From a libertarian perspective, the acceptance of free will as a necessary component of morality has been somewhat of a given. After all, libertarianism (the political philosophy) is a proposed ethical framework that makes judgments on what constitutes right and wrong behavior. By proposing that free will does not exist, libertarians fear that this would undermine their moral philosophy. This is the fear not only for libertarians, but many others who believe that morality and free will go hand-in-hand.
I want to examine this question more closely. Is free will truly necessary for morality? Ultimately, I hope to answer this question in two parts. First that there is no such thing as free will, and second, that this fact does not undermine the necessity of morality.
The first task that must be undertaken is to examine the existence of free will. If free will does not exist can morally accountable actions exist? The very idea of accountability implies choice in action; we can choose between moral and immoral acts. If a man commits a crime and claims a determinate cause, can he be punished? To illustrate, suppose a man shots and kills his aunt after a heated argument.
In court, the man admits that the shooting was not an accident and that he knowingly, intentionally, and unjustifiably shot her. Moreover, he claims that the shooting was not in self-defense. Further, psychologists indicate he was not insane and there were no abnormal chemicals in his brain. Nevertheless, the man maintains that he cannot be held responsible for his actions. This is because, he argues:
Physics teaches us that all physical changes transpire in accordance with the laws of nature. Now my firing of the gun, along with my aunt’s ensuing death, were physical events. So, if the dictates of science are to be accepted, these events were ultimately the outcome of events occurring in (say) 2 million B.C., together with the laws of nature. But it is not up to me what went on 2 million years ago. And it is not up to me what the laws of nature are either. Therefore, the consequences of these things, including my present actions, are not up to me either.
van Invagen, Peter (1983) An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p.222.
On the surface, this argument seems to hold. If external events beyond the control of the man were at play how can he be held morally responsible for his actions? If the argument is valid, it also implies that no one is accountable for his or her actions. This has been the cause of debate among multiple camps. Below I will outline the major camps, although there are
First, there are the hard determinists, who agree that since reality is determined, free will is an illusion. Second, are the indeterminists who believe there are happenings that are not determined by previous causes, but instead, there is room for free will. Third are compatibilists (also called soft determinists, since they believe that some form of determinism is taking place but not to the same degree as hard determinism) who hold that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe both without being logically inconsistent; nothing is actually “determined” to do something, but rather has a “disposition” or “tendency” to act in a certain way. To illustrate these concepts imagine that I tell you to answer the following question: What word goes in the blank? “The cat ran ____ the house.”
To make the above sentence correct, you must pick a preposition (e.g., along, into, through, by, etc.). In hard determinism, the researcher would say that if we knew every component of your past (i.e., the person picking the word for the blank) and the state and movement of all the universe, we could know prior to you picking a word to fill in the blank which word you would choose. In short, your selection is determined prior to the action, so you don’t have free will to choose any word (though you may have the illusion that you free made the choice).
It is important to note here that determinism should not be confused with fatalism. This is a mistake made none too often. Determinists generally agree that human actions affect the future but that human action is itself determined by a causal chain of prior events. Their view does not accentuate a “submission” to fate or destiny, whereas fatalists stress an acceptance of future events as inevitable. Determinists believe the future is fixed specifically due to causality; fatalists believe that some or all aspects of the future are inescapable, but, for fatalists, not necessarily due to causality. The fatalist view is that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do. Included in this is that humans have no power to influence the future, or indeed, their own actions. On the other hand, for determinism, what you think, say, and do is part of the process that will lead to a specific event, and therefore is important on how things unfold. Even though what you think, say, and do is causal, there is no logical reason to do “nothing” that follows from such.
The compatibilist would say that there is a probability for you to select a preposition to complete the sentence, and you may have a higher likelihood of selecting certain prepositions (e.g., “in”) rather than other ones (e.g., “with”). Since “with” only works by making us imagine both the cat and the house as cartoon characters or residing in some alternate universe where homes can run. As such, you are not set in your choice, like in hard determinism, but you have more likely choices and less likely choices. Choice is possible, but some choice can be determined, which means we could predict the choice slightly.
