Is there moral responsibility?

I’m travelling today and have little time to post, but I wanted to add one comment  to what I said yesterday.  That is this: I favor the notion of holding people responsible for good and bad actions, but not morally responsible. That is, people are held accountable for, say, committing a crime,because punishing them simultaneously acts as a deterrent, a device for removing them from society, and a way to get them rehabilitated—if that’s possible.

To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea.  In fact, the idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people, so although they may be acting in an “immoral” way, depending on whether society decides to retain the concept of morality (this is something I’m open about), they are not morally responsible.  That is, they can’t be held responsible for making a choice with bad consequences on the grounds that they could have chosen otherwise.

That said, all the strictures and punishments I mentioned yesterday still hold, and retributive punishment is still out.  But moral responsibility implies free choices, and those don’t exist.

Now someone will ask this: “Why not punish innocent people because that could also serve as a deterrent?”  I don’t agree with that because such a strategy is bad for society for two reasons. It removes two of the three justifications for punishment (rehabilitation and removal from society of dangerous elements), and has the additional deleterious effect of making everyone scared that they can be arrested and punished even if they’re completely innocent. That casts a bad pall over society, making everyone paranoid.

On the way back from the natrualism conference in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I argued this point of view with Dan Dennett for 2.5 hours. Dan maintained that, despite determinism, it’s valuable to retain the notion of moral responsibility, while I saw nothing that it adds to society.  I know Dan knows a lot more about philosophy than I do, but when I feel that I’m right, I’ll hold my ground, always trying to see if there’s some way I could be wrong. In this case I don’t think I was.


  1. david middle
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    With you on this the word moral adds nothing. Different people have different morals and we take people to court for breaking laws not morals.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

      Try telling a tax lawyer that tax avoidance is immoral and he’ll soon point out the difference between moral and legal!

    • Alex T
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      It does add some things, but none of them are good. For instance, it implies that in addition to rehabilitation, deterrence or isolation we are justified in additional punishments based on moral outrage – isolation, torture, prison rape, or execution.

      • Gary W
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        You put “isolation” in both your lists. And everything in your “none of them are good” list could serve as a deterrent. So the distinction you’re trying to make doesn’t really make sense.

        • Alex T
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          Yeah, good point – I was editing to make my thought coherent and I messed up. I think that segregating criminals is a reasonable response so strike it from the second list.

          (Extreme isolation like solitary confinement can quickly be a form of retribution. Used for prolonged periods it can be torture. I was not talking about that, though.)

          • Gary W
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            But as I said, everything in your second list could serve as a deterrent. The threat of torture or execution, for example, may deter people from committing crimes.

            • Alex T
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

              Gary – this is straying from the point a bit, I think. Deterrence is a broad category, there is no reason to think that we need to torture or kill people in order to provide a deterrence. We have good reason to believe that many crimes do not respond well to deterrence at the best of times. Even if we did think that torturing or killing murderers would reduce the incidence of other murders, we must be careful to remember that murderers are themselves people and worthy of respect and consideration and that our justice system is fallible.

              Typically executions are not justified on the grounds on deterrence but as retribution or as ridding the world of evil. These justifications hinge upon the notion of free will.

  2. Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    To me, the chief detriment to the belief in moral responsibility is its corrosive effect on one’s personal integrity. The belief necessarily entails that it’s possible for one to betray one’s self by not conforming to the way one morally “should” be. That, in turn, gives rise to self-suspicion, self-recrimination, and in the extreme, self-loathing. Relating to one’s self in this way validates relating to other’s in the same way. It legitimizes hatred and destruction of those who embody “moral evil” by not conforming to the way they “should” be.

  3. coozoe
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    The word ‘moral’ is a human invention. The concept probably came from god squadders since the language is old. We need a more accurate term since the term is a misnomer. ‘Behavior’ a good replacement.

  4. Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    We need to differentiate between a person behaving in character and a person behaving under the influence of coercion or some kind of *temporary* insanity, because our appropriate reactions are different. If Fred & Pete go hunting, but Fred fails to share his catch with Pete, it’s important for Pete to know why. If it turned out that Fred had been coerced by the big chief or was (genuinely) insane whilst the meat was being distributed, then Pete would not necessarily need to punish Fred by excluding him from future sharing. It’s probably this kind of cheating scenario where out moral intuitions about responsibility come from.

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:27 am | Permalink

      In case anyone thinks that the Fred & Pete scenario is just a thought experiment I notice that research on vampire bats sharing blood indicates that they punish defectors in much the same way, although presumably they don’t take into account the insanity of other bats :).

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      Are you suggesting that, in the absence of an explicit or implicit prior agreement, Fred and Pete have an obligation to share their kill — one that would subject either to punishment for failing to abide? (If such an obligation does not arise morally, then whither?)

      If Pete is put out over Fred’s failure to share, he is certainly entitled to refuse to share when he makes the kill and Fred doesn’t. But that hardly constitutes “punishment,” merely “fair play.”

      Neither one of them needs resort to a defense (be it “coercion” or “insanity”) to prove his conduct blameless. Indeed, in the absence of either a close degree of consanguinity (which could give rise to “kin selection”) or a prior mutual expectation (ditto “reciprocal reciprocity”), I suspect that unless they were coerced by “big chief,” our ancestors would have considered it insanity to share their kill.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        I meant to say “reciprocal altruism” above — “reciprocal reciprocity” being something we would expect from the Department or Redundancy Department.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink


      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

        I can’t quite make out you point, so lets try and clarify:

        I’m arguing that moral intuitions evolved, because of the advantages gained in particular from reciprocal altruism. But, reciprocal altruism is open to cheating, so for it to work you have to punish defectors, who take the benefits, without contributing from their own efforts.

        I would then say that a failure to share is a failure of moral responsibility. And we feel a justifiable sense of moral outrage when someone fails to honour their side of the bargain.

        And you don’t need to make these relationships explicit, I am sure that vampire bats, for instance, don’t need signed contracts in order to share blood.

        These kind of implicit agreements permeate all our dealings with others. For instance, when you go down to the pub and buy someone a pint you expect them to reciprocate: “It’s your round mate!”. And if they don’t reciprocate you are likely to feel aggrieved and punish them in some way, such as trying to avoid them in future.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 4, 2013 at 1:29 am | Permalink

          I think we can clarify this, Roq, by recognizing that you are addressing a different issue than I thought you were (and that Jerry had addressed in the OP). The latter issue concerns whether criminal conduct also entails “moral responsibility.” You, on the other hand, are addressing moral responsibility simpliciter.

          What threw me was your use of the term “punishment.” You are using that term, as far as I can tell, to refer to the mere withholding of reciprocity — whereas, the post was (I think) addressed to the imposition of criminal penalties for unlawful conduct. The actions you have specified, essentially a failure to “share,” would not give rise to “punishment” in that sense — indeed, would not give rise even to civil liability, since Anglo-American civil law draws a bright-line distinction between (enforceable) legal and (unenforceable) moral obligation. (For that matter, I hardly think it warrants consideration whether a moocher or cheapskate is acting under duress or insanity before we decide to give him the cold-shoulder.)

          Unlike the vampire bats, we humans have both highly-evolved communication skills (including oral language subject to express transmission) as well as complex, interweaving economic relationships. Thus, we are able to opt in or out of reciprocal relationships, and our survival rarely hinges upon the reciprocal pint. Accordingly, so long as each party knows where the other stands from the get-go, declining to enter such reciprocal relationships hardly merits “punishment” — however one defines that term.

          As to whether I expect someone in a pub automatically to reciprocate, that depends. If it’s my nephew and his girlfriend home on break from university — or the geezer down the street who’s living on a pension — I wouldn’t. (To the contrary, I would try to avoid it, so long as that could be done without drawing attention and embarrassing the other party.) I also don’t think that the hail-fellow-well-met who stands the house a round in celebration of his winning the Daily-Double expects all present to return the favor — or at least I hope not. When it comes to my old mates, or potential new ones, I would likely give them the benefit of the doubt (allowing as how they might be suffering under a bit or duress or mental daftness, or maybe just down on their luck) and stand them a couple of rounds before writing them off as skinflints for failing to reciprocate. After all, taking a tit-for-tat, strict quid pro quo approach to standing a bloke a round seems to defeat the spirit of comradery that prompted the gesture in the first place.

          So cheers, Roq, and enjoy a pint on me!

  5. Michael Day
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    I’ve only really been thinking about free will in a serious way since reading your site, but the one thing I can’t reconcile in your argument is this:
    You say, “I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people”. How, then, can any form of punishment serve as a deterrent (i.e., how can a person’s future choice be be changed due to the influence of an observed punishment?) Am I not understanding the nuances of this?

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:37 am | Permalink

      If we are influenced into doing things by our genes and by the environment they operate in then (what else is there) then deterrence is a part of the environment, that our mental processes have access to when they make decisions.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        To say merely that “Telling someone what they ought to do is viable because such input still influences behavior” isn’t enough. Because all sorts of wrong statements and bad arguments all influence behavior – e.g. the spoutings of fundamentalist religions.

        So we have to be able to distinguish our arguments about which choices to make as good ones vs bad ones. But from the incompatibilist stance exemplified by Jerry there seems to be a problem. The logic of recommending one action over the other seems to break down. It seems to amount to “You don’t *really* have a choice between A and B due to it having been pre-determined. Now that I’ve told you that, I’m going to recommend which choice you ought to make…(e.g. don’t steal that money).”

        So it’s not whether we can merely make noises from our mouths that might influence one another: it’s whether we can make good arguments over bad arguments, giving the reasons WHY we ought to choose A over B.
        And while I’ve seen Jerry’s responses they tend to be along the “Our recommendations nonetheless are an influence on behavior” which, for reasons above, doesn’t solve the incoherence/conflict. (I may of course have missed some other of Jerry’s ideas on the subject).


        • Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

          I don’t see what is incoherent about it. What is the difference between “making noises from our mouths that might influence one another” and “making arguments from our mouths that might influence one another”? Either way you are using a physical thing (e.g. sound) to alter another person’s brain, thereby decreasing the probability that the person will do a particular thing. It is no different from altering the code of a chess program in order to affect the decisions it makes in future games. Would you say that chess programs have “free will”?

          • Vaal
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink


            The incoherency derives from the fact that
            if you are simultaneously saying “you don’t really have a choice” and “you ought to make THIS choice” then you have produced an incoherency, not a good argument.

            And don’t we want to be able to give good arguments for our positions? Simply “making noises to one another” and noting this can change behaviors doesn’t tell us WHICH arguments are good or bad and why.

            We want to say to religious people: It really is better for your beliefs to track the evidence from reality, rather than holding a belief and trying to conform the facts to fit that belief.

            And a theist may want to say “No, Faith is a virtue!”

            So what reasons can we give for one side over another? If all we are left with is being able to say “Well, I’ve just uttered some sounds that might alter your behavior” how would THAT establish who was right and wrong? The theist can say the same thing.

            There needs to be a criteria for good vs bad reasons to believe things, good and bad arguments, and if the ONLY reason you can give for making a claim is “Well, it’s a noise that might influence someone’s behavior” then you’ve left no actual grounds for having the better argument, the better reasoning, over any other argument.*

            Is it more clear what I’m getting at now?



            • Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

              I agree that rational arguments are what we want.

              But I think what you’ve written here is irrelevant to the issue at hand. The “noises from our mouths” WILL be influential on others’ behavior whether those noises are rational arguments or not.

              I think the word “choice” is getting in the way here. It seems incoherent to say “you have no choice, but you should choose this.” It doesn’t seem incoherent if reformulated thus: “your genes/environment/etc compel you to act a certain way, I hope that the environmental input I give you in the form of a verbal argument compels you to act in this certain way.”

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

              Hi Vaal. I think we’ve gone around in circles about this point a lot, but here we go again…

              You wrote:

              The incoherency derives from the fact that
              if you are simultaneously saying “you don’t really have a choice” and “you ought to make THIS choice” then you have produced an incoherency, not a good argument.

              There is no incoherence here. If a computer A is programmed to optimize certain outcomes, and it has various sensors used to obtain input, it makes choices, and can make no other choice. Another computer B, perhaps with better programming or better data might analyze the choices of the first computer and say it should have made a different choice. If the software were smart enough and had the right protocols, computer B could share its results with A and A could learn from it and make a better choice next time using new information.

              Humans are no different, except much smarter, better at sharing information, and better at learning and evaluating outcomes. Our choices today are much different from what they were years ago, and will be different again months or years from now. But now they can’t be different from what they are because they are based deterministically on who we are.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

              It is not so much an “incoherency” as perhaps a paradox. Even if the words are in the form of an appeal to rational reasons and ask the listener to make a “choice,” they merely become part of the listener’s aural environment and, thus, have the capacity to have an impact on his subsequent acts (especially if the spoken words form an “effective” aspect of that environment). This does not eo ipso confer “choice” (or “free will,” if you prefer) upon the listener.

              An analogy to a similar paradox may assist: In a courtroom, we prohibit so-called “hearsay” — viz. out-of-court statements offered for their truth — but allow so-called “verbal acts,” out-of-court statements that are legally significant in their own right (for example, a party’s “offer” or “acceptance” in a contract case). In certain estate cases, it is important to establish which of two people involved in an accident died first (or, as lawyers inevitably put it, which “pre-deceased” the other). One way of establishing that fact is to prove that one person spoke (i.e., engaged in a verbal act) after the other expired. Evidence of a such a verbal act is admissible even if the words spoken were “I’m still alive” — even though, that is, the statement “I’m still alive” is being offered to prove that the declarant was “still alive” at the time (and, thus, is seemingly being offered “for its truth” and, thus, hearsay), the same way that the opposite statement, “I’m dead,” would also be admissible to prove the person spoke (and was, thus, still alive).

              Similarly, the words “you should make this choice for this very good reason” become part of the listener’s aural environment — and may have a deterministic impact on the listener’s subsequent conduct (either pro or con the course of conduct recommended) — but do not thereby confer any type of libertarian free choice upon the listener. Paradoxical? Maybe. But “incoherent”? Not (I think).

        • Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          Chess computers make choices and their decisions arise from the “thinking” they did after their opponent played their last move. It was Deep Blue that defeated Kasparov, not it’s programmer, or a chain of events leading back to the beginning of time. Could Deep Blue have played otherwise? Sure and if Kasparov had played different moves it would have done so.

          • Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            So, just to be clear, you ARE saying that chess programs have free will, correct? And what about the computerized opponents that I fight against in Street Fighter? Do they have free will too? What about the final boss in Donkey Kong? Just checking to make sure that this is actually what you believe.

            And one more thing. You write “It was Deep Blue that defeated Kasparov, not it’s programmer, or a chain of events leading back to the beginning of time.” Here is where I would disagree with you. Deep blue AND it’s programmer AND the history of the universe all causally contributed to Deep Blue’s decisions. Why? Because if either the program, the programmer, or the history of the universe had been different, Deep Blue’s decisions would have been different. Similarly, if either my genes, my environment, or the history of the universe had been different, my “decisions” would have been different. Given that all my decisions are the causal product of my genes, my environment, and the laws of physics, none of which I chose, where is the “freedom” exactly?

          • Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            Deep Blue’s moves would not have been different if the universe was different, they’d only be different if Kasparov had played different moves. If you took Deep Blue and moved her into another deterministic universe with somewhat different starting conditions to this one (but the same laws of physics as they apply to computation) to ours she would still have played the same moves.

            I make no claims about free will, since I don’t think that it’s a term that has a sufficiently well defined meaning in the everyday language that we share. Consequently, any usage of it leads to confusion based on semantic differences.

  6. Gordon Hill
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Johnathan Haidt has spent his career investigating moral psychology. His latest, The Righteous Mind, is worth reading for those interested in the scientific exploration of what constitutes the field. The Amazon page is at

  7. Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Specifically *moral* responsibility as it’s usually thought of is that which justifies receiving one’s just deserts: praise and punishment are obligatory – deserved – because of the act alone, independently of their consequences.

    Philosopher Neil Levy defines moral responsibility this way at the start of his interview at Philosophy Bites: “Well, as I use moral responsibility, it’s the property that makes agents appropriate targets of blame and praise and maybe even punishments and perhaps benefits. An agent is morally responsible if they performed an action and they deserve some kind of treatment on that basis, not on the basis of consequentialist considerations, not because it’s good for society or good for anybody else, but because they deserve it.” His host Nigel Warburton calls this “a fairly standard view of moral responsibility.” Tamler Sommers defines it this way – as essentially involving non-consequentialist desert – at the start of Relative Justice.

    So the non-consequentialist essence of moral responsibility (MR) is the perfect justification and basis for retributive punishment, what Jerry and other consequentialists are concerned to get rid of. Interestingly, Dennett is now a consequentialist and against retribution (a relatively new development, see his review of Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility), but thinks MR and just deserts can be made sense of on purely consequentialist grounds.

    The question (somewhat parallel to the free will debate) is whether MR can be naturalized, and how. Is it an essentially dualist concept that should be dropped altogether, or can we usefully keep the term while dropping its libertarian connotations? Waller champions the first approach, Dennett the latter.

