Why Does Free Will Matter?
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Why Does Free Will Matter?

Ask most philosophy professors today and they will tell you humans are wholly physical (Physicalism or Materialism). Man, like all other things in the universe is only physical stuff. We are just matter in motion.[1]

One of the most unpleasant consequences of this view is that man is not a free-moral agent. Instead, on this view, man’s actions are determined by all of the preceding physical states of the universe. (In fact, ultimately, all your actions were ordered at the moment of the Big Bang.) More specifically though, it is argued that the preceding physical and brain states of an individual in combination with the conditions of her environment will completely predict and determine her future actions. In other words, we are all just “moist robots” following our programming.

Arguments in favor of this view are plentiful: 1. There is no evidence that a soul or a spiritual realm exists; 2. If a soul did exist, it could not interact with a body; 3. Neuroscience now suggests that brain “decisions” are made before we become aware of them which means we are not really free to choose(see the Libet Studies);[2] etc.

This common academic view has serious moral consequences: First, on this view, we deserve no praise for anything “good” we do. We didn’t make an honorable or good choice. Our genes in combination with our environment were the proximal causes of our actions. If anything, our genes are praiseworthy, not us. (Talk about a scary prospect!) Second, we don’t deserve any punishment. Criminal actions are not free. They are determined by the physical makeup of the body of the criminal as it responds to its environment. As Sam Harris basically says, our brains make us do it.[3] On this physicalist and determinist view, criminals should be quarantined or medicated like a sick person, not punished and corrected like a criminal.

Common sense alone makes this view seem unlikely. This philosophy just doesn’t fit with our clearest understanding of free will, moral choices, and their consequences. But, there is something else that should cause us to question this doctrine namely, the fact that when people do not believe they have free will, they act worse (morally speaking) than when they do believe they have free will.

Alfred Mele, in his short but excellent book on free will titled Free (Oxford, 2014) writes:

There’s evidence that lowering people’s confidence in the existence of free will increases bad behavior. In one study (Vohs and Schooler 2008), people who read passages in which scientists deny that free will exists are more likely to cheat on a subsequent task. In another experiment (Baumeister et al. 2009), college students presented with a series of sentences denying the existence of free will proceeded to behave more aggressively than a control group: they served larger amounts of spicy salsa to people who said they dislike spicy food, despite being told these people had to eat everything on their plates. Why does this happen? One plausible explanation is pretty straightforward. As your confidence that you have free will diminishes, your impression of yourself as responsible or accountable for what you do weakens. If you’re not responsible, you really don’t deserve to be blamed for your unseemly actions. And believing that you can’t be blamed for acting on your dishonest or aggressive urges reduces your incentive to control them. So you cheat or dish out unpleasantness. We can imagine a student who is piling on the hot salsa thinking, “Hey, you can’t blame me for the heartburn you’re about to get; I’m not responsible for what I do.[4]

This is why free will matters. If we don’t have it, we’re not morally responsible, and we know it. And, if we don’t believe we have free will, we won’t act morally responsibly.

Sadly, I think I see the effect of this philosophy in our world today.


[1] Hobbes, Thomas, and Kenneth R. Minogue. “3.4.” Leviathan, J.M. Dent, 1914.

[2] http://www.informationphilosop...

[3] Harris, Sam. Free Will. Free Press, 2012, pp.7-8.

[4] Mele, Alfred R.. Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will (pp. 4-5). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

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