Nov 072016

practical-importance-of-free-willCompatibilists and incompatibilists disagree on how the term “free will” should be defined. Rather than focus of specific compatibilist or incompatibilist definitions, Gregg Caruso and Stephen Morris wrote a paper on what is of philosophical and practical importance for the free will debate. That paper is titled:

Their analysis is spot on.  The abstract sums up their position fairly well:

 Much of the recent philosophical discussion about free will has been focused on whether compatibilists can adequately defend how a determined agent could exercise the type of free will that would enable the agent to be morally responsible in what has been called the basic desert sense (see, e.g., Pereboom in Living without free will, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001; Pereboom in Free will, agency, and meaning in life, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014; Strawson in Freedom and belief, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986; Strawson in Philos Stud 75(1):5–24, 1994; Fischer in Four views on free will, Wiley, Hoboken, 2007; Vargas in Four views on free will, Wiley, Hoboken, 2007; Vargas in Philos Stud, 144(1):45–62, 2009). While we agree with Derk Pereboom and others that the compatibilist’s burden should be properly understood as providing a compelling account of how a determined agent could be morally responsible in the basic desert sense, the exact nature of this burden has been rendered somewhat unclear by the fact that there has been no definitive account given as to what the basic desert sense of moral responsibility amounts to. In Sect. 1 we set out to clarify the compatibilist’s burden by presenting our account of basic desert moral responsibility—which we call retributivist desert moral responsibility for purposes of clarity—and explain why it is of central philosophical and practical importance to the free will debate. In Sect. 2 we employ a thought experiment to illustrate the kind of difficulty that compatibilists of any stripe are likely to encounter in attempting to explain how determined agents can exercise the kind of free will needed for retributivist desert moral responsibility.

It is the  Caruso/Morris position that regardless of how one defines “free will”, what is of key importance for the definition is whether or not the “free will ability” being postulated grants this type of “desert moral responsibility” that they set out to clarify. To help explain this they use two popular compatibilists, Waller and Dennett, as examples of “debate side-steppers”:

We begin in Sect. 1 by arguing that a proper understanding of the primary issues driving the free will debate requires us to adopt a conception of free will which views it as the control in action required for retributivist desert moral responsibility. To bolster our argument we consider two influential defenses of free will—those of Waller (2015) and Dennett (2003)—that explicitly sever the relevant notion of free will from retributivist moral responsibility and argue that they sidestep the primary debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists.

In this section – they explain how traditionally and most commonly in literature today the way free will is defined reflects the important question about whether people are responsible in the “just desert” sense. Speaking to this they cite Galen Strawson, John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, Derk Pereboom,  Manuel Vargas, Timothy O’Connor, Michael McKenna. C. A. Campbell, Randolph Clarke, Neil Levy, Radcliffe Richards, Peter van Inwagen, as well as themselves (Morris/Caruso).

They then go on to explain that, even though there are some philosophers such as Waller who reject this understanding, they avoid the distinct advantages of defining free will in this way. The advantages are:

 (a) it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to—i.e., it doesn’t exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for compatibilists, libertarians, and free will skeptics to adopt;

(b) it captures the practical importance of the debate; 

(c) it fits with the commonsense (i.e., folk) understanding of these concepts; and, perhaps most importantly, 

(d) rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

From this point on they do a great job in clarifying this “basic desert” sense of responsibility, how it differs from a wholly consequentialist view, and why it is a key factor that needs to be accounted for in the free will debate. They go through the implications in regards to how incarceration is traditionally justified, or what it means for “reward and punishment”. These issues are extremely important for obvious practical reasons.

I urge people to read this paper because it truly highlights the challenge compatibilists have if they want their version of free will to not be a version that avoids some of the very important, practical matters, that the traditional view addresses.  Here is a past article I’ve written that addresses this:

This type of  compatibilist “sidestepping”allows people to ignore these important topics through a mechanism of omission, an omission that often avoids whether one is “responsible” in the strong sense I denote here:

It is important to note that it is this strong sense that aligns with what Caruso/Morris clarify and explain why it is the relevant and important “ability” that the term “free will” needs to address. The important question is: do people have a version of free will that allows them to have this “basic desert moral responsibility”, or what I label as “strong moral responsibility” (the weak being that which is entirely utilitarian/consequentialist)?

I’d argue that there is no compatibilist version of free will that grants this ability, therefore compatibilist versions are not the type of free will that is, and has been, important for the debate, for the most practical matters, or the one that speaks to common layperson intuitions. Due to this, let’s not confuse people who think we have a different “ability” that a compatibilist definition does not refer to, by calling that compatibilist version “free will”.

