Free Will and Animal Issues – Part 1

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Free Will and Animal Issues – Part 1

Read Part 2, Part 3

By Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

This is the first in a series of essays on how the question of whether or not we have free will relates to animal issues. Hopefully, I will do justice to the complex topic of free will, which has challenged philosophers and theologians for centuries.

The first order of business is to define free will. I suggest that it is the capacity of an individual, at some period of time, to choose among different options. Though the individual made one choice, at some time the individual could have made a different choice.

One difficulty is that it is impossible to test whether or not humans have this capacity. We cannot recreate all the circumstances at the time of an individual decision to see whether the person could have chosen otherwise. Some believe that all decisions are predicated on influences over which we have no control, including our upbringing and life experiences. Others believe that chance might play a role in our decisions. For example, random atomic movements might influence what “choices” our brains make. In either event, we would not have free will.

Nevertheless, we feel as if we have free will. Every day, we make countless decisions that feel unimpeded. Furthermore, we act as if other people have free will, holding them accountable for their actions by rewarding desirable behavior and punishing undesirable behavior. That we don’t feel forces directing our decisions does not necessarily mean that such forces don’t exist. Just as gravity exerts its force without our directly feeling it, our decisions might be directed by previous experiences (or random chance), even though we don’t feel compelled to act as we do.

Despite the difficulty of determining whether or not we humans have free will, views about free will have important implications for animal issues. For example, many people believe that free will distinguishes humans from other beings. Is this conviction reasonable? I will explore this question, and its theological implications, in future essays.