    • Bob Carlson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      The issue is also discussed in a book I acquired after seeing your recommendation in an earlier post: The Nonsense of Free Will: Facing up to a false belief, by British lawyer, Richard Oerton. The book also discusses the compatibilist vs. incompatibilist position on the free will issue and says “…the compatibilists are trying to maintain their belief in free will by closing their eyes to the real problem, trying to make the best of a bad job.”

  8. Patrick
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I’m not 100% on this because the word “moral” is so nearly empty of content that I’m never sure if I’m talking past other people when its being used, but…

    Suppose we decided that the word “delicious” was useful, for similar reasons. In reality, all we have are chemicals interacting with chemical sensors, creating reinforcement or aversion stimuli in an organism evolved to seek out certain chemicals in certain proportions in order to sustain itself. So what does the word “delicious” add? It just confuses matters, by making people think that “deliciousness” is a trait of an item of food, instead of a nearly incoherent concept that confuses the source of our reactions.

    But… at the same time, we’re stuck with bodies that have evolved to function in this manner. And “deliciousness” is a useful term for discussing things. Sure, its really just an artifact of a sensory overlay we’ve evolved. But its a helpful one, because it maps to something we need to reference.

    Morality seems like it may be the same. Sure, its just an overlay for referring to a set of sensations we experience when certain cognitive faculties are invoked- empathic response, fairness response, etc. But that overlay isn’t going to go away just because we don’t talk about it. So maybe we should continue using the term.

    Or… maybe we should avoid it at all costs, because the emotional responses that invoke feelings of moral response map so poorly to our calm, reasoned considerations of action and consequence that the further we push those emotional moral responses away from our thinking, the better.

    I don’t know yet.

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      I like that analogy. “Deliciousness” is similarly subjective and non-absolute.

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Surely most of us understand what is meant by saying that murder, theft etc. are immoral. And surely criminals are well aware of the immorality of their actions when they commit crimes. And none of that requires some higher power to understand. It may be that admissions of regret in court are often insincere, but I doubt that the criminals don’t understand what they should be sorry for. People *know* when they are behaving dishonorably, it’s an inbuilt part of our nature to know. And that’s why psychopaths are so scary.

  9. Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    So “morality” is another word that you want to ditch from the English language?

    Consider two scenarios: (1) A person makes an honest accounting mistake that costs a company money. (2) The person deliberately alters the accounts for fraudulent gain.

    In both cases the person is “responsible”. Most of us would agree that in Case 2, but not in Case 1, the person deserves punishment. Also punishment serves as a deterrent to Case 2, but not Case 1.

    I would say that in Case 2 the person is “morally responsible” (whereas in Case 1 he is responsible but not morally responsible). The term “morally” here refers to deliberate acts that are affected by deterrence.

    What’s the alternative? Ditch “morality” from the language, as tainted by dualism and religion, and then invent another word that amounts pragmatically to the same thing in terms of who you punish?

    (Yes I know, some people define “morality” to refer only to acts of dualistic freewill, but that’s just silly considering that dualistic freewill does not exist whereas human moral feelings most certainly do.)

    • Felix B
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Wich boss would need to or want to use the sentence:

      -Who is MORALLY responsible for this accounting mistake?!!

      Who is responsible? would be the question and then the follow up would be was it deliberate or accidental etc.
      Morally responsible just means it as affects on peoples wellbeing which it obviously has all the time.

      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        I think any boss would ask that question.

        Perhaps not in those precise words, but the boss would certainly appreciate the distinction between Coel’s two examples.

        • Felix B
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          Musical beef..
          You agree that most bosses wont use the word morally but they would use the words intentional or unintentional. So why do you need the word morally?
          There is no need. It is just a word that sounds good and for most people has no clear meaning.
          Better off to skip this word and use words that has clear meanings.


          Is there any difference in saying:

          - It is morally wrong to kill people.
          - It is wrong to kill people.

          There is no difference, it means the same. When everybodody say something is wrong they mean morally wrong because there is no other general wrong.

          • Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

            There is another “general wrong”: the one Coel outlined in the first scenario. The accountant did something wrong. But it was not an immoral wrong as in the second scenario.

          • Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

            You seem to be arguing more for simply not using the word “moral”.

            Coel is concentrating more on the concept the word represents. (And that it’s as fine a word as any to to the job.)

    • neil
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

      In law, this would come down to “intent”. That said, I think moral and immoral are perfectly good words that can be used by atheists without apology.

      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

        I think moral and immoral are perfectly good words that can be used by atheists without apology.

        Agreed. Moral sentiments are a basic part of the biology of social mammals (just as aesthetic sentiments and emotions are), and I’m willing to bet that we’ve had them for millions of years.

        Ideas about god, religion and dualism are superificial commentaries about our nature, nothing more. By all means over-turn those superficial commentaries, but trying to do so by first over-turning basic parts of our nature such as morals is doing it the wrong way and will get nowhere.

        This may be more obvious from Europe, compared to an America still steeped in religiose commentary.

        Morality can only be understood as grounded in biology, not in religion and not in philosophy either.

        • Lyndon
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          “trying to do so by first over-turning basic parts of our nature such as morals is doing it the wrong way and will get nowhere.”

          But this is where confusion proceeds. What is the basic part of our nature? Is it the emotional reaction to a certain social outcome, think of the display of the monkey to the grape/cucumber fairness? That may be nature as such. Or is it your emotional reaction and belief of “wrongness” that a 35 year old had sex with a 16 year old (sorry bad example)? The latter more complex “morality,” which certainly gets refiltered into core emotional structures of our self that we feel upon seeing something “immoral,” is something far more complicated and relative to the culture you happen to inhabit. That is not to say that our cultural claims of morality is problematic or inculcating problematic emotions of “moral revulsion” into people, only that is not some stable “nature” within us. As we try to come to grips with who we are, I think there is going to be benefit to separating these things, from understanding emotional structures of evolved “moral reactions,” from the complexity and channeling of those “moral reactions” into our specific cultural consideration and social organizing.

          I would argue that the way we can best understand these processes, the dance between evolutionarily evolved emotion reactions and the enculturation/socialized emotions and beliefs that any individual has and that we have collectively as a society decided on (kind of), is going to require that we humble our selves. One of the ways we do that is opening up language so that we can continue to *see* that dance. And the term “morality” is probably something that for most takes both those aspects, combines them together, and asks us to see and to feel the world as simply “RIGHT” and “WRONG,” that is that morality is simply woven into the world and into our selves. Which it isn’t, it is a far more complicated concept and structure than that.

        • PascalsGhost
          Posted May 4, 2013 at 1:40 am | Permalink

          I think the US thing must be it. My jaw drops reading the comments on this site. Where I come from almost everyone I know is non-religious and still talk about free will (meaning free from coercion!), morality, moral responsibility etc. This is why the sort of mad-dog eliminativism worries me… the message being conveyed by certain prominent atheists won’t be interpreted as “dualism is false” but “there is no right or wrong, fatalism is true” and other such nonsense.

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I think I actually would want to punish the person in Case 1. Whenever someone makes a mistake like that, they tend to get suspended, demoted, or fired. Sure, that’s not as severe a punishment as prison, but it’s all on a continuum of things we do to deter behavior we don’t like. So I think the dichotomy is bogus, and neither of the people in Case 1 or 2 should be deemed “morally” responsible. They both just happened to possess brains that made them do one thing or another, and the main reason we’d punish them is to try to alter those brains, not because they “deserve” it in any deep sense.

  10. Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    I’m really glad to see your response to the ‘”punish” the innocent’ worry. Here’s another step in the dialectic.

    If we put criminals in jail because we’re depriving them of the opportunity to commit future offenses, what we’re doing is putting them in jail because we think there’s a high probability that they will commit a future crime. Why does this not also justify putting in jail other, innocent people who have a high probability of committing a crime? Suppose we get a perfected sociology that can predict, say, that if Smith hangs out with criminals, grows up in poverty in a certain neighborhood, has a certain genetic sequence, and so on, she is very likely (more likely than the baseline recidivism rate for all crimes) to commit some crime. Do we put her in jail pre-emptively? (It’s also arguable, by the way, that at least the current system is ludicrously bad at “rehabilitation.”)

    More importantly, perhaps: You’re right that a well-known policy of “punishing” the innocent would create lots of harms. But your justification still permits individual people in the small scale to personally implement the policy of “punishing” the innocent, and simply not reveal the policy.

    More importantly still, sometimes the consequences to society are the great good in question. See Eduardo Rivera-López’s paper “The moral murderer. A (more) effective counterexample to consequentialism,” in which he argues that a true consequentialist should commit a capital crime and get caught.

    • Gary W
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Why does this not also justify putting in jail other, innocent people who have a high probability of committing a crime?

      Conspiracy to commit a crime at some future time is itself a crime, with criminal penalties possibly including incarceration. The conspirator is considered to be guilty of criminal wrongdoing even though he has not actually done any tangible harm to anyone.

      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but Tom’s comment included nothing about conspirators. Tom is talking about people who have done *nothing* wrong, including conspiring, but are simply genetically/environmentally predisposed to criminal activity.

        • Gary W
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          No, he’s talking about “putting [people] in jail because we think there’s a high probability that they will commit a future crime.” We wouldn’t have any legal basis for doing that unless we made it a crime for someone to merely be in a state that creates a high probability that he will commit a future crime. Just as we have already made conspiracy a crime.

          • Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

            As you stated yourself, conspirators are not only likely to committ a crime, they already have. If you’re trying to draw an analogy between conspirators and people who are simply genetically/environmentally predisposed to committ a crime, I don’t think it works.

            Planning a crime is not anything like being born and raised in a rough neighborhood and having a low IQ.

          • Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

            Hi Gary W.,

            As musical beef pointed out, I’m talking about someone who hasn’t committed a crime, yes.

            You’re exactly right that there’d be no legal basis for putting someone in jail just because they’re highly likely to commit a crime–and that is precisely the problem I’m identifying for the consequentialist ‘deprivation’ account of punishment.

            The deprivation account says that if S commits a crime, we should put S in jail to deprive S of the opportunity to commit future crimes. Why don’t we put other (innocent) people in jail to prevent them from committing crimes? Presumably because we think S is more likely than a non-offender to commit future crimes. Therefore, our underlying principle seems to be that

            if S is very likely to commit a future crime, we put S in jail.

            But as I’m pointing out, that applies even to some legally innocent people.

            (Objection: ‘This policy will make people unhappy.’ Reply: Putting criminals in jail makes criminals and their families unhappy, but we do it anyway. Rejoinder: ‘But it makes society in general happy that dangerous people are locked away.’ Reply to the rejoinder: Then it should make people in society happy that dangerous people are locked away, even if they haven’t committed crimes yet.)

            Those who think we should not put legally innocent people in jail, even if they have a high probability of committing a crime, will have to reject the standard consequentialist ‘deprivation’ account of legal punishment.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    I think we both agree on this. I still maintain it is important to remove someone from society who is mentally ill and dangerous over punishing them because punishment won’t change their behaviour (although their removal may be a punishment of sorts though it’s a consequence of removing them). I suspect I am splitting hairs on this one somewhat. Deterrence for unacceptable behaviour shows to work (I argue it’s why we came up with religion way back as a society in the first place) on those that are not mentally ill (sociopaths etc.) if set up appropriately and I agree that it is an essential tool.

    At the same time, we should encourage acceptable behaviour and reward extraordinarily good people so punishing innocent people would contravene that just as rewarding ill behaved people would encourage the wrong behaviour.

    I feel like the above is all self evident and feel somewhat silly typing it out.

    Morality seems to be a matter of semantics at this point – I’ve often felt uncomfortable with the word perhaps because I’m more of a utilitarian. If I have empathy and I hurt someone, I feel bad and know it’s wrong. This doesn’t negate the need to use ethics (and empathy) to puzzle out the tough questions (feeling bad may not be enough when harm may have to be inflicted for the greater good). We can continue to call it morality but it isn’t appealing to a godly good (though I never saw it that way…it just can be messy in it’s abstraction).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

      I apologize for my incorrect use of the comma should be *its – damn you English! :)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        apostraphe… sigh

        • Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          Oh, dear. Perhaps it’s best if I don’t point out that it’s “apostrophe”…

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

            I know….it was an apostrophe apostasy. :) I have had such a brain fog day today.

            • Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

              Let me tell you about brain fog…

              I can’t think straight until I’ve had several (we’re talking high double-digits) ounces of strong coffee.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

        But is it moral to condemn an entire country to eternal damnation because circumstances caused them to misapply the comma? ;)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          Ha ha I considered my curse could be interpreted that way. :)

  12. Vaal
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    I can see what Jerry is getting at and I’ve agreed with a number of his points concerning how to treat criminals, etc.

    But I don’t yet see how his pieces all fit together comfortably. As Coel mentions, whether we throw out the word “morality” or not, we still end up needing to replace it with a word or concept that does essentially the same job.

    First it seems we need “ought/should” statements to separate the type of claims we are making. For instance, we all seem to agree that if I say “Many children are starving in Africa” that this is a descriptive statement and does not equate to a prescriptive statement If someone said “Oh, therefore you mean children OUGHT to be starving in Africa” that person would be making a bizarre, incorrect leap. We also need statements that recommend actions – oughts.

    And then, isn’t it the case there are things we “ought” and “ought not” to do?
    This would seem essential. Even if you wanted to influence someone’s behavior, wouldn’t you wish to be able to argue “you OUGHT to make this choice and NOT THAT choice?”

    Further, is it not just as instructive to explain why a choice that has been made was the wrong one? “You OUGHT NOT have chosen to steal that person’s car…and here is why..”

    And don’t we need to recognize categories our “should/ought” statements? If someone says “Should/ought I use this knife?” we’d want to know what for, before answering. If it’s a good knife for the person’s goal of cutting a steak, we may say “yes, you ought to use that knife.” But if they are asking if they ought to use the knife to kill their mother, we’d say “no.” Why is that? We seem to recognize categories: one in which our oughts recommend actions that will fulfill our strictly personal goals, but others that seem to be recommendations with how to treat one another.

    And once we start talking about all these distinctions, and coming up with solutions and answers, what would we be doing if not “morality” anyway, in it’s generally understood umbrella form?

    And then…if we are making what essentially amount to moral recommendations and appraisals of action, wouldn’t this leave us making useful distinctions of the type Coel made above? Looking at whether someone’s actions were a what-was-formaly-called-moral category, or another category?

    So, I just don’t see how Jerry gets around
    dropping morality without having to essentially replace it with much the same thing. You have all the same issues left that required the moral theorizing in the first place.


    • Alex T
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how this has anything to do with criminal justice.

      Jerry is saying that some behaviours are wrong (perhaps morally wrong) but that the criminals do not have “moral responsibility”. That is, they did something harmful or morally wrong, we should act to prevent further harm (incarceration, rehabilitation, deterrence) but that we should not say that their actions come from some innate badness.

      It has nothing to do with morality as a whole, nor with is/ought, and certainly nothing with charity. You aren’t arguing with what he has written here but with an argument of your own invention.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        Alex, I can see your point because I don’t think I made myself clear by the end how this was directly related to Jerry’s argument. Jerry did say he was not (at this point anyway) arguing we need to throw out the concept or term “morality” itself.

        However the point I was driving toward is that, in support of what Coel wrote, it still appears we need a word or concept that does much the same as “moral responsibility” anyway.

        Just as the concept of morality seems useful (if not necessary) for categorizing our ought statements (our recommendations for action), I’m not sure how you suddenly escape it when it comes to categorizing notions of “responsibility.”

        So say we keep (as Jerry admits we may do) the notion of the Morally Right Thing To Do. How is it this would not also inform our appraisals of someone’s responsibility?

        Take the issues of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and it’s involvement in the child molestation accusations. This is clearly a moral issue that we atheist pounce on in blaming the Church.

        In scenario 1 we have a Catholic Bishop under whose supervision is a priest who molests a child. But the priest’s predilection had always been hidden and there was never any evidence to indicate the priest might be a danger. If the priest molests a child the Bishop may have been in part “responsible” for his role in placing the priest in a position making this possible.
        In fact, many of our actions may have been indirectly (or directly) responsible for causing someone else misery, though we could not have known about it or predicted it.

        But we recognize this is not the same as:
        The predilection of the priest to molest children was very well known, through past offenses, so it was reasonable to presume the priest would be a danger to children.
        If the Bishop had THAT information (like some of them did) THEN he would have
        knowingly chosen one action – putting the priest among children – over another possibility – e.g. isolating the priest and involving the authorities.

        In both cases the Bishop is responsible for where he placed the priest, but there seems a difference in the character of that responsibility: one type of responsibility did not violate moral injunctions (you can’t do so presuming the lack of evidence available to the Bishop), the other did (the Bishop had knowledge which ought to have altered his choice).

        And if the difference is a moral difference, then why does it not follow we would categorize the second scenario in terms of “moral responsibility” vs the type of responsibility that does not involve following or breaking moral injunctions?

