Feb 222016

responsibility therefore freewillI am going to start a “Bad Free Will Logic” series of articles, this first starting with a sort of “responsibility therefore free will” argument.

For each article I am going to point to either part of an argument that has been made by some free will proponents, or an entire argument. A single “Bad Free Will Logic” post may only address one part and why it is illogical, or if the argument is condensed enough I may be able to complete the entire criticism in one post. There also may be different versions of a similar argument that will be addressed in individual posts.

For many people the bad logic will be obvious, but for others it needs to be pointed out. The point in doing this is to create a sort of repository of bad arguments that, when someone brings up a specific bad argument, can be pointed or referred to, or used to address the poor reasoning inherent within the argument.

We will start with this one, what I call the “responsibility therefore free will” argument:

  • Premise 1: Free will is incompatible with determinism
  • Premise 2: Moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism
  • Premise 3: We have moral responsibility
  • Conclusion 1: Since we have moral responsibility, determinism is false
  • Conclusion 2: Since determinism is false and we are morally responsible, we have free will

This is a libertarian (person who thinks indeterminism helps with free will) argument that makes a few different errors. Also keep in mind that the “moral responsibility” that is used is in the strong sense, not merely the idea that we need to hold people accountable for the sake of utility, but the idea that they are really, truly morally responsible. To understand this distinction see this infographic:

Moral Responsibility (and the Lack of Free Will) – INFOGRAPHIC

First, both the libertarian and free will skeptic (the hard incompatibilist and the hard determinist) would agree on premise 1 and premise 2. Only compatibilsts would disagree with the first premise, through a semantic shift away from the free will definition that most people intuit. Some compatibilists would accept premise 2 and others would not.

This post will not be getting into compatibilism since this is a libertarian argument.

For the sake of this post, premise 1 and premise 2 will be accepted, under the understanding that there are arguments for why they are the case.

That brings us to premise 3, which the libertarian that makes this argument accepts axiomatically (meaning it is, per them, “self-evident”). And yes, given premise 1, 2, and 3…conclusion 1 follows logically.

Premise 3, however, is a question begging premise. It isn’t something we should just accept as being “self-evident”. Is it intuited by people who already are raised with a free will psychology, sure. Do people not like the idea that perhaps we aren’t really morally responsible in the strong sense? Of course they do.

None of these psychological or emotional states, however, logically infer the acceptance of premise 3. Premise 3 is the big whopping error here.

But let’s imagine that premise 3 was all fine-n-dandy, at least for a few seconds until it comes crashing down! In fact we will accept premise 1, 2, and 3, and the conclusion “Since we have moral responsibility, determinism is false”. Conclusion 2 says that “since determinism is false and we are morally responsible, we have free will”. First, just because determinism is false doesn’t imply free will. Premise 1 says that free will is incompatible with determinism. It doesn’t say that free will is compatible with indeterminism. That is for some reason being assumed by the libertarian.

But should it be assumed? Of course not. There is no indeterministic event that grants any more free will than deterministic events. If anything these events make “willing” in general even more problematic, and certainly not something in anyone’s conscious control.

And how does indeterministic events make us “more responsible”? Well, they don’t, of course.

To understand why free will is incompatible for both causal determinism and indeterminism, you can scour through numerous articles in this blog and/or pick up a copy of Breaking the Free Will Illusion.

We have new premises that are potentially being neglected by the argument above:

  • Premise 1A: Free will is incompatible with determinism
  • Premise 1B: Free will is incompatible with indeterminism
  • Premise 2A: Moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism
  • Premise 2B: Moral responsibility is incompatible with indeterminism
  • Premise 3: We have moral responsibility

And also new conclusions:

  • Conclusion 1A: Since we have moral responsibility, determinism is false
  • Conclusion 1B: Since we have moral responsibility, indeterminism is false
  • Conclusion 2A: Since both determinism and indeterminism is false and …


Both determinism and indeterminism cannot be false. One or the other needs to be the case. Either all events have a cause or some do not. There is no other option here.

But if free will is incompatible with both, and moral responsibility is incompatible with both, and one or the other must be the case. Then both free will and moral responsibility need to be thrown out.

Premise 3 simply cannot be the case. Of course if we reject premise 2A, moral responsibility can be compatible with determinism.  But the free will skeptic agrees with the libertarian that premise 2A is true. Where they disagree is in the idea that indeterminism can in some way help here. The free will skeptic also agrees with premise 1A, that free will is incompatible with determinism, but they disagree that indeterminism can help grant free will. See the pattern.

