All in the Game: Free Will Viewed Through the Prism of The Wire


This guest post was written by Abe Nelson ’14.

“If you knew he was going to rob the pot why even let him in the game?” –– McNulty

“Got to, man. This is America.” –– The Witness

The notions of moral responsibility and, by extension, free will are baked into our everyday interactions. From parents scolding toddlers to judicial sentences, it is assumed that when someone acts unjustly, they can and should be held morally responsible. However, the gnawing feeling that perhaps humans’ actions are determined or driven by external forces beyond their control has long plagued philosophers. It also influenced David Simon’s seminal television program, The Wire.

Starting in the series’ opening scene, quoted above, America is viewed through the microcosm of Baltimore as a broken place where even irrational behavior is commonplace and goes unquestioned. Though the quote refers to dice, the series is an exploration of agency in a multilayered game where free will is constrained by calcified institutions. Each season examines a new fold from police, labor unions, the Mayor’s office, public schools and print media. All overlap in the microcosmic exploration of life in the American game. Primarily following police fighting for justice in a flawed department (where 275 murders is a good year) the series portrays the dark realities of trying to operate within and reform an obdurate system.

It would be impractical, if not foolish, to use a TV show primarily intended to entertain an audience to try and definitively determine if free will exists. Rather the point of this article is to explore the way a lasting piece of popular culture’s profound messages about free will still resound. I did not choose The Wire because True Detective’s finale was disappointing, but because the premise is a useful philosophical environment to explore free will in contemporary America. Also, there are academic precedents for studying the series, including a philosophy course at Georgetown.

For the non-philosophy majors among us, free will is the ability to choose indeterminately, independently of causal laws and antecedent conditions. This definition stands in contrast to determinism, the thesis that at any time the universe has exactly one physically possible future. While there are many schools of thought the debate on determinism generally breaks down between Libertarianism (not Ron Paul) and Compatibilism. Libertarian philosophers like Robert Kane believe that the common sense view of free will, meaning humans can choose to do otherwise, is true. Humans through a series of self-forming actions do, however, develop moral character that heavily informs future decisions.

Compatibilists, on the other hand believe determinism does not contradict free will. They contend determinism is true assuming that all events, including human behavior, are caused by an interconnected series of events stretching infinitely into the past. As links in this determined chain, humans do not really have choice. Rather, most compatibilists, like Hume, deflate the definition of free will to mean absence of external restraint. Though actions are determined, as long as you’re not trapped, you are free. As Schopenhauer explains, “man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

Compatibilism seems to undermine moral responsibility. Libertarians contend that responsibility requires choice. Addressing this valid grievance, John Martin Fisher developed what he calls semicompatibilism. Essentially, human behavior is almost entirely determined by myriad external factors, therefore causal determinism is almost certainly true, but since we cannot necessarily prove it, choice is necessary for ultimate moral responsibility. As philosopher J.J.C Smart suggests, it makes as much sense to blame agents in such quassi-deterministic circumstances as it does to blame someone for being born ugly. Though the locus of control does not rest entirely within us, there are ‘gaps’ in the river of causal determinism in which agents can grasp free will. Fisher likens moral choice to a diving board. An agent has no choice how often or when they dive, and have no control over the board or diving conditions. All they can do is control their dive in the few seconds as they careen towards the water. Though far less agency than Libertarians assume, enough choice exists to qualify for some degree of moral responsibility.

Semicompatibilism is the most applicable doctrine in The Wire. Each season unfolds like a Greek tragedy, approaching a seemingly inevitable outcome, yet characters are presented with gaps. In season one a 16 year old has the chance to stop dealing drugs and move in with his grandmother. In season two, parallel storylines of the nephews of a major drug dealer and of a corrupt union treasurer choose to distance themselves from organizations that intertwine family and business. In the third season business tests the limits of loyalty of several main characters. In season four several eighth graders face choices about school and drug dealing. In general even when a character recognizes a gap and tries to take it, they miss it. The gaps in the river of fate are narrow and hard to recognize and choices often have lethal consequences.