        Where does the logic of moral talk stop?


        • Alex T
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          He is saying that we are responsible for our actions and that we can and should be held to account for them. He is also supporting justice systems and repeatedly lists reasons for this. And I think it’s clear that our laws and justice will be based on moral principles.

          I think he is saying that when people break morals or laws, we do not punish them because they are immoral due to a bad soul. The don’t have free will and made a conscious choice to do evil. Instead they are acting as they must act and we should act with compassion to either change their behaviours, to isolate them to protect others, or possibly to serve as a deterrent.

          • Vaal
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink


            Yes but that doesn’t answer the question.
            We already (Jerry and others) agree that morality have to do with having a bad “soul” or other incoherent notions. So the issue remains, in the context of retaining the concept of moral categories to prescribe “good” behaviors, why does this not extend to describing categories of responsibility?

            Surely there is something of significance to note about the type of responsibility I described in the two Bishop scenarios. We are often faced with the fact that the very same action would compel moral condemnation given a change of knowledge or power. And these seem to be divided by when we are responsible for acts in a way that violates moral injunctions or not.

            So why isn’t “moral culpability/responsibility” a useful distinction to carry on? If we can use the concept of morality without appealing to a soul or to indeterminism in the first place to recommend right actions, why can’t we employ the category of moral responsibility on the same grounds?


            • Alex T
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

              We already (Jerry and others) agree that morality have to do with having a bad “soul” or other incoherent notions. So the issue remains, in the context of retaining the concept of moral categories to prescribe “good” behaviors, why does this not extend to describing categories of responsibility?

              I don’t know what game you’re playing at. You know full well that Jerry and others think that some behaviours are bad/harmful/criminal (call it “moral” if you wish, call it whatever if you don’t).

              It’s juvenile to act as if you’re dealing with a critical flaw in logic when you’re really just confused over semantics.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink


                Jerry wrote “To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea.”

                I’m asking how, then, are we to categorize different levels or types of “responsibility?”

                I gave you an example to show how we’d normally notate the difference in responsibility for the same type of act and asked for your answer. And how it would be consistent, if Jerry allows moral injunctions, to apply “moral responsibility” in one case.

                If you just can’t see the relevance of this and think the only worthwhile response is facile characterizations (“juvenile”) then, as per Jerry’s wishes for good-faith discussion, I guess we’re done.


                (I’m quite open to Jerry et al being right about this, but like anyone else I want to see a coherent, convincing argument for the position).

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            I’m wondering if there we have a bias against the word moral because of its “god-y” associations. I sort of cringe at the word itself in the same way as I cringe at “spritual” because of it’s new age-yness. Replacing “morals” with “principles” sounds better to me.

            Or is this a bigger issue I’m missing?

            • Alex T
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

              I just finished “The God Argument” by Grayling and he makes the distinction between ethics (how individuals can pursue a good life) and morals (prohibitions for groups to avoid harming others). I think it makes a lot of sense. For instance, taking time for solitude and spending quality time with loved ones may be ethical but not moral. Killing people is immoral (and probably unethical).

              Personally, I think “moral” is a good and useful word, even though it has some unpleasant religious overtones. In this case, I am with Jerry – I think we can and should have a justice system to prevent violations of a moral code, but that we should not treat individuals as if they violated the codes because they are bad, evil, sinners or anything other than human – they should be treated with respect & compassion. Punishment should be questioned and retribution should be removed entirely.

              I believe that’s what we’re talking about, drawing a distinction between responsibility (the actions we did) and “moral responsibility” (the evil in our souls).

  13. Howard Kornstein
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I believe that you are compounding the confusions in your position on morality and free will even further when you try to create this distinction of “moral responsibility. You say there is a “right and wrong” but you infer that these are only things that are essentially defined by what society chooses to punish or not punish – i.e. expected behavioural norms and associated rewards and penalties. What a diminishment of the nature of right and wrong this is; a rejection of all the basic concepts of ethics and “the good life” that has threaded through Western philosophy since it’s beginnings. I hold with Dawkins “moral Zeitgeist” where innate human social tendencies toward reciprocation, altruism, and fairness and personal reputation merge with a continually developing social and ethical consensus of what good behaviour is. Dennett is right, society needs this understanding of what moral behaviour and moral responsibility is, otherwise we diminish “right and wrong” to such a degree that it allows individuals to justify anything that they can get away with.

    • Howard Kornstein
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      One further point…. if we abolish moral responsibility we also abolish the rationale of ever having any feelings of guilt if we transgress a “moral code”, as we have no such moral responsibility that falls upon our head for the breach. Often it is not just the concern of breaching a moral code and the attendant penalty that occurs if caught that deters a “crime”, it is our aversion to the pains of guilt that will still attend even if no one catches us.
      Thanks Jerry, for this all license to be bad!

      • Alex T
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        Jerry isn’t advocating anarchy, and I don’t think he’s saying we don’t have morals. You’re fighting ghosts in your own head.

  14. Myron
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    “One dramatic way to characterize the notion of ultimate responsibility is by reference to the story of heaven and hell: ‘ultimate’ moral responsibility of such a kind that, if we have it, it makes sense to propose that it could be just to punish some of us with torment in hell and reward others with bliss in heaven. It makes sense because what we do is absolutely up to us. The words ‘makes sense’ are stressed because one certainly does not have to believe in the story of heaven and hell in order to understand the notion of ultimate responsibility that it is used to illustrate. Nor does one have to believe in the story of heaven and hell in order to believe in ultimate responsibility (many atheists have believed in it). One does not have heard of it.
    In the end, luck swallows everything. This is one way of putting the point that there can be no ultimate moral responsibility, given the natural, strong conception of responsibility that was characterized [above]. Relative to that conception, no punishment or reward is ever ultimately just or fair, however natural or useful or otherwise humanly appropriate it may be or seem.
    The facts are clear, and they have been known for a long time. When it comes to the metaphysics of free will, André Gide’s remark is apt: ‘Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.’ It seems that the only freedom that we can have is compatibilist freedom. If —since—that is not enough for ultimate responsibility, we cannot have ultimate responsibility. The only alternative to this conclusion is to appeal to God and mystery—this in order to back up the claim that something that appears to be provably impossible is not only possible but actual.”

    (“Free Will,” by Galen Strawson. In The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward Craig, 286-294. London: Routledge, 2005. pp. 290-1+293-4)

    Recommended reading:

    * Strawson, Galen. 1994. “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” PDF:

  15. John K.
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Moral values can remain useful as a concept. There are some values that people hold that are important to being part of a society of humans. “Take efforts to recognize and minimize the suffering of others” for example. I think we are quite justified in holding this sort of value apart by labeling it a “moral” value. A person that rejects this value is likely going to be a societal problem, and it makes sense for a society to put pressure on those who disregard it. Law does not quite cover such values, since laws are largely procedural and specific in nature while moral values are more akin to overarching goals, to be considered alongside many factors.

    I will admit that religion has largely hijacked and corrupted the term, but I think it can still be of use if applied carefully.

  16. Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    I do not understand the issue that the above commentary displays about what word to use if the word “moral” is abandoned (and I am for abandoning it, on grounds of the ambiguity of meaning loaded into that word by sectarian theists who claim that it is [an allegedly] existential supernatural Almighty creator God who defines what constitutes “morality”).

    I mean, why does the word “ethical” (and the phrase “ethical behavior”) NOT PROMPTLY spring to mind as a superb secular replacement for “moral” (and “moral behavior”)???

    • Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      The term ethics has more of a connotation of conforming to some particular set of non fundamental rules as in say “medical ethics”, whereas a moral action is more one that conforms to our innate sense of what is right.

      But, morality doesn’t need to imply a code instilled by a higher power, rather it is founded on the intuitions we evolved in order to live with each other in a productive way and with minimal conflict. We shouldn’t (and in any case we probably can’t) try to change the language, just because some people don’t know how to use it.

      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        I think secular ethics can AND SHOULD comply with a bedrock fundamental ethical principle (one agreed-to by those who socially contract to treat each other ethically).

        The best proposal I (for one) have thus far heard for a bedrock fundamental secular ethical principle is:

        DO UNTO OTHERS AS THEY WANT TO BE DONE UNTO (Or Else Leave ‘Em The Heck Alone, At Least To The Extent That Those Others Will Leave You Alone).

        But that’s just me, I recognize that opinions vary (sometimes vehemently, watch and see).

  17. SA Gould
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    In self-defense it makes sense to recognize and defend against dangerous BEHAVIOR/ACTIONS and worry about their MOTIVES (whatever they might be) later.

  18. Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I’m envisioning Brunner Syndrome awareness marathons with participants wearing monoamine oxidase emblems.

  19. Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Uh, there was a line in there about punishing the innocent — what would be the purpose of that?

    • darrelle
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Jerry was referring to a standard argument against the consequentialist position. The arguments goes something like, “If you claim that a valid reason for punishing criminal actions is to provide a deterrent to criminal behavior by others in the future, by providing an example of what the consequences will be, then why not punish innocent people since by your argument it would have the same affect?”

      In the context of this type of argument you are supposed to consider that the general members of the society are unaware that the people being punished for crimes are actually innocent. You are to consider that the population is being deceived.

  20. Robert Bray
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Perhaps human actions (activities, motions, or whatever it is we do without free will) ought to be judged in relation to law as prosocial or antisocial, while the law itself is subject to social remodeling as we learn more about homo sapiens and the universe. Alex Rosenberg–and I find it strange that his name and his views are rarely to be found on this blog–speaks of a ‘core morality’ that evolution has brought about in us; his view here, as with that on free will and compatibilism, is very close to if not identical to professor Coyne’s. Removing socio- and psychopaths from ordinary society, whatever the prospects for their rehabilitation, is a strong social good in that it leaves the rest of us more ‘free’ to pursue the Eipcurean kind of happiness.

  21. Felix B
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I would like to know what peoples definition of “morallity” and “being morally responsible” is?
    In my view it is something like this:

    Morallity = A personal guideline of how to live and act to maximize the happiness and lower the suffering as much as possible in the world. I would say following the law usually fits in that guideline.

    Being morally responsible = The same as being responsible since all actions affect the wellbeing of people.

  22. W. Benson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Just an aside that seems relevant:
    Charles Darwin on page 27 of his M Notebook (opened on 15 July 1838) comments on Free Will (Darwin Online):
    Says Darwin, “thinking over these things, one doubts the existence of free will [;] everty action determined by heredetary [sic] constitution . . .” Later on the same page he notes that “chance governs” the fall of a coin, and “free will determines our throwing it up. — equall [sic] true for the two statements.”!
    I cannot imagine that this quote has not been cited in some earlier WEIT posting. I mention it here in the spirit of ‘least we forget.”

    • neil
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Boy, that Darwin guy shor was a bad speler.

      • W. Benson
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        Touché,my love.

  23. Eoin
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I’d agree with you, but physics has decreed otherwise.

    But I’m compelled ineluctably to also say this: the new world order you’re suggesting would mean changing almost everything. Not just doing away with retributive punishment. Almost *nothing* we do makes any sense if don’t have free will. You think your wife loves you? There can’t be love without choice. It just means physics has manipulated the atoms of her body to the effect that it performs certain actions, and as a consequence her consciousness experiences certain feelings.

    Sounds like a shitty world, if you ask me.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      I doubt people choose to love. I’ve never chosen to love. It has always been a surprise that came suddenly and irrationally, or slowly and unconsciously until one day you realize that without trying you have fallen in love with someone. Trying to force love always fails.

      There is a reason it is called “falling in love”, and you seem to be missing that here.

      Yes, my wife loves me, and I love her. Nothing in that is diminished by the way we arrived there, which was a series of accidents and involuntary desires driving a sequence of actions we can call choices, even though we did not have the freedom to choose other than the ways we were compelled to choose.

  24. DavidIsaac
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Granting the evidence against free will, that does not make us automatons.

    We are capable of change. The whole point of most modern psychotherapy is to help the individual learn how to recognize his or her unwanted actions or thought patterns early and interrupt them before they cause problems. Using our ability (metacognition?) to reflect on our thoughts and behavior is not easy, but makes change possible.

    None of this requires a god or religion, or a god-given “morality.” Empathy and other evolutionarily developed traits, however, are required.

  25. Gary W
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea.

    It adds concept of moral agency and all the associated ideas that govern human social relations — right, wrong, free will, choice, should, ought, blame, praise, guilt, innocence, deservedness, forgiveness, remorse, etc. These ideas are central to the way human beings think about and treat one another. I have no idea how anyone thinks human society could function effectively without them.

  26. Jeff Johnson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    The word “moral” is a very confusing word whose meaning is full of cognitive dissonance.

    We say it is not moral to kill. And yet we often use morality as a justification for killing.

    The two sides in a war both feel morally justified in their cause. Sometimes one might analyze such a conflict and conclude there is a rational basis for deciding one side is right and the other wrong, morally. But then there are other cases where it is just a tragedy, and it is very hard to extract any absolute right or wrong in such a conflict. Each side sees only its own point of view and not the other. Each side feels morally correct, even smugly so, and justifies all manner of killing as a moral cause.

    Our sense of morality seems to be relative to our sense of tribal belonging. Our intuitive sense of good and evil seems to have more to do with intent than actual actions, and acceptable intent means acting in the defense of the in-group, against the intruding threatening out-group. And these roles reverse if you are an insider of the out-group. There are many sane intelligent rational human beings who feel that bin Laden’s cause was a morally just one, and I think anyone who can not grasp this fact is not thinking openly and honestly about what the word morality means.

    My point is that the word “moral” does not necessarily deserve the reputation is has as a guarantor of goodness, and that it’s meaning is really not as clear as people want to believe.

    If I design a system to accomplish a task, and it incorporates some electronic components that are responsible for a particular sub-function, how do I feel when that component fails to meet its responsibility? I don’t feel angry and judgmental of that part. I don’t rip it out of the system and throw it against the wall, and stomp it into the ground in a rage of moral vengeance. I calmly and rationally try to understand what went wrong. And assuming this part is very valuable, I want to do everything possible to rehabilitate it and correct it so that it might fulfill its role and meet its responsibilities in the system.

    I do not hold the failing part morally responsible. It is merely responsible, and failing. I don’t blame it in the sense of heaping shame on it for not making the right choices. I blame it in the very simple sense of assigning responsibility for failure, which is blame as something of an accounting for cause and effect relations. Again the fluidity of language, the flexible meaning of “blame”, “responsibility”, “accountability” are both a blessing and a curse.

    In that analogy I emphasized the value of the part, and the importance of rehabilitating rather than simply disposing and replacing, because in that way it can serve as a model for how we deal with punishment in human society. This is a more Buddhist kind of approach: calmly identify the problem, and with compassion and equanimity calmly find a solution. The goal is not to inflict pain, but to rehabilitate in whatever way works best. This can of course involve punishments and incentives that help reinforce good behavior (as it may be defined), but there is no special attachment to the idea of inflicting pain. What works at the least cost to all involved can be the goal.

    Moral retribution, the need to inflict pain and suffering to correct an error, are essential foundations of the monotheistic traditions.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      A note of clarification: what I’m definitely not saying is that there should be no ethics or rationally based prescriptive norms.

      I’m saying that morality carries with it a historical baggage that is pretty ugly. Morality has a more useful place in ape societies, and pre-literate early human societies, than it does in modern human ones. The emotions connected with moral superiority, moral judgment, and moral retribution are almost exclusively violent and hostile. We can try to focus on the kinder gentler side of morality, such as honesty, patience, generosity, and other virtues, but we can’t easily escape the fact that when it comes to punishment, morality becomes the vehicle and justification for lots of ugly behavior.

  27. neil
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Responsibility: Taking an action that causes harm.

    Moral Responsibility: Taking an action that causes harm knowing the harm that would be caused. This applies whether you have free will or not.

    A child shoots his brother with his father’s pistol not knowing the consequences of his action. Responsible, but not morally responsible.

    A adult man without any cognitive disorder shoots his bother knowing full well what he was doing. Responsible and morally responsible.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink


      I’m waiting on Jerry’s (or someone else’s) response to these examples. How else do we categorize these apparently different nature of the “responsibility” between two such scenarios?

      This question is especially pressing if one has already allowed for a moral domain of discourse in the first place – e.g. that we praise certain ways of treating one another as “good” and “bad” – moral talk.

      As in examples like the above, the different attitude we would have to the shooter in the second scenario would be, and should be, different. What explains this if it is NOT
      to do with moral behavior and hence if the difference in “responsibility” is NOT a moral difference? (Hence, useful to distinguish “moral responsibility” from other types of responsibility).

      I keep seeing pieces of our social concepts incompatibilists want to throw out, but I’m waiting for how they patch things back together coherently after that.


      (BTW, I don’t think compatibilism necessary leads to a division with Jerry/incompatibilists about how we ought to treat criminals).

    • Gary W
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Why does merely knowing that your act is harmful make you morally responsible for it? To be morally responsible, you need to both know that the act is wrong (not simply that it’s harmful) and to have the ability to act differently on the basis of that knowledge (i.e, you must have free will).

