New study: Belief in free will doesn’t make you act better

Is belief in free will necessary, as many claim, to keep society harmonious? The idea behind that claim is that if you’re a determinist, you’re going to be immoral, criminal, or nihilistic. But is there data supporting that claim?

A couple of previous studies have found a positive association between “prosocial” (i.e., good) behavior and either belief in free will or “priming” with passages promoting free will (vs. passages promoting determinism). But, as I wrote last year, some of these have problems:

One of the famous papers used to justify compatibilism was published by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler in Psychological Science, “The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating.” But that paper is problematic. Besides its design flaws (i.e., “cheating” was tested shortly after students read passages either promoting or denigrating free will, with no long-term monitoring of behavior), it’s also failed to be replicated at least twice (see here,  here and here). And there’s at least one paper showing that accepting determinism makes you more empathic and less vindictive, which isn’t that surprising if you don’t think people are able to “decide’ whether to do good or bad things.

Further, that same post reports a study showing that belief in free will is associated throughout the world with belief in strong criminal punishment. There are other studies that show an association between prosociality and belief in free will, but nearly all of them test “nice” behavior only over a short period, usually before the subjects leave the psychology lab! Nevertheless, these studies are touted by free willies as well as compatibilists as supporting the claim that belief in some sort of free will is essential for a smoothly running society.

A new paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science (free access here with legal Unpaywall app, pdf here, reference at bottom and access by clicking on title below) aimed to determine whether those who believe in free will not only show momentary increases in prosociality, but have “nicer” personalities. As authors Damien Crone and Neil Levy state (also giving the conclusion):

The overwhelming majority of studies of the FWB–moral [JAC: FWB is “free will belief”] behavior association involve undermining FWBs and observing momentary lapses in moral behavior, with (to our knowledge) only one study testing the association between dispositional FWBs and moral behavior (Baumeister et al., 2009). As the opening quotes suggest, these findings have been collectively interpreted as implying that people with situationally or dispositionally low FWBs exhibit similar deficits in moral behavior. However, there is little data directly addressing the question of whether free will believers are generally nicer people. Here, we report four studies (combined N = 921) originally concerned with possible mediators and/or moderators of the FWB–moral behavior association. Unexpectedly, we found no association between FWBs and moral behavior.

So have a look at the paper. I’ll summarize its results only briefly.

The authors did four large studies (sample sizes ranged from 197 to 294) measuring various beliefs about free will and then the degree of the subjects’ “prosocial” and “antisocial” behaviors.  The tests involved these assessments:

  • Degree of belief in determinism, free will, fatalism, dualism, and so on. There will several kinds of tests.
  • Measures of prosocial behavior. These involved various games in which people were given the chance to be magnanimous and charitable. The games were called “charity dictator games”. Other tests were used as well, including allocating money among themselves and various designated charities
  • Measures of antisocial behavior. This involved cheating in reporting the results of rolling a die, with the benefit to the thrower given after the die was thrown.
  • A “moral identity” test in which individuals were asked to identify themselves with a person having nine “moral” traits (compassion, fairness, etc.)

The results can be stated concisely:

  • In 3 of the 4 tests, moral identity was positively associated with generosity and negatively associated with cheating, so being a self-identified good person means that you behaved better in the lab tests.
  • But Free Will Beliefs showed no significant correlation with either prosocial or antisocial behavior; in fact, the correlations were negative, with free-willies showing less generosity, although the associations were not statistically significant.
  • In a meta-analysis of the four studies, while moral identity was again positively correlated with prosocial performance in the lab tests, free will beliefs were negatively (but nonsignificantly) correlated with “generosity”.

The upshot is that this study, which had the power to detect correlations of 0.1, provided no support for the view that belief in free will is associated with better behavior, and belief in determinism with bad or antisocial behavior. That in turn means that there is no credibility to the assertion that belief in some form of free will, either dualistic or compatibilistic, is necessary to keep society well oiled. As the authors conclude:

. . . our findings suggest that the association between FWBs and moral behavior may be greatly overstated, with effects being smaller than previously reported or confined to specific contexts, subpopulations, or behaviors. As a result, we believe that there is good reason to doubt that FWBs have any substantial implications for everyday moral behavior. More research is required before actively discouraging free-will skepticism out of fear of moral degeneration.

