Term Paper: Free Will Nietzsche Could Believe

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Free Will Nietzsche Could Believe In

Are we free to do what we want with our lives? There are a number of ways in which we are clearly not. I am not free to live in 13th century France; I am not free to square circles, to bi-locate, to respire carbon dioxide rather than oxygen, to learn all the languages of the world in five minutes, or to make "schnee" an English word. If I should ever want to do any of these, then I am not free to do what I want with my life. There does, however, seem to be some sense in which I am free. I can get a glass of water when I'm thirsty. If that's what I want to do with my life, then, yes, I am free to do that. I hope it is clear, then, that one's freedom to do what one wants depends on (i) what one wants at a given time and (ii) which constraints of various sorts are in force at the time. These points make the question difficult to answer unconditionally; but we can still make some general claims. Some constraints seem to be inescapable, and perhaps some of our wants follow us all throughout our lives. This paper attempts to narrow in on one way of thinking of human "free will," partly by considering Friedrich Nietzsche's views on the Christian concept of Free Will; the view of free will eventually arrived at is one, I believe, with which Nietzsche would be sympathetic.

Nietzsche is unreserved in his criticism of Christian values, thought, metaphysics, morality, etc. His critique of the Christian concept of Free Will is no less unabashed. Nietzsche thinks that not only is it the case that we do not have free will of this sort, but that the concept was introduced for unsavory reasons.

We no longer have any sympathy nowadays for the concept 'free will': we know only too well what it is -- the most disreputable piece of trickery the theologians have produced...(31)

Nietzsche believes that Free Will was conceived by religious leaders in order to assimilate the concepts of bad and blame on the one hand and good and praise on the other. The idea is that if one is free to be bad, then one deserves blame, and if one is free to be good, then one deserves praise. "The priests at the head of ancient communities" devised the "psychology of will" so that they could have the right to punish those who behaved in ways they didn't like. They asserted their own values -- values which Nietzsche considers "life-negating" -- and claimed to have a right to punish anyone who acted in ways that threatened those values. We can see this as an extremely aggressive form of moral chauvinism or "ethnocentrism"; Nietzsche's ancient priests not only held fast to their own values, they imposed them on others with punishment and claimed a right to do so. They claimed that acting contrary to the priestly values deserved punishment.

…the doctrine of the will was fabricated essentially for the purpose of punishment, i.e. Of wanting to find guilty…People were thought of as 'free' so that they could be judged and punished (31, emphasis in the original)

Nietzsche claims that prior to this maneuver, to be good or bad was not one's fault. It was simply "the way it is" (as we might now say). And Nietzsche considers this to have been a more accurate attitude toward the role that humans play in the universe. If responsibility, praise, and blame are discredited, though, then what are we to think of human volition?

We invented the concept 'purpose': in reality, 'purpose' is absent…One is necessary, one is a piece of fate, one belongs to the whole, one is the whole…there is nothing apart from the whole! (32, emphasis in original)

If we take human action as "a piece of fate," it seems we must regard ourselves and our freedom to act as playing no larger role in what transpires and how the future turns out than that played by an inanimate object, like a rock. A rock can bring about consequences by falling into a pond and causing ripples, but it is not responsible for those ripples. It is simply part of "the whole" as it unfolds. and, now that it has been put this way, we might ask: why should we think ourselves to be any different? Why should we differ from everything else in nature, uniquely having a free hand in the determination of the future while everything else is simply part of the whole? This way of conceiving of ourselves -- as indistinct from "nature," as "earthly" -- does seem to be consistent with Nietzsche's far-ranging rejection of whatever he deems "other-worldly" or "life-negating." If free will is supposed to be a human life-force "outside" of nature, then part of accepting ourselves as natural would be to deny that we have free will.

And yet, Nietzsche gives us aphorisms that would seem to be synonymous with modern day platitudes like "take responsibility for yourself":

Do not be cowardly toward your actions! Do not abandon them after the event -- Remorse is indecent. (6)

If responsibility is a malicious and false invention, though, then this really can't be what Nietzsche is saying here. Rather, we must start from the premise that there is no responsibility to "take," and so there must be some other way of refusing to abandon one's actions.

It is difficult to see what this would be, however. Intuitively, if we abandon the concept of free will completely, we seem to be without any justification for attributing an action to someone. That is, our concepts of free will and responsibility are plausibly "tied up" with our concepts pertinent to an action's "ownership," its being, say, Nietzsche's action as opposed to mine. Suppose, for example, that Jack throws a rock in a pond, and this scares the ducks away. Given that we do have a means to distinguish Jack's free will from the rock's, we say that Jack scared the ducks away; it's incomplete or deceptive or just false to say that the rock scared them away. We attribute the outcome to Jack, it seems, because we believe that Jack has free will. If Jack were no different from the rock, then we might attribute the consequences to the rock just as well.

Plausibly, Nietzsche is not concerned in this aphorism with "ownership" of an action; rather, he's calling the reader to reflect on and ultimately reject the evaluations Nietzsche associates with the ancient priests. To feel remorse is to hold oneself responsible for an action and to regret doing that action; it assumes that one had the will to choose that action and, furthermore, that one deserves to be blamed for it, even by oneself. This aphorism, then, is of a piece with what we have already said. One is not responsible for one's own actions, and Nietzsche aspires to disentangle praise and blame, i.e. deserved reward and punishment, from evaluations that recognize their own "local flavor" and the absence of free will. As regards the extent to which some action "belongs" to a person, then, perhaps we could say that Nietzsche utilizes it to make his point in this aphorism, but he recognizes that it is out of place given his overall rejection of human free will.

I think, however, that this is hasty. Nietzsche is, after all, writing and publishing, presumably with the long-term goal of persuading some readers. He does seem to think that his actions shall have consequences, and he does seem to care about these consequences as if he is responsible for them. or, it must be that he is something like responsible for them. What Nietzsche wants, I think, is a view of free will that does not claim we are responsible for our actions, and which does not attribute to us any "un-natural" abilities, but which still permits us to see ourselves as "making a difference" to the way the future turns out. How could we do this?

I think I know. If we focus on the difference that one's life makes in the abstract, we can devise a way of understanding this difference that does not demand either responsibility for those differences or a distinction between human actions and non-human actions. In other words, it retains a place for "the whole." Imagine a world exactly like this one but without Nietzsche. Now, in "subtracting" Nietzsche from this other world, a lot is going to change. No one will have read his books, assigned papers on them, burned them, etc. That's right: all those differences are the differences Nietzsche made. In other words, his existence brought about those differences -- his existence made our world the way it is in a number of ways, and these mark the difference between our world and one without Nietzsche. How should Nietzsche himself regard those… [END OF PREVIEW]

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