Read this past article:

In it, I go over why the definition the free will skeptic uses is far more relevant and appropriate to the debate than compatibilism. The free will skeptic definition is the position that addresses the problems with the “common intuitions of the majority of laypersons” such as an ability to do otherwise even given an entirely deterministic scenario and the assigning of retributionist moral responsibility. It is also the position that causes less confusion, doesn’t evade facts through omission, and is the free will that simply makes the most sense.

This is not to say that compatibilism is entirely useless. What compatibilism really does well (often without recognizing it) is highlight the difference between fatalism and determinism, and why that difference is important. The problem is it most often does so while omitting this other key factors regarding desert moral responsibility. I’d argue we can educate against fatalistic notions of lacking free will all without the need for the term “free will” and without bypassing this key important factors for the historical debate.  Free will is lacking either way, but some “no free will” positions are more evident and rational than others. To see a very quick distinction between fatalism and determinism, and why it matters for “futility” you can check this infographic:

A large portion of my book “Breaking the Free Will Illusions for the Betterment of Humankind” addresses what it means that we don’t have free will, and just as important, what it doesn’t mean! I think it’s very important that we educate people on this distinction rather than willy-nilly tell people there is no free will. It is crucial that we do educate people on a lack of free will while explaining what it means and does not mean. In this way, explaining these differences should address the main concerns compatibilists have about telling people they lack free will.

I suspect some compatibilist hold their position due to being “free will illusionists”, meaning they are concerned about the impact of telling people they lack free will (so they look toward a revisionist version of free will to avoid this). This, however, I think not only wrong-headed, but also a dangerous game that allows in even worse infractions and an expense of preventing human progress. Here is the distinction regarding illusionisn/dis-illusionism, something Caruso and I also agree on:

Some compatibilist hold a concept of free will and at the same time agree with the free will skeptic that a desert moral responsibility is out, for example, Derik Parfit says that he’s a “compatibilist about free will, but an incompatibilist about desert moral responsibility”. In this case, the game is wholly semantic and comes down to which version of free will causes less confusions, and why call it “free will” at all. As Caruso/Morris suggest, this notion of free will is far removed from the free will debate if it does not entail desert moral responsibility. That being said, at least Parfit is clear that he’s a just desert responsibility incompatibilist. If more compatibilist would come clean here, and state it clearly without obfuscating or omitting this, then there would be far more agreement between compatibilist and free will skeptics (outside of semantic disagreements), as we both work together to focus on this key “incompatibilist” factor.

I still argue that the confusion of calling some other ability that does not entail being responsible in the strong sense as “free will” is far too confusing, even when we make clear this Parfit incompatibilism. This, however, is still far better than the omission and avoidance of this issue that I see in most compatibilists, as they often revert to consequentialist notions without denoting that the desert sense is out entirely…and many even “suggest” it is still in, or smuggle it in in various, creative ways, …and some even assert it is indeed still in!

Another extremely important point is that the free will that addresses “desert moral responsibility” or, as I put it, “strong moral responsibility” is the free will that, as the Morris/Caruso paper denote “fits with the commonsense (i.e., folk) understanding of these concepts”. This is something that simply cannot be overlooked.

For example, as I mentioned in the previous post, in the study “Free will and punishment: a mechanistic view of human nature reduces retribution“:

“Study 1 found that people with weaker free-will beliefs endorsed less retributive, but not consequentialist, attitudes regarding punishment of criminals. Subsequent studies showed that learning about the neural bases of human behavior, through either lab-based manipulations or attendance at an undergraduate neuroscience course, reduced people’s support for retributive punishment (Studies 2–4). These results illustrate that exposure to debates about free will and to scientific research on the neural basis of behavior may have consequences for attributions of moral responsibility.”

And in  “Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief“:

“Across 5 studies using experimental, survey, and archival data and multiple measures of free will belief, we tested the hypothesis that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In Study 1, participants reported greater belief in free will after considering an immoral action than a morally neutral one. Study 2 provided evidence that this effect was due to heightened punitive motivations. In a field experiment (Study 3), an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, again due to heightened punitive motivations. In Study 4, reading about others’ immoral behaviors reduced the perceived merit of anti-free-will research, thus demonstrating the effect with an indirect measure of free will belief. Finally, Study 5 examined this relationship outside the laboratory and found that the real-world prevalence of immoral behavior (as measured by crime and homicide rates) predicted free will belief on a country level.”

It is undeniable that the more “free will” people attribute to others, the more of the “basic desert moral responsibility” they inject in. This leads to punitive assessments beyond mere utility, great inequality justifications, as well as justifications for hatred,  an unhealthy degree of self-blame, and many other negative traits that we have carried for far too long.

