Social justice movements require that individuals have the ability to take a hard look at the only society they know and condemn that society as oppressive (see Figure 1). But when this is the same society that has given us language, culture, behavior even our ethical codes, we have no reason to criticize this society. If the only authority we have to guide our actions is the one that has oppressed us, there is no chance for liberation. We may not even have the ability to recognize our position as oppressed. Free will gives individuals the power to detach themselves from their society and find internal motivation. Thus, humanity’s capacity for critical reflection on society and its ability to reject or accept its authority proves free will.
Figure 1. Black Lives Matter Protestor
The ability to reject the principles that have been handed down to us establishes our free will. In her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, twentieth century existentialist and feminist Simone de Beauvoir uses the example of children to illustrate this process. She argues that children find themselves “cast into a universe which he has not helped establish […] which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit” (35). The situation of children is akin to what humanity would be without free will. Children’s actions are insignificant because “everything is already given; his acts engage nothing, not even himself” (37). Even the way we treat children reifies their submissive position. They are not seen as culpable for their actions, their wrongdoings are the failings of their caretakers and it is the obligation of their elders to instill in them a moral compass. Moreover, children do not have the capacity to challenge authority; thus they have no choice but to submit to the ‘divine’ authority of adults. However, we are not condemned to this position for the duration of our lives. During our adolescence the flaws of the world reveal themselves to us and “with astonishment, revolt and disrespect” (38) we begin to challenge the norms that we had previously accepted during our childhood. In his book Discourse on Method, seventeenth century philosopher René Descartes explains this paradigm of criticism. Although Descartes himself was not writing directly about free will, his life and works are still illustrative of its existence. Rather than blindly accepting principles based on custom or precedent, he creates a maxim to “never to accept anything as true that [he] did not plainly know to be such […] and to include nothing more in my judgments than what presented itself to mind so clearly […] that I had no occasion to call it in doubt” (11). Without free will not only would this paradigm be impossible, the very idea to abide by this paradigm could not exist. The existence of free will is thus confirmed by our ability to discover truth internally independent of external authority.
Figure 2. Ismene pleads with Antigone
Free will is necessary for individuals to break from their predetermined social locations. In Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, the titular character breaks from the constraints of her submissive possession as a woman in the ancient Greek city of Thebes. Following the Theban civil war, the new king Creon declares that those who died fighting for the opposing side will not be allowed a burial, including Antigone’s brother Polyneices. In light of the ordinance, Antigone decides that she will disobey Creon’s law and bury her brother’s body. When Antigone confides in her sister, Ismene, of her plan (see Figure 2), Ismene reminds her “we are women, we’re not born to contend with men. Then too, we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands, so we must submit in this, and things still worse” (l. 74-77). Without free will, this would have been a persuasive argument to Antigone. This is especially true given that the concept of free will was wholly antithetical to the cultural context of the ancient Greeks. With only her cultural and social context to guide her, it would have been easy, even natural, for her to find purchase on the authority of gender norms. Instead, she ignores the limitations of her gender, motivated instead by her obligation to her brother. While perhaps Antigone did not actively will her transgression she still embodies resistance through the implications of her actions. As Creon says, “she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free” (l. 541-542). History proves that what maintains an oppressive system is that those marginalized groups “have no instrument, […] which permits them to attack the civilization which oppresses them” (De Beauvoir 38). However, “once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility” (De Beauvoir 38). Free will allows individuals to capitalize on the opportunity to assert their freedom because it is antithetical to the passive submission to authority.
Given the inescapability of free will, even its rejection is a reassertion of its existence. De Beauvoir argues that questioning authority is a non-optional condition of our emergence into adulthood. However, just as we can use our autonomy to liberate ourselves, we can use it to deny our freedom. The human tendency towards conformity makes us seek shelter in the “ready-made values of the serious world” (44). De Beauvoir calls this position that of the ‘serious man’. The distinction she draws between the serious man and a child is that “the child’s situation is imposed upon him” (38). Any attempt to remain in the child’s position is thus to endorse ones own enslavement. But even this position concedes the existence of free will because “in order to get rid of his freedom, he is lead to engage it positively” (45). Faced with the inevitability of free will, serious man “forces himself to submerge his freedom in the content which [he] accepts from society” (45). Instead of actually absolving himself of the responsibilities of freedom, this serious man expresses his free will through deemphasizing his humanity in favor of a priori moral principles. In Antigone the character Creon typifies the failings of the serious man. In light of Antigone’s transgression, Creon declares “we must defend the men who live by the law, never let some woman triumph over us” (94). To Creon, Antigone’s transgression not only undermines him as a ruler but also as a man. Creon thus persecutes Antigone with a single-minded intensity and displays no sympathy for her circumstance. This, De Beauvoir argues, is the danger of serious man, “Dishonestly ignoring the subjectivity of his choice, […] and by the same token he also ignores the value of the subjectivity of others” (49). Through his denial of his freedom, the serious-man also denies the freedom of others. The irony of the serious man is his “dishonesty issues from his being obliged ceaselessly to renew the denial of this freedom” (47). Given that free will is inescapable, he must constantly reject freedom to maintain his position of fierce conformity.
Free will is inevitable and that inevitability is what gives it power. It means marginalized individuals will always be able to recognize the circumstances of their oppression. It means oppressors will always be culpable. It means no one is blameless but no one is powerless. However, our human tendency towards complacency makes us focus on our positions of persecution and ignore our positions of guilt. We become complacent in the face of injustices that do not limit our personal freedom. We risk falling into the dangerous position of the “serious man”, only selectively choosing when to proclaim our free will. The greatest assertion of free will is thus critical self–reflection and the continuous rejection of apathy.
Beauvoir, Simone De, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949. Print.
Descartes, René, and Donald A. Cress. Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy. 4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998. Print.
Sophocles, Robert Fagles, and Bernard Knox. The Three Theban Plays. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1984. Print.