Pick any product or company name you think of – IBM, Johnson&Johnson, Gillette, Oscar Mayer, Hallmark, Baskin-Robbins, Rolles-Royce – and there is a story behind it, a story of men who founded the company, often more than a century ago: With entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and a dedication to producing something worthwhile to make a profit they’d be proud of. Sometimes there was a patented invention behind it, as in the case of the razor blade or the tractor, and sometimes there was simply the commitment to making a product better than had been done before. We benefit from these products every day, but how often do we think of the story behind them, the men who created them or the effort it took to make a product that could last, not weeks or months, but decades or centuries?
The book Entrepreneurs, The Men and Women Behind Famous Brand Names and How They Made It, by Joseph and Suzy Fucini, covers 51 such brand names, and the book They Made America by Harold Evans covers many more. But one can often find the story on one’s own, simply by going to the website of the company (usually in the “Our History” section, or something similar, though sometimes one has to do a little hunting to find it).
A sampling of what can be found if one selects some brands at random and looks at the company website:
- In 2011 SINGER® celebrated the 160th Anniversary of Isaac Singer’s patent on the first practical sewing machine.
- In 1883, Barney Kroger invested his life savings of $372 to open a grocery store at 66 Pearl Street in downtown Cincinnati. The son of a merchant, he ran his business with a simple motto: “Be particular. Never sell anything you would not want yourself.”
- William Procter, emigrating from England, established himself as a candle maker in Cincinnati. James Gamble, an immigrant from Ireland, apprenticed himself as a soap maker [in 1837]…“The Procter & Gamble Company never has gone in circles, never followed footsteps, but rather has continually broken new trails, entered new fields, set new records, even raised its own high standards.” — R. R. Deupree, 1936.
The first point to make about these books and this sampling is that an entrepreneurial history and a lasting product is not limited to a select few individuals. The sheer number of such men and women documented in these and many other stories is huge. With the freedom that America afforded in the 19th century, in particular, companies were continually emerging (flooding Americans with new materials, new products, new means of transportation, more food, better housing, and greater sanitation). More broadly, where the freedom to create exists in any country in the world, today and in the past, men and women form companies and produce products of value. The large number of individuals involved relates to the answer given to argument #5 in the five arguments against free will: those individuals who succeed are not freaks of nature but simply men who exercised free will and actualized their potential – to think, act and persevere through hardship to achieve success in life.
A second point to make is that many of these men were immigrants to America, escaping poverty and sometimes despotism to succeed where they were free to create and benefit from their creations. These immigrants exercised choice in a particularly heroic way: They chose to leave behind the familiar, including friends and family, to face an uncertain future. They did not need to be guaranteed success but were undergirded by the knowledge that where they were going had fewer restrictions (social, religious or governmental) and more opportunities to succeed if they worked hard. None of these men had any illusions that life would be easy, or that success would be immediate or automatic.
There are many other implications, including political ones, that could be drawn from these stories, but the relevant point for our purpose is clear: These men can and did choose to “build it”, and there were not just a few isolated “freaks” but a massive wave of them, whether they came from abroad or chose to follow their dreams having grown up within a mile of their first factory.
Discussed below are the arguments offered by average people, intellectuals and even many in the scientific community for rejecting free will and embracing its opposite – in philosophy, what is called “determinism.” As background, however, consider the positive case for free will. Free will is not something that one must derive by a lengthy chain of reasoning using abstract concepts. Free will is something every single human being out of infancy experiences every day. You can see yourself choosing between one shirt and another, or how to spend the next hour, or what app to use on your mobile phone, or how to get to work during rush hour. Underlying these specific choices is the fundamental set of choices about how you will use your mind – will you deliberate or go by raw feeling? Will you think, or avoid the effort? These fundamental choices make possible all the rest, and you can see yourself making them as well. Free will is an object of direct perception – perception directed internally at one’s mind instead of externally. The same introspection that lets one see he is thinking about tonight’s Superbowl party provides all the evidence needed to be convinced of the existence of free will. For that reason, because free will is directly evident and fundamental (at the base of every other kind of thought or action), it is in fact axiomatic.
Some people, usually academics or college students who have had a philosophy class, deny free will’s axiomatic status. The fourth objection below will present and respond to their arguments. First, several everyday types of objections will be answered.
Objection 1: How can you say there are self-made men, or that men can choose to be successful on their own, when everyone knows that what we make of ourselves depends on the conditions of our birth, our families, our social and economic status, even what country we were born in? Can a person who is born in Syria during a bloody war choose the same path as a person born into a well-to-do family in the United States? For that matter, can a homeless or desperately poor person in the United States have the same choice as the person born into the well-to-do family?
