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.
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.