The "Moral Argument" For Free Will Is A Morally Troubling, Hypocritical, Faith Position

Many who believe that we have free will are what philosophers call “libertarians”. These are not necessarily libertarians in the political sense but in a metaphysical sense. Libertarians conceive of free will as incompatible with determinism. Their notion is that to the extent that our actions are determined by forces or factors which are beyond our ability to control, we cannot be free in any meaningful or morally relevant sense. So, they think that if it turns out that all of our actions are strictly determined by thoughts and subconscious brain activity and all of this is strictly determined by neural interactions which are, essentially, strictly determined by laws of chemistry, which are strictly determined by physical interactions that we do not control, then we cannot be free in any meaningful or morally relevant sense.

Libertarians think this is so because they understand moral praise and blame to require the freedom to do otherwise. If you cannot have done otherwise, then you cannot be morally praised or blamed for what you do anymore than a hurricane can be morally praised or blamed for what it does. Without free will, in the sense of the ability to do otherwise than you do, you are just a function of deeper laws of nature the way the hurricane is and, so, not responsible.

What strikes me as troubling is when people who have precisely this view of what moral praise and blame require are confronted with arguments for the truth of determinism which they themselves perceive they cannot refute, they often do not say, “oh no, I do not see a way to prove determinism is false or a way to prove free will is likely to be real, so in order to be safe I recommend that we start to reconsider the harshness of our moral condemnations, just in case our feelings of blame are in fact unfair to people, since there is a good chance they really cannot do otherwise than they do.”

Realizing that by their own moral standards and their own perception of the strength of evidence for determinism they do not make calls for greater care in morally judging people but rather do the precise opposite. They start to argue that in order to preserve their belief that people are genuinely morally praiseworthy or blameworthy, they claim there simply must be free will. So, contrary to the evidence that it would be unfair to blame people according to their own moral evidence, they decide to believe that the free will which they perceive to be the precondition of blaming people exists.

Essentially, rather than revise their understanding of what responsibility really means or of the correct usage of moral feelings and punishments, etc., they deliberately choose to believe that people are still blameworthy in the way libertarianism demands even in the light of evidence that they likely are not. They are more committed to blaming and resenting people than they are to adjusting their attitudes to what they perceive to be the facts.

Essentially, they are not making an argument, they are making a leap of faith, i.e., a volitional choice to believe in something that is contravened by the evidence as they understand it in order that they may hate people in a way that the evidence actually argues they should not. Saying, “libertarian free will must actually exist since otherwise there would be no justification for morality” is as irrational as saying “heaven must actually exist since otherwise there would be no consolation in the face of death”.

This is what I see happening whenever someone who cannot defend their libertarian view of free will metaphysically resorts to saying we must believe it so that we may preserve morality. They are effectively saying, “we must preserve our current conception of morality even if it is false and unfair to people according to our own morality.”

It is a deeply hypocritical and unfair position.

Of course, libertarians may be convinced (or, at least, confidently persuaded) of the existence of libertarian free will on other grounds, in which case they would not be hypocrites. And of course there are those of us (soft determinists) who think there are meaningful senses of freedom and moral praise- or blameworthiness which are compatible with determinism. Even if we are wrong and unfair to those we praise or blame, we at least trying to grapple with the moral challenges determinism offers, rather than being like the moral-argument-using-libertarians who opt to believe on faith that such problems do not exist so that they may maintain their common sense moral intuitions with untroubled consciences, regardless of how unfair they are on their own moral standards given their own understanding of the evidence for determinism.

A follow up post to this one, in reply to Hank Fox’s remarks in the comments of this post, is here.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Yep. People hanging onto a belief not because the evidence favors it but because it makes them feel more comfortable. This happens all too often, and we need to make people more aware of it and how irrational it is.
    I saw a theologian on TV once essentially say that God exists because otherwise evil people could die without being punished and that would just be a bummer! We don’t like the thought of that so therefore, God must exist!
    Similarly, I don’t like the thought of my credit card debt, so therefore, I must have $100,000 in my bank account.

  • Dunc

    You’re right – but in fairness, they could not do otherwise. It’s not like they have free will, is it? ;)

  • Mark C.

    This facet of libertarianism (of the free will sort) really gets under my skin.

