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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

December 4th, 2001. Index Button

"Free Will."

Here is an intelligent e-mail I received:

Date: Sun, 2 Dec 2001 14:56:37 -0800 (PST)
Dear Pete,
Though I know very little of Sartre, I am fascinated by his philosophy and am beginning to ask myself many questions. Thank you for providing this web site for it is concise and very interesting.
Here is my question:
Sartre believes we are ultimately responsible for our behavior, and our with people that have mental illnesses like let's say a personality disorder, I would think that person has a much tougher time making that decision. That person's choice might be severely hampered and his/her actions can be widely misconstrued by the rest of society which is ignorant and oblivious to that person's condition. That person is not as free as another...what about the person who is born in a garbage dump in Brazil? is that individual going to be asking themselves: I am free to act as I wish and I choose this or that? I mean, his/her decisions will be based solely on survival and necessity, will it not? can we expect these people to do anything else, and it would be cruel and ignorant to assume so, I even under inevitable circumstances, an individual still chooses how he/she will act...but what if it is a starving kid, or a mentally ill a sound-minded person who comes face-to-face with the personal anguish felt by people with mental disorders, what I am to do? What is the moral thing to do? Or with a person who has suffered of hunger all his/her life? a person like that may be more likely to want to take advantage of me because it is a survival instinct...or a mentally ill patient taking advantage of you by abusing your goodwill without knowing the consequences their actions can/could have. how does one respond to that morally? should one get mad and seek revenge? the justice system is incredibly uncompromising when it comes to punishing people who act out of necessity or other uncontrollable factor, yet we must protect ourselves, and often trying to understand the root causes of all these problems is simply problematic and time-consuming you see where I am getting at? yes, everyone is ultimately responsible for his/her behavior, but the issue is much more complex than that it looks like!
what is Sartre's view of punishment? how would he react to having been taken advantage by a person for whom making the choice may not have been easy, even impossible...he would take the person's background into consideration of course, which would then explain some things, but what about human nature: feelings of scorn, revenge, envy, jealousy, vanity...fascinating stuff, and very puzzling to me...I mean, I want to forgive the mental patient who has used me, especially if i am informed about his/her condition, but there is still a part of me that says: hey, I was wronged! I guess the best thing to do is to stay away from these people...but what about the poor kid, the hungry kid who performs a violent act...surely his decision to follow a certain course of action will come face to face, in due time with the harsh realities of the world, and he will be punished--the fact remains that his/her freedom to choose was severely limited, if non-existent...where does that put us as a society as a whole? thanks for any comments you may feel like providing. again thanks for your website.

My correspondent has touched upon a question, which, in the taking up of their careers, their lives, is addressed by many who occupy the darker nooks of academe. Does man have freewill? Or is he or she, no matter his place and situation in life, governed but by necessity and chance? Jean-Paul Sartre, best I can understand, seems to want to have it both ways. The philosophy of existentialism depicts man, alone and afraid in a world he never made. "Afraid," I suppose, in the sense that he or she really is unable to predict (let alone influence) the great natural events which can suddenly beset a person causing deep distress, trouble, and/or misery. And what of those people to whom you refer, who, are born at the wrong time, or the wrong place, or both; or of those who are sick of mind and body and are unable to help themselves. It makes a mockery out of existentialism, which, while asserting man is alone and afraid in a world, he is yet an individual with choices. Who is to help the child whose parents are garbage rakers in Brazil; or who has but a single woman for a mother with no education, no ambition, and is without friends and family.

While we might well accept that man has it, freewill works only when a person has choices. If a person has no choices, then the question of freewill hardly comes up; so too, where the person is unable to even recognize what his or her choices might be.

This question of free choice, these questions of philosophy in general, are not questions, at least in the vast majority, on the minds of those whom we might well worry about. Free choice is not a philosophic notion for the vast majority of the people who make up the great mass of humanity, though they make small choices every moment of the day about themselves: shall I pick up this piece of garbage or that, shall I drop this piece of garbage in exchange for that, shall I stiff my friend or hold him and give him a fair shake, and on and on. We look on these people and compare them to our lives and, shutter. They do not envy others, at least, great numbers of them don't. They are about the occupying business of getting on with their lives and expect that others should do the same. It was Sartre who made the point when referring to the choice, conscious of it or not, which all Frenchmen faced during the Second World War: collaboration, resistance, or quiet self-preservation. I do my bit in regards to helping those that are less fortunate in my own community by a direct assist; the situation of those of the third world, is, for me, I am afraid, something I cannot help; and, in that regard, and indeed more generally, I lead a quiet life of self-preservation.

My correspondent also raises the question of punishment, a question in respect to justice, which I address elsewhere: Crime and Punishment.

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Peter Landry

December, 2001 (2019)