Sunday, August 10, 2008

Morality and the Absence of Free Will

As I mentioned in my last post, I am writing about the relationship between Desire Utilitarianism on the one hand, and egoism and free will on the other.

In my last post, I explained how desire fulfillment theory is not compatible with egoism. Desire fulfillment theory allows us to have a variety of different types of desires. This includes caring about the welfare of other people, and wanting to see them better off – or having an aversion to the suffering of others.

Still, the idea that each person acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his or her own desires leaves little room for free will. Our actions are determined, on this model, by the combination of an agent’s beliefs and desires.

It’s true – there ain’t no such thing as a free will.

Desire utilitarianism is not only compatible with determinism, it requires determinism. It requires the assumption that our actions are caused by our beliefs and desires, and the assumption that are desires can be molded, at least in part, by the environment. The parts of the environment that are particularly relevant are social forces – praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

If something like contra-causal free will actually exists, I would not know what to do with it. This force that allows a person to violate the laws of cause and effect simply by ‘willing’ something to happen – it is so bizarre that I do not even know how to make sense of it, let alone work it into a theory of ethics.

As one of the anonymous member of the audience put it:

How is a moral system not useless in determinism? If I can't make a choice between alternatives then how can I be held responsible for my actions?

You can be held responsible for your actions simply because you are responsible for those actions – or, more precisely, your desires are responsible for those actions.

I have often heard the claim that the only way praise or condemnation can make sense is if the person praised or condemned has free will. Without free will, praise or condemnation would not be legitimate.

However, one of the questions that I have had for quite some time is this: How is it the case that the existence of free will makes condemnation and punishment the appropriate response to wrong action, and makes praise and reward the appropriate response to virtuous action? Why is it not the case that the appropriate reaction to wrong action is to run around in a circle clockwise, and the appropriate response to right action is to run around in a circle counter-clockwise?

Desire utilitarianism has an answer to these questions. Praise and condemnation have the effect of molding desires. A wrong action indicates that a person has bad desires – desires that people generally have reason to inhibit. Condemnation is a tool for inhibiting bad desires. So, the appropriate response to a sign that a person has bad desires is condemnation.

However, the claim is that free will is necessary before we can legitimately ‘blame’ somebody and impose condemnation or punishment.

Why is this? What is the relationship between free will and condemnation?

There is a sense, when we blame somebody, that it must have been the case that he ‘could have done otherwise’. In fact, whenever we condemn somebody for doing the wrong thing we can identify a right thing that the agent ‘should have done’ instead.

However, desire utilitarianism has a place for this kind of language. In order for condemnation to be legitimate, it must be the case that the agent ‘could have done otherwise’ in the sense that, if he had a different set of desires, he would have done otherwise. The condemnation is intended to help the agent get the correct desires.

More importantly, condemnation is meant to help others acquire the right desires. We do not have to be punished ourselves for wrongdoing in order to acquire an aversion. We only need to experience the hostility that people have for those who would commit murder. In this way, many of us acquired an aversion to the groundless killing of other people without ever having been condemned for killing, or praised for deciding not to kill. We learn these rules vicariously, through the experiences of others.

Those ‘others’ do not even have to be real. They can be characters in a story. Or they can be expressions of wrongdoing leveled at purely hypothetical wrongdoers – expressions of the level of condemnation that a person would receive if he were ever to be caught doing such a thing.

Let’s look at another part of Anonymous’ response.

Even if we accept your ideas on controlling desires through praise, condemnation, and punishment isn't it thus useless to even discuss the subject since it will occur regardless in a determined world?

Computers have shown us how choice can be relevant even in a determined system.

A chess-playing computer goes thorough a set of possible moves, measuring the outcome of each option, and then deciding on the outcome with the highest value. It evaluates the different moves available to it as if each move were a genuine possibility. It evaluates KP2-KP4 vs QP2-QP4 as if it really does have the power to move either piece – as if the move it ends up making actually does depend on the calculations it makes weighing different options.

As the computer goes through its calculations, both options are available to it. The move that results is not determined independent of the weighing of options on the part of the machine. It is an outcome of the completely determined act of weighing consequences and going with the option that has the highest value.

It makes no sense to say that the computer need not go through these calculations – those in which it seems to ‘assume’ that all legal options are actually available to it, since its final outcome is determined. It is determined by the process of going through and evaluating options.

Since humans also go through and evaluate options, and select the option that has the highest value (fulfills the most and strongest of the agent’s desires given his beliefs), we can influence the decisions that a human makes by influencing the process it goes through in making those decisions. We can alter the value that humans give to different outcomes, by strengthening the desires for some outcomes, and programming them with aversions to other outcomes.