      • neil
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        You say tomayto, I say tomahto. It is pointless arguing semantics. There is a distinction, end of story. Labeling it with the word moral is common practice and understood widely, which is the purpose of language.

        • Gary W
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          Everything is “semantics.” Why do you think it makes sense to define moral responsibility for an act in terms of knowledge that the act is harmful? Merely knowing that an act is harmful (and wrong) is irrelevant unless you have the ability to act differently on the basis of that knowledge.

          • neil
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            The distinction between a child doing something in ignorance and an adult doing the same action with knowledge is NOT semantics. How we label the distinction is semantics. Everything is not semantics.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              See my reply to alan below.

          • Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            “Merely knowing that an act is harmful (and wrong) is irrelevant unless you have the ability to act differently on the basis of that knowledge.”

            It does not matter the “ability”, what matter is the “possibility”, in the sense that it is possible if there are many other people in the same situation that would act differently (for the better).

            Bad people may be inable to act as good people, but as there are many people who is able to be good in the same situation, then we have the ground to call them bad.

            To just throw away concepts that are good to predict human behaviour because of microscopic explanation seems to be as reducionist fundamentalism, which I define as a refusal to adopt high level explanations if there is some lower level explanation available.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              It does not matter the “ability”, what matter is the “possibility”, in the sense that it is possible if there are many other people in the same situation that would act differently (for the better).

              If you don’t have the ABILITY to choose not to fire the gun, then knowing that firing the gun is harmful is completely irrelevant to whether you are morally responsible for firing it. You cannot be morally responsible for an act that you have no control over, regardless of what you know about the effect of that act. You’re in exactly the same position as the child who doesn’t know that firing the gun is harmful.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Permalink


        I’d think it reasonable to presume in neil’s examples that in each case the shooter had the power to either shoot or not shoot the victim. So the power-to-choose aspect is assumed and remains constant. In which case it will be the knowledge of the consequences that will decide moral culpability.

        (See my example of the Bishop who has the power to assign priests certain positions, but whose moral culpability will ride on whether the Bishop did know or ought to have known about the bad consequences likely to follow his decisions).



        • Gary W
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          I’d think it reasonable to presume in neil’s examples that in each case the shooter had the power to either shoot or not shoot the victim.

          That’s not what he says. He explicitly says that he thinks the difference between being “responsible” for the shooting and being “morally responsible” for it is merely the knowledge that it is harmful. He doesn’t say anything at all about the power to choose either to shoot or not to shoot. In order to have that power, we must have free will. But neil claims that free will is irrelevant to moral responsibility. That’s why I think his analysis is completely confused.

          • neil
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

            Whatever anyone does, there are physical reasons why he or she does it. Whether that rules out what we commonly call “free will” is debatable. FWIIW, I think it does not. Moreover, I cannot see why it matters. If someone does something that they know will harm others, for whatever reasons, he is violating a moral code. The moral code need not be religious.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted May 4, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

              So you draw no distinction between a person who steals for profit and another who steals because his family has been kidnapped and will be harmed if he refuses to engage in the theft?

              • neil
                Posted May 4, 2013 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

                ??? Of course I would draw a distinction. There is nothing in that statement to suggest I wouldn’t.

                If a moral person were forced to hurt another in order to save herself or her family, I am sure she would view herself as violating a moral code, but she is being forced to under duress.

    • neil
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      And I would add, how is there no case for retribution? If someone knowingly harms a person, and that person then gets satisfaction from seeing the perpetrator harmed in response, why is that wrong? If enough people have those feelings, why should there not be retribution? Why should that satisfaction be denied them?

      And it does not matter whether there is free will or not. As they say in show biz, everyone has a sob story. If someone were to harm me or a loved one, I am sure there would be some ultimate cause, but so what? I don’t give a shit. I want to see him hurt back.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      At what point exactly do you cross the line between being responsible and being morally responsible? How does morally responsible differ from just having a greater degree of simple responsibility? How does responsibility, i. e. agreeing to be held accountable for harms done, differ from being “morally responsible”?

      I think the answer is that in a rational ethical system their is no difference in kind, only difference in degree. In the case of the adult it is fair to have higher expectations, and perhaps impose more costly punishments.

      But when you inject the concept “moral” into the situation you are using an ancient intuitive human calculus that sees evil creep into the equation, and reacts with revulsion, anger, hatred, and violence that is often in the modern world counter-productive though it must have served us well in more primitive times.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        “At what point exactly do you cross the line between being responsible and being morally responsible? “

        I’m not sure why you would suddenly have such a problem finding such a line when, I presume, you can generally find it in every day life.

        If you hire a contractor to build you a back deck and you fall through the boards the first time you use it, due to poor construction, choosing materials (wood, screws etc unsuited for the load) would you accept the same reasoning from your contractor to dismiss any culpability?

        “Look, I didn’t make the wood, or make the nails, screws and hammers used in the job, among many other factors. At what point can you say I would be responsible for the weakness of your deck?”

        Surely you wouldn’t accept this line of reasoning and just avoid deciding the contractor was responsible (and hence would owe you some recompense).

        You’d point out that his culpability lies in the types of choices he made, that he ought to have known that wood, those screws, that structure, would have failed. Hence he would bear responsibility for screwing up the job. Right?

        Now, this doesn’t mean the world isn’t messy and that there are always neat dividing lines. But this hasn’t stopped us from being able to point to certain clear instances of responsible in the form of “ought to have known/done better.”

        Same with moral responsibility. If we could reasonably expect someone to predict the bad outcome of his action (in terms of how it affects the welfare of someone else), could have taken another action avoiding that bad outcome, but did not, then we’d talk about assigning moral responsibility.

        We wouldn’t (usually) assign moral responsibility to decisions concerning actions that only concern personal interests (e.g. which menu item to order). The moral category of “oughts” and “responsibility” would be those typically in the realm normally associate with moral questions: how we ought to treat one another, etc.


        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think you understood me at all. There was nothing in my post about dismissing culpability. I clearly said it is fair to have higher expectations of an adult than a child, and it would be fair to have higher expectations of a professional carpenter than my uncle who is a bit handy around the house.

          The question was, at what point does the label “moral” attach to “responsibility”, and how is it different from a continuous gradation of responsibility and accountability?

          To me “moral responsibility” means someone is subject to, in addition to responsibility, accountability, and obligation, something extra like moral indignation, moral judgment made from a standpoint of moral superiority, and even moral outrage which translates into hatred and vengeance. I see morality as our emotional gut feelings of good and evil. Morality us what makes people demand the death penalty rather than life without parole, and morality makes people apologize for torture, tolerate violent prisons and a cruel system of incarceration. Taking away freedom while offering education and a sense of being human with real opportunities and an active stake in contributing to a lawful society is too good for offenders from the morally judging viewpoint. Incarceration must also inflict pain and misery to satisfy the mind of moral sanctity.

          In my viewpoint morality includes much Old Testament vengeance and puritanical disapprobation and social shaming, replete with a smug sense of superiority that the “moral” so wickedly indulge in when they exercise their morally superior disdain. To me the idea of “moral” responsibility, as opposed to just responsibility, is poisoned beyond repair. Why do we need to retain this idea of morality, as opposed to just responsibility, accountability, obligation, rational ethical principles and favorable virtues such as generosity, kindness, diligence, modesty, etc.?

          I simply can’t see where or why “moral” enters into Neil’s example.

          • Vaal
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:12 pm | Permalink


            “I don’t think you understood me at all.”

            Weren’t you were responding to a compatibilists notion of free will and asking how the line for moral responsibility would be found? I’m not sure how you would be understood as asking something else (and that is the question I answered).

            “I clearly said it is fair to have higher expectations of an adult than a child, and it would be fair to have higher expectations of a professional carpenter than my uncle who is a bit handy around the house.”

            But “higher expectations for different people” doesn’t seem to cover the issue, or do the work needed. We can have different expectations of the same person performing exactly the same action (or inaction), but tweaking the circumstances slightly (e.g. making the witness to a drowning toddler paralyzed or not – we would not blame him for inaction if he is paralyzed, but would blame him if he was able bodied).

            Maybe you’d want to say is “Well, we can simply re-cast such things in terms of having ‘higher expectations’ in one instance or the other.” But this just doesn’t seem very promising for organizing and labeling the types of expectations we have.
            For instance, “We have the higher expectation that Fred be able to dunk a basketball, but don’t hold these expectations for Barney.” Well, why? Because Fred is in the category of “Professional Basketball Player” and Barney is in the category of “Librarian.” We need short hand categories to quickly understand certain types of expectations anyway. And “morality” would just be those expectations that concern how we ought to treat one another (or something similar) – a category we’d need a concept and name for anyway.

            I DO see what you mean by the rest of your post about morality and it’s associations for some people. I’m gonna stop typing though because my fingers have had it.



  28. Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    I am with Dan Dennett in this debate, because I do not agree that the concept of morality needs the existence of “free choices” in the dualistic sense.

    It is obvious that what we call choice can be ultimately reduced to physical process which depends on brain structure and development and this is the main argument against the classical concept of “free will”. However, the microscopic understanding of entities does not make meaningless the emergent macroscopic concept in the context where those entities were first defined. Those concepts of free will and choices points towards macroscopically identifiable entities that were/are useful to predict/understand human behavior but whose fundamental mechanism where not know and hence, all the magical explanations.

    It is like saying the concept of life is meaningless after we have discovered its chemical foundations – remember that before it, we had the magical explanation in the Vital Essence theory, which had many adepts. What happened after that? We still recognize there is something called life because this is a useful distinction, but we do not need anymore to resort to magic to explain it.

    I think “free will” means “free as long as any factor external to the being does not make the choice”. Of course there will be borderline cases that will make the emergent theory fall apart: what about changing behaviour caused by brain tumor? Still, even if the tumor is physically internal to the patient one can still debate if it is really part of him, as the tumor obviously lack that fundamental character of live organism that the parts works as an unit with the others.

    Jump to the conclusion that free will does not exist because choices are products of microscopic process in the brain is just explain free will out choosing a scale where it is invisible. Something like asking the temperature of an hydrogen atom.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Just as the discovery that elan vital was a fiction of the human mind did not change reality one bit, the discovery that we don’t have any property in our decision making that enables us to arbitrarily branch between options at the whim of an uncaused freedom does not change reality one bit.

      You are talking as if something real would be lost if we stopped calling our deterministic flexible intelligence “free will”. The meaningfulness of nothing changes if we abandon the idea of “free will”. We simply stop using an antiquated and misleading phrase.

      To turn your analogy on its head, I see your argument on free will as equivalent to saying that abandoning usage of “elan vital” upon discovering it is not a real force or substance would somehow make us less alive.

      All that’s really going on here is that people called compatibilists have an emotional attachment to the idea of “free will”, so they have reassigned the conceptual target of the phrase to enable them to retain a cherished relic. This doesn’t add any new knowledge. It preserves a tradition that should have become obsolete by now.

      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink


        “You are talking as if something real would be lost if we stopped calling our deterministic flexible intelligence “free will”. The meaningfulness of nothing changes if we abandon the idea of “free will”. We simply stop using an antiquated and misleading phrase.”

        First, that paragraph is confusing because you talk, apparently interchangeably, about dropping both the phrase “free will” and the “idea” (I infer to mean the concept) of free will. You can keep an idea/concept but change the label if need be.

        The compatibilist argues that (hoo boy, how many times have we written this?) the concept of free will isn’t the same as the *explanation* for free will. Just as the concept of “life” isn’t the same as the explanation for how something comes to be alive. (Which is why we dropped elan vital).

        Free Will, then, is a phrase that stands as a collection of concerns: Am I really FREE to make a choice? amounts to: Do I REALLY have a choice in what I do? And am I really responsible for my choices?

        If you answer “yes” then you are saying “yes you have free will” insofar as “free will” is the phrase that tends to stand for such questions.

        The compatibilist answers “yes we truly have the ability to choose and be responsible for our choices – hence yes we have ‘free will,’ but the explanation for why we do differs from a Libertarian Free Willist’s explanation (dualism and the like).

        So, why keep the concept of free will? Because it is a set of important concerns – REAL concerns about the reality of our situation – to many (if not most) human beings. This is why, after all, Jerry would spend time on the subject. We have two intuitions, also that seem to be bolstered by observation: 1. We seem to make choices every day. 2. Everything has a cause.
        Following both the at least *appear* to be in tension, hence all the people who try to work out which way things fall. Whether this
        subject is of interest to you, it’s of interest to many other people. It seems an unavoidable subject at least for thoughtful people…which is why you are talking about it, and philosophers are drawn to it.

        (I’ll address dumping the phrase Free Will next).


        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          I grew up thinking that free will was a radical personal freedom that enabled me to do things that God could not predict. So when you suggest free will means something different, I just don’t buy it. I think the way I was raised to think of it is the way most people without any special training on the subject think of it. I could be wrong, but I’ve never seen anything to prove otherwise.

          And if you eliminate God, free will is still an evasion of determinism. I just can’t see it any other way because that’s the way it has been for as long as I can remember. And I came about this understanding of free will because it is the understanding that pervades our culture. I absorbed it through our culture and language. I didn’t have any exposure to compatibilist philosophers.

          Yes it seems like I have choices, but I understand this to be a process that takes my interests into account and arrives at a result when faced with a choice due to deterministic forces that don’t really give me a choice in the sense that I could have on an unconstrained whim chosen anything. Before I understood this, I actually thought I had free will because it does feel, subjectively, as if we have free will.

          A compatibilist insisting we have free will is like someone trying to persuade me that a “magician” performs “magic” because it appears to be magic and therefore it is the kind of magic worth having because real magic doesn’t exist. I know it is an illusion and you can’t convince me otherwise, even though it looks like magic, I know it is not. It is just like this with free will.

          A user of a car may be thrilled by its power and even feel that the car “wants” to go fast. It feels this way when you step on the gas and the machine leaps forward. A person who tells himself the car wants to go fast because it feels like it wants to go fast, and that this is all that is really important about cars, is that they do what we want and need them to do when we want them to do it, is in for a rude surprise when the car stops working. They don’t know how to fix it, or design and build a new one. That is because they were lost at the level of illusion about cars, while ignoring the reality of how they work.

          • Vaal
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

            “I grew up thinking that free will was a radical personal freedom that enabled me to do things that God could not predict. “

            I really don’t think your analysis covers how you thought about choices and free will. That may seem at first blush presumptuous, but it’s fairly accepted that we can be wrong in analyzing our own
            motivations for actions. So here’s why I have trouble with your claim:

            Free Will has to do with the ability to make a choice. Without the “being able to choose” part you aren’t really talking about free will. Simply saying “I’m a magic contra-causal agent” isn’t actually addressing a central feature of free will, which is “the ability to choose, and be the one responsible for that choice.”
            Being able to choose is having free will.
            Contra-causality is only an explanation some may grasp for WHY they have free will (and it’s the wrong explanation…but they still had the freedom to choose).

            Now, whenever you thought you had the choice, why would you have held that belief? Note how this belief will be derived from your empirical experience of your own powers. If your free-will-believing self walked into the gym and thought “Well, I could use either the 40 or 45 lb weights for curls today, I’ll choose the 45 lb…” what would be the actual basis for thinking you had this choice? Would the thought process have been “I’m a magic contra-causal being and thus I can choose either 40 or 45 lbs?”

            I don’t see that this was actually the basis of your deliberation. Rather, you would have based it on your own appraisal of your strength, which would be derived from your experience of being able to lift either 40 or 45 lbs (or something like it) in the past. You were “free to choose either the 40 or 45 lb weights insofar as you thought you were physically capable of lifting either. That’s why, if anyone asked, you would have said “I COULD HAVE chosen the other weight.”

            I suggest this reasoning will be behind pretty much every instance of your thinking you had a choice. An assumption based on the type of physical ability you had in the situation (buy car A or B? Eat A or B? Go to A or B school? etc). NOT based on the non-informative assumption “I have magic free will” (because that wouldn’t even tell you if you had any *particular* possible choice).

            And the reasons you thought you had a choice were actually true. Thinking it was based on contra-causality is a mistake, as is attributing the explanation to contra-causality.


      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Ok, so even if we kept the subject “normally associate with free will” as a live subject, why not dump the phrase “Free Will?” Isn’t it just associated with some people’s erroneous ideas of dualistic choice and so won’t this uphold confusion?

        It seems to me we are stuck either way.

        Free Will just seems like a useful short hand phrase to cover the set of concerns most people associate with that phrase.

        Ok, so to those Libertarian/Dualists the compatibilist will have some clarifying work to do: “I believe like you do that we have real choices and responsibility, but I think I have the better explanation as to why that’s the case.” It’s still the work of saying we can make choices, but disabusing the errors of the dualist.

        But what if we dump the phrase? Well, we still have the same set of concerns left on the table. “Do we really have a choice? Are we really responsible for our choices?”
        Does dropping the phrase “Free Will” mean that wrong notions are thus disabused? Not at all. You still have exactly the same work to disabuse people of magic thinking associate with making choices. It’s not the phrase “free will” that makes the magic thinking. The magic thinking comes when some portion of people think about their “freedom” to make choices or not.

