Is Free Will a Noble Lie?

Belief in freedom of the will has many beneficial consequences. Lab experiments have shown that people reading deterministic, anti-free will statements are more likely subsequently to cheat in their own favor. Researchers have even identified some of the chemical processes in the brain associated with diminished belief in free will:

Since the publication of these findings, a number of studies have documented additional anti-social behaviors resulting from discouraging a belief in free will. For example, Baumeister and colleagues demonstrated that discouraging a belief in free will leads to less helping, more aggression, more mindless conformity, less feeling of guilt, less learning of moral lessons from one’s misdeeds, and less counterfactual thinking about how one might have behaved better.

Other studies have begun to reveal the mechanisms underpinning these behavioral effects. For example, Rigoni and colleagues found that discouraging a belief in free will reduces a specific signal of the brain’s electrical activity (the “readiness potential,” as measured by electroencephalography) known to be associated with the preparation of intentional action. In recent studies conducted in my laboratory, we found that discouraging a belief in free will can reduce people’s belief in their capacity to effectively engage in mental control.

Philosophers have long debated whether moral responsibility requires a belief in freedom of the will. The case in favor holds that “ought implies can.” We only have the obligation to do things that it is under our power to do. Therefore, if it is not under our power to acbrain_regionst otherwise, we cannot have any obligation to do so. Apparently, this view is widespread.

Belief in free will may also have desirable political externalities. Determinist pragmatist John Dewey claimed that bad, old liberalism (what we here at Pileus would consider the good kind) was based on a misguided metaphysics of free will plus outdated social and economic models:

Insistence upon a metaphysical freedom of will is generally at its most strident pitch with those who despise knowledge of matters-of-fact. They pay for their contempt by halting and confined action. Glorification of freedom in general at the expensive of positive abilities in particular has often characterized the official creed of historic liberalism. Its outward sign is the separation of politics and law from economics. Much of what is called the “individualism” of the early nineteenth century has in truth little to do with the nature of individuals. It goes back to a metaphysics which held that harmony between man and nature can be taken for granted, if once certain artificial restrictions upon man are removed. Hence it neglected the necessity of studying and regulating industrial conditions so that a nominal freedom can be made an actuality. Find a man who believes that all men need is freedom from oppressive legal and political measures, and you have found a man who, unless he is merely obstinately maintaining his own private privileges, carries at the back of his head some heritage of the metaphysical doctrine of free-will, plus an optimistic confidence in natural harmony.

Source: John Dewey on Education, ed. Reginald D. Archambault (U of Chicago P), pp. 82-83

What a classic statement of turn-of-the-last-century pragmatist progressivism! What confidence in the ability of “politics and law” to “regulat[e] industrial conditions,” and in the obsolescence of “historic” traditions and beliefs!

Something of this view persists in modern-day progressivism as well. John Rawls’ difference principle, which is typically taken to justify a redistributive state, is based on the notion that no one deserves what she earns in the market, since differential skills, talents, work ethic, and even moral character are all unearned and therefore “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” We can throw all the outcomes of those characteristics into a big social pot and then reason about what to do with that pot.

Law professor John Pfaff makes a similar argument in defense of the PPACA:

Likely part of our opposition to viewing health care as a social good stems from the deep-seated libertarianism that runs through much of our political discourse. (It seems fair to say that even the American left is more libertarian than its European counterparts.) We view our money as our own (“I built it!”), and so if someone wants to take it—to, say, provide insurance for the less well-off—the justification burden is high. But there are two problems with that argument, one general and one perhaps more specific to health care issues.

More generally, our liberatarianism is likely tied to our perceptions that our economy is a meritocracy. Of course, we grossly overstate the degree of intergenerational mobility (the “American Dream” is more alive in Sweden than here), but there is an even deeper problem with the libertarian/meritocratic perspective: to a perhaps-disturbing degree, meritocracies reward generic lotteries.

In our economy, smart people rise to the top, but those smart people didn’t earn their intelligence, they were born with it. And to the extent that it was nurtured and cultured, that is due to their parents (since the returns on education are greatest when we are quite young, and thus before we are making many decisions on our own). And that work ethic? Again, significantly genetic and parental.

It’s true: you really didn’t build it, or at least not all of it. Which isn’t to argue for some sort of completely-leveling socialist state. Incentives are important, and those who take risks need rewards to compensate them. But once we realize that meritocracies are largely genetic and birth-parent lotteries, the moral claim on wealth becomes a bit weaker on the margin, and the moral argument for taking care of the less-lucky-in-birth becomes stronger.

But what happens to people who believe that everything about them, down to their own work ethic and their moral character, is unearned? According to psychology experiments, they slack off. They lie, cheat, and steal. And they vote for big government.

By contrast, conscientiousness, which depends on a strong belief in one’s own efficacy, correlates strongly with academic and economic success. I can’t help but wonder whether this might be an omitted variable driving an observed correlation between income and voting behavior, controlling for education, in Western democracies. Higher-income people are more economically liberal in the “historic” sense. I doubt that is due to selfishness so much as a belief that everyone can do better by trying harder. That belief drives both classical liberalism and success in life.

So the question is: Is freedom of the will a noble lie? I argue that it’s not.

The reason freedom of the will is not a noble lie is that it’s not a lie. No amount of scientific evidence can disprove the existence of free will. The hypothesis that all our actions are determined by our brain, which is a physical object subject to physical laws, extending in a long chain of deterministic causation back through time, is scientifically useful and may even generate medical advances in the treatment of brain disorders. But freedom of the will, rightly understood, does not mean that our brains are somehow ungoverned by physical laws. Instead, freedom of the will refers to the fact that we experience ourselves as the authors of our own actions, and we believe (most of us) that such authorship is essential to moral responsibility, which is in turn a fundamental axiom. If we believe in morality, we must also believe in freedom of the will; the latter is a necessary postulate for the former. While Rawls tried to capture the spirit of Kant in some respects, he certainly missed Kant’s forceful argument on this point. We cannot give ourselves moral commands if we do not think that we can act otherwise (from what we would have done in the absence of those moral commands). Morality loses its efficacy when we reject moral self-authorship — and then there is no reason to accept morality at all. To postulate that we are the authors of our own actions is a statement on a different plane from the statement that our brains are subject to physical laws. The two are unconnected: one statement is about the self as subject, while the other is about the human body as object of inquiry.

To conclude, then, freedom of the will is a noble truth. We would do well to spread knowledge of it.

4 thoughts on “Is Free Will a Noble Lie?

  1. Thus the hard push for genetic excuses in every aberrant behavior in the last 50 years. “I can’t change myself. I was born that way.” “Kids will have sex anyway. They are wired that way.” ad infinitum. I would like you to do an article contrasting your concepts of free will with the geometric increase in teaching that we are all products of nature without responsibility for our actions.

  2. Nice post, Jason.

    I wonder how anyone who thinks that free will is a noble will would explain the findings you describe at the start of the post. Why would telling people “the truth” about how little control they have over their own actions change their behavior unless they were, in fact, in control of their behavior in the first place?

    1. Good question! I guess you could see these experiments as proof that “free will” of a certain kind exists. But a savvy determinist would claim that we are predetermined to believe in free will, and when that belief is shaken, to respond in certain ways. Still, many philosophical determinists will essentially go along with what I am saying here about the necessity of free will to moral responsibility. The conception I’m defending here is a variety of “compatibilism,” the view that scientific determinism and free will of a certain kind are mutually consistent.

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