Does free will exist in a state with laws – A take on individual freedom in modern times

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The concept of free will translates itself as a supposed power or capacity of a human being to take decisions and actions without any limitations from the external world. On the other hand, philosophers Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle each had their definition of law, or what is considered a limitation, in regards to the state and individual; they believed that laws can guard against tyranny, that they were put in place as a common agreement of the city-state, and that they are the correct judgment of the state respectively. However, while these ideas tackle essential subjects in the foundation of a society, we understand that they cannot co-exist within one realm. And so we wonder, can free will exist in a state led by law?

How does the relationship between law and free will affect our daily lives?

We must first contextualise the relationship between law and personal choices. One of the common extremities is that they both contain an idea of justice. Laws were supposedly set in place to conduct the latter and to create a system that contains and manoeuvres the human chaos of everyday life. Personal choices, otherwise known as free will, relies on the idea of justice in the sense that it will protect the rights of freedom within a judicial society. However, many argue that there is no such thing as justice because the law is only in favour of the social elites. Meaning, there is only a small portion of the population that can genuinely make use of the judicial system, but many do not have this privilege because they do not fit the protected stereotype. So to begin with, there is a large chunk of the sample made of several minorities that cannot be judged fairly because the system is not put in place to protect them, but rather to condemn them under the pretext of law and justice, regardless of who or what it’s applicable for. Additionally, in recent criminal cases, for example, we’ve seen how the government favours criminals depending on their ethnicity, exempting some by claiming that they are mentally unwell and punishing others who have done the same crimes. One defendant is a white straight man, the other can have almost any other identity and will be prosecuted differently. 

Free will: An illusion or reality?

Free will can be translated as personal conscious choices. Looking into the notion of free will, we quickly understand that it is purely subjective and individualistic, that it is nothing but a mere illusion that we’d like to believe. We want to think that we are free because we live our lives the way our circumstances allow. Aren’t our circumstances determined by a society functioning within the limitations of law? Or to simply put it, can you walk around naked in your street without being charged for indecent exposure? Free will does not truly exist. If it did, there would be a lot more chaos in the world, with crimes not deemed punishable and individuals fighting for their freedom to do more of what they want to do. It includes stealing and robbing in the name of free will, under the umbrella of “being allowed” to do whatever one wants to do. The thing is, there is a very big difference between “being allowed” and “wanting to be allowed”. If free will is not condemnable and we’re allowed to commit crimes for example, then the law does not work in the name of protection, but of freedom. It is exclusively one or the other. The mere fact that there isn’t this one way of doing things proves that there is no one explanation for free will and that no matter how we try to avoid falling under this or that, we are still within the same bubble. There is no way out of it unless one moves away from society and civilisation, but the conditioning that was done up until the moment of the self-inflicted exile remains and will need a conscious effort to unlearn. 

Do laws truly protect?

Do we want to live in a world with no laws? A place where everything is allowed? The judicial system is put in place to give citizens their rights, and justice in case their rights were violated. We question the nature of said rights; one’s decision to abide by their free will – because it’s a personal conscious choice – should not overstep on someone else’s freedom because it becomes counteractive, triggering the other person’s need to defend themselves which leads to them crossing certain limitations, and so on. It is a massive chain effect. Even before the installation of laws and justice, people had their own small-scaled ‘way of life’ that aimed to contain the chaos. It eventually grew on a bigger scale. However, as we try to create harmony in a world where individuals co-exist daily, we come to terms with the fact that the only reason there is a system, regardless of how efficient it is, is because people cannot proceed with their everyday lives without refraining from using their freewill constantly. And so, laws were set in place. Shouldn’t that lessen the violence rate in most countries? The issue is that laws are a double-edged sword. In the United States of America, fourty four states have a provision in their state’s constitution similar to the Second Amendment of the US. The latter protects the right of citizens to bear arms. The superficial rationalisation of this decision is justified as protecting the rights of citizens to defend themselves against anyone who trespasses their boundaries. However, in recent years, gun violence rates have skyrocketed as weapon owners are using their legally bought weapons to harm instead of for self-defense purposes. Yet, there remains a question of whether or not states should ban guns. On one hand, isn’t it a person’s right to ensure that they’ll be able to protect themselves as best as they could? On the other hand, isn’t it unfair for a person to get hurt because someone decided to attack? 

What about laws in times of crisis?