With these positions in mind, let us examine the standard argument against free will. The standard argument is very simple. Either determinism is true or indeterminism is true.
If determinism is true, we are not free since a chain of events causes all actions. If indeterminism is true, our actions are random and occur by chance. There is no free will either way. That is, if our actions are causally determined by prior events, including a chain of events that goes back before we were born, how can we be responsible for them? If our actions are directly caused by chance and are simply random, how we can be responsible for them? This is the paradox that presents us with the classic problem of free will, which is to reconcile an element of freedom with the apparent determinism in a world of causes and effects, a world of events in a great causal chain.
Additionally, supporters of free will must also contend with the body of scientific evidence that favors a deterministic brain. Consider the various studies that indicate the brain already makes decisions prior to the individual being self-consciously aware of the decision:
- Libet, Benjamin; Gleason, Curtis A.; Wright, Elwood W.; Pearl, Dennis K. (1983). “Time of Conscious Intention to Act in Relation to Onset of Cerebral Activity (Readiness-Potential)”. Brain. 106 (3): 623–42.
- Lau, Hakwan C.; Rogers, Robert D.; Passingham, Richard E. (2007). “Manipulating the Experienced Onset of Intention after Action Execution”. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 19 (1): 81–90.
- Soon, Chun Siong; Brass, Marcel; Heinze, Hans-Jochen; Haynes, John-Dylan (2008). “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain”. Nature Neuroscience. 11 (5): 543–5.
- Fried, Itzhak; Mukamel, Roy; Kreiman, Gabriel (2011). “Internally Generated Preactivation of Single Neurons in Human Medial Frontal Cortex Predicts Volition”. Neuron. 69 (3): 548–62.
- Soon, Chun Siong; He, Anna Hanxi; Bode, Stefan; Haynes, John-Dylan (9 April 2013). “Predicting free choices for abstract intentions”.
- Lush, P., Naish, P., & Dienes, Z. (2016). “Metacognition of intentions in mindfulness and hypnosis”.
- Schultze-Kraft, Matthias; Birman, Daniel; Rusconi, Marco; Allefeld, Carsten; Görgen, Kai; Dähne, Sven; Blankertz, Benjamin; Haynes, John-Dylan (2016-01-26). “The point of no return in vetoing self-initiated movements”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113 (4): 1080–1085
The latter piece of research is also notable because it suggests we are able to, a certain degree, veto the decisions made by our brain. I will return to this study later.
A simple test will confirm that one is not the author of his or her own thoughts. When people are asked to think of a fruit, they have a wide range of fruit to choose from. They may pick a strawberry, but why not a starfruit? They know that alternate fruits exist, but they did not appear in their thoughts. If they were truly the author of their thoughts, they would have been able to choose from all fruits in their repertoire. The fact that that this does not happen provides evidence against a sort of “thinker of thoughts.” There are simply thoughts. This holds true for all of our thoughts. They simply arise in consciousness. Throughout our day thoughts arise without any volition from the “thinker.”
If we agree that our thoughts, emotions, and impulses emanate from the brain, why is it so difficult to imagine that there are causal elements at play, just as with other bodily functions? To think otherwise would imply that these come from somewhere outside the brain. Yet, let us imagine there is an invisible puppet master who invented a means of controlling our actions from a distance via an ingenious device he has created.
What would it be like to watch him send a person back and forth under the control of his own “will”? No one would claim that this person has free will of any kind. However, this invisible puppet master is nothing more than causal determinism personified.
Adding randomness to this scenario does nothing to change this situation, we only need to imagine the puppet master basing the inputs to his device on a quantum random number
In the mind, all the thoughts, moods, and intentions are preserved. Yet, once we imagine a hypothetical puppet master dispensing a combination of randomness and natural law, we are left with the undeniable fact that the consciousness is not the source of thoughts and intentions. If our moment to moment experience is compatible with its absence, how can there be any evidence for it at all?
None of this implies that the choices we make in life are not important. Again we must not confuse this with fatalism. The fact that our choices depend on prior causes does not mean that they do not matter. If I had not decided to write my book, it wouldn’t have written itself. My choice to write it was unquestionably the primary cause of its coming into being.