        If you start saying “Well, I think we can make choices” and the dualist has assumed that means you have a magic soul that allows it to be posssible, you are in the same position with the word “choice” as you were with the term “Free Will.” Disabusing the same errors.

        So I don’t see what you actually gain by dropping the term Free Will. What you DO gain by using the term is a short hand reference, like “morality,” to the set of concerns most of us associate with those terms. Hence it has some usefulness, just like the word “life” remains useful despite that I would disagree with a vitalist or theist on the explanation for what makes us “alive.”

        At least that’s how I see it. I’m open to being convinced otherwise.


        • neil
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          It is ironic that an atheist can have an aversion to words like “free will” or “morality” because they carry some religious baggage, but then routinely bids his friends “goodbye”, which is a contraction of “god be with you”. Our language reflects our history, and the use of words evolves to reflect contemporary meaning. It is not a problem for me.

  29. DV
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    >> But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people

    Unfortunately you don’t sound very convincing saying that. Actions speak louder than words. You can “say” what you believe but if you still act as if you think people have choices, then your claim means nothing.

    For example, there’s probably not a day that goes by without you asking someone to choose between two options – which pair of pants to wear, where to go for lunch, etc.

    You might say this is because you don’t know ahead of time what those inevitable “choices” they are going to make, so that is why you are treating them AS IF they have choices. In other words, you have a model of the world in your mind that you utilize everyday to interact with people, and in this model, people can make choices (in some situations; your model of course includes the refinement that choices are not absolutely unrestricted by time or space – for example your model does not predict that people can choose to walk through walls back to yesterday).

    Now there is another possible model of the world in which people don’t have choices. The only way you can use this model and really act AS IF people do NOT have choices, is if you have the mind of God, so to speak. You have the ability to detect all the particle interactions and calculate the net effect in split seconds. If you have this ability, then and only then, you would finally act true to your words when you say “I don’t believe alternative choices are open to people”.

    In the meantime, here in the real world, everyone goes along fine with the “people have choices” model of reality.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink


      The thing is in a compatibilst sense it is really true that you had a choice between A and B. If someone says “You mean true that I was a contra-causal being?” The compatibilist says “No, that kind of choice seems impossible. I’m talking about choices you can actually, truly make, based on how the world really seems to operate.”

      The incompatibilist seems to allow the word “choice” in his daily language and other realms of argument, but with a sort of wink: “I’ll say you have a choice (but ultimately we know you never *really* had a choice between A and B – determinism rules this out).”

      We either take the parenthesis seriously or not. If so, it doesn’t make sense to make recommendations that presume the ability to choose. If we DO take the parenthesis seriously but STILL think that given determinism we can talk of really having choices, then it seems this is just the road compatibilists have already traveled.


      • Gary W
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        If so, it doesn’t make sense to make recommendations that presume the ability to choose.

        Exactly. It doesn’t make any sense to say “There’s no free will, but we should still punish criminals to deter crime.” Any claim about how we “should” act presupposes the ability to choose how to act. But if we don’t have free will, we cannot choose how to act. We are simply compelled to act in the way that we do by natural processes. Denying free will renders any claim about what we “should” do or what we “ought” to do meaningless.

        • Alex T
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Any claim about how we “should” act presupposes the ability to choose how to act. But if we don’t have free will, we cannot choose how to act.

          On the assumption that you’re very new to this conversation and you haven’t bothered to figure out what people are talking about, when JAC and others here talk about “free will”, they are referring to the idea that we make decisions independently from the deterministic chemistry of our brains & bodies.

          Without free will, we still respond to inputs. One of those inputs is seeing the consequences of actions, such as incarceration.

          • Gary W
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            JAC and others here talk about “free will”, they are referring to the idea that we make decisions independently from the deterministic chemistry of our brains & bodies.

            No, unless I’m mistaken, Jerry denies that there’s any such thing as “free will” period. As far as I’m aware, no one here is arguing for contra-causal free will. What the compatibilists are arguing is that although there’s no such thing as contra-causal free will, free will is still a meaningful and useful (indeed, crucial) concept for analyzing and evaluating human behavior and interaction.

            Without free will, we still respond to inputs. One of those inputs is seeing the consequences of actions, such as incarceration.

            Yes, no one is denying that. The point is that it doesn’t make any sense to talk about what we “should” do if there’s no such thing as free will. The claim that we “should” do something implies that we have the ability to choose whether to do it or not.

            • Alex T
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

              The point is that it doesn’t make any sense to talk about what we “should” do if there’s no such thing as free will. The claim that we “should” do something implies that we have the ability to choose whether to do it or not.

              If that’s your point then it’s either so brilliant that you’ll need to do some work to explain it in detail for us mere mortals, or it’s gibberish. I’m leaning to the latter since I can’t imagine any connection between acknowledging that we do not have contra-causal free will and rejecting all morals and the entire criminal justice system.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

              I can certainly imagine a connection between those things, but I’m not sure why you think it would be relevant to the contradiction I just described between denying free will and claiming that we “should” punish criminals to deter crime.

            • Alex T
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

              Gary – Okay, I’ll admit my last reply wasn’t very nice and was needlessly inflammatory. I apologize, I should have been more respectful towards you. I am sorry, please forgive me.

              I should have said that I do not see the connection between rejecting contra-causal free will and… Actually, I don’t know what your argument is. Are you saying that we can’t make any “ought” statements of any kind (not even secular ones regarding criminal justice), or merely that we can’t make any moral statements? And what makes you think that this follows in any way from rejecting free will?

              I’m genuinely baffled, I can’t begin to imagine what connection you might be seeing.

            • Gary W
              Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

              Are you saying that we can’t make any “ought” statements of any kind

              No, for the third time, I’m saying that denying free will renders any claim about what we “ought” to do meaningless. The statement “We ought to do X” presupposes that we have the ability to choose between doing X and not doing X. If we don’t have free will, we don’t have that ability. We simply do whatever we are caused to do by natural processes.

              • Alex T
                Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

                No, for the third time, I’m saying that denying free will renders any claim about what we “ought” to do meaningless. The statement “We ought to do X” presupposes that we have the ability to choose between doing X and not doing X. If we don’t have free will, we don’t have that ability. We simply do whatever we are caused to do by natural processes.

                Rather than simply repeating this assertion, why don’t you try making an argument instead?

                I have no idea why you think there is connection, let alone one so strong that you think all ought claims become meaningless. That seems totally off the wall.

                Take an example: I don’t think we have free will. I do think that we have rights, including the right to live and to promote the well-being of individuals and society we should protect these rights. So, if someone murders another person, then they should be dealt with through the criminal justice system by incarceration. I don’t say this because I think murderers are evil or sinners but because this will protect the rights of others.

                If murder was random or incarceration had no impact, then we should not do it (eg: sacrificing people after an earthquake).

                Can you tell me where I’m going wrong?

              • Gary W
                Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

                why don’t you try making an argument instead?

                It is an argument.

                I have no idea why you think there is connection, let alone one so strong that you think all ought claims become meaningless.

                Assuming the connection you’re referring to is the one between free will and “ought claims,” I have no idea why you can’t understand it. What do YOU think the statement “We ought to do X” MEANS if it does not presuppose the ability to choose to act one way rather than another? How can we make that choice if we don’t have free will?

                I don’t think we have free will. … if someone murders another person, then they should be dealt with through the criminal justice system by incarceration

                There’s the contradiction again. If you don’t think we have free will, what do you mean by the claim that we SHOULD incarcerate murderers? How can we choose to follow your recommendation (or choose to ignore it) unless we have free will?

              • Alex T
                Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink


                What do YOU think the statement “We ought to do X” MEANS if it does not presuppose the ability to choose to act one way rather than another? How can we make that choice if we don’t have free will?

                Is that what you’re on about, you think that choices require free will and if we say there is no free will then we can’t make choices?

                I feel like you’re on some sort of pissing contest with semantics. We clearly do make choices. Duh. Do you really imagine that JAC and others don’t recognize that? What do you imagine people are discussing?

                When you find yourself imagining that everyone else is advocating a position which is contradicted by simple, obvious, every-day observations, before you open your mouth to patronizingly correct us, stop to consider that it is probably your understanding that’s flawed. But no, you dance around spewing nonsense because you imagine that we’re all blind idiots.

              • Vaal
                Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

                Alex T,

                “I have no idea why you think there is connection, let alone one so strong that you think all ought claims become meaningless. That seems totally off the wall.”

                Well that’s fascinating in of itself :-)

                To answer your question: Our recommendations are (normally) rationally constrained to those situations in which we would actually have the ability to do the action being recommended.

                For instance, say you were deciding on how to get from New York to vacation in South Carolina. If I recommend flying over driving, it presumes you had the ability to choose either of those methods. If I recommended that you defy the law of gravity and zoom yourself there in 1 second, you’d look at me as if I were nuts. Why? It’s impossible. You have no such choice to take that action so to say “You ought to defy the law of gravity to get there” makes no sense.
                But it DOES make sense to say something like “You OUGHT to choose to fly there as it will maximize your brief vacation time” – presuming you can in fact choose either flying or driving.

                This works for praise and blame too. If “John” lay beside a pool and watched a toddler drown to death and John could have easily saved the Toddler, we would condemn his lack of action. We would think he has a responsibility as a good person to save the child. But if it were the case John was a paraplegic unable to move and thus hadn’t the power to save the child even though he wanted to, then he didn’t have a real choice between “acting to save the child” and “lying there watching the child drown.”

                So, it only makes sense to recommend an action, or a choice between two possible actions, if the actions are actually possible.

                I’m afraid I can not imagine why this isn’t obvious since you would employ this principle all the time when you consider your recommendations, but there it is.


              • Peter
                Posted May 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                “We clearly do make choices. Duh. Do you really imagine that JAC and others don’t recognize that?”

                Why is that when Jerry explicitly denies that we really make choices, and people want to argue with him over that, *this* always seems to be the favorite defense?

                Jerry says again, and again, and again that people don’t really make choices. He does it in this post here (it is from a year ago…), which it took me 30 seconds to find, I’m sure you can find plenty more:


                So, Alex, why is Jerry having such a hard time dispelling you of the illusion that we make choices? How can that still be *clear* to you after all the hard and careful work Jerry has been doing to convince us all otherwise?

        • Vaal
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

          Gary W,

          “Exactly. It doesn’t make any sense to say “There’s no free will, but we should still punish criminals to deter crime.” Any claim about how we “should” act presupposes the ability to choose how to act….”

          I agree (generally) with what you wrote there. That’s why compatibilism isn’t stuck with that incoherency because compatibilism says we DO have free will.

          Was your comment agreeing with me about the apparent incoherency of the incompatibilist stance taken by Jerry and others here?


          • Gary W
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

            Yes. Although I’m not sure that “incoherent” is the right word for it so much as “infeasible.” I just don’t see how it’s possible to talk usefully about human behavior and social relations without employing the concepts and language of moral agency — morality, immorality, free will, (free) choice, innocence, guilt, blameworthiness, deservedness, and so on.

  30. Gordon Munro
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    IS the 2.5 hours with Dennett available on line?

  31. Howard Kornstein
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm… I was just considering, Jerry, that since you contend that there is no such thing as free will, that your whole lifetime of academic effort and achievement which has resulted in your being able to form this particular opinion, is in no way is any credit to yourself, but merely a deterministic outcome of external conditions acting upon your specific genetic makeup, and resultant specific brain structure. However, if you are wrong about free will, the fault for your ever reaching this erroneous conclusion is yours.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      What would Jerry’s “self” be, the one you would like to credit his achievements to, if it isn’t “merely a deterministic outcome of external conditions acting upon your specific genetic makeup, and resultant specific brain structure”? You seem to be implicitly positing some other kind of mysterious self that should deserve the credit. What would that be?

      But I would improve on your description in two ways.

      First, delete the word “mere”, because it undervalues that which is full of awe and wonder. In fact the Latin root for the word miracle simply means “object of wonder”, and I think the genetic development of human organisms qualifies as that.

      Second, change “external conditions acting upon” because it implies that a biological organism is a passive thing that is stamped with the imprint of its environment. There is also metabolism, growth, and progressively intelligent interaction with the environment. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be: outcome of “a ceaseless dynamic interplay between genes and environment that leads to the development of your specific unique characteristics.”

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        We find it convenient to assume, prima facie, ‘free will’, and to credit good actions and condemn bad. Someone sharing his lunch with me – good, stealing a gallon of gas from me – bad. After that, we often take immediate mitigating circumstances into account, though more frequently in the case of ‘bad’ actions – the guy who stole the gas, it was 2a.m. and he’d just run out 20 miles from home, all the gas stations were shut – I’d forgive him. It seems mean-spirited to apply the same to ‘good’ actions (the guy who shared his luch with me didn’t particularly like cheese sandwiches, his wife packed too many). Usually only courts need take it further into background – the accused has had a really crappy life, for example.

        Nobody, in everyday life, takes the further step of saying that because an individual’s actions are entirely determined by circumstances, they deserve neither credit nor blame for their actions. That’s a philosophical argument only. It would be extremely mean-spirited to say that Whitney Houston’s great voice was pure chance and she deserved no credit for it (I deliberately chose a dead singer, substitute your own favourite singer in this argument). Or that Jerry’s intellectual talents are no credit to him. It’s quite possible to acknowledge that people’s actions and abilities are entirely driven by circumstances (if we take that position) without permitting it to flatten out all of life’s events into a meaningless transcript.

        We are hard-wired to see (simplified) cause-and-effect, and I think we’re also hard-wired to personify or anthropomorphise things. I ‘know’ my cars have personalities and I actually apologise to the car if I crunch the gears or hit a pothole. When one of them goes to the great wrecker’s yard in the sky (it can’t be long now) it will be like having a pet cat put down. The printer/photocopier at work, on the other hand, is truly perverse and evil. I mention this because I know perfectly well they have no ‘free will’ (and neither determinist or atheist or Christian would disagree with me on that) and yet the illusion of personality, or intent, is that strong.

        • Howard Kornstein
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

          Well, let me first say that this comment was essentially meant as a joke. But as with most jokes it was making a point… a point showing the absurdity of a situation or a position- in this case the absurdity of ascribing moral judgments (or “credit” or “blame”) to what, in effect, is a robot. (well, isn’t this is what this thread is all about anyway)

          Jeff tries to counter with a fairly obtuse semantic exercise trying to point out that there is no “self” for a robot. I would agree, but of course when we are talking about Jerry from this basis of rejecting free will, we are indeed talking about a robot. If Jeff doesn’t like this “non-self” fact, he had better change his position on the existence of free will.

          As for your point that “we find it convenient to assume, prima facie, ‘free will’, and to credit good actions and condemn bad” we reach an even greater absurdity – that it is sensible to assume that something that doesn’t exist, does exist. This is a bizarre position for any rationalist to hold. Still, you are far from being alone in having this position. Fortunately, I do not have to thread my way through the difficulties of holding such a view, and having to deal with such resulting absurdities and contradictions myself, as I am a Compatibilist.

  32. Leon Cejas
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    so here we are arguing for determinism, trying to convince others. but it’s all deterministic. others views on science and causality are determined. so are we wasting our time at a keyboard when we should be out playing golf?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      No, because their views may be determined, in part, by what they might happen to read here.

      Whether the probability of that happening is sufficient to outweigh a game of golf is, of course, another matter.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      For me playing golf is wasting time. Whoever invented that game is a sadist. A perfectly good walk ruined. Hehe.

      More seriously though, I think to interpret your comment about “it’s all deterministic” requires defining the scope of the “it” that is deterministic.

      If you mean the entire Universe, I don’t know if the answer to that is so clear. But even if it is so, then what we are doing is determined, it’s what we like to do or feel compelled to do, or what is most available to us at the moment based on what the Universe determines. The Universe has not decreed that we golf at this time.

      Taking a smaller view of what is determined, as I prefer to do, looking at the human as a closed system, we could say what people are thinking is determined by their brains, their genes, and their experiences. But then what we say is part of the reader’s experience, it becomes part of the set of inputs that will contribute to determining what they think and believe. So all is not pointless.

      • Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

        It doesn’t actually make any difference to our ability to chose whether the universe is deterministic or not. But if it isn’t deterministic and events happen that are uncaused, then our actions can not be traced back through some chain of cause and effect.

        The universe created us, body and mind, but once created we are independent agents and can act in any possible world that shares much the same laws of physics as the one we are actually in.

        Where is it written in the universe whether I am going to choose tea or coffee after sending this post? It’s not written anywhere. It’s a still unmade decision existing only in my brain, even though, in retrospect, after I chose one, I clearly can’t chose the other. Which ever one I decide to choose will be the choice my brain is going to make after I click the post button.

        • Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

          As it happens I chose coffee and I discovered something new – I don’t live in the possible world close to this one where I would have chosen tea. But, I had no way of knowing that when I last posted.

