buffy/angel & free will

In the dis­cus­sion of the argu­ment from evil the ques­tion was raised whether God can have free will, if there is some sense in which he can­not do wrong. This has got me think­ing about anoth­er issue: There has been some­thing that’s bugged me about Buffy the Vam­pire Slay­er & Angel for quite a while now, so I thought I’d include my wor­ries in a post in order to get this off my chest. My wor­ries regard the show’s view of free will and respon­si­bil­i­ty. Why wor­ry about what a show thinks about a meta­phys­i­cal issue? Well, assum­ing they they are apply­ing the con­cepts of free will and moral respon­si­bil­i­ty fair­ly accu­rate­ly, per­haps we can learn some­thing about the meta­phys­i­cal issue by explor­ing how the show (and hence, how most of us) con­cieves of these things.

Free will and moral repon­si­bil­i­ty are usu­al­ly thought to be intri­cate­ly tied: that is, we usu­al­ly think we can only be moral­ly respon­si­ble for those things that we are free to do. This can eas­i­ly be seen by the ways in which we often excuse our actions: “I had no choice” is a com­mon defense, and one that is used to relieve us of respon­si­bil­i­ty for an action. (e.g., Some­one that is a klep­to­ma­ni­ac — some­one that has an irre­sistable com­pul­sion to steal — can be excused of their theft in a way that a per­son not afflict­ed with this con­di­tion is not. The klep­to­ma­ni­ac does­n’t have a CHOICE no to steal; the nor­mal per­son does.)

So, what does this have to do with Buffy and Angel? Well, it seems, in these series, free will and moral respon­si­bil­i­ty do NOT have such an intri­cate tie. It is repeat­ed­ly said in the show that vam­pires (and oth­er demons) do NOT pos­sess free will. Why is that? Well, it seems to be due to thi­er intrin­si­cal­ly evil natures. That is, humans have free will because they have a soul, which gives them a con­science: so they have some­thing with­in them that pulls them towards the good; there is some moti­va­tion in them, intrin­si­cal­ly, to do the right thing. Vam­pires do not have this: there is noth­ing in them that moti­vates them to do what is right, noth­ing telling them that they ought to do one thing rather than anoth­er (although, giv­en the actions of some vam­pires — like Spike — I doubt this is real­ly the case; but that’s beside the point). So, the pic­ture seems to be that they act accord­ing to their pri­mal desires at the time, with noth­ing to put those desires in check. So, there is a sense in which they can­not do good: while there is no one forc­ing them to per­form the heinous acts that they do (i.e., they could do good if they so chose), they sim­ply will nev­er choose to do good, because their natures lack any moti­va­tion to do the right thing.

Yet, while the char­ac­ters rec­og­nize that vam­pires don’t have free will, they nonethe­less seem to hold them moral­ly respon­si­ble for their actions. Buffy has no prob­lem killing crea­tures that sim­ply can­not help doing what they do. But she will nev­er kill a human being, on the grounds that they do have a soul (i.e., free will). This seems rather mys­te­ri­ous to me: so you will­ing­ly kill those that had no free­dom to any­thing but evil, but will not kill those that freely do evil. I’m sup­pos­ing that ulti­mate rea­son­ing is that humans, giv­en their con­science, have a poten­tial to do good, while vam­pires do not. So, to kill a human bieng is to kill off a being that still had the poten­tial to do what is right. 

Fur­ther­more, the char­ac­ters will seek vengeance on vam­pires that have done them wrong (e.g., as when Giles hunts down Angel after Angel kills Jen­ny Cal­en­dar). Grant­ed, this vengeance could be unjus­ti­fied (as a result of enraged grief), but, if so, is nev­er depict­ed as such (i.e., the char­ac­ters in the show seem to see such actions as justified…although per­haps a bit ill-advised). 

So, in short, it seems that the char­ac­ters in the Buffy uni­verse hold vam­pires and oth­er intrin­si­cal­ly evil crea­tures to be devoid of free will, but yet still hold them moral­ly respon­si­ble (and thus blame­wor­thy) for their actions. Why is this?

