Free Will and Ethics

Tuesday April 8, 2008

Road Sign

Not that long ago, I read Dan Wegner’s wonderful . Wegner’s book is a careful and detailed account of his research into the experience of free will, and it is also a highly entertaining read in way that – alas! – far too few academic books are.

Regular visitors will know that I have tackled the question of free will before on thinkBuddha (see the posts here and here), but for those without the stomach to plough through those posts, let alone all the proper literature on the subject, the central problem was admirably summed up over two centuries ago by Samuel Johnson, who wrote that “All theory is against freedom of the will; all experience for it”.

Johnson is perceptive: we cannot deny the experience of free will. But our theories cannot seem to account for it. Wegner is interesting here, because he takes the lead from Hume to claim that will is, in fact, a feeling, rather than the source of action. The problem is not that free will is entirely ruled out by theory, but that in theorising free will we are looking to theorise something with causal efficiency, rather than looking to account for this feeling of authorship. And Wegner shows convincingly that in experimental situations it is possible for us to have the feeling of willed authorship without having any causal efficacy whatsoever. Conversely, it is possible to be causally efficacious without the feeling of will (for example, in the use of Ouija boards which, disappointingly, are not controlled by forces beyond the grave but by simple human shoving). So whilst we think that the causality is from conscious thought to action, instead Wegner proposes more complex causality whereby action and conscious thought are both unconsciously caused, leaving us to infer that the action is caused by the conscious thought when it isn’t.

The idea that will is a feeling is convincing, and certainly, without the feeling of will (sleepwalking, for example, or under hypnosis), it is not at all clear what it would mean to say that we willed something. Yet the problem many people have with all this, in the end, is ethics. Last weekend, I was talking about all this with a friend of mine, and he agreed that whilst this model made sense of experience, nevertheless, he was reluctant to give up on free will for ethical reasons. Free will, he said, seems necessary for ethics. And here, if we are talking about seeming, I cannot but agree. It does indeed seem to us that free will is necessary for ethics. But is it?

Wegner thinks it is. Towards the end of his book, he talks about the experience of (illusory) free will as ‘the mind’s compass’, claiming that this ‘emotion of authorship serves key functions in the domains of achievement and morality’ (318). In this sense, the illusion is a positive illusion. Susan Blackmore disagrees, however. There is a good article on her website where she writes as follows:

I have long assumed that free will is an illusion and have worked hard to live without it, but doing this provokes a simple fear – what if I behave terribly badly? What if I give up all moral values and do terrible things? What indeed are moral values and how can I make moral decisions if there’s no one inside who is responsible? I’m sure I don’t need to go on. I suspect that this natural fear is the main reason why so few people sincerely try to live without free will.

These are serious questions, but I myself wonder if the fear of moral chaos on giving up the idea of a legislating free will is the same as the fear that some have of moral chaos on giving up the idea of legislating God, but writ small. Without this legislating power, we fear, things will go to the dogs. But is this the case? One could also put the opposite view: that the idea of oneself as an autonomous subject who wills and who has the freedom to act in response to the dictates of this will may not be such a good thing after all, either for our own welfare or for the welfare of others. I’m not sure that our sense of ourselves as moral agents is necessarily the source of the kindness that makes the world a worthwhile place to live in. And when we start to assert ourselves in our capacity as moral agents, that is usually when the trouble begins…

# · Michael

I have long held the view that a deterministic world and ethical world are not incompatible. We just need to move the primary source for ethical behavior from the individual (or god) to society. A utilitarian moral code does in no way conflict with a deterministic life style.

# · RevShark

The lack of free will is too “deep” if we’d like to discuss it intelectually.
Buddhism holds the view of change, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. But the way to actually “understand” them goes through meditation, which the experience itself is can’t be said with words or images.
But a discussion may be good for reminding and poking us in the right direction.

# · Pman

If one tries to determine the existance of free will from an objective point of view one must invariably exclude the subjective influence of morality and ethics. Ethics and morality are nothing more than a subjective point of view on what is good and what is bad from a human perspective. Free will is more a fundamental question that originates from the objective mechanics of the universe where feelings and emotions, something evolved to increase survival, does not play any role.
Will, your last sentence hits right home. It seems that morality is just a human construct consisting of what actions make us feel happy and what is acceptable in society at that point in time. People perceiving themselves as morally integral are (not always but often) in my eyes making themselves feel good by rating themselves morally better than other people, instead of engaging with the truth of what life is really about.

# · Andy

The Heart Sutra tells us that volition, much like the other aggregates (form, perception, conciousness and sensation), is ‘empty’ but I’ll be damned if I can actually understand the implications of that. And who could? I mean, how could we really ever assimilate the ethical implications of an illusory free will? If you were presented with two ethically motivated people, one of whom believed in free will and one of whom didn’t, how the heck would you tell the difference between them?

And also – with an idea that is really left field – what are the implications of quantum physics on ideas of free will? Uncertainty and all that jazz. Doesn’t that already mess up our ideas about causality before we’ve even got to free will?