    With respect to what you say about evidence, however, they might object on the grounds that quantum events undermine determinism. While strictly a valid point, it says nothing about the operation of brains and minds, the former of which is at a much higher ontological level in the sense that the brain is a vast, multi-particle system that probably isn’t too vulnerable to being significantly changed by quantum effects at the elementary particle level. So it seems to me (the lay person that I am when it comes to brain science) that psychological events are approximated to a nigh arbitrarily high degree by assuming determinism. Assuming that some events in the universe are undetermined takes us nowhere in the predictive sense when it comes to psychology.

    So even if determinism is not actually the case, it may be what we need to assume in practice in order to model most aspects of reality, including how brains and minds work. I see no problem with this. As you say, the solution to the libertarians’ purported problem is to change our conceptions of things, not to demand that something contrary to the evidence (the evidence of psychology, that is) be the case.

    From an evolutionary and/or sociological perspective, moral judgments have the function of molding others’ behavior. I believe this to be their primary function. So regardless of whether or not someone “could have done otherwise” in the indeterministic sense (which raises the problem that the person was in fact NOT the source of the decision), if someone’s behavior can change to bring about a different outcome, they are “responsible” for certain outcomes because they can respond differently to the stimulus that led to the objectionable behavior, hence possibly avoiding the outcome that moral judgment was heaped on them for in the first place.

  • Mark C.

    This facet of libertarianism (of the free will sort) really gets under my skin.

    With respect to what you say about evidence, however, they might object on the grounds that quantum events undermine determinism. While strictly a valid point, it says nothing about the operation of brains and minds, the former of which is at a much higher ontological level in the sense that the brain is a vast, multi-particle system that probably isn’t too vulnerable to being significantly changed by quantum effects at the elementary particle level. So it seems to me (the lay person that I am when it comes to brain science) that psychological events are approximated to a nigh arbitrarily high degree by assuming determinism. Assuming that some events in the universe are undetermined takes us nowhere in the predictive sense when it comes to psychology.

    So even if determinism is not actually the case, it may be what we need to assume in practice in order to model most aspects of reality, including how brains and minds work. I see no problem with this. As you say, the solution to the libertarians’ purported problem is to change our conceptions of things, not to demand that something contrary to the evidence be the case.

    From an evolutionary and/or sociological perspective, moral judgments have the function of molding others’ behavior. I believe this to be their primary function. So regardless of whether or not someone “could have done otherwise” in the indeterministic sense (which raises the problem that the person was in fact NOT the source of the decision), if someone’s behavior can change to bring about a different outcome, they are “responsible” for certain outcomes because they can respond differently to the stimulus that led to the objectionable behavior, hence possibly avoiding the outcome that moral judgment was heaped on them for in the first place.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      One quick point about the quantum consideration—even if physical events are not determined in advance, when they are determined they do not seem to be determined by our wills. So even if the future is open from a quantum perspective, we would still not be free.

    • http://www.ranum.com Occam’s Blunt Instrument

      More to the point, quantum indeterminacy amounts to (if you’ll forgive the expression) “god playing dice” at the lowest level of reality. Attempting to anchor free will on quantum indeterminacy means you’re just a robot that says “heads – I’ll go left, tails – I’ll go right”

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes.

  • Hank Fox

    I’m not sure where I would be said to stand on the argument.

    I know I was always exasperated at those people who, in bull sessions over the subject, popped off with “You can’t flap your arms and fly if you want to, therefore there is no such thing as free will!” As if the subject permitted only a god or a robot, with no possibilities in between.

    I always say “Free will is POSSIBLE, but like anything good, it takes WORK. A great number of us aren’t willing to go to the trouble, and thus do not have much in the way of free will.”

    So, IMHO, we have the POSSIBILITY of free will. It’s just that most (probably) of us make a sort of default choice not to try to use it.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Well, here’s the paradox of what you say there, Hank: if you have to first be willing before you can have free will, then what is it that makes you willing or not willing? It can’t be your free will since you just said you need to work hard before you can achieve a free will. All that working hard must be determined by something else then.

      In practical terms, I think it makes a lot of sense to talk about people acting of their own free will in the sense of not just following other people’s dictates but acting based on their own internal reasoning process. But one’s own internal reasoning process and the will that it generates are what make us, we cannot control them “from the outside”.

    • Hank Fox

      Two things always occur to me in any discussion of Free Will.

      One is that the discussion of Free Will itself seems, in a significant way, to presuppose the conclusion that the thing exists. I have a hard time imagining robots carrying on such a conversation. The “this is me thinking about that” internal background says to me (yes, subjectively, but that’s as good as it gets in our own personal heads) that I’m not such a robot.

      Second is a more general argument that there is a testing lab for all philosophical propositions that stands outside those artifacts-of-human-mind. Reality.

