Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Free Will and Personal Responsibility

Last week Lady Geek Girl talked about the way fate and free will tend to be ‘in a relationship and it’s complicated’ in popular fiction.

This week I’m also going to talk about free will, but I’m going to take a different track—I’m going to look at the intersection of free will and personal responsibility.

What exactly do I mean? Well, people have free will. They can do whatever they want. But if it’s within their power to do the right thing, even if it will have unpleasant consequences, do they have a responsibility to do the right thing? Or is it morally acceptable to say, “no, I’m washing my hands of this”? I think that there has to be a balance. In fiction, choosing of one’s own free will has a particular weight and importance.

Before this becomes a Philosophy 101 debate, let me give you some examples to show you what I mean.

The biggest one I can think of is Lord of the Rings. Think of this scene, possibly the most important point in the series: Frodo is not the strongest, or the smartest, and the Ring is not really his responsibility, but he chooses to take up its burden, even though he “does not know the way.” This is an example of personal responsibility trumping free will. This decision is mirrored at the end of the series, when Frodo’s purely self-serving free will overpowers his responsibility, and he claims the Ring as his own, undoing his morally responsible decision from the beginning of the story. It takes Gollum’s assault and theft to wrest the Ring from him and finish the deed.

Supernatural is, as always, a go-to series for our OMPCJs, and there are a few things in the show that I’d like to look at. First of all, probably the biggest example of free will tempered by responsibility is Gabriel. Gabriel abandoned his post in Heaven for millennia and lived as a pagan Trickster god, and continues to run from his responsibilities and take a moral stand against the Apocalypse until the episode “Hammer of the Gods.” When he does finally commit to a course of action, he does the right thing but is killed for his troubles.

There’s also a dichotomy here—living entirely based on free will can be dangerously selfish and is never shown as the right course of action, but the opposite, following a self-sacrificing moral code can be destructive as well. Look how many times the Winchesters (and Castiel) have died in line of duty. They are self-sacrificing to a fault—no one asks them to be hunters, and they could, theoretically, just quit and live their lives in peace, ignoring the existence of supernatural threats. In the season eight premiere, we are introduced to what may be a free will versus responsibility storyline along this line. While Dean was in Purgatory, Sam had totally abandoned hunting to be a regular guy with a girlfriend and a dog. But, as the rather hackneyed dog storyline points out, there’s no finish line for personal responsibility. There aren’t a set number of selfless good deeds you can do, and then you get to quit.

There are certainly other examples—the Doctor doesn’t have a responsibility to save everyone, but he does, or tries to. Black Widow could have curled up and cried after being attacked by the Hulk and she’d have been totally justified in doing so, but instead she goes and kicks Hawkeye’s ass. Do people have a responsibility to perform good deeds? What are your thoughts on personal responsibility as it involves free will?

2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Free Will and Personal Responsibility

  1. The most interesting thing about this article is that it shows personal responsibility as almost being in conflict with free-will. But, I think that wills which are most free are also most responsible. Behaving responsibly involves making many sacrifices: one needs to keep one’s word, to be patient with annoying people, to perform one’s duty, and many other things which may be naturally repellent. It is often the easier course to break one’s word, give people what they have coming to them, neglect duty, etc.; but always following the easier and baser line of conduct tends to make people less able to will the more difficult courses of action–hence less free than those who choose–even always choose–to be responsible.

    So, the question is whether a will is free because it can choose between right and wrong or is a will free because no negative influence can deter it from the right course of action?

    • I think I was looking at personal responsibility and free will as opposite ends of a spectrum here, where the ultimate represtentation of free will was selfish desire, and the ultimate expression of personal responsibility is selfless sacrifice. But there can certainly be expressions of free will are tied to selfless decisions. “Team Free Will” in Supernatural isn’t an expression of hedonistic self-indulgence; it’s just an effort to choose their own fates for themselves. And part of what makes a selfless sacrifice (whether it’s Jesus’ in Christianity, or Harry’s in Deathly Hallows) worthwhile is that it is a freely made choice.

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