Yet, in all of this, the fact that humans go through a decision-making process, and it decides on its actions by processes that can be influenced through social conditioning is vital.

Morality is not only possible in the absence of free will. In fact, morality requires the absence of free will.


Martin Freedman said...

So I take it you are either no longer a compatibilist or still are and this is what you mean by compatibilism - that our actions are determined by our desires and beliefs? In a comment - one of the triggers for this post? - in another thread on this I stated that compatibilism is not needed either.

Again we can look at "free will speak" as we look at what I call "moral speak", both are useful shorthand linguistic tools we can choose to retain even as the original assumptions behind them have been shown to be invalid.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have always taken the term 'compatibilism' to mean the thesis that moral responsibility is compatible with metaphysical determinism.

In that sense of the term, I am a compatibilist.

I honestly do not understand how you are intending to use the term here.

Martin Freedman said...

Well technically your (our) position would be semi-compatibilism. Anyway as far as free will is concerned I am an incompatibilist - free will and determinism are incompatible.

"According to compatibilists, we do have free will. They propound a sense of the word 'free' according to which free will is compatible with determinism, even though determinism is the view that the history of the universe is fixed in such a way that nothing can happen otherwise than it does because everything that happens is necessitated by what has already gone before...They believe that to have free will, to be a free agent, to be free in choice and action, is simply to be free from constraints of certain sorts. Freedom is a matter of not being physically or psychologically forced or compelled to do what one does." Routledge
however it is probably best to avoid all this terminology as it gets messy - see for example Garden of Forking Paths

Becky said...

How do you explain the "feeling" that you are "deciding" to take an action? The feeling that many people describe as 'free will'?

Anonymous said...

Hello Becky. I've been out of town for a week, so I just now noticed this comment. Anyway, in my humble opinion it has been demonstrated on countless occassions that "feelings of" something are often worthless as evidence that something exists outside of the mind of the individual experiencing them (ie: feelings of being one with the universe, feelings of communicating with god, feelings of the superiority of your country/race/etc). While they are often strong motivators, they are bad at indicating something exists, and so rarely need to be explained when discussing things like free will. Just because people have a feeling of having free will doesn't mean that they had different beliefs and desires than they did when making that choice.

Anonymous said...

I found this post to be useful, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Do you think it's possible that a belief in free will has its origins in Natural Selection? Imagine an animal who ignores an approaching predator because he realizes he has no ability to affect future events. He wouldn't last very long. Those who believe in free will, although perhaps factually incorrect, will do better than those who don't. Evolution doesn't select "correct" or "better" traits, just those that will improve survival. A sense of free will may have evolved alongside increasing cognition. This might explain why this belief is so innate in all of us. Only after careful consideration do we realize this instinct is wrong. Your thoughts?

Becky said...

Matt M. Thank you for responding. It seems like a plausible explanation for what I was asking. I find it interesting to understand the basis for impulses/beliefs and why they can be so difficult to act against - even when reason and logic would seem to suggest that they are false.

Martin Freedman said...


Feelings can be real but the entailments can be mistaken. The idea of "free will" is such an entailment. One can only talk about free will/ the illusion of free will when one has the capacity to reason over as well as speculate upon entailments. The psychological experience of under-determined antecedents requiring deliberation over alternatives - rational or emotional, with or without time constraints etc. - are quite real but none of this entails some entity such as free will. Without such a concept you would still have the same deliberative experience and most likely come to the same decisions - unless one somehow and specifically inserts claimed knowledge of free will into one's deliberative process.

In practical terms we use the word to signify we were not coerced into our actions and in that sense, I think that is what Alonzo means, and it is entirely unproblematical.

I agree wiht Enaesz too, so consider this a complementary answer.

Matt M. I fail why the illusion of free will has a necessary evolutionary basis. Evolution did not need this for us to be able to deliberate. Other species have some form of deliberation without the capacity to conceptualize free will in any useful sense of that word. I think it is more likely an mistake in our cognitive faculties interacting with certain social beliefs - neither selected for or against.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the responses! Martino, I do agree that many aspects of our psychology are side effects or unintended consequences of our complex neurophysiology. Why did we evolve to enjoy sunsets? That would seem to confer no selective benefit. However, the apparent understanding that we can affect the world, and can choose between different options seems fundamental to consciousness. When a lizard runs from a predator he must believe that his running away will affect his survival. Obviously he can't deeply consider the nuances of this, but we, being so much more complex, can.