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Big Questions Debate: “Science leaves no room for free will.”

Free will, Moral Responsibility, and Justice

Our topic asks us a seemingly factual question: does science leave room for free will? However, this question is often approached indirectly in the literature on free will as an ethical, social, or political—rather than merely factual—question: would it be bad for us, if we did not believe in free will? Or, is it good for us to believe in free will? In this topic update, I consider some of the disputes about how to answer those ethical, social, and political questions. I then briefly consider what, if anything, we should conclude from those arguments in relation to our topic. That is, I raise the question: for the purposes of answering factual questions about free will, does it matter whether belief in free will is good for us?

For an overview of these issues, an excellent place to start would be to look at Alfred Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will (especially and to compare his take on the issue to Sam Harris’ in his book Free Will (especially the sections “Might the Truth Be Bad for Us” and “Moral Responsibility”). In what follows, I draw citations and quotations from these two sources.

Why belief in free will might be important

I think we can sort the arguments in favor of the view that belief in free will is good for us and of central importance to our ethical, social, and political lives into three types.

First, there is social scientific research that purports to show that our behavior changes for the worse as our belief in free will diminishes. For example, one study finds that subjects who are prompted to think there is no such thing as free will are more prone to act unethically by cheating on academic work (see K.D. Vohs & J.W. Schooler, 2008. “The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19(1):49-54). Another study finds that subjects who are prompted to think there is no such thing as free will are prone to act more aggressively and less helpfully toward others (see R.F. Baumeister, E.J. Masicampo, & C.N. DeWall, 2009, “Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35: 260-268). One might conclude that belief in free will makes people more likely to act well—in ways that we find moral, productive, and socially beneficial—and that loss of that belief makes people more likely to act badly.

Second, separate from the question of whether disbelief in free well brings about the effect of people acting badly, there is a more fundamental philosophical question: if we do not believe in the existence of free will is there any justification for thinking that people should act well, i.e. ethically, productively, or beneficially? Many things lead people to act badly. That is a problem to find mechanisms to address, but it is not in itself profoundly disturbing. What is perhaps more disturbing is the idea that we may not even be entitled to think there is such a thing as acting well or acting badly. After all, if our “actions” are not a manifestation of our free decisions, but are instead the outcome of physical mechanisms that occur behind our backs and beyond our control, then what sense is there to saying of someone that they did the right or wrong thing? In a sense, they—that person, in an ordinary sense of the word “person”—did not do anything. In the absence of free will, it seems more accurate to say that the world, nature, biochemical mechanisms, and so on, “acted” through them. If this is all correct, then one might argue that disbelief in free will is bad for us in a more profound sense than merely that it leads us to behave badly: it leaves us without any clear justification for asking or answering basic questions about our behavior. And so pressing questions start to emerge, like: why do anything? why behave well? why does it matter what I am doing now, or what I will do tomorrow? What I do might lead to a better or worse outcome, but it seems that at this point there would not be much sense to saying that I did something right or wrong.

Third and finally, the point just under discussion about a loss of justification for ethically evaluating our conduct also raises questions about our organized societal and institutional ways of life. For example, in United States v. Grayson (1978), the Supreme Court held that “a deterministic view of human conduct…is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminal justice system” (cited in Harris). Many of our institutions—the criminal justice system among them—operate on the belief that people are ordinarily (that is, except when specific, abnormal circumstances indicate otherwise) responsible for their conduct. There are all sorts of views about what the idea of “responsibility” involves, but a basic idea is that to think that someone is or is capable of being responsible for their actions is to think that they: 1) freely choose to act, or, when they do not, they are choosing not to freely choose; 2) and so, whatever choice they have made, they could have chosen not to make it, and could choose not to make similar choices in the future; and, 3) therefore, they are responsible for what they have chosen to do, and so can be held to account for their conduct. Of course, it poses no special difficulty to think that sometimes and in some circumstances people do not act freely. Even a criminal justice system founded on the assumption of free will can make space for mitigating circumstances and pleas of insanity. Those are avenues for finding that although a person would ordinarily be responsible, in this case (or in regard to this person) that ordinary responsibility is mitigated or absent. But, it is entirely different to conclude that there is no such thing as free choice and so no such thing as responsibility. If we concluded the latter, then we would maintain that people do not freely choose their conduct and could not genuinely choose to conduct themselves differently. In that case, it would be hard to argue that our institutional mechanisms for holding people responsible for their conduct—our criminal justice system, for example—have any underlying justification to them.