Per­haps it is just do to a very strong, deeply ingrained reac­tion to see­ing beings (human or oth­er­wise) cause suf­fer­ing and derive plea­sure from it. So, no mat­ter how we may intel­lec­tu­al­ly view crea­tures such as vam­pires (as lack­ing free will), this is over­rid­ed by the strong emo­tion­al reac­tion we have to the actions of these creatures. 

What I think is the more intest­ing con­sid­er­a­tion is the fol­low­ing: there are two dif­fer­ent ways in which we can lack free will: this lack can be due to exter­nal con­straints, such that I can’t per­form an action even if I want­ed to (e.g., I can’t jump off a build­ing and fly — even if I want­ed to — and thus am not free do so), or due to inter­nal con­straints — I am made such that I will nev­er choose a cer­tain action (e.g., as in the klep­to­ma­nia case — the klep­to­ma­ni­ac chould refrain from steal­ing, if he so chose, but sim­ply is unable to do so). 

And per­haps the lat­ter kind more con­tro­ver­sial­ly pre­cludes our free will (or, at least, it is more dif­fi­cult to tell whether or not inter­nal con­straints are in place). That is, there are always things with­in us that con­strain our actions — I will nev­er become a ser­i­al killer, for exam­ple, because I have desires and beliefs that con­strain me from doing so (I believe it is hor­ri­bly wrong, and I am have too much empa­thy for oth­ers’ suf­fer­ing that I sim­ply could not bring myself to do it.) Is this the kind of inter­nal con­straint that pre­cludes my free will? Well, intu­itive­ly no, because those kinds of desires and beliefs are thought to be a part of me in a way that com­pul­sions to steal, for exam­ple, are not (and per­haps said desires and beliefs are part of me due to the way that the desires and beliefs are formed). 

So, per­haps the char­ac­ters in the show are real­ly just a bit con­fused about how they real­ly regard the meta­phys­i­cal sta­tus of vam­pires. On the one hand, they rec­og­nize that vam­pires can­not choose to do good, but also rec­og­nize that ther actions are not due to exter­nal con­straints, but are due to the natures of these crea­tures. So, on the one hand, they have rea­son to believe that vam­pires do not have free will, but on the oth­er hand, there is some doubt as to whether the inter­nal con­straints that pre­vent them from choos­ing good are real­ly the kind of con­straints that pre­clude free will.

I could go on about this…but I’m get­ting tired. Any thoughts on the mat­ter would be more than welcome!

20 thoughts on “buffy/angel & free will”

  1. Oh my, I like what you’ve writ­ten here — I’m going to share it with some friends on a dis­cus­sion board. Don’t wor­ry, it’s a good group of “think­ing” peo­ple. They dis­cuss such top­ics all the time. It’s some­thing they real­ly like to sink their teeth into (sor­ry, bad pun). http://www.sarahmasen.com/discuss

    David Dark, hus­band of Sarah Masen, even wrote a book about this sub­ject — “Every­day Apoc­a­lypse,” which sort of address­es your questions.

  2. Kevin,
    How fun! I’ll check up on that dis­cus­sion board, and see what you all say about the issue! 🙂

  3. I think there is a very def­i­nite dif­fer­ence between “free will” and “hav­ing a con­science”. If I under­stand what you’re say­ing, in Buffy, you see these two as linked. I see these two as seper­ate items. Free will is the abil­i­ty to choose between mul­ti­ple options based on some­thing inher­ent with­in you. Con­science is a set of teach­ings you have been pro­vid­ed from exter­nal sources that say some­times you have to put your own needs aside to attend to some­one elses. Con­science can cer­tain­ly play a huge role in influ­enc­ing which way you will exer­cise your free will, but I don’t think it’s the same thing at all.

    I think the rea­son that Buffy does­n’t have a prob­lem killing these peo­ple is that they are CHOOSING to do evil. They HAVE a choice (even if they don’t have a con­science). How­ev­er, they choose to sati­ate their own lusts by harm­ing oth­ers. There are more than enough idiots (peo­ple idiots) who would be more than hap­py to sati­ate these lusts will­ing­ing, but the vampires/demons choose to tar­get those who do not with to play with. This is where Spike comes he. He has a lust: Buffy. How­ev­er, he does­n’t want to just take her. He wants her to WANT him. As a result, he is still act­ing in a self­ish man­ner (ie, try­ing to get that which would sati­ate his lusts), but he’s doing it in a dif­fer­ent way. He can still have no con­science, but exer­cise his free will to alter his actions to get what he wants in a dif­fer­ent way.

