Friday, May 20, 2016

Morality Without Free Will

Well, I got a response to my email to Dr. Johnson.

He seemed to raise no objection to the claim that people can still have reason to reward, praise, condemn, and punish even if there was no free will - if these tools worked to rewire the brain. It is a legitimate alternative to "brain surgery", provided that it is effective.

Dr. Johnson raised doubts as to how effective it is. However, that is a different (and empirical) question.

Still, Dr. Johnson did argue that removing free will from the equation and thereby removing the fact that people are punished because they "deserve" it would imply the end of morality. Punishing people for deterrance or rehabilitative reasons is something other than morality.

I am not so certain that this is the case.

I don't think that free will ever played much of a role in morality. Consequently, I think we can eliminate free will from the equation and what we call morality will be substantially unchanged.

One of my reasons for believing this is because, if this thesis is correct, morality emerged a long time before any human even had the capacity to think of "free will".

We see the roots of morality as I have described it - the use of reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment to alter intentional mental states and, thereby, to alter behavior - even among animals. It is particularly common among social primates.

A snarl or a snap, the showing of teeth, a swipe of the paw, beating one's chest - these all display a primitive form of disapproval or condemnation. Grooming, the sharing of food, a smile, and a caress are rewards - they show approval or praise. Yet, these animals know nothing of free will. They simply know the effectiveness of such displays on behavior. They use these as simple tools - as they use sticks and rocks.

As humans became more intelligent, we can expect a number of changes to occur.

First, they will become more efficient at the use of these tools to control behavior in a number of ways. They will be able to better determine not only the immediate but the long-term effects of actions on the fulfillment of other desires. They will be able to better discriminate when something is the result of an agent's malleable intentional states and when they have some other cause - thus better able to determine when to apply the tools of reward, praise, condemnation and punishment and when they are not called for.

Second, they are going to make these practices a topic of conversation. Responses that were in the form of snarls and smaps will be in the form of words, phrases, and sentences. They will invent a language that will allow them to debate when to snarl and snap at somebody and when praise and reward.

Even rudimentary language will arise long before any person ever thinks of a concept as complex as "free will" and applies this to the practice of morality.

For these reasons, I consider "free will" to be a part of a theory that was applied to try to explain and understand a set of practices that existed even when humans were prehisotoric social primates. It was applied to a set of practices that existed before the idea of free will was even thought of, and among beings who could not even have a notion of counter-causal free will.

It was a bad theory, and one we have since discovered many reasons to abandon.

Accordingly, I think that morality can easily survive the discovery that the "free will" hypothesis was just a bad idea to begin with. We still see the original purpose and function of morality in the ways people use it. In practice, people never lost track of the idea that intentional actions are caused by beliefs and desires, and that desires can be molded through the use of reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You may be right. But your argument for morality is simply evolutionary fitness and utilitarian. The question remains. If an individual's actions are predetermined, is there a basis for morality other than social utility? I'm interested in the Buddhist approach which in essence redefines the "individual". This is something I want to study but I don;t understand much about it yet.