The final battle between good and evil at the end of The Matrix Revolutions is the best part of a very flawed movie. Whatever else the Matrix sequels did wrong – and they did a fair bit – the last fight between Neo and Agent Smith is basically perfect. It’s not just a punching contest, it’s a distillation of every moral value at stake in their conflict. I know that’s a controversial statement because I’ve seen so many people make fun of the best part of the scene:
Agent Smith: “Why, Mr. Anderson? Why, why, why? Why do you do it? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? Do you believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr. Anderson, vagaries of perception! Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself, although only a human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr. Anderson. You must know it by now! You can’t win! It’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson?! Why?! WHY DO YOU PERSIST?!”
Neo: “Because I choose to.”
I worry about what it means that such a beautiful and simple encapsulation of what it means to be a human being is so routinely mocked for its alleged meaninglessness: “Because I choose to”. There is something in our language, always present, but more and more prevalent as we sink deeper into the grey muck of modernity: we don’t know how to talk about freedom. We don’t know how to speak about each other as beings with free will. We speak of people driven by rage, rather than people who choose the path of rage. We speak of people who can’t help but be who they are and do what they do, rather than people who consistently choose to continue in their habits. We speak of people as if they’re machines, rather than people.
Some of it is well-intentioned, I’m sure. There are legitimate critiques of theories of freedom that ignore the ways we are prevented from exercising our free will. But we’re at risk of sprinting towards the other extreme. We’re at risk of denying that free will exists at all.
When Neo says “Because I choose to”, he’s mocking and rejecting Smith’s way of seeing the world, because Smith is a computer program who actually can’t understand the concept of free will. In the first film, he describes human beings as a virus, and it’s not just hyperbole. He really does see people as mindless creatures driven purely by impulse, as machines carrying out their programming, under the delusion they’re complex beings that think and choose. When Smith asks Neo why he persists, it’s because he genuinely doesn’t understand why Neo hasn’t surrendered. But we understand. Neo believes in something more than himself and his own self-preservation. He’s willing to struggle and suffer and die to liberate humanity from their enslavement. Not because he must, but because he chooses to.
I take it for granted that most people believe in free will because, if we didn’t, lots of normal human behaviours wouldn’t make sense. When someone harms us, we’re not just angry that harm occurred to us, we’re specifically angry at the person who harmed us for doing so. We try to make people feel bad for what they did: we feel bad when we do bad things ourselves. We’re even more likely to give people credit when they do good things because we recognise that doing the right thing often goes against our own interests. Some people don’t believe in free will, of course, but they sound like lunatics to most people, and thank God. They generally regard human beings as clusters of biological processes or whatever whose minds can only passively perceive the world (if they believe we have minds at all) and whose “actions” are actually just “reactions” to various stimuli. That doesn’t sound that crazy until they have to account for human behaviour more complex than eating. Humans are irrational and weird and spontaneous and act against our own self-interest, or in ways totally unrelated to our own self-interest, all the time.
When confronted with the reality of human behaviour, those who deny free will are essentially forced to describe human beings as the most complex machine we can possibly imagine, expressing our biological urges in ways that seem to hold no reference point in actual biology. There’s no biological imperative that explains massive wealth-hoarding, since the ultra-rich generally conceal how wealthy they are to avoid taxes, so they don’t do it to show off, and also spend very little of their wealth, so they don’t do it to improve their lives in any way. We’re also capable of massive divergence despite common background and environment (e.g. even two twins brought up in the same household will generally behave differently from each other and lead quite different lives) and constantly do things that just don’t seem to have any purpose at all, like this restaurant that serves food on tiny floating plates for no apparent reason.
In other words, denial of free will entails describing humans as biological machines that are (1) so complex we appear to have free will and (2) experience ourselves as having free will, and yet (3) do not have free will, which seems way more complicated and less plausible than the possibility that we just have free will. I think free will is as self-evident as it’s possible for any metaphysical concept to be – we experience ourselves as making decisions, and it’s proven basically impossible throughout history for anyone to convince us otherwise, so it’s probably just true – but, even if we don’t have free will, it’s good that, for the most part, we behave as if we do.
If we don’t believe in free will, then either morality doesn’t make sense and we should just abandon it altogether, or it’s just one more way we express our biological imperatives, a stimulus we create for other people to try and change their behaviour to, presumably, benefit us (or our community, or the species as a whole) in some way. Neither possibility seems nice, but I’m more concerned by the latter, since it’s the more likely result. We’ll probably never totally abandon the idea of free will, because it’s so unintuitive to think of ourselves as not making choices, though we also don’t believe in absolute free will, which is fine, because we don’t have absolute free will. We are physically constrained in what we can choose to do (e.g. I can’t choose to fly), and we sometimes act on instinct or impulse (e.g. we put up our arms to shield ourselves from danger without thinking about it). We must accept there’s a limit to how much control we have over our actions, but where the limit is set is debatable.
