Saturday, January 28, 2006

Morality and Free Will

I am sorry for the length of this post. However, I get into some fundamental moral concepts in this post, and felt that the detail was necessary. This post concerns questions of what morality is and how it works in general, which provides the basis of many of the specific judgements I make in other posts.

The folks over at the Secular Outpost put its readers in contact with "an open letter to the atheist community" entitled "Denying Big God and Little God: The Next Step for Atheists."

The "little god" in this case is contra-causal free will, the special type of ability to change the world on which, some think, all of morality depends.

I gave up on this type of free will when I was an undergraduate philosophy student. I describe my reasoning in Chapter 8 of "Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist's Quest for Moral Truth".

It was a very difficult subject for me to work through -- something I think is comparable to what others must suffer upon realizing that their favorite God does not exist. That is, until I actually sat down and worked out the implications.

Tom Clark, the author of "Denying Big God and Little God," made some important errors about what those implications are.

In particular, I want to raise an objection to this statement:

...since we see others as fully caused – for instance substance abusers, criminal offenders, the destitute and homeless – we become less blaming, less punitive and more empathetic and understanding.

My answer: “Not necessarily.”

What Is Contra-Causal Free Will?

I agree with Mr. Clark on the absence of contra-causal free will. I work from a model in which morality is not only compatible with the absence of this power, it requires the absence of such a power. Contra-causal free will simply introduces way too many problems and does not offer the slightest bit of help.

I want to be specific about what it is I am rejecting here. I am rejecting the existence of a special force that allows us to cause even the smallest atom to alter its course through space, to change direction or speed or mass or any other property, contrary to the movement bestowed upon it by the laws of physics. If we cannot alter the movement of an atom in this way, we also lack the ability to alter the movement of something as massive as a hand or an arm or any of the other components of human action.

We still have the capacity to make choices. The words that show up in this posting are the words that I choose to put into it. If I had wanted to use different words -- or if I wanted to write on a different subject -- then I would have done so. The subject matter and content of this posting comes from my desires and, as such, they are my words. I am responsible for its content.

This set of beliefs and desires that are mine -- that define me -- and that determine the subject matter and content of my postings, do not sit outside of the physical universe, mysteriously reaching in to alter the flow of matter in ways outside of the rules of physics. They exist within the physical universe, and by their presence I change the universe around me. The type of person I am, my moral character, determines whether I change the universe for better or for worse.

I am aiming for "better."

Free Will and Morality

The model of morality that I have been using can be roughly described as one that views morality as the science of using praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to make the world better.

As I said, the model requires determinism because it looks substantially at the effects that these four tools have on molding the character of people in a society. Morality aims at using these tools to promote good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) and inhibit bad desires (desires that tend to thwart the desires of others).

Allow me to explain what I mean with an example; the moral crime of drunk driving. To a certain degree, by the use of condemnation and (threats of) punishment, we can cause individuals to have a stronger aversion to driving while drunk than they would otherwise have. To the degree that we can promote such an aversion, to that degree we have fewer drunk drivers on the road. Fewer drunk drivers means that we, and those we care about (our significant others, children, family, friends, their children) are safer.

Threats of punishment (laws) have some effect. A law is a threat to thwart other people's desires if we catch them driving under the influence. However, this system has a loophole – it’s effectiveness in reducing the number of drunk drivers depends on people’s beliefs about their chances of getting caught. It has no effect on those who think they can get away with it.

So, how do we cause somebody to refuse to drive drunk even when they think they can get away with it?

Well, let us note that a person who has an opportunity to put his hand in a hot fire – nobody is looking, and nobody will have any opportunity to punish him – still will not put his hand in a hot fire. He will refuse to do so, even though he will not get caught, because he does not want to.

Similarly, if a person hates the taste of liver and onions, you can put him in a room with a serving of liver and onions and trust that, even when nobody is looking, he is not going to sneak a taste. Again, the fact that he has an aversion to the taste of liver and onions keeps him from taking any, even when he can get away with doing so.

If we can cause a person to have an aversion to driving while drunk which is similar to his aversion to putting his hand in a hot fire or to eating liver and onions, then we have a way to prevent a person from driving while drunk even when he thinks he can get away with it. The aversion will keep him from driving while drunk, even where the chance of punishment does not exist.

How do we create that aversion?

To do this, we use the tools of praise and condemnation. We praise those who have the aversion, and condemn those who do not, in the hopes that this will influence the attitudes that people have towards driving while drunk.

In the same way, we use this to create an aversion to taking money out of a co-worker's purse even when one can get away with it. Of course, he also wants the money (or, more precisely, the money will help him to get other things that he wants). However, if his aversion to taking things from others is strong enough it will override these other interests.