    IN your fly­ing exam­ple, I don’t think it’s a case of not being free to do so, but being unable to force our will on nature. If you jump off a roof, tech­ni­cal­ly you *are* fly­ing, albeit straight down. The prob­lem comes in when you try to force your will onto the phys­i­cal laws of nature and *keep* from falling. Free will does extend to you fly­ing off a build­ing, but not to con­trol­ling the laws of nature in that way.

    There’s one oth­er very impor­tant thing I think we have to realise about this par­tic­u­lar exam­ple (Buffy/Angel). It *is* a dra­ma. It is by def­i­n­i­tion a twist on real­i­ty to cre­ate unnat­ur­al ten­sion to progress a sto­ry line. Now, before any­one smacks me and goes “Well, DUH!” *grin*, just think about it. It is an arti­fi­cial illog­i­cal con­struct designed by intent to allow a stark good/evil line with very lit­tle of the grey that per­me­ates the real world. 

    Con­sid­er that Buffy *is* a mur­der­er, as are the vam­pires she kills. If any­thing, the Vam­pires are more moral than Buffy is because they are being true to them­selves and their nature, while Buffy is con­stant­ly strug­gling with hers and going back and forth on issues. How­ev­er we tend to be more for­giv­ing of Buffy because she’s the “good guy” while the vam­pires are the “bad guys”. Have you also noticed that it’s the long-term char­ac­ters who are the good guys and for whom we devel­op sym­pa­thy? Con­sid­er what would hap­pen if say Wil­low went bad, got killed and was writ­ten out of the show. How many peo­ple would BLAST Joss Whe­don along the lines of “Wil­low would NEVER do that!”? Or even Spike these days for that mat­ter. Think of the uproar if one day Spike just gets tired of Buffy and rips her throat out. How many peo­ple would com­plete­ly rebel against that idea because they’ve devel­oped sym­pa­thy for Spike and don’t see him as “the bad guy” any­more, but as a good guy.

    I think it’s very hard, if not impos­si­ble, to real­ly accu­rate­ly mea­sure and analyse Buffy/Angel objec­tive­ly because Whe­don has twist­ed the “real­i­ty” to make it high­ly sub­jec­tive. While we can still analyse it, we have to do it, and lim­it it, to the Buffy world, sim­ply because it does­n’t trans­late out­side of those boundries.

    Well, that’s my 2c 🙂

  4. Geoff: You claim that Buffy does­n’t have a prob­lem with killing vam­pires because they DO have a choice. I agree that they have a choice, but the point is, that Buffy (and the oth­er char­ac­ters) DO NOT think they have free will (they say it in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent places through­out the series). So, I was try­ing to account for that intu­ition by explain­ing that it was due to the fact that, due to their evil natures, they sim­ply CANNOT choose to do good (although, like I said, Spike seems to be a coun­terex­am­ple to this). Remem­ber when talk­ing about the argu­ment from evil, and I raised the que­si­ton of whether God has free will if he can nev­er CHOOSE to do bad? This is all relat­ed to that.

    And, regard­ing the fact that it is just a show: of course, I real­ize that. But, I like to explore the philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions of it, because the writ­ers of the show, despite their cre­ation of a fic­tion­al world, are still APPLYING cer­tain con­cepts — like free will, good & evil, right & wrong, etc. — and if they ARE apply­ing them accu­rate­ly (in a way that makes sense to us), then this appli­ca­tion helps to illu­mi­nate the con­cept a bit. So, if the char­ac­ters accu­rate­ly describe vam­pires as lack­ing free will (i.e., if it makes sense that they do so), then it is inter­est­ing to explore WHY vam­pires lack free will (and WHY, despite the fact that they lack free will, they are killed with no guilt upon Buffy’s part).

  5. Three things I got from read­ing your com­ments, Wes: 

    1) You watch WAY more Buffy/Angel than I do *grin* (although I would get the DVD sets in a heart­beat if I had the money).

    2) I won­der how much mem­o­ry vs con­science plays a role in the Vam­pires lives. Har­mo­ny refrains from killing Cordelia, but is it real­ly her con­science or mere­ly sentiment? 

