Can a person act freely in a system that is completely rigged, in which every action is determined from the outset? Maybe you are haunted by this question as you slog off to Town Hall to vote. Maybe it is so bothersome that you just stay home. Maybe you’ve already sent in your ballot, but you feel somehow unsatisfied.
Between the nonstop political advertising in every form of media, friends on Facebook and Instagram who reinforce our views, “enemies” on Facebook and Instagram who disagree with and provoke us, and the general onslaught of ideologically-driven “news” on a population trapped in the home on their phones, it’s hard to believe we have any opinions of our own—and thus, any real free choice. Maybe we are not voting at all, in the old-fashioned sense, but simply filing the ballot we have been told to cast.
This is one of those rare, and therefore precious, moments when philosophy can help. Metaphysicians have always been worried about this question: Can we be free in a world that is completely determined? Many philosophers answer “no,” but a few rogue thinkers have claimed “yes”—the whole cosmos might be rigged, in the sense that every event is determined beforehand, but, this can still be compatible with our free choice. This is what is usually termed “compatibilism.”
You can think about the compatibilist conception of freedom in the following way: the world might be fully determined, but nevertheless we can be morally responsible for those actions. We can be the authors of our decisions even though we could not have done otherwise. The contemporary philosopher Harry Frankfurt suggests that we might consider an example, what is typically called a Frankfurt Case, to understand this kind of compatibilism, one that is especially salient on an election day like the one we are experiencing right now.
Frankfurt gives us the following thought experiment:
Jones is a Democrat and is likely to vote for the Democrats in fact, only in one particular circumstance will he not: that is, if he thinks about the prospects of immediate American defeat in Iraq just prior to voting (let’s just go with the example). Ms. Black, a representative of the Democratic Party, wants to ensure that Jones votes Democratic, so she secretly plants a device in Donald’s head that, if activated, will force him to vote Democratic. Not wishing to reveal her presence unnecessarily, Ms. Black plans to activate the device only if Jones thinks about the Iraq War prior to voting. As things happen, Jones does not think about Iraq prior to voting, so Ms. Black thus sees no reason to activate the device, and Jones votes Democratic of his own accord. Apparently, Jones is responsible for voting Democratic although, owing to Ms. Black’s device, he lacks freedom to do otherwise.
To be absolutely clear: this is a thought experiment, a figment of Frankfurt’s imagination. There is, most likely, no such thing as implantable nanotechnologies which completely determine elections. (Although one wonders who might be working on such a device, in a lab somewhere…). But let’s assume there are mechanisms that make our universe and thus our thinking more determined, or predestined, than we might like to think. That is, unfortunately, surely the case.
A Great Force has been arranged to control our thinking, this thought-experiment suggests, but only in the instance when we would have done otherwise than we were already inclined to do. So Yes, it might be the case that as you suddenly changed your mind, you were controlled back to your original resolution; but No, if no stray thought intervened as you went to vote, a thought that suddenly changed your mind, you retained your liberty. You did indeed choose.
What is valuable about the Frankfurt Case is that it indicates that Jones, despite not being able to act otherwise, can still be responsible for his actions. It’s okay that you are already inclined to vote one way or another—all choosing occurs within the context of our preferences, which of course includes our environments (and these days, social media is a big part of that environment). You are exercising your fundamental right as a citizen of a democracy…even though it may also true that if you had tried to choose differently, the Great Force would have prevented you.
Can you ever know whether or not the Great Force intervened? Probably not. But unless you vote, you’ll certainly lose even the chance to be (maybe a bit weirdly) free.
And this should give us a little bit of solace, and maybe even a little bit of motivation, on a cold day in November when otherwise you just want to bury your head in bed and do nothing. And even if you are free to do that, maybe we’d better flip the switch and get you in the booth.
John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He is the author of American Philosophy: A Love Story, which was an NPR Best Book of 2016 and a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and many other publications. He lives near Boston with his wife and daughter.
Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell (FSG, 2009) as well as many books on philosophy, and has translated works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and other philosophers. A Guggenheim Fellow, he is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and also writes for The New York Times, London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where he lives with his wife, the writer Amie Barrodale, and three daughters.