The Possibility of Free Will and Moral Responsibility
What would be the consequences if free will was just an illusion? If free will was just an illusion – as many scientists and philosophers claim –, we would not be morally responsible for our actions, because we could not have done otherwise. If we could not have done otherwise, it would not be morally justifiable to deserve blame, praise or (legal) punishment. Furthermore, it would not be necessary to feel any guilt for your own bad action, to be grateful for good actions of others, to be resentful towards bad actions of others or to forgive bad actions of others. It would be kind of useless to strive to achieve a personal goal, to strive for self-improvement or to endeavor to be a moral person by acting according to higher values – due to the common claim that free will is just an illusion, because every action can be reduced to its determined biological, sociological or psychological mechanisms.
Hereby, this essay aims to argue against the common claim of philosophers and scientists that free will is just an illusion. My general thesis is that it is possible that we have a free will – and that we are morally responsible for our actions – if we understand free will as a potentiality that can be actualized – or not. To argue for this thesis, this essay is divided into four parts: In the first part, the most important key terms and basic assumptions of this essay are briefly defined. In the second part, the two metaphysical pre-conditions are discussed, which are the basis for the arguments in the third part, which should support my thesis. Finally, the common claim that free will is just an illusion, will be critically reflected in the fourth part.
Definitions and basic assumptions
At first, it is necessary to define some key terms that are essential for this essay: An action is defined as “someone’s doing something intentionally.” (Hornsby 2005, 5) Moral responsibility is characterized by the possibility of having a moral obligation or deserving blame, praise, punishment or reward for a morally significant action (Klein 2005, 815). The concept of free will or freedom is characterized by choices or actions that are in a way free – he or she could have done otherwise. On the contrary, the concept of determinism is constituted by choices or actions that are causally determined – he or she could not have done otherwise. The concept of metaphysical freedom involves “not being completely governed by deterministic causal laws” (Weatherford, Roy 2005, 313 f.).
It is obvious that there is a strong interdependency between these terms: Acting intentionally is an essential requirement that someone (or something) can be considered to have a free will. On the other hand, free will is a necessary pre-condition that someone can be held morally responsible for an action. There is no free will without moral responsibility and there is no moral responsibility without free will. Based on these rough definitions, the basic assumptions and definitions of this essay can be formulated:
(1) If someone acted freely, he or she was the source of his or her action and he or she could have done otherwise.
(2) If someone could not have done otherwise, he or she is not morally responsible for his or her action.
(3) If someone could have done otherwise, he or she is morally responsible for his or her action.
(4) To be morally responsible for an action, at least a minimum amount of freedom is required.
(5) Morality is more than just a societal constructed concept. It is possible to strive for morally good actions as much as it is possible to strive for true knowledge.
The fifth assumption should exclude those philosophical debates which deny any morality completely as well as societal views which debate about whether morality can at least be considered as a societal concept (and whether it is at least societally desirable to punish an unmoral action of a person). Such as a scientist needs to presuppose in his or her researches that there is such an ideal as truth – otherwise, writing this essay would be a waste of time and being a philosopher would not make any sense –, a person who strives for morally good actions needs to presuppose that there is such an ideal as morality or good (and evil) – otherwise, trying to act morally or researching on good or bad actions would not make any sense.
The 2 metaphysical pre-conditions of free will
In my experiences, thinking and meditating about free will finally always ends up by fundamental questions like that: “Is it possible to fully explain the phenomenon of acting by the methods of natural sciences?”; “Is it appropriate to reduce our brain, mind and decision making process to neuronal processes?”; “Is it possible that people are more than not just empirical entities?”. The following two metaphysical pre-conditions constitute the fundamental argumentative basis through which it would be possible that people are free and morally responsible for their actions:
(A) A person can be the “causa sui” of an action.
(B) Humans cannot be ultimately understood as empirical entities and actions cannot be ultimately explained as empirical phenomena.
These conditions are quite common in philosophical debates: e. g. according to the Austrian philosopher Peter Strasser, free will and moral responsibility is only possible if we accept the metaphysical pre-conditions that people can be the “causa sui” of an action, are ontological fundamental entities, cannot be reduced as empirical entities and are able to act in a non-scientific reconstructable (metaphysical) way (e.g. waving an arm) (Strasser, 12).
So the aim of the following arguments is not to ultimately justify the concept of free will or moral responsibility, but at least to try to argue that these two metaphysical pre-conditions – under which it is at least possible that people can be free and morally responsible – are plausible and reasonable:
Firstly, free will and moral responsibility are only possible if (A) a person can be the “causa sui” of an action. Most naturalistic arguments that refuse the possibility of being a “causa sui” – or the idea of a free will in general – are structured as follows:
P1: All events in nature happen due to or are determined by causal necessity.
P2: My actions are part of these natural events.
C1: My actions are determined due to causal necessity.
C2: I cannot be the “causa sui” of my actions.
C3: I cannot have free will.
The British philosopher Galen Strawson would refuse the possibility of being a “causa sui” too. He claims that people cannot be truly morally responsible for their actions, because nothing can be the cause of itself (“causa sui”), as he describes in his “Basic Argument” in his journal paper „The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility“:
(P1): Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself.
(P2): In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental aspects.
(C): Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible. (Strawson 1994, 1)
According to Strawson, people cannot change their way they are “in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are.” (Strawson 1994, 7)
Nevertheless, the following comparison between the actions of three SS-officers in 1944 shows that different and other forms of causality – besides natural causality – are necessary if we want to distinguish these three cases in the sense of moral responsibility:
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- possibility free will moral responsibility moral responsibility free will strawson incompatibilism liberalism freedom