Responsibility Doesn’t Need Free Will

We’re not free from cause and effect, but we live in a world where beliefs and actions have important consequences.

Many will have you believe that if determinism is false, then free will could be true. It seems that, spanning all scientific fields from physics to psychology to economics, proposed causes have only probabilistic effects. Since determinism hasn’t and, ultimately, can’t be proven, then all imperfectly explained outcomes—from the positions of atoms to the consumption habits of whole countries—are possibly the result of ‘free’ wills. Free will ostensibly fills the gaps in our certainty.

But uncertainty in outcomes shouldn’t be construed as the ‘free’ in free will. True free will (not contrived as the ability to choose or to imagine possible futures) has, instead, a simple definition: will without cause. How could anything possibly be uncaused? You might think that the indeterminacy in, say, quantum physics is an example of causeless outcomes, but you’d be wrong. Undetermined, probabilistic causes are still causes. Whether our wills are the result of a long march of one causal event after another, or tumbling dice, or both, they aren’t free of causes. Our wills are, however, causes themselves.

We’re responsible for anything we do in the world. That’s so easy to swallow until we remember we can’t ultimately be free from causes. How can we be responsble if not free? Imagine the responsibility of a hurricane. No one would claim that a hurricane has free will, but then no one would deny that hurricanes are responsible for the deaths of billions of people throughout history. If we could prevent hurricanes from killing the innocent, we would. People are responsible for their actions in the same sense. Bill Gates is responsible for his foundation’s impact on global health. Ted Bundy is responsible for rape and murder. I’m responsible for what I blog here. From philanthropists to psychopaths to bloggers, people are responsible for their actions even though their wills are the result of prior causes that are either determined, undetermined, or some mixture of the two.

Discussions about the causes and consequences of what we care about in the world shouldn’t require speculation about freedom of wills. Instead, we should largely sideline the concept in favor of deeper conversations about human behavior. We could then talk honestly and clearly (in the sense of non-magically) about responsibility and the human experience. Importantly, we’d have to give weight to the fact that many people believe in free will because these beliefs (or the lack of them) certainly aren’t without their consequences. All potential causes are fair game. But free will, un-caused by definition, is not.

This post was inspired by Slate’s blog-like discussion Are We Free? My ideas here are heavily influenced by social psychology research (see Clark et al., 2014 and Shariff et al., 2014) and the arguments of Sam Harris (as in his short book Free Will).

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