Free Will is a Myth - But We Can Still Have Ethics and Hold People Accountable

Copyright © 2013 by Heidi M. Ravven. This excerpt originally appeared in The Self Beyond Itself: And Alternative History of Ethics, The New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission. 

Why are some people ethical and others unethical? How do people become ethical or unethical? Do people sometimes act in ethical ways and at other times act in quite unethical ways? How can that happen? Are there situations and times when people tend to act in ethical ways and other times when they tend to act unethically? How can we get people to be more ethical and more consistently ethical? How can we get ourselves to be better people and act more ethically more of the time? These are the questions I address in this book. Philosophers refer to these questions and related ones as the problem of “moral agency.” This book is about moral agency. I look at the problem of moral agency— how we become moral (and immoral) and why we act morally and immorally— from many different perspectives. I circle around it, exploring different ways of thinking and rethinking what our experience of being ethical is all about— especially where our ethical capacity comes from, how it develops, and finally how to strengthen it and put it to best use. One fairly popular idea among some scientists and philosophers looking to discover where our moral sense comes from is to search for an ethical module in the human brain. These brain scientists set out to discover and locate a special innate ethical capacity in the brain. They conjecture that some of us inherit a more effective ethical brain than others— that is, some of us are born with a strong moral brain capacity and others with a weak one. Other scientists and philosophers conjecture that perhaps some of us use and develop our ethical capacity better than others. These folks ask what certain people do to become better at being ethical than others. So some scientists and philosophers regard the variation as primarily between individuals because of an innate difference, while others chalk up the difference to how people are brought up. Still others raise the question of the effects upon moral agency of present context and situation, proposing that our moral capacity may be more about context and group behavior than about individuals.

The most common assumptions in the United States and the West more generally about the human moral capacity differ from the innate moral module view (nature) and also from the individual or social training view (nurture) just outlined. The view most prevalent among people all around us (and also nearly universally held by philosophers till very recently) is that we have free will. The free will view goes like this: we might have a brain that has certain biological tendencies toward good or bad, and we might have a biography replete with all kinds of terrible moral models and have suffered painful and harsh conditions and even abuse, and we might be in fairly coercive political and social situations and institutions, yet we all know what doing the right thing is, and we can and ought to do the right thing no matter what. We can rise above both our nature and our nurture and even our situation to be good people and choose to act ethically. This capacity to choose our actions— to rise above our genetic inheritance what ever it might be, above our upbringing no matter how terrible it was, and above our present situation despite its social pressures— is what we mean by “free will.” On this account, we are all capable of being good, and we are all equally capable of it because we are all human. Being human means that we can freely choose the good over the bad no matter what hand nature or nurture has dealt us. The choice is completely our own. Our actions have no other origin, no other ultimate causes, than ourselves as free agents. Even if we are somewhat shaped by our hardships, by our luck, or even by our brains, nevertheless we still have a sacrosanct core of free will that we can use to rise above all of that and be moral beings. We do moral acts for moral reasons, for no other reasons, and out of no other fully determining causes— such as brain modules, group pressures, or upbringing. And that is why we can be and ought to be held morally responsible for what we do and for what we fail to do. This free will story, about how and why we are moral and also at times fail to be moral, is everywhere around us. It probably seems and feels absolutely obvious and obviously true as you read my account of it here. But the evidence from the new brain sciences is amassing that the free will account of the nature and origin of our ethical capacity, of our moral agency, is in fact false, or at least highly unlikely; at best it may work that way in some rare  individuals, who are probably philosophers.

In this book I argue that it is not obvious that human beings have free will, as we like to believe, in the way that it is obvious we have hands and feet and noses; instead, free will is a cultural assumption. And it is an assumption that turns out to be false. I make the case that, rather than serving as a description of human beings in general, free will is a particularly American and Western way of conceiving human nature. Even though it feels natural to us, the belief in free will is actually conventional and provincial. While we generally believe that this way of thinking about our moral nature is universally human, an account of human nature— everyone knows that we have “free will,” that all human beings experience this inner freedom and lay their claim to moral virtue or sin and to the right to praise or blame upon the basis of that freedom— it turns out that most other cultures have no notion of free will. They base their understandings of human moral nature on different cultural assumptions. They conceive both human nature and the human place in the universe quite differently from the way we do. The belief in free will is actually part of a larger story, a story we take for granted or have even forgotten. Other cultures have different stories. We are as culturally provincial as they are, for ours is just one way among many of thinking about the human moral capacity and human nature generally. One of the aims of this book is to expose the free will account of moral agency as a mere cultural  assumption and inheritance. I argue that when we interpret our moral agency in terms of having freedom of the will, we are not discovering in our inner experience of ourselves something all human beings share, but instead are discovering cultural assumptions that deeply and implicitly shape the ways we envision our place in the universe. The notion of free will is based on a theological story whose religious origin and meaning we often tend to be unaware of and which some of us even explicitly reject. Nonetheless, the standard Western theological vision of the human place in the universe still has an implicit and quite pervasive hold over us. The belief in free will, I recount at considerable length in Chapter Four, has a unique history that more or less began at one time— in early Latin Christianity— and was widely disseminated through authoritative thinkers who worked to make it sacrosanct and to delegitimize and even outlaw other points of view advocated by other individuals and groups. The presupposition of free will has been embodied in our institutions, practices, and laws and transmitted for hundreds of years by systems of education. These practices and institutions, with their implicit notion of human moral agency, still govern our lives to a great extent in the West and especially in the United States. And that is why they feel natural and universal when they are really, instead, the products of a particular cultural point of view and hence peculiar to ourselves.

Once we have uncovered our own standard and ubiquitous cultural presuppositions about our moral capacity, we can begin to discover where they come from. We can also question their validity by looking at the new brain sciences to see if they are borne out. And we can turn to explore other ideas from other cultures to open our minds to different ways of thinking about why people act ethically and why they don’t, and why and when they think they can hold both themselves and others morally responsible. Can we learn anything from other cultures? How can we revise our own cultural conception of moral agency to reflect new and better understandings of how the brain works? Our first aim here, in this chapter, is to expose our deep presuppositions  about how and why we come to act ethically and unethically.  Then in the next chapter we shall turn to test cases, those of perpetrators and rescuers in the Nazi Holocaust, to determine whether the standard assumptions we hold about free will moral agency can explain either the evil of the perpetrators, the virtue of the rescuers, or the passivity of the bystanders.

In order to tease out our standard beliefs about moral agency, I begin, in this first chapter, with an investigation of moral education in America from colonial times to the present. I chose this starting point for my research on moral agency because I thought that how we as a society teach our children to be moral will expose our basic assumptions about our moral capacity, how we generally believe we can get our kids to become good people. Here we have our own cultural answer to Socrates’s famous question in the Meno: can virtue be taught? Americans have always believed that virtue can be taught, and taught in school as well as in church and at home in the family. I discovered that from our early beginnings to today, the ubiquitous assumption is that our moral capacity rests on free will, albeit a free will that needs some training in the classroom and in the home. I began with the present. The widespread introduction of (moral) character education into public schools since the 1980s makes it the predominant contemporary form in which children are instructed in ethics in the United States. I met with several of the leading proponents of the movement; I read lots of the books and articles pertaining to this movement; and, with the help of professional advice, I selected several elementary, middle, and high schools to go to so that I could observe their programs in character education. What I discovered was fascinating.


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