    3) Being able to love does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean being good. There are any num­ber of instances of love by evil crea­tures. It’s our own per­cep­tions and bias­es that allow us to con­sid­er “love” as good. We even sub­di­vide it in cas­es like “pure love”.

    Look­ing back a lit­tle more in “clas­si­cal” phi­los­o­phy and par­tic­u­lar­ly at the idea of “suf­fer­ing”, the vam­pires actions can large­ly be explained just by this con­cept. Our suf­fer­ing is often our own cre­ation. For those vam­pires that kill (the “bad” vam­pires), they just haven’t any “suf­fer­ing” to deal with, aside from hunger. For the good vam­pires, there’s some sort of suf­fer­ing they’re try­ing to alle­vi­ate. For Spike, it’s the suf­fer­ing of know­ing that Buffy despis­es him, so he tries to be good to get her to love him. For Angel, he’s try­ing to make repa­ra­tions for the suf­fer­ing he caused by his pre­vi­ous actions. For Har­mo­ny, to kill Cordelia, because she remem­bers the good times they had, would inflict more suf­fer­ing than the plea­sure of drain­ing her would provide.

    So it real­ly just boils down to “How can I avoid what­ev­er suf­fer­ing I’m feeling?”

  6. Tina:
    I think that Buffy needs to *believe* that vam­pires have no choice. I mean, she goes out on patrol and pret­ty much wastes what­ev­er night-crawlers she finds out there. She’s killed a LOT of ex-humans, and more than a few nev­er-were-humans. I think “hav­ing no choice” is an escape mech­a­nism for both Buffy and the audi­ence so we don’t start ques­tion­ing her men­tal­i­ty at being able to go out of an evening and destroy liv­ing (although per­haps not alive) beings with­out remorse.

    I know you also realise that it’s just a show 🙂 I love to analyse sci­ence fic­tion movies in much the same way, and it’s very inter­est­ing to see how the the writer has twist­ed things to make it work in their world. I know that I some­times get so involved with try­ing to analyse it that I over­look at that the morals/science/whatever *are* twist­ed by design.

    OT to Buffy: Have you ever watched a show called Joan of Arca­dia? It has some inter­est­ing views on God and morality.

  7. Geoff: My point was that believ­ing they have no free will should make it HARDER for Buffy to kill vam­pires with­out remorse. Free will, like I said, is often thought to be nec­es­sary for moral respon­si­bil­i­ty: if some­one does not have the CHOICE but to do some action, then they are not MORALLY RESPONSIBIBLE for it (and thus we can’t BLAME them for what they do). So, if the vam­pires are not FREE (they can’t help but do bad things), then they are not moral­ly respon­si­ble (and thus we can’t blame them for what they do). So, Buffy is killing beings that are not moral­ly blame­wor­thy with­out any guilt — this is what I found puz­zling, and what I was try­ing to fig­ure out a way to explain in my first post.

    And, no — I haven’t seen Joan of Arca­dia. It’s a good show, then?

  8. Tina,

    I was dis­agree­ing with your point 🙂

    For Buffy to find it hard­er to kill them, she would have to see them as humans, with­out a choice in what they’re doing. As soon as she sees them non-humans, the sit­u­a­tion changes. It no longer *mat­ters* if they do or do not have a choice. AS they’re not human, she can slaugh­ter them with­out remorse. The only ones she may hes­i­tate over are the ones who are per­son­aly involved with her in some way, but that is a reflec­tion of *her* human­i­ty, not theirs.

    This is large­ly a dif­fer­ence between “peo­ple” and “not-peo­ple” and if we can apply the same rules of moral­i­ty. IN the Buffy world, they are clear­ly not equal and what applies to humans does not apply to the non-humans, while in real­i­ty, I think all beings should be treat­ed the same. 

    Of course, THAT leads to the ques­tion of “Is it fair to apply human morals and norms to non-humans?”.

    As for Joan of Arca­dia, yes, it’s a good show 🙂 I don’t get to watch it near­ly as much as I’d like, but it’s great. Unlike shows like “High­way to Heav­en” and “Touched by an Angel”, this isn’t a show that gets all wrapped up neat­ly in the end, with every­thing answered and no loose ends. Joan shows that God’s way isn’t always neat and tidy, and that in many cas­es, you’re just a part of a big­ger pic­ture you can­not see. It’s very refreshing.