If you are unsure of why understanding we lack free will, if understood properly, is beneficial and important to human advancement, start here:

If you are looking for a more in-depth account, check out my book. If you are leaning toward compatibilism, please take into account the ability of practical importance (the one addressing “desert moral responsibility“), the ability that aligns with common intuitions, the ability that can be addressed by free will believers and non-free will believers, and the ability that allows us to make sense of the nature of the historical dispute. If you still lean toward compatibilism, by all means, take up that challenge… but please, please do not simply hand-wave the facts away for some complete semantic shift that is far removed from these points. Save that type of semantic shifting for Semantic Shift Day.

Better yet, just come to the side of the debate that is consistent with the facts and which does not have an impossible challenge: The free will of practical and philosophical importance, the free will that aligns with common intuitions, the free will that doesn’t neglect the traditional view, and the free will that makes sense of the historical dispute, is the free will that…

… we simply do not have!

It is the free will that is logically incoherent in either a deterministic universe, or indeterministic universe. It is the free will that is incompatible with any quantum interpretation, any theory of time, and logic. It is the free will that scientific evidence is suggestive that we lack. Ultimately, it is the free will ability that there is no rational justification to hold a belief in, and the type of free will belief that is holding humanity back from progression.


Compatibilism and Retributivist Desert Moral Responsibility: On What is of Central Philosophical and Practical Importance – Caruso, G.D. & Morris, S.G. Erkenn (2016).

Free to Punish: A Motivated Account of Free Will Belief – Cory J. Clark, Irvine Jamie B. Luguri, Peter H. Ditto, Irvine Joshua Knobe, Azim F. Shariff, Roy F. Baumeister (2014)

Free will and punishment: a mechanistic view of human nature reduces retribution.
Shariff AF1, Greene JD2, Karremans JC3, Luguri JB4, Clark CJ5, Schooler JW6, Baumeister RF7, Vohs KD8.

Other related posts regarding compatibilism

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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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  28 Responses to “On The Practical Importance of the Free Will Debate”

Comments (28)
  1. OK Trick
    Why do you think it is “necessary” for free will skeptics to be moral (ethical)?
    Why should not someone live their lives amorally?
    How can one set of deterministic or acausal causes be more ethical than another set?

    • I don’t think anything “necessary” (e.g. it is not necessary to believe the earth is not flat either), …one either cares about ontological goodness/badness in the world or they do not. The goodness/badness, however, are very real intrinsic states of being….so either our conscious causal mechanism will align with that concern, or it will not. An ethical system needs to play the part of a forward consequence looking causal gear that will sway ethical configurations. 😉

  2. goodness/badness, however, are very real intrinsic states of being

    They are? Either I am not understanding quite your position or you will have to explain how a particular set of causes are intrinsically good or bad.

    • Yes, some causally produced conscious states of matter/energy are intrinsically bad experiences and others good. The most pain, suffering, and misery for everyone contains worse experiential states than the most pleasure and happiness for everyone. I believe this “worseness” can be known as an ontological fact as much as any existence claim, through our understanding of these states.

      • ” …worse experiential states”?

        Again I don’t think we need to describe the experiential states in a moralistic or ethical way. I certainly don’t have this need.

        And if we are approaching this from a philosophical point of view, I can’t help thinking we are on shaky ground here.

        Frankly it seems to me to be a form of compatibilism. .

        • I don’t see how this is compatibilism if there is no free will.

          Do you believe that you not being anesthetized prior to major surgery would not allow a far worse experience that you being anesthetized? If so, I ask that you test that by just being put in an immovable state with full conscious experience.

          • I am not sure of your point being relevant to the point I am trying to make.

            Which is:
            Viewing our actions through the lens of morality and ethics does not make sense.

            Of course we may be determined by causality to do so or not.

          • If ethically relevant value exists (which I’d argue it does), and our conscious thoughts and actions lead to value states (which I’d argue they do), it makes sense as a causal gear for ethically concerned configurations.

          • Trick
            To convince me you would have to show how one arrangement one arrangement of atoms etc is more ethical than another.

            Saying that we perceive different values states is no better than me saying I perceive free will. Now that I don’t happen to believe my perception allows me to question some of my other perceptions and those of others,

            I perceive colours … does not mean they actually exist.

          • The problem here is that the value is intrinsic in the experience, which does indeed exist…just as the *experience* of the “feeling” or “illusion” of free will *exists*. Your perception of colours exists intrinsically. Do you deny suffering (the qualitative experience) exists in specific atomic configs?

          • Suffering exists … it is certainly not what it seems. While I might not wish to experience it, I certainly don’t think of it in moral or ethical terms. I usually don’t wish to inflict suffering on a third party not because it is somehow unethical but more because the whole ting is counter productive to how I want society to tick.

            Incidentally … the word intrinsic I find to be a non word. My perception of colour does not exist intrinsically!

          • Why would you not wish to experience suffering or inflict it on others…or want society to tick a certain way?

