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Determinism, free will and responsibility Watch

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    In my mind, there are (at least) two different ways to sketch out a criticism of free will. There is what I'll call the compassionate case against free will, and then what I'll call the analytical case. I think that really they amount to the same thing, contrary to popular thought.

    Many academics, would-be philosophers and inquisitive young people are familiar with 'the analytical case'. The argument is fairly straightforward: the universe is deterministic*, and every event has a cause (or a set thereof). Given that every event - and therefore every decision made by anyone - is simply the result of a set of prior causes, it doesn't make sense to argue that individuals are the ultimate authors of their actions.

    Certainly individuals still make choices, but they can't make choices other than the ones that they in fact do. The only way someone could have done differently to what they actually did were if the set of prior causes dictating their decision were different. But saying 'I would have done differently were there a different set of prior causes' is no different from saying ' I would have done differently were I in a different universe': this is, at best, a truism. Semantics (and therefore compatibilism, I controversially assert) aside, this certainly isn't a sensible conception of free will.

    However, the compassionate case against free will is less familiar, perhaps because it isn't usually sold as anything to do with free will. As described in the article above, the compassionate case simply relies on empathy: imagine being someone else, and then realise that in all situations, you would do whatever they would do. Given this knowledge, how can you then blame them for anything they do?

    To some people this is intuitively compelling at first hearing, and seems almost like common sense: it certainly is the case that almost everyone recognises certain circumstances - e.g. psychopathy, coercion, brain tumours, poverty etc. - as exculpatory, or at least we recognise a reduced sense of responsibility in these situations.

    It is my contention that this is no different from the 'analytical' argument above. There is no fundamental difference in terms of ethical responsibility between someone's mental state of mind, social status, physical state of brain and every other situation contributing to their behaviour. Therefore any fully described situation - or full set of prior causes - should be seen as fully exculpatory. More generally, arguing from empathy that one person would do precisely the same as another were they in identical situations is simply a more appealing reformulation of the argument from analysis: prior causes fully explain all decisions. And yet many people buy into this empathy fully and still maintain a belief in free will, not seeing the relationships and contradictions here.

    So, what do you think? Do you buy into either of these arguments? If just one, where do you think the distinction lies? And if neither, do you think you have good reason to believe in some conception of free will? If so, what conception and what reasoning?
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    (Original post by Flowersong)
    In my mind, there are (at least) two different ways to sketch out a criticism of free will. There is what I'll call the compassionate case against free will, and then what I'll call the analytical case. I think that really they amount to the same thing, contrary to popular thought.

    Many academics, would-be philosophers and inquisitive young people are familiar with 'the analytical case'. The argument is fairly straightforward: the universe is deterministic*, and every event has a cause (or a set thereof). Given that every event - and therefore every decision made by anyone - is simply the result of a set of prior causes, it doesn't make sense to argue that individuals are the ultimate authors of their actions.

    Certainly individuals still make choices, but they can't make choices other than the ones that they in fact do. The only way someone could have done differently to what they actually did were if the set of prior causes dictating their decision were different. But saying 'I would have done differently were there a different set of prior causes' is no different from saying ' I would have done differently were I in a different universe': this is, at best, a truism. Semantics (and therefore compatibilism, I controversially assert) aside, this certainly isn't a sensible conception of free will.

    However, the compassionate case against free will is less familiar, perhaps because it isn't usually sold as anything to do with free will. As described in the article above, the compassionate case simply relies on empathy: imagine being someone else, and then realise that in all situations, you would do whatever they would do. Given this knowledge, how can you then blame them for anything they do?

    To some people this is intuitively compelling at first hearing, and seems almost like common sense: it certainly is the case that almost everyone recognises certain circumstances - e.g. psychopathy, coercion, brain tumours, poverty etc. - as exculpatory, or at least we recognise a reduced sense of responsibility in these situations.

    It is my contention that this is no different from the 'analytical' argument above. There is no fundamental difference in terms of ethical responsibility between someone's mental state of mind, social status, physical state of brain and every other situation contributing to their behaviour. Therefore any fully described situation - or full set of prior causes - should be seen as fully exculpatory. More generally, arguing from empathy that one person would do precisely the same as another were they in identical situations is simply a more appealing reformulation of the argument from analysis: prior causes fully explain all decisions. And yet many people buy into this empathy fully and still maintain a belief in free will, not seeing the relationships and contradictions here.

    So, what do you think? Do you buy into either of these arguments? If just one, where do you think the distinction lies? And if neither, do you think you have good reason to believe in some conception of free will? If so, what conception and what reasoning?
    This is going to be a long post. Apologies in advance.