A Question of Cause and Effect

So now the question of how much we blame or condemn others becomes a question of the effect of these types of actions.

What if the effect of blaming people less is that they have a weaker aversion to drunk driving than they would have otherwise had? This means that there will be more drunk drivers (and those who drive drunk will do so more often). This means that our own lives, health, and property – as well as those of the people we care about – are more at risk. In addition, we have reason to be concerned with the possibility of those same family and friends driving while drunk. Doing so not only makes them a danger to others, but it makes them a danger to themselves. To the degree that we care about them, we have reason to use the tools we have available to cultivate in them an aversion to drunk driving, and an aversion to riding in a car in which the driver has been drinking.

If blaming promote this aversion, we have reason to blame.

These tools seem to have their strongest effect on children. A concerned parent clearly has reason to raise a child who will not drive while drunk, and who will not get in a car with a driver who is drunk. To the degree that an attitude of condemnation and contempt causes the child to grow up with such an aversion, to that degree the parent has a reason to express an attitude of condemnation and contempt to express such an attitude.

Because the child who grows up without an aversion to driving while drunk is a threat to me and those I care about, I have reason to condemn parents who do not raise their children to acquire an aversion to drunk driving.


One might want to object that this defense of condemnation involves condemnation without responsibility. The condemnation is justified by its effects, but those being condemned are not actually “guilty” of anything.

Yet, they are guilty. Those being condemned lack the aversion to driving while drunk that they should have – the aversion that would prevent them from being a risk to others. They become the targets of condemnation precisely because of a flaw – or a fault – in their moral character. That is to say, the condemnation is due to something that is the fault (or a fault – a flaw) of the person being condemned.


This is a part of the moral theory upon which this blog is built.

I fill this blog with an attitude of blame and calls for punitive action.

I look for characteristics that make people a threat to others – such as the Bush Administration’s lack of an aversion to torture that makes them a threat to others. I also look at their willingness to pick people off the street and imprison them without a trial, and their tendency towards backward thinking -- where they first draw a conclusion (e.g., Iraq is a threat) and then accept or reject evidence on whether it supports or conflicts with their desired conclusion. I look at their willingness to create a presidency with no limits on its power, because such a presidency is clearly a threat to others. I then direct blame and contempt at those who have these characteristics, as a way of making the world safer than it would otherwise be. I also look for attitudes which, if more common, would make people less of a threat to others. In this post, I have argued for a stronger aversion to drunk driving, and seek to direct condemnation against those who would do such a thing. In addition, I look at whether others are directing blame and contempt at people who are not, in fact, a threat to others. Misplaced blame and contempt – particularly when accompanied by demands that his targets suffer punishment and other harms – makes the person placing blame and contempt a threat to others. As a character trait, homosexuality is not a threat to anybody. It is nothing like lacking a desire to torture, drive while drunk, and create a presidency of unlimited power. It is those who cast blame and contempt at the homosexual who is the threat to others, not the homosexual.


Tom Hunter also wrote in his essay, …by seeing just how we are caused, by our genetic endowment, upbringing, and social environments, a naturalistic understanding of ourselves dramatically enhances our powers of prediction and control, both in our personal lives and in the larger social arena..

This is true.

However, seeing how we are caused includes a seeing the role that praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment work within that causal chain, and its effects on the type of people we become.

The absence of contra-causal free will does not imply that we should be less blaming or punitive, or that we should reduce our levels of praise and reward. Rather, it requires that we look at the rational application of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment in virtue of its effects. To the degree that these are useful tools, we have good reason to continue use them, perhaps using them even more than we do now, to make ourselves and those we care about safer than they would otherwise be.

I could be wrong about the effects of these particular tools, and I can easily make mistakes as to their rational use. Perhaps they have no effect, or a much lower effect, than I sometimes claim. Then again, perhaps their effect is greater than I sometimes claim. Whichever is right, this is not something that we can infer directly from the premise, “There is no contra-causal free will.”


Shmanky said...

Great post, reminds me of some of the Infidelguy interviews regarding naturalism, and ones with Richard Carrier, and your 2 interviews, of course. After this reading I can finally say I understand what "Desire Utilitarianism," assuming this is Desire Utilitarianism. So now I have real knowledge of a moral system under my belt. Now, did you invent this system or did you learn of it elsewhere?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, this is desire utilitarianism -- or, at least, some of the central parts of it.

As for my inventing it, I think that the "standing on the shoulders of giants" cliche is appropriate here. I cannot deny a heavy dose of David Hume, J.S. Mill, and John Mackie in this.

