Having free will means having real options to choose from. No matter what option one may choose, one could have chosen otherwise. Determinism means that we do not have real options. When one chooses, one could not have chosen otherwise.
Even if one has free will, not every choice is free. If we choose merely on the basis of feeling and impulse, is that really freedom, if such motives are largely determined by social factors? When we determine our actions by reason, are we self-determining, i.e., free beings? Of course, if our heads are full of nonsense, choosing based on our biological instincts might be better aligned with reality. Is our reason or our genome what is most of all “our own”?
The debate between freedom and determinism is not merely academic. It is a debate about our nature, about our self-image. And our self-image has profound effects on our emotions, our actions, our entire lives. From a pragmatic point of view, believing in free will is, on the whole, profoundly healthy and life-affirming; while believing in determinism is, on the whole, deeply debilitating.
People who believe in free will believe they have real options. This leads them to be alert to the options around them. Because they believe that they can actually choose, they are active and careful in considering their options and so tend to make wise choices. Because they believe that their actions make a difference in the world, they are active and efficacious. Because they are active and efficacious, they tend to realize themselves and their plans and to have high levels of self-confidence and self-esteem.
There is one “downside” to believing in free will. Free will means moral responsibility. When one acts rightly, moral responsibility entitles one to pride. But when one acts wrongly, moral responsibility condemns one to shame and guilt. But as painful as these feelings can be, would anyone be willing to give up his capacity to feel pride in order to lose his capacity to feel guilt?
The negative aspects of determinism are predictable. Determinists believe they have no real options, so they don’t look out for them. They do not believe that their thoughts make a difference, so they think less actively and carefully. They do not believe that their choices and actions make a difference, so they tend to be passive. They feel that the realization of themselves and their goals is not up to them, so they seldom do either.
Determinists generally do have a sense of moral responsibility. Determinists feel pride when they do the right thing. I have never met a determinist who disowns his positive achievements and attributes them to outside factors. The obvious reason is that pride is a form of pleasure.
Generally determinists disown only their bad acts. They feel shame and guilt when they choose wrongly. But they progressively dull these feelings by making excuses for themselves. Once their moral sensibilities have been sufficiently dulled, they tend to choose badly more often, particularly if their bad choices are rewarded by physical pleasure.
Nathaniel Branden has argued that self-esteem has two roots: a sense of efficacy and a sense of moral worth. Believing in free will cultivates both roots; believing in determinism attacks them.
Believing in some forms of determinism, however, can be profoundly life-affirming. I am thinking, specifically, of the idea of destiny. If you believe that you are destined to suffer defeat, then your first setback tends to be your last. You simply lie down and let the cosmos run over you.
If, however, you believe that you are destined to achieve greatness, then every setback is viewed as merely temporary; you never encounter an obstacle that looks insurmountable; you throw yourself into every venture, thinking that the whole weight on the universe is thrown in on your side.
Naturally, such people tend to be immensely alert to opportunities and active and self-confident in pursuing them, and such qualities tend to produce success. Some of history’s greatest heroes and villains believed that they were destined to achieve greatness: Alexander, Caesar, Washington, Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler, de Gaulle.
A sense of destiny is, of course, essentially a narcissistic or superstitious delusion of grandeur. It is neither based upon nor correctable by reality. But the fact that it is a delusion does not detract from, but actually enhances, its practical effect.
Another life-affirming sense of destiny is the notion that the length of one’s life is determined before one’s birth, and that there is nothing one can do shorten or extend it. Such a belief encourages noble behavior amidst the difficulties of life, particularly in battle. If one’s life cannot be prolonged by cowardice and petty calculations, then one might as well choose to be brave and magnanimous. If one’s time is up, one will at least die with dignity.
This concept of destiny is not, however, a pure form of determinism, for it presupposes that courage and cowardice, nobility and baseness are real options. One’s life span is not, of course, fated—but those who believe it is and choose bravery are more likely to lead longer and happier lives than those who choose cowardice.
Although the particular span of our lives is not predetermined, we are destined to age and to die. Our only choice in the matter is to do so with dignity or to be dragged kicking and screaming. The wise man embraces destiny and rides in her chariot. The foolish man has to be dragged behind in chains.
Another sense of destiny that is profoundly life-affirming is Heracleitus’s equating of character (ethos) with destiny (one’s daimon). The Greek word “daimon” refers to a quasi-divine being, such as an angel. Every human being has a daimon assigned to him at birth. This is our tutelary deity, our guardian angel. To say that our daimon is our character does not mean that it is our present character. Instead, it is our ideal character: the self as it might and ought to be.
To say that our daimon is our destiny means that life is and ought to be a process of self-actualization, of discovering and living in harmony with our true natures. To identify the daimon with destiny is not a complete denial of freedom of choice. Instead, it presents us with a fundamental choice. We can embrace our destiny, discover and cultivate our character, become what we are. Or we can deny, ignore, and repress our daimon. We have the choice to be true and loyal to ourselves—or to be false and disloyal to ourselves. The opposite of self-actualization is self-betrayal.
If each of us follows his or her daimon, if each embraces and cultivates his or her character, the result is what the Greeks called “eudaimonia“—happiness or well-being. If we betray ourselves, however, our guardian angel becomes an avenging fury, pursuing us in our dreams and through feelings of alienation, anxiety, and meaninglessness.
The primary source of self-betrayal is the acceptance of false self-interpretations, usually foisted upon us by parents and significant others.
Another source of self-betrayal is the Nietzschean idea of “self-creation,” a doctrine deceptively similar to self-actualization. Self-actualization presupposes that there is a determinate potential to be actualized. Self-creation presupposes that there is no determinate potential to be actualized. Thus we are radically free to become whoever we choose to be. Self-creation usually boils down to a narcissistic exercise in projecting an image to others, which means conforming to external expectations, either by pleasing or frustrating them. This is a harmless folly if one lucks out and chooses in accordance with one’s nature. More often than not, however, it is a source of radical self-betrayal, for it teaches that there really is no self to betray. Unlimited freedom thus turns out to be as debilitating as unlimited determinism.