Discussions of free will tend to attribute it to human beings in abstract, or humanity as a whole. I want to look very specifically at a single human being — Donald Trump — and ask whether he has free will.
If you think Donald Trump is doing a great job, the question is irrelevant. Of course he has free will — or maybe he’s possessed by the ghost of Ronald Reagan. Does it matter?
Whether or not Trump has free will is a question implied by his critics. The many people arguing that he is mentally ill or demented or senile are implying that he does not have free will, at least not full and unimpaired free will. On the one hand, these claims are an attempt to explain why Trump is not mentally suited to the Presidency, and argue for his removal under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. On the other hand, they excuse his behavior and blame it on some organic process in his brain.
The other argument against Trump is that by unimpaired free will he deliberately chooses antisocial behavior. Many mental health advocates and disabled people take umbrage at the implication that Trump’s behavior is due to some sort of mental health problem or mental disability, and prefer to blame Trump on Trump. They (correctly) point out that you don’t have to be crazy to be an a–hole. By this argument, Trump should be impeached under Article 2 of the Constitution, insofar as his bad behavior includes high crimes and misdemeanors.
There is merit to both of these approaches, but the problem is that they view Trump’s behavior in a very narrow snapshot. This narrow view does not take into account the full social context nor personal history that informs Trump’s behavior. By taking a broader view that includes those aspects, I want to show how it is possible to be both mentally ill and possess free will; how Trump can be senile but also fully accountable for his actions.
In rough terms, free will is the ability to choose your own choices. The SEP fills it out a little more: “‘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.” (You can read there a cogent summary of philosophical debates over free will.)
Free will as a philosophical problem tends to be viewed as an intrinsic property of humans — as though somewhere in your brain is a fold of tissue or a tangle of neurons that controls free will. And yet neurology experiments to identify the exercise of free will tend to come up with contradictory evidence. There are many people who believe free will is simply fiction.
If free will is a fiction, it is a social fiction adopted from great need. It is hard to imagine a society without a concept of free will. That society would either be horrifically fascist or horrifically anarchic. Whether or not it has a material basis in our neurology, free will is an idea that we find very useful.
Insofar as it is an idea that orders our lives, free will is real whether or not it exists independently of society. Ideas are real, or can be — not in a material sense, that you can touch them, but in these sense that they have observable effects in the world. Another such idea is love; try to imagine a Valentine’s Day based solely on the biologic aspects of our idea of love. For that matter, try to imagine a Valentine’s Day without free will.
Another way to approach free will as a social idea is to imagine a person on a desert island (as in deserted — without other people). Imagine that he has somehow never had contact with other people. He has grown up without any sense of society or human interaction. Does he have free will? In the social sense, this question is meaningless.
Were you or I on that desert island, we would carry with us our ideas about society. We would carry in our heads mental models of how the people we know would expect us to behave. We would likely behave according to those expectations even if we had no hope of rescue: not eating human corpses that fall out of the sky, not having sex with the local animals, not pooping wherever the urge struck us (or at least feeling guilty about doing so).
These expectations would be very durable, at least until time or despair wore them away. Were we to be then rescued, our rescuers would think we had gone insane — that is, we had lost our ability to choose rationally. They would think we had lost our free will.
In the social sense, our free will is constrained by the people whose influence makes up our mental map of society. If you every time you put a dish in the dishwasher, you hear your mom saying, “Put the dish in the dishwasher”, you can understand what I mean. You have free will in the sense that you are choosing between your instinct not to clean up or your memory of your what you mom insisted you do, but you also had no choice about your mother’s voice being burned into your synapses.
Even if you don’t hear their voices, your mental model of society includes many people who have affected your life — family, teachers, friends, even people you see on TV or read about. If you have bad people in the model, it is easy to make bad choices. If you have good people, it is easy to make good choices. If you have no people, you have no choices. Your free will is never really exercised independently from the people in your life, at least in the social sense.
So when I see Donald Trump described as “lonely, angry and not happy with much of anyone”, what I get is that his social model is full of people helping him make bad choices. Or worse, not helping him make any choice at all: I fear many of these people simply affirm and indulge his instincts. It also means he is being judged, criticized, and ridiculed by a society that he literally cannot imagine. To the extent that he has no access to that social reality, his situation is far worse than being stranded on a desert island.
But here’s the thing: Trump chose his island. With his wealth and position, he had every opportunity to bring good people into his orbit — whether that means real friends who would call him on his bullshit or family to help him recognize his decline or even just a good therapist. And he chose instead people who would reflect his own ego and instinct back, and not help him make good choices.
Even if he’s mentally ill or senile, the fact is he chose to surround himself with people who can’t help him recognize that fact and deal with it. Imagine The Notebook except the lady with Alzheimer’s is Donald Trump and James Garner reads him The Art of the Deal. It sounds like hell, but Trump wrote, directed, and produced it himself.
Consider that we have no problem locking up young black men from impoverished neighborhoods for dealing drugs. We do this on the premise that they freely choose to deal drugs, even though they might have been born into a social context where many people and most role models are drug dealers. They had no choice of their social model, and that model constrained them to almost exclusively bad decisions, but we treat them as if they had access to a wealth of possibility.
Trump had that wealth of possibility, and he still chose a terrible social context. So I am inclined to hold him accountable for his behavior, no matter the proximate cause of that behavior. The ultimate cause is that he has — for decades — surrounded himself with sycophants who only reflect his own ego, people who would bend to his will rather than exercise their own. Whether he is mentally ill or senile is irrelevant, because he showed no interest in making good choices when he was not mentally ill or senile. And he owns the choices he has made, far more so than he owns any building with his name on it.
Whatever his high crimes and misdemeanors in office, Trump’s original sin was choosing himself over other people. And did that of his own free will.