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Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

Enter here to explore ethical issues and discuss the meaning and source of morality.
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Can we have free will and moral responsibility?

Yes
13
65%
No
1
5%
Don't know
2
10%
Don't agree with how the question is presented
4
20%
 
Total votes: 20

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animist
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Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#1 Post by animist » May 23rd, 2011, 8:17 am

this is a spinoff from the Free Will thread, which has developed as a long dingdong over the relationships between determinism, free will and moral responsibility for our actions. We can all have a feeling of freedom when we make decisions, but we also know that our decisions are going to reflect our own characters, and these seem to be a result of the complex interactions between our genetic endowment and other factors which might all be called environmental; because of this, we cannot do much to change ourselves (and even if we can change a bit, we have to decide to do so!). So, on the assumption that being held morally responsible for our actions requires us to be genuinely free to decide on how we act, are we free (and therefore responsible for our actions) or not?

You might want to look at some of the arguments in the Free Will thread before voting; it is an interesting but complicated subject which I may not have explained clearly enough above. Please make any comments that you wish to

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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#2 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 23rd, 2011, 3:20 pm

I've answered "Don't agree with how the question is presented", but the answer that sprang most readily to mind was "It depends on what you mean by free will and moral responsibility."

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Dave B
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#3 Post by Dave B » May 23rd, 2011, 4:49 pm

What entered my mind is that if those aspects of our character are in fact due to our genetic inheritance and environment (especially in our "formative" years) should any acts that are completely in character ever be considered as criminal or, as supposedly sane people, are we expected to overcome even the strongest drives from that part of our psyche?

Are the actions that are seemingly motiveless but linked to early trauma actually amoral or immoral or "normal"? (I ask out of ignorance.)
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#4 Post by animist » May 24th, 2011, 9:00 am

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:I've answered "Don't agree with how the question is presented", but the answer that sprang most readily to mind was "It depends on what you mean by free will and moral responsibility."
hi Em, well maybe we should discuss this further :laughter: Seriously, thanks for your recent contribution to the other thread, will ponder it. Maybe you should have been given an AV for your alternative thought? Despite what you say, I would have to count you as a "no" - a sensation of something is not the same as the thing itself.

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#5 Post by animist » May 24th, 2011, 9:10 am

Dave B wrote:What entered my mind is that if those aspects of our character are in fact due to our genetic inheritance and environment (especially in our "formative" years) should any acts that are completely in character ever be considered as criminal or, as supposedly sane people, are we expected to overcome even the strongest drives from that part of our psyche?

Are the actions that are seemingly motiveless but linked to early trauma actually amoral or immoral or "normal"? (I ask out of ignorance.)
sorry, don't really understand this. We are all ignorant on this topic, and I just wanted people to give a sort of gut reaction to the question rather than (or as well as) analysing exactly what it meant

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#6 Post by Dave B » May 24th, 2011, 10:31 am

What I was trying to say was that there is, possibly, a similar situation to the plea of insanity here. If a person with a certifiable psychotic illness commits a crime he/she is sometimes considered not morally, or legally, responsible for their actions.

If we are the product of our genetic heritage and environmental upbringing (where the latter may or may not reinforce the first) and we act according to that situation can we be considered "guilty" if we break the rules (perhaps I am asking the same question you did). If an adult acts in a childish manner, throwing their dolly out of the pram in some grown up way, are they consciously to blame? Or are they the victim of deep seated memories that, maybe, even they do not understand? Should they be considered in the same way as the psychotic above? The French used to have a plea of crime passionel, the crime of passion, though it was usually related to sexual passion - which is a powerful and unconscious drive for some who are, otherwise, quite sane.

Culture and society are the arbiters of what is moral or not but since this may vary in the extreme from culture to culture it can only be an artificial system of value. Things like capital punishment will always be in contention because of this, as culture shifted over the centuries then the attitude towards certain kinds of homicide may also shift (unless constrained by centuries of strict religious doctrine of course.) Most in our culture seem happy to accept that the abused female who, after years of beatings and ridicule and simply because her hand falls on a pair of scissors at the time of an attack kills her partner, should be allowed her freedom.

Yet what of the person caught in the act of abusing and killing a child? Are they merely victims of their genes and upbringing, deserving of our sympathy, or are they a blight on humanity and deserve only to be killed, as humanely as possible, to remove them entirely from the race?

