The Flaw of Fatalism

What is it that some people imagine they lose should their actions turn out to be a deterministic unfolding of conditions, not a "freely willed" choice? There is a sense that some sort of possibility is given up, that one’s power over the world is relinquished. Since things couldn’t have turned out otherwise, why make any effort to bring about a desired outcome? If we don’t have free will, why bother to act at all? This fatalistic response to not having free will is often suggested as a reason why we must have it, or at least must pretend to have it. But such fatalism is misguided; therefore it can’t count as a motive to reject the conclusion that we don’t have free will.

The best way to see the flaw in fatalism is to imagine that we do indeed have some sort of contra-causal free will, and see if it could improve on the deterministic situation we actually find ourselves in. I leave aside here the various sorts of indeterminacy that might be shown, eventually, to play a role in generating behavior, since these do not give us free will, they merely introduce randomness.

Let us suppose then, that whatever my desires are at a given time, I am not bound to follow those desires. That is, my behavior isn’t completely the result of the competition of various motives and inclinations, but instead is at least partly a function of something independent of such influences. So, for instance, let us suppose I must decide between spending a thousand dollars on charity or on my own amusement. What would the role of this independent factor be in such a decision? Presumably, the story goes, one’s free will makes the decision about which desire should win out, the desire to help others or the desire to amuse oneself. But, on what grounds does this independent arbiter make its choice? Why would it choose one way and not another?

If indeed the free will is uninfluenced by one's circumstances, such as desires and motives, then it simply has no reason or capacity to act. Without an inclination pushing in one direction or another there can be no movement. Of course, one can (and usually does) consider the consequences of one’s actions, which has the effect of making one course or another seem more or less desirable. But this sort of rationality isn’t in the least separate from the influence of desire, rather it permits the more effective calculation of how a desire might be fulfilled, and of what might happen were it fulfilled. Nor is the choice to undertake such consideration "free," in the sense of being uninfluenced, for if it were, the same problem would arise: why would the self choose to be rational – to consider consequences – unless there were some determining motive or desire to be rational?

The "best" course – the decision taken – is that which wins out in the competition between motives as illuminated by rationality. If the self were truly free to choose between alternatives, uninfluenced by motives in some respect (whether such motives be altruistic or selfish) the choice would never get made. Likewise, if the self were truly free to choose between being rational or not, the operation of rationality would be haphazard and unreliable. As it stands, however, the self is nothing over and above the reliably coordinated system of desires and dispositions out of which decisions are generated.  We don't stand apart from, or direct, the rationally mediated competition of our motives. If we had some capacity to act independently of motives or of the consideration of consequences, that capacity would give us absolutely no power over circumstances. Why? Because that very independence renders such a capacity irrelevant to decision-making. In fact, it would immobilize us, not empower us.

But again the gloomy fatalist asks, why should I act, when everything that happens is pre-ordained? The answer, really, is that the fatalist, like the rest of us, has no choice but to act. He must concede the power of hunger, thirst, and other basic motives of self-preservation, and the compelling, fated nature of these motives is not ordinarily thought to constitute an infringement of autonomy or a reason not to actively pursue them. Fatalists with the desire to live will look both ways before crossing the street. Likewise, higher level motives, as they win out over competing desires in fatalists’ rational deliberations, are equally determining. And say what they like, fatalists can’t help but engage in such deliberations. After all, there are actually very few, if any, consistent or committed fatalists – those who ignore the promptings of rationality – that survive or prosper very long.

The fatalist supposes that it is useless to act upon higher level motives, since the future is already fixed. But should he take into account the argument above, he will see that having an independent platform of action would add nothing to his power. His power, in short, resides solely in the strength of his desire and his skill in fulfilling it. To give up one’s projects because one believes their outcomes are already determined is irrational, since it is only by acting in very specific ways that projects are realized. True, there is no agent acting independently of desire and rationality which can do otherwise in the situations that unfold. But desire and rationality – unlike the independent, freely willing agent – are not powerless, far from it. By being embedded in the causal matrix they inevitably have their effects, and a strong, skillfully pursued desire can have far-reaching effects indeed.

The fatalistic response to the non-existence of free will, then, can be seen as the quelling or damping of desire by the irrational supposition that it makes no difference what action, or whether any action, is taken. If action is believed to be rendered impotent by determinism, then naturally desires are less likely to be acted upon and may fade away. But this fatalistic response is only a possibility to those who imagine, mistakenly, that being an independent, freely willing agent gives us power over circumstances that would otherwise be missing. If, instead, one embraces the conception of oneself as a locus of motive and rationality, whose "world line" unfolds in space and time, then the knowledge that this unfolding is determined doesn’t undercut desire, as it might if one were disappointed by not being a "first cause." The more or less predictable sequencing of actions and their rewarding outcomes is, after all, what gives us hope that our motives can be fulfilled, and this hope – the opposite of fatalism – in turn spurs desire. We don’t independently choose ourselves, or our motives, and the strong, effective pursuit of our goals doesn’t hinge in the least upon supposing we act in any sense independently of the causal continuum that produced us or now surrounds us. We simply need to know and appreciate the deterministic connections between action and outcomes to realize that, as desire arises in us, so too its fulfillment can arise, if we act smartly and decisively. Seeing the flaw in fatalism makes it more likely that we will act smartly and decisively, even though we don’t have contra-causal free will. 

Since fatalism, as a response to the non-existence of free will, is a deeply mistaken response, one that confuses determinism for powerlessness, we needn’t pretend to have free will just to avoid it. Rather, we must see that the traditional notion of the freely willing agent does nothing to give us real, causal powers – the powers of desire, rationality, and skill – that we don’t already have in some measure. Actions do make a difference, in that they have effects, and the fact that we don’t autonomously choose our course of action independent of circumstances doesn’t lessen their causal efficacy. Seeing this, we accept our place in nature without falling into passivity. Indeed, we have no choice but to respond to the prompting of desire, sometimes modulated by the rational consideration of consequences, sometimes driven straight to its object. Either way, we are inevitably moved to action, and no philosophy, or philosophical mistake, can prevent it.

©  Thomas W. Clark,  7/98