Troubador The Cruelty of Free Will

Released: 28/11/2016

ISBN: 9781785899928

eISBN: 9781785897702

Format: Paperback/eBook

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The Cruelty of Free Will

How Sophistry and Savagery Support a False Belief


Does the idea that we have free will serve to foster our cruelty to one another? Richard Oerton has already dismissed the idea of free will as incoherent and illusory, doing so in The Nonsense of Free Will, a book described as “wonderfully clear – and very clever” by the New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris. 

The Cruelty of Free Will starts by recapitulating the theme of the earlier book, but then goes on to develop it in important ways. It asks two questions: why – and how – does free will belief persist so stubbornly? Philosophers and others who try to uphold free will are guided less by reason than by their own (probably unconscious) emotions. Blind to the fact that our everyday explanations of human behaviour are based, not on free will, but on an unacknowledged determinism, they try to preserve the idea of free will by means of sophistry and word-play. Their methods include a conjuring trick: that of replacing our common idea of free will with some other concept which, though they call it by the same name, actually involves no freedom of choice. Free will is thought to be a good thing and determinism a bad one, but Richard Oerton insists that we’ve got this the wrong way round because belief in free will fosters ignorance and cruelty. It allows us to think that those whose lives are bleak have only themselves to blame, and that criminals and other bad guys are embodiments of self-created wickedness deserving of retributive punishment – whereas in reality, we are all of us simply the products of biological and environmental luck. 

The Cruelty of Free Will asserts that human beings belong to what is still a savage species with few inhibitions against harming one another, and that we cling to the idea of free will mainly because it purports to justify the escape and expression of this savagery.

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Female First

The Cruelty of Free Will is Richard Oerton's follow-up to The Nonsense of Free Will. The discussion of free will is often convoluted and frequently full of hostility. It does not need to be and Oerton does a great job of explaining the problems with free will as it is generally accepted in the west.

I'm hesitant to try my hand at distilling his already streamlined explanations so I won't give it much effort. Basically free will says in response to any given situation, event, whatever we are completely free to make any choice. Yet in every aspect of our daily lives we rely on determinism to get us through. We know, for instance, that a friend's history and preferences will make her pick a certain restaurant over another if given a choice. It isn't that she cannot choose the other but who she is determines what choice she will make. If we were to go through a day thinking that any given action another person took was not determined by their make-up and their history then we would be in a completely random and chaotic world. Any field that looks for reasons behind a person's actions rely on determinism, not free will, being the driving force. A poor explanation by comparison so read the first book for a better explanation or the first chapter of this one.

Free will is what stands behind many of society's cruelest and least compassionate norms and laws. If that poor person had chosen better they would not be poor, so they are to blame. Not the dirt poor environment into which they were born or the institutional racism or sexism they have faced. Criminals should be punished because they freely chose their path, not some of the same factors I just mentioned above. This isn't to say criminals should not be held accountable, they should. But retribution rather than rehabilitation is preferred because people believe the criminal chose freely to follow the path they took.

Basically, free will plays a large role in the way society keeps the poor and the disadvantaged down because, through the lense of free will, they deserve what they get.

Those of you intrigued by the ideas should read the book(s) to better understand. Those of you vehemently opposed to what I am saying should also read the book since I acknowledge my explanation is weak and certainly if there is any chance that the concept of free will is behind our cruelty to one another it is worth the time to read a better explanation before throwing the idea out.

by Earl Messer

He makes lots of good points about free will being nonsense and cruel by it's very being. I agree. It's a total set up. I think to really understand and appreciate this book, I need to find and read, The Nonsense of Free Will., the author's first book on freewill. But free will is an interesting topic and should be read by anyone interested in how the whole idea works, and how to leave it behind. Timely message, good read!

by Catherine Hankins

Richard Oerton

Richard Oerton was born in Devon in 1936. He was admitted a Solicitor in 1959 and got married the same year. He worked in private practice, in legal publishing, at the Law Commision and briefly in the Treasury Solicitor's Department, and he ended as consultant with a firm of Solicitors and Parliamentary Agents in Westminster.

He's always been interested in penal reform and was for a while review editor of the Howard Journal (the journal of the Howard League for Penal Reform). He's written or edited quite a few legal textbooks and written two other books ("Who Is the Criminal?" and "A Lament for the Law Commission")and contributed a lot of articles and letters to journals and newspapers.

He's now retired, a widower, and living in Somerset. He has two surviving children (his son died in 2005) and five grandchildren.

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