Shall I or Shan’t I?
Making good choices
by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To consider how we make choices and the idea of free will.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a reader for the Bible passage, Genesis 3.1–13. A version of the text is available at: https://tinyurl.com/yajm2tf2
- Imagine that your family has chosen to buy a puppy. You call him Toby. Toby hasn’t been trained, so you decide to take him to training classes. The class goes brilliantly and you and Toby are top of the class. You pass with flying colours. Now, you feel that you can take Toby round the park and let him off the lead, safe in the knowledge that he will come back to you when you call.
You’re really excited to see Toby bound off; he is clearly enjoying his new-found freedom. You watch him for a while, still confident that he will come back when you call. Then, you notice someone walking their dog, and you’re not sure how Toby will behave. You call Toby back, ready with a treat to reward him with when he dutifully comes back. You’re feeling pretty smug – after all, it worked so well in the training classes – and you call him. ‘Toby, Toby!’
However, Toby doesn’t return. You start to whistle, but Toby finds the other dog much more interesting than you are. You now have to run and fetch him, frustrated, your calling getting more exasperated as he runs away from you. What a fun game for him, and how annoying and embarrassing for you. After all that time and energy you’ve spent on training him, he has gone against you.
- How frustrating! No doubt some of you have experienced something similar with your own pets. However, it was the dog’s instinct to behave like that, to go and check out the other dog. Although he didn’t make a conscious choice to disobey you, something inside him, which the training had tried to suppress, made him choose to follow his instinct.
- This is not unlike how we behave as humans. We all have our own instincts and we all make choices every day, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Some of these choices are more important than others. We are, however, as free to make those choices as the dog was to run away. Philosophers and theologians have named this freedom to make choices our ‘free will’. It can explain why people decide to do certain things, and why humanity can so often make the choice to harm or hurt others.
- Where does the idea of free will come from? Let’s consider the well-known story of Adam and Eve.
Ask the reader to read Genesis 3.1–13.
As you heard in this story, Eve made a choice. She used her free will to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She then offered some of the fruit to Adam, who also chose to take it. The story teaches us that humanity is tainted forever by the idea of ‘original sin’ because Eve used her free will to make her decision, after she had listened to the snake. But was it really Eve’s fault? Isn’t she a bit like our puppy, Toby? Wasn’t she just following her instinct?
- Now, everyone, hold up your hands. In a few seconds’ time, I will ask you to squeeze one of your hands (allow about ten seconds).
You may think that you made a conscious decision as to which hand you decided to squeeze. You may think that your brain said, ‘I think I’ll squeeze the left hand (or the right)’. In fact, did you know that up to six seconds before you squeezed your hand, the unconscious part of your brain had already made that decision for you?
Time for reflection
So, is our free will something that we cannot help? Is it our instinct, or something that goes much deeper? We have evolved in such a way that we are free to make our own choices, however wrong or odd they may seem to others.
This is not a reason for us all to go and misbehave in our first lesson, and then say to our teacher that it is because we are acting on our instinct and exercising our free will. It is, however, a reasonable way to consider the problem of evil and suffering in the world. It doesn’t mean that it makes sense to us, but it does enable us to see that the choices that humanity makes are affected by more than we might first consider.
As humans, we possess the ability to make a conscious choice, often between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing. In Eve’s case, she definitely made the wrong choice. I wonder what would have happened if Adam had said ‘No’?
Enable me to see that my choices may affect more people than just myself.
Help me to understand that my free will is something that can be used for both good and evil
And enable me to make the right choice between the two.