However, the precise arrangement of some of the peaces is my own.

The details of where this comes from is in the "Desire Utilitarianism" book referenced in the post.

Jewish Atheist said...

We still have the capacity to make choices.

How do you know that? You say that you could have used different words, or written on a different subject, but I don't see how that's possible without "a special force that allows us to cause even the smallest atom to alter its course through space."

Jewish Atheist said...

Dan Doel,

I pretty much agree in practice with Alonzo's formulation of ethics. I guess I was off on a tangent. But I really am troubled by the apparent lack of free will we have.

Jewish Atheist said...

Who cares?

Well, why should I bother trying to do anything at all if I really have no choice in the matter? Not that I could stop trying, unless I do stop trying, in which case I couldn't not. See, it just makes a big ol' mess out of any remotely reasonable philosophy one could have. How can it not lead to nihilism?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

jewish atheist

I have no answer to give that is any different from what Dan Doel has been writing.

Except I want to comment on the anxiety you seem to be expressing about a living in a world without contra-causal free will.

I went through the same thing.

However, I want you to ask yourself, seriously, what is it that you want from contra-causal free will? What will it give you that you would not otherwise have?

If I want a chocolate cake, I can still go get a chocolate cake. The lack of contra-causal free will does not prevent me from leaving my computer and going to the kitchen.

If I want to take steps to make this a world where people are safer, I can take those steps. I can create a blog where I talk about the types of character traits that make one a threat to others, and how we can reduce the incidents of those dangerous traits.

Whatever you want, you still have the capacity to take steps to realize it.

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks for the good answers, guys. I've made a post about free will in response to this one:

Andy said...

Jewish Atheist,

I would recommend this paper written by Richard Carrier.

As far as your comments about how the absence of contracausal free will means that you cannot choose anything or that you have no identity, I'd like to hear your response after reading the article. We may still have free will though not in the contracausal sense of the word. If determinism is true, there is still reason to think we have an identity and make choices because of that identity.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to start a wikipedia entry on Desire Utilitarianism? I think it's high time.

Anonymous said...

What hath I wrought?

I found a way to request an entry on Wikipedia. How to take it further, I don't know. Hopefully someone here has more experience with that than I.

Anonymous said...

I think you're on the right track to a good system of morality. Morality can definitely exist outside of religion, state, or personal whims. Morality actually can be derived from logic and reason. Ayn Rand speak of this type of morality and logically pintpoints how morality can be derived from our ability to reason and its necessity for our survival. I suggest you read up on it and see how your own moral system might play into it...or fit under those pretenses. After all, the alternatives of deriving your morality from society, from God, or from your personal whims is quite dangerous and irrational.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I spent about 7 years as an Ayn Rand style "Objectivist". However, I have this habit of reading things that criticize the views that I hold. So, I once asked a friend for something that somebody had written that describes a problem with Rand's philosophy, and he gave me an article.

I read the article and said, "That works." So, reason forced me to give up on Rand and look elsewhere.

I have posted a relatively complete account of my ultimate rejection of Rand's philosophy in my web site.

Desire Utilitarianism: Chapter 2

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your question about what 'better' means is, indeed, the question, as illustrated by my profile. It is the question that got me started on this path.

Because you asked the question, I will probably try to condense my answer down to a single post.

However, if you would be interested in the long and detailed version, you can find it on my web site.

The most detailed answer is posted in the online book Desire Utilitarianism: An Atheist's Quest for Moral Truth -- particularly chapters 13 and 14.

A shorter answer is in the article Desire Utilitarianism.

Anonymous said...


1) "Better" primarily means "a better world for me to live in". This is much more complex than it seems at first sight, and while most people think only of their short-term goals, a rational person should probably come to a conclusion that a world of morality, responsibility, and accountability serves all of us (and me) far better than a world of immediate wish-fulfillment, which could ultimately serve only one man for a lmited time, with miniscule chances that it would be me.

2) "A bunch of crap society uses to guide your actions"?! Do you fear brainwashing, dna? The only way to protect ourselves from "evil brainwashing" is to be able to rationally judge arguments on the weight of their own merit, regardless of the source they come from and the form they take. Driving drunk is a sure way to increase your chances to get killed in traffic, the no. 1 cause of death in young adults. Even if one is sure in his driving skill, and would normally make no mistake even when drunk, he would be slow to react to an erratic, irresponsible driver threatening his safety on the road.