I reject free will of both forms on scientific as well as philosophical grounds: the former for dualism and the latter for compatibilism. So even if there were an association in these lab tests between belief in free will and good behavior, I’d still put my lot in with the data. It’s time to stop claiming that belief in free will, like belief in God, is necessary for societies to function well.

h/t: Diana MacPherson


Crone, D. L., & Levy, N. L. (2018). Are Free Will Believers Nicer People? (Four Studies Suggest Not). Social Psychological and Personality Science


  1. Kevin Lee
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    This is a term that needs to gain more traction – I love it.

    • Mark R.
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      And we need to save more Orcas to boot! 🙂

    • rickflick
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink


      • Diane G
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:37 pm | Permalink


    • Merilee
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

      Please keep your willies to yourselves😂

  2. GBJames
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink


  3. richard Benton
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink


  4. Posted November 1, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    As James Miles has pointed out, free will belief is widely invoked to support the very opposite of pro-sociality, such as by blaming poverty, squalid living conditions, etc. on the choices made by poor people, so we better-off folk have no reason to be concerned about it.

    Indeed, I have noticed it is hard to find an argument in support of free will that does not disclose, sooner or later, the sentiment that without free will belief we would lose our pretext to make people suffer–i.e., inflict punishment. This is, of course, not new. As Nietzsche observed: “Wherever responsibilities are sought, it is usually the instinct of wanting to judge and punish which is at work…: the doctrine of the will has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, because one wants to impute guilt…Men were considered ‘free’ so that they might be judged and punished–so they might become guilty….”

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      In summary, one could say that the concept of free will is nothing more than a mental tool that was created through evolution, which makes it particularly easy for man to judge, accuse and punish all those who fail to act in accordance with the prevailing norms of morality and law.

      The ingenious Nietzsche identified this underlying tool property of the concept of free will more than a hundred years ago.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    … that same post reports a study showing that belief in free will is associated throughout the world with belief in strong criminal punishment.

    In any criminal justice system based on a “blameworthiness” model — such as ours in the USA — the two factors crucial in apportioning punishment are the extent of the harm caused by the crime and the extent to which the offense is seen to be an act of the offender’s unmitigated free will. That’s why we punish crimes committed negligently or recklessly less harshly than those committed intentionally or purposefully — and why it is often a mitigating factor in imposing sentence that the defendant had a diminished capacity or acted under duress or in the heat of the moment. And it’s why in capital cases one of the aggravating factors that warrants imposition of the death penalty is that the murder was calculated and premeditated, committed with malice aforethought.

    To abandon the “blameworthiness” model, and the assumption of free will that undergirds it, will require a complete revamping of our criminal justice system.

    • mikeyc
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      It wouldn’t be justice either (IMO). There is a big difference between causing harm through negligence and intentionally harming someone. Whatever the justice system does to address them, it would NOT be justice if it did not distinguish them.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        I think that’s how most of us feel intuitively, Mikey. But I’m unsure what the policy justification would be for such disparate treatment in a system based on strict determinism.

        Then again, I’m so steeped in our extant system, I have a hard time projecting how a deterministic criminal justice system would work (even though I’m a faint-hearted determinist myself 🙂 ).

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          Your first sentence rebuts the argument that we invented free will do we could punish criminals.

          We intuitively believe we have free will.
          There us really no other way to tho k am function. The intuition of free will came first. The idea of determinatism is a recent invention.

          I recall the post last week of the speech on Neanderthals by the Swedish professor. In his speech he made the comment that science can not state a negative.
          To deny the existence of free will is to state a negative. Science does not do that.
          Religion does that.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

            Why do you think “what came first” matters? Determinism is either correct or it isn’t. If it’s not correct, if human beings have libertarian free will — if it any given moment a person can choose to do one thing rather than another — then something must break the chain of causation that physics demonstrates governs all actions in the universe. If you believe in free will, what is that something that gives a person the freedom to do other than what the chain of causation would otherwise provide?

