On free will-15: Acting as if there is free will

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

Let’s consider two scenarios. In one case, John carefully plans and executes a murder. In the other case, Susan kills an assailant who attacks her. With a belief in free will, we assume that John freely made a willful and conscious decision to commit that act and is thus more culpable than Susan who reacted on the spur of the moment out of the instinct for self-preservation and thus did not use her free will. We thus feel justified in punishing John more harshly than Susan.

If there is no free will, that means that both John’s and Susan’s actions were the result of unconscious neural activity, the only difference being that John’s neural activity had sufficient lead time to create conscious thoughts. Shouldn’t the planned murder be treated in the same way as the self-defense? Doesn’t that imply that they should be punished the same? Is this fair?

No, we don’t have to punish them equally because the idea of fairness is determined by the rules that society has set for itself in order to function in an orderly manner. We may concede that in the absence of free will, the murderer who carefully planned his actions is no worse morally than the person who killed in self-defense, because both actions were the product of unconscious neural activity, but that does not preclude us from punishing them differently in order to achieve society’s purposes. Since the purpose of punishment is deterrence and deterrence is presumed to work whether we have free will or not, it makes sense for us to punish John more harshly in order to deter others from committing premeditated murder.

As a practical matter, the lack of free will may be buried so deep that we agree to run our lives and societies on the assumption that people are responsible for their actions, i.e., as if free will exists. As Steven Pinker says, (The Blank Slate, p. 180) “Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull.”

In fact, in terms of our everyday practical lives, a society that believes in the fiction of free will be almost indistinguishable from one that does not. The complexity and unpredictability of human behavior is sufficient for us to continue to treat free will as the proximate basis on which we make decisions, even if there is no free will at the ultimate neural level.

Deciding to organize society on the basis of treating people as if they have free will even if we know they haven’t may sound odd but that kind of arrangement is not unusual. We do it all the time. For example, we manufacture all kinds of excuses for carefully planned murders to avoid punishing the killers. When the state executes prisoners, it is carrying out a carefully planned murder. No one would argue that it was done instinctively in self-defense or that we are not aware of what we are doing. But we excuse such murders. When countries go to war, they carefully plan and murder thousands of people, many of them totally innocent of any wrongdoing. Society has agreed to treat such murders as if they are not murders.

But there is a huge difference between truly believing in a fiction like free will and knowing that it is merely a convenient fiction. In the former case, it drives the way we think about things and can thus lead to erroneous policies, while in the latter case, the idea of free will does not form the basis for policymaking and the details of the fiction can be adjusted if necessary to conform to the needs of reality.

In fact the case can be made that the traditional notion of free will, that of an independently existing mind or soul that could truly act freely would, if true, be more dangerous to society because such an entity would not care what happened to the body and thus could command the body to do whatever it likes irrespective of the consequences. In fact, this is what drives religious fanatics who commit atrocities. They believe that their souls or spirits or whatever they call this independent entity that they consider their ‘true’ selves will not only survive their bodies’ demise, it will even reap rewards for their suicidal actions. It is such people who can be so cavalier about taking personal risks in their quest to harm others. A person who believes that the body and mind are merely different aspects of a single biological entity, and that the death of the former will result in the simultaneous disappearance of the latter, is far more likely to want to preserve the body and so act more prudently.

So the concept of free will, in addition to being unsustainable scientifically, is also undesirable as a practical matter. It is time to give it up.

Next: The unwarranted fear of determinism


  1. says

    Shalom Mano,

    I’ll allow you the first part:

    “Since the purpose of punishment is deterrence and deterrence is presumed to work whether we have free will or not,”

    because of the qualifier “presumed.” The second part, however:

    “it makes sense for us to punish John more harshly in order to deter others from committing premeditated murder,”

    may make sense but not in light of the accumulated statistical evidence.

    Texas, where capital punishment is both (relatively) swift and sure in murder cases (the state is No. 1 in executions with 24 executions in 2009 alone), should have a low murder rate. Sadly, the opposite is true. Texas has the 17th highest murder rate — 5.4 per 100,000 population, Louisiana is No. 1 with a rate 11.8/100,000 and New Mexico is No. 2 with a rate of 8.7/100,000.

    Source: Death Penalty Information Center



  2. says


    The idea that punishment is a deterrence to crime (which is what this post says) does not imply that there is a steadily increasing relationship between punishment and deterrence. It may well be a curve that flattens out after some level of punishment has been reached.

    I agree with you that the death penalty (apart from being morally wrong) is not a deterrent but that does not mean that we should not punish people at all for crimes, or view some crimes as worthy of greater punishment than others.

  3. says

    Shalom Mano,

    I think that punishment is the wrong paradigm here.

    If a person behaves in a way dangerous or unacceptable to a society’s rules then the person needs to be isolated and, if possible, fixed.

    Granted, punishment can be seen as a form of fixing, but I think we have advanced sufficiently to move beyond negative reinforcement for proscribed acts and would rather see the problem addressed with finer instruments than we use now.



  4. says

    I recall from that video that Prof. Singham posted, where one scientist compared humans to hurricanes.

    We don’t consider hurricanes “evil” and punish them.

    Likewise, I can’t see why we should consider punishing people. We arrest and rehabilitate them.

    We become immoral when we punish someone who isn’t who they were.

  5. says

    I don’t believe in the death penalty. As the first commenter said, it does not deter crime and basically it is just two wrongs trying to make a right.

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