What of the schoolgirl who shoplifts because she a) seeks attention of any kind, b) is a victim of society because we allow our children to learn the false knowledge that they need to have the same "trophies" as those kids with richer parents? Should such children be criminalised, or is society willing to provide the (money for) the support resources such kids need?

Are the values of society a "collective" product, an average, of our multiple upbringings? Is this the shift in modern society where we have shifted from being "instructed" by patronising (then distinctly) middle and upper class people, as teachers, managers and politicians, and now declare that any person, regardless of genes and upbringing, should be allowed to lead all?

Then I look at the family background and education of most of our political leaders . . . Is there tension between two parts of society that may be moving apart?
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Emma Woolgatherer
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#7 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 24th, 2011, 6:10 pm

animist wrote:Despite what you say, I would have to count you as a "no" - a sensation of something is not the same as the thing itself.
First of all, as I've said elsewhere, I believe we can act with free will in the sense that Lord Muck defined it when he talked about acting "in the absence of coercion, duress, fiduciary abuse, deceit, undue influence or the like". That's nothing to do with a sensation of something. Similarly, I believe we can have responsibility for our actions, in the sense of being the ones what did 'em. Also nothing to do with sensation. But it's true that I also believe that what we commonly think of and describe as free will is nothing more than a sensation, or experience of feeling free to act in whatever way we like. But then that's what I think free will is. That is, the kind of free will used in common parlance, when we talk about having the free will to choose to have a mug of coffee instead of a cup of tea. So in that case, the sensation or subjective experience of something is precisely the same as the thing itself. Just as the sensation or subjective experience of pain is pain.

If free will is not a sensation or something we subjectively experience, and it's not referring to Lord Muck's kind of legal definition, then what is it? Surely we need definitions of both free will and moral responsibility in order to answer the question. Though I'd have thought we'd need separate questions for the two concepts.

Emma

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#8 Post by animist » May 24th, 2011, 6:58 pm

OK, ye who have not voted, what Emma says shows that there is indeed more than one meaning of free will and moral responsibility, and she has explained this more fully in the Free Will thread. But I would like to know whether you think that these concepts are a bit firmer than her fairly limited definitions - in particular, do you think that we are free enough to potentially deserve blame and even punishment for any bad actions that we do?

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#9 Post by animist » May 24th, 2011, 11:20 pm

Dave B wrote:What I was trying to say was that there is, possibly, a similar situation to the plea of insanity here. If a person with a certifiable psychotic illness commits a crime he/she is sometimes considered not morally, or legally, responsible for their actions.

If we are the product of our genetic heritage and environmental upbringing (where the latter may or may not reinforce the first) and we act according to that situation can we be considered "guilty" if we break the rules (perhaps I am asking the same question you did). If an adult acts in a childish manner, throwing their dolly out of the pram in some grown up way, are they consciously to blame? Or are they the victim of deep seated memories that, maybe, even they do not understand? Should they be considered in the same way as the psychotic above? The French used to have a plea of crime passionel, the crime of passion, though it was usually related to sexual passion - which is a powerful and unconscious drive for some who are, otherwise, quite sane.

Culture and society are the arbiters of what is moral or not but since this may vary in the extreme from culture to culture it can only be an artificial system of value. Things like capital punishment will always be in contention because of this, as culture shifted over the centuries then the attitude towards certain kinds of homicide may also shift (unless constrained by centuries of strict religious doctrine of course.) Most in our culture seem happy to accept that the abused female who, after years of beatings and ridicule and simply because her hand falls on a pair of scissors at the time of an attack kills her partner, should be allowed her freedom.

Yet what of the person caught in the act of abusing and killing a child? Are they merely victims of their genes and upbringing, deserving of our sympathy, or are they a blight on humanity and deserve only to be killed, as humanely as possible, to remove them entirely from the race?

What of the schoolgirl who shoplifts because she a) seeks attention of any kind, b) is a victim of society because we allow our children to learn the false knowledge that they need to have the same "trophies" as those kids with richer parents? Should such children be criminalised, or is society willing to provide the (money for) the support resources such kids need?