            Religious people have an answer to that question, though I don’t think it’s a very good one, but I’ve never heard an adequate secular explanation.

            • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

              I don’t think it matters. Nietzsche did, and other philosophers. That was noted in some of the comments above. Sorry that I confused you but I thought you would have read them and understood what I was referring to.

        • Mark R.
          Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          Has there ever been an actual deterministic criminal justice system? Has one ever been proposed? Like you, I can’t even imagine what this type of justice system would look like.

          I think the best that a “civilized society” can hope for is the type of “open” prisons that can be found in Scandinavian countries. And to lessen the punitive aspects of criminal justice and replace them with true rehabilitation efforts. This, of course, is untenable when the criminal justice system has a profit motive like the U.S.’s.

          • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

            Are you talking about privatization of prisons. I thought that was only in a few states. What other profit motive do you see, if any?

            • mikeyc
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

              About 1/2 of the states have privately run prisons, including some federal prisons. Country wide these prisons make up ~8.5% of the prison population.


              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                Thanks. Had no idea the numbers were that high. I am totally against privitation. In the 1800s some states would rent out prisoners to private companies as workers. It was less expensive for the business owners. It was common not hip feed them adequately and work them to death. Survival rate was not high.

            • Mark R.
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

              The profit motive is based on the business model: imprison more and more Americans and keep them improsoned for as long as possible. Thus the popularity of three-strikes and your out laws, stop and frisk laws, the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentencing laws. It goes without saying that these laws unfairly target minorities, esp. poor black men.

              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

                Our sentences for non violent crimes are too long, I agree with that.
                But do not see how putting people in jail aids or has anything to do with the profit motive. Keeping people in jail costs us money and hurts our economy.

              • GBJames
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

                Private prisons are very profitable for those who own and run the prisons. And for those who take their bribes to keep the prisons full.

              • Mark R.
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

                What GBJames pointed out. For private prisons, their profit motive is to have as many prisoners incarcerated for as long as possible. The fact that imprisoning people (esp. non-violent criminals) costs taxpayers money and hurts our economy doesn’t factor into the calculations, motivations or decisions of the politicians who are paid millions by proponents of the prison industrial complex.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

            Deterministic Criminal Justice System could be a good spin-off of Law and Order.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

                Haha. I had that and the theme song in my head all afternoon because of my joke. But that particular sound is great for the emphasis after saying Deterministic Criminal Justice System.

            • Mark R.
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

              Heh, heh…that would be a good place to start!

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

              In the deterministic criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime that the offenders have no choice but to commit, and the district attorney, who prosecute the offenders who are responsible for their crimes, but not morally responsible. These are their stories. KUN KUN

              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink


              • Mark R.
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                That’s a damned good pitch Diana! KUN KUN

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

                🤣 I’d watch that show!

              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:35 pm | Permalink


    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      “To abandon the “blameworthiness” model, and the assumption of free will that undergirds it, will require a complete revamping of our criminal justice system.”

      Yep. For the better.

      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        So that, in the name of deterrence, we can punish the families of offenders? That seems a reasonable implication of doing away with blameworthyness. On what basis other than not deserving to be punished do you reject this effective deterrent?

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

          Israel punished the family of offenders in Gaza and and West Bank. They think it helps or they would not do it.

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

          News flash! We do punish the families of offenders or, at least, we knowingly and willfully make their lives radically worse. One of the major bad things that can happen to a person is to have a parent or spouse convicted of a crime and sent away. And it happens to millions–a felony conviction every 30 seconds.

          And talk about “separating families” and taking moms away from their little kids, “terminating parental rights,” etc.? Diligence knows no bounds in the remorseless pursuit of “justice.”

          • Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

            What would you do eith violent offenders other than put them in jail to protect society from their propensity for violence?

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

            True, those close to an offender often suffer grievously as a collateral consequence of an offender’s sentence. But the notion of “collective guilt” (including the intentional infliction of punishment of an offender’s family) is inimical to American conceptions of justice and due process. Our constitution itself (Art. 3, sec. 3) proscribes the ancient doctrine of “corruption of blood.”

