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Moral Implications

This lesson is a part of an audio course Free Will by Lottie Pike

Hello, and welcome back to the course 'Free Will' on Listenable. For the remaining lessons, we're going to be focusing on the implications of rejecting the existence of free will – today, specifically the moral implications. It is worth pointing out that we're only going to be looking at the implications of a determinist view on free will, as this is in direct contrast to how society is already run. In any debate about free will, the topic of most concern is undoubtedly the moral implications of determinism – seeing as society naturally assumes we have free will, it functions accordingly. The justice system, prisons, government, etc., are all predicated on a libertarian – or perhaps compatibilist – worldview. Now, this is not to say this is correct philosophically or biologically, and it just works like that because it's pragmatic – we all feel free, so our institutions function as if we were. It works. So, yes, it may be practical, but is it accurate? Which matters more – practicality or accuracy? Let's begin to consider the implications, and then you can decide for yourselves. Before I begin, though, it is worth pointing out that implications are necessarily secondary to the truth – by that, I mean, something can be true but have negative implications, but that does not have its truth value. So, for example, determinism could be true, even though it has detrimental implications for morality. What some people do, however, is to dismiss the argument solely based on its implications. Perhaps pragmatically, that could make sense; however, if we're discussing the truth of a certain premise, the implications ought to be secondary, right? As I have said already: it all comes down to whether you value practicality over reality.

First of all, we need to consider the following: if you don't have free will, are you responsible for your actions? Let's quickly look back at determinism to see if we can work it out. Determinism states that our actions are wholly caused by either subconscious, environmental or prior causes – so, it would suggest that, seeing as we don't autonomously make the decision on how to act, we cannot be held accountable for our actions. Following on from this, it would suggest that we can neither be praised nor punished for them, as we are not the conscious agent of what we do and how we act. It would be wrong to not point out that this is rather problematic. Well, actually, very problematic. As Sam Harris states, 'an honest discussion of the underlying causes of human behaviour appears to leave no room for moral responsibility. If we view people as neuronal weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about right and wrong or good and evil?'.

In trying to tackle this question, Sam Harris asks us to consider what it means to take responsibility for an action. If I say that I am responsible for vandalism, what am I actually saying about my role in the action? We could say that someone is responsible for something if their action is the direct cause of it; we could instead take a libertarian view and say that someone is responsible for something if they willingly and autonomously chose it, free of any external forces like environment and upbringing. However, Harris suggests the following: someone is responsible for something if 'what [they] did was sufficiently in keeping with [their] thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them.' Let's unpack that a bit, because understanding of this concept of action as an extension of thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires is going to be fundamental later on in the course when we discuss the political implications of determinism. What Harris is suggesting here is that our external actions reflect who we are as a person. This makes sense, right? Without having to delve too deep into the philosophy of identity, which is a maze in itself, we can briefly begin to consider what makes us who we are? Our actions? Our thoughts? Our personality? Or perhaps a mixture of them all? Harris, I believe, rightly suggests a holistic view of human identity, against which we can compare the nature of our actions to retain some form of personal responsibility for them. Of course, this isn't a straightforward process – it would be much easier to just say we have free will and avoid all of this hassle with responsibility and identity.

Ockham's Razor, a scientific and philosophical rule, states that the simplest of two competing theories is often the right one. Here, it's easy to see that libertarianism is much simpler in terms of implications as opposed to determinism. Perhaps there's a case that could be made arguing that seeing human action through the lens of cause and effect is far simpler than invoking a soul, or unexplainable capacity for freedom, as some would say is done in libertarianism. Or maybe we want to reject this notion of ease meaning truth altogether – many things are complicated but still true. The world itself, for example, bears so much intricacy. Ockham's Razor seems to halt intellectual curiosity and deep thought – no one ever said that philosophy was going to be easy. But anyway, just some food for thought. Back to identity.

What do we condemn the most in another person when they act immorally? Just the action? The intention to do harm? Both? Let's consider two cases: person A has committed murder and has a history of crime. Person B has also committed murder but has no history of crime. Who do we blame the most? If you're unsure, let's go a bit further. Person A obviously has a history of crime: this would suggest that committing crimes is characteristic of them. Person B, on the other hand, seems to have acted out of character – meaning, essentially, that they have never acted this way before, and it seems uncharacteristic of them. I'll ask another question: who seems like more of a threat to society? Perhaps we want to say person A, as crime seems part of their identity. But what about this: what if person B, who has acted seemingly out of character, undergoes an MRI scan which shows a tumour in their medial prefrontal cortex, the role of which is linked to human behaviour and social cognition? Their actions were not only uncharacteristic of them, but the effect of a medical, behavioural compromise. For the last time: who do we blame more? By this point, probably person A. The fact that we appoint different amounts of the blame here shows that it is often not the action we condemn: it is the intention to do harm.

There is so much still to discuss here, which can all be found in Sam Harris' book 'free will,' but the main idea to take away from this is: to truly reconcile morality and determinism, we need to have a deep and holistic understanding of human behaviour. Do someone's actions align with their character? More importantly, which we'll be covering at length in the lesson on political implications, is this person a threat to the wellbeing of others? To develop a true, realistic view of morality, it is not enough to look at actions: we must look at prior causes – upbringing, environment, mental state, and so forth. Essentially, we must look at the person, not just the action.

As I have said, there are an infinite amount of resources online discussing this very issue, and so many more points of view that I don't have time to cover in detail. I would strongly recommend doing your own further research so you can build your understanding and eventually form your own views on this topic.

Today, we've been discussing the moral implications of determinism, and in the next episode, we're going to be moving on to looking at the religious implications. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and bye for now!

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Written by

Lottie Pike