Free Will and Compatibilism

8. Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Book cover: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harri

In this final section, I want to explore briefly how living in a deterministic world in which all of our behaviours are, in principle, predictable is consistent with the notion of moral responsibility and with our common practice of praise and blame. I will conclude with some remarks on the role that our concept of free will plays in this deterministic scheme.

To begin with, knowing that our fellow citizens do what they do as a result of a complex interplay between their genes, physical environment, socialization and just plain luck of where and when they were born ought to instil within us a greater understanding of their social limitations and achievements. When it comes to punishing people who do to us and the broader community wrong, such a global perspective ought to make us less prone to want to inflict pain on wrongdoers simply for the sake of revenge. This more enlightened perspective should extend even to people outside of our own communities; that is, to all of the fellow inhabitants of our planet Earth.

Such a deterministic view of human behaviour can naturally work against a retributive approach to punishment. This developing scientific view of the world has given us a much greater understanding of psychiatry, psychology, neuroscience and the social determinants of behaviour. I am pleased to see that in secular democracies at least, an evidence-based perspective has encouraged a much more humane approach to criminal justice over the last one hundred years or so. In scientifically informed nations, other approaches to crime and punishment have increasingly taken the place of earlier retributive attitudes. These include the idea of instituting punishment to deter others, incarceration to prevent further criminal acts, voluntary and mandatory treatment regimes that aim to rehabilitate criminals and restitution programs to recompense victims of crime.

We all have an interest in maintaining our common moral and legal systems. These systems work to ensure the safety and security of our persons, our family and others we care about. They also protect our livelihood, allowing us to go about our business unimpeded and to pursue endeavours that enrich our lives and those of our loved ones. This is true of all people and irrespective of whether the world is only partly or wholly deterministic. Whether we are supremely complex thinking and feeling wet robots or not, we possess these interests in our own welfare and the welfare of others and in promoting the moral and legal systems that guarantee them.

In a deterministic world, our concept of free will has an integral part to play in our moral and legal institutions. Of course, this is not 'free will' in the contra-causal sense. In fact, I find it hard to make sense of the notion of moral and legal responsibility in a world where particular thoughts, desires and intentions can pop into existence without any grounding in a person's character or past.

There are good, positive reasons for thinking that indeterminism cannot be the basis for moral responsibility. Take a morally praiseworthy or blameworthy act, such as lending money to a criminal. Suppose Mary lends some money to Joel. It would not be out of the ordinary or irrational to express the counterfactual conditional: 'If Mary had known Joel is using borrowed money for criminal purposes, she would not have loaned money to him.' However, if we accept the libertarian's thesis that free acts are those that have no sufficient psychological, neurophysiological or divine cause, then how are we to know whether the counterfactual conditional is true or false? What sense could we make of the necessity of the consequent ('Mary does not lend money to Joel') given the antecedent ('Mary knows Joel is using borrowed money for criminal purposes')?

Counterfactuals such as these only make sense and allow evidence to be adduced for them being true or false if moral agents act in law-like ways. (In my Allan [2015], I discuss in more detail how, if we assume indeterminism, all counterfactual conditionals about free human choices are either without a truth value or are false.) In moral reasoning, saying how moral agents would have acted in different circumstances figures highly in determining guilt and innocence. Given the part counterfactual reasoning plays in our moral and legal judgments, far from moral reasoning being antithetical to deterministic thinking, it seems to require it.

In the ordinary-language compatibilist sense I have been advancing in this essay, the concept of 'free will' has a crucial role to play in identifying those intentions and actions that are morally praiseworthy and blameworthy and those that are legally excusable and culpable. In the moral sphere, our placing of importance on free acts starts from a very early age. We keep a look out for behaviours from our children that harm others, as these instances provide opportunities for character building through moral guidance and appropriate praise and blame. Every capable parent recognizes that it's of no use, and even counterproductive, to praise or blame a child for an act that they did not choose freely. When a child has been coerced into hitting another, for example, or that child falls on another child while doped up on medicine, the child's parents avoid admonishing her. Parents pay particular attention to their child's intentions, even the ones that do not lead to action, as having the right intentions builds character and leads to admirable behaviour. Knowing whether the child's will is formed freely or not in a particular instance is crucial in helping parents decide whether praise or blame in that instance will further their child's moral education.

Just as in the moral sphere competent parents do not praise or blame children for unfree acts, communities do likewise in the realm of criminal justice. Punishing and rewarding citizens for acts that were not freely chosen is irrational and counterproductive. For example, punishing mentally ill people for actions over which they had no control serves no useful purpose. As lawyer Julie Grachek explains, 'if the mental illness has caused loss of free will, the offender has lost his ability to freely choose whether or not to recommit the offense, and he is therefore undeterrable through punishment' [Grachek 2006: 1482].

The concepts of 'free will' and 'free act' serve as key indicators in both the moral and legal spheres for whether a person is responsible for their action. We express this typically in the axiom that the exercise of a person's free will is a necessary precondition for holding that person responsible for their act. In other words, a person must have acted freely before we deem their act morally and legally praiseworthy or blameworthy. During the course of this essay, I offered a number of examples in which a person's free will is compromised, either through coercion, manipulation, addiction or mental illness, and how that encumbrance gives us reason to excuse or mitigate that person's culpability.

Copyright © 2016, 2018, 2021

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