Olly Thorn Somehow Believes in Free Will

Olly ThornI’ve been very impressed with the work that Olly Thorn does over at Philosophy Tube. Like most of my YouTube consumption, I listen to him while making dinner. He usually has interesting things to say.

Free Will and Healthcare

While making dinner yesterday evening, I listened to two of his videos. (He puts out relatively short videos each week.) The first one was Healthcare, Ethics, & Postmodernism. In it, he discussed healthcare ethics. In particular, he talked about the way that many healthcare providers try to ration based upon the behavior of patients. He calls this the Principle of Voluntary Responsibility.

People naturally believe, for example, lung transplants should go to those suffering from cystic fibrosis before those suffering from lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. Thorn makes excellent points about this and you really should watch the video.

But he skips the question of free will.

Now that might seem like a strange complaint about this video on healthcare. But I have a hard time getting past this issue when discussing what people call voluntary behavior.

I know it seems like having cystic fibrosis is just bad luck whereas being a lifelong smoker is a choice. But I think both people have bad luck. To say that the smoker could have chosen to not smoke is only saying that in a different universe with different starting assumptions the smoker would have made different choices. That’s true. But that doesn’t change the facts in the universe in which the smoker actually lived.

Encouraging Better Behavior — In Theory

None of this is to say that the cystic fibrosis sufferer shouldn’t get the lung transplant. Putting smokers at the end of the lung line is a way to encourage people to make better decisions in the future.

The problem with this is that we live in a highly unjust society. As a result, it is usually the poor who “choose” to smoke. And after smoking became taboo in the US, our tobacco companies just started selling more cigarettes overseas. That is: as middle- and upper-class people stopped smoking here the tobacco industry just got more poor people elsewhere addicted.

Fillwill and Torture

Although I’m even more concerned about the issues Thorn raised in his healthcare video, we still largely agree (I think). But that’s not the case in his video What Is Solitary Confinement Like?

In the video, he argues that solitary confinement is torture and he speculates that it should not be given to anyone. I’m fine with all that.

But then he says:

The neo-Nazi terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 people including several teenagers in 2011. And he’s been in various forms of solitary confinement ever since. And I have to confess, I have no sympathy for him.

It’s an understandable opinion. But I don’t share it. Breivik is a horrible person. But I’m not okay with him being tortured for the exact same reason that I wouldn’t be for torturing a cougar that attacked and killed my nephew.

Sure, that cougar has to be put somewhere that it can’t harm people. But I don’t blame it for being a cougar. And I don’t blame Anders Breivik for being a psychopath.

Free Will Obscures Reality

I understand that everyone feels like they have free will. I do too. But it’s a delusion. It’s a story we tell ourselves to keep going — keep living.

But I really do think that we can’t see reality and we can’t think ethically if we don’t abandon the concept of free will.

No one deserves to be tortured, even people who gleefully tortured. To say they do is to make the same ethical mistake that proponents of capital punishment make. And I know it’s hard to think this way. “An eye for an eye” just seems logical. But it’s not. It’s applying a kind of culpability that we don’t to dogs.

And I think we can all agree that we are no better than dogs.

8 thoughts on “Olly Thorn Somehow Believes in Free Will

  1. Don’t know if this is true or not, but I remember reading a story from WW II

    A medical unit had a limited supply of penicillin. There were two groups who needed it. The first were severely wounded in battle. The second had syphilis

    The docs were going to give the penicillin to the wounded, figuring the wounded deserved it more. A high-ranking officer overruled them. He said that the syphilis victims could be healed up w/ just the shots and sent back to fighting, whereas the wounded could no longer fight anyway

  2. Brevik — that’s a tough call. Clearly passes the “needs to be locked up” test, no question about it.

    But keep in mind that in Europe, and Scandinavia especially, prison is a very different thing than it is here. People are punished for antisocial behavior, they’re not broken for life because some drug deal went wrong.

    I’d argue that it is necessary to keep Brevik away from the other prisoners. He’s a complete loony, you could absolutely imagine him cutting somebody else’s aorta because “that guy said a mean thing to me one time.”

    Maybe the best way to handle such a situation is with very large, very watchful guards, who are extremely skilled in how to stop crazy behavior at a moment’s notice. I’ve done something similar but I was never the largest of men, so it wore me out fast.

    • Generally, violent men without weapons get along well enough. Of course, it’s not really that particular case I’m interested in. I don’t want to see anyone tortured. I don’t think that treating people like him with as much kindness as possible will cause people to act as he did. These are not rational crimes.

      Of course, the irony is that white-collar crime — which is affected by harsh punishment — is what we treat most gently. So for the one reason that I think society has an interest in holding people morally accountable, we totally screw up.

  3. I am not sure the cougar comparison to Brevik is helpful. A cougar attacks. It’s what it does. It’s in its hard-wiring. To torture it for doing so would be to exact revenge for he cougar being what it IS.
    Brevik, like most humans who haven’t grown wild (like Genie or Viktor), had a choice. Actually, countless choices; including: to do nothing, to protest (vociferously or peacefully) to raise awareness for what he believed was a problem, or to meticulously and callously plan and execute a terrorist mission killing and maiming numerus innocent people.
    I am not sure I agree that solitary is a form of torture.. unless we agree that prison / incarceration also is.

    • I’m more ambivalent about free will than I used to be. But I do think it is wrong to think that cougars can’t make choices. My last two years with the crows have shown that they are very similar to humans.

      I think incarceration is a form of torture — just not nearly as bad as solitary confinement.

  4. Enjoyed your article and the thoughts & metaphors about free will.
    I am one who looks at free will as being obviously existent in this world. Free will is likely constrained or affected only by natural or scientific laws , but still free will exist.
    Whether someone is oblivious or knows all or some of the natural or scientific laws , it in no way changes their existence. So it is with free will.
    If we on our own free will choose to jump from a high Clift ,and half way down we of our own free will decide we have changed our mind and don’t want to hit the ground, our free will at some point became constrained by the natural law of gravity.

    • I’m still chewing on the issue and I’ve been trying to get to Daniel Dennett’s work on it.

      But at this time, I don’t understand your argument. After all, what are choices but the result of chemical reactions in the brain? I fully accept that it seems like we have free will. I just don’t see how it works. As far as I can tell, I’m just a machine — way more complicated than a car but not fundamentally different.

      Also, if we say humans have free will, don’t also snails? After all, at any given time, a snail can “choose” to move right or left. Bear in mind, snails don’t have brains. Certainly their ganglia don’t have the higher brain functions that we associate with human “choice.”

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