When you look at history there seems to be two types of wars: 1) the "unilateral" or asymmetric wars (like recently the Iraq war where one group of people overwhelmingly keep the conflict under their control) and 2) the total wars (like WWII for example).

I am interested here in total wars i.e. wars where the only "choice" left is to win or die for ALL participants. Under that definition, WWII was a total war for Russians and Nazi Germany (note that WWI was not). In fact WWII was so total that it lead to the Russians people fighting with no commanders when they started invading Germany.

Now there is no question that deciding to wage an asymmetric war can have some benefits. But which leader could decide to "trigger" a total war? As the bottom line is negative (millions dead, countries wiped out), there is always a better guaranteed outcome: as it will wipe one of both opponents, peace talks will always have more benefits for humanity as a whole.

Let's push the example a bit further: a thermonuclear war between Russia and the US would (most likely) terminate the human race. I am not saying it will happen, but that's definitely a total war so not completely out of the realm of possibilities. If there is a thermonuclear war, the bottom line will be a definite negative for humanity as a whole.

But for some reason, humans cannot refrain from total wars.

Hence my question: as total war is a reality in history, does that mean that there is a limit to what free-will can achieve? That would be some sort of hidden principle attached to the free-will.

What is interesting here is that, obviously that total wars, as political phenomenon ARE entirely included in our free-will sphere, i.e. in our rationality. Of course there are a lot of things free-will cannot achieve as there are logical and physical limits to what is possible. But total war is not a result of some asteroid crashing on earth, volcanoes' eruption or gravity. There is always a rational possible way to escape a total war: decide not to go there.

Therefore if total war indeed means there is some sort of limit to our free-will, it really means there are some political "invisible hand" principle which stops our free-will...

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    I'm unaware of any interesting notion of free will as simply doing what is somehow "objectively" the best thing (side note: I, and many others, disagree with your assumption that "nothing is worse than dying", so your argument has troubles there, too). Trivially, consider somebody who's terrified of water but has to jump in a river to save their sibling's life. Due to their phobia, such a person doesn't have the "free will" to jump in - but that's not an interesting definition of "free will" at all.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 15:39
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    There are a lot of assumptions in this question. I'm not sure if it can be answered. You have a lot of "theoretically" and "obviously" comments along the way, along with assumptions of how others should view the world. It may be that the "limits to rational free-will" are actually a consequence of these assumptions, not war itself.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Aug 22, 2016 at 17:09
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    The existence of suboptimal choices is the proof that the role of rationality in human behavior is "bounded". If anything, it supports the idea of free will as people are apparently free to act suboptimally, hence less predictably. You also seem to conflate individual and communal rationality, where individual (say an arms dealer) may benefit from "total war" even if the community overall suffers. So it is not a question of free will even if we assume that acting freely means acting rationally, which is a strange sense of "freely".
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 0:09
  • @Conifold The problem, as I understand it, isn't so much that by engaging in war the actors fail to achieve the best possible outcome, which could be interpreted as a failure of rationality, but that they willingly put themselves in a position from which they can't back down. In a sense, they choose not to choose.
    – ejQhZ
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 4:25

4 Answers 4


If we never chose anything we should not, by some objective standard, how would that be "will" of any variety, or "free" anything? The existence of suboptimal choices seems to put a lower bound on free will, rather than an upper one. We are free to be stupid, because we are free.

On the other hand, the continuation of a total war is perfectly logical. If you stopped fighting to ask the question as to whether to sit down and talk, you would most likely be killed. You are on a treadmill with a minimum speed, and you can't get off unless you break it completely and you would most likely die in the process. In your example, WWII, at least one side was well-prepared for mass genocide. Making peace with them too readily might just get you collected up and done away with. There was no better option for them, since their entire agenda was total safety for a given race of individuals, in a way that would be infringed by the mere existence of anyone safer. When you have two choices, and annihilation is one of them, the other one is probably optimal.

The ability to evade that logic and actually end the war despite the apparent logical loop you are in seems to indicate free will much more than the fact that the deterministic loop holds control as long as it does.


Much of your argument stems from the assumption that a choice between death and something else is not a choice. There are countless examples in history which suggest this is not a good assumption to hold while delving into difficult concepts like total warfare. There are plenty of examples of people who have chosen to die for their religion when faced with such decisions. The Samurai were expected to be able to make this decision with respect to "honor." There are numerous concepts such as "love" or "freedom" for which dying for is currently romanticized in modern Western cultures.

Given this, a question you must ask yourself is that, in total warfare, is everything decided by fate. Do you truly have no say in what happens? Is it not possible for an individual to choose to blink? It may be that blinking at a moment may cause you to die because you miss something, but that goes back to the question of whether a choice between death and something else is a choice.

