Moral Responsibility (Free Will pt. II)

I want to elaborate on why I think this question matters. Whether believers want to acknowledge it or not, Christianity makes claims about the universe and how it works. It makes claims about how human beings work. Our best science-based and evidence-based answers to many questions are in direct conflict with the Christian answers to these questions — everything from how did we get here, where are we going, and what kind of creatures are we, all the way to more specific questions like how old is the earth and do human beings have free will. Every discipline that answers questions that Christianity already tried to answer has historically been vehemently opposed by Christians, before small sectors see the writing on the walls and try to square their belief system with our new knowledge. Biology, geology, psychology, physics, and much of philosophy — all these fields have and are still having conflicts with religious people, or at least people who still take religion seriously.

If you read apologetics literature, believers passionately defend the idea of libertarian free will. This is because they understand how crucial free will is to their theology and to their basic narrative about who we are. Most versions of Christianity don’t make sense without free will. How does somebody “deserve” hell — well, I could stop there — but how does somebody deserve hell if they don’t have complete metaphysical freedom? If people aren’t ultimately responsible for their actions, how does it make sense to punish them for an eternity, let alone say that they chose to reject God and that’s why they’re burning? In church, I heard it a million times — “God doesn’t send anyone to hell, you send yourself to hell.” And you “send yourself to hell” through your choices. Your choice to reject God, your choice to sin, etc. But if you choose to accept salvation, you’re rewarded with heaven. This narrative is fairly absurd, but just realize how incoherent it becomes if we don’t even have free will. Or consider the problem of evil. Why is there so much suffering? Well, that’s because of human free will. This is a terrible answer, as we talked about back in episode three, but it is the most popular answer to the gratuitous suffering we see in the world. If human beings don’t have Christian free will, then they’ve lost their favorite theodicy.

But I think that on Christianity, free will makes even less sense because of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient God. If our choices and beliefs can be altered by changing a few genes, as has been demonstrated, or having different parents, or having different experiences, then God must know ahead of time if we’re going to accept or reject him and end up in heaven or hell. Not only must he know what’s going to happen and what we’re going to choose, he must be partially responsible for it. I didn’t choose my parents, did you? I didn’t choose my genes, I didn’t even choose to be born, let alone where in the world I was born and in what time period. God chose all those things for me, and we know beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that these things affect our beliefs and choices. God could’ve altered a few genes and you wouldn’t have any interest in this podcast. You never would’ve doubted at all if you’d been born a few hundred years ago, or with different peer groups or familial groups. Especially if God interferes in anything, like he answers prayers or something along those lines, he would have to know the ripple effect of his actions and how they’ll influence future events.

The kind of free will Christianity needs to make any sense is libertarian free will — total metaphysical freedom that can step outside the long chain of cause and effect and add new things into the causal chain that aren’t themselves the result of prior causes. And this is the free will that we spent last post debunking.

Compatibilism Doesn’t Help Christianity

I want to address the most common objection to determinism from believers, which is that some crucial part of our morality is threatened if we have no free will. How can we hold people morally responsible for their actions if they have no free will? So far, I’ve neglected to mention a view of free will called compatibilism, and this has been intentional. I have my views on compatibilism, but it’s a question to be hashed out among non-believers; it has virtually nothing to do with religion as I see it. Much of what I’ll be saying today does relate to compatibilism, since that discussion has a lot to do with moral responsibility and the language we should use around it. However, compatibilist free will is of no help to the Christian as it does not rescue any of their theology, and like I said, it’s an issue that we naturalists have to sort out among ourselves. The mainstream Christian conception of free will is what I’ve been arguing against — libertarian free will. This is the unjustifiable version of free will that the last episode was about. The Christian conception of free will is pretty easy to square with morality — you’re morally responsible for what you do because you chose to do it. But in a naturalistic world where human thought and behavior is entirely subject to cause and effect, this doesn’t work in quite the same way.

The question of morality is something I take very seriously, and it’s why I’m taking the time to do this episode. I think that the most intellectually honest position of an atheist and a naturalist is determinism, and our conception of morality that was built around our belief in libertarian free will may need some nuancing in the wake of our new knowledge. The most common objection to determinism from Christians, in my experience, is to say that without free will, we have no morality. Society will fall apart. People will murder in the streets. Chaos will ensue if there’s no free will. So let’s see if their assessment has any merit.

Causal Responsibility vs. Moral Responsibility

I don’t think that having causal responsibility is the only conceivable way to assign praise or blame. I think this issue is a lot more nuanced than Craig is admitting here. But I’ll come back to that in a second.

Before everything else, we have to recognize that something can be true whether we like it or not. If you believe in free will, and you think that not having free will would cause all of society to collapse, then you should be extra critical and skeptical of your reasons. Just because you find a conclusion unpalatable isn’t a strike against that position. It’s not about being cynical; it’s just about knowing when you may be going easy on a position because you like it.

Secondly, I think of morality in terms of consequences and suffering. No free will is necessary for suffering to be wrong and for us to want to minimize suffering for conscious creatures. If our morality is defined as that which minimizes suffering while maximizing freedom, no free will is needed to see behavior as good or bad.

More importantly, a lack of free will doesn’t mean that we can’t contain or rehabilitate those who behave anti-socially. Imagine if there was a dog who bit several people on the street. We don’t need immaterial souls, objective morality, or Christian free will to lock the dog up, not let him around people he could hurt, or if possible, condition him or change his internal chemistry so that he doesn’t hurt anyone. The dog can be just an organism, a product of his genes and environment, and we’d still be justified in containing or rehabilitating him.