A response: why belief in free will might not be as important as we think it is

Now, let’s take a look at a response to the arguments outlined above. In his book Free Will, Sam Harris advances a threefold argument. First, he argues that even in the absence of free will it still makes sense to speak of responsibility and to hold people responsible (at least in some sense). Specifically, he argues that when we say of someone that they are responsible for their conduct, what we really mean (or, perhaps, should mean, if we confronted our illusions) is simply that they conducted themselves in a way that makes sense as a manifestation of their thoughts, intentions, desires, and overall character. Harris’ thought is that it is not relevant whether a person acts freely in an ultimate sense; what matters for our purposes in holding people responsible, Harris argues, is merely whether we think you are relatively in control or out of control of your behavior relative to your thinking. I’ll return to this argument in a moment.

Second, Harris argues that our need to hold people responsible at an institutional level (for example, within the criminal justice system) does not need to rest on free will. Ultimately, he claims, we incarcerate people when we think they are dangerous and we have a pragmatic need to do so. This would be true regardless of whether we think that the dangerous conduct we are trying to address is the result of free choices. Harris writes:

“If we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. We fight emerging epidemics—and even the occasional wild animal—without attributing free will to them. Clearly, we can respond intelligently to the threat posed by dangerous people without lying to ourselves about the ultimate origins of human behavior. We will still need a criminal justice system that attempts to accurately assess guilt and innocence along with the future risks that the guilty pose to society” (56).

Moreover, he argues that to the extent that abandoning the idea of free will does force changes in our criminal justice practices, those changes are for the better. He urges us to consider that, in a real sense, “anyone born with the soul of a psychopath has been profoundly unlucky” (53). In other words, we should not build criminal justice on the basis of a drive for retribution. Instead, it should be oriented toward a goal of harm reduction—a goal that is not concerned with blame and punishment, but is instead concerned with taking the appropriate action to reduce overall social harm.

Finally, Harris argues that discarding belief in free will can be liberating on a personal level. He argues that belief in free will strangely leads us to conclude too quickly that we cannot change who we are, that when we behave badly it is because we are simply bad people. He urges us instead to consider how we would think about ourselves if we treated our behavior as a manifestation of a physical system: “There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past” (46). For example, he says you might notice that you are prone to arguing angrily with your spouse, only to discover that your anger is caused by low blood sugar. This gives you an identifiable physical problem that you can address by improving your diet. Harris’ thought is that adopting this view of ourselves can be helpful in seeing ourselves as a system that we can improve.

Harris’ case is a good summary of the general responses to fears about giving up the idea of free will. Harris makes a compelling case. However, one question worth asking is whether Harris is really taking seriously some of the concerns raised in the previous section. For example, consider Harris’ idea that it can be freeing to address oneself as a physical system capable of change.

If you believe in free will, then it’s perfectly clear why it might be useful to see oneself in this way (some of the time, anyway): it allows you to recognize, for example, how better eating habits could improve your disposition. Armed with that knowledge, you can choose to eat better and so choose to improve yourself. And you would care about doing so because you view yourself as being responsible for the sort of person you are, responsible that is, for the choices that shape who you are. However, what do we say about all of this if we do not believe in free will? At that point, understanding myself as a physical system might arm me with an explanation of why I am behaving as I am (that is, of the underlying mechanisms driving that behavior), but where do I go from there? Now we cannot straightforwardly pick up and use the language of choice and responsibility that would otherwise come naturally to us at this point. A similar line of worry might arise about his views on responsibility and criminal justice: his picture makes sense in its own right, but is it capable of explaining why we care about holding people responsible, or diminishing dangerous behavior? Can we explain why we are justified in incarcerating someone without thinking that they deserve incarceration, in a sense of “deserve” that is somehow connected to their freedom of choice and action? Is there any reason why it would make sense to use a notion of “responsibility” that connects our behavior to our thoughts and desires once we no longer believe that our thoughts and desires are freely ours, and once we no longer believe that our thoughts and desires do not necessarily direct our behavior? I will leave these as questions for your consideration as you think about Harris’ account.

