On Responsibility and Free Will

“Free will has always existed in words, but it stops there.” -Mark Twain It is a common, clichéd practice for man to use “freedom” as a justification for his errors on the side of irrational action. In theory, he is correct to use this value as his shield against authoritarian critics who approach such irrationality with mandates and laws. However, in practice man must (though in only a few cases has) come to the realization that free will is an illusion, more a baseline concept than a reality. In terms of our country, we are governed by laws. These regulations, designed to defend the “greater good,” stand in the belief that man will not always take responsibility for his free-willed actions. It is not my aim to delve into criticism of these laws, but rather to use the law as an easy and tangible example of the restriction of your free will. Though its effectiveness is debatable, the law generally protects us against instinctual wrongdoers exercising their own free will; the free will to steal, to kill, to kidnap, to rape. “Freedom” cannot and should never be used as an excuse for these despicable crimes. We should, however, use these examples as a precursor to the questioning and critique of “free will,” the ideal preached to us but denied, both justly and unjustly, by laws both written and unseen. To what extent are we truly “free?” Free will, the ability to do as one pleases when and where one pleases, is a peculiar and fickle thing, for, in basic terms, any creature with a heart that beats and an aptitude for the classic senses is free to do as instinct would dictate. In this sense, man’s consciousness is his curse, for the conscious being is the only animal to carry the burden of society’s expectations and regulations, the only animal to look before it leaps, to weigh its options and to decide against its gut. Or perhaps this is incorrect, as impulse can be said to be the enemy of will. Will is the application of force in the mind’s direction of choice; instinct is an undeniable reaction forcefully pushing the body in the direction it has been programmed to go, regardless of the mind’s input. Which is correct: he who claims man as the only free animal or he who claims man as the only animal bound by expectations? Perhaps neither; it is impossible to say whether we are entirely free, for the issue boils down to more than “yes” or “no.” It is also incorrect to assume the nature of man has turned upon us as our captor. Reader, do you possess free will? Are you completely free to do as you wish, to write what you wish, to say what you wish, to act and be as you wish whenever and wherever you wish? Maybe yes, maybe no. The answer is, in fact, irrelevant. For even if you were the conscious animal released from the chains of instinct, totally free in body and mind, would you utilize that freedom? Would you act upon every whim and desire? Could you? Some may argue that free will exists, regardless of whether it is used or forgotten. The reality is this: the only freedom that will ever matter is the freedom that we are free to use. Only the man who can break free from society’s standards, expectations and values, will ever have a chance to see if “free will” exists. Only the man who owns up to no intellectual or moral responsibility may do as he wishes without fear of repercussion. Responsibility is the self-dictator. Responsibility, like our own personal set of laws, is at the root of our decisions. Adults are free to purchase as much alcohol as they please, but are always reminded to “drink responsibly.” We all have freedom of speech, but with that freedom comes the responsibility for the words that flow from our tongues— no civilized man may falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. What does this mean for us as members of an intellectual society based in honesty and respect? How free are we…as Andover students, as citizens of society and as human beings? As human beings we are born with the blessing of will power and the curse of consciousness. As citizens of society, we are instructed to work towards the greater good. As Andover students, we are, above all, granted power and responsibility that most will never possess. For example, The Phillipian runs each week with freedom from administrative censorship. However, this freedom is not taken lightly; in fact, this responsibility is handled with utmost care by the paper; freedom of the press must be treated as the great prize it is, to be both won and maintained by conscientious editors and writers. The Phillipian is a case study in awareness of power and responsibility. We enjoy adult freedoms most teenagers do not have, but these freedoms are handed over only by the heavy dose of faith Phillips Academy holds for us. It is the responsibility of The Phillipian, as of every PA student, to maintain that faith if we hope to hold onto unrestricted freedoms, including freedom of the press. As Andover students we carry great torches, lit by the name of our old and established institution and maintained by the character and passion of every generation who has walked these grounds. This fire possesses two powers: the power of destruction and the power of illumination. These torches are handed to us the day we receive our certificate of matriculation and will remain ours until the day we die. For from the moment we become students at Andover, the name is branded onto our lives. You have become John Smith, Andover student. And someday, you will become John Smith, Andover alumnus. Not only do you carry the name but you carry the set of values associated with our school: values of illumination, not destruction. Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote that “great power involves great responsibility,” and for the PA student this could not be truer. As an Andover student, you are not only responsible for your self, but for Phillips Academy. Because of this, your free will is curbed even more so than most… not so much by rules and the Disciplinary Committee as by the torch you carry; not by law, but by responsibility. You are free to will as you please, yes, but you have been regimented to will, as a responsible intellectual would please. It is certainly a concept to keep in check, lest the Academy’s values cease to represent your own. But this is not a bad thing. In fact, it may be one of the most essential parts of the Andover experience: our conditioning has begun by balancing of our animalistic “free will” with serious responsibilities. This is discipline. This is growing up. This is Andover. This is, in essence, the reality of the world and the reality of freedom.