Not to Panic, Everything's Under Control
Many scientists and philosophers are convinced that free will doesn’t exist at all. According to these skeptics, everything that happens is determined by what happened before—our actions are inevitable consequences of the events leading up to the action—and this fact makes it impossible for anyone to do anything that is truly free.He goes on to worry that “If people come to believe that they don’t have free will, what will the consequences be for moral responsibility?”
He then discusses a study by two psychologists, Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, that bears on this question. Their study purports to show that if people cease believing they are exceptions to determinism, then they are more likely to act immorally, in this case, cheat. (See here for a detailed discussion.) Vohs and Schooler suggest that to maintain moral responsibility, it might be necessary to promulgate the belief that that we have a kind of ultimate control over ourselves that transcends cause and effect: a contra-causal free will. But this would require a systematic campaign of mass deception since there’s no good scientific evidence that we have such free will. Maintaining the fiction of ultimate control and contra-causal freedom would be a grand exercise in anti-science brainwashing, not exactly the hallmark of an open society. Of course the Bush administration tried something similar in its fight to discount the reality of global warming (see Chris Mooney’s book, The Republican War on Science), so there’s precedent for a deliberate disinformation campaign that would pit moral responsibility against determinism.
But such dire and undemocratic measures are unnecessary. What Nichols doesn’t mention in the article is that many naturalistic philosophers think that we don’t need to be free from determinism to be morally responsible. There are good, easily understandable reasons to hold fully caused persons morally responsible, for instance, to cause them to behave morally and responsibly. Even if people are formed by factors that are ultimately beyond their control, they still have local, proximate control (what philosopher John Martin Fischer calls “guidance control”) in the sense that their actions are usually controlled by their own desires and motives. Whether or not people act on their desires and motives can obviously be influenced by the prospect of being held responsible. After all, every sane adult’s normal complement of cognitive capacities includes the capacity to anticipate praise and blame, to take into account the likelihood of being held accountable for their actions. Anticipating this, they unsurprisingly often make the choice to conform to moral norms.
So we can see that acting morally and responsibly centrally involves the causal influence of moral norms on an individual’s choices and behavior. As a locus of proximate but not ultimate, contra-causal control, a person generally (but not always of course) acts in ways that reflect the moral consensus. Put concisely: morality leverages each person’s local self-control to achieve social stability. We don’t need to have ultimate control, that is, be exceptions to determinism, for this to work, and indeed any part of us free from causation would be for that reason impossible to influence. So it’s a good thing we likely aren’t exceptions to determinism. If we were, we’d be uncontrollable moral monads.
Now, I take it that this commonsensical rationale for moral responsibility is not rocket science. It can be easily communicated in plain language (plainer than what I’ve used above), and what’s more, it’s the case. It’s how our moral responsibility practices actually work. This is why it’s puzzling that Nichols, who presumably knows of such rationales, said nothing about them in his Scientific American article. Had he done so, it might have forestalled the predictable free will/moral responsibility panic that sometimes ensues when people discover they are fully caused (for an instance of such panic incited by his article, see here). That he didn’t can only help inflame the culture wars between naturalism and supernaturalism.
Nichols does, however, mention research indicating that most of those who believe people are determined in their behavior (a small minority of the total population, but which includes many philosophers and scientists) still believe people can be held responsible. This suggests that, as he puts it “if you come to believe in determinism, you won’t drop your moral attitudes.” This is comforting to know, but he says it raises puzzling questions:
People who explicitly deny free will often continue to hold themselves responsible for their actions and feel guilty for doing wrong. Have such people managed to accommodate the rest of their attitudes to their rejection of free will? Have they adjusted their notion of guilt and responsibility so that it really doesn’t depend on the existence of free will? Or is it that when they are in the thick of things, trying to decide what to do, trying to do the right thing, they just fall back into the belief that they do have free will after all?These puzzles are resolved by seeing, as suggested above, that yes, we can easily adjust our notions of guilt and responsibility to function perfectly well in the absence of contra-causal free will. Moral attitudes find sufficient justification in the necessity for holding each other morally responsible, so we don’t need to “fall back into the belief that [we] do have free will after all.” Of course, some of our attitudes and responsibility practices should change in light of a science-based naturalism, which shows human persons to be the fully caused outcomes of biology and culture. For example, absent contra-causal free will, retributive punishment is very difficult to justify, which has direct implications for our criminal justice system. But there’s no deep puzzle about the survival of moral responsibility overall under naturalism. We remain moral agents since we are often prompted to act out of moral considerations, considerations that are upheld and enforced by holding each other responsible. So no need to panic, it’s going to be OK - better, actually.