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

              Collective guilt leads to collective punishment and that’s also something that the international community feel is unacceptable (at least according to the UN’s adoption of the Geneva Convention).

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

                Which made me think of this

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      No re-vamping is necessary. On the one hand there is the criminal: he does know what free will is nor does he care. On the other hand, there is the judge: even if the judge does know the judge’s priority is justice, not the consequences of determinism.

      Judges are not deep thinkers. Judges do not come from philosophy, they come from law: distributive and spartan.

      If you want a revamping of justice: hire scientists to do the judging. They will utilize their deterministic knowledge of the universe to synthesize a society based on laws that regulate all of our behaviors in order to simultaneously minimize and anticipate future suffering. In short, they will adopt engineering controls to minimize future crime and put themselves out of business as justices.

      There are no airbag police. Because air bags aren’t an option. The rest can be done for all potential crimes.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        You’re being a bit cryptic here, Kevin. Are you saying that the acceptance of determinism by lawmakers would have no impact on our criminal justice system — that things would function the same as under a blameworthiness model?

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          The function would be much the same. People who had committed violent crimes would still be incarcerated. But it would be termed for the safety of society instead of for punishment.
          Non violent offenders would have fines imposed and serve short prison sentences so they would be disinclined to commit future crimes. Even in non free will systems short priding ststs and dunes roll deterre future crimes and change behavior.

          • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

            Short prison terms and fines will deter future crimes and change behavior.

            Retraining and time outs change behavior. Whether caused by free will or otherwise.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            Not sure what “short priding ststs and dunes roll deterre” means, OG — though it does have a lovely Chaucerian ring to it. 🙂

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

              Sorry, OG, I posted this before refreshing and seeing your clarification.

            • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

              I rewrote it in the next comment.

            • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

              Some of my ancestors were from Wales. Must have some of their DBA lurking inside. (I had no free will to write that any other way.)

              • Diane G
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

                Deoxyribose Blundering Acid?

              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

                Good comment.😊Sorry for all the typos. 😖

              • Diane G
                Posted November 2, 2018 at 12:08 am | Permalink

                Glad you took that in the spirit intended. 🙂

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

          Function is the same, I think like OG says. I believe that what goes on in the heads of people regarding free will has very little to do with what happens as a function of doling out justice. ‘Blame’ can be left to whatever interpretation someone likes.

          Justice, is ultimately going to be tied to regulations based on science, engineering, and statistically proven methods that form a society with the least amount of crime.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

            Sounds like it’s got the makings of a Philip K. Dick novel to me — maybe a sequel to The Minority Report? 🙂

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Before there can be any complete revamping of the criminal justice system, the first and decisive step must be taken: The knowledge that man has no free will, that man is only a bio-robot, nothing but a particularly intelligent animal, must first of all establish itself in society. How many people in the industrial nations are convinced that there is no free will? 0.1% 0.01% or 0.0001% ?
      We live in the scientific age, surrounded by high technology, but the majority of people are religious and believing, believing in something higher because they want it, because it is so nice to have a faith, so simple…
      It will take a very long time for the majority of the population (including judges, legislators, politicians, teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists and journalists) to be ready to accept this uncomfortable and offending message that free will is nothing but an illusion,

      • rickflick
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. It occurred to me that the set up of the research on this subject is fraught with difficulties. See above experimental methods. How do you find large populations of subjects who have deeply considered the question? Maybe select from philosophy majors who would likely all have learned at least the definitions.

        • Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          I agree.
          One of the greatest obstacles to the broadening of this knowledge about the lack of freedom of will seems to me to be that there is no need, no longing at all among people for this truth. If you want to put it that way, it is a repulsive, a “dirty” truth, of which most people do not want to know anything at all.
          There are even scientists who do not manage to cope with what they have found out in their experiments, e.g. Benjamin Libet, who spent the rest of his research life unsuccessfully trying to prove that the conclusions from the results of his tests were not the whole truth. How then should the ordinary man on the street be able to deal with such unpleasant truths?