Implications for our topic

In my view, the negative has an easier pitch to make in arguing that belief in free will is central to our lives, and that it would be at last highly disruptive (and perhaps actively bad for us) to give up belief in free will. On the other hand, the affirmative probably has an easier sell with regard to the question of how all of this relates to our topic. For, the affirmative can simply argue as follows. It may be difficult, harmful, or productive of bad behavior to admit that there is no such thing as free will. Nevertheless, none of that would demonstrate that belief in free will is justified. It could be both helpful to believe in free will and false to believe in free will. Our topic, the affirmative can argue, asks us a factual question about what it is correct to believe (is science in fact incompatible with free will?), not a question about what it is more convenient or beneficial to believe about free will.

This is a tricky point for the negative to address. I will leave you by outlining two possible avenues of negative response, and perhaps we can pursue these more in depth in the future.

The negative could get around the problem by using their arguments about the importance of belief in free will in order to make the case that belief in free will should be our strong default position. In other words, the negative could admit that these arguments do not themselves answer the factual question, but maintain that they should nevertheless inform where our default answer to the factual question should lie: the burden of proof should be on the affirmative, because we should not throw out a morally and socially crucial concept in our lives, unless we are absolutely certain that our belief in that concept is false.

On the other hand, the negative could take a more committed line on the issue: they could question the distinction between “factual” and “moral” questions as the affirmative has drawn it. This is tricky because we are accustomed to according scientific inquiry pride of place when it comes to determining what we know about the universe and what happens within it. However, it might be worth noting that we are also ordinarily accustomed to giving strong deference to our capacities for moral thought when it comes to determining what we ought to do. That is, we ordinarily exhibit a high degree of confidence in a kind of knowledge that we do not arrive at scientifically: moral knowledge. We exhibit this confidence, for example, when we say to ourselves, “I would really like to go to a movie, but I shouldn’t because I promised I would finish this project tonight.” Thoughts like these are perfectly ordinary, and they do implicitly claim both knowledge about what we should do, and confidence that we can freely direct our behavior on the basis of that knowledge. That latter confidence—confidence that we have the capacity to direct ourselves in accordance with what we know to be right conduct—is a type of confidence in a factual claim: a claim about what we as persons (with physical bodies, living in a physical world) are capable of doing. So, it is not so easy to separate out questions of what we know about ethics and interpersonal interaction from what we know about the world scientifically. If we refuse this clean separation, then we face conflicting claims about the factual question of free will, with one claim arising from our moral knowledge and one from our scientific knowledge. The question then becomes how we navigate our way through that conflict. This in turn raises a fascinating complex of questions about the related places of ethics and science in human knowledge.


Tom Evnen

Tom Evnen

Tom Evnen has a B.A. in philosophy from Swarthmore College, and an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. As a high school student, Tom debated for four years for Lincoln Southeast High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. Tom twice cleared to elimination rounds at the Tournament of Champions. His senior year, he was a state champion and finalist at the Tournament of Champions.

Tom has been an active debate coach and educator for over a decade. He was a full time teacher and debate coach at at the Hockaday School (TX), and he has also coached at University School (FL), Oxbridge Academy (FL), Lake Highland (FL), and La Jolla (CA). Tom has coached students to elimination rounds at the Tournament of Champions thirteen times, including four quarterfinalists, two semifinalists, and one finalist. Tom also coached students to the final round of LD at the National Tournament for three years in a row, and they won the championship two of those three years. In addition, Tom’s students have reached finals or won championships at Apple Valley, Blake, Bronx, the Bronx Round Robin, Emory, Greenhill, the Greenhill Round Robin, Glenrbooks, Harvard, Stanford, St. Marks, Valley, and Yale.

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