3) Is this an argument? "Tsk. Tsk." is very hard to refute. Let me try to offer an example. I should have an aversion to theft. If I do not have an aversion to theft, and I believe I should have (from weighing all the arguments for and against theft), I would do my best to create an aversion to theft in me, and it would be possible to do so, for whenever I would think of theft, I would remember the solid arguments advising against it.

4) Ah, the "it is well known" argument. Should we then not condemn alcohol producers for peddling dangerous, addictive, and disease-causing substance? It is a matter of consent. People who wish to drink alcohol should be aware of its dangers, and are making a choice. Homosexuals are also making a choice. I deliberately compared the two groups because recent evidence suggests that both inclinations (homosexuality and alcoholism) could be genetic, still there are homosexuals at equal or lower risk from STDs than "straight" people, due to being aware of the dangers and taking precautions, and many people who use alcohol responsibly and never to the excess.

Anonymous said...

Clark doesn't claim that a belief in determinism will make us stop punishing people, but it may make us *less* punitive, and more appropriately punitive, in certain circumstances.
To the extent belief in free will causes us to dismiss or discount the contributing role of determinants in human behavior, we are likely to over-punish out of rage (including institutionalized rage), which produces its own difficulties. Clark's argument is essentially psychological: the way we perceive a situation, and consequently feel about it, depends on what we believe to be true about it. If I believe someone who drove drunk simply and freely chose to risk public safety, I'm going to be angrier at him than if I feel there were many contributing factors, determinants, resulting in his dangerous mistake. The angrier we are the less likely we are to think clearly. Consequences, potentially harsh ones, may be appropriate, but again, different, depending on my model of human behavior. If the person simply chose to drive drunk, I'd be much less likely to compel them to undergo or even allow him access to rehabilitation, and more likely to "let the bastard rot in jail". Which might not be an efficient use of public resources. Even if jail is appropriate, the length of time and treatment received in jail will be different. Removing the myth of free will won't stop us from applying any consequences, and it won't compel us toward inappropriate leniency, but it may make us apply more appropriate consequences than we'd otherwise be capable of.

Anonymous said...

I think there is overlap in what you and Tom Clark are saying. Utilizing a rational application of reward and punishment will by definition result in less irrational reward and punishment AND more rational application of same. Clark's argument is essentially psychological: believing in free will elicits an irrational reaction to people's deeds. It also distorts our model of causation, lessening our ability to look at contributing factors to criminal behavior and work to change them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ken B.

Short answer: I agree that giving up on the concept of contra-causal free will helps in making punishment more rational and less prone to mistakes. However, I disagree with the conclusion that it implies that we should be "less punitive." In some cases, we should be. In others, we should be more punitive.

My position is that there is no link between the issue of free will and how much we should punish people. We may have reason to punish people more, depending on the effects of punishment.

We cannot say that we "over punish out of rage" without making an assumption about how much punishment we should engage in. Perhaps punishing people out of rage is a good thing. Perhaps we need a bit more rage. Punishing people out of rage does not require free will. It only requires good effects.

As for the psychology you claim is embedded in Clark's argument, I think that the view is partially mistaken. (Whether or not Clark represents this view is another question.)

How we feel about a situation depends only partially about what we believe to be true about it. It also depends on our desires -- our likes and dislikes. My taste for chocolate does not depend in any way on what i believe is true about chocolate. The degree to which a person's emotional response depends on what he believes versus what he desires is an open question in all instances.

Often, belief is important, but it is not always important, and it is never the whole story.

I agree with the conclusion, that the punishment should be "appropriate." I disagree with any claim that the lack of free will implies that "appropriate" punishment would be less punishment. Maybe it will be, maybe it will not be. However, the appropriateness of punishment depends on other factors.

In many of my blog entires, I argue for more punishment, not less -- and not based on any type of free will. It is based on the fact that promoting a stronger aversion to some state (through stronger condemnation and punishment) would be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I think you've isolated our agreement and stated it clearly (rare on the internet!): "giving up on the concept of contra-causal free will helps in making punishment more rational and less prone to mistakes." And, we apparently agree that not having contra-causal free will implies that in some cases we should be less punitive. I also agree that a rational application of consequences may result in more punishment in some cases. For example, a true understanding of the persistence of certain types of criminal behavior might lessen some people's belief in the efficacy of rehab and make them more willing to impose longer sentences. But removing free will from the equation may also help people understand the benefits of prevention in some cases. With free will, people are likely to dismiss even the possibility of prevention, since behavior under free will is not a function of causes.

It's hard to imagine real-world examples of rage as a useful factor in punishment. As a therapist I'd say the pattern I've seen is the opposite. Rage, whether on the road, at home, or in the workplace, usually interferes with happiness and productivity.