But while I find that thesis boring, I found what he mentioned in passing, the discussion of free will with relation to moral responsibility, an important issue to parse.
Since the time of Laplace, the idea that a law-governed universe must also be a deterministic universe has become a fairly common assumption; and as a result, free will and all that depends upon it have often fallen into doubt and disrepute. And chief among the things that seem to depend upon free will is the possibility of moral responsibility. It seems misguided, perhaps even nonsensical, to praise or blame people for doing things they could not help doing. And some have argued, in a similar vein, that one cannot have a duty to do something unless one is actually capable of doing it: in the words of Laplace's German contemporary, the philosopher Immanuel Kant, "'ought' implies 'can'". If this is correct - if ethical notions like duty and responsibility make sense only if there is free will - then determinism would imply that all such ethical talk is literally nonsense.
Destruction of moral responsibility is often the primary issue defenders of libertarian free will have with determinism; they fear that without it, society would crumble. If one is not accountable for their actions – either to be praised or blamed, then what basis do we have for a cooperative society of laws? However, moral responsibility is different than moral accountability. While it may be true that no one is truly responsible for their actions, we can certainly make sure that they are accountable to the extent that we determine is fair.
The idea of people acting with no sense of moral responsibility is an understandable fear. But its answer I think is found in the resolution of an even deeper problem: if I am fully caused, and neither to be praised or blamed, what is the purpose of my existence; what sense is there in doing anything, either good or evil?
The bad news is that there is no ultimate sense in doing either. The good news is that one has no choice. Any choice one makes will have been caused. So for those who think that the end of personal responsibility means the granting of freedom to do whatever one wishes, the reasons for doing so remain the same. Refusing to go to work still means one will get fired and end up penniless. Stealing from a neighbor will still cause them to suffer. Climbing Mt. Everest will still fill one with the sense of awe and sense of accomplishment. Being kind and loving to one’s family will fill them with joy.
So while none of these acts may have special cosmic significance, we can take comfort in the fact that we are in the end, simple human creatures, evolved to take certain pleasures in our worldly endeavors. We might curse the limitation of our corporeal forms, but somewhat paradoxically, that curse itself is merely a product of circumstance; it too is fully caused.
But let us take a deeper look at causation, specifically that of morality. The fear of the destruction of moral responsibility is a social claim. That is, it has to do with the interaction of individuals within society. The moral responsibility of a man on a desert island is irrelevant. It is only when he comes into contact with others that moral claims begin. His responsibilities lie in the dynamics of his relationship to others. He has feelings towards them, and they him, regarding the effects of their respective actions.
Moral responsibility is compatible with determinism if we think of it in this macro, societal sense, and place it within a utilitarian framework. That is, we can say no one is himself responsible, but rather the norms and values society has designed for them to live by, which have emerged from the wisdom of history, define his responsibility.
Through the centuries and millennia, humans have evolved complex cultural and philosophical norms so as to structure our societies with no greater aim than to maximize individual and group harmony. Of course there have been great failures, and nothing like complete success has ever been achieved. Each of us play our small part, and – like Adam Smith’s invisible hand – the group project steadily emerges. All of it terrifically complex in largely incomprehensible, one man can neither understand all of it not affect all of it. In this way, it is like the individual: terrifically complex, he neither understands himself entirely, nor affects the entirety of his own choices. And just as society cannot be said to have free will, that is to say it is determined by and emerges from its antecedent participants (philosophers, politicians, journalists, public, etc.), so too is the individual determined by and emergent from his antecedent causes (thoughts, feelings, impulses, etc.).
And just as a society cannot choose to be anything other than what it is at any given moment, neither can man. If a fascist dictator comes to power, it will be because of specific historical and cultural circumstance. Sure, an alternative course would have been preferable, but alas, it was not to be. Thankfully, our human capacity of reflection provides some ability to learn from our mistakes. This cognitive power is the mechanism by which humanity slowly provides itself an opportunity for moral responsibility, or, what might be better described as moral accountability. Interaction on a global scale, over decades and centuries, we have the opportunity to right historical wrongs, thus holding ourselves accountable for what we hope will be a system of laws and political structures more conducive to what we perceive as having been lacking in the past.
So too, if no individual is truly morally responsible for his acts, himself a conglomeration of antecedent impulses, he will be held accountable for his actions to the extent that they interact with his fellow man. Because of power dynamics, he may be more or less accountable (the dictator, for instance, or powerful boss, might have few around to hold him to sufficient account for what they feel he has done). And here, social institutions provide the direct framework within which power dynamics are established. Aside from whatever the individual’s personal sense of moral responsibility to his fellow man might be, his fellow man will have an opportunity to hold him accountable according to the structures that have been established in the society within which they interact.
When wildfires rage, they often do great damage to homes. Of course, we do not for a second think that a lick of flame is morally responsible. Yet neither do we allow the fires to rage unchecked. We put them out as best we can. We also take preventative measures, so as to reduce the possibility that wildfires will rage to begin with. We do the same with our children. Whether we see in them moral responsibility or not, we teach them to be caring, thoughtful and kind, hopefully so that they will grow up to be positive, productive members of society. When they err, we hold them accountable, regardless of how they felt about their actions. Some of us might feel the need to sate an appetite for revenge, and include that satiation in their desire for accountability. But in the end, all that matters is that they be held accountable. We want their actions to have consequences, regardless of what may or may not be in their heads, unless it might have bearing on the degree to which we feel they might act in the future, at which point its bearing only enters with regard to a more clear picture of accountability.