Free Will vs. Determinism as the Core of Political Disagreement


Ultimately, there are two primary political belief systems, and they are poorly captured by any label such as liberal, conservative, republican, or democrat. These two designations are far more fundamental than any people normally discussed, and are defined by a single fork in philosophical thought: the question of free will vs. determinism.

The two, fundamental political belief systems are:

  1. Circumstances people are born into largely determine their choices and outcomes, and that each of us is fundamentally responsible for helping others overcome the negativity associated with their disadvantages. Because of this, the happiness and suffering of every person is inexorably tied to that of every other person.

  2. Every person has his/her own choice to fail or succeed, and that those who suffer are doing so in some part due their own personal failure. As such, it is not the moral obligation of those who chose correctly to sacrifice in order to help those who chose poorly.

To put this in another way, one group thinks that those who are in positions of advantage are there by way of good fortune alone, and that they therefore are indebted to society, and humanity, as a whole.

The other group feels it was their individual choices that yielded their success, apart from any advantages they may have had, and that they therefore owe nobody anything–least of all those who made poor choices when they should have made the right ones.

No Longer Academic

This brings the discussion of free will directly to the forefront. It changes it from a high-brow matter for philosophers and theologians to to a real-world discussion of how the haves should treat the have-nots. I submit that no topic of political discourse is more fundamental than this.

Naturally, this brings us directly to religion. Religion teaches that God gave each of us the ability to make the right choices regardless of negative circumstances. So, when the poor kid skips school to shoot drugs in another country, or if someone rots in prison across town for crimes committed, we are taught by religion to believe that both made poor choices–not that they were handed an unfortunate set of variables.

What this means is that religion, at it’s very core, teaches apathy, and even disdain, for those who suffer because it propagates the belief that those who suffered had the God-given option to avoid it–but they chose incorrectly. If you probe deeply enough into the rhetoric of hate-filled healthcare-reform protesters (just one example) you’ll find this very belief powering their fury.

They. Chose. To. Suffer.

A belief in determinism, on the other hand, is tied to compassion, and it makes sense. Those who believe that the Big Bang happened, and that we all ended up here–some of us doing well, and others suffering–leads to the creation of public policy built upon communal happiness and suffering. And this sort of “it just happened this way” approach relies specifically on the lack of belief in supernatural free will.

Here are the Knight moves:

Atheism –> Determinism –> Compassion for the Weak


Religion –> God-granted Free Will –> Personal Responsibility for Failure –> Apathy (or disdain) from the Strong

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Ah, but what are claims without some evidence, right? As it turns out, Phil Zuckerman did an exhaustive study in 2008 of two of the most secular and most socialist societies on Earth–Denmark and Sweden. Here’s a defining excerpt from his work:

Alas, correlation does not equal causation, but feel free to add your own anecdotal evidence ad infinitum. Find someone who believes in the shared well-being of all humanity, and they’ll tend to be more deterministic and less religious. Find someone who’s angry because they have to give up some of their money to help the poor and suffering, and you’ll likely find someone who’s not only religious, but someone who thinks religion is required for morality. Think about that for a second.

And the phenomenon continues, as Zuckerman’s work shows, at the scale of nations.


Resist the temptation to argue the semantics of “conservative” or “liberal” policy. Demand instead to discuss the real issue–separated from overloaded terms–i.e. the level of responsibility each of us has to help others. This is the central issue for nearly all important political topics.

Here is the argument in summary form:

  1. the belief in free will leads to a lack of compassion for those who suffer

  2. this is in large part due to the core religious teaching of God-given free will

  3. those who lack belief in religion, and therefore in God-given free will tend to be more deterministic with respect to how and why people arrive at their station in life

  4. the deterministic view, held by more secular individuals and groups, fosters compassion and a sense of connectedness between everyone’s level of happiness and suffering. Evidence of this can be seen in less poverty, higher education rates, and overall higher standards of living in countries that embrace this philosophy.

In short, the belief in free will, as propagated by religion and a religion-based criminal justice system, retards human progress by giving a backdoor justification for selfishness. The reason we are seeing so much resistance to policies that help the have-nots, at the expense of the haves (e.g. healthcare reform), is in significant part due to the belief that the have-nots deserve their position, as a direct result of their poor choices.

Until this fundamental issue is addressed head-on, by taking on the illogical belief in supernatural free will, true political discourse will remain out of reach.


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