During COVID-19, the entire judicial system was cornered and placed under a microscope. For the first time in decades, the entire world was experiencing a pandemic amid a collapsing economy and declining ecological circumstances. Every country was expected to deal with the issue at hand as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, there was no general agreement; some countries such as Canada took extreme measures, and others such as Lebanon, not so much. Taking these two as an example, the first underwent over two years of strict and consistent lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus resulting in smaller losses than other places. The pandemic laws overstepped everyone’s free will to live a normal life, but in times of crisis, a collective decision needs to be made to protect lives, prioritising being alive over going out. Lebanon, on the other hand, was suffering from an economic collapse and recession, and early on during the lockdown, the country’s capital Beirut suffered devastating losses after the third largest nuclear bomb exploded in its port. Not only did this tragic event highlight the lack of justice, but it also shed light on the dismissive nature of laws after horrendous acts are done. In a country with a corrupt political and judicial system, there are no laws to keep anyone accountable for their actions. One could say that there is more freedom in a country with no laws. Would abolishing the judicial system in the name of free will create peace? Absolutely not. The world is a very chaotic place. We tend to forget that we are conscious animals, as French philosopher Renee Descartes once said. We have indeed achieved a lot, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that we are still animals. The innate traits of a being are both violent and soft, defensive and protective, greedy and generous…but our egos often step in. Without laws, chaos would instantly begin. What’s the point of working if we could just steal whatever we want? Why not kill the neighbour who pisses everyone off? The list goes on about “what’s the point of this” and “why not do that”, but in the end, any statement suggests harming someone in the process. So laws do technically protect.

Aren’t citizens partly responsible for the functionality of their judicial system?

The implementation of laws is usually done by a higher power elected by the people; one could technically say that it’s the citizens of the territory that set themselves up. And so we usually find democrats and republicans, leftists and rightists, liberals and conservatives, all defending their ideologies to be implemented within that same system. Yet, they’re all fighting for different ideas of freedom that still fall under the power of law. However, one cannot deny the need for laws and fairness within society no matter how much we are pushed to think about our rights and free will. With an ever-growing population, a rise of individualism, and infinite opinions, there needs to be a system to control how these ideas are being communicated with one another. Violence is innate within us, it stems from human nature’s need to defend itself and to ensure that basic needs are being met, regardless of how the other might get hurt. And so laws are essential in the functionality of society, to protect people from getting harmed; but in a world where every case differs from the other, can we have one set of collective laws? By punishing a person for their acts, aren’t we taking away their free will? By belonging to a certain country, are we automatically forced to abide by the rules with no questions asked? Are we actually free if we are limited by these rules that ensure a specific type of functionality in our everyday lives?

Can law and free will co-exist?

Free will and laws, on the other hand, cannot co-exist. They live at each other’s extremities. One starts where the other ends. No matter how much we want to believe that the choices we made are the reason why our lives are the way they are today and that we have the freedom to make them, it will never be true. Even the actions that we think stem from free will can only be categorised as such if there are no laws allowing or forbidding that. We cannot forget the influence that laws have had on humankind, in all its forms. Societal, judicial, and economic…laws all fall under the same agenda of wanting to protect something. There are laws for every thinkable move. We wonder where the need to protect comes from, but then we remember how life would be without this sort of system. In the end, the true enemy is not the law or free will, humankind desires to live a good life versus the world. If anything, laws themselves are a consequence of this human desire to live a good life. Respecting laws and sacrificing personal freedom is the organism we’ve followed through with to ensure a level of daily human performance amongst its peers. Do we prefer a free or a protected life? Everything we know today is a consequence of an action done years ago; the influence of many factors such as culture, religion, geographical location, and so on is engraved in the depth of many’s upbringing. It’s a presence that we can never overcome. And so, free will and laws cannot coincide; they might exist in the same circumstances as the first is from within, and the second has rendered us its subjects whether we accept it or not – which is in itself an example of lack of freedom. We are subjected to laws from birth to death, and the only way for free will to prevail is to proceed with the wanted actions in the shadows, away from the lights of the judicial system. So is the law against the freedom of an individual? Or is the law necessary to ensure one’s freedom? We could say that both statements are two sides of the same coin. Because the default equation is one’s freedom end where the others’ begins. Laws do limit beings but just enough to keep the influence of individualism and free will in our daily lives. So technically, we can do whatever won’t harm anyone else. So factually, laws do protect our rights superficially, but it is the system on the inside that is rotten, hence the impending doom ahead.

What does it all mean?

In conclusion, laws are a mandatory part of society; the latter could never function without them. Free will is a concept that will remain subjective and individualistic, but it cannot rise in an everyday context while cohabitating on the planet with others. The real question at hand is law and justice versus freedom and rights. As human beings, we want to believe that we evolved throughout time and as a species in favor of liberty, expression, and action. Yet, no matter how much we would like to believe that we are at the center of all that matters, we quickly come to terms with the fact that we are nothing but mere tokens in a bigger system, with our understanding of freedom modified to fit in an organized society. And so, we conclude that there is no such thing as free will and that laws are ever-present.

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