      You pretty much have to alternate from the internal-philosophical to the Real-World-actual in order to examine your propositions for workability. That most of us do it without noticing, or that complex arguments can be advanced that deny any such Real World exists, presents us with a bit of a quandary. But again, I don’t think you can have the discussion without recognizing that the process itself is an argument for realness.

      It is so easy to get bogged down in “yeah, but what about this? what about that?” that I generally avoid the subject altogether.

      It’s possible that “There is a Real World” has to be something of an article of faith. But it appears — to me — to be the only workable conclusion humans have yet come up with.

      I tend to suspect that, anytime we’re presented with a paradox, it’s because we’re getting bogged down in the imperfections of human semantics, or the assumption that what’s going on in our human heads is the most important or only consideration.

      The only way out of these Gordian Knots of subjective mentation is … well, something on the order of Zen no-mind, where you stop attempting to insistently grasp the thing and sit back and try harder to just observe it.

    • Aspect Sign

      The only way out of these Gordian Knots of subjective mentation is … well, something on the order of Zen no-mind, where you stop attempting to insistently grasp the thing and sit back and try harder to just observe it.

      Your mention of no-mind inspires me to comment here. The topic of freewill isn’t as big a deal within Buddhist philosophy as it is in the west. It’s rather, subsumed within the doctrine of no-self when it is alluded to at all, seen as a basic error in the understanding of self.

      Viewing the self as an aspect of experience rather than a thing in itself having what amounts to an “as if” existence (as some also attribute to freewill.) Asking if that self has free will becomes incoherent.

      The strong desire to retain an idea freewill as an actual attribute seems to me an aspect of the idea that the self has to be a concrete thing in the world or else we evaporate into a blank that has neither individuality nor responsibility. I don’t think this dichotomy is actual.

      I see choice as more an activity of discovery. Discovery of the attributes of our individuality that are both novel and deterministic.

      As I’m fuzzy headed from lack of sleep and am not sure how clear I’m being I think I’ll stop here before I start rambling about self reference and strange loops.

    • sqlrob

      But they can be controlled from the outside. If not, brainwashing wouldn’t work.

      There are enough feedback loops that the idea of free will is one of the inputs, so belief in it will likely have an effect.

  • kraut

    Maybe nitpicking. Free will as in: unlimited choices does not exist.
    Our actions usually do not spring from: what do I do now. In the majority they are reactions to actions by others, or are consequences of previous action by ourselves.
    That already limits the choices we have. The amount of freedom what we choose and how we choose is further limited by our education, our moral and ethical precepts we develop through living in a specific environment.
    There is no “free will” as an absolute, it is mostly choices with a few options determined by the social framework and the conditions within we operate.
    But those choices are important.
    As shown in the latest riots in Vancouver, one can choose to help the guy having fallen down – ore one can pretend to help but rob him blind.
    But – is the latter option blameworthy, when one considers that the person might have grown up in an environment where utter selfishness and taking advantage of the misery of others is considered normnal (i.e. an unrestrained capitalist system informed by libertarian ideology)and actually praiseworthy?

  • http://www.ranum.com Occam’s Blunt Instrument

    One can be a determinist or otherwise reject free will and still live in the world, and even hold “moral values” if you accept that we’re all very complicated meat robots that evolved to function in the very complicated world around us and that our understanding of causality is limited and evolution has granted us mechanisms that we interpret as “choice” and those mechanisms extend to our interpreting some of those choices as “right” or “wrong” depending on our limited understanding of the situation. Our understanding of any situation is limited, is exactly why we short-cut our interpretation of causality at the point where it makes sense (from an evolutionary standpoint) to do so – nobody buys a cup of Starbucks’ coffee and recognizes that the reason they did so was because of Starbucks’ brilliant marketing strategy in the early 1990s – or thinks “I am buying this cup of coffee because of the big bang”

    So we don’t have free will but are programmed to think we do. To us, it makes no difference at all. What confuses us is the experience of “changing our mind” about something which is the experience that we have when the meat robot updates its understanding of a situation and makes a different assessment of how it should behave. We experience this constantly and we make the mistake of confusing “its controlling us” for “we’re controlling it”

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      A lot of this is very well put. I would use flesh robots instead of meat robots since meat is dead (and an unnecessarily degrading characterization for humans). And we are not entirely going on the evolutionary programming. There are social influences and feedback influences on our behavior and thoughts based on experiences such that we can become reflective and think about the effects of advertisements on us too.