Things such as decisions and intentions are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to various outcomes in the world. As a result,
Therefore, while it is true to say that a person would have done otherwise if he had chosen to do otherwise, this does not deliver the kind of free will that most people seem to cherish, because a person’s “choices” merely appear in his mental stream as though sprung from the void. The belief in free will seems to arise from our moment-to-moment ignorance of the specific prior causes of our thoughts and actions. The phrase “free will” describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each mental state as it arises in consciousness.
Trains of thought like, “What should I get my wife or her birthday? I know, I’ll take her to a jewelry store and have her pick out some earrings,” convey a sense of choice that is freely made. While it is true that you made the choice, you were confined merely to the thoughts presented by your own mind. Thoughts simply arise unauthored by us, but nevertheless, author our actions.
Consider an argument with your wife because you are in a bad mood. What caused your mood change to begin with? Was it because you skipped lunch and are suffering from low blood sugar? Understanding this indicates that you are at the mercy of the biochemical nature of your body. Having some food may be all you need to grasp one of your puppet strings and overcome this situation.
Let us turn to the example of Charles Whitman who murdered 14 people at UT. In his suicide note, he wrote that he believed that something was wrong with his brain and it should be examined because of his uncontrollable urges. When the autopsy was performed they found a large tumor in his amygdala. It was determined that this tumor caused Whitman’s urges and actions. Certainly, Whitman was responsible for the actions he committed; however, he was not responsible as a result of “free will.”
The dichotomy here is that there is a clear distinction between will and action. If Whitman were still alive and the technology existed to remove the tumor and return his brain back to normal the only issue that would matter is if the operation was conducted before the murders or
As such, there is no issue with judging the action of individuals without free will, just as there is no issue judging a robot’s actions as right or wrong. If the action violates a moral principle; for example, people have the right to self-ownership, then a robot attacking a human is just as wrong as a human attacking another human. Similarly, if humanity was capable of locking up a hurricane, to prevent it from causing great damage and harm, would it not do so? The question of free will plays no role in these matters.
Consider again the earlier example of the man who murdered his aunt. The three theories are congruent that, in order for him to have multiple courses of action possible, given his circumstances, his action would have to be uncaused. Thus the theories agree that causality implies determinism. His action may have been caused by anger towards his aunt that caused him to shoot her. However, it was also possible for him not to shoot her, since he could have not been so influenced by his anger. How do we know this? Because many other people whom get angry do not always kill. Thus the man could have chosen to act based on different motives and not have killed his aunt. He could have thought about the consequences of shooting her and realized that these would be harmful to him. As a result he does not kill his aunt. However, the man did choose to kill his aunt. Why did the man act on the motives he did, instead of different ones? Was there some cause of this choice? Suppose from the man’s point of view there are essentially only two possible outcomes from killing his aunt:
- He kills his aunt, and there are no consequences for his action.
- He kills his aunt, and there are consequences for his action.
The existence of these alternatives shows that counterfactual thinking has taken place; the man is able to contemplate his possible outcomes. However, the fact that counterfactual thinking has taken place does not undermine determinism. It simply shows that there is an internal mechanism in place that allows for reasoning and veto power over intentions and urges. Schultze-Kraft et al., the study references earlier, indicated such a feature. Their findings suggest that subjects can exert a “veto” even after onset the mind’s unconscious decision to act. However, the veto has to occur before a point of no return is reached after which participants cannot avoid moving.
The distinction between the veto power over other systems in the brain provides little relief. First, the study indicated, that at a certain point,
This is not to say that our brain is a “black box” that is immune to external forces. The brain is capable of learning and adapting as necessary to its environment. For example, we can learn new languages, accept new moral frameworks, and navigate complex social situations. There are also internal struggles the brain is capable of adapting to. Someone may want to get more
There is no inconsistency with this approach. We are still able to better ourselves and make choices all within a moral framework. Our actions still impart a need for moral responsibility regardless of whether or not you believed you created your own thoughts via your own will or they simply appear on their own.