Many philosophical theories try to evade the uncomfortable truth that luck and fate play a role in the conduct of our moral lives, argues the philosopher. He chooses the best books on free will and responsibility.
By Nigel Warburton @philosophybites
Originally published December 2, 2013
What is free will?
Our interest in free will starts from our self-image. We are conscious of being agents in the world, capable of doing things and being active. We believe that we can intervene and order our own fate. We’re in control of the trajectory of our own life. That self-image immediately tracks something that is deeply important to us, which is our sense that we are also moral agents. We are accountable to one another for the quality of our actions and what flows from them.
So the problem of free will starts off at a very general level with the question ‘Are we really in control?’ In particular, is our view of ourselves as accountable, moral, ethical agents — which is intimately connected with that self-image — really accurate?
Most people feel, to some degree, in control of how they behave. There may be moments when they become irrational and other forces take over, or where outside people force them to do things, but if I want to raise my hand or say “Stop!” those things seem to be easily within my conscious control. We also feel very strongly that people, including ourselves, merit praise and blame for the actions they perform because it’s us that’s performing them. It’s not someone else doing those things. And if we do something wrong, knowingly, it’s right to blame us for that.
That’s right. The common sense view — although we may articulate it in different ways in different cultures — is that there is some relevant sense in which we are in control and we are morally accountable. What makes philosophy interesting is that sceptical arguments can be put forward that appear to undermine or discredit our confidence in this common sense position. One famous version of this difficulty has theological roots. If, as everyone once assumed, there is a God, who creates the world and has the power to decide all that happens in it, then our common sense view of ourselves as free agents seems to be threatened, since God controls and guides everything that happens – including all our actions. Similar or related problems seem to arise with modern science.
The scientific challenge is that for everything that we do, we can explain it causally. There’s some prior cause that made us do that — you can go back to childhood, to genetics, early conditioning, environmental factors. When you give the full picture, it seems there is no room for freedom.
Exactly. As in a lot of other familiar philosophical problems, critical reflection and self-consciousness about our commitments erodes our natural easy confidence, or, if you want, our complacency.
The entire interview is here.