Tag Archives: free will

Dodging Moral Responsibility?

David Hume said the nature of free will is the “most contentious question of metaphysics.”  I laud him for taking the matter so seriously, but what is it with my friends arguing free will to the bitter end lately?  Everything seems to be an indication to them that free will doesn’t exist to them…literature, movies, art, historical figures (although rarely personal experience).  I don’t understand this.  What is ironic, however, is that these same friends tend to fully support war as a means of perpetuating social “liberty”…the clear political antithesis of determinism.  That’s what drives me nuts about this argument, is that no one lives it out, and people who try to end up breeding enemies by the dozen because their actions can come across as irresponsible or harmful.  I love blogs because no one reads mine, so I don’t always feel the need to argue my claims before reflecting on them, and I’m free to blather and wander off the point as much as I want without having to provide a sound case.  This is one of those times.

Free will arguments are too loopy for me to follow.  I won’t try today…this is merely a chance to blow off steam from having to defend free will to people when I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about.  There are incompatibilists, like Kant was, who argue that determinism indicates there is no free will.  There are compatibilists, like Hume was, who argue that determinism follows free will.  I’ve never seriously considered the arguments, so I don’t know where I stand, but it doesn’t greatly interest me.  I mostly only care about it to the extent of knowing that some people argue against free will as a way to dodge blame by remorselessly excusing a personal action or that of another.  Arguing against free will is a way to get around moral responsibility.  The topic has a place in philosophical debate, but it can become destructive when it’s tangibly carried out as the logical outcome of incompatibility.  If no one is a free agent, no one is morally responsible for his or her actions.  This seems dodgy to seriously commit to, since the consequences of living out such a philosophy could be messy.  Moral responsibility is an important component of moral human action (duh).  One of my friends, B-, justifies his destructiveness on the basis of determinism, and consequently, the world is a much darker place because of him.  If there is no free will, then what precisely is the external influence that is directing him? 

I can’t figure out why some people question free will so seriously when it seems to remain solely a speculative conjecture rather than an issue that affects which path they take (or are determined to take) in life.  Most people’s actions are rarely hindered, constrained, or forced, and yet they question free will so boldly.  Surely experience can contribute to philosophy alongside abstract theory…?  However, the few areas that seem to personally challenge free will for me probably have no place in a philosophical consideration.  If questioning free will doesn’t change how most people live their lives (this even seems to be as true of theological determinism as it is of logical determinism), then why the obsessive pursuit to find an answer and excuse personal actions under the umbrella of determinism? 

The most tangible opposition I see to free will is addiction.  There is clearly some determinism in nature, as with genes (although most genetic traits assume an on/off state according to environmental influences reaching all the way back to gestation).  With addiction, it truly seems at times like there is zero control over behavior, and that the inability for restraint far surpasses a matter of willpower.  That’s the embodiment of addiction…people can’t stop, no matter how destructive and catastrophic the consequences become.  In fact, the part of the brain responsible for the chemistry of addiction (a primitive little part located high up on the brainstem) is not under voluntary control…hence the extreme difficulty in reprogramming addictive behavior.  Aside from the question of addiction in a free will argument, little things give me trouble on occasion, like waking up from a nightmare when my frontal lobes haven’t turned back on yet…things like what if a person is drugged or tied, what of free will then?  These thoughts give me no trouble when I’m fully awake (unless I’m drugged or tied– kidding, sort of), because I understand them in the context of another person’s free will action.  It’s mostly the question of addiction that gives me trouble around the clock.  Oh, mental illness is another area that raises questions for me…it tends to be brushed aside or explained off in society, but I think people suffering from mental illnesses have quite as much of a right to be taken seriously with regard to philosophy as people who are not.  When my friend T- committed suicide, based on his comments and behavior leading up to that point, I don’t think he felt that he had any free will in the matter.  Those around him would certainly have liked an opportunity to try to persuade him otherwise, but only he really knew how unbearable things got for him.

Most of the time I view the contemplation of free will more like a dental procedure.  I dislike because I don’t want to lose that urgent sense of moral accountability for my behavior.  My behavior is already poor enough as it is; I don’t need others attempting to let me off the hook.


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