          • rickflick
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

            It’s of little or no interest to most people, I’m sure, but understanding the issue can lead people away from a retributive justice. So there would, at least potentially, be value in widespread acceptance of determinism.

            • Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

              I believe most criminologist ma have turned away already from the idea of retributive Justice. Current theories will work their way through law schools which will effect change.

              • Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

                I think the change will come from the top down. That will be quicker than waiting for it to come from the bottom up.

  6. Posted November 1, 2018 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Belief in libertarian, contra-causal free will is indeed not necessary for society to function.

    But compatibilist concepts of “free will” are needed for social interactions. Every time we discuss, for example, whether wearing a hijab is a “choice” or something that is coerced, we are using the compatiblist conception of freedom and will.

    I suspect that the in-compatibilists will now suspect the compatibilists of wanting something more than that prosaic distinction between a “coerced” wearing of a hijab, and a “freely chosen” one, but we really are not!

    [One is about what she wants to do; the other is about what others want her to do.]

    And nothing about that distinction is about determinism or the laws of physics; the distinction is important and holds in a fully deterministic universe.

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      If compatibilist free will simply means people making autonomous and voluntary (non-coerced) decisions, perhaps we should use those words and avoid pointless arguments.

      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

        Yes, indeed! As has been pointed out many times, the difference between compatibilists and incompatibilists really is one only of semantics!

        But the use of “free will” to mean merely and prosaically “autonomous and voluntary (non-coerced) decisions” is both common and has a long history.

        The phrase: “Did you sign this contract of your own free will or were you coerced?” is an example. It’s not a question about metaphysics or violating the laws of physics, it’s about being coerced by other humans. Ditto on whether the hijab is a “choice”.

        Indeed, that’s the normal and underlying meaning of “free will”. The contra-causal meaning is then a false *interpretation* and false *commentary* about the basic and real phenomenon, that we do have a “will” (= desires), and we do value the “freedom” to act on our desires.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

        Yes, we really should be arguing there is no ghost in the machine and “of your own free will” in a legal sense should be replaced with “without coercion”.

        • rickflick
          Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          Well, that’s a concise resolution anyone can accept.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 1, 2018 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

            I think it should be the opening scene of Deterministic Criminal Justice.

            • rickflick
              Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

              While we’re at it let’s update the theme:

              • MerileeU
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

                The Dragnet theme was da best!

              • Merilee
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

                NO idea why the U appeared after my name…

              • rickflick
                Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

                Merilee U da best!

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      “But compatibilist concepts of „free will“ are needed for social interactions”

      Not at all. That is the same argument that is used in discussion about dangers due to a lack belief : we need the concept of god for social interactions.

      But as the Northern European countries with a high proportion of atheists show, Sodom and Gomorrah have not entered due to godlessness.

      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        Are you really saying that the distinction between a voluntary action (something we want to do) and a coerced action (something others force us to do) is not needed in society? Because I disagree.

        And that distinction really is *all* there is to *compatibilist* free will.

        The problem here is that those opposed to compatibilism simply won’t accept the statement of what compatibilism is, they simply won’t accept that that’s all we’re asking for, and instead accuse us of wanting some version of libertarian, physical-law violating free will.

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      “Every time we discuss, for example, whether wearing a hijab is a „choice“ or something that is coerced, we are using the compatiblist conception of freedom and will.”

      You mix the terms and levels here:

      Whether a woman is forced to wear a hijab or not has nothing to do with the concept of free will.
      Even if a woman chooses the hijab on her own initiative, this does not in any way affect the question of freedom of will, because there is absolutely no choice.
      The woman who opts for the hijab could not do otherwise. That is the crucial thing.

      A woman who is forced to do something, against her will, is only restricted in her freedom of action, just as prisoners or children are restricted in their freedom of action, in one case by guardians, in the other by their parents.

      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        “Whether a woman is forced to wear a hijab or not has nothing to do with the concept of free will.”

        It has *everything* to do with the *compatibilist* conception of “free will”, because that *is* the compatibilist conception of free will!

