Even if We Are Not Free, We Are Still Responsible

Even if We Are Not Free, We Are Still Responsible

These are the words I shared at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester on Rosh Hashanah evening, Wednesday, September 4th. Shanah tovah!

Maureen O’Connor was the first woman elected as the mayor of San Diego, and served six years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. By all accounts, she was a pretty effective public servant and was even called “a goody two-shoes” by a reporter who had covered her career. But her time in office is not what she is remembered for, because earlier this year, O’Connor was charged with money laundering. She had stolen over $2 million dollars from her late husband’s charitable foundation to cover gambling debts, and between 2000 and 2009, O’Connor gambled so much that she won and lost over two billion (yes, that’s “billion” with a “b”) dollars.

But there’s a wrinkle to this story. Apparently, O’Connor had had a brain tumor, which was removed in 2011. And neurologists tell us that depending on where a tumor is, some of its effects might be an increase in dopamine or serotonin, which cause a desire for immediate gratification and pleasure, or could hinder the workings of the frontal cortex, which regulates our ability to control our impulses. O’Connor’s lawyer argued that the tumor impacted her “logic, reasoning and judgment.” At a press conference, she said that “Most of you know, I never meant to hurt the city… There are two Maureens – Maureen No. 1 and Maureen No. 2. Maureen No. 2 is the Maureen who did not know she had a tumor growing in her brain.”

So let me ask you this question: how responsible is Maureen O’Connor for her actions? Do you think she should be punished? Or do you think she should be pitied? It’s a complicated question, since at its core, this story illuminates two big questions we grapple with as we enter into the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe – the questions of free will and responsibility.

We tend to think that these questions of free will and responsibility are in fact, two facets of only one belief – a belief that we are responsible for our actions only if we are totally free. After all, if we were simply puppets who had no autonomy over our own lives, then how could we ever talk about reward and punishment, or whether and how to forgive others, or how we will strive to make better decisions in this upcoming year? But as both Jewish tradition and modern science have been showing, these questions of free will and responsibility are much more nuanced than we might realize. So as we prepare for the year 5774, as we reflect on how we behaved this last year and look towards this upcoming year, we need to remember that “freedom” is not a binary state – either we are free, or we are not. Rather, “freedom” is a matter of degree, but while we may not be completely “free,” we still are responsible.

How Free Are We?

As Americans, we cherish the idea of freedom. “You can be whatever you want to be,” we tell our children. But we know that in reality, there are very real constraints to what we can do in our lives – such as our genetics, our socio-economic status, and of course, the role of luck. But even beyond these obvious limitations, research has been showing that many of our decisions happen far below our conscious awareness.

One of my favorite examples comes from behavioral economist Dan Ariely. He and a few of his colleagues ran an auction of several enticing items, including a well-regarded bottle of wine, a cordless keyboard and mouse, and a box of Belgian chocolates. As in all auctions, the students were free to write down any number as their bid – whatever they thought the appropriate price would be that would win they item, they could write it down. But in this auction, before the students submitted their bids, Ariely and his colleagues told them to “write down the last two digits of [their] social security number at the top of the page and then write them again next to each of the items in the form of a price. In other words, if the last two digits are twenty-three, [they were to] write twenty-three dollars [next to their bids].”

After writing those two digits, the students wrote down their bids (ostensibly a “free choice”) and Ariely announced the winners, who then got up and paid to receive their prizes. Back in his office, Ariely crunched some numbers and confirmed what he thought might be the case: even though the last two digits of each student’s social security number were completely arbitrary and random, “the students with the highest-ending social security digits bid highest, while those with the lowest-ending numbers bid lowest. The top 20 percent, for instance, bid an average of $56 for the cordless keyboard; the bottom 20 percent bid an average of $16.” As we know (or actually, as we often don’t know!), our decisions are greatly impacted by factors outside of our conscious control. We may think we are totally in charge of our decisions, but in truth, we really don’t know how “free” we actually are.

This question of just how “free” we are is one that Jewish tradition has grappled with for centuries. On one level, our texts tell us that we have free will. On Yom Kippur, we will be reading words from the Torah that have God saying, “See, I have set before you this day life and blessing, death and curse. Therefore, choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) So clearly, at least one text implies that we have the ability to make our own decisions.

But other texts are more problematic. One fascinating one is the story of Pharaoh’s “hardened heart.” We all know the story – after 400 years of slavery in Egypt, God finally decides that the time is right for the Israelites to be free. God chooses Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery, and to tell the king of Egypt to “Let My people go.” But even before a series of confrontations that lead to 10 separate plagues upon Egypt, God tells Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you.” (Exodus 7:3-4) For this text, it certainly sounds like Pharaoh was simply a marionette in God’s plan and could not make his own decisions.