Now my head hurts.

# · ramon sanchez

hi isnt it the case that the ‘I’ is a construct .not only that but it operates after volition(this has been shown in experiments ..where subjects are asked to move at some time in the next few minutes while pressing a button their brains are monitored and in fact their ‘volition ‘is after the event basically the brain decides and the ‘I’ makes up stories about the why—about half a second later)what is really going on is that we are beings as beings we have volition but our understanding of this is after the event it is a construct to help us function in the world more.) if we experiment with our beingness our body/brain(by meditating using hallucinogens breath work )it becomes clear that we are not who we think we are we are and people literally ‘know not what they do’(and in that sense are not responsible) that is why spiritual traditions ask us to know ourselves know yourself know god(or for atheists more closely understand the human condition.) seems to me that we must have a higher expectation of ourselves than of others i know that my mind is capable of fooling my ego self so i take responsibility in a different way to someone who believes their own story. so thats my opinion but its just an opinion which is a story not to be believed……….. literally ……so you can see that although i cant believe in any morality i would never kill anyone( i could never either believe my story that completely nor could i imagine that the consequences are knowable) the dao that can be spoken is not the true dao…………the true dao must be experienced by the bodymind the being…………………. big love…………… ramon(:(:(:

# · Mike Morgan

Is there anything in any of the canon of any Buddhist school that explicitly states that choices are made freely by an individual, as we Western minds understand that concept? It would be nice to know if there is.

Apparently, there may have been certain philosophical schools in India during the time of the Buddha that did explicitly deny the existence of free will, so it seems unlikely that none of the Buddha’s teachings touch on the issue (unless it is one of those “unanswerable” questions that the Buddha explicitly chose not to address).

The doctrine of karma definitely points to personal responsibility for one’s situation (and, by extension, for that of others). But, are karmic consequences something that COULD HAVE been avoided through the exercise of free will? It seems that the Buddha always relied on karma to explain better the way things are, rather than to blame any individual for his or her past errors.

I find it personally unacceptable that somehow one can accept causal determinism and yet find it useful to pretend that free will exists. There is a growing movement out there of “non-compatibilists,” of which I am part.

By giving up free will, one no longer needs to cling to regrets or resentments, because there is absolutely no justification for these. Forgiveness is much easier, too.

On the other hand, there would be no real grounds for giving someone praise for a job well done or to express gratitude, except perhaps to promote such good conduct in the future as well.

Even in a deterministic world, we can still learn from the past. But, there can and should be no moral sentiments attached to it beyond what knowledge it gives us for future actions. This, in fact, “feels” much more Buddhist than anything other interpretation.

Certainly it seems morally wrong to inflict retribution on anyone for the sake of “justice.” Instead, how can we repair the damage, and improve our future?

Giving up free will may simply mean not being “stuck” in the past. We can and do make choices for the future, even if those are deterministic, so we must take personal responsibility for the future. No retrospective blame for the past, however, has any value in itself.

# · Jim Eubanks

You have pointed to a wonderful similarity between giving up free will and giving up God. They seem to prevent—our acculturation tells us—the moral life, or at least the fruitful one. Yet if we look to Buddhism and Western behavioral science we can see that free will is not necessary. We can acknowledge the absence of the traditional concept of free will while at the same time accepting that behavioral modification leads to meaningful change. In Pragmatic Buddhism, for example, there is no talk of “will” but instead a focus on engaging in the kinds of behaviors that we seek in ourselves. This change results when we begin acknowledging a bodymind reality instead of a mind and body reality; the difference in belief (bodymind unified versus mind and body as two separate entities) allows us to drop the idea of free will as in the first case, or forces us to believe in it as in the latter.

# · Hope

Hi Will,

I’ve enjoyed reading your posts on free will and am captivated by the idea of practicing not having it as you wrote about in your September 09 post. Although, intellectually I don’t believe I have free will, I still have a very strong feeling of it, so I think I will try this practice myself.

I wanted to comment on this particular post because what I find missing in arguments such as Wegener’s about the importance of free will for morality is that we aren’t necessarily all that ethical or moral now. People can be incredibly violent and cruel. Human societies, such as in the US where I live, are in many ways heartbreakingly unfair. People both experience and cause huge amounts of suffering. So whenever I read about how if we didn’t have the illusion of free will, society would devolve into chaos, I tend to think, “Aren’t things already pretty chaotic now?” And perhaps the illusion of free will is partly at fault. Because the illusion supports the idea that we all create ourselves from scratch, we have a need to protect the illusion, which is as likely to lead to resentment, retaliation, and defensiveness as much as moral behavior. If we didn’t believe that we are the authors of our own behavior, we wouldn’t need to defend our illusions so intensely and might even be nicer.

I also wanted to say that I think it is very interesting that all of your examples involve cake. My homunculus loves cake.


Comments are turned off for this article.

  • Today's Most Popular

  • Related Articles

  • Featured Articles