We don't have free will—though it depends how you define it—and we definitely don't have moral responsibility. Here's why.

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The free will argument is what got me into this whole thing years ago—it is the argument that lit the fuse to my love affair with philosophy. And, after all these years, where so many others have, my conclusions about libertarian free will have not changed.

Definition o’clock: I define libertarian free will as follows:

The real ability to consciously and rationally do otherwise in a given situation.

Where you could argue that my position has changed is in whether we, as human agents, have “free will.” I put that phrase in inverted commas to signify that it depends on how you define the term. Traditionally, I have been a hard determinist who believes that the universe adheres to laws of cause and effect.

Indeed, if they cannot refute this argument—if they can’t establish how libertarian free will exists—then the rest of their God-belief falls down. Their theism rests inexorably on the foundations of a coherent notion of libertarian free will.

Of course, this might depend on how you interpret quantum mechanics. If you have an indeterministic interpretation, this means that there is some kind of random at play, some kind of lack of intuitively understood causation. You might then be an “adequate determinist,”, who is someone that believes, on a macro-level, that the universe works to cause and effect even if, at the micro-level, it is pretty funky. But, you might have a belief that quantum is, at base deterministic, allowing you to keep the moniker “hard determinist.”

Mot philosophers are compatibilists, which is to say that they believe free will and determinism are compatible. Or, if cause and effect works in any of the ways mentioned above, we can still have free will. But, and this is a big but, they would define free will slightly differently. It would be something like this:

The ability for an agent to do what they want.

Notice that this is not the ability to do two different things in the exact same scenario. They might accept that this could happen due to quantum, but that this is ultimately meaning that random is at the basis of the decision, and not the agent’s will.

The thing is, I am both a hard determinist and a compatibilist, it just depends on which definition you are using. I argued in my first book, Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will or whether I was always going to write this book, that the compatibilist position is largely a semantic one. As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

Yes, we can do what we want (compatibilist) in a deterministic (adequate or hard) universe, but what we want is itself determined (hard determinist).

The larger point is this: Whether you are a hard compatibilist or a compatibilist, you deny libertarian free will. We will do what we will do in the situation we are in, and that is a singular thing, quantum notwithstanding. (Note: Quantum giving you a different outcome is not free will. As agents, we can’t take ownership over quantum fluctuations!)

This brings me on to what I want to talk about today: Philosopher Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument. This argument is both a defeater of free will and a defeater of ultimate moral responsibility. It goes like this:

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself — because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

The key move is (3). Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

I argue with a lot of Christians about all sorts of things. But if they are Christians who believe in heaven and hell, who believe in divine judgment based on what we do in our lives, and having moral responsibility for doing so, then they have a problem.

Indeed (and I have frequently said this about debating people like William Lane Craig), if they cannot refute this argument—if they can’t establish how libertarian free will exists—then the rest of their God-belief falls down. Their theism rests inexorably on the foundations of a coherent notion of libertarian free will.

But it doesn’t exist.

To return to Strawson, what we have here is the idea that we have some kind of nature—and you could even posit a soul here but it would get you nowhere—but that we cannot control this nature. Certainly not wholly or ultimately.

As Emerson Green points out (I interviewed him on my YouTube channel recently):

Make no mistake, we can endeavor to change ourselves; we can grow and strive to be better. Many do, and some are successful. But in order to change how you are, you must already exist – and the way that you are at present will determine if you change yourself, how you change yourself, and how successful you will be in doing so. You can change the way that you are, but you can’t be ultimately responsible for your own nature. Since it’s impossible to get “underneath” yourself, there’s no way to be ultimately responsible for the way you are. So, you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do. You can be the proximate cause of your actions, but that’s a fairly limited form of responsibility—one that’s entirely compatible with determinism….

This deeper kind of responsibility, which Nietzsche disparagingly called “‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense,” and which is often ascribed to human beings by the religious, arguably requires one to be causa sui—to be the ultimate cause of oneself. Since this is impossible, we can be sure that we do not possess the kind of responsibility that so many seem convinced we have. You can’t be radically self-creating in a way that gets you beyond a compatibilist notion of responsibility.

He is right to highlight issues with proximate or proximal causation.

Apportioning moral responsibility to one agent because their action was the closest caused to the effect is very simplistic. It is like saying the green snooker ball was responsible for knocking the red one in as it was the most proximal cause. This says nothing about the fact that it had rebounded off the yellow, after the blue, after being hit by the white cue ball, itself shot by the snooker player, involving all their causal circumstances, including all their training, the support from their parents, the evolution of man, and the big bang. Without each and every necessary condition and event, the red would never have been pocketed.

So was the green ball responsible? In some small, arbitrary sense, along with all other aspects of the causal circumstance. Was it ultimately causally responsible? No.

What does this say about moral responsibility?

Now such philosophical exactitude doesn’t easily help people organize society and suchlike, which is why we have shortcut rules of thumb: you pulled the trigger, you’re responsible. But that’s not technically correct.

Returning to Strawson more directly, the idea of being self-caused is very obviously a problem, and one that Nietzsche expounded so well:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 21 (tr. W. Kaufmann)

And without wanting to sidetrack too much here, this is a very good example of how the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is entirely at odds with libertarian free will. The KCA is in the family of Prime Mover arguments: God can be the only originator of a causal chain. Nothing can self-cause (causa sui), so the only thing that can ground causality is God:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause for its existence (i.e., God).

The problem here is saying that (1) God is the only originator of a causal chain, but also, (2) human agents are the originators of causal chains every time they make a freely willed decision!

Alas, I digress. The takeaway point here is that theists can’t have it both ways, believing in both libertarian free will and the KCA. Neither work, and both are mutually exclusive.

The question then remains: Do we really lose anything by losing moral responsibility?

I will write more on this in due course, but in the meantime, you can look at the writing of philosophers Derk Pereboom and Gregg Caruso who say, simply, “not really.”

I will leave you from Pereboom’s words from Living Without Free Will:

Living without a conception of our choices and actions as freely willed in the sense required for moral responsibility does not come naturally to us. Our psychologies and our patterns of behavior presuppose that our choices and actions are free in this sense. Nevertheless, not only are there good arguments against this belief, but also, despite our initially apprehensive reactions to hard incompatibilism, believing it would not have disastrous consequences, and indeed it promises significant benefits for human life. Hard incompatibilism would not undermine the purpose in life that our projects can provide. Neither would it hinder the possibility of the good interpersonal relationships fundamental to our happiness. Acceptance of hard incompatibilism rather holds out the promise of greater equanimity by reducing the anger that hinders fulfillment. Far from threatening meaning in life, hard incompatibilism can help us achieve the conditions required for flourishing, for it can assist in releasing us from the harmful passions that contribute so much to human distress. If we did in fact relinquish our presumption of free will and moral responsibility, then, perhaps surprisingly, our lives might well be better for it.

Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will, p. 212-13.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...