So which is it? Are we free to make our own choices, or does God control everything? Judaism’s answer is that this question is false dichotomy, and the answer is “yes.” The most classic statement about free will comes from Rabbi Akiva, who said that, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.” (Avot 3:15) Yes, we can choose, Judaism says, and yes, God has foreseen everything.

A Jewish View on Free Will and Determinism

But how does that work? How can there be free choice if God has foreseen everything? Let me present an analogy that may help us extricate ourselves from this dilemma. Think about a magic trick, when a magician tells you to “pick a card, any card.” But as you think about this trick, think about it from two different perspectives – from the point of view of the magician who is orchestrating it, and from our point of view, experiencing it subjectively. For the magician, “all is foreseen” – he knows what is going to happen, and has planned everything out meticulously. But for us, it feels like “freedom of choice is given,” because we believe we could have picked any card at all. And that belief is the point, because for us to experience the awe and wonder, we have to believe that we are the ones in charge.

So along those lines, let’s now think of our lives from two different perspectives – from God’s and from our own. Now, we may believe that God has foreseen everything, or we may not. But as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches, “The only thing truly in our power, and our power alone, may be whether we will behave in each moment with arrogance or reverence. Other than that, life goes on as before.” (Invisible Lines of Connection) The crucial belief for us to hold onto is that “freedom of choice is given” – even if that, too, is not always the case. Why? Because if we simply feel invested in our choices – even if sometimes they aren’t totally always ours” – we can then own them and take responsibility for them.

If we set up a dichotomy between “free will” and “determinism,” then any restriction of that freedom can easily lead us to abdicate our own sense of responsibility. We transform explanations into excuses. “Yes, I said those hurtful things, but I was angry.” “Yes, I wasn’t listening to you when you were talking, but I had a very stressful day at work.” We can always, always, always come up with an explanation for our actions that is true – or at least has some truth to it. But we cannot use those explanations as excuses to avoid responsibility.

Believing We Are Free Makes Us More Responsible

Indeed, while we never how exactly much control we have, and may have less freedom than we might think, a belief that we are free – that despite our circumstance, we have some control over our response – helps engender a stronger sense of responsibility. Psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler have argued “that people and societies behave better when they [believe that they have free will]…” They ran a study which began with some college students reading a book that suggested that everything in life has already been determined, and others reading a neutral text. They then were given a computerized test, but they were told, “there was a glitch in the software, and that the answer to each question would pop up automatically. They were instructed that, to prevent this from happening, they had to push one of the computer keys…Thus it took effort not to cheat….What happened? The students who read about determinism [claiming that we have “no real control over our lives”] cheated, while those who had read [the neutral] book did not… (Gazzaniga, Who’s in Charge?, 114-15) “Doubting one’s free will may undermine the sense of self as agent,” Vohs and Schooler concluded. “Or, perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes.”

So the question is not “how much freedom do we have?” We don’t know the answer to that question. Rather, we need to ask, “how do we own our sense of responsibility for our actions – even if that is simply a subjective feeling?” Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger wrote a wonderful book called Our Religious Brains, and says that

free will may be a bit of a misnomer, but you still have free decision making…That you are hungry is not under your control…That you know that cheesecake will aggravate your cholesterol is learned [and so you can choose not eat it]…[Yes,] sometimes you’ll just grab what you want. [But] because you have trained yourself over the years and have been trained by parents and teachers of all sorts and life’s school of hard knocks to make your choices thoughtfully and intentionally, learning, at least to some extent, to think critically, you remain responsible for your own decision making. Total or radical freedom you do not have. A great deal of freedom you do have. (Mecklenburger, 102)

Indeed, as both science and Judaism teach, ultimately, regardless of how “free” we are, we are the ones responsible for our own choices.

Moving Forward

And that’s an important message for us as we enter 5774. We do not know how much freedom we have. And indeed, our level of freedom is not at “yes/no” question, but rather, a matter of degree. At different times, we will have different levels of freedom in our lives. But we always have some, and our job is decide how we use it. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, “The word ‘responsible’ has two different meanings. One connotes guilt, blame and punishment as in, “Who’s responsible for this mess?”; the other seems focused on the present and connotes moral maturity, as in ‘She is a very responsible woman.’ The former means ‘blame,’ the latter draws its meaning from “able to respond,” that is, ‘response-able.’” (Invisible Lines of Connection). We cannot control our genetics, our brains, our circumstances or our situations. But we are able to have at least some control over our response.

Indeed, Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches: “Human freedom, however qualified by the limitations of biology, society, gender, or wealth, is still freedom. We are authors of our actions, and we are responsible for our choices.” (Artson, The Everyday Torah, 263-4) So in this of 5774, may we use whatever freedom we might have to help us take on the responsibility of repairing ourselves, our relationships, and our world.

Amen, and Shanah Tovah.


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