  9. Tina: I respond­ed to your com­ments in my blog in the com­ments sec­tion over there, but I thought I’d post them here too. 🙂

    You’re right that Buffy has said that on a num­ber of occa­sions Buffy has said that vam­pires don’t have free will (the instance you men­tion is from Poten­tial; “BtVS” 7:12). How­ev­er, it bears not­ing that Buffy has often been wrong about the nature of vam­pires. Buffy often told Spike that vam­pires can’t love with­out a soul — he’s proven her wrong on a num­ber of occa­sions. And recall that when Wil­low’s vam­pire dou­ble from an alter­nate uni­verse came to Sun­ny­dale (Dopple­gang­land; “BtVS” 3:16), Buffy con­soled her by say­ing, “Wil­low, just remem­ber, a vam­pire’s per­son­al­i­ty has noth­ing to do with the per­son it was.”

    In response, Angel said, “Well, actu­al­ly… [ner­vous pause] That’s a good point.” Angel knew bet­ter, of course, but con­sid­er­ing that they’d seen what he was capa­ble of when he was evil, I’m think­ing he did­n’t want to remind them that he was real­ly doing that stuff.

    Still, even if vam­pires can’t be prop­er­ly blamed for their actions, they’ve still got­ta be staked — like the ter­mi­na­tion of a vicious ani­mal — in order to pro­tect humans.

    Geoff: To what instances of love by evil crea­tures were you refer­ring? I’m inclined to say that if a crea­ture gen­uine­ly loves, it’s not entire­ly evil.

    And I watched the first episode of “Joan of Arcadia”…suffice it to say that I did­n’t watch the show any­more after that. It made me want to stake myself.

  10. Wes:

    First, what is love? You say that if they tru­ly love, they can’t be evil. But how are you defin­ing love? Peo­ple can, by dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tions, tru­ly love mon­ey, pow­er, them­selves. I know this isn’t what you mean though. When we talk abo­tu this gen­uine love, we are usu­al­ly talk­ing about how we *sub­jec­tive­ly* define love. Objec­tive­ly, you can love and still be evil. 

    As for Joan … *grin* I like the show 🙂 Sad­ly, I usu­al­ly only catch the end bits as I’m work­ing when it starts.

  11. No, I’m talk­ing about love in an objec­tive sense, and not the kind of “love” that one has for mon­ey, ice cream, or sex. I’ll grant that one can love one­self in a more sig­nif­i­cant sense, but this isn’t what I mean either. I mean the self­less kind of love that one would have for anoth­er per­son (or maybe a pet), that involves car­ing about that per­son for that per­son­’s sake, and not because of any ben­e­fits you get out of the rela­tion­ship. Like when Spike refused to tell Glo­ry Buffy’s secret (about Dawn) even when the Hell­god tor­tured and near­ly killed him. The kind of love that goes hand in hand with car­ing, com­pas­sion, benev­o­lence, etc. And I sub­mit that any­one who pos­sess­es these virtues — even if they’re only direct­ed towards one per­son, to the exclu­sion of all oth­ers — can­not be com­plete­ly evil, even if the major­i­ty of his/her deeds are. Some good­ness dwells yet in the hearts of those who love.

  12. Wes,

    I know that’s the sort you meant, but it is sub­jec­tive. I’m up in the air about the con­cept of “For that per­sons sake and not because of any ben­e­fits .. “. I’m a cyn­ic. I think that at some point, we *always* do things for self­ish rea­sons, even if it’s only a “feel good” or some oth­er intan­gi­ble reward. It is often uncon­science. Par­ents put their kids ahead of them­selves for oth­er self­ish rea­sons, albeit uncon­science ones (like want­i­ng to per­pet­u­ate the fam­i­ly, or want­i­ng to know they gave their kids the best chance in life they could). Moth­er There­sa lived her life as a saint because she want­ed to please God and that made her feel good and at peace.

    That’s why I think it’s a sub­jec­tive issue. Love can­not be objec­tive if you’re apply­ing it to a sit­u­a­tion or a per­son. It can only be objec­tive if you’re look­ing at it with­out any direct referents.