    • Felix B
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      I think thinking about free will is like thinking about “if I dont breed I will die”
      It is a fundamental truth but is is not very usefull to think about alot.

      I dont understand what you mean Leon by “why waste our time at the keyboard?” It obviously is a part of the deterministic world to worry about these things.

      • Felix B
        Posted May 4, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink

        breed = breathe

  33. Gary W
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Steven Pinker is a proponent of the compatibilist position regarding free will. Here’s his explanation from How The Mind Works:

    Either we dispense with all morality as an unscientific superstition, or we find a way to reconcile causation (genetic or otherwise) with responsibility and free will. […] Like many philosophers, I believe that science and ethics are two self-contained systems played out among the same entities in the world, just as poker and bridge are different games played with the same fifty-two-card deck. The science game treats people as material objects, and its rules are the physical processes that cause behavior through natural selection and neurophysiology. The ethics game treats people as equivalent, sentient, rational, free-willed agents, and its rules are the calculus that assigns moral value to behavior through the behavior’s inherent nature or its consequences.

    Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable. Euclidean geometry requires idealizations like infinite straight lines and perfect circles, and its deductions are sound and useful even though the world does not really have infinite straight lines or perfect circles. The world is close enough to the idealization that the theorems can usefully be applied. Similarly, ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused, and its conclusions can be sound and useful even though the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events. As long as there is no outright coercion or gross malfunction of reasoning, the world is close enough to the idealization of free will that moral theory can meaningfully be applied to it.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Wow! That is excellently put, especially the second paragraph.

      (I think I just said the same thing two posts up, only Steven Pinker said it approximately 10^6 times better. I think I’ll shut up now…)

    • neil
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure I agree with Pinker’s analogy. the axioms of Euclidian geometry do not require us to assume something that is conceptually impossible. But if the determinist incompatibilists are right, choice is conceptually impossible. Of course I don’t think they are right.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        Incompatibilism doesn’t say choice is impossible. That is a straw man.

        What it says is that our choices are determined, and do not involve free will.

        We all make choices every day. To deny that is to deny the obvious.

        We make choices based on the information and knowledge we possess, and based on what our goals and preferences are. All of these things are determined by the structure of our brain. There is no independent self that freely wills these things.

        • neil
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

          I agree with what you say, and I have said the same thing. But JAC clearly states in his post that he thinks there is no choice, and I am taking his view as the canonical incompatibalist view.

          “…the idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people…”

          BTW. How many times does one have to shout “I DO NOT THINK THERE IS CONTRA-CAUSAL FREE WILL” before someone stops interpreting the compatibilist position as saying that there is? No one is disputing your last paragraph.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think anyone, unless they totally misunderstand, interprets the compatibilist position as contracausal free will. I certainly don’t.

            The thing we keep shouting, and that compatibilists keep misunderstanding, or refuse to understand, is that there is nothing in the brain that the label “free will” applies to.

            The only way you guys can imagine that there is free will is to sever complex deterministic processes, such as making a decision, from their causal roots, and treat them as if they were independent self-originating phenomena. In other words, you are simply working with the conscious illusion that ideas and concepts materialize effortlessly from nothing.

            This is what compatibilist free will seems like to me: a wealthy man has an idea to build a building. He calls a trusted architect, gives some vague guidelines as “vision”, sets a budget, and turns the architect loose. The architect plans, hires a project manager for construction, who hires all the builders. Thousands of people are involved in constructing the building. The wealthy man, who wrote all the checks but understands almost nothing of the details and effort needed to make his idea a reality, tells himself he built that.

            At opening ceremonies this wealthy guy claims he built the building. He tells his friends he built it. If any of the people actually involved in the physical process of creating the building overhear this, they have to suppress a snicker.

            Some people may be willing to say this guy built the building. Not me.

          • Posted May 4, 2013 at 12:47 am | Permalink

            “sever … roots”. Here, again you are misunderstanding the compatabilist point of view and really just restating that compatibilists believe in contra causal free will. They don’t, compatabilists totally accept that events are rooted in determinism; that’s central to the position.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted May 4, 2013 at 2:37 am | Permalink

              I know they accept that. But then they seem to forget determinism or ignore it when they start talking about and thinking about scenarios involving free will.

              They use language that is natural to us, language that works without determinism because its origin is based on the conscious illusion that our thoughts and desires spring whole from nothing, that we create them out of thin air, free of determinism. The existence of such language does not change the nature of our decisions, and arguments based on how we use language don’t prove there is some kind of freedom there.

              In reality our concepts, emotions, and reason are of unconscious origin, or depend heavily on unconscious processes, and we see only the tips of icebergs, projecting into the conscious mind. We could not have a single thought, emotion, or memory without massive participation of unconscious thought, just as we could hear or see nothing without a massive unconscious effort in our brain to make it possible.

              If you isolate conscious thought, language, and behavior from unconscious thought and the physical determinism of brain processes, you can pretend there is freedom. What actually happens when we choose, as we all agree, is that we arrive at the decision whose outcome we anticipate will best satisfy our goals based on a complex deterministic process of reckoning. I agree this is very worthwhile, and it gives humans lots of extraordinary abilities that make life more satisfying and meaningful. I think that much is obvious. I can even agree the term will is applicable to human behavior. I just can’t see where the “free” enters into it, and I doubt an impartial observer from another planet would see it either. It just seems popular to call it free because it is understood that it is what people want to hear about themselves.

        • Posted May 4, 2013 at 3:37 am | Permalink

          Quite the opposite, determinism is actually fundamental to compatibilist free will and we only have it to the extent that the universe *is* deterministic. I think it might help in this respect if I quote the beginning of chapter 2 of Dennett’s book “Freedom Evolves” (since my own explanations in past threads haven’t made much headway):

          “Determinism is the thesis that there is, at any instant, exactly one physically possible future” (Van Inwegen 1983) … even very thoughtful writers get it flatly wrong. First, many thinkers assume that determinism implies inevitability, it doesn’t. Second, many think it is obvious that *in*determinism – the denial of determinism – would give us agents some freedom … that we just couldn’t have in a deterministic universe. It wouldn’t. Third, it is commonly supposed that in a deterministic world, there are no *real* options only apparent options. This is false… These errors lie at the heart of the misconceptions about free will…

          Dennett is spot on here. The illusion that determinism somehow implies fatalism or predestination is so strong that many people in these free will threads can’t even begin to take seriously any explanation of why they might be wrong and consequently they imagine that compatibilists must somehow have a screw loose.

          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 5, 2013 at 4:34 am | Permalink

            I’ve noticed that when first confronted with the idea of the human mind as a product only of a physical brain operating under deterministic physical laws, people can easily leap to fatalistic conclusions, as if determinism ought to make humans helpless puppets or mindless robots if it were true.

            Of course nobody actually believes this about humans, because the evidence against it is everywhere, in our culture, our technology, our personal lives, and even in our own minds.

            So to the extent that compatibilism helps people to resolve that apparent paradox it is valuable. I think I agree with most claims and arguments made by compatibilism.

            I still have to take issue with the claim that human freedom merits the label “free will”, or that it makes sense to say we have real options or real choices of the kind that free will implies. I think we obviously make choices all the time. Despite how much this has been discussed, it still seems there is much confusion about the meaning of choice, and there is still need to clarify what it would mean to have *real* choice and “free will”.

            I agree there is something worth calling human freedom. Humans can respond intelligently to the environment and advance their own interests. We can envision new possibilities and then figure out how to implement them. We can lead satisfying lives and pursue happiness. Clearly this is freedom, freedom from the drudgery and monotony of being enslaved by the need to respond with mindless reflex to external stimulus.

            But what is the source of this freedom? Is it really the will? To me it seems the source of our freedom is not our will, but has two primary sources that should be credited instead of our will.

            First is our intelligence, by which I mean the complexity of our thinking, our memory and ability to accumulate knowledge, our abstract reasoning, our ability to use language, metaphor, recursion, analogy, association, etc. This gives us great flexibility to interact with our environment in ways that are good for us.

            Second is our ability to learn. Even if our choices are determined and not free, our choices are very intelligent and take a great deal of information into account, so they are choices that are mostly good for us. But importantly we can take the results of our choices and learn from them, feeding them back into future choices to make them even better. So while I can’t will myself to play the piano if I have never learned how, using my intelligence and ability to learn I can through a lengthy sequence of refined choices, through trial and error and analysis, gradually acquire that skill over time.

            I’ve elaborated on what is meant by “real choice”, why I think we don’t have them even though we clearly make choices, and why our freedom isn’t freedom of will. I shared the whole post at this link:

            The conclusion is that we have freedom, but it is not really associated with our will, and that while we make choices, there is an important sense in which they are not free, or not “real”, and that this implies an important sense in which our will is not free.

          • Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:17 am | Permalink

            Jeff – Yes I agree with much of what you say, here and in your note, except perhaps that the choices we make are somehow not “real” choices, but that’s a very technical argument that is fraught with semantic issues.

            Actually I make some of the same points as you do in the last post I wrote at the bottom of this thread in an effort to disentangle what the points of disagreement are between the posters in this thread.

            Often, when the two sides don’t see eye to eye (and the topic isn’t religion or politics) there are subtle semantic differences lurking somewhere.

            EDIT: Ah see you just replied to that will have to go and read it.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted May 5, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

              The confusion about “real choice” stems from incompatibilists clumsily trying to get at a point that is hard to express. When compatibilists then mock this and claim what is being said is an absurdity, that we don’t make choices, they are completely missing the point.

              This much is obviously true and no sane person can dispute it: we make choices, they are intelligent, and they are real in that they affect our behavior and have real consequences.

              The problem arises if you say these choices are free, which to the incompatibilist represents a violation of determinism. At this point some people try to say the freedom of the choice is an illusion, or that the choice is not real, a description that only applies prior to the actual choice being made. To say the choice is “real” means to imagine that we actually have an internal freedom that allows us effortlessly and frictionlessly to slide from one option to the other. To say we don’t have “real” choices is to recognize that actually selecting one of a set of alternatives involves a deterministic process, which to be sure is very complex, factors in a tremendous variety of information, and represents our interests, but nonetheless is physical, and in principle though not in practice the outcome could be predicted in advance.

  34. Jeff Johnson
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    GaryW wrote here:

    What do YOU think the statement “We ought to do X” MEANS if it does not presuppose the ability to choose to act one way rather than another? How can we make that choice if we don’t have free will?

    This is a really perfect illustration of how deep and persistent the illusion of free will is. I find it really hard to imagine that this remark is not being made by a hard core dualist. We could just rewrite it a bit and say “How can we know if we ought to do something unless the little decider daemon “free willy” comes and decides for us?”

    It seems to lack any insight at all into how the brain could decide anything. How can the brain know if something is salty or sweet unless it has free will? How can we know if something is hot or cold unless we have free will? How can we know if one piece of wood is longer than another one unless we have free will? All of these questions sound equally absurd, and they are just like the question above about how we can form a notion of what we ought to do unless we have free will.

    Do people imagine that deciding what we ought or ought not do, or that what is right or wrong involves something special that deciding if it is day or night does not involve? Does a special little pocket of freedom open up and decide what course is best for us?

    Deciding which piece of wood is longer is much simpler than deciding whether a course of action is right or wrong, but it is a complex process nonetheless. But it is much easier to see how we can decide the length of wood question without “free will”, because the concrete visual nature of the objects being compared. In principle the deciding factor for more complex and abstract decisions is no more mysterious. In deciding whether one action or another is what we ought to do, more abstract conceptual processing is needed, and the associations and properties and means of comparison are more complex than a simple comparison of lenghts of wood, but in principle the processes are equally deterministic. We have priorities, we estimate consequences of actions, we compare those consequences to our priorities, we factor in memories and emotions and associated learned patterns and we assign things categories and values and weights and much of this is carried out for us by the unconcious mind, but we are effectively carrying out computations that allow us to decide that A is better than B, that A fits better with our internal sense of what is right, that the complex and abstract thing A is more of a right thing than the complex and abstract thing B. It is not just a one step act of freedom, it is complex and intelligent computation, most of which we are unaware of, that arrives at a result consistent with our values, our histories, our memories, our conceptions of things, our views of what is desireable and what is not. The idea that such a staggeringly complex feat of intelligence requires a little free will thing to be involved is absurd.

    We don’t need a free will thing to help us decide what we ought or ought not do because instead of involving the mythical free will thing, we directly apply our phenomenally complex and flexible intelligence to solve the problem of choosing what is best according to all of our knowledge and experience and reasoning ability. It isn’t a free choice that could go either way, it is a complex computation that arrives at the one result that reflects who we are and how we think, which is a property of the physical state of our brain.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink


      “I find it really hard to imagine that this remark is not being made by a hard core dualist.”

      Then you still don’t understand Gary’s point or the compatibilst position. Of course all brain processes are governed by the same laws. But…

      “How can the brain know if something is salty or sweet unless it has free will? How can we know if something is hot or cold unless we have free will?”

      You seem to be confusing description with prescription there. To say “the candy is sweet” or “the candy is salty” in either case is to offer a description. It does not suggest any action at all. To say “you OUGHT to eat candy” is a PRESCRIPTION and DOES suggest action and hence it will only be coherent IF it’s possible to perform the action prescribed. So if someone says “you ought to choose the smarties candy instead of the licorice” those options need to be possible to the person at the receiving end of the prescription, to make any sense.

      The rest of your post follows from this initial confusion – and lacks the answer to Gary’s question.


      • Vaal
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        In other words, as Gary has explained as well, “ought implies can.” To say you “ought to do X” implies you CAN do, or not do, X. It implies one has a choice.” It’s not a statement of how the brain functions, it’s a statement of what a prescription would mean or imply.

        Same with me saying “I’m a father.” This entails that I have or have had children, to make sense. It’s not a claim about how the brain works, just what we would mean by the words.

        Now, you may want to say “Well, we don’t have real choices between A and B” but if you do, then what WOULD YOU mean by “you OUGHT to do X vs Y”?


        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

          “It’s not a claim about how the brain works, just what we would mean by the words”

          I don’t see how one can discuss whether humans have free will without thinking about how the brain works. We can’t “mean by words” without the brain doing lots of work that we aren’t even aware of.

          And still, without free will it is obvious what is meant by “I ought to do A, not B”. It is an evaluation, which our brain can do as part of its choosing process, that determines in some way that we think A is better (better for our health, better for our reputation, better for our family, better according to some abstract system of ethics, better for us financially, etc.) That is just one of the data points that contribute to our deterministic choice. How does this require any special freedom or introduce any freedom into our choice? It may make our choice smarter, it may mean the implications of our choice are more subtle or nuanced.

          I call that intelligence, not freedom.

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

        The point about descriptive tastes is that they obviously do not require free will. Thus I was illustrating the absurdity of those remarks, which seemed self-explanatory to me.

        This was offered as an analogy to the absurdity of saying we can’t decide what we ought to do unless we have free will.

        I’m not saying prescription and description are the same thing. I’m saying they require the same amount of freedom for the brain to decide them, which is none. I just think it is more obvious in the descriptive case, so I thought it might help build some intuitive understanding.

        That was obviously a vain hope. It just seems this confusion confirms the thesis that compatibilists tend to think like end users, and incompatibilists think more like engineers and scientists. Your explanations seem to treat enormously complex aggregates as if they were independent atomic phenomena that simply spring whole out of nowhere.

        I did answer the question how we can decide what we ought to do without having free will. It is because none of our choices have free will involved. They involve optimizing outcomes to fulfill our needs, to satisfy our goals, to advance our interests. It is only natural that we might label some options as “ought to” and others as “ought not”. That doesn’t mean we always choose what we think qualifies as an “ought”. Our choices don’t represent freedom. They represent the way our desires, preferences, and inclinations drive us to choose. That may often coincide with what we ought to do, which can be satisfying, or it may contradict what we feel we ought to do, which can also be satisfying. In no way does labeling an option as “ought” add freedom, nor does it require freedom to do so.

        • Vaal
          Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

          “I don’t see how one can discuss whether humans have free will without thinking about how the brain works. We can’t “mean by words” without the brain doing lots of work that we aren’t even aware of.”

          We are talking about the meaning of our declarations, and what we would mean to say by “you ought to do X instead of Y.” We don’t need to first talk about how the brain works to understand that a Bachelor entails a man being married, or “I am a father” entails my having children to make sense.

          In your posts you keep giving DESCRIPTIONS of how you think our brains work but you don’t explain how your PRESCRIPTIONS make sense. So you are skipping around the actual subject (I’m not saying purposely).

          In every day rational discourse, we do not recommend to each other actions that are simply impossible. We don’t recommend if you are falling to simply stop obeying the law of gravity – that would make sense precisely because it is not considered a real option.

          But we WOULD think it rational to recommend you put mustard instead of ketchup on your hotdog (maybe the ketchup has dead flies in it), insofar as it assumes you actually COULD do either of those actions. That you actually DO have a choice.