    The main reason we're really interested in whether or not people have "free will" in practice, is to help us decide the extent to which it is appropriate to hold them morally responsible (i.e. reward or punish them) for their behaviour. So, (I'm touching on semantics and compatibilism here,) whilst there are several different possible things that the term "free will" could technically mean, the most appropriate way to define it for these purposes would be such that it equates to the appropriateness of being rewarded or punished.

    In order to do this, we have to think about why we bother rewarding or punishing people at all. The practical purpose of this is not to just to nominally credit or blame someone for their behaviour, but to actually incentivise them into behaving a certain way. We reward people for good work so that they do even more good work in the hope of further rewards. We punish crimes so that people stay away from those crimes due to the fear of being punished. Also, when we consider conditions that give rise to a "reduced sense of responsibility" for bad behaviour, they tend to actually be conditions that reduce the effectiveness of any punishment as a deterrent (e.g. a person with a mental illness may commit a crime whether you threaten punishment or not, and so the punishment may just cause unnecessary suffering and be of limited use as a deterrent).


    Looking at your "analytical case", an individual's perception of a potential reward or punishment would form part of the set of prior causes that eventually lead up to their action. For example a person might say "I didn't rob the bank, but I would have if there were no chance of getting caught and punished", or "I don't work at weekends, but I would if I got paid more for it". Since humans are able to make choices like this, by giving consideration to the desirability of their likely future consequences, it makes the case that reward and punishment are successful methods of influencing those choices and incentivising good behaviour over bad behaviour.

    A sensible way of defining "free will", such that it corresponds to the appropriateness of reward and punishment might therefore be: The ability to perform an action as a direct result of having consciously considered and preferred the overall expected consequences of that action over any other.

    This definition appears to make intuitive sense. Humans and animals clearly exercise this sort of free will, but computers and inanimate objects do not appear to, and so we only reward or punish the former two rather than the latter two. Rather than just generally saying "I would have done differently if there were a different set of prior causes" (which is true even of a computer or an inanimate object), we're referring to a very specific prior cause, namely the conscious expectation and preference of some future consequences over others. Also, this definition of free will seems more appropriate for our purposes than "the ability to perform any of several different actions given identical prior conditions", because this has no direct implications for the appropriateness of reward or punishment.


    Now looking at your restatement of the analytical case, the "argument from empathy", it is true that we can empathise with someone who has committed a crime and is about to be punished, knowing that if we were them and were subject to the same prior conditions, we would have committed the same crime and received the same punishment.

    However, I don't see this as an argument against free will, nor do I consider it to render all prior conditions exculpatory. This is because by punishing that person, we are still ensuring that people continue to associate undesirable consequences with that crime, and thus deter them away from it by shaping the prior conditions for their future actions. Had it been me in their position committing the same crime, although it might be kamikaze for me to say it, I believe society would do well to punish me too. Plus we can also measure the argument against common sense: What would happen if we indeed considered all prior conditions exculpatory and stopped punishing all crimes from this day forward? Clearly, all hell would break loose.

    So whilst I buy into the premise of your argument from empathy, I disagree with its conclusion as a criticism of free will and punishment. The first point at which it goes astray, as with the analytical case, is perhaps a slightly misconstrued idea of what reward and punishment are actually for (and hence how free will should be defined). The second problem with this particular argument is that it makes itself sound convincing to people by impairing their objectivity, because they emotionally invest in the situation when considering it applicable to them, and because of their own natural biases it becomes difficult to argue in favour of something that is to their own detriment - namely, themselves being punished.

    Having said that, the argument from empathy is a good argument for us to do just that: empathise with other people, feel sorry that they failed to accurately judge the consequences of their actions and made unwise choices as a result, and take it as an incentive/prior condition in our own choice to exercise greater caution when choosing and considering the consequences of our actions.
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    (Original post by tazarooni89)
    This is going to be a long post. Apologies in advance.


    The main reason we're really interested in whether or not people have "free will" in practice, is to help us decide the extent to which it is appropriate to hold them morally responsible (i.e. reward or punish them) for their behaviour. So, (I'm touching on semantics and compatibilism here,) whilst there are several different possible things that the term "free will" could technically mean, the most appropriate way to define it for these purposes would be such that it equates to the appropriateness of being rewarded or punished.

