• Brooke Kuipers

Free Will or Free Choice? Moral Responsibility, Prosocial Benefits, and Compatibilism

Free will is a central problem in philosophy because the concept is perceived as contradictory to the deterministic view of the universe (Monroe & Malle, 2010). Free will is defined as having the ability to choose between courses of action freely, with no hindrance from both internal and external factors (Vohs & Schooler, 2008; Baumeister, 2008; Wilks & Ratheal, 2009). In contrast, the deterministic position of the physical world leaves little room for free choices with the belief that all that occurred was inevitable, and nothing else was ever a possibility (Baumeister, 2008). It is difficult to ignore the concept of free will, simply because humans feel extremely free (Sarkissian, Chatterjee, De Brigard, Kobe, Nichols, & Sirker, 2010; Feldman, Chandrashekar & Wong, 2016). However, some people believe that they are deterministically guided by internal factors, such as personality or genetics, and external factors, such as nature, science, or God (Baumeister, 2008; Feldman et. al, 2016).

The concept of free will is currently impossible to prove or disprove scientifically (Baumeister, 2008; Carey & Paulhus, 2013), causing researchers to scientifically delve into more applicable scientific explorations, such as the effects that believing in free will can have on individuals and society (Carey & Paulhus, 2013; Vohs & Schooler, 2008). Compatibilism should be society’s general metaphysical stance because of the effects determinism can have on assignments of moral responsibility and the prosocial benefits associated with a belief in free will.

Deterministic causal explanations for human behaviour creates issues regarding moral and legal responsibilities (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009; Vohs & Schooler, 2008; Baumeister, 2008). Determinism, as defined by Monroe and Malle (2010), is the belief that every occurrence is just the consequence of prior events, and that free human actions are impossible in a deterministic causal world. Determinism regarding human behaviour is unproven and unprovable and is contradicted by individuals who make decisions every day and subjectively believe a range of options are available (Baumeister, 2008); although, it is widely accepted that the physical world is solely deterministic.

Current law systems function on the assumption that people have and exercise free will (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009; Hess & Weiner, 1999). However, in a deterministic world, all events are caused by past events, which means–in theory–every current human behaviour should be traceable back to events from the beginning of time (Carey & Paulhus, 2013). Adjusting an individual’s sense of responsibility can change their behaviour; therefore, promoting a deterministic causal worldview that removes an individual’s sense of responsibility and this change in perception could encourage undesirable and antisocial behaviours (Vohs & Schooler, 2008; Baumeister, 2008).

Hess and Weiner (1999) explain that, from a legal perspective, an individual cannot be morally responsible for a cause beyond their control. Determinism removes one’s control entirely by dismissing all human behaviours as consequences of environmental and genetic factors stemming from actions in the past (Greene & Cohen, 2004; Vohs & Schooler, 2008). Moreover, research has found that removing an individual’s sense of autonomy, choice, freedom, and control can negatively affect dissonance and consistency (Linder, Cooper, & Jones, 1967) and stress and coping (Glass, Singer, & Friedman, 1969).

For someone to be held accountable by the law, there should be no doubt that they are morally responsible for the actions they took (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009; Clarke, 1993, 2000, 2003). As stated by Vedantam (2007), “reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry–rather than free will–might diminish the importance of personal responsibility” (p. A01). Free will is essential when assigning moral and legal responsibility for behaviour (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009; Double, 1997), effectively ruling out the deterministic causal theory of human behaviour, based on the necessity to maintain social order.

An individual’s belief in free will–and the extent to which they believe in it–is connected to a range of positive life outcomes (Gooding, Callan, & Hughes, 2018) and is linked to developing the prosocial behaviours needed to coordinate with others (Baumeister, 2008). Evidence and research show that people who believe in free will learn from their mistakes better (Chernyak & Kushnir, 2014); have a positive attitude towards making decisions (Feldman, Baumeister, & Wong, 2014); suffer from helplessness less and have greater self-efficacy (Baumeister & Brewer, 2012); show honest behaviour more often (Vohs & Schooler, 2008); have higher levels of autonomy and are more willing to work hard (Alquist, Ainsworth, & Baumeister, 2013); and have greater job performance and higher drives for career success (Stillman, Baumeister, Vohs, Lambert, Fincham, & Brewer, 2010).

In most modern societies and religions, a belief in free will is extremely common (Sarkissan et. al., 2010) and most people believe in free will to some extent (Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer, & Turner, 2006), although, the degree to which they believe differs (Carey & Paulhus, 2013; Feldman et. al., 2016). Carey and Paulhus (2012) found that people who believe in free will were supportive of more severe criminal punishment and that belief in free will nurtures a stronger form of universal morality; however, they found that severe criminal punishment was aimed at getting justice, rather than reducing crime overall.