The crucial point is this: moral responsibility and causal responsibility don’t have to be the same thing. If you have causal responsibility, you have moral responsibility, that much is clear. But does this go both ways? Does having moral responsibility necessarily entail having causal responsibility? No, I absolutely think that you can have moral responsibility without being the ultimate cause of your actions. It just depends on how you define moral responsibility. If you define moral responsibility as causal responsibility, as many Christian apologists do, then no, you don’t have moral responsibility if determinism is true. But if you’re defining moral responsibility as having the right to put someone in prison, or to try to prevent someone’s future behavior, or to try to rehabilitate them so they behave differently, then yes, all those are preserved in a deterministic framework.

So moral responsibility can be preserved in the sense that we have every right to rehabilitate or contain any person who is behaving anti-socially. We have every right to morally condemn them publicly, since doing so will deter similar behavior from others, at least to a certain extent. On the other hand, I fully recognize that we are not the ultimate cause of our actions, even if we intentionally, voluntarily commit murder. This puts me in the company of moral responsibility skeptics, I’m told, but I don’t see how these divisions are useful. I don’t know of anyone who shares my view that we have no free will and also thinks that we have no right to jail or attempt to rehabilitate criminals, or thinks we shouldn’t try to deter immoral and anti-social behavior. This seems to be what some proponents of using free will language are trying to preserve, but I know of absolutely no one who actually thinks that because we live in a deterministic universe, we should free all violent criminals. And if there was someone advocating that, no one should listen to that person.

So what problem is the division between these two camps solving, exactly? I see no contradiction between the ideas that (1) A murderer has no free will, and (2) we should try to stop murder through means of deterrence, imprisonment, rehabilitation, and so on. What I usually say is that I think that we have moral responsibility but not causal responsibility for our actions. Think about an asteroid, like the one that killed the dinosaurs. Someone committing murder is no different than an asteroid hurtling towards Earth. No one would say that it’s unfair or unjustified to blow up the asteroid before it’s a danger to Earth, and no one should think it’s unfair to imprison a murderer, even if his actions are just as determined as the asteroid.

Intentions Still Matter

If a person’s actions were premeditated or their actions were in line with their intentions, we judge them. This is maintained in a deterministic universe. However, I think calling this free will, as some people want to, is problematic. Even if we’re morally responsible for an action, and we intended to do it, and it was entirely voluntary, I don’t think we should call this free will, as some do.

If we want to preserve the notion that our legal system and our moral views should distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions, intentional and unintentional, we can do this without using free will language. An action performed with a gun to your head is importantly different than one performed voluntarily. An intentional murder is importantly different from manslaughter. We can preserve these distinctions in our legal system and moral judgements while still recognizing that we have no ultimate control. Even if you don’t agree with this, you can at least admit that these notions are pragmatically useful for building a functioning, healthy society. Even though these are socially useful concepts that we should preserve, we have to distinguish between building a justice system that works well and honestly inquiring into how human beings work. We have to recognize that the universe doesn’t care what’s socially useful and determinism makes even these lines that we’ve drawn blurry.

Take the case of a 40 year old man who was arrested in the year 2000 for possession of child pornography and molesting his 8 year old step-daughter. The man had no prior history of pedophilia, and said that he was baffled and dismayed at his sudden turn in sexual behavior. While he was awaiting trial, he complained of migraine headaches and it was discovered that he had a tumor in his orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region associated with sexual impulses. The tumor was removed and so were his pedophilic impulses. About a year later, his pedophilic behavior returned and a brain scan revealed that the tumor was as well. The tumor was removed again and so was the man’s pedophilia, this time for good.

Or take the case of Charles Whitman, the mass murderer who shot dozens of people from a tower at the University of Texas in Austin after killing his wife and mother. Whitman’s suicide note elaborated his tortured feelings, documenting his shock and horror at his own budding violent impulses. He had gone to a doctor and explained for hours how he felt violent and didn’t know why. He wrote that he loved his wife dearly and he couldn’t rationally understand why he felt the way he did. He requested an autopsy because he wanted his brain to be examined. It was discovered that he had a brain tumor compressing his amygdala, which is involved in emotional regulation, including aggression.

In both these cases, we can see that their behavior was intentional and voluntary. But it was probably caused by their tumors, and we think that they sort of deserve less blame for their actions because of their tumors.

Here’s the question: how are these examples really different from any other behavior? If your behavior is caused by prior physical events, then it’s not really different than a tumor. A tumor is a particularly obvious example of something physical leading to behavior, but if we were super intelligent and knew all the relevant physical data about you and your circumstances, all your thought and behavior would be just as obvious and predictable. As Sam Harris has said, “It’s tumors all the way down.”

Charles Whitman chose to do what he did. And yet, we judge him differently than someone who would do the same thing with no tumor compressing their amygdala. But again, if we knew everything and could see the entire chain of causes, every action would be as clear as one caused by a brain tumor.

Take a less serious example, like fighting with your husband and then realizing his crabbiness is due to low blood sugar. This is a purely physical and deterministic cause, but you don’t feel stripped of moral agency by this information. It doesn’t degrade you or make you feel like a robot, it frees you to understand the actual cause and fix it and prevent it in the future. And there’s no reason this couldn’t apply to apply to all behavior.

The point of the episode is essentially this: determinism doesn’t mean the end of morality. Determinism forces us to face the fact that if we had a murderer’s genes, environment, and bad luck, we would be that murderer. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to stop him or condemn his actions as immoral. It just forces us to look with utter humility at ourselves.


One thought on “Moral Responsibility (Free Will pt. II)

  1. I wanted to reply then not reply. Kind of a juke move to see if I was in control. Still not sure if I’m going to hit the reply button as I type. I’ve never been a fan of predestined talk. Great work here. Enjoyed it.


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