Free Will vs Predestination: A Difference between Right and Left

So many of the disagreements between those on the right and those on the left can be explained by differing attitudes on the question of free will vs predestination. I am not speaking here of the strict philosophical or religious meanings of the terms, but rather of the extent to which outcomes in life are determined by a person’s background, external circumstances or innate characteristics (predestination, the domain of the left) or to that person’s own choices and decisions (free will, the domain of the right). These differences colour attitudes towards many varied areas of social and political debate, from criminal justice to education, from opportunity in the workplace to what constitutes a fair taxation system. Whilst not all differences can be explained by this, it is startling how often the disagreement can be brought back, at root, to differing opinions on this matter.

Almost everyone would agree that many things in life depend both on a person’senvironment and upon the decisions they make. However, I’ve observed that right and left tend to disagree in at least three principal areas:

  • The extent to which each determines the outcome.
  • Whether the manner in which each determines the outcome matters.
  • The extent to which policy decisions should depend upon any given distribution of causation.

1. The extent to which each determines the outcome.

In general, those on the left will believe that a significantly greater share of the outcome is determined by factors outside the individual’s control. This can lead to narratives of systemic disadvantage (and necessary compensating action), or to beliefs that the outcomes – for example individual earnings – do not relate strongly to individual decisions and therefore are not ‘deserved’ by the more fortunate, leading to a greater willingness to redistribute or level the playing field, and a greater reluctance to punish those, such as criminals, who carry out negative actions. By contrast, those on the right will tend to see outcomes as primarily the result of individual choices, effort or hard work, with the outcomes of those who are successful being ones that could be achieved by any in their circumstance, if had made similar decisions, and that those who do wrong are morally culpable.

2. Whether the manner in which each determines the outcome matters.

If people from working class backgrounds are less likely to enter high status professions such as medicine or law, is that because existing doctors and lawyers are actively discriminating against people with working class accents? Or is it because, statistically, people from working class backgrounds are more likely to make a number of individual choices (perhaps spending less time reading books) that result, even if they attend the same schools and have the same opportunities, in fewer of them being able to compete successfully for the available positions. For many on the left, this doesn’t matter, save as a means of diagnosing the problem – either is an injustice that must be fixed. For many on the right, this matters enormously: whilst they would agree about the injustice of the first, they would be more likely to see the latter as a matter of individual choice.

3. The extent to which policy decisions should depend upon any given distribution of causation.

Even where right and left agree on the cause, they will often disagree strongly on the conclusion. There is reasonably good evidence that approximately half of the difference in graduate earnings between different university courses is caused by background factors (including prior attainment, race, gender) and approximately half is due to the choice of subject and course. Yet I have seen those on the left say that if half is due to background factors it is outrageous to judge and compare courses on this basis, whilst those on the right say that if half is due to subject and course, of course that should be taken into account when evaluating courses. Similar dichotomies occur when discussing issues at the individual level.

As a Conservative, I believe that whilst there is some truth to both, overall the free will narrative is not only more accurate in terms of its description of the world; not only by far the best way to create a moral, successful and well-functioning society; but is the only empowering and uplifting way to consider humanity, by considering each individual as an empowered, independent moral agent, capable of free will and responsible for their own decisions. But I find it insightful how many of my policy disagreements can be traced back to what, ultimately, is a stronger belief in predestination.