  13. Geoff: Regard­ing your last com­ment: I hear that sort of “anti-altru­ism” view all the time (I used to believe in it as well), but it’s not some­thing I’m con­vinced of any­more. There are always self­ish REASONS avail­able to one (i.e., I can always point to SOMETHING some­one can get from an action — whether it be sim­ply doing the right thing to avoid feel­ing guilty). But there is a dif­fer­ence in rec­og­niz­ing that the self­ish rea­son is THERE, and claim­ing it is the REASON that I did it. Not all rea­sons that one HAS for an action actu­al­ly do work in moti­vat­ing a per­son to act (e.g., some say the REASON we went to war is to find WMD; oth­ers say it because we want­ed con­trol over the oil — BOTH of those ARE REASONS to go to war, but it is still an open ques­tion as to WHICH one is the rea­son that we act­ed on). So, just because we can point OUT a self­ish rea­son avail­able for an action, does NOT mean that that is WHY the per­son per­formed the action. 

    Per­haps you have oth­er rea­sons for your view (appeal­ing to psy­chol­o­gy and stuff), but you have to have some pret­ty good evi­dence to con­vince me that there are no altru­is­tic actions.

  14. Tina,

    I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think that self­ish means non-altru­is­tic. I think you can be both self­ish and altru­is­tic. To me, self­ish just means doing some­thing for your­self, and does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have a neg­a­tive connotation.

    Philoso­phers often talk about suf­fer­ing and how we have to elim­i­nate it (or tran­scend it … Please cor­rect me here if i’m wrong 🙂 ) in order to achieve enlight­en­ment. Human nature is such that we suf­fer by default, and it takes effort on our part to remove the suffering.

    Take Moth­er Tere­sa again. I do not doubt she is a saint, or that she was a won­der­ful woman. I think that more peo­ple should be like her. I still think she did things for self­ish rea­sons (self­ish being “for my own good”, not “i’m a bitch and think of myself first”). For her, being self­ish meant doing what her God told her, and fol­low­ing His rules. This gave her, from all accounts, a great sense of joy and accom­plish­ment. It does­n’t mean it was easy or phys­i­cal­ly plea­sur­able, only that for her, the plea­sure she derived from fol­low­ing her beliefs and her God out­weighed any phys­i­cal dis­com­fort she felt. I believe that if she was­n’t hap­py with what she was doing, she would have changed it.

  15. Because it describes most of the behav­iour I see in peo­ple. It also helps me under­stand *why* peo­ple do things in a way that oth­er means strug­gle to explain. I believe that intend is often far more impor­tant than action, and look­ing at peo­ple in this way helps me focus on the inten­tion they have rather than the act itself.

    It allows me to see part what most peo­ple see (like why the guy did some­thing nasty or why some mogul made a huge char­i­ta­ble contribution).

    Many of the bad things peo­ple do are the result of a desire to do some­thing good (be it steal­ing or mug­ging some­one to buy food for their fam­i­ly), and many of the good things peo­ple do are done for evil rea­sons (donat­ing a wing to a hos­pi­tal, pay­ing vast sums of mon­ey to a char­i­ty to either get a tax break or to pro­mote yourself). 

    Look­ing at things like this helps me see if peo­ple are real­ly good or bad, in my view.

  16. I have to agree with Geoff on this one.

    First of all, I nev­er could rec­on­cile with Joss Whe­do­n’s view on souled and sou­less vam­pires. I believe that all sen­tient beings pos­sess a soul. Includ­ing vam­pires and demons (if they exist). To me, being sou­less equates to noth­ing more than being a zom­bie. An ani­mat­ed organ­ic being with no per­son­al­i­ty or emo­tion to speak of. Vam­pires fea­tured in all forms of lit­er­a­ture — includ­ing Buffy­verse — seemed pos­sess emo­tions, per­son­al­i­ties, etc. And so do demons. So, in my opin­ion, Angelus and pre-Sea­son 7 Spike, along with Dar­la, Drusil­la, etc. pos­sessed souls.

    Two — I do not believe that self­less­ness or altur­ism real­ly exist. I do not believe that … well, humans are capa­ble of self­less­ness. Even when they are help­ing. There is always a per­son­al rea­son behind every action of every being — whether good or bad.

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