Does belief in free will affect moral behaviour? Can we reconcile free will and determinism?

Deric Bownds profiles a study by Vohs and Schooler of the University of British Columbia, which found that the presenting arguments for determinism increases the likelihood of selfishness and cheating.

Here is the abstract of the study:

Does moral behavior draw on a belief in free will? Two experiments examined whether inducing participants to believe that human behavior is predetermined would encourage cheating. In Experiment 1, participants read either text that encouraged a belief in determinism (i.e., that portrayed behavior as the consequence of environmental and genetic factors) or neutral text. Exposure to the deterministic message increased cheating on a task in which participants could passively allow a flawed computer program to reveal answers to mathematical problems that they had been instructed to solve themselves. Moreover, increased cheating behavior was mediated by decreased belief in free will. In Experiment 2, participants who read deterministic statements cheated by overpaying themselves for performance on a cognitive task; participants who read statements endorsing free will did not. These findings suggest that the debate over free will has societal, as well as scientific and theoretical, implications.

It seems that participants who cheated or acted selfishly may have been using the arguments for determinism as a justification for cheating or selfishness, or as a reason to accept less personal responsibility for their actions. Another possibility is that they interpreted the argument for determinism as a demand characteristic—that is, as an indication of the results that the experimenter expected/wanted; consequently, many participants may have behaved in a way that would please the experimenter—a known tendency of people participating in psychology studies.

My personal thinking on the free will and determinism debate is a concilation of the two views. Those who argue for determinism tend to say such things as “We are the product of our genes and our socialization; we can’t control our genes or our early socialization, and by the time we do seem to control our socialization we are already pre-determined in our choices by our genes and earlier socialization; all of this argues for determinism”. I agree that we are the product of our genes and socialization, that we do not control our genes or our early socialization, and that whenever we do make choices, our choices are structured by our genes and prior socialization—and of course, by the current environment which is structured by external forces and, to the degree that we choose and structure the environment ourselves, it can be argued that such self-determined environmental selection and shaping is the output of our genes and prior socialization. All of this is consistent with determinism.

However, if we believe that we are the product of our genes and our socialization, then it could be argued that whenever we act in accordance with them, we are acting freely because we are doing what we want to do, or are motivated to do. Assuming no tyrannical external course is being applied to us, we are acting freely—with free will.

One will rebut: but you cannot control/choose who you are (i.e., you don’t have ultimate control over your genes or socialization). But who are you? You are your genes and your socialization. You cannot control your genes—and if you could (e.g., by gene therapies, which we actually can do within limits), your choices would be shaped by the same factors that you cannot control (e.g., your current genes, your socialization, the current culture). And your early socialization in conjunction with your genes structure your choices, but they are your choices. So really then, people can technically control who they are (e.g., they can decide to change their lives, maybe even change their genes) but this sort of self-direction is shaped by the self as it exists, which if you take it back far enough started with external direction (i.e., one’s genes, early socialization).

What I am really arguing for here, then, is a sort of determined free will. Free will is doing what you choose or want to do. What we want and choose is a product of who we are. And who we are is a product of our genes and socialization. We may not be able to choose what we want and who we are without restriction (e.g., I may not be able to simply choose to no longer like candy and to love the taste of mouthfuls of margarine) but we can be who we are, change our lives, want what we want and make our own choices, based on who we are.

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7 Responses to “Does belief in free will affect moral behaviour? Can we reconcile free will and determinism?”
  1. Kevin Morgan says:

    I’d like to recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, for an in-depth examination of the nature vs. nurture argument. The gist being we are not blank slates but despite predispositions to any particular kinds of behavior we have the ability, thanks to our cerebral cortex, to override our tendancies. A very interesting read.

  2. Bryan says:

    I’ve been interested in this subject for a long time. I’ve never been able to understand how, given a naturalistic view, it would be possible for any living thing (including human beings) to have “free will” in the sense in which it’s commonly conceived (the notion that “he could have done A, but instead he chose to do B”). If our brains are simply molecular superstructures that operate according to chemical laws, how can they do anything other than follow natural law? If my brain just operates according to natural law, how can “I” (whatever that is) make my brain do one thing rather than another?

    I recently learned Einstein held the view that human beings don’t have free will. In his credo ( he said this as plainly as possible, and indicated this view even informed the way he interacted with others: “I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.”

    Schopenhauer’s words quoted by Einstein above seem to agree nicely with your perspective.

  3. Stoobs says:

    The flaw with your position is quite obvious, however. Suppose I create a device which I have implanted in your skull while you are sleeping. Using this device, I am able to directly generate desires in you. I use that device to create in you a desire to obey my every command.

    By your criteria, you still possess free will. By obeying me, you are fulfilling one of your own desires. True, the desire is caused by external factors beyond your control, but you have already determined that to be irrelevant to free will. Indeed, you may even know that your feelings are being manipulated by the device, but be instructed by the device to desire that as well.

    Possibly you are willing to bite the bullet on this one, but to me it seems that you would be straying too far from anything that could conventionally be called free will.

  4. ronbrown says:

    That’s certainly an interesting way of looking at this. One that I hadn’t thought of before. Depending on how comprehensive the cognitive implant was, though, it may still be appropriate to say I have free will. If the implant was so cognitively thorough that I genuinely wanted to do everything I was doing, and didn’t mind that my desires were being controlled by you (that is, in your programming of the device, you made it so that if I found out about your remoting controlling of my will, I wouldn’t mind), this may still be aptly described as free will. What more can free will be aside from following one’s desires?

    Perhaps we need new terminology for this discussion. What I was advocating for was something that could be described as determined free will. We are free to do what we want, but we can only exert limited control what we want—and how we exert control is itself dependent on previous socialization which will ultimately get back to genes and early socialization that we did not control. So, more briefly, we are free to do what we want, but what we want is ultimately determined by factors outside of our control.

    It seems that we should be in agreement here. We both acccept that our desires are rooted in factors that we cannot control, and are thus rooted in determinism. However, we can still do what we want. We are our genes and socialization. Our genes and socialization are determined (well, early socialization is determined and later socialization is influencible but the way in which we influence it stems from earlier socialization and, of course, genetics). But so long as we act in accordances with ourselves, we are exhibiting free will, determined or not.

  5. If we are able to discus a mechanism then it is probably not the mechanism that exists in reality, hence the scientific method.

  6. ronbrown says:

    Sandy: I don’t understand.

  7. the scientific method searches for answer that will never be found, if we are able discussing something scientific it is likely not the answer, so it is likely not the mechanism present in reality.

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