          Compatibilism retains the coherency of our making prescriptions because it recognizes that it is TRUE we can have choices in the same sense that it is TRUE to to talk about the nature of any other empirical entity by appealing to counterfactuals and a certain level of abstraction (e.g. “The wood could remain as it is, or be burned away if subjected to high enough heat,” “The rat might take up residence under your fridge, or in your pantry..” “I am free to choose between vacationing in San Francisco or New York, depending on which I desire.” etc).

          So if a compatibilist prescribes that you ought to use the mustard instead of the ketchup, and you ask “So, it’s really true I have the choice, that I could take either action?” The compatibilist answers “Yes.” No contradiction or incoherency. Because, while determinism may be the case, we are describing our ability to “actually choose” in the same way we describe the ability of anything else to end in one state or another, given a jiggling of counterfactual parameters.

          Now, if you prescribe to me to choose the mustard over the ketchup, I’m going to ask: What do you mean by that? Are you saying I have a real choice, that I could take either action?

          If you answer: “Well, in fact you couldn’t really do either action, because determinism means you are fated to make only one choice and you will never *really* have had the live option of choosing the other…”

          Then I’m going to respond: “Ok, then if you are saying it’s not true I actually have a choice between the two options, then why the hell are you telling me what I ought to do? And it only makes sense for you to recommend for or against two actions IF those actions are live options. But if I am as powerless to choose ONE of those options as I am to defy the laws of gravity, you haven’t actually left me with any real “choice” in the way that makes sense in normal language. ”

          Answering with:”Well, you see, brains work deterministically and also the output of my speech can have a role in what you choose or not” is NOT an answer because those are descriptive statements and don’t show the logical bridge to your prescriptive statement.
          I can talk all day about the facts of child poverty in Africa, but strings of facts are not prescriptions for actions. What is the bridge? You don’t give it and thus you don’t make sense of prescriptive statements.

          Or, if you respond that I really, truly have the choice even given determinism, well then you’ll at least be consistent and coherent in your prescription, but you will also have acceded to just the reasoning leading to compatibilism.

          You keep imagining that you are the one “dealing with reality” here, but the reason I reject your arguments thus far is because of how they fail to make sense and answer relevant questions – which does not bode well for your argument’s attachment to reality.


          • Jeff Johnson
            Posted May 4, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

            I believe I understand clearly what you are saying here except for one thing. I’m not clear on what kind of logical bridge to prescriptive statements you are looking for. But I think it’s kind of obvious why prescriptive statements make sense even though our choices are determined. We make prescriptive statements because we hope they might influence another person’s choices. And sometimes they do. There isn’t anything remarkeable here. Even children get it.

            If I give a prescriptive statement to a friend it is because, for whatever motives I may have, I hope they will be influenced by it. This seems a pretty logical bridge between my deterministic motives and my actions.

            Let’s look at two cases. In one case suppose my friend believes I have free will. Then giving a prescriptive statement is logical on the assumption that I have a choice. On the other hand, suppose my friend doesn’t believe I have free will. The prescriptive statement is now logical because my friend knows that people’s deterministic decision making is sensitive to external inputs, and the advice may actually change the course of my decision, which by assumption is for some reason important to my friend.

            Now from some perspectives these two cases can appear to be equivalent. A third party observer sees the same interactions and the same results. Also, I will have the same experience regardless of whether my friend believes I have free will or not. So there is a kind of equivalence between the two cases when observed in these limited ways.

            My friend can believe I have free will if he restricts his thinking to viewing the concepts and categories of language usage as entire indivisible wholes that depend on nothing. In this view, “should” is a complete self-contained idea that implies I have a choice. This analysis remains at the pure abstract level of language use and the most elementary subjective concepts associated with that language.

            But what happens in my mind when my friend says I “should use the mustard”?

            I may feel angry because my friend is always giving me advice I neither need nor want. I feel stubbornly impelled to not use the mustard. I may somewhat politely ignore the remark, or even more politely say “no thanks, I don’t feel like mustard now”, but inside I might feel an intense need to not have mustard for whatever stubborn reasons exist to cause this tension.

            I may have such admiration for my friend, and respect his opinions and advice so much that I immediately want to try his recommendation. This may even stem from an inner desire to win favor, to placate his wishes because pleasing him coincides with my long term goals for the friendship.

            I may feel indifferent to my friend’s advice, and mentally imagine the taste of mustard. Something about the idea resonates pleasurably inside and I think “yes, that sounds good”. Or the thought of mustard may trigger an unpleasant memory of a bad tasting mustard, or a kind of gag reflex. I may say, “no, I don’t really like mustard.”

            I may wonder why it is my friend thinks I ought to use the mustard. How much do I trust him? Is this some kind of prank and he wants me to eat something that has been tampered with as a joke? Or does he think his culinary sensibilities are so developed that, as a matter of pride, he wants to impress people with his knowledge? Or does he like me enough that he just wants me to have the pleasure of a taste sensation he believes is much superior to the mustardless option?

            This exercise can go on and on, and I’d probably be the verbose rambler for the job, but I’ll try to be a bit merciful.

            What I hope is clear is that we can view this situation as involving free will, and to do so we have to end our analysis at the level of linguistic concepts. But the more we drill down into the mind of the decider and analyze the decision process, the less apparent freedom there is, even if we don’t go anywhere near the level of neurons and biochemistry.

            It isn’t hard to name examples where we can consciously perceive our lack of freedom: reflex actions, addictions, powerful emotions or desires. These are things that appear inside and take over our thoughts in ways we know we are not controlling.

            But there are many cases where it is harder for us to see the involuntary nature of our conscious thinking. The whole process of inner narrative is very adept at covering the involuntary nature of things, and we have to examine our inner thoughts very carefully to see through that.

            I can assign desires and emotions to my car. I can say it’s happy after I wash it or change the oil. I can say it wants to go fast. This should indicate something about how fluid language is, and how unreliable arguments based on how humans use language are at providing a basis to make inferences about the nature of human thought. An this is the level that compatibilist arguments live at. They will never help at revealing the nature of what is happening in the mind, what goes into creating language or choices, or how to perhaps repair the brain.

            The compatibilist arguments stay within a closed loop of human linguistic and social convention without making reference to any phenomena outside of that closed loop. For this reason I don’t find the compatibilist declaration of freedom to be impressive at all.

    • Gary W
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 8:28 pm | Permalink


      I generally ignore your comments because they’re so long and rambling and unfocused. It’s just not worth the effort of trying to find something in them that’s actually clear and relevant to the points of discussion amid all your digressions and irrelevancies.

      But this time I read through your comment. And as I expected, although you write so many words, you never actually get around to answering the question I asked…

      • Jeff Johnson
        Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

        I’m not surprised you can’t understand. I feel the same about almost all of your posts. You seem to me to understand very little.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 5, 2013 at 1:18 am | Permalink

          I wish I could delete this post, and I apologize for it.

          I was annoyed at the moment, but quickly regretted it.

          Gary, I don’t like to stoop to such a petty ad hominem as to say you understand little. You obviously understand a lot.

          I often find myself strongly disagreeing with your posts, particularly when they are of a political nature. That much is fair to say. We should be able to agree to disagree, and not resort to personal insults.

          And fortunately you are free to ignore my posts. Despite how it seems to you, I do strive to express myself clearly. I may fail at that. I agree concision is valuable, but something I’ve also noticed is that too little explanation also invites misunderstanding. I guess somewhere there is a balance between being brief, and pre-empting mistaken assumptions or the reading into remarks what wasn’t intended.

      • Peter
        Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        Jeff definitely does that.

        And what’s with always falling back on the “but compatibilism will never understand how to build a brain!” type of stuff?

  35. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Except that the one result often isn’t clear-cut. Quite often the computation is not straightforward and involves dissimilar factors and unknown probabilities. Which is one reason why we can be completely undecided about a decision, even one that doesn’t involve much in the way of moral consequences.
    “Should I take the coast road or the direct route? Coast road’s much longer but nicer, if I don’t get stuck behind a truck. Will cost me $20 more in gas though. But will I be late for the wedding? (How long does the coast road take?) Wedding will probably be late anyway (how probably?), best man’s coming from down south and he’s ‘always’ late. If I’m late, does it matter, will Jim and Jane even notice?” So I’m balancing cost vs possible lateness vs driving enjoyment vs my assumed importance to the event to try and come up with an answer. All of which may be flip-flopped on a whim** as we approach the turnoff and say ‘nah, I’ll play it safe’ or ‘oh sod it, I’ll take the scenic route!’
    (**Okay, an apparent whim)

    The weightings we give to the various factors involved are probably typical of our personality, but the unknowns can sometimes lead us to make decisions that are completely uncharacteristic in hindsight. I’m not saying a ‘free will thing’ would help there (though obviously clairvoyance would ;)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      Damn, that was a reply to Jeff Johnson. Dratted WP editor…

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 3, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

      Keep in mind that most of the computation I was talking about is unconscious. We aren’t even aware of it. Just the act of recalling something from memory, or forming an abstract concept with a linguistic representation involves a tremendous amount of unconscious work. When you feel something is right, or when you taste something and like it, a huge amount of unconscious work goes into making that happen. When you taste something and don’t like it, it is your unconscious mind that created that taste. The conscious mind just follows suit, while inventing the story that “I decided I don’t like that”.

      So if some decisions are more complicated than others, and we don’t have enough information or knowledge to be certain, that doesn’t mean freedom was introduced. If that were true, then the stupider and more ignorant we were, the more free we would be, and vice versa.

      If we make a decision that is “uncharacteristic” of us, it’s because the conscious mind perceived something embarrassing about it and creates that story to cover it up. The decision was made because causal forces, primarily driven by our unconscious mind, led us to make that choice for reasons we can’t consciously understand, just like we can’t consciously understand why one kind of food tastes good and not another.

      • Posted May 4, 2013 at 1:40 am | Permalink

        You are still defining the word “free” in a crypto-theistic way, as some kind of glitch in determinism. That is always going to imply contra causality of some sort. So compatibilists would agree that we don’t have that kind of freedom, since it’s incoherent.

      • Howard Kornstein
        Posted May 4, 2013 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        Let me warn you, that when you are making these arguments about the computational nature of the human brain and attributing absolute causation and determinism to it you are treading on very thin ice indeed, especially if you do not have a firm appreciation of computational theory. Now I agree (as do neuroscientists) that the structure of the brain is analogous to a massively complex multi-processor system (or more accurately a massively complex array of finite state machines). Your assumption is that because it has such a structure, its “outputs” must of necessity be deterministically predictable; and that some subsection of this machine, which we attribute consciousness to cannot be within a system that “breaks causality”. But that is NOT the case. Finite state systems (which include all Turing, multi-Turing, or Universal Turing machines) do not always produce computational results- i.e. determinable final outputs (especially when the timing of that output is arbitrarily produced). This non-predictability is compounded by the situation where the “conscious executive” part of the complex has feedback into the pre-processors. What this means is that everything we do cannot be attributed to causality, even when we may be innately “hard wired” by evolution and by heredity into any specific structure in each individual. There is plenty of room for the idea of “free-will” in describing the behaviour of this system.

        • Posted May 4, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

          Howard, remember that compatibilism is the concept that free will is compatible with determinism, so if you are going to say that coomputers can have indeterministic processes (I disagree) wherein free will arises, you are not defending a compatibilist position. And besides it is an error to imagine that indeterminism leads to freedom.

          • Howard Kornstein
            Posted May 4, 2013 at 4:40 am | Permalink

            Well, determinism does NOT infer universal predictability, only that all natural events have materialistic causes and are materialistically describable and measurable.
            Quantum Theory and Chaos theory have put pay to that 19th century view of determinism – and so, I would say does computational theory. This modern view of determinism is certainly consistant with compatibilism.
            BTW – I did not say that computers have indeterministic processes, only they can possibly produce indeterminent outputs

            • Howard Kornstein
              Posted May 4, 2013 at 5:09 am | Permalink

              I believe Roq, that you are arguing that even if there was some sophisticated external super computer built that could exactly predict what an individual would do in every circumstance there could still be what is describable as free will in such an individual.
              I claim that such a computer could never be built anyway, nor is the “computer” that IS that individuals brain capable of making such a prediction itself. However, if such a computer could be built, I believe we would both have a very difficult time in defending our position that free will exists, although we would both do our very best to do so.

            • Posted May 4, 2013 at 5:10 am | Permalink

              Pulling down an earlier quotation: “Determinism is the thesis that there is, at any instant, exactly one physically possible future” (Van Inwegen 1983) as quoted by Dennett in “Freedom Evolves”.

              You are still missing the point of compatibilism. Compatibilists believe that free will is consistent (compatible!) with the universe being deterministic, as defined above, not that the universe necessarily is deterministic.

              Neither quantum mechanics (whether it turns out to have indeterministic underpinnings or not) nor chaos theory alter the meaning of determinism as quoted above in the first para in any way. And It simply makes no difference to compatibilists whether the universe is deterministic or not, the point being that our brains probably do work deterministically and even if they don’t indeterminism is randomness and can not therefore be a factor in increasing freedom.

              • Howard Kornstein
                Posted May 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

                Well, if of the many metaphysical positions on exactly what sort of determinism we are dealing with in our discussions here you seem to have locked onto this one. I’m not too happy with this, mostly from the fact that it is far more a philosophical construct that a representation of physical reality as we now know it. Secondly, it makes putting forward a argument for free will very challenging, when in reality it needn’t be too difficult at all. All the same with a bit of juggling we can still construct arguments in favour of free will. But we are exposed to some very valid challenges… for example in Jeff’s argument:
                “The only way you guys can imagine that there is free will is to sever complex deterministic processes, such as making a decision, from their causal roots, and treat them as if they were independent self-originating phenomena.”
                But, you see, that is exactly the state of affairs that exists in our brains, as a complex state machine array forming it’s outputs by executing a programme that is algorithmically non-computable. And there need not be Jeffs “self-originating phenomena” to achieve this because causality IS broken. The “executive” causally has a major influence on the next state of output from the array, but the final state that the array (and particularly the executive) at an arbitrary time interval can be non-determinable. But this is NOT random behaviour, it is just non-computable. I know this must sound totally obscure… all I can recommend as the easiest read on the subject- which is Richard Feynman’s “Lectures on Computation” (Addison-Wesley)

              • Peter
                Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

                “you seem to have locked onto this one. I’m not too happy with this”

                Wow, see, Roq is explaining that compatibilist conception of freedom is *very strong* because we can concede the most restrictive form of determinism, and we don’t think that takes away from our freedom in any sense we should worry about.

                I so often feel like the people involved in this argument need a basic course in, like, proofs or logic or something.

                Anyway, analogy:

                Say we’re concerned about whether f(x) > 30 (say > 30 units of freedom would be “free will”)

                I claim that I’ve shown that as long as x > 10 (say, in units of non-determinism), f(x) > 30. So even if x were as low as, say 20 (say, the amount of determinism given physics as imagined by Newton), f(x) is still definitely > 30.

                Howard claims, we have excellent reason to believe that x can’t be less than 100 (physics as imagined by Bohr, or at least Shrodinger)! I don’t know why you’re insisting on this crazy idea that x might be as low as 20, or even 10!

        • Posted May 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

          Finite state systems (which include all Turing, multi-Turing, or Universal Turing machines) do not always produce computational results- i.e. determinable final outputs (especially when the timing of that output is arbitrarily produced).

          This does not seem accurate. Are you referring to non-deterministic computation? If yes, then you should realize that non-determinism in computer science is just a model, at a high level, for dealing with extra information that is not part of the specified input. In practice, the output of even a non-deterministic system (such as a system undergoing parallel execution is completely determined given the timing details of the various asynchronous inputs. What non-derterminism is used for is o analyze such systems in a way that even the “worst-case” realization of the unspecifed part of the input (the timing details of asynchronous environmental inputs for example) is not “too bad” in terms of the property of the system that is being analyzed.

          In particular, non-determinism in computational models like Turing machines or finite state automate is a mathematical device, and not a precise model of physical reality.

          • Howard Kornstein
            Posted May 4, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

            Yes,on rereading my post I see that it gives the impression that I am absolutely certain that the structure of the brain, as a complex multi finite state machine makes it’s functionality non-computable, hence breaking causality from the aspect of what we could define as the “conscious”. But I admit I cannot say this with certainty, I can only say that it is possible ( well -even probable) . We don’t know enough about the functioning of the brain yet to make such a determination. I suppose when faced with the arguments of so many here, who on the scantiest of understanding of brain functionality claim to be absolutely certain that everything is totally causal I overstated the counter argument. But let me state, this is a question that science will resolve, not metaphysics!

            • Howard Kornstein
              Posted May 4, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

              ps: Ahannasmi- it is important to separate out the hardware of the finite state machine(which is totally causal) from the mathematical problem the machine structure is addressing (which may be non-computable). Furthermore a Turing machine structure may “only” be a mathematical model of what is going on, but as such, it is far more capable of determining what is going on than any verbal model.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 4, 2013 at 4:26 am | Permalink

        @ Jeff
        The point I was making was that real-world situations are often so complicated, and the uncertainties so great, that the results of the computation are often unpredictable. My illustration used conscious weighing-up, for convenience, but it could equally well be subconscious. I’m certainly not saying the complexity introduces ‘free will’ where there wasn’t any before.