Response: The details of a person’s path through life are no doubt affected by his start. However, the fundamental trajectory is not. For example, there are countless instances of those born or raised in war-torn countries escaping to safer lands, and of desperately poor persons raising themselves up the economic ladder by hard work, saving, and perseverance. No one has the choice of his start – that would be an absurdity implying he had choice before he existed. What one has the choice of is what to do about it. Does one accept one’s situation in dejected resignation, or does one act to change it? Does one plan, take risks, make the effort, or refuse to think, play it safe and stay in the unsafe or poverty-stricken state one starts in? When Andrew Carnegie started working as a boy of 12, he earned the equivalent of $1.20 per week. When he succeeded, he earned $1.20 per second. Did he allow his pitiful initial state as a penniless immigrant to hold him back, or did he overcome it, by thinking, acting, looking for opportunities, making his own opportunities, and taking advantage of opportunities as they came? Every immigrant who has left a country enduring war or famine to live in the United States is a testament to the possibility and consequences of choice. Similarly, every person born into a decent family in America who chooses a path of crime, alcoholism or begging over productiveness is proof of the fact that where you start not only doesn’t guarantee failure but it doesn’t guarantee success either. A person’s choice is decisive.
Jump to top.
Objection 2: Even if I accept what you say in the introductory post that free will consists of the choice to focus one’s mind and think, as contrasted with evading and not thinking, even if I accept that everyone possesses such a choice, how does it explain a person’s success in life or career? Maybe he can focus on the problem before him, whether a crossword puzzle or a test problem in school. But that oversimplifies the totality of what is required to succeed across decades. Such success is a combination of thinking, luck, help from others, being in the right place at the right time, being born with natural intelligence, etc.
Response: There are, often, a combination of factors in the details of any individual’s success, but the question is: which factors are fundamental and explain the others? It is true that focusing on a crossword puzzle involves the same type of mental activity that leads to success in life, but one instance of that kind of thinking and acting won’t make a successful life, just as one instance of solving a crossword puzzle doesn’t guarantee you’ll solve the next one if you drift, get distracted and down a few scotch whiskeys to allay anxiety about whether you’ll solve it. A successful life requires one’s commitment to rational thought in principle, at all times, across the decades, in every area of life. There may be help from others or from chance, but how many have squandered such benefits and chosen not to take full advantage of them? Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind, meaning no amount of luck will help the mind dulled by passivity or drugs. The time spent thinking and planning is never wasted because it is the precondition of success, whether success is precipitated by a “lucky” unexpected event or by one’s own action.
Jump to top.
Objection 3: Doesn’t free will violate the law of cause and effect? Effects are determined by their causes, so how can a choice, which is by definition not determined, exist? Isn’t choice, therefore, something causeless?
Response: This charge is based on a false view of cause and effect. Cause and effect are properly viewed as a relationship between an entity and its action, between the kind of thing it is and the kinds of things it can do. A feather floats, a billiard ball rolls, a dropped ball falls, a helium balloon moves upward when it is released. With regard to living beings, each kind of being has certain potentialities, and those potentialities are a consequence of the kind of being it is. For conscious animals, potentialities include sensing, perception (integrated sensation) and reacting to their environment. For the most advanced conscious being, man, the potentiality is vastly greater: it includes conceptualization, the viewing of entities not as isolated perceptions but as integrated with other similar entities into a mental unit called a concept. Every single achievement of man – from the development of tools to the development of farming, to the discovery of individual rights, to the development of manufacturing, to IPhones, to space travel, to cancer treatment – is a consequence of that fundamental potentiality of conceptualization. On the higher levels, simple conceptualization (grouping of entities by similarity into a unity) is augmented by complex methods such as logic, scientific study, and engineering, but all these methods stem from and rest on conceptualization.
From the perspective of free will, the most important fact is that conceptualization is not automatic, as perception and sensation are. Conceptualization requires an act of choice, a choice to focus one’s mind on the entities or phenomena of interest, a choice to sustain a process of reasoning across time, a choice to keep mental clarity and form proper definitions to keep concepts distinguished (as opposed to fuzzy in the “I kinda know what they mean” sense). In short, reason does not function automatically but rather requires an act of choice. Man is always free to engage in that process of focus and sustained effort, or to unfocus and drift. But because of the kind of entity he is, he must always make that choice.
Thus for man, his reasoning faculty is “caused” not by some prior action, like a billiard ball moving because another ball hits it. It is simply his nature – in effect, he must make that choice (to focus or not, either one being within his power). And his potentiality to focus or not is “caused” by the kind of entity he is, not by some prior action. Thus there is no contradiction between cause and effect and free will, if both cause and effect as well as free will are understood properly.
Jump to top.
