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.