Free Will and Human Dignity: A Love Story

James Otteson,

Release Date
December 24, 2013


Free Markets and Capitalism
What is the value of free will and the ability to make your own choices? Prof. James Otteson recalls a parable his teacher taught him in high school. If you had the ability to make a woman fall in love with you, would you like it? Would you prefer to force someone to love you or to have someone offer to give their love to you freely? Love freely given is so much more valuable. This story illustrates an important moral insight: Respecting people means allowing them to make their own choices, even if you believe the choices they will make are poor. Without the ability to choose for ourselves, we lose a bit of what makes us human. Do you find it frustrating when you are not allowed to make your own decisions? What would you do differently if people or government were not preventing your actions? Do you think you’re better or worse off when your choices are limited or taken from you?

Free Will and the Brain [podcast]: Grant Bartley from Philosophy Now talks to Sam Coleman, Norman Bacrac, and Camilla Martin to discuss free will and it’s connection to the brain
Do You Really Have Free Will? [article]: Roy F. Baumeister explains free will and its societal evolution over the years
Free Will: The Foundation of the Free World [article]: Dr. Harold E. Schlichting Jr. defines free will and determinism and dismantles the many arguments against free will
Free Will versus the Programmed Brain [article]: Shaun Nichols of Scientific America analyzes a study on free will and peoples’ perceptions of free will
Does Neuroscience Refute Free Will? [article]: Lucretius poses the question of whether neuroscience refutes free will
Free Will Is an Illusion [article]: Physicist Victor Stenger comes to the conclusion that free will is an illusion and points to many works and people that have come to the same claim

Free Will and Human Dignity: A Love Story
When thinking about the topic of whether to allow people to have truly free choice, it reminds me of a story from my own history. When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to an all boys’ Catholic school, and Father Ray, who was teaching us religion, wanted to illustrate to us why it is that God gave human beings free will. And here is the story he used:
He said, ”Imagine you’re walking down the street. A beautiful woman is walking towards you, and you have the power to snap your fingers and make her fall instantly and madly in love with you. Just imagine you had that ability.”  Of course we are imagining that ability, as we were 14-year-old high school students. And he said, “What would be even greater than that ability?” And of course we are thinking about that, too—14-year-old boys. And he said, “No, no. What would be even greater than that ability is if she fell in love with you completely of her own accord.”
That’s a really profound moral insight. Now Father Ray’s point was that that explains why God gave us free will. Could God have commanded our obedience? Of course. He’s God. But that would have been demeaning both to us and to him. It would have been to not respect us as moral agents.
But we can put the religious part of that aside and just think about that core moral insight. What it means to respect a person as a moral agent is to give that person the opportunity to choose even when you know that sometimes they’ll make bad choices. Sometimes they’ll choose things they shouldn’t; sometimes they’ll choose things that even they themselves will regret later. Respecting the dignity of a human being is giving that person the freedom to choose. Good and sometimes, yes, bad. And that moral insight is really at the core of classical liberalism.