  • http://physicalism.wordpress.com/ Physicalist

    I’m inclined to agree, but I’m not yet convinced that the libertarian argument is completely without merit. Yes, if the libertarian simply says “I like the idea of moral responsibility, and so I’m going to ignore your evidence for determinism,” then it’s nothing but wishful thinking.

    But what if instead the libertarian claims that we good reasons for believing that we are morally responsible, and that our evidence for this claim is at least as strong as our evidence for determinism? A philosopher writing under the pen name Lois Hope Walker makes this case in Pojman’s _Intro to Phil_ anthology.

    Overall it seems that we have an inconsistent triad:
    (1) We have moral responsibility.
    (2) Responsibility is incompatible with determinism.
    (3) We are determined.

    Because these are inconsistent, at least one must be false. So evidence for the truth of any two of them should count as evidence for the falsity of the third (even if we have no independent way of demonstrating this falsity, or undermining the evidence in its favor). Overall, this argumentative strategy is legitimate, isn’t it?

    So I take it the core complaint is that the libertarian isn’t actually offering evidence for the truth of (1)– they are instead just making a “decision” — is that right?

    One more minor quibble: I worry about your formulation of determinism that claims that “our actions are . . . are strictly determined by physical interactions that we do not control.” This seems plausible if we are specifically thinking of the physical laws (although even here, I sometimes wonder about the precise nature of the modal claim involved in deciding whether we “can” control/change laws).

    But obviously we do have control over all sorts of physical interactions: I am now causing the atoms in my fingers to interact with the atoms in my keyboard. Surely this is under my control. Likewise, I clearly have control over many of the physical events in my brain.

    For related reasons, I’m inclined to say that I do have the ability to do otherwise even though I’m determined. I was convinced of this by an article by Levin in the Pojman anthology (you can see that I haven’t graduated beyond introductory-level literature in this debate). I posted up an argument along these lines here a while back.

  • noel

    Hmmm. Is preserving our right to assign culpability worth abandoning rationality? Tough choice, but why not skip the moralizing and get to the point: if punishing evil doers results in a safer, better society, then it is justified in most cases. It’s a sort of self-defense claim. Instead of saying, “He deserves to be punished.”, perhaps we should say, “It is necessary that he be punished.”
    I’ve never been able to find room for free will. My thoughts and actions correspond to physical states of my brain; whatever choice I make always results from such a physical state. I don’t control it, it controls me. Therefore, free will must be an illusion.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Hmmm. Is preserving our right to assign culpability worth abandoning rationality? Tough choice, but why not skip the moralizing and get to the point: if punishing evil doers results in a safer, better society, then it is justified in most cases. It’s a sort of self-defense claim. Instead of saying, “He deserves to be punished.”, perhaps we should say, “It is necessary that he be punished.”

      I agree. What I want those who argue for free will for morality’s sake to recognize is that this consequentialist reasoning is what drives their moral reasoning and not the more deontological principle “one cannot blame someone for what they could not have avoided doing” which they want to convince people of and in accord with which they want to consider themselves to be acting even if they have better reason to realize they are not.

  • noel

    I clearly have control…

    Doesn’t mean that the controller isn’t just responding to programming and happenstance. Look, we all feel like there is a separate part of us that is in control of the rest. In previous times, it was assumed by all (the soul). But the evidence is not forthcoming (I’m not sure it even makes sense), so it makes for a weak premise.

    • http://physicalism.wordpress.com/ Physicalist

      I agree that I am “responding to programming and happenstance” (although I’d question what work the “just” is supposed to be doing), but the whole point of compatibilism is that the fact that our actions are physically determined in no way undermines the fact that we are in control of those actions.

      People fall into error by thinking that if the atoms are doing the work then there’s no work left for *me* to do; but this of course presupposes dualism — the belief that *I* am something apart from those physical processes.

      But once I realize that I am a physical process, then there should be no trouble recognizing that when those physical processes control something, then I am in control. (And yes, some of us have self-control.)

    • noel

      The problem is in the difference between saying, “I control my hand.”, and, “I control my self.” We can accept the first without admitting dualism – “I” am different than my hand, but the second sentence seems to imply there is something outside the physical state I call myself. If we programmed a computer to adjust its own programming, we wouldn’t say it had free will, even though the result might be complicated and unpredictable. Physical states follow natural laws, which don’t even have to be deterministic to be incompatible with free will (uncaused, random, and chaotic events don’t help).
      @ Neil below: Claiming a phrase is meaningful because people claim to understand it begs the question. People claim that extra sensory perception exists, too, but I don’t have to believe it’s real. In answer to your first question, I would say that people appear to have free will because we are very complicated, unpredictable beasts.

