There is an age-old debate among philosophers: do people have free will? The question is considered important for moral judgment. If people don't have free will, it seems they shouldn't be held responsible for their actions. Why should we praise or scold a person for actions they were unable to control?
I submit that the question isn't as complex as it seems, and neither is the answer important to help us decide how to behave. I believe the sides aren't as diametrically opposed as it would seem.
The key question these philosophers are asking is whether the decisions and actions that a person takes could have been otherwise. If a person's decisions could have been otherwise, then clearly they had free will to choose one or another option, and it makes sense to hold them responsible for the choice they actually made. But if, on the other hand, they could NOT have done otherwise, what sense would it make to give them credit, or blame, for their actions?
The question of free will is usually posed with the assumption that the world is deterministic, despite what we know about the inherent unpredictability of quantum physics. My intent isn't to question that assumption, at least not today. Let's take it as given that the world unfolds as a sequence of events, one after another, each the cause of the next in a well-defined way, even though mere mortals aren't able to predict the future in practice. The two sides in this debate are the compatibilists and the incompatibilists, reminiscent of the big-endians and little-endians of Gulliver's Travels. Recall that the big-endians cracked their eggs on the big end, and the little-endians cracked them on the little end. Because they could not agree on such an important issue, they were forever at war.
The incompatibilists believe free will is impossible ("incompatible" with determinism), as people are not in control of the ultimate causes of their actions. By "ultimate cause" they mean the cause of the cause of the cause... ad infinitum. Or as far as time can be said to have existed. Because a person cannot influence any link in the causal chain, they "could not have done otherwise." The incompatibilists deem something like the big bang as the ultimate cause of everthing that has happened since. Because we did not control the big bang, we can't reasonably be held responsible for anything since then, such as our actions. To an incompatibilist, the concepts of moral blame and worth are nonsensical. A person can't reasonably be said to be ultimately responsible for their actions, and therefore they should not be held moraly responsible, blamed, or praised. Many incompatibilists believe that an understanding of this truth will lead to a more humane treatment of our fellow man.
The compatibilists, on the other hand, believe that we have free will (it is "compatible" with determinism) because people think, feel, make moral judgments, and decide how to act based on their thoughts and feelings. It is obvious that we have free will. The compatibilists don't care whether we have control over the chemical reactions in our bodies, or our genes, or the limited set of choices we have to select from. To a compatibilist, it isn't relevant whether or not we are the ultimate cause; we are the proximate cause of our actions, and they arise from us. That is all that's necessary to say that free will exists. Compatibilists believe that the kind of free will that the incompatibilists say we don't have wouldn't be useful even if we had it. When a compatibilist wonders if we "could have done otherwise", the question is really whether one is likely to repeat the same decision in situations that are the same only in morally relevant ways. A murderer has demonstrated that he is likely to murder: clearly, under the specific circumstances that actually occurred, he did murder. But the compatibilist looks at all of the relevant circumstancess to see if at the time and place of the act there were circumstances - such as being threatened by the victim - that would have forced the hand of any reasonable person. Because people respond to them, we can use praise and blame to influence others to act for the benefit of society. Parents use blame and praise to teach children how to behave: for things such as intentionally poking someone in the eye, or taking the time to do a good job on one's homework. Laws and punishment for violating laws are necessary for a functioning society.
These two camps don't really disagree with each other about the facts. They just disagreee about what words we should use to describe them. The compatibilists agree that we aren't the ultimate cause of our actions, they just don't happen to care about that. The incompatibilists agree that it's useful to act as if we have free will, as long as we recognize that it's an illusion. What they disagree about is which we should call "free will". The incompatibilists agree that we should influence others to behave in ways beneficial to society. The compatibilists aren't too concerened about making absolute "moral" judgments, and agree that we should treat people humanely. What they disagree about is which we should call "praise" and "blame".
Of course I am oversimplifying both positions. Many people believe, for example, we can make absolute moral judgments, sometimes by reference to a deity (or deities). When people ask me what I believe, I ususally say that I am agnostic on free will, or that it depends on which definition you want to use. I agree with both camps, and I don't really care which words we elect to attach to which definitions, as long as we're clear about what we're trying to say. The two camps mostly agree with each other about the facts, though not always about what conclusions we should draw from them. The fight is more about the right to choose the "correct" meaning for words such as "free will," "cause", and "responsibility", because those words have emotional baggage attached to them that influence our thinking.
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