        “A woman who is forced to do something, against her will, is only restricted in her freedom of action, …”

        Exactly, and that’s what the compatibilist conception of free will is all about, because that’s what is important in social interactions.

        • Giancarlo
          Posted November 1, 2018 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

          Coel, are you saying that all compatibilists are really libertarian free will pessimists who are simply defending the compatibility of free agency (freedom to act) with determinism? The classical Hobbesian compatibilist argument perhaps, but that’s not the impression I get from contemporary compatibilists.

          • Posted November 2, 2018 at 4:07 am | Permalink

            “are you saying that all compatibilists are really libertarian free will pessimists who are simply defending the compatibility of free agency (freedom to act) with determinism?”

            Yes. The term “compatibilism” means “compatibile with determinism”. If someone is not doing the above then they’re not a compatibilist.

            • Giancarlo
              Posted November 2, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

              I know what the term “compatibilism” refers to. The issue is that you claim that all compatibilists state that the free “will” they view as being compatible with determinism is simply the freedom to “act” without hindrance from other individuals or situations. That was the goal post moving tactic used by classical compatibilists, but not the contemporary ones, who bring the issue back from “agency” to “will” for example by rejecting the premises of the Origination and Consequence arguments. You can read about it under section 5 of

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink


    • Martin X
      Posted November 2, 2018 at 12:08 am | Permalink

      Every time we discuss, for example, whether wearing a hijab is a “choice” or something that is coerced, we are using the compatiblist conception of freedom and will.

      Which is why those discussions are bullshit.

      The “decision” to wear a hijab (or jeans & a t-shirt) is never a totally autonomous choice, but is heavily influenced by our culture and immediate social environment using very subtle techniques of coercion.

      So it’s not a matter of coercion or no coercion, but what sorts of coercion are involved and whether some are illegitimate by some standard.

  7. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I think the most concise argument that determinism does not lead to immorality and criminality was made by Penn Gilette: “I murder and rape exactly as many people as I want to!”

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Penn is avoiding the clutches of determinism. There are people on this planet he has nor ever will have the opportunity to rape or murder, even if he wanted to. He may have wished to have murdered Hitler, but that opportunity never existed for him.

      The laws of physics determine the number of people Penn rapes and murders.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted November 2, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink


      • Posted November 2, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        But also the number he *wants* to, as well. And his attitude to the want, etc.

        (This where Fischer and Ravizza’s 1990s style compatibilist account fails – it isn’t “meta” enough.)

  8. Roo
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I am a bit skeptical in that I wonder how you factor out selection bias in a study like this (Sitting around musing about the existence of free will is not exactly a common hobby. The default enculturated attitude is to say that it exists, so those who think it does not exist are probably overly representative of those with access to higher education.) That said, I think there have also been studies indicating that increased compassion training is linked to more support for restorative, vs. retributive, justice, which seems to be in line with this study (assuming compassion invokes at least some sense of seeing transgressors as humans with human histories that account for at least part of their actions.)

    My hesitation in invoking ‘free will’ in any conversation about morality is not so much that I think it makes people bad, I think it just makes people confused. Even those who have spent time pondering the idea seem prone to rebuttals that essentially say “Well, if I don’t have free will, how am I even writing this?! No free will is crazy, I’m proving it’s not true right now.” Maybe that’s a defeatist attitude but honestly I’ve gotten to the point where I feel like the idea either resonates with people or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, some other common vocabulary has to be established in order for a conversation to take place.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      That’s just what occurred to me reading the experimental method above. How do you get a large enough cohort of subjects that have studied the issue seriously. Most people are influenced by a naive free-will bias. Perhaps the only way to test the value of free-will is to ask who is nicer, Jerry Coyne or Dan Dennett?

  9. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    It gets terribly complicated to try to find arguments against a philosophy – such as conpatibilism (philosophic dualism) – in empiricism – such as it is possible to model your experience as “free will” brain controlling body when in fact there is mutual interaction. (With famously, experience lagging body/brain action.)

    One would wish that it would be enough to note that “free will” is religious philosophy and not relevant to what happens in nature.

