Animals and Free Will

Animals and Free WillQ: a – Do animals have free will? b – What is the difference between choosing a flavor of ice cream and choosing to return a lost wallet?

by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

Human beings have much in common with animals. They eat, breathe and sleep; we eat, breathe and sleep. Are we different? Or is a human being just a walking, talking gorilla?

A dog wakes up in the morning and decides what to eat first – his water or his Purina. A human being also wakes up and decides what to eat for breakfast – some cereal or a bagel.

Humans and animals both seem to make decisions. What is the difference? Do dogs worry about going on a diet? “My gosh,” cries Fido, “I’ve got to control this appetite!” Do they question whether it’s right to finish off the last drop of milk and not leave any for their kennel-mates? Does a dog wake up in the morning plagued with existential questions like, what is my purpose in life? Does he worry how he is making a difference with his life, or if he is actualizing his potential?

We do have a lot of things in common with animals, but free will is not one of them. Choosing your favorite ice cream or what to eat for breakfast is a matter of preference, not free will. Free will is the choice between good and evil. To exercise your free will, the choice must include a moral dimension and precipitate a struggle between right and wrong.

Only mankind has the ability to discern right from wrong and to make moral judgments. It is this ability that makes human beings responsible for their actions.

When we hear the news of a shark attack, we don’t blame the shark. We know he’s just doing what comes naturally. We don’t suspect the shark chose to attack out of evil intent and really could have called upon his nobler instincts and spared his victim.

But when a human being attacks, he is held accountable for his actions. A choice was made and he is responsible.

Free will is mankind’s unique and crowning distinction. The Torah says that only mankind was created “in the image of God.” Yet God doesn’t have an image! It means that only mankind has the true freedom and independence that comes with the power of choice. In that way we resemble God, who is completely free and independent.

The next time you encounter a moral dilemma, use your free will. You can rise above your baser instincts and ennoble your life through choosing good. We have the choice to strive to be good, not animals. This is our unique responsibility.


  • Even though every person is born with a distinct personality and is given a unique set of circumstances, we all share the power to choose freely.
  • Free will is not choosing an ice cream flavor. It is the ability to choose between good and evil.
  • Free will engenders responsibility. People, not dogs, are accountable for their actions, since only people can discern between right and wrong.

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