The free will skeptic such as myself sees no good reason for the libertarian to assume that indeterminism helps in any way for these matters. AndBTFWI - paperback
just assuming they do is a non-argument that does not follow to the conclusion of “since determinism is false and we are morally responsible, we have free will”.

A more coherent argument would leave determinism out and simply assert that “we are morally responsible, therefore we have free will”…a trite mantra that might as well just say “we have free will, therefore we have free will”.

The main problem with the argument, however, is that premise 3 should not be accepted as “self-evident”. It is anything but this, and to postulate it as “self-evident” question begs the entire purpose of the free will debate.

An important point about the free will debate is that, if there is no free will, then this type of moral responsibility (in the strong sense – do not confuse this with a weak sense that isn’t really about “responsibility” in so much as it is about what we need to do for the sake of utility) is out! It is kaput. It is irrational. It is nonsense.  And the belief that it is “self-evident” is causing so many problems in the world!

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

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  5 Responses to “Bad Free Will Logic #1: “Responsibility Therefore Free Will””

Comments (5)
  1. Completely agreed. They are attacking determinism but it will get them nowhere in their defense of free will. It’s tragic that people misunderstand it by thinking that the argument against free will depends on determinism.

  2. I’m glad you specified the Libertarian version of free will. Any free will that relies upon indeterminism is irrational, because without reliable causation we are not free to do anything. Fortunately, this is not the meaning of free will that most people use. Most people, and the courts, define free will as nothing more than our ability to make choices for ourselves, free from external coercion (not causation). And we make decisions for our own purposes, which we can usually recite if asked, and which cause/determine our choice — so there’s no break in the causal chain.

    • Howdy Marvin. Your comment is misinformation – but we already went over all of this so if you want to keep saying it we need you on one of our skype calls – as it is redundant here. Studies show that layperson intuitions go from incoherent compatibilist notions (not the coherent philosophical type) to really poor libertarian notions, and they are inconsistent, meaning the same person will grant both depending on the scenario or the question.

      Yes, people think that they can make choices for themself, but they also think that, given determinism, they could have (after the fact) done otherwise. I already explained to you why this is incoherent – but you shift it to “oh this is not what they really mean when they say it” even though it is exactly what they really mean as the studies show. And they also have notions of free will that depend on indeterminism, in fact most people don’t truly understand the distinction. Also, most people think others are “to blame” in the strong moral sense, and not simply in the “we must do something for the sake of utility” sense that you do. In fact most people believe in some sort of retributive justice in which one person “deserves” what they have coming to them. Also, most people believe some people are more or less deserving than another because of what they do (or don’t do) – an idea that is irrational once the incompatibilist notion of free will is disbanded. These bad free will intuitions leads to justifications for great inequalities in the world.

      • Trick: “in fact most people don’t truly understand the distinction”

        And that is my point. You insist they are taking an incoherent position, when they are not taking any position at all. They are simply using the words in their normal sense.

        • You aren’t getting that the lack of people understanding these things leads to their incoherent positions that the studies show. Positions that are in conflict with logic, reason, evidence, and even in conflict with other positions they hold (self-contradictions). This allows people to think things about the abilities of humans that do not really exist, as well as impose harmful ideas on to people.

          And we haven’t even gotten into certain religions which preach that sin and evil is due to god giving people free will, and that the majority of people believe in some notion of hell (even an eternity of it) as punishment for one’s “sins”. Sorry, but your ideas about a “normal sense” are not looking at today’s reality and bad beliefs.

          I don’t have a whole lot to complain about your compatibilist position, other than it bypasses some very important topics about some really harmful ideas that most people have. You act like the majority of people do not really agree with retributive punishment,…that they are all about consequentialism. I wish that were the case, but it simply is not, and there is mounds of evidence that points to that not being the case.

          I do agree with you that the way we educate people about the lack of free will is important so that they do not revert to fatalistic notions that are also not the reality, but don’t ignore the other abilities that the majority of people feel they and others possess as doing so is at a much greater expense. We have a chance to shift bad mindsets, I think we both are looking at that goal, but allowing people to believe in free will does not simply allow them to believe in your simple version, but their extended incoherent abilities as well that leads to so many harms in the world.

          If I could – I would just delete the word “free will” from the heads of people and compatibilists could simply call the abilities they are referring to some new word, and incompatibilists could just point out the abilities people do not possess and call a belief in those abilities a new word. This would save so much trouble between compatibilists and incompatibilists. But unfortunately the word exists and it, to a large majority of people, implies a whole lot of incoherent and dangerous ideas.

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