The Wire uses the metaphor of a chessboard to symbolize individual agency. A disillusioned drug dealer, D’Angelo, teaches chess to two kids in his crew. Even though he explains the point is to capture the opponents King, the two kids in his crew, are convinced that the goal should be for Pawns to cross the board. Even when D’Angelo explains how expendable Pawns are and that they are killed quickly one kid retorts, “unless they’re some smart ass Pawns.” This conversation reveals the rules of the game. Despite rare examples of Pawns succeeding, most of the individuals in the show, be they cops or dealers, are operating in a game in which they have minimal control and the rules and their objectives are not entirely clear.

While most characters are essentially pieces in a predetermined game, some characters have higher degrees of agency. In particular, surprisingly moral stick up man Omar has incomparable amounts of freedom. Moving like a ghost through Baltimore he robs stash houses with his urban rendition of merry men, including his boyfriend Brandon, and passes out drugs to residents to buy protection. Omar is only constrained by his personal code to not hurt innocents or swear. The Wire’s creator David Simon sheds some light on this odd morality explaining, “the reason Omar doesn’t curse is that he has a personal code and he is beholden only to that code. He alone is deinstitutionalized and free and therefore in control of his own morality, flawed though it might seem.” What gives the man who robs people while whistling the farmer in the dell more agency than The Wire’s other characters?

The causal determinism gripping The Wire’s Baltimore is represented by intertwined institutions. Everyone in such organizations, even those who want reform, have free will that is constrained by corrupt, hierarchical structures that distract from their intended purpose. Attempts to change this often end tragically. But, since Omar lacks institutional restraints he can exhibit virtually libertarian free will. He testifies to help solve a murder case without fearing retribution and even when the audience thinks he’s disappeared he reappears laughing, pointing a gun in a drug dealers face. A close up shot of him saying, “all in the game, yo” to the shocked dealer shows the audience that even though he’s part of the game, Omar has a different set of rules. He accepts moral responsibility as judged against his code, and is able to string together a chain of self-forming actions that comes as close to moral character that we see in The Wire. The game offers few options for most players, but in rare conditions, individuals can legitimately choose between several options.

Assigning different characters differing levels of free will may seem contradictory. However, as characters like Omar suggest, semicompatibilism may be seen as a doctrine and not an epistemology. In the philosophical test tube that is The Wire, everyone has a code that largely determines their lives. It just depends on if where their codes come from. This being the case, it is worth asking what the basic cause is behind these differing degrees of agency. Part of it is institutions. The series examines many flawed codes, but this is only part of the puzzle. The rest is made up of factors largely beyond most characters’ control.

David Simon, investigating this notion in a 2013 article There Are Now Two Americas, claims the American promise that, despite your background, if you work hard America will find a place for you, has been lost. Simon blames the way capitalism and growing inequality (as presented to Kenyon by CSAD) have marginalized an ever-growing number of people without proper attention to the social compact. As he explains, “that’s what The Wire was about basically, it was about people who were worth less and who were no longer necessary, as maybe ten or fifteen percent of my country is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy. It was about them trying to solve, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. In their irrelevance, their economic irrelevance, they were nonetheless still on the ground occupying this place called Baltimore and they were going to have to endure somehow.” Simon shows that free will is based in part on institutional codes, but also socioeconomic factors, racial prejudice, greed, violence, addiction, not to mention an unreliable police department. As J.J.C. Smart explains, in these deterministic circumstances, people aren’t even deserving of blame, but dispraise. We see glimpses of wealthy and unconstrained people with enough agency to influence the rules of the game, often in exploitive ways, but mostly it depicts groups of marginalized people gripping to senseless and sometimes dying institutions due to lack of options.

In the end The Wire doesn’t conclude whether or not determinism is true. It just asks the audience to question how much agency does an individual from the marginalized America really have? The unfortunate answer is not much. Omar is an anomaly. The real thing that affords individuals free will is being lucky enough to be born into the America most Kenyon students (including myself) are from or being one of the few people who can break into it (as several characters do). Sadly, most people keep on playing a rigged game because they have to man, this is America. It is a bleak portrait of a great country, but in an age of growing inequality it feels increasingly relevant.

2 comments on “All in the Game: Free Will Viewed Through the Prism of The Wire”

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