    • rickflick
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Good idea!

    • Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      Nsh. “Free will” is something religious philosophers have been trying to steal for a while now – and you shouldn’t encourage them.

      • Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        “Nsh” -> “Nah”. Wish there were an edit button.

  10. Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I love the authors’ conclusion that “More research is required before actively discouraging free-will skepticism out of fear of moral degeneration.” One pictures all us “free willies” waiting breathlessly for “more research” to signal that it’s OK to start heaping blame on determinists for the moral degeneracy of our times. On your marks, get set. . . .

  11. Posted November 1, 2018 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I think the original Vohs and Schooler results, showing a temporary increase in antisocial behavior, might just be the result of subjects having their beliefs – any beliefs they care about – questioned. Maybe if you questioned their political beliefs, for example, you’d get the same pattern. The data patterns across other studies Jerry cited in other posts support this hypothesis: e.g. Mormon students may care more about free will than the average American, so they show a bigger effect.

  12. Merilee
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 9:24 pm | Permalink


  13. FB
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    It’s like the question about internet: does it make you stupider or smarter? Smarter if you’re smart, stupider if you’re stupid.

    Same with belief in free will.

    • FB
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

      I mean: same with accepting determinism.

  14. A C Harper
    Posted November 2, 2018 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    One of the issues I have with Free Will is that it is rarely defined clearly – particularly individual Free Will and social Free Will. Do different individuals ‘possess’ different strengths of belief in Free Will? Do societies have different expectations of belief in Free Will?

    It seems to me that talking about ‘agency’ and whether it is compelled or not is a much clearer way of teasing out the responsibility for actions.

  15. Posted November 2, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Dear fellow thinkers: Or should I say fellow free thinkers? I say free thinkers because I presume no one forced you to put forth what you said on this page. No one will deny that we think, nor deny that we have wills. More to the point, no one will deny that we have the power, the will, to think or not to think! analogous to, “to be or not to be” that is the question. Biologically “to be or not” is the prime motivation. Who will ague?
    I believe our ability to think and be honest will make or break us.

    We are moved thus. An honest person, a non-predatory citizen, knows that the vernacular meaning of “Free Will” is his power to make decisions free from the direct influence of others. This is the practical meaning of “Free will”. I suggest that we adopt this denotation forth with. Other expanded renderings of “Free Will” are not to be dismissed, I say, understanding that our personal will is influenced by sundree factors,even by factors yet to be understood. This promises a perennial wrestling match on personal levels, the coming of age challenge.

    Free Will, free from what? Sam Harris puts forth an impressive argument against Free Will. I recommend reading it!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted November 2, 2018 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, most people don’t believe in the type of free will you identify but instead to the contra-causal free will of dualism.

      • Posted November 5, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        Diana, Yes! I love your posts here, by the way, Coel’s and others too. I love the in-put. I think you are correct regarding the “Ghost”! I was once a very religious guy. Now I’m an Atheist: I don’t believe in gods or ghosts anymore. Alas, the gods and ghosts are alive and well in the minds of dogmatic religious people – billions world wide. It’s scary! I watched a violent Pakistani mob on this site, demanding death to “Bibi” a Christian woman who they “believe” insulted their god. More than scary! And we’re debating “Free Will”? The’re not interested in debate! The want blood. It’s the “Faith and Force” delima.
        But there is hope, I changed my mind regarding the “Mother loads of bad ideas” so can they. I think, by limiting the denotation of “Free Will” to my suggested or an equivalent, don’t let them hijack the pratical word, don’t throw the baby out with the bath – make them chase their own ghosts, it’s not our job!. I don’t know how we can get them to cooperate; I wish we could.

  16. Posted November 2, 2018 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Odd that the existence of a belief is rarely tested as to whether or not it is used in the determinations of actions. I think most people have spent very little time thinking about free will or could even define it, so their beliefs are only determined by leading questions.

  17. Posted December 22, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on jtveg's Blog and commented:
    These kinds of studies never seem to persuade the opinions of those espousing “free will”. It appears they are “determined” to stay in their dogmatic mindset.

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