    In order to do this, we have to think about why we bother rewarding or punishing people at all. The practical purpose of this is not to just to nominally credit or blame someone for their behaviour, but to actually incentivise them into behaving a certain way. We reward people for good work so that they do even more good work in the hope of further rewards. We punish crimes so that people stay away from those crimes due to the fear of being punished. Also, when we consider conditions that give rise to a "reduced sense of responsibility" for bad behaviour, they tend to actually be conditions that reduce the effectiveness of any punishment as a deterrent (e.g. a person with a mental illness may commit a crime whether you threaten punishment or not, and so the punishment may just cause unnecessary suffering and be of limited use as a deterrent).


    Looking at your "analytical case", an individual's perception of a potential reward or punishment would form part of the set of prior causes that eventually lead up to their action. For example a person might say "I didn't rob the bank, but I would have if there were no chance of getting caught and punished", or "I don't work at weekends, but I would if I got paid more for it". Since humans are able to make choices like this, by giving consideration to the desirability of their likely future consequences, it makes the case that reward and punishment are successful methods of influencing those choices and incentivising good behaviour over bad behaviour.

    A sensible way of defining "free will", such that it corresponds to the appropriateness of reward and punishment might therefore be: The ability to perform an action as a direct result of having consciously considered and preferred the overall expected consequences of that action over any other.

    This definition appears to make intuitive sense. Humans and animals clearly exercise this sort of free will, but computers and inanimate objects do not appear to, and so we only reward or punish the former two rather than the latter two. Rather than just generally saying "I would have done differently if there were a different set of prior causes" (which is true even of a computer or an inanimate object), we're referring to a very specific prior cause, namely the conscious expectation and preference of some future consequences over others. Also, this definition of free will seems more appropriate for our purposes than "the ability to perform any of several different actions given identical prior conditions", because this has no direct implications for the appropriateness of reward or punishment.


    Now looking at your restatement of the analytical case, the "argument from empathy", it is true that we can empathise with someone who has committed a crime and is about to be punished, knowing that if we were them and were subject to the same prior conditions, we would have committed the same crime and received the same punishment.

    However, I don't see this as an argument against free will, nor do I consider it to render all prior conditions exculpatory. This is because by punishing that person, we are still ensuring that people continue to associate undesirable consequences with that crime, and thus deter them away from it by shaping the prior conditions for their future actions. Had it been me in their position committing the same crime, although it might be kamikaze for me to say it, I believe society would do well to punish me too. Plus we can also measure the argument against common sense: What would happen if we indeed considered all prior conditions exculpatory and stopped punishing all crimes from this day forward? Clearly, all hell would break loose.

    So whilst I buy into the premise of your argument from empathy, I disagree with its conclusion as a criticism of free will and punishment. The first point at which it goes astray, as with the analytical case, is perhaps a slightly misconstrued idea of what reward and punishment are actually for (and hence how free will should be defined). The second problem with this particular argument is that it makes itself sound convincing to people by impairing their objectivity, because they emotionally invest in the situation when considering it applicable to them, and because of their own natural biases it becomes difficult to argue in favour of something that is to their own detriment - namely, themselves being punished.

    Having said that, the argument from empathy is a good argument for us to do just that: empathise with other people, feel sorry that they failed to accurately judge the consequences of their actions and made unwise choices as a result, and take it as an incentive/prior condition in our own choice to exercise greater caution when choosing and considering the consequences of our actions.
    For the most part I don't disagree. However, I think it is a very rare individual who buys into this conception of free will. Many people like to think that individuals who exercise their free will actually deserve to suffer as an end in itself rather than simply a means to correct for future behaviour. I can't remember exactly where I read this so it could be ********, but I'm sure some supreme court ruling in the US once specified that free will and retributive justice were integral to the US justice system.

    So, practically speaking I think I'm on board with your worldview in this area. I say that I reject free will, but I contend that nothing of substance is really lost in this rejection, and that it's still perfectly rational to employ 'punishment' as deterrence, or otherwise as a tool for preventing future re-offending. It seems like for the most part we disagree only on semantics i.e. how we should define free will. However, I do think that many people would reject your conception of free will as 'actual' free will, and would instead hold onto the classical/traditional conception whereby individuals 'could have done differently'. Hence I'm not sure it's sensible to 'redefine' free will in this way, as it makes nuanced conversation around this other conception harder.

    One more fundamental disagreement I do have though, is your inclusion of the consciousness. Why need someone or something be conscious in order for us to incentivise it to behave a certain way? I think what I mean is probably quite clear when thinking about future AI (i.e. 'would androids [or any sufficiently advanced computers with general intelligence] have free will?') but actually could not the same definition be just as reasonably applied to any organism or structure with the capacity to take stimuli into account in order to determine future behaviour?
 
 
 
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