Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Against free will and moral responsibility

I hold a nonrealist position for free will and morality. Or, more pointedly, I believe free will and morality are a hindering discourse to our best description of the world and human behavior, and thus they prevent our creation of better selves and societies (unless illusionism of free will and morality is vindicated, but good luck).

Humans make choices on the same plane as computers playing chess make choices, or as Watson choosing to answer on Jeopardy!. Right now humans have broader scopes and greater reflective capacities than any computer, but “consciousness” (and what we make of it in the end) does not mean that humans somehow make selection processes of a different quality. What humans certainly do is to have a robust model of their self at the center of the world and represent (loosely speaking) all sorts of different possible effects on that self that will result because of their selection process. In that way human choices are very open and our brains are still unrivaled in analyzing a multitude of factors that are relevant to us.

As to creating selves that choose well, both in a personal and social perspective, then there is no reason to continue to refer to those choice making processes as “free will.” It is time to acknowledge the machines that we are. And, no, studies that show effects of a certain limited repertoire when subjects are described a deterministic world do not show that illusionism is going to be beneficial in the end.

A similar story plays out for morality. There are not moral facts in the world and actions and states of affair are not right or wrong. Furthermore, the discourses that people wish to perpetuate, to call certain behaviors sins, to say that stealing is wrong, to say that charity is right, to say that raising your children well is morally good; people desire to reproduce these discourses for the conversational weight they hold and for the connotational structures they sneak in. As regards much of the population, I would argue these statements carry connotations such that, simply, “stealing is wrong." Similarly, many people believe that “homosexuality is a sin,” however they maintain such. Because they carry such connotations for much of society, use of moral language carries conversational weight.

Our moral beliefs and attitudes come partially from evolutionary ingrained factors. This gives certain actions and perceptions a given status. Dead flesh just is disgusting, and similarly, being slighted in a transparent way may just be deeply upsetting. This encourages us to believe that it is just wrong to slight people in certain ways. Furthermore, and I will expand more on this someday, how we are socialized into behaviors probably encourages our early belief in moral facts. It is “wrong to hit your brother,” at least this is what your parents want you to believe. From an early age then we come to accept that simply “one does not hit one's brother,” which seems a given to the world, and it carries a great deal of emotion with us. We feel it is wrong to hit one's brother. That feeling is separated from a rational account of why, in a more reflected state, we agree such an action is problematic to society. Such feelings thus encourage us to see those actions and the values that hang on them as stand alone in the world: we find it difficult to imagine a world where it is okay to hit ones brother or have sex with the wrong person. Though we have non-rational feelings towards a lot of things, I think there is a story to be told about innate machinery, socialization processes, and then internalizing of social and familial rules, and how all of that relates to our believing in moral facts and our use of moral language. (See Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes on some of these issues.) 

Evolutionary inspired attitudes do not create moral facts in the world, they may structure our societal behaviors in ways that benefited groups in the past and may benefit groups today. As we analyze the combination of innate psychological factors with how they develop in different individuals and how societies create different rules and structures, we do not need to continue to say that “stealing is wrong.” We are perfectly capable of describing the social outcomes of societies that allow stealing and why this action goes against our different desires and personalities. As we understand these factors, I argue it becomes easier to ask what kind of society we want to live in and to ask what social rules we need. Continuing to put our rules into the language that it is morally wrong to do X, obscures the if/then statement: If we as a society allow X, it will have these effects. The latter is not pretty to us, but as to descriptive force it should never give any of the confusions that we have been apt to give the subject.

I perhaps can grant the argument: “In the society that I live in, I need moral language to be an active agent.” It is another thing to continue to reproduce that moral language and its overall descriptive obfuscations when we turn to talking about morality itself and different aspects of it. On free will, we do not need a term to talk about choice making without coercion, as some compatibilists believe that is all the term means. In most cases it is fairly obvious the factors that are limiting the individual and if the choice is being constrained in some overt way. Our best description of human choice making procedures should be asking about all the structures of our past that make up this brain that chooses at this moment. Those factors will include evolutionary structures, socialization/education, other developmental factors, and other, perhaps seemingly random, environmental factors that structure this brain at this particular time.

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