextricably linked to the public sphere, for practicality means taking theoretical concepts and applying them to the realities of social interaction. This practical and public definition of free will is what 20th century political theorist Hannah Arendt calls “political freedom”, and it differs greatly from internal freedom. Arendt argues that inner freedom is merely an individual’s attempt to “escape from coercion to feel free” (Arendt 145). Therefore, internal freedom is actually the opposite of political freedom, for inner freedom stems from the rejection of an external world in which freedom is denied; inner freedom exists only if political freedom is inhibited. Thus, true free will exists only in its practical form—it is a freedom that presupposes “the company of other men” (Arendt 147). Individuals possess this political freedom to live in the public realm of human affairs and make choices that not only impact themselves but society in general.

To see that this political freedom exists, one only has to look at popular mass movements in history. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is a remarkable demonstration of practical freedom. The leader of the movement, Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Now we’re going to march again, and we’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be” (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 1968). By marching, he knew that he was exercising his political freedom, the only freedom that exists. Without acting on it, he would have effectively surrendered his freedom. As Arendt describes, “men are free…as long as they act… for to be free and to act are the same” (Arendt 151).

Additionally, free will encompasses an important element: moral responsibility. According to philosopher Dr. Ishtiyaque Haji, moral responsibility is reflected by “reactive attitudes, such as indignation, forgiveness, resentment, guilt, gratitude, and love” that are in response to actions that occur (Kane 215). These moralities are a fundamental part of people, and they occur without conscious thinking; for instance, after committing a crime, the feeling of guilt is innate. These moral responsibilities govern the “principles” Arendt describes in her essay What is Freedom?, for principles exist because of the reactive attitudes that people possess after performing certain actions. For instance, the principle of being honest exists due to the feeling of guilt that a person feels after lying.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. manifested these principles in his actions and speeches. In his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, he mentioned a Biblical proverb, in which a priest and Levite do not stop to help an injured man lying at the side of the road. Instead, the Good Samaritan helps the man. Martin Luther King said to his followers to be like the Good Samaritan:

“The priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’… [The Samaritan] was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.” –Martin Luther King Jr. (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 1968)

Martin Luther King asks his followers to display empathy and compassion, which are at the heart of Hannah Arendt’s principles. By using a biblical example, he became more relatable to people not of African-American descent as well, a his preaching of empathy draws upon the moral responsibilities that are innate in everyone. Thus, Martin Luther King became a “genuinely free man”, for he manifested these moral responsibilities and universal principles; he was an individual who “seek[s] to extend [his own freedom] by… [focusing] on the liberation of others” (de Beauvoir 60).

However, even Martin Luther King admitted that he was only able to act because he had a relatively free environment to act in; if he had “lived in… a totalitarian country” (I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 1968), he would not have been able to exercise his political freedom. As such, having the free will to act in the public sphere is contingent on whether the external environment is free or not, for “without a politically guaranteed public realm [for free speech and human interactions]… freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance” (Arendt 147). Consequently, to maintain free will, people have to act to maintain external freedom.

Free will exists in a practical sense in the public sphere with a free environment. However, it is more than just liberum arbitrium, making arbitrary choices—it is a responsibility. People who are lucky enough to have free will are thus endowed with a responsibility to manifest universal principles and provide more freedom for everyone; as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “In willing freedom, we discover that it depends entirely on the freedom of others, and that the freedom of others relies on our own” (Sartre 48). Martin Luther King Jr. certainly willed himself and others to be free, and as such, he serves as an inspiration to all of us as an individual who acted as a responsible agent in instigating positive change. Only when we recognize the importance of this responsibility can humanity progress in making this world a more beautiful place—a place where we all do our part as protectors of freedom.

Works Cited

Kane, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. “What is Freedom?” Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking Press, 1968.

de Beauvoir, Simone. “Personal Freedom and Others” The Ethics of Ambiguity. 1947.

King, Martin L., Jr. “I Have a Dream.” I Have a Dream (1963): n. pag. Government Archives. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.

King, Martin L., Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2014.