There’s a difference, though, between acknowledging genuine constraints on our free will and just not taking free will seriously enough to defend it from people who’d rather treat people like robots than human beings. In the past, we’ve take it so unseriously that we’ve let the debate over where the limit is set slide into dark stuff like sterilising and lobotomising and euthanising criminals to fight crime over and over again throughout our history. After all, if people are basically just machines, then it’s not their fault when they do wrong – they’re just defective. They can’t be reasoned with or rehabilitated, so the only thing that’s left to do is to make sure they can’t cause more harm by changing their brains (by cutting pieces out), stopping them from procreating (can’t let that criminal biology spread) or just straight-up murdering them. Stuff like that still happens today, and though it’s generally frowned-upon and happens less often than it used to, it still happens too much. Whenever I see people talk or write about people as if they don’t have free will, it wigs me out, because I see in it the seeds of the dehumanising logic that leads to mass state violence against “undesirable” people. And one place I see it constantly, even in my own writing, is when writing about fictional characters.
Fictional characters don’t actually have free will, of course, because they’re not real, but that’s not what I mean. When critics write about fictional characters as if they don’t have free will, it doesn’t reflect the way in which fictional characters don’t have free will, i.e. they don’t have minds and all their actions are decided by real human beings in the real world. They write about fictional characters as if they’re machines, driven by the bundle of wants and needs and traits and quirks that constitute their personality. There’s a functionally infinite array of examples just from people using the phrase “driven by”: Billy Beane in Moneyball is “driven by his hatred of losing” and Howard Hughes in The Aviator is “driven by his insecurity”, while the brooding hero of American Assassin is “driven by his lust for revenge”. One review of Netflix’s Iron Fist compares its protagonist to those of Netflix’s other superhero shows: “Daredevil‘s Matt Murdock is driven by his Catholic guilt, Jessica Jones by traumatic assault and consent issues and Luke Cage by America’s multi-century history of imperiled black masculinity”. From these descriptions, you get the impression none of these characters are making choices, least of all moral ones. They’re just passengers in their own minds, irresistibly compelled forward into the next action. Even here, you can see how these habits of language are never limited to just fictional characters. Billy Beane and Howard Hughes are, after all, real people. And critics are rarely just critics: they’re also entertainment journalists who interview real people and write about them in the same way. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan didn’t choose to pursue a trilogy of modern Westerns because he thought it would be artistically interesting or creatively satisfying or maybe even just profitable to make movies that explore the “modern American frontier” – he was “driven by his fascination” with it.
Two recently-ended comedy shows, Comedy Central’s Review and HBO’s Vice Principals, are unique in modern pop culture for how much of a point they make of showing that all the characters’ actions are freely chosen. Both shows feature a middle-aged white male protagonist: Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) for Review, Neal Gamby (Danny McBride) for Vice Principals. Forrest is a well-educated, married, upper-middle-class suburban Californian critic who reviews life experiences the way other people review movies or food. Neal is a divorced vice principal at a mediocre high school in South Carolina with a bogus “leadership” degree from an online college. Forrest and Neal are both bad people who do lots of terrible things: Forrest actually divorces his wife in the third episode of Review because he was asked to review getting a divorce, while Neal burns down the home of a woman he just met because she got the job he wanted. Both shows feature multiple opportunities for each of Forrest and Neal to acknowledge their sins and change their behaviour, and it’s in these scenes that each of the shows portrays how free will is a source of both deep horror and profound hope.
Whenever either Forrest or Neal are given a chance to choose to do something bad, their show slows down to make sure you can see them mulling over their options in their head, being tempted by the good, selfless thing to do. Neal gets to personally fire the teacher he hates the most in season two of Vice Principals, but he knows it’ll only hurt the students, so he hesitates and almost pleads for mercy on the teacher’s behalf before finally obeying his superior’s order. In one of the rare occasions where Forrest comes close to making a good decision in Review, he’s asked to “do a William Tell” and spends a long time contemplating his choice, including testing the feasibility of firing an apple off his son’s head without killing him. “What choice do I have!?” yells Forrest, before changing tack and looking into fostering a second son to use instead of his own. He goes ahead with it in the end, but, rather than do the right thing by just refusing to do the review, he takes his son’s place and blackmails his elderly father into shooting the apple off his head instead.