Are the values of society a "collective" product, an average, of our multiple upbringings? Is this the shift in modern society where we have shifted from being "instructed" by patronising (then distinctly) middle and upper class people, as teachers, managers and politicians, and now declare that any person, regardless of genes and upbringing, should be allowed to lead all?

Then I look at the family background and education of most of our political leaders . . . Is there tension between two parts of society that may be moving apart?
you are covering a lot of issues here rather than the one of moral responsibility and free will. Some of the things you mention, eg abused women who retaliate or people who commit crimes of passion, are cases where we say the actions were actually excusable because of provocation or even justified (if avenging sexual infidelity is thought to be OK or even to be expected). Another issue is how to treat children who commit serious criminal acts but are under the age of criminal responsibility, while issues like capital punishment are again more about punishment and the value of life rather than moral responsibility. The question of child abusers is much closer: if you believe that everyone, including these people, is the "victim" of their genes (or of their environment or both) and therefore not free in the "strong" sense that Emma means (rather than in the weaker legal sense that Lord Muck mentioned) then presumably they should not be blamed or punished - obviously they have to be incapacitated some way or other but that's another thing.

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#10 Post by Graham R » May 26th, 2011, 10:49 pm

Emma Woolgatherer wrote:

If free will is not a sensation or something we subjectively experience, and
it's not referring to Lord Mucks kind of legal definition, then what is it ?

Graham R wrote:

It is quite clear what is meant by free will in this instance.
It is not a question of absence of coercion etc, nor our intuitive feeling that we have free will.
It is the question, that given our genetic make-up and our environmental influences, could we ever choose A rather than B.
If we couldn't ever choose A rather than B, then there is no free will and therefore no moral responsibility.
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#11 Post by Wilson » May 27th, 2011, 7:13 am

Here we go again. Technically, we don't have free will. In every sense that is important, we do. Obviously any of us can decide a hundred different things to do tomorrow. As far as we can tell, there is absolutely no constraint on our decisions, even if we know intellectually that deep within our brains, at the quantum level, things are preordained, or close to it.

If there is no moral responsibility, then those who would stone a woman to death or incarcerate a starving man for stealing a loaf of bread have no moral responsibility for what they do. Likewise, those who are guilty of genocide have no moral responsibility for their actions. The human species evolved such that each individual has within himself a sense of right and wrong. There is no absolute standard of morality; each person's is different. Therefore to even say that "there is no moral responsibility" is kind of meaningless, since there is no such thing as absolute right or absolute wrong. Genocide, torture for pleasure, intentional cruelty, bullying, and physical assaults on the defenseless seem morally wrong to me, and those who practice any of them strike me as morally responsible for what they do. But that's just according to my moral system. Yours may differ.

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#12 Post by animist » May 27th, 2011, 8:37 am

Graham R wrote:
It is quite clear what is meant by free will in this instance.
It is not a question of absence of coercion etc, nor our intuitive feeling that we have free will.
It is the question, that given our genetic make-up and our environmental influences, could we ever choose A rather than B.
If we couldn't ever choose A rather than B, then there is no free will and therefore no moral responsibility.
that sounds like a No from you, so have you actually voted?

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#13 Post by Graham R » May 27th, 2011, 10:05 pm

animist wrote:
Graham R wrote:
It is quite clear what is meant by free will in this instance.
It is not a question of absence of coercion etc, nor our intuitive feeling that we have free will.
It is the question, that given our genetic make-up and our environmental influences, could we ever choose A rather than B.
If we couldn't ever choose A rather than B, then there is no free will and therefore no moral responsibility.
that sounds like a No from you, so have you actually voted?
I have now voted, Don't know.
However I have a suspicion that free will is illusory.
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#14 Post by Graham R » May 27th, 2011, 10:06 pm

a
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#15 Post by animist » May 28th, 2011, 8:10 am

Graham R wrote:a
was this to test your free will?

