‘Pull Yourself up by your Bootstraps’ | Arun Dass

I really hate this phrase, and I always hear it from my fellow Conservatives. If you have a problem, then that’s on you and you should deal with it. Sounds good in theory but in practise is super detrimental to our communities. The reason why this phrase is so easy to throw out is because of the underlying belief of free will that it is associated with. If you believe that free will exists, then obviously if you are in a bad situation you can do something about it. However, I don’t believe that free will exists. Now before my Conservative comrades call me a filthy wet wipe liberal and proceed to mercilessly destroy me with facts and logic, allow me to deconstruct my argument for why free will is an illusion.

The idea of free will is completely incompatible with casual determinism. For you philistines who don’t know this extremely specific area of philosophy, don’t worry I’m here to walk you through it. We can do this together. Casual determinism is the idea that every event requires a previous event before it to manifest into what you are doing now during this event. This is the idea of causality. For example, are you reading this right now through your own free will? Or are you part of a community where this article is more likely to be shared and so influencing your ability to see it? If the latter is true, then you must concede that the choices of those around you act as a constraint to what you have access to; how you think; what resources you have at your disposal. If certain life events -external from your own decisions- lead you down a specific path, did you really have control over all your options? Or did the simple fact that we live in an interconnected society mean that even if you had other options you couldn’t take them, or you may have never really seen other options in the first place. Either way your free will is greatly diminished.

We can demonstrate this with a thought experiment. Quickly think of a country right now. I’ll give you five seconds to think of one. You can think of any country in the world, but is this true? Well you can’t think of countries you don’t know the names of, so that brings the pool of countries down. There are countries where for some reason your mind just blanks them out, so they’re removed from the potential pool of answers. Let’s say you picked France, did you do so because you’ve been on a holiday to the French alps? Most likely the country that you picked had some sort of significance to you. Did you pick that country because of previous events that influenced your decision now? or was it out of some vague notion of free will?

I’m going to take this a step further, I don’t believe that your free will is greatly diminished, I believe that your free will is completely absent. let’s associate “free will” with being “ultimately responsible for one’s actions” as it is commonly seen. How one acts is a result of one’s mentality, which we will call M for now. To be responsible for M one must have deliberately chosen to be M in accordance with some reason, which we will call R1. However, for that choice to be your choice, one must have a reason that lead to the decision making of R1 requiring a further reason of R2, and so on. One’s free choice requires an infinite regression of choices when making a decision.

We can take the maths out of this make bring it down to 3 basic premises. Premise 1: When we act, we do what we do because of who we are (all things considered). Premise 2: to be truly responsible for what we do when we act, we need to be truly responsible for who we are (based on premise 1). Premise 3: we cannot be ultimately responsible for the way we are due to external factors. Conclusion: we cannot be free.

There are hundreds of different arguments to show that free will is an illusion, but for now I’m just going to assume you agree with me for simplicity’s sake. If your free will doesn’t exist, then you can’t just tell people to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. What if I don’t own a pair of boots? All of us are thrust into this world without our consent and forced to grow up in environments that we have no control over. We don’t tell a kid in a crack house that he has the capability of one day being the Prime Minister because deep down we all know the resources at his disposal are pitiful in comparison to that of a middle-class child in a stable family setting.

The perverse notion that everyone can just do it if they try hard enough has destroyed how our communities work. We all have different height, hair colour, eye colour, strength, speed, intelligence, wit, etc. We need to recognise, as Conservatives, that some of our communities fall by the wayside and just telling them to get on with it doesn’t help. If you care about your local/national institutions and how we all interact with them to form a civil society then redistribution of wealth shouldn’t be looked down upon. It should be celebrated. We need more redistribution to our schools and youth clubs. We need more redistribution to our parks and greenery. We need more redistribution to the poorest in our society at bare minimum to help the children they may have who never asked for any of this.

For a capitalist system to thrive people need capital. Unfortunately, some people just don’t know how to accumulate capital and/or have been dealt a bad hand. In these circumstances we shouldn’t just give them what they need, that would be stupid. Instead we should help pick them up and point them in the right direction.

Photo by Jon Riley on Flickr. 

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