  • reighley

    The problem has always struck me as somewhat underspecified, or otherwise mangled. To explore just one example:

    Systems which are deterministic in a microscopic sense need not be in a macroscopic sense. Consider the question which seems to be at the core of the dispute : “I have committed myself to some action with ethical consequences, could I have done otherwise?”. Let’s try to phrase this in strictly physical empirical terms. “The physical system roughly determined by the interior of my body (hereafter me or I) is in some state A which is taken as given at time t. At time t+1 I have changed to state A’ and done some work on the physical system roughly determined by the exterior of my body which has moved from state B to B’ with ethical consequences. Could the system have moved to a state B’’ with different ethical consequences, B being fixed?

    For the sake of brevity I am not going to try to justify the proposition that our theory of mechanistic ethics must be a statistical theory. Which is to say that these specified states actually correspond to an ensemble of the states of the atoms of the system. Simply put, a system of moral philosophy which insisted on judging our actions and our circumstances atom by atom would be pretty useless. The question then becomes given the state of the world as described by A and B, what is the distribution of A’ and B’, in particular does it’s probability approach 1?

    The answer still depends entirely on exactly how we describe the states of both the self and of the circumstances. This isn’t at all unreasonable. We expect culpability to be pretty stable even in physical systems which are very different from one another. Imagine your favorite ethics thought experiment and then ask yourself “what if everything is half a degree hotter” or “what about the presence of a small electrical field”. The answer shouldn’t change.

    • http://physicalism.wordpress.com/ Physicalist

      I think this is basically right, but I’d be careful about just where and how indeterminism/statistical considerations come into play.

      Yes, ethical considerations are going to have to make use of higher-level kinds (e.g., psychological states) that will coarse-grain over many micro-physical states. But we are only going to be responsible for something if there is a regular law-like connection at the higher level (let’s assume determinism, since it’s simplest).

      So I am morally responsible for something if (to a first approximation) it happens because I wanted it to, and if I had a different desire (if I had wanted it not to happen), then it wouldn’t have happened.

      Now, many micro-physical states are compatible with my having a particular “desire”, and many micro-physical states are compatible with the morally relevant effect occurring, but responsibility only holds when it is true that former determines the latter. So it’s the case when we do have determinism (or near enough) at the higher level that’s morally relevant.

  • Cuttlefish

    Moral responsibility, or a lack thereof, is only a problem because our culture assumes that it is a prerequisite for punishment. We punish those who have earned it, those who deserve it, not those whose diminished faculties or extenuating circumstances have overwhelmed them. We cannot punish someone unless they are morally responsible. (BTW, the same holds true for reward–only if someone deserves it. You are praised for doing the right thing, but only if you did it for the right reasons. Saving someone’s life because they promised to pay you…)

    Which seriously limits social control, and does so based on our a priori assumptions rather than on reality.

    If reward and punishment do control behavior (and done properly–and we know a lot about that–they do), and if particular behaviors are desired or undesired, it is only our faith-held belief in free will (and its attendant credit and blame) that prevents us from moving toward good behavior and away from bad by rewarding and punishing according to the desirability of behaviors rather than according to some nebulous concept of deservingness.

    Belief in free will is not useful, and it is not neutral; it prevents us from making the world better.

    (I could go into why belief in free will can be adaptive, and how it arguably would have evolved, but replacing formerly useful illusions with reality would still be improvement)

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    Whenever somebody asserts that we do not have free will, I am tempted to ask “Are you making that assertion of your own free will?”

    If we go along with Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use”, then it is obvious enough that people use the expression “free will” in ways that we can understand their point. The first sentence in this post is an example of how we use it.

    If “free will” is meaningful, if we can discern the meaning, and if it refers to human behavior, then it should be clear that we do indeed have free will.

    Some of the argument against free will seems to be based of a logical analysis of the expression “free will.” But we ought to know that natural language is not a logic calculus, and that we ought to treat phrases as a whole rather than analyze into individual words.

    As for libertarianism vs. compatibilism – I vacillate over that. However, it is hard to see how free will could be possible in a completely deterministic universe. Fortunately, the world we live in does not appear to be deterministic, so that it isn’t an issue that needs to be settled.

    The reason some people claim that we don’t have free will, seems to be that the idea of free will is in conflict with their theory of mind. However, Galileo taught us that when the evidence is in conflict with the theory, we should question the theory.


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