According to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010), free will is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Most philosophers suppose that the concept of free will is very closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. Acting with free will, on such views, is just to satisfy the metaphysical requirement on being responsible for one’s action.
On a minimalist account, free will is the ability to select a course of action as a means of fulfilling some desire. The philosopher David Hume, for example, defines it as “a power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will.” Speaking about free will in its relation to existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre, as the existentialist philosopher, says that “you are free” because you always have a choice. He offers an example of a man who becomes involved in a war to further illustrate his point. He describes that during war, people may assume that a man who is enlisted in army totally have no freedom as they are forced to fight for his country. However, they actually have a choice. For instance, they could leave the army and run away from their country, or commit suicide. The reason they end up fighting in the war is because they considered the consequences of each of their options and decided that fighting is the best choice. As such, they have freely chosen and are responsible for their being in the war.
Sartre provides three categories to illustrate his definition of freedom:
- The man whom he compares to a stone: this man makes no choices and is happy in his no-choice life. He refuses to commit himself (engagement) and to accept responsibility for his life. He continues in his passive habits. Sartre scorns him.
- The man whom he compares to plants: This man is not happy. But he lacks the courage to take responsibility for his actions. He obeys other people. He is the one who suffers from “nausea.” Sartre scorns this man the most of all three groups.
- The man not compared to stones or plants: This man suffers from freedom. He has the nobility to use freedom for the better improvement of his life. He is the one whom Sartre admires.
Furthermore, Sartre makes the boldest statement when he comments that people “choose slavery without suffering”. They would rather live as objects, devoid of true humanness, than face the consequences of self-determinism to use their own free will. When a person acts in bad faith, Sartre claims that they are not being authentic. He is robust in his belief that one should behave in honest, good faith. Sartre says that to exist authentically in the highest possible degree is the aim that existentialism sets before every human being. Sartre also offers the concept of The Others, means those who torture your so-called free will and threat your existence:
They are capable of denying one’s existence and one’s freedom by treating one as an object; for example, if you do a cowardly act, and another person calls you a coward, this cuts off the possibility of your doing something heroic or courageous; it stereotypes you as a coward, and this causes anguish that leads you to become a coward forever.
Others judge you, observe you without taking into consideration your intentions (either your intentions about a future act or an act which you have already committed). The image they have on you may not correspond to the one you have on yourself. However, you cannot deny their existence because only those people who can tell you about who you are. Man does not always understand the motives behind his actions; therefore, he needs others to help in this process. Therefore, Sartre provides four ways of defending oneself from the torture of The Others which are stated below:
- Evasion or Avoidance: One can isolate oneself from the others by doing something like go to sleep, remain silent, or live in obscurity;
- Disguise: One can try to fool others, lie to them, give a false image, or resort to hypocrisy;
- Emotions: One can inspire emotions such as love and friendship in others, make oneself liked or loved by them.
- Violence: A dictator can put people in prison to prevent them from saying what he does not want to hear.
For Sartre, existence precedes essence, freedom is absolute, and existence is freedom. Thus, Sartre strongly rejects any essence which is associated to individuals prior to their existence. Individuals first of all exist, and there is no ‘human nature’ which exists outside or inside beings. Based on this, it can be assumed that freedom is somehow infinite, but the world has many physical limitations which we have to take into consideration. Sartre writes “no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free”. However, individuals are born into the world or into a situation which Sartre calls as the facticity. Facticity of the human condition involves the limits imposed on the individual by the world. For example, ones can choose to commit suicide by their own will, but they will face the consequence like suffering from the pain or maybe the agony of death while doing it. This does not mean that they are not free because they can still choose their own way to die, but sure they have to deal with the consequences of such actions. In other words, success is not important when one executes his/her free will. This is the reason Sartre concludes all his thinking into what people may call later as his phenomenal quotation about freedom, which is shown below: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It depends on you to give life a meaning”.