Review is a lot more tonally wacky than Vice Principals, but both treat the harm their protagonists do to others as deadly serious, and therefore these moments of moral contemplation carry a lot of gravity. Every time it happens, a part of you hopes they’ll finally choose the good. Forrest will stop hurting himself and others by taking on reviews (drug addiction, running from the law, leading a cult) that mess up their lives. Neal will stop trying to get the new principal fired by making her fall off the wagon and filming her urinate on a car bonnet. They’ve both done so many awful things already, but every time we hope it’ll be different now, because we believe people can choose to be better than they were before. If we didn’t believe that, we’d have no reason to believe the world could ever be better than it is now, and the world is an awful place full of more misery and cruelty than almost anyone who will ever be in a position to read this article can possibly imagine. We all know on an intellectual level that millions of people die from hunger every year, including over a million children, but when you really think about the fact that we live in a world where so many people die every year just because they don’t have food to put in their mouths, it’s beyond disgusting, beyond horrifying. There’s around seven and a half billion people on Earth, and one percent of them, around seventy-five million, own half of the wealth in the entire world, while the same number of people die every decade just because they can’t buy food, and the vast majority of people in between aren’t much better off: in 2014, 1.6 billion people were in extreme poverty, and in 2015, over two-thirds of the world’s population lived on less than ten dollars a day. If we don’t believe that it’s possible for us to make choices that will make the world better than it is now, it’s hard to see how life could possibly be worth living unless you’re a purely self-interested, amoral asshole. We need the hope that free will gives to make it through the night, the hope that people will make better choices, from the grand, epochal decisions of how our society is organised to the small, daily decisions of how we choose to treat other people in our lives. So, no matter how many times Forrest and Neal let us down – no matter how many times anyone lets us down – it’s almost impossible to give up on the hope that next time, they won’t.
But if the hope of free will is that we can choose good, the horror of free will is that we can choose evil, and humanity has chosen so much evil over so much of our history that it’s sometimes difficult to believe there’s any good in us at all. I understand the impulse, especially when thinking and talking about our own actions, to act like we’re “driven by” impulses we can’t resist, because it helps us distance ourselves from the acknowledgement that we choose wrongdoing. We like to credit our good choices to ourselves and blame our bad choices on irresistible flaws: “I couldn’t help myself”. No one who has ever done wrong enjoys knowing that they chose to do wrong, because it forces you to accept that sometimes, when confronted with the choice between right and wrong, you are the kind of person who will sometimes – maybe even most of the time – choose to be vain, petty, selfish, greedy and cowardly. There’s a shallow kind of comfort in denying that, because it lets you avoid feeling responsible. But, in the long run, it’s much worse to pretend you don’t have a say in your actions. In the absence of the hope that you will choose better the next time, all that’s left is the despair of repeating your worst actions over and over and over in different ways and at different times, of never changing or growing, of forever being a slave to your character and your circumstances.
Even with shows as focused on questions of free will and morality and the possibility of change as Review and Vice Principals, it’s not hard to find reviewers who describe their protagonists’ actions with terms of can and can’t rather than do or don’t. Forrest isn’t someone who chooses over and over again to put himself and other people through hell in service of his own ego – “he can’t see Review is both a license to indulge his (or someone’s, anyone’s) baser instincts and a bulwark against honest emotion”. Even good actions get credited to the limits of personality rather than a choice made: Neal doesn’t choose not to shoot someone, “he can’t pull the trigger”. Obviously, TV critics don’t have a monopoly on language like this. It’s a frustratingly common way to talk about human action. There’s probably dozens of examples of it on this blog. But it’s still troubling to see it’s so difficult to shake off these habits of thought even when writing about works of art as much about responsibility and redemption as Review and Vice Principals, especially because at least one of them does eventually break that endless cycle of rejecting the opportunity to do good.
We don’t often get popular art that takes the daily work of choosing between right and wrong as seriously as Review and Vice Principals – the only other show I can think of that’s in a similar vein is Better Call Saul, and that’s a very strange case because its status as a prequel means we can’t really hope for much. We know exactly where its protagonists end up. For some reason, popular art about moral dilemmas is obsessed with extreme and heightened choices almost no one will ever have to face, like Sophie’s Choice or My Sister’s Keeper. But the scarcity of art about the mundane business of being a person with free will who’s constantly faced with moral decisions is no excuse for failing to grapple with it appropriately when it does come along.
When we don’t take free will seriously, the debate always tends towards assuming free will is more limited than not, and eventually collapses into treating people like machines that must either be fixed or scrapped. Whenever we miss the chance to push back against that collapse, at best, we’re being lazy with our personal standards, and at worst, we have blood on our hands.