On free will-10: Ethical and legal implications of free will as simply a veto power

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The idea suggested by Benjamin Libet that what we call free will is not the popularly assumed ability to decide all our seemingly deliberate (as opposed to instinctive) actions but consists of the more limited ability to either let the predetermined action be completed or to veto it may be unsatisfying to some but its implications are worth exploring in case it turns out to be true. What this model says is that I have no control over what I decide to do in any given situation but I do have control over whether that decision is actually carried out. In other words, I cannot control my thoughts and decisions but I can control (within a limited range) my actions.

Libet suggests that if, as he believes, our decisions to act are involuntary but the decision on whether to allow that act to be carried out or to veto it is freely arrived at, that should influence how our justice and moral systems should work.

How do our findings relate to the questions of when one may be regarded as guilty or sinful, in various religious and philosophical systems? If one experiences a conscious wish or urge to perform a socially unacceptable act, should that be regarded as a sinful event even if the urge has been vetoed and no act has occurred? Some religious systems answer ‘yes’. President Jimmy Carter admitted to having had urges to perform a lustful act. Although he did not act, he apparently still felt sinful for having experienced a lustful urge. But any such urges would be initiated and developed in the brain unconsciously, according to our findings. The mere appearance of an intention to act could not be controlled consciously; only its final consummation in a motor act could be consciously controlled. Therefore, a religious system that castigates an individual for simply having a mental intention or impulse to do something unacceptable, even when this is not acted out, would create a physiologically insurmountable moral and psychological difficulty.

Religious systems like Christianity punish people for even thought crimes, because god is apparently monitoring everyone’s thoughts all the time to check for any transgressions. But this makes no sense if we have no control over our thoughts (granting for the sake of argument that the idea of a god who can read everyone’s thoughts makes any sense at all). I am sure that if this understanding of the brain ever becomes firmly established, the ever amenable and highly flexible theologians will come up with new interpretations of their holy books to say that how they interpreted them earlier was wrong and that the correct interpretation is that thoughts alone are not sinful. This kind of theological flexibility to accommodate the latest science has been the pattern so far.

Libet argues that secular ethical systems will also have to adjust, though not as much.

Ethical systems deal with moral codes or conventions that govern how one behaves toward or interacts with other individuals; they are presumably dealing with actions, not simply with urges or intentions. Only a motor act by one person can directly impinge on the welfare of another. Since it is the performance of an act that can be consciously controlled, it should be legitimate to hold individuals guilty of and responsible for their acts.

The idea that we should only punish people for their actions and not their thoughts has implications for so-called ‘hate crimes’ legislation whereby people are punished more harshly for the same act if their actions are deemed to arise from intent to harm someone because of animosity towards their victim’s race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation. If what people think is beyond their control, it does not make sense to factor it in when determining punishment. (Since I already oppose hate crime legislation for other reasons, I would not be sorry to have a scientific reason to eliminate them.)

Libet makes a final plaintive plea for retaining the idea of free will by suggesting that according to the evidence, at least at the time he wrote it in 1999, believing in free will is at least as good an option as determinism, and so we should hold on to it until more conclusive evidence against it turns up.

My conclusion about free will, one genuinely free in the non-determined sense, is then that its existence is at least as good, if not a better, scientific option than is its denial by determinist theory. Given the speculative nature of both determinist and non-determinist theories, why not adopt the view that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence may appear, if it ever does). Such a view would at least allow us to proceed in a way that accepts and accommodates our own deep feeling that we do have free will. We would not need to view ourselves as machines that act in a manner completely controlled by the known physical laws.

Benjamin Libet died in 2007 and thus did not have to confront the results of experiments carried out the very next year that seem to provide just the kind of evidence contradicting free will that he clearly hoped would not materialize. I will discuss these in the next post in this series.

Next: Recent fMRI studies of the time sequence of decisions and actions.

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