Follow me through this story of free will and choices – see if you agree.
Imagine you witness a man walking into a market and stealing a loaf of bread from a cart. Should you do anything? Suppose he has a son that is weak from starvation, and that being the quickest thing he can pick up, grabbed it without consent. Should he be punished? To what extent did he make the wrong choice, or a choice in general?
Prior to running down the street and grabbing a loaf of bread to feed his son, the boy pleaded,
I’m too weak to get up, I haven’t eaten in days, please, I’m starving to death.
Upon hearing this from his son, whom he loved dearly, he made a hasty decision and stole food to feed him. To evaluate the decision this man made we need to break down his choice to its very essence.
The first question in doing so should be, did this man actually have a choice, or was his decision made against his free will? This question may seem obvious, however it is legitimate. The question of free will is a widespread debate, which I will not discuss in huge detail, however the intent for this question is to make an unbiased decision, so I will just assume there is such a thing.
An argument about the definition of free will is questionable, as Professor and Philosopher W.T. Stace (1996) tackles the preconceptions of the word (that free will means determinism) and defines free will in the common usage form as an act,
Caused by desires, or motives, or by some sort of internal psychological states of the agent’s mind.
If the act is not free then, according to Stace (1996), it will involve some sort of external force or threat. The man in this situation wanted the bread so he could feed his starving son. In this situation there is little, if any external reasons for conducting the act for there is nothing that physically forced him to take the bread.
The reasons where psychological, the desire to save his son’s life was stronger than the negative norms of his actions. Looking at this, and by following Stace’s (1996) criteria, it is inherent that the man acted freely without external force even though he would not have stolen in a normal situation.
So if he acted with free will, we should still determine whether this man’s choice was genuine. A genuine choice is a choice that is made free from coercion. If the man was coerced, than one would say, that “[s]uch a choice [was] is inescapable… And the person may well believe that he has little choice.” – Lauritzen.
At the very foundation of his decision making process was whether to sit back and do nothing, or to take action and do something to help his son. The choice was taken to do something to help his son, this was accomplished by stealing bread.
Also aside from the fathers love for his son, the man may have been overcome by the responsibilities of fatherhood. The societal expectation that the father should take care of the son and do things to ensure his health and stability, for instance taking a young child to the doctor when he has a fever, easily may have swayed his judgment as well. Societal pressures can be the most elusive of coercive choices. The fact that they are things people have grown up with and “once established as a norm, they become difficult to avoid… [and one] may be forced to submit to them.” – Lauritzen
In society people see there children as vital aspects of their life, and due to that upbringing the choice of not helping his son was not presented in his decision making process. The options this man faced were coerced by his strong love to his son and the unwillingness to lose that bond and the societal commitments that have been placed onto him.
Even though the choices this man were faced with where limited due to coercion, he still did have options at hand. The man could have, 1.) picked up his son and set him on a curb to try and beg for food, 2.) attempt to get charity from someone else and use the money or food for his son to eat, 3.) earn some money to get some food, or 4.) do as he did and steal the food.
With the first option, the man has a very low probability of success, since his desire is to make sure that his son is fed and stays alive and the time it takes to get his son up is greater than getting it himself he runs into the possibly of over exerting his son, till his death. This option is even more irrational since when the son is weak from starvation he will be much less likely to succeed in gathering food for himself, plus one could pose the argument that he probably wouldn’t be starving in the first place if he could provide for himself.
The second option is a risky one as well, the outcome is totally unknown, he would be depending on someone else to determine the survival of his son, and the time it would take to gain the charity and get food for his son may be substantial.
The third could possibly work, as the others, but there are many variables. If he was to work for the money and buy the food he may not get paid in enough time to bring the food home, or even get a paying job, which leads the man into the same problems that all the previous options have ran into.
The fourth option may go against the man’s morales, but if you hold his desire to preserve his son’s life as the number one factor, the option he took is the quickest and most direct way to achieve the satisfaction of feeding his son. So it is clear based on his other decisions he acted rationally in his choice to take the bread.
So now we’ve deduced that his choice was free, but coerced, and based on what options were available his choice was a good one. But I believe his choice was still swayed by other, more direct means which made him react the way he did. Ones use of language can make a big difference in the actions and reactions of other people. You can look at the introduction of this paper for a great example.
I started it off saying that a man was seen stealing from a market, which most likely sent off red flags since society has said that stealing is wrong. However views may have changed when I elaborated more on the subject and said that he did it to feed his starving son since people recognize the urgency of the event. The way words are used can sway or determine action, for they “are mechanisms that give direction to our thoughts [and] generate new ideas”. – Postman
If the man’s son had just said, “I’m hungry” the man might have chosen another course of action mentioned. But the fact that he said that he was “starving” and couldn’t rise gave cause to the fathers sense of urgency.
Even though this man may have been as honest as George Washington, stealing was his most rational and moral choice based on the limited options he had to choose from. Now while he was free in the choices he made, in the sense that they weren’t against his will, he was coerced into little choice in end. In this situation his free will and his freedom of choice contradict each other, he was free but he was not free.
This is a borderline case, however the fact that he was coerced into not having a choice prevails over his free will. His actions were made without direct force, causing them to be free, however his decision making process was largely limited by a kind of soft determinism, the desire to save his son’s life, and the coercive effects of commitment based on societal pressures. The decision and the action were also spurred by a biased use of language. For the way his son used his words, signaled urgency and affected the man’s decision making and started this whole thing. With this all broken down and put back together one finds that the man took his only option, and therefore did nothing wrong, if any person should pay for punishment it should be the son possibly for the use of his words or the burden should be placed on society for there part in causing the action.