A possible theory for the common belief in free will is that it produces socially acceptable and harmonious behaviours helps build a functional society (Baumeister, 2008). Haidt (2008) discussed how morality and immortality serve to separate people into social roles and pushes individuals to place the needs of society above their own by behaving in socially acceptable ways, whilst Carey and Paulhus (2013) found that belief in free will causes individuals to control their impulses and criticise those who do not. These results show that believing in free will–even if it may not exist–is conducive to developing moral responsibility in individuals, thereby regulating their behaviour to align with a harmonious society (Baumeister, 2008).

For general members in society, free will is directly related to their ability to make decisions and choices which affect their lives; due to this, free will could be more accurately relabelled as free choice (Monroe & Malle, 2010). The concept of free will is essentially a deliberation about the psychological causes of action (Baumeister, 2008). Carey and Paulhus (2013), state that believing in free will merely reflects the general understanding about how people make choices. This is supported by Monroe and Malle (2010), who found that the public fundamentally views free will as having the ability to control one’s life through choices.

Most adults feel like they have free will (Nelkin, 2004) and moral cognition (Kochanska & Aksan, 2004) which, when combined, is generally called conscience (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009). Wilks and Ratheal (2009) state that conscience is driven by a distinctive knowledge of right and wrong rather than self-deterministic processes. They discuss how individuals have an inborn preference for goodness, which is why conscience only troubles someone if they have violated their innate sense for good. Following this, Wilks and Ratheal (2009) declare that people are blameworthy for immoral actions they have taken that violate what is believed or known to be good.

Most of society agree they have free will, but their innate conscience deters them from utilising it (Carey & Paulhus, 2013) as to avoid possible public disapproval for their actions. In an experiment where subjects were asked to imagine a purely deterministic universe, the subjects declared criminals were still responsible for their actions (Knobe & Nichols, 2008; Nichols, 2006), because they made the conscious decision to act in a way which violates their sense of goodness (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009). Many individuals view free will as a way to pursue self-interested long-term goals, such as fitness, happiness, or money, whereas free will in others is perceived as a way to restrict their socially undesirable impulses (Baumeister, 2008).

This information indicates that free will should be labelled more correctly as a literal concept of free choice (Monroe & Malle, 2010) as it allows individuals to make a conscious decision to inhibit their impulses and desires to harmoniously live in diverse culture groups (Baumeister, 2008).

Compatibilism offers a metaphysical stance that can corroborate the universally reported sense of freedom whilst retaining legal and moral responsibility of human actions (Wilks & Ratheal, 2009). The scientific logic of determinism is continually juxtaposed against free will and the subjective feelings of freedom people hold, with many stating the two views are incompatible. Contrastingly, compatibilists do not view determinism and free will as mutually exclusive and argue that an individual can reasonably and logically hold both views. Research has found that the average everyday person can believe in both determinism and free will without one undermining the other (Nahmias et. al., 2006; Knobe & Nichols, 2008; Carey & Paulhus, 2013).

One of the oldest print books discussing moral philosophy discusses how rational choice and self-control are simply two different forms of free will and that many people have free will but seldom utilise it (Kant 1797/1967). Baumeister (2008), based on this idea, posed the theory that humans have a default, deterministic setting which often manages an individual’s behaviour, but they also have a form of free will or free choice which can and does intervene to adjust behaviour. This compatibilist view of free will allows an individual to retain their moral responsibility for behaviours that society believes has violated what is good, whilst conceding that some human behaviours are solely deterministic.

In conclusion, evidence supporting the theory that free will affects cognition and behaviour in many important ways is constantly growing, and free will is no longer regarded as an abstract philosophical idea. Free will–or the belief in free will–affects everyday lives, and is extremely relevant for many moral, social, and legal judgements (Baumeister, 2008). To continually live in mostly harmonious and collaborative communities, individuals need to have a way to resist their innate impulses and desires (Baumeister, 2008) that may be causal to their environment, genes, or past.

Ironically, evidence suggests that for people to follow the rules, a belief or perception of free will is necessary (Baumeister, 2008). As aptly worded by Sartre (1943/1956), “we are always ready to take refuge in a belief in determinism if this freedom weighs upon us or if we need an excuse” (p. 78-79). Compatibilism offers a metaphysical stance that can adhere to the deterministic nature of the universe whilst supporting subjective feelings of freedom and maintaining moral responsibility.


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