The Zen Buddhists have a koan which I think of when I consider such choices:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

  • @ Corton Ammon. I did not have to assume that. I am trying to show that sometimes you have no choice. It is only coincidental that this arises in total warfare i.e. when the only "choice" is between dying and fighting. In any case I'll admit that even then you could choose to die rather than fight. No problem. But at a nation's scale it seems obvious that this is no choice. You could also see it that way: if a nation ends up in total warfare under leader A, could a leader B have changed that course? If you cannot a situation in history where that was possible, then the hypothesis seems to hold
    – Jerome
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 15:43
  • @Jerome I prod at that assumption because you claim that situations arise where you have no choice, and your justification of that claim is given in terms of life or death decisions. My argument would be that the claim that "there exist situations where one has no choice" is not properly justified here (and indeed may not be justifiable). As for your second point, any reasonable concept of freewill must consider that a man in prison does not have the "freedom" to choose to walk out of his cell when he wants. Leader B may not have been able to change the course of the war...
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 17:16
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    ... but he may be able to decide what he will have for breakfast. Or, at the very least, he may be able to decide to blink. My personal experience (which I will merely state, but not justify) is that the only time an individual views themselves as having no choices is when they have chosen to limit their choices which achieve some level of merit on a metric of their choice. Someone who commits manslaughter and says, "I had no choice, he was going to kill me if I didn't kill him first" is really saying "I was not willing to entertain any choices which did not immediately resolve the issue...
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 17:16
  • .. of my imminent death." This may be a very rational position to take, but it is very different from saying "I had no choices" and meaning it.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 17:19
  • @ Cort Agreed there is always some areas you can decide, even though they can be marginal. But typically in your manslaughter example, one of the "choices" will fix the other. As if you choose NOT to defend yourself, there is no more conscious choice between living and dying: you will die. Conversely if you choose to live, you will have to defend yourself. So in that example, although there are two logically possible states for each choice, i.e. 4 possible choices (fight and live, fight and die, not fight and live, not fight and die), ...
    – Jerome
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:33

What your extremely interesting considerations show is that total war is never a rational choice. It is never an optimific choice. Or rather that it has never been an optimific choice in the past. 'Past performance is no guarantee of future results' - investment bankers are right at least about that. There's always the possibility that next time it will pay off.

Assume, however, that total war is not a rational choice. It can still be chosen, freely, by agents whose rationality is limited or bounded. There are constraints on the mental capacity of decision-makers. A decision-maker may not be able to consider the alternatives to total war, or realise the consequences of total war, or have full and accurate information about the military and economic resources or determination of the other side.

It is also possible that total war, though recognised by a decision-maker as a bad option all else equal, all else may not be equal : total war may present itself as the only available option to dissuade the other side from continuing its resistance or attack. Total war may be undertaken on the assumption that the other side will 'blink first'.

In light of this, total war suggests not limited free will but limited or bounded rationality. This is not to dismiss your ideas but to switch your perspective away from limited free will and towards limited rationality as a rival and perhaps more plausible explanation of total war.

[I'm not sure that the idea of 'limited free will' is in good order. At least it needs scrutiny. I should have said that at a time or in a respect one has free will or one doesn't. But I don't press the matter since, as I suggested above, I think limited rationality rather than free will is the key to your problem.]

  • @Jerome. You have a new answer to your question on total war.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 16:34
  • although I reckon your answer solves the problem, I think this is the "nuclear" option. 2 reasons for that: 1) total wars never arise suddenly, there is generally a long and intricate path leading to it involving thousands of leaders (Napoleonic wars were preceded by 15 years of revolution; bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were preceded by 6 years of diplomatic and war issues). If it was coming down a split second, maybe ok, you could admit the few leaders involved didn't have enough time to think it through and reached irrational conclusions. This is not the case here.
    – Jerome
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 20:31
  • 2) There are many other examples of situations where human structures lead to problems with no satisfying solutions. In fact, it seems to me that most important political/economic issues have no solutions within the human sphere. Take for example the stock market. No one likes it when it heads lower. And yet it does. Sometimes it even crashes and suddenly everyone is poorer. Yet there is no satisfying solution to that (propping up a stock market by printing money can crash the currency which can be even worse) : it's a human problem with very limited human solutions.
    – Jerome
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 20:40
  • Last example: debt. Why would trust in some debtors have to ever evaporate like in 2008? If I speak for the devil, why can't we say "when you want to sell debt, don't panic, it will never go down and we will buy whatever amount you need to sell." (Obviously that would make wealth creation meaningless).
    – Jerome
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 20:51
  • So this is what I think: we are 100% rational (over a long enough period of time). But for any "interesting" property humanity is pursuing (e.g. wealth creation), you create an issue whose solutions escape human means and therefore exposes humanity to problems with no rational solution. There is nothing rational or "satisfying" (to generalise a bit) you can about some of those problems. It is as if humanity as a whole had to pay a price (disclaimer: am not religious) for any interesting goals it is trying to achieve.
    – Jerome
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 20:54

Of course there are limits to free will. Pushed off a skyscraper you can't choose not to fall.

You seem to be asking really, if we are rational beings. I have issues with how you define and explain Total War, but I would point out the decisions involved have been based on lacking or incorrect information. Like, a massive under-estimate of Russia's population, and of the ruthlessness of their leaders.

Consider if the Cold War had gone thermonuclear. It's likely Total War would have ensued, until the destruction of one or both states, because of the unforgivable nature of the numbers dead. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_nuclear_close_calls#9_November_1979 Stupidity can absolutely trump rationality (pun intended).

There are limits to individual rationality, and of collective organisational rationality. We are animals; just ones with a high opinion of ourselves.

  • @ CriglCragl I dont think your joke about Trump works actually. Give me an example of something that Trump has done or is doing and is NOT rational in some way?
    – Jerome
    Commented Mar 30, 2018 at 11:48
  • @Jerome: Exchanging threats of nuclear war is like playing Russian roulette. Similarly, within the game there are rational decisions. But choosing to play the game does not make sense.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 6:50
  • maybe we could say that Barbarossa also was a Russian roulette game though? And still it was carefully planned over a few years, organised and realised
    – Jerome
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 7:02
  • @Jerome: Plenty of serial killers plan carefully
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 3, 2018 at 11:42

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