So here’s the question: Is there something most people believe about freedom and responsibility that’s false? And here’s another: If they do, is that belief necessary for us to get along in life, and with each other?
Regarding the first question, a new discipline called experimental philosophy (“x-phi”) is engaged in actually finding out what the “folk” believe about such things as free will and moral responsibility, using interviews and surveys. I’ll discuss a few findings below, but before continuing, take a minute to check out your own intuitions. In a sentence, how would you define free will? And what do you think most other people mean by free will?
Ok, now let’s look at some data. In a paper, Is Incompatibilism Intuitive?, a group of experimental philosophers describe research on beliefs about free will, moral responsibility and determinism in which they posed questions about hypothetical scenarios, what philosophers call thought experiments. In one study, participants were asked to imagine a universe in which the laws of nature always guarantee that, given an initial set of conditions, the same outcomes always occur. If conditions at time T are such that Z steals a necklace later on, then if the same conditions are recreated, Z again steals the necklace. Participants were asked: does Z act of her own free will and is it fair to hold her morally responsible and blame her? Before reading on, what do you think? And what do you think the results were? Well, 66% said Z acted of her own free will and 77% said she was morally responsible and blameworthy.
These findings suggest that a majority of these respondents, when prompted by this scenario, seem to think that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. Whether these results get replicated and validated by more research is of course an open question, but let’s take them as a preliminary indication that many people are what philosophers call compatibilists. Are you a compatibilist in this sense, in that you think we’d have free will and moral responsibility in a fully deterministic universe? Did you suspect that perhaps a majority of people are compatibilists?
In another study conducted by different philosophers, respondents were asked to say which universe, A or B, is most like our universe. In universe A, everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. In universe B, almost everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it, the one exception being human decision making. What’s your intuition about which universe is most like the one we actually live in? And what’s your guess about the results? Well, in this study an overwhelming 95% thought that universe B was most like our universe. In other words, they thought human decision making is likely not fully caused by preceding events; it’s an exception to determinism such that we could have chosen otherwise in the exact same situation in which we made our choice.
If we take these very preliminary findings as an indication of what people (of a certain socio-economic status in the US) might believe about free will, moral responsibility and determinism, what’s it all mean? Well, even though a vast majority of people believe human choices are not fully determined, a substantial majority believe that even if our choices were fully determined, we’d still have free will and moral responsibility.
Now, the supposed threat of a hard-boiled naturalism is the claim, increasingly supported by science, that human choices aren't exceptions to (macro-level) determinism – we likely live in universe A, not B. Some think that to make this known would substantially undermine people’s beliefs that we are moral agents who can be held responsible. But this research suggests that even if people started believing their choices are fully determined, a majority wouldn’t stop believing in moral agency. Thus the advent of a deterministic naturalism in public consciousness may not pose a fatal threat to moral intuitions. Maybe we can stand the truth about ourselves.
But there’s a substantial minority, perhaps, who’d find the news that we live in universe A literally demoralizing, since they tie the idea of moral responsibility to our being exceptions to causation. These folks can perhaps be reassured that since we’re fully caused creatures, we have to be held responsible so that we’re caused to become morally competent, ethical individuals. Our moral standards don’t disappear or become ineffective if determinism is true.
A further question, though, is about what people believe is actually involved in holding people responsible. Once we accept our place in nature as fully caused outcomes of circumstances that we didn’t choose, what happens to our intuitions about credit, blame, reward and punishment? Does retribution – the idea that we deserve to suffer for our crimes, whether or not it produces any good consequences – still make sense once we see that we were fully determined to commit them? Do the super-rich deserve all their astronomical wealth, once we see that they’ve simply been lucky in their talents, upbringing, and opportunities? Naturalism leaves moral agency intact, but will it leave our intuitions about what people deserve, and therefore how we should treat them, unchanged? Stay tuned.