Objection 4: The advocates of free will say that free will is an axiom, a basic philosophical premise at the root of everything regarding man. Well I reject your axiom.
Response: It could be responded, amusingly, that rejecting free will is your choice. And, indeed, it is. But as the first sentence in response demonstrates, your rejection of free will in fact is a validation of free will, for when you say “I reject” free will you are actually saying “I choose to reject free will.” And that is one of the characteristics of an axiom: it re-affirms itself in every attempt to deny it. Axioms, because they state fundamental facts about nature or man, are self-evident in every act of awareness, in every thought or statement, even in attempts to deny them. This “re-affirmation through denial” was identified by Aristotle (who called it “proof by refutation”) in the process of answering those critics who denied the axioms of logic.
More deeply, when one asserts that free will does not exist, he wants us to take him seriously, to believe that he has given thought to the matter, engaged in a process of reasoning, and as a consequence rejected our positive statement advocating free will. However, the nature of the position he is taking is that everything one does is caused by factors outside one’s control, and so the conclusion being asserted actually contradicts his implied deliberation. If man doesn’t have free will then his every thought, idea and action is programmed for him by his genes or brain or upbringing. And that is true not only of “other men” but also of the very individual who is rejecting free will. Thus he wants us to believe his position is worth considering because he has engaged in a process of reason, yet at the same time he is saying that he does not have the capacity to choose his ideas or conclusions – they are simply programmed for him. Why, then, would we even take him seriously? If he is not offering a real reason for his conclusion but merely saying he has no power to escape that conclusion, why should we care? Why would we give his conclusions more weight than we do the mutterings of an insane person?
Jump to top.
Objection 5: You may cite examples of individuals choosing to make their own way, to succeed on their own, raising themselves from far lesser circumstances to wealth or career achievement. But those individuals are exceptions, essentially freaks of nature. Statistics show that in the overwhelming number of cases, where you come from determines what you’ll become. Given those statistics, how can you say that it is the nature of man to have free will?
Response: Man is man. There are not two kinds of beings – man, the regular guy and man the Superman – contrary to what the philosopher Nietzsche says. If man as a man possesses a certain potentiality, then all men do. As stated in the answer to objection #1, there are countless examples of men choosing to think and act to raise themselves beyond their initial circumstances. And there are also countless examples of men born with great advantages choosing to squander those advantages and coast as parasites on their relatives or on other men. This large number of examples demonstrates that overcoming poverty or other disadvantages is possible to man as a man (not just to a few unique men), just as starting with wealth and advantage and degenerating into drugs, lassitude and eventually poverty and homelessness are also possible to him. The difference is a man’s choice to think and act. Neither the man who elevates himself nor the man who degrades himself are freaks of nature – both are actualizing a potentiality of man, i.e. both are exercising choice. And the enormous numbers of men who do one or the other belie the claim that they are something other than … men.
Those who rely on statistics, however, don’t analyze the causes of man’s state. Thinking in terms of faceless collectives, without analyzing the individual circumstances underlying a poverty-stricken state, is the kind of context-dropping that permits one to view raising oneself as hopeless. For example, a substantial number of people are homeless in any large city in the developed world (fewer, however, than most people believe). The welfare advocates present these people as all helpless victims of fate who need to be rescued by society. Yet it is known that half of the homeless are in that state due to substance abuse (see, e.g. “Substance Use: Pathway to homelessness? Or a way of adapting to street life?” by E. Didenko and N. Pankratz, Visions Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, Summer 2007, where several scholarly studies are cited). Thus their homelessness stems not from “fate” or causes outside their control but from their own prior choices and actions.
Another ludicrous example often cited is the plight of those who have a large student loan balance. This author has heard people complain that they can never get ahead because they have large student loan balances that they’ll never pay off – and that, therefore, man is helpless in a practical sense. Ignore for a moment that even having the opportunity to have a student loan and go to college already puts one in the top echelon of economic advantage – this is not something afforded to the homeless or to drug addicts or to people in war-torn countries. This objection would have you believe that having a large student loan is some horrible act of nature (like a tornado) that was visited on a person through no fault of his own. The fact that he had to apply for, sign and commit to paying off the loan is not mentioned in this person’s sob story. Nor is the fact that he received a college degree as a consequence, which underlies his current employment and ownership of a house. The fact that people may, indeed, make unthinking choices, relying on range-of-the-moment feeling or wishful thinking rather than logic in deciding to take such loans, the fact that they may over-commit themselves to paying off too many loans given their prospect of earnings, is proof not of man’s lack of free will but of exactly the opposite.
