The Illusion of Free Will

Societal order-regulatory mechanisms are so weak, and so subtle in their operation in some cases, that many members of a liberal democratic society labour under the misapprehension that their society allows them to exercise free will. In fact, the society allows that exercise only to the extent that the person’s actions are not dangerous to other persons or to the order of the state. But these curbs are so ingrained, by education, story-telling, and peer pressure, that society members consciously or subconsciously self-censor their own actions to remain in the “civil” range most of the time, and many citizens will never encounter the more punitive behavioral corrections that the society applies.

Early societies used, and unsophisticated societies to this day use a heavy club, a fundamentalist moral code based on outlandish fear-mongering myths, and outright bribery, to keep their members and subgroups in line. A society can be liberal and democratic only if it is self-confident and secure in the knowledge that its members truly prefer it and its constitution (the current bounds of the state and the current form of hierarchical governance) to the potentially available alternatives.

The general nature of a sophisticated modern liberal democratic society’s behavioural constraints is that it is not impossible for a member to violate them, just somewhat or even very uncomfortable, or energy-wasting, or self-defeating, to do so. A member of society who strays outside the acceptable bounds is no longer following the lifepath of least resistance provided by that society.

One might argue that modern liberal democratic states have perfected statecraft to the extent that only the minimum amount of governmental authority required to “keep it together in economically good times” is implemented, and that in a virtuous circle, this freedom granted to citizens and subgroups has engendered healthy internal competition and creativity, and in general, economic success. On the other hand, these states are arguably pushing this envelope too far, because some subgroups (specifically, corporations) are attaining power to rival that of states themselves, and are applying in some cases unjust forms of economic control and are harnessing and co-opting the will of individual members of society, and thus the will of society as a whole, via public relations and marketing techniques. A significant instability is developing.

The very definition of a hierarchical society is that it is
a self-sustaining trade-off of individual free will for
collective security and the economic benefits of fairly and
peacefully exchanged specialization of labour.

If the word “will” is replaced by “position, motion, and function”,
this is the very same trade-off made by individual cells
in a conventional multi-cellular organism. A society is an
organism and its connective tissue is a web of
inter-constrained wills and intentional actions:

  1. The will and actions of the societal organism itself as a whole (a shared, stored, and promulgated ethos, and regulatory actions, constrained to be fair, efficient, and effective), and
  2. The will and actions of its subgroups and individual members (who are only allowed by the society to exercise their will to the extent that their actions would not damage collective trust.)
Explore posts in the same categories: politics, sociology

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