Jun 29 2018

Free Will and Morality

Do we have real free will, and perhaps more importantly, what are the moral implications of belief in free will? These are interesting questions that are sure to prompt vigorous debate when they come up.

I have discussed the first question before, in which I take (shocker) a neuroscientific approach. From everything we know about brain function, our experience of our own existence, including what we perceive and the apparent choices we make, are largely a constructed illusion. Many times we feel as if we are making a conscious choice, but we can see in the brain that the choice was actually made subconsciously before we are even aware of it.

Even when the choice is made consciously, meaning we are aware of the factors that are affecting the decision, that does not mean we have truly free will. The brain is still a machine, and is dependent upon the laws of physics. A stone does not have free will to choose its path as it rolls down a hill. Its path is entirely determined by physics. Some argue that brain processes are no different, just orders of magnitude more complex.

At the same time, we do make decisions (whatever their underlying reality). Part of the “laws of physics” that shape those decisions is the knowledge that the decisions we make have consequences. Some of those consequences may be moral, shaped by culture and society.

And so whatever your belief about the ultimate philosophical reality of free will, we act as if we have free will, because we do make choices. I liken this to – I may not be able to prove philosophically that reality is really real, but who cares? It is reality for us, and it makes sense to act as if it is reality (even if we are living in a Matrix we can never get out of).

The second question sets aside the first (do we have free will) and asks a far simpler question – do people behave differently if they believe in free will or not. Psychologists refer to “free will belief” (FWB) as a factor and then try to correlate it with other factors, such as moral behavior.

The literature on this question so far is mixed, but there does seem to be a correlation between FWB and moral behavior. However, a new study calls this correlation into question.

“Social psychologist Damien Crone from the University of Melbourne and Philosophy professor Neil Levy of Macquarie University and the University of Oxford conducted a series of studies of 921 of people and found that a person’s moral behavior is not tied to their beliefs in free will.”

They conducted their study online. They had people play games in which their belief in free will was measured. In one game they also had the ability to donate part of the money they won to either a specific charity in one game, or a charity of their choice in another.

In a second type of game they secretly rolled dice and then self-reported their rolls. Researchers used statistical analysis to determine if the reported rolls were more favorable to the player than chance would dictate.

The study found no correlation between either charity or cheating and FWB. The authors point out this is a null finding, which means that the correlation could simply have been smaller than the power of the study to detect. But the results do count against the conclusion that there is a strong correlation.

Given prior research this means that the question is up in the air, because the results of various studies are mixed.

This is often the case with these types of psychological studies because they are always tricky to design and interpret. Part of the problem is that psychological studies often rely on proxies or models – they use a behavior that can be measured as if it represents an underlying trait. However, the alleged connection may be affected by confounding factors, and sometimes ones that are difficult to anticipate.

For example, for decades researchers used the marshmallow test as a proxy for the ability to defer gratification. In these studies children (usually) were offered one marshmallow now or 2 or more marshmallows later if they could wait and resist the temptation to eat the marshmallow.

This paradigm stood for decades as a marker of self-restraint, but more recent research suggests another factor may be at play – trust. The children have to trust that the adults will return with more marshmallows, and may opt for the bird-in-the-hand regardless of their executive function.

What is going on in the mind of a subject when they “decide” to cheat when reporting their die roll? Who knows. The best we can do is look for correlations, or try to manipulate variables and see their effect.

Psychological studies are also always at least a little artificial. Researchers try to make real world observations, or to distract subjects from the real factors they are observing, and this helps. But the fact of being in a study has the potential of affecting behavior – a Hawthorne or observer effect.

In any case, this study is simply making a null conclusion – that we cannot say that FWB correlates with moral behavior. We can now try to make sense of this result, but that will be largely speculation (even if it’s logical and well-informed speculation).

For example, as I said above, even though I am highly aware of what neuroscience has to say about the illusion of free will and decision making, I also recognize that we have to live our life as if we have free will. We do make decisions, and those decisions have moral and ethical implications.

Another related angle to this question is the feeling of power and control. People who feel they have power and control in their life are more likely to take positive action. It may be that a feeling of powerlessness leads both to immoral behavior and less FWB.

For me what studies like this show is that we need, to some extent, to divorce our abstract thinking from our practical and emotional thinking about our lives. The abstract thinking is useful, and it informs how we approach things, but we cannot get lost in the weeds.

To give yet another example, is there meaning in life? From a purely abstract philosophical perspective, I would have to say no. There is no objective source of meaning. But from a practical point of view I say – humans have a need for meaning, and we can make our own meaning in life. Sure, it’s subjective, but so what? Everything depends on your perspective anyway.

From an objective perspective we are a fleeting grain of dust in a vast universe that does not recognize or care about our brief existence. But from a human perspective, in both time scale and space, we have a great deal of impact on the people around us and our little corner of the world. I choose to focus on the perspective that scales with my life, and not dwell on our ultimate insignificance.

In the same way, while I find the question of free will interesting, I focus on living a moral and ethical life as a free agent.

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