            Your perception of colours isn’t a *product* of matter/energy playing out in your brain? Intrinsic just means it is a part of it. “Inherent” is another word.

          • Why? …
            I have been determined to hold certain positions like wanting society to tick in a certain fashion. I suppose I could confabulate reasons as to why.

            Either way, I can’t help thinking we are talking/discussing past one another. So a couple of questions.

            What is your definition of morality/ethics that you are arguing for?
            And by this definition:
            Do you think a pattern/configuration of atoms is somehow moral or ethical? Simply yes or no please.

          • Inquiring if the causal reason why has to do with conscious wellbeing at base-level. Regardless…on to your question:

            Yes – certain conscious atomic configs (e.g. people) causally act ethically or not based on causal information about the potential consequences of the actions. Others conscious atomic configs (the consequences) are either ontologically good, bad, or benign experiences as they play out.

          • Regarding definitions, I’d define that which is ethical or unethical (right or wrong) as that which consciously and intentionally moves to or away from ontologically real good or bad / positive or negative value states that exist within (intrinsic or inherent within) specific matter/energy configurations. Note that these are descriptive value states, not personal opinion…and the conscious intention is causal (not freely willed). I don’t believe in ethical responsibility (which differs from being ethical or not).

        • [I]If ethically relevant value exists (which I’d argue it does), and our conscious thoughts and actions lead to value states (which I’d argue they do), it makes sense as a causal gear for ethically concerned configurations.[/I]
          if I were to argue:
          If causality leads to free will and our thoughts conscious or otherwise lead to wills, then it makes sense our causal gear leads to free will configurations

          I don’t buy this argument.

          • That isn’t analogous. Free will (the ability) can be shown as self-contradictory…qualitative experiences are self-evident. In fact, to reject them is to leap to a type of epistemological solipsism that rejects all knowledge claims based on empiricism. The feeling of free will is ontologically real.

            (one point at a time will prevent tangents)

          • I suspect if you put the same sort of effort into morality and ethics as you did into dissecting free will, I think you would have similar problems with this discussion.

          • I don’t think qualitative experience states existing is in contradiction, and I do think it evident unless one falls to a position of consciousness not existing – which I think is a mistake for numerous reasons.

          • While experiential states might not be in contradiction with not having free will for me morality (some intrinsic good or bad) is. For me morality becomes a non sequitur in the absence of free will. And like free will it is not helpful to the betterment of humankind.

            Why can’t we be honest and recognize that things that can be seen as moral are simply a reflection of our caused desires.

            Regarding consciousness … I don’t think it is what it seems.

          • The goodness/badness of intrinsic states is a real ontological fact of matter/energy playing out – regardless of a lack of free will.

            It is a non-sequitur to suggest: we lack free will, therefore we lack morality/ethics. This is not to be confused with moral/ethical *responsibility* which is incompatible with free will. “Betterment of humankind” is irrelevant without good/bad states, as there is no such thing as “better or worse” states without it.

            “Desires” are irrelevant to the facts about ethical/unethical actions – they only play into the causal concern over acting ethically or not. And just because we causally assess something (like intrinsic value) doesn’t mean that what is being assessed isn’t a fact. We causally assess that we have evolved, that doesn’t mean that this assessment doesn’t align with reality.

            Regarding consciousness not being “what it seems”, it is actually defined BY “what it seems” (seeming is consciousness). I’d also argue that consciousness is the one thing we can know exists above all others.

          • BTW – the reason I’m writing a book is to clarify all of this and how secular ethics needs to take into account a lack of free will. But it has been known by many free will skeptics that the one version of ethics that aligns with determinism is a future consequentialist variety. Ethical nihilism does not follow from a lack of free will, and it misses the important point that there is real “value” that exists.

          • Hey rom,

            On Sundays at 7PM EST a bunch of free will skeptics join a skype session for an informal discussion about free will and many other topics like morality, etc. I often join in. One guy records it and throw it up as a “podcast” but it isn’t meant to be a professionally edited podcast but rather an hour or two (sometimes 3) discussion that often turns into debate. We all agree that free will is an illusion and how it is important, but we disagree on a number of other topics (some are even pantheists). Would this be something you’d be interested in? Could use your thinking (I appreciate when people disagree with me as it makes for interesting discourse and challenge).

            Just a thought as, if we ever do the “morality” topic, you could join in and we could have a more fruitful discussion than these comments. Think about it and if interested, connect with me on skype: trickslattery….and/or send me an email from the contact form.


  3. We’re a mix of heredity and environment, and one feature they share is that we control neither. No matter how hard one looks for that part of the human (soul etc.) that exists outside the realm of physical laws, one will not find it.

  4. John Stuart Mill, of his own free will, on half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

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