I find the idea of Free Will to be the most useless idea humans have ever created. I’m not saying that it’s wrong. It’s far worse than that. The idea that humans somehow choose what to do and somehow could have chosen differently is dangerous and destructive, because it distracts us from what our real goal should be. Our goal should be to encourage healthy and adaptive behavior everywhere we can.
Now, to a certain degree, we already do this. Not all the times, but there are parts of human existence where the idea of Free Will is so destructive that we’ve intuitively figured out that we should just ignore it. Schools are one. We are constantly looking for ways to improve education and do more with less, without really caring about whether a child chooses to learn or not. We simply try to make an environment where learning and developing is a natural outcome. Whether or not a child chooses to learn in that environment is irrelevant. We know that some environments give us lousy results, so we try and tweak them. This is not to say that’s an easy question, far from it. And there is no real agreement on what a healthy, well-adjusted individual looks like, so figuring out a way to achieve this mythical individual is impossible. But that’s what we are trying to do anyway. And the attempt is valuable, because even the missteps can’t help but improve the overall process. We don’t know what success looks like, but we know what failure is, and avoiding it can’t help but bring us closer to more optimal outcomes.
School is an obvious arena where Free Will is ignored, but there is a world much larger and much more powerful. I mean, of course, the economy. One can argue, as I have, that a government’s goal is to simply create a space where the economy can thrive. That’s what it has always been. The economy is the medium through which people can build their lives. If it is thriving, more people will be able to build healthier, happier lives. Previously, we have attempted to use war to improve the economy, and that works, temporarily. People are easily motivated to spend a great deal of resources in the name of protecting themselves. That act of spending increases economic activity, which can improve many lives. But war is also obviously destructive towards individuals. And the economy suffers in the long term by losing those productive members of society. So we largely avoid war at this point. Despite the fact that we hear a great deal about how dangerous the world is, the truth is it’s never been safer. Wars are less common. Our goal is to reduce them further. In their place, we simply try to build, buy, and sell as much as possible. That’s where our understanding of life falls down.
Traditional economic theory holds that people acting in their own best self interest will naturally improve everyone’s lives. Someone working to sell more of anything will naturally lower the price of it, which means everyone gets it cheaper. And we’ve also realized that that rule doesn’t hold indefinitely, which is why we have rules and regulations preventing any one entity from getting too much power in the marketplace. The problem is that those economic entities, most frequently corporations, but individuals and governments can do the same thing, slowly amass more power, allowing them to influence the rules in such ways that allows them further power. If you think about these entities as living things, which is a useful metaphor, then it’s easy to see the problem. Now we have individuals carving out their own part of the world at the expense of everyone else. A tobacco company that successfully manages to reduce the rules selling cigarettes to kids is a healthy tobacco company. It’s also one far more dangerous to people as a whole, and our ultimate economic future. People dying of cancer are lousy members of society.
This is a problem we continually let happen. We let individuals amass a great deal of power at the expense of the world as a whole. We still tend to think that individuals working towards their own benefit is enough to improve the world for everyone else. True, these individuals are no longer the robber barons of the 19th century, but they behave as individuals, and as selfishly as we would expect them to act. We do a reasonably good job of regulating individuals. What we need to understand about life is that individuals gathered together into groups don’t act much differently. The groups will work towards the group’s own benefit, even if that is to the detriment of it’s own members, and certainly towards the detriment of everyone else. If we could somehow start thinking about large groups as individuals, and treated them the same way, we may find it easier to encourage behavior which helps everyone.