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#16 Post by Emma Woolgatherer » May 28th, 2011, 12:06 pm

Graham R wrote:It is quite clear what is meant by free will in this instance.
It is not a question of absence of coercion etc, nor our intuitive feeling that we have free will.
It is the question, that given our genetic make-up and our environmental influences, could we ever choose A rather than B.
If we couldn't ever choose A rather than B, then there is no free will and therefore no moral responsibility.
Yes, I think you're right: animist's opening post does rather imply this definition. I'm still not happy, though, with the wording, because it implies that our behaviour is merely influenced by, rather than (almost entirely) determined by, our genes and our environments. And by environments I mean everything that affects us, directly and indirectly, from conception to right now. Not just how we were brought up by our parents, whether we lived in poverty, whether we were abused, etc., but everything, down to the last little detail, including all the things that have ever been said to us, everything we've ever watched or listened to or read or drunk or eaten or inhaled, every disease we've contracted, every injury we've sustained, as well as everything we've done so far, all our past actions [---][/---] and the vast majority of all this will be unknown, even to us. Animist talks about our decisions "reflecting" our "characters". For me, this isn't putting it anywhere near strongly enough.

The other problem I had was that "moral responsibility" was undefined in the OP. It may be that we could reject free will, in the sense you indicate, but still believe that we can and should have moral responsibility, as a human-made social convention, because it enables us to function well as human beings living together in societies. But animist's later post clarifies things, when he says: "in particular, do you think that we are free enough to potentially deserve blame and even punishment for any bad actions that we do"? And although this might be a little ambiguous, since "blame" and "punishment" each has more than one meaning, I think "deserve" is probably the word that gets to the nub of the matter. This is the kind of moral responsibility that I'm particularly concerned about, and that I (currently) reject: the kind that implies that we deserve to suffer as a consequence of the suffering we've caused.

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#17 Post by animist » May 29th, 2011, 7:46 pm

Emma wrote: The other problem I had was that "moral responsibility" was undefined in the OP. It may be that we could reject free will, in the sense you indicate, but still believe that we can and should have moral responsibility, as a human-made social convention, because it enables us to function well as human beings living together in societies.
it seems to me that defining the terms in areas like this is part of the response to the question, so I did not try to do all the defining. Actually, I do think that free will in some sense IS needed for moral responsibility, since, in our society as it is, calling someone responsible is often the justification for also calling for a particular benefit or disbenefit to be imposed on them. This is simply a case of our feeling that "ought" implies "could". I don't see how making people responsible for the consequences of their actions could be fair or socially functional without some claim that they could have acted otherwise because they were free.

Anyway, only 7 people have voted, and noone has actually voted No, so come on the rest of TH!

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#18 Post by Alan C. » May 29th, 2011, 9:06 pm

animist
Anyway, only 7 people have voted, and noone has actually voted No, so come on the rest of TH!
OK I voted yes.
Maybe the lack of response in this thread is because free will already has a 17 page (and on going) discussion in the other thread?

I believe I have free will but will not be drawn into long philosophical discussions on the subject as I find it uninteresting. :)
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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#19 Post by animist » May 29th, 2011, 9:09 pm

Wilson wrote:There is no absolute standard of morality; each person's is different. Therefore to even say that "there is no moral responsibility" is kind of meaningless, since there is no such thing as absolute right or absolute wrong. Genocide, torture for pleasure, intentional cruelty, bullying, and physical assaults on the defenseless seem morally wrong to me, and those who practice any of them strike me as morally responsible for what they do. But that's just according to my moral system. Yours may differ.
I agree with your view on moral responsibility but I don't get your linking it to what looks to me like ethical relativism. Moral responsibility only makes sense if there is some degree of agreement on what is actually moral and immoral. Imagine that I think that action A is wrong but you don't. So if you commit A I would condemn you, but you would not be talking about whether or not you were really responsible for A: instead you would justify A. The practices you mention are in fact generally agreed to be wrong, and if I did say that in my moral system they were OK, I very much doubt whether you would actually just accept my opinion. Forget words like "absolute" or "objective", which are inapplicable to ethics, instead think of ones like "unquestionable".

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Re: Do/can we have free will and moral responsibility?

#20 Post by animist » May 29th, 2011, 9:13 pm

Alan C. wrote:
animist
Anyway, only 7 people have voted, and noone has actually voted No, so come on the rest of TH!
OK I voted yes.
Maybe the lack of response in this thread is because free will already has a 17 page (and on going) discussion in the other thread?

I believe I have free will but will not be drawn into long philosophical discussions on the subject as I find it uninteresting. :)
so did I till Emma's impassioned querying of my assumptions made me respond! Anyway, thanks for voting

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