Exercising choice doesn’t guarantee success. That lack of a guarantee is precisely the meaning of free will. It is precisely the root of the requirement that one use the most scrupulous process of reasoning, refusing to act recklessly or on the range-of-the-moment, in making all decisions, whether to take a loan, or drugs, or a certain job, or a certain train, or a certain romantic partner. Even the right course of action and thought doesn’t guarantee success in a particular case, but rejecting the proper method does guarantee failure (whether immediate or over time). Man’s only protection against failure, or more positively, man’s only possibility of succeeding over the long run, is to use his mind properly and act in accordance with his reason, consistently and in principle. Although not part of this discussion of free will, that commitment to principle is the entry into the realm of moral choice and the root of a proper moral code.
Jump to top.
“You can and did build it.”
This blog will define and defend the idea that man can choose and achieve goals, and that when he does he deserves the credit, in justice, for “building that.” The title of this blog stems from a debate started by President Barack Obama in his 2012 speech in Roanoke, Virginia, in which he stated that
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
This and other quotes from Obama sympathizers – particularly Elizabeth Warren, who a year earlier had said: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody,” ignited a firestorm of debate about whether it was true that the individual achieved success on his own and therefore deserves to keep the fruits of his effort – his salary, his business, etc.
The debate, however, focused on the second half of this blog’s title, the idea that man did build that. There were excellent responses to these attacks on men’s right to pride in their own achievements, the most cogent of which appeared in a Forbes article titled “President Obama vs. My Grandfather.” Under the covers, however, was a premise shared by not only the Left, but also those who opposed the “you didn’t build that” chorus: the premise that man really can’t achieve goals on his own. The entire apparatus of the welfare state is predicated on the idea that the individual can’t make it on his own but must be given a hand up by government or society. Even those who oppose the welfare state often call on everyone to help the disadvantaged as a duty – this sentiment is echoed by almost every church parson as well as by almost every American. The Conservative response to “You didn’t build that” was that America is great because we all have a sense of “community” that helps us survive because on our own we couldn’t. The modern declaration that people really can’t do things on their own has grown enormously decade by decade. The disadvantaged went from a very small minority of those so incapable of surviving that they needed a “safety net” (Ronald Reagan’s oft-used phrase) to a larger and larger group of people incapable of surviving because of reasons like: 1) they are not given a living wage, 2) they are burdened by student loans, 3) prices of drugs are rising, 4) jobs are disappearing overseas.
This blog’s entire purpose is to fully reject the idea that man cannot succeed, and, put positively, to prove, defend and promote the idea that he can choose his direction, make his own life and succeed on his own. Fundamentally, it will defend the idea that man has free will, or volition. This is a broad philosophical abstraction, and as such needs to be defined, put in context and concretized, which this blog will do over the course of many articles – supported by philosophical argument, as well as historical references and concrete news stories.
To begin, let us be clear about what is meant by “man has free will.” Many arguments against free will stem from a mistaken idea of what it means, and what is included in it. A formal definition of free will:
“A course of thought or action is ‘free,’ if it is selected from two or more courses possible under the circumstances. In such a case, the difference is made by the individual’s decision, which did not have to be what it is, i.e., which could have been otherwise.” (Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR), by Leonard Peikoff, p. 55. The section of OPAR in which this definition appears, and the two sections following it, are a complete philosophic description, and defense, of free will. The author of this blog is indebted to Dr. Peikoff for his work in this area and recommends any interested reader follow up by reading these passages of OPAR.)
More specifically, here is what free will does and does not mean:
It means man can choose (and here, as everywhere in this blog, “man” refers to men and women, all human beings):
- whether and how he will think and use his mind,
- what ideas he will accept
- what goals and values he will pursue
- how he acts
What free will does not mean is choosing to:
- violate the laws of nature
- attain immediate success in any complex endeavor
- achieve any irrational or impossible goal (such as a person of modest intelligence winning a Nobel Prize in the next ten years, or a quadriplegic signing an NFL quarterback position).
- literally will an emotion to disappear (attempting to do that is what psychologists call “repression”)
From the simplest concrete act of choosing, such as what to cook for the next meal, to the far more complex acts of choosing a lifetime career or a romantic partner, almost everyone grasps that “possible” is the most important qualifier in the definition of free will. What is literally impossible cannot be the subject of an act of choice, even if a person wishes fervently for it to be so. Hence, the entire list of what is not included in free will consists of things that are impossible – violating the laws of nature chief among them.
There will be occasion to discuss in this blog why so many people feel as though they don’t have free will, even though in fact they do. But one very important reason, it will be seen, is that they have an improper understanding of what is included in free will: They try to achieve the impossible, and failing to do so, they “feel” as though their will is not free: they feel they are victims of circumstance.
The next installment of this blog will present the top five arguments people give for rejecting free will – and an answer will be provided for each.