Free Will is Not Defined By Moral Responsibility

I’m still going through Derk Pereboom’s “Living Without Free Will” and am on the chapter on Compatibilism.  As I’ve been doing in this series of posts, I’m not getting into that in detail, as I did that when I went through “Four Views on Free Will”.  In this case, that’s pretty much literally the case, as Pereboom’s chapter here very much repeats what he said in his essay in that book, which I’ve already covered.  So here what I’m going to talk about is how I think we’ve gone astray by making free will out to be pretty much defined by how it creates or preserves moral responsibility.  The problem is that this leads to talking about free will and free choices only in the moral context, and ignoring that the reason we think that a lack of free will would eliminate morality is not because of some special moral consequence, but instead because it would eliminate any real responsibility we could have for our actions and choices which is necessary for morality to work.  We cannot be moral people if whether we act morally or immorally is completely out of our control.  For morality to work, it must be the case that I am responsible for what I do, at which point we can judge whether what I did was moral or immoral.  The modern free will debate often seems to be taking those two separate judgements as the same judgement.

Pereboom does this explicitly with his argument — referenced in the post linked above — aimed at compatibilism where he tries to show that we would have to move from the first condition where the action itself is completely controlled externally through a set of two other slightly different conditions and ending at physical determinism, trying to argue that we had to consider all of the previous cases ones where we wouldn’t be held morally responsible and so it had to be that way in the physical determinism case as well.  This runs into the first problem with doing this, as I noted there that a number of moral theories would indeed be able to break that chain at some point before the end, and so whether he’s right or not would depend on which moral theory ends up being correct.  But discussing free will should not involve studying moral theory in detail and coming up with an accepted moral theory.  He can — and did — argue that it relies on our intuitions, but again those intuitions are being challenged by moral philosophy and so cannot be used to prove his case.  If we might still be morally responsible for our actions there, his argument fails, and if moral philosophy is saying that we might indeed still be morally responsible in some of those cases then his argument is unfounded.  And the only way to save it would be to solve the question of what the right moral theory is.

The second issue is that moral reasoning is a lot more complicated than this argument will allow for.  It is entirely possible that we wouldn’t hold someone morally responsible for doing something even though we would concede that they are responsible for it.  We may, for example, consider that while they are responsible for the action and while under our moral theory they really ought to do otherwise, asking them to not do that might be more than we can demand of someone, making the action morally desirable but not morally mandatory.  For example, Utilitarianism has a rather famous problem where by the strict calculation of utility someone should save a doctor who is on the verge of making a cure for cancer rather than their spouse if they can only save one, but it seems like too much of a sacrifice to demand of them.  By the same token, using Pereboom’s own example of a kleptomaniac as someone who has a strong compulsion to steal but who could choose not to steal with an incredible effort of will, it’s perfectly reasonable morally to say that to demand that they do that is demanding too much.  While they technically can, we might say that they can’t reasonably can, and since their condition is not their own doing nor is something that they could change on their own demanding that they overcome it might well be too much for them.

But what’s important here is that we aren’t saying that they didn’t really have a choice or that they aren’t really responsible for the actions they take.  The moral reasoning here is that it’s just too much to ask of them to demand that they act morally, which is especially indicated by the spouse case.  It’s just too much to ask to ask someone to sacrifice their spouse or children for a stranger, no matter how much “utility” that will cause.  They are still responsible for their actions and choices, but we don’t feel comfortable demanding that they make the “moral” choice there.  So, while arguments like Pereboom’s require the discussion to focus on responsibility, that’s not what the moral judgement and even arguably the intuition are using there, and so the arguments and intuitions aren’t tracking the thing Pereboom needs to make his argument.

This is also creeping into arguments about actions, as a number of people — Coel, who used to comment here, does this a lot — use this to argue that in such situations we don’t have free will or make free choices.  Then they incorporate that idea into their theories of free will and argue that if we have significant external influence then we really don’t make free choices there.  One commonly cited example is the idea of someone being asked to steal $5 by someone else who has a gun to their head.  Morally speaking, this relies on the idea that we can’t reasonably ask a person in this situation to give up their life for that amount of money, which is why the Stoics could actually argue that it would be immoral because you would be choosing to take an immoral act, and the morality of your own act is not impacted by the immoral actions of others.  However, the argument here tries to deny that we would be responsible and insists that we don’t “really” have a choice.  But as the Stoics note, we indeed actually do have a choice there.  And even empirically, we ourselves can note that some people do actually make the other choice.  So since the choice can actually be made, even though it’s really hard to make that choice, we are still responsible for it and still make a free choice when we decide to not choose that action.  Conflating moral demands with responsibility can thus lead to some dire consequences for both free will and morality.

Morality is the thing we most want or need to preserve by preserving some notion of free will.  But that does not mean that free will is defined by what is moral and what is not moral.  The loss of free will risks losing the sort of responsibility that we need to get morality off the ground, but that does not mean that cases where we cannot morally judge someone even if the choices seem to have relevantly moral elements follows from a loss of responsibility as opposed to some other moral consideration.

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One Response to “Free Will is Not Defined By Moral Responsibility”

  1. Morality Without Free Will | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Last time while discussing “Living Without Free Will” by Derk Pereboom, I criticized the focus that he and others had on the problems for morality if we didn’t have free will, as if solving the issues around morality would solve the problems that we seem to face if we decide that there is no such thing as free will.  This chapter doubles down on that, focusing on discussing if notions of morality can be preserved even if we don’t have free will.  But as I’ve already argued the problems for morality follow from the problems a lack of free will would introduce in general, and thus even if you manage to preserve some notion of morality given determinism that wouldn’t mean that you’ve actually shown that free will itself isn’t problematic.  And I don’t think that you can actually do that anyway. […]

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