        While we may regard some decision as ‘uncharacteristic’ to cover up embarrassment, that wasn’t my point. I was instead referring to the occasion where some factor turns out different from what we expected, and had we known how that factor was going to turn out, we would have decided differently.

  36. PascalsGhost
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you often speak warmly of the success of secular Europe. As a European, I think your insistence on eliminating terms like “free will” and “moral responsibility” or “design (in nature” are misguided. Atheists here use those terms all the time, with no implict or explicit reference to theism. In my country there is no death penalty and, while not perfect, the prison system is not overtly aimed at retributive justice.

    Why do you insist that a similar success in the USA requires this eliminativist approach? It can’t be based on empirical evidence and it’s a divisive distraction that has resulted in pointless squabbling among prominent atheists at a time when you really need to be united.

    • PascalsGhost
      Posted May 4, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

      Just clarify that I am using “atheist” broadly as most people I know here are more like apatheists (don’t know, don’t care, live as if there is no god) rather than atheists in the narrower “informed anti-theist” sense.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:11 am | Permalink

        Apatheist? I like it! Hopefully there will come a time when atheists are unnecessary (because theists, like witch doctors, are a dim memory) and everyone can be happily apatheist.

    • Posted May 4, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      I have never claimed that the success of countries in Northern Europe requires them to dispense with the notion of free will or moral responsibility. You obviously haven’t been following this website, for my claim has been that those successes are due to improvements in the social system: universal medical care, less incarceration, lower child mortality, and so on. The arguments about free will and morality are separate.

      Further, I disagree that my thoughts are divisive and result in pointless squabbling that damages the “cause,” whatever that is. I don’t believe that for a second. Rather, I think we’re engaged in discussion that is fruitful. I, at least, have learned a lot from seeing how readers react to my thoughts. In contrast, you tell me to STFU.

      I would appreciate it if you’d knock off telling me what I shouldn’t be writing about. This comes perilously close to accommodationists who say that I should stop criticizing religion because it turns people away from evolution.

      • PascalsGhost
        Posted May 4, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

        This is a very uncharitable reading. I’ll take the points in reverse order

        1) “In contrast, you tell me to STFU[...] I would appreciate it if you’d knock off telling me what I shouldn’t be writing about.”

        First up I’m not telling you to STFU. I recommend your book to everyone I know and appreciate your efforts at dispelling religious nonsense. So let’s not cast this as an attempt at censorship but merely an attempt to steer conversation in a productive direction. This is what you frequently do to compatibilists. You make the argument that they shouldn’t be using the term free will, that they should make more explicit their rejection of dualism etc. Are you telling them to STFU? Of course not.

        2) “I have never claimed that the success of countries in Northern Europe requires them to dispense with the notion of free will or moral responsibility.”

        This isn’t what I claimed you are arguing? To make it clearer, I have heard you frequently make the claim that using term X (usually “free will” or “moral responsibility” but IIRC also “design) would give comfort to the religious. Let’s agree for sake of argument that that is true. So what? If there are no consequences then who cares if it gives them comfort? If there are consequences then what are they? You’ve said things about how secular European countries haven’t needed to replace religious rituals etc, so why is it strange for me to point out that secular European countries haven’t needed to throw out terms that used to have religious significance? Here’s some of the geographic data from that philosopher survey you posted:

        USA = 58.2%
        Europe = 71.1%

        USA 72.2%
        Europe 88.7%

        Both atheism and compatibilism are markedly higher in Europe than in the USA. This data doesn’t fit well with your view that compatibilism is somehow accommodationist, or reflects a yearning for dualist-style control. Surely your hypothesis would predict that countries that are more atheist and have been atheistic longer would have less compatiblist philosophers?

        3) “This comes perilously close to accommodationists who say that I should stop criticizing religion because it turns people away from evolution.”

        Again, you don’t seem to have a problem telling compatibilists they are wasting their time ( so it’s not absurd or sinister for someone to suggest that your arguing with them is a waste of time.

  37. Alex T
    Posted May 4, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink


    You have no such choice to take that action so to say “You ought to defy the law of gravity to get there” makes no sense.

    Because we do make choices. Duh.

    The choices aren’t free, but our actions are influenced by arguments we hear, by our experience, by observing the consequences when others do the same things, by… But you already know all these things, and you know that we know these things. And yet you still act as if the no-free-will side are saying that humans suddenly no longer humans but some sort of abstract billiard ball, coasting serenely through space.

    The same thing I said to Gary – when your whole argument depends on everyone else being total idiots and ignorant of basic facts of human existence, you should stop to consider that maybe you don’t understand something fundamental. You know, like what everyone else is saying. But noooo, you think we’re not merely wrong but denying basic facts about life. I don’t know if I should feel insulted, or if I should feel pity. I certainly don’t feel any respect for this line of reasoning.

    • PascalsGhost
      Posted May 4, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      If you reject contra-causal free will, but believe that humans really have choices then you are a compatibilist. The compatibilist does not claim that choices are completely free, just that they are “free will” choices when they don’t face certain specific constraints (gun to head etc).

      • Posted May 4, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        I think there is a bit more to it than that. Here are some claims that compatibilists such as Dennett make (paraphrasing above):

        - Determinism doesn’t imply inevitability.
        - Options are *real* and not just illusionary.
        - Determinism is *necessary* for freedom, so the claim that free will requires incompatibilism is an error; that would lead only to random choice results.

        Hence the only correct use of free as it applies to choices depends on our brain processes being deterministic.

        • PascalsGhost
          Posted May 4, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

          Sure, I’ve given a simplification because Alex seems way off. He has been arguing that people would need to be “total idiots and ignorant of basic facts” to deny that we make choice, but that is precisely what some people here do (not that I think they are total idiots etc).

          • Posted May 4, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            Yes. And I also think the claim that compatibilists hold their views in order to appease, accommodate theists or rescue some wishful concept of freedom is thoroughly misguided. In actuality, compatibilism is usually combined with physicalism and computational theory of mind, which is about as far from theistic libertarian ideas of “free will” as you can get. Compatibilism, in fact, fits very well with evolutionary psychology.

    • Vaal
      Posted May 4, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink


      You still haven’t addressed the question I keep raising. It’s not “can you still utter arguments to other people given determinism.”
      Of course we can still make noises at one another that will influence us. But it’s the same for every bad argument as well, being part of the causal chain. So to say the answer is “My arguments may still affect your behavior” is a non-answer, since the question is “Do your arguments still make sense? In what sense, deterministically, do we still have a ‘choice’?”

      So, you’ve claimed we still make choices.

      In the following, let’s agree on determinism and our actions are part of the causal chain like anything else.

      To use my previous example: Let’s say I’ve got my hot dog and there is a ketchup bottle and a mustard bottle available to me.

      When I say “If I’m going to put only one condiment on my hot dog, I could choose either the ketchup or the mustard.”

      We typically use the word “choice” in a situation where more than one option is considered a possibility. And this is what I think: that having a choice means either option is a possibility, and that I am free to choose the ketchup or the mustard.

      Is this how you are using the word “choice” given determinism? If not, then you would clearly be using the word in a way different than it’s understood in normal use. And I’d ask for how your new understanding will make sense, and how saying “you ought to choose the mustard” will make sense. If you really do think you are chopping away some grand illusion hidden in the words we use, it’s up to you to explain how the replacement version works, coherently.

      What does “having a choice” mean to you, in a deterministic world?

      If it turns out you are happy to say “Sure, even given determinism it’s justifiable to say you actually have a choice between the ketchup and mustard,” then how is that not running on the same tracks as compatibilism, which acknowledges essentially the same thing?


      • Posted May 5, 2013 at 2:36 am | Permalink

        I think the origin of much of the disagreement here (between for instance Vaal/Gary and Alex/Jeff) is that there are two distinct questions that need to be answered and that have unfortunately been linked together, although they are really separate:

        1) Can we make real choices (i.e. does determinism imply inevitability).

        2) Can we be held responsible for our own characters, considering that we are the result of our genetics and our upbringing, neither of which we are able to control. And If you answer NO! here, then how can retributive punishment be justified?

        My guess, from carefully reading the posts here (!?), is that most people in these discussions would answer YES (we can make choices) to 1), NO (we can not be responsible for our own characters) to 2) and probably most people of a liberal mind set would also not support retributive punishment.

        The confusion arises (as usual), due to different definitions of “free will”:

        Traditionally, the compatibilist position is just that determinism does not imply inevitability (there are lots of variants of course) i.e. you would answer YES, we can make choices to 1) above. But, it’s clearly absurd to imagine that we can reach back in time and be responsible for our own creation (and even if that was possible we’d still be using the character we got the first time around to decide what we wanted our new character to be). So most compatibilists are going to say NO! to 2) above.

        Secondly, people such as Sam Harris deny that we have free will. But in fact they *don’t* mean what compatibilists normally mean by free will as explained in the last paragraph. All they are doing is denying 2). But since compatibilists weren’t asserting 2) in the first place, there isn’t really any distinction between the two positions other than a semantic one.

        Jerry’s point appears to be (as far as I can tell) that Sam Harris is right to deny free will, since the term is still associated in the public mind with the antiquated religious concept of libertarianism (contra causal free will). But, one could also argue that the denial of free will leads immediately to people adopting a fatalist perspective, where nothing we decide has any meaning.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:01 am | Permalink

          I think you are right that semantics is a big part of the disagreement, particularly in what is meant by free will. I think people in these discussions mostly understand what Jerry and Sam mean by free will, and what compatibilist free will means. The disagreement is about what is appropriate to call “free will”, and how history and tradition interact with the usage of that term.

          I have to admit though that compatibilist free will seems kind of nebulous, as though its definition is something like “how people really behave”, which is less clear as a concept than contra-causal free will. What is the most concise definition of compatibilist free will?

          Another confusion is what is meant by choice. That needs some unpacking to get at what people mean by having choices, making choices, and real choices. I attempted to explain this in another reply to you, and I shared the text at this link:

          • neil
            Posted May 5, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

            The incompatibilist syllogism:

            Among alternatives, one is chosen.

            The process of choosing must be consistent with cause and effect.

            Because the outcome observed must be determined by pre-existing causal factors, there could have been no choice in the first place.

            In other words, they implicitly define the words “choose” and “choice” to have meaning only if they are contra-causal, and then they triumphantly announce that they have proven that choice does not exist.

            In fact, it is the same sort of ontological argument that theists make for the existence of god.

            • Jeff Johnson
              Posted May 5, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink


              Just rewrite step three a touch for the compatibilist version:

              1. Among alternatives, one is chosen.

              2. The process of choosing must be consistent with cause and effect.

              3. Because one choice was made deterministically, and we knew not which in advance, voila free will!

              In other words, implicitly re-define “free will” to not mean contra-causal, and suddenly free will and determinism are compatible, like magic.

              • PascalsGhost
                Posted May 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

                There’s more than a touch of truth in both these characterizations. From what I’ve read of your responses, you and I have no substantial disagreements about any fact of the matter, just the way we define words is different. However, there are plenty of people here where the disagreements ARE substantial.

                On the subject of “real” choices, I don’t like (predictably) your definition much. I agree that if you define a “real” choice as “a sort of frictionless or effortless freedom to select any of the options before us” then we don’t make real choices. The possibility-space of choice is most definitely constrained even under a less metaphysically-demanding compatibilist consideration of counterfactuals. For example, when choosing a sandwich from a menu, I am more free (in the sense I define it!) to choose between a smoked salmon sandwich and a roast beef sandwich (both of which I love) than I am to choose cucumber (which I loathe). In other words, adding a bunch of things I hate to the menu doesn’t give me any extra “real” choice, as the counter-factuals required for me to do so would be non-trivial. I appreciate that all that was not how *you* would talk about the menu situation, but hopefully it illustrates why I agree that your version of “real choice” doesn’t exist.

                But is this really what a “real” choice requires? I find it paradoxical that a “real” choice could only be the kind we can’t have. If I grant this definition to you, then we can call the choices we actually do make “non-real choices”. My concern here is that we would still end up wanting to differentiate between “non-real choices” and “non-real non-choices”, for example in Frankfurt-style case etc. I guess it’s a stylistic thing, in the end.

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:23 am | Permalink

          By the way, regarding the fatalist perspective, a couple of things for me make that a non-issue.

          One is that even if all is determined, and while we are making intelligent choices, they are the choices that had to happen because of determinism, if we were suddenly subtracted from the Universe, it would change things (for the worse we all want to believe). So we matter, which is important.

          Secondly, our beliefs and attitudes are an important part of the deterministic system known as our mind. If I believe someone is malevolent, their presence will trigger a whole different set of emotions and behaviors than would a person I believe to be benevolent. Whether my belief is correct or not, this is true, but only if my belief is true will my behaviors be appropriate.

          So it is up to our intelligence to filter and accept good and true ideas and beliefs. If we accept the idea that what we do does not matter and we should stop making an effort, that changes our brain and our belief system, the deterministic state of our brain, in a way that will have predictably negative consequences. So we are better off recognizing and avoiding that mistake, which we will do either because we are smart enough to understand this, or because even if we can’t understand why, we have enough experience to recognize the foolishness of not expending effort to participate in life and try to get or do the things we want.

  38. Howard Kornstein
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Well, from the way I read the posts of Jerry, Jeff et al is that they seem to answer YES to question 1 when it suits their argument for morality, achievement and what they see as the “good” effects of the YES, and they answer NO to question 1 when it underpins things they do not like… such as religious apologetics or punishment.

    This to me forms the philosophical school of what I would call “having your cake and eating it”.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:43 am | Permalink

      That is not correct. The confusion here stems from, I believe, the fact that there are different meanings of the word choice.

      Briefly, I would say we make intelligent choices, but they are not free choices. This is often confusingly stated that we don’t have “real” choices, a statement I agree with only if properly understood. I try to explain in more detail here:

      Regarding moral responsibility, I would say we don’t have free will, and thus can not be held morally responsible, in the sense of judging offenders as evil and deserving to have vengeance and retributive pain heaped upon them. I would say they can be held responsible, in that society rationally needs to hold members accountable to learned standards of behavior. Persons without free will can learn these. Nonetheless success will be variable, and some will fail. Persons without free will can learn from the consequences of their actions, and so punishment is justified, but it would be targeted only at reinforcing good behavior, not at morally justified sadism. Persons without free will can also be deterred, which is an additional justification for punishment.

      Once we recognize the lack of free will and eliminate moral responsibility and moral retribution, we can have a justice system that focuses on rational, rather than emotional, punishments and regimes focused only on deterring, reinforcing good behavior, and rehabilitating, while eliminating unnecessary dehumanization, hostility, and violence against offenders that originates with emotional moral judgment and is justified and perpetuated by and emotional need for vengeance.

  39. Jeff D
    Posted May 5, 2013 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    I guess I joined this thread far too late. Jerry’s opening post and many of the comments reminded me of Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), which may be the last book by the late Ronald Dworkin, whose work I encountered in law school more than 30 years ago.

    Like A.C. Grayling (mentioned by Alex T. above), Dworkin distinguishes between “ethics” (What does it mean to live well, to live a good life?)and “morality” (How should we behave toward other human beings and other creatures?). Dworkin contends that “morality” is a useful concept and an interpretive enterprise. It seems to me that he rejects free will but is a compatibilist. In the tenth chapter of his book, Dworkin methodically (slowly!) lays out arguments for and against a theory of responsibility based on what he calls the “capacity principle” (contrasted with the “causal principle” of control):

    [p. 228] There is an alternate understanding of what it means to be in control. On this different view, an agent is in control when he is conscious of facing and making a decision, when no one else is making that decision through and for him, and when he has the capacities to form true beliefs about the world and to match his decisions to his normative personality — his settled desires, ambitions, and convictions. This is the “capacity” sense of control.

    The two senses of control provide two different principles as candidate ethical foundations for the responsibility system: the causal control principle and the capacity control principle. The first insists that causal control is essential to responsibility; the second that capacity control is essential. . . .

    [p. 229] The causal principle views the question of responsibility from outside an agent’s own ordinary sense of his situation. It asks us to step back from our day-to-day life to try to see our situation as an all-knowing god might view it. It places our mental life in the context of the natural world; it asks us to try to explain our processes of decision the way we explain the workings of our internal organs. It ties the ethical judgment of responsibility to the scientific judgment of causation. The capacity principle, on the contrary, locates responsibility within the brackets of an ordinary life lived from a personal perspective. It makes an assumption of ethical independence: that our conscious decisions are, in principle, crucially and independently important in their own right and that their importance is in no way contingent on any remote causal explanation. Even if we are Pirandello characters, our decisions are genuine facts and whether we live well depends on how good those decisions are.

    The two principles are contradictory: we cannot assume that one is true without denying the other. . . .

    I think that Dworkin was / is on to something here. He’s not just engaging in evasions or word games.

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