Free will

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 23, 2024, from

5. Metaphysics and moral psychology

We now have the main elements of the problem of free will. It is natural to start with the compatibilist position; but this has only to be stated to trigger the objection that compatibilism cannot possibly satisfy our intuitions about moral responsibility. According to this objection, an incompatibilist notion of free will is essential in order to make sense of the idea that we are genuinely morally responsible. But this view, too, has only to be stated to trigger the pessimists’ objection that indeterministic occurrences cannot possibly contribute to moral responsibility: one can hardly be supposed to be more truly morally responsible for one’s choices and actions or character if indeterministic occurrences have played a part in their causation than if they have not played such a part. Indeterminism gives rise to unpredictability, not responsibility. It cannot help in any way at all.

The pessimists therefore conclude that strong free will is not possible, and that ultimate responsibility is not possible either. So no punishment or reward is ever truly just or fair, when it comes to moral matters.

This conclusion may prompt a further question: What exactly is this ’ultimate’ responsibility that we are supposed to believe in? One answer refers to the story of heaven and hell, which serves to illustrate the kind of responsibility that is shown to be impossible by the pessimists’ argument, and which many people do undoubtedly believe themselves to have, however fuzzily they think about the matter. A less colourful answer has the same import, although it needs more thought: ‘ultimate’ responsibility exists if and only if punishment and reward can be fair without having any pragmatic justification.

Now the argument may cycle back to compatibilism. Pointing out that ’ultimate’ moral responsibility is obviously impossible, compatibilists may claim that we should rest content with the compatibilist account of things – since it is the best we can do. But this claim reactivates the incompatibilist objection, and the cycle continues.

There is an alternative strategy at this point: quit the traditional metaphysical circle for the domain of moral psychology. The principal positions in the traditional metaphysical debate are clear. No radically new option is likely to emerge after millennia of debate. The interesting questions that remain are primarily psychological: Why do we believe we have strong free will and ultimate responsibility of the kind that can be characterized by reference to the story of heaven and hell? What is it like to live with this belief? What are its varieties? How might we be changed by dwelling intensely on the view that ultimate responsibility is impossible?

A full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this entry, but one fundamental cause of our belief in ultimate responsibility has been mentioned. It lies in the experience of choice that we have as self-conscious agents who are able to be fully conscious of what they are doing when they deliberate about what to do and make choices. (We choose between the Oxfam box and the cake; or we make a difficult, morally neutral choice about which of two paintings to buy.) This raises an interesting question: Is it true that any possible self-conscious creature that faces choices and is fully aware of the fact that it does so must experience itself as having strong free will, or as being radically self-determining, simply in virtue of the fact that it is a self-conscious agent (and whether or not it has a conception of moral responsibility)? It seems that we cannot live or experience our choices as determined, even if determinism is true. But perhaps this is a human peculiarity, not an inescapable feature of any possible self-conscious agent. And perhaps it is not even universal among human beings.

Other causes of the belief in strong free will have been suggested. Hume stressed our experience of serious indecision, as above. Spinoza (1677: 440) proposed that one of the causes is simply that we are not conscious of the determined nature of our desires. Kant (1793: 93n.) held that our experience of moral obligation makes belief in strong free will inevitable. P.F. Strawson (1962) argued that the fundamental fact is that we are irresistibly committed to certain natural reactions to other people, like gratitude and resentment. Various other suggestions have been made: those who think hard about free will are likely to become convinced that investigation of the complex moral psychology of the belief in freedom, and of the possible moral and psychological consequences of altering the belief, is the most fruitful area of research that remains. New generations, however, will doubtless continue to launch themselves onto the old metaphysical roundabout.

Citing this article:
Strawson, Galen. Metaphysics and moral psychology. Free will, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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