Monday, July 5, 2010

Free Will and Responsibility

I recently came across a critique of determinism (or opposition to contra-causal free will, philosophical libertarianism) that followed an old line of thought on why we should believe in free will:
What are the implications of truly believing that one's behaviors are due to uncontrollable genetic impulses? Caught philandering or stealing? Instead of saying "the devil made me do it" I guess you can now argue that "it runs in the family." But what happens when people are no longer held accountable for their actions? Is society even possible if its rules cannot be observed? This issue underlies not only philosophical debates over free will and determinism but also the current trend toward our becoming a no-fault no-risk culture.
Now, setting aside the fact that this was written on a religious website that had an obvious theosophical interest in defending free will, it does provide an excellent example of a common line of thought.  One of the first issues people raise when their belief in free will is challenged is that the result of such thinking would not allow people to be held accountable for their actions.  If people are determined by biology and environment, then how can we blame them when they do bad things?

The first flaw in this argument is that it is illogical.  The question of whether or not free will exists is separate from any consequences that may result from its existence.  This is simply the way that reality works.  No matter how much we might dislike reality, we can't choose what to believe or not to believe based on our discomfort.

The second flaw is that determinism does not necessarily mean that we can't hold people accountable.  Even if we know that someone is not ultimately responsible for their actions, we can still organize our society in such a way that certain behaviors are encouraged, while others discouraged.  For instance, even if a murderer is believed to have been created by a bad home life, a genetic disorder, etc., it is still in society's interest to keep them locked up.  This is not to say that there are not profound implications for a deterministic outlook.  Reward, retribution and punishment, fairness, equality and justice, all take on new meanings. 

One of the most profound meanings provides an interesting corollary to the argument of personal responsibility.  If free will holds individuals accountable, it fails to hold society accountable.  In turn, if determinism fails to hold individuals accountable, it does hold society accountable.  So if one believes in such a thing as "social justice", it would behoove them to decide whether they believe either in contra-causal free will, or determinism.

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