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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Traditional and Experimental Approaches to Free Will and Moral Responsibility

By Gunnar Björnsson and Derk Pereboom
Forthc., Justin Sytsma & Wesley Buckwalter (eds.)
Companion to Experimental Philosophy, Blackwell

1. Introduction

From the early days of experimental philosophy, attention has been focused on the problem of free will and moral responsibility. This is a natural topic for this methodology, given its  proximity to the universal concerns of human life, together with the intensity with which the issues are disputed. We’ll begin by introducing the problem and the standard terminology used to frame it in the philosophical context. We’ll then turn to the contributions of experimental philosophy, and the prospects for the use of this methodology in the area.

The problem of free will and moral responsibility arises from a conflict between two  powerful considerations. On the one hand, we human beings typically believe that we are in control of our actions in a particularly weighty sense. We express this sense of difference when we attribute moral responsibility to human beings but not, for example, to machines like thermostats and computers. Traditionally, it’s supposed that moral responsibility requires us to have some type of free will in producing our actions, and hence we assume that humans,  by contrast with such machines, have this sort of free will. At the same time, there are reasons for regarding human beings as relevantly more like mechanical devices than we ordinarily imagine. These reasons stem from various sources: most prominently, from scientific views that consider human beings to be components of nature and therefore governed by natural laws, and from theological concerns that require everything that occurs to be causally determined by God.

One threat to our having the sort of free will required for moral responsibility results from the view that the natural laws are deterministic, which motivates the position that all of our actions are causally determined by factors beyond our control. An action will be causally determined in this way if a process governed by the laws of nature and beginning with causally relevant factors prior to the agent’s coming to be ensures the occurrence of the action. An action will also be causally determined by factors beyond the agent’s control if its occurrence is ensured by a causal process that originates in God’s will and ends with the action. For many contemporary philosophers, the first, naturalistic version of causal determinism about action is a serious possibility, and thus the threat that it poses to our conception of ourselves as morally responsible for our actions is serious and prevalent.

The entire chapter is here.