Free Will: A Dangerous Idea?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticMar 6, 2012 7:03 PM


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The British Journal of Social Psychology has published a fiery rebuke to psychologists who argue that belief in free will makes people more ethical.

Recent much-publicizedstudieshaveclaimed that scepticism about free will makes people behave less morally. "Disbelief in Free Will Increases Aggression and Reduces Helpfulness" as the title of one of hese papers puts it.

In his article (free pdf), British 'independent researcher' James B. Miles says that these experiments are flawed, because they didn't distinguish between determinism (lack of free choice) and fatalism (lack of the ability to change events).

More fundamