Ethics & Free Will

Conscience and law

Conscience and law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Azim Shariff and Kathleen Vohs recently had their article, “What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Will”, published in Scientific American. This article considers the causal impact of a disbelief in free will with a specific focus on law and ethics.

Philosophers have long addressed the general problem of free will as well as the specific connection between free will and ethics. Not surprisingly, studies conducted to determine the impact of disbelief in free will have the results that philosophers have long predicted.

One impact is that when people have doubts about free will they tend to have less support for retributive punishment. Retributive punishment, as the name indicates, is punishment aimed at making a person suffer for her misdeeds. Doubt in free will did not negatively impact a person’s support for punishment aimed at deterrence or rehabilitation.

While the authors do consider one reason for this, namely that those who doubt free will would regard wrongdoers as analogous to harmful natural phenomenon that need to dealt with rather than subject to vengeance, this view also matches a common view about moral accountability. To be specific, moral (and legal) accountability is generally proportional to the control a person has over events. To use a concrete example, consider the difference between these two cases. In the first case, Sally is driving well above the speed limit and is busy texting and sipping her latte. She doesn’t see the crossing guard frantically waving his sign and runs over the children in the cross walk. In case two, Jane is driving the speed limit and children suddenly run directly in front of her car. She brakes and swerves immediately, but she hits the children. Intuitively, Sally has acted in a way that was morally wrong—she should have been going the speed limit and she should have been paying attention. Jane, though she hit the children, did not act wrongly—she could not have avoided the children and hence is not morally responsible.

For those who doubt free will, every case is like Jane’s case: for the determinist, every action is determined and a person could not have chosen to do other than she did. On this view, while Jane’s accident seems unavoidable, so was Sally’s accident: Sally could not have done other than she did. As such, Sally is no more morally accountable than Jane. For someone who believes this, inflicting retributive punishment on Sally would be no more reasonable than seeking vengeance against Jane.

However, it would seem to make sense to punish Sally to deter others and to rehabilitate Sally so she will drive the speed limit and pay attention in the future. Of course, if these is no free will, then we would not chose to punish Sally, she would not chose to behave better and people would not decide to learn from her lesson. Events would happen as determined—she would be punished or not. She would do it again or not. Other people would do the same thing or not. Naturally enough, to speak of what we should decide to do in regards to punishments would seem to assume that we can chose—that is, that we have some degree of free will.

A second impact that Shariff and Vohs noted was that a person who doubts free will tends to behave worse than a person who does not have such a skeptical view. One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat. In general, the impact seems to be that the skepticism reduces a person’s willingness (or capacity) to resist impulsive reactions in favor of greater restraint and better behavior.

Once again, this certainly makes sense. Going back to the examples of Sally and Jane, Sally (unless she is a moral monster) would most likely feel remorse and guilt for hurting the children. Jane, though she would surely feel badly, would not feel moral guilt. This would certainly be reasonable: a person who hurts others should feel guilt if she could have done otherwise but should not feel moral guilt if she could not have done otherwise (although she certainly should feel sympathy). If someone doubts free will, then she will regard her own actions as being out of her control: she is not choosing to lie, or cheat or hurt others—these events are just happening. People might be hurt, but this is like a tree falling on them—it just happens. Interestingly, these studies show that people are consistent in applying the implications of their skepticism in regards to moral (and legal) accountability.

One rather important point is to consider what view we should have regarding free will. I take a practical view of this matter and believe in free will. As I see it, if I am right, then I am…right. If I am wrong, then I could not believe otherwise. So, choosing to believe I can choose is the rational choice: I am right or I am not at fault for being wrong.

I do agree with Kant that we cannot prove that we have free will. He believed that the best science of his day was deterministic and that the matter of free will was beyond our epistemic abilities. While science has marched on since Kant, free will is still unprovable. After all, deterministic, random and free-will universes would all seem the same to the people in them. Crudely put, there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will. There are, of course, observations that can indicate that we are not free in certain respects—but completely disproving (or proving) free will would seem to beyond our abilities—as Kant contended.

Kant had a fairly practical solution: he argued that although free will cannot be proven, it is necessary for ethics. So, crudely put, if we want to have ethics (which we do), then we need to accept the existence of free will on moral grounds. The experiments described by Shariff and Vohs seems to support Kant: when people doubt free will, this has an impact on their ethics.

One aspect of this can be seen as positive—determining the extent to which people are in control of their actions is an important part of determining what is and is not a just punishment. After all, we do not want to inflict retribution on people who could not have done otherwise or, at the very least, we would want relevant circumstances to temper retribution with proper justice.  It also makes more sense to focus on deterrence and rehabilitation more than retribution. However just, retribution merely adds more suffering to the world while deterrence and rehabilitation reduces it.

The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable. This then, provides an interesting and important challenge: balancing our view of determinism and freedom in order to avoid both unjust punishment and becoming unjust. This, of course, assumes that we have a choice. If we do not, we will just do what we do and giving advice is pointless. As I jokingly tell my students, a determinist giving advice about what we should do is like someone yelling advice to a person falling to certain death—he can yell all he wants about what to do, but it won’t matter.


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  1. “One specific area in which behavior worsens is that such skepticism seems to incline people to be more willing to harm others. Another specific area is that such skepticism also inclines others to lie or cheat.”

    Evidence please.

  2. I don’t have access to the article, but it would be nice to see a clearer distinction between hard determinism and soft determinism.

    For example, your claim that “for the determinist. . . a person could not have chosen to do other than she did” actually only applies to hard determinists.

    Of course, it’s the hard determinists that are the topic of conversation, but the compatibilists will (rightly) emphasize the fact that there is a clear and important moral difference between Jane and Sally even in a completely deterministic world.

    Also, as a compatibilist, I’d say that there’s absolutely no barrier to discovering whether we have free will (scientists just need to figure out whether we sometimes do things because we want to), nor to discovering whether the world is deterministic (in principle, at least — hidden variable interpretations of quantum mechanics complicate matters).

  3. While I know that people say they do not believe in free will, I’ve often wondered how it is possible to not believe in free will. Everyone certainly acts as if they believe in free will. I know the determinists say that it is an illusion, but it strikes me as the equivalent of looking up at the sky and saying, “I know it looks blue, but that’s just an illusion.”

  4. I was watching a programme on television recently where the readiness potential was detected in a person’s brain eight seconds before he acted. If I remember correctly Libet had claimed it was something in the region of two seconds but that was in the 1980s when fMRI scanning was in its infancy. The readiness potential is not registered in the person’s consciousness and the program I watched made it clear that once set in motion this potential could not be vetoed. Libet suggested that it could, but so far as I know he was never able to show that this was in fact the case. So there we are, our minds are made up unconsciously. That being the case we do not have free will. However I think this neglects the fact that people have different characters ethical beliefs some are sinful others are angelic. Perhaps it is these latter qualities which go towards the kind of decision which we make unconsciously. So for instance a murderer or child molester is at heart just a bad person and we may expect his unconscious decisions to reflect the badness in his character. Thus he murders or molests with no repentance. As a defence, people of this nature often claim it was their brain which made them do it and I guess it was, but it was a brain which functioned at all times in an unwholesome way. Whilst we cannot overlook the monstrous acts which some people do we nevertheless cannot allow them to remain at large they have to be restrained and as to whether the so-called punishments which are meted out are effective I am not sure, recidivism is extremely common. Maybe we should strike the words prison and punishment from our vocabulary and substitute restraint by virtue of Determinism.

  5. Re Gene July 18th
    Surely Blue is nothing more than a human experience. The object which looks blue to us is in itself without colour. All it does is to reflect electromagnetic radiation into the eyes of the beholder who then experiences a mental state of affairs, which he has been told, most likely in his infancy, to call Blue.

  6. s. wallerstein

    You say that being skeptical about free will makes a person more likely to harm others or to cheat, according to experiments.

    One might question the experiments, but just for the moment, let’s assume that the experiments are accurate.

    Couldn’t it be the case that when people first realize that there is no free will (skepticism about free will has just recently become a mass belief), they tend to harm others or lie or cheat more, but after they’ve lived longer with the realization that there is no free will, in general they adopt a moral code very similar to the traditional one simply because it makes living easier for everyone?

  7. “Evidence please.” – JH July 18, 2014

    On the matter of cheating:

    On the matter of ‘harm’ (or rather ‘decreased helping and increased aggression’)

  8. Kevin Henderson

    “deterministic, random and free-will universes” are indistinguishable. Well said.

    Lack of prediction both guarantees and forbids free will.

  9. Long discussion here about this topic a couple of years back when Sam Harris published his book.
    With regards to the consequences of “not believing in free-will”, far more research over far longer periods of time would be required to come to any meaningful conclusion. In a way, this discussion reminds me of the religious/atheist-secular debate, where it seemed (and seems) inconceivable to the first that the second could ever behave morally. Well, we know that secular societies in Europe are doing quite well, thank you very much. The data’s in.

    More generally, I disagree with the view that: “there are no observations that would establish or disprove metaphysical free will.” The science of brain and mind has made huge progress over the past 15 years, and far more is yet to come as the technology used to probe the workings of the brain improves exponentially. Think about what we’ll know in 10, 50, 100 years! We WILL know.

    Leaving the question of “determinism”, hard or soft, aside, if it is demonstrated experimentally and unambiguously at some point, and it looks like that’s where we’re headed, that our seemingly conscious choices and deliberations are the mere byproduct of unconscious brain processes over which the conscious “you” has no say, that conscious agency is, therefore, an illusion, the matter will be settled, whether Kant would have liked it or not.
    Fascinating times…

  10. Mike LaBossiere,

    “The second aspect of this is negative—skepticism about free will seems to cause people to think that they have a license to do ill, thus leading to worse behavior. That is clearly undesirable.”

    Clearly undesirable for whom?

    There is an agenda in promoting the idea that free will is constrained and overridden by an unknowable uncontrollable genetic imperative. And they often go on to make the point that the natural imperative is good; as all nature is good. And any effort to tame it or control it is essentially unnatural; essentially bad. Domination, exploitation, cruelty, inequality, selfishness; are all good. Equality, moral responsibility to others, fairness, justice, etc; are all bad. And these people also like to promote the sickening idea, that all acts of altruism are motivated by ultimately selfish subconscious impulse. This led George Price, who had helped William Hamilton with his Selfish Gene theory, to give away all his earthly possession and cut his own throat.

    Socrates was completely wrong. The world is full of happy tyrants and blissful unjust people. These people do not want to live in a world where there is justice.

    A fundamental argument for the existence of free will, is the faculty to commit both good and evil acts. That you are considered to be clinically insane if you cannot distinguish between the two, is an argument enough in itself that free will does exist.

    Evolutionary psychology is the latest formulation of Hamilton’s Selfishness theory. And, it is the most bogus field of inquiry. It incorporates an unholy trinity of bad science, bad psychology, even worse philosophy. It’s abundant in far reaching and wholly unfalsifiable speculations. It’s a projection of the moral mechanics of the researchers, and nothing else.

    In Catholic theology, the faculty and motivation for evil is ascribed to an inherent human flaw; original sin. This does not absolve a person from their sins. The prescription is to resist the temptation to commit evil acts. Yes, Catholic clergy are pretty awful at following their own moral health regimes. But the theology translates perfectly into a secular formulation. If you can perceive good and evil; then even if there is an impulse to commit evil, it is a conscious decision. It takes conscious effort to commit evil. Even if it is in your nature, you are not absolved.

    But the fundamental observables would indicate humans are more naturally inclined for good than evil. There is a strong natural impulse against humans killing other humans. To kill, a person must overcome their natural instinct against killing. And this has been the primary challenge in warfare through the ages; getting people to kill each other.

    There is great benefit for some in committing acts of evil; from rape, murder, to theft and exploitation. But it requires some conscious psychological trickery to enable these activities. The denial of free will is one of these tricks. It’s the Nuremberg defence; “I was only following orders…from my selfish gene.” And the latest innovation is philosophical trickery; professor Bradley Strawser, who attempts to corrupt the minds of the young, by positing that their acts of indiscriminate killing are moral, because they’re exists a strawman whose killing is more indiscriminate. Greater Evil minus Lesser Evil equals Good.

    If you wish to live in a moral and just world, you must engage in revealing the tricks that enable the injustices.

  11. Don Bird,

    Any suggestion by Libet or others, that consciousness is bypassed, or that the consciousness just retrospectively justifies actions is false. The primary reason being, that no one knows what consciousness is. Brain scans can show a lot, but they cannot pinpoint the mechanics of conscious reasoning.

    How the brain confects reality is not even barely understood. But what has been understood through experimentation and analysis, is the brain does a lot of confection. The whole experience of simultaneity, or the present, is an illusion. The time delays in a nerve being stimulated and the signal reaching the brain is in tens of milliseconds. Those fractions of time may seem small, but if you could directly observe them they would be noticeable (the distances between musical notes is in the resolution of tens of milliseconds; it doesn’t take many milliseconds for a note to be perceptibly out of time) . If you take a pin, and rhythmically prick your finger, as you watch, you will feel the pain in coordination with what you see. This is your brain creating an illusion. Without the illusion you would see the time delay; you wouldn’t feel the pain when the needle was visibly connecting with your finger, but only after. And there are many more things like this; the experience of simultaneity when playing the piano is a grand illusion.

  12. I’d gather that it would be undesirable for the targets of the behavior.

  13. Re:-JMRC July 20th

    Yes. Our take on reality; it is becoming more and more apparent as scientific research proceeds, is not in accord with what happens in reality itself. Relativistic effects and Quantum effects can be calculated, but thoroughgoing explanations of them do seem to be at odds with what we would normally call common sense, We are constructed to survive and the brain presents reality to us in connection therewith. I believe I have mentioned in the past, in connection with consciousness. that Huxley in 1866 stated:- “How is it that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of Djin when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.” Today we call this The Hard Problem of Consciousness, but notwithstanding a massive amount of philosophical conjecture and scientific research the problem still remains unresolved unless you are one of those philosophers like Dan Dennett who argues that it is not an unresolvable problem. So far as I know he has yet to resolve it.

  14. Don Bird,

    Issues regarding the scientific research; there hasn’t been as much as you might imagine. I believe the science of the mind, will hit (does hit) a boundary, like classical physics reaches when quantum physics is needed. How do you scientifically quantify meaning. Meaning is an essential component in post traumatic stress disorder – the more meaning in the original trauma, the deeper the injury. And a trauma that is completely meaningless may have no psychic injury.

    I think Dan Dennett’s position on the Hard Problem of Consciousness, is he just wants to keep away from it. And his reason being, too many people demand a mystical explanation; something that’s quasi-religious. The mechanical mechanism may turn out to be something very simple.

  15. Re Don Bird July 18

    I don’t know about you, but I would be more than comfortable saying that someone who looks up and says, “The sky is green,” is wrong. Reducing a color to the way light waves interact with the human eye does not make the color unreal. My point was simply that it is inconceivable to me that anyone can be conscious and not experience free will. I know this brings up the problem of other minds, blah, blah, blah. But, if I can assume that there are other minds and they operate broadly similarly to my mind, they directly experience free will. And that kind of experience cannot be unbelieved because of an fMRI or even the cleverest theory.

  16. The question arises in these matters “why is a boat when painted” but it can be argued that the only logical answer is “because the more you row , the faster”

  17. “I guess a rattlesnake ain’t responsible fer bein’ a rattlesnake, but ah still puts mah heel on ‘um if I ketches him around ma chillun’”.

    If we don’t have free will, arguing about whether we do or not is a futile exercise. We are constrained to do it.

    It all becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Choosing to believe we have free will demonstrates that we have it.

    Denying that we have it is reason enough not to even make the attempt.

    The confusion arises because people take a one dimensional view of things: the reality is that there are hierarchies in everything.

    At some level we have relatively free will, but the choices we make at that level are constrained by our deeper motivations.

    Ex: suppose I at all times choose that which I think will make me happier, or less miserable. Because my psyche constrains me to so do.

    Being hung seems to me to be very miserable indeed, so I don’t choose to murder the person who is making me miserable. Because society at large ‘believes’ I have a choice in this matter.

    Remove that belief and ‘because it’s in my nature’ becomes the ultimate excuse for anything.

    A fact the illiberal and uncivilised use to justify extraordinarily uncivilised actions to the liberal West.

    In short it is a wise society that ensures its longevity by choosing to behave as if free will were a fact.

    Liberals probably can’t help themselves, but that’s OK too. They can be sent to the gas chambers just as easily by people who also cant help themselves.

    And they shouldn’t complain about it. It is after all merely evolution in action.

  18. Re Leo Smith 21.07.14

    “It all becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Choosing to believe we have free will demonstrates that we have it.
    Denying that we have it is reason enough not to even make the attempt.”

    Surely choosing to believe something does not make it the case. I could choose to believe in fairies for instance.
    I often choose to believe that a certain object which I want is in the draw of my desk only to find in due course that it is not. I think that the vast majority of people behave as if they have free will. If one wishes to improve oneself one takes it that this is possible it would seem ridiculous to leave things to blind chance so far as personal improvement is concerned. All this I believe and run my life in accordance thereto. However I strongly suspect that free will is a myth. To justify my belief here would be no more than to repeat all the well-known arguments against it with which most of us are familiar. But I will say however is that there is a huge flaw in the reasoning of those who say they could have chosen otherwise. How could you possibly know that? There is no way of testing it. You cannot return in time to the instant when which you made the decision. The whole universe including oneself was in a certain state never again to be realised. I wonder if Determinism is affected by what sort of character a person has, and this character is reflected in the choices they make in accordance with the terms of Determinism. Thus the good person will appear to make good choices and the bad person bad choices. In this connection I find it rather hard to believe that if absolute proof were provided that we do not have free will and this would lead a breakdown of society. I think most likely bad people would justify their badness by saying they had no control over their brains, which would probably be correct, but as I have suggested earlier this could be appropriately dealt with.
    Of course if we do not have free will it really is a nonsense to say with any certainty what we will do in the future, it is largely a matter of wait and see.

  19. Right, I’m bloody confused – what is it people want from free will? the ability to have done other? Well, if you had chosen differently then it wouldn’t have been you choosing! A close facsimile, but not you. You want the ability to, given similar circumstances, choose differently in future: you have it, it’s called learning.

    Libertarian free will is magic/religion by any other name. The fact it’s given the time of day by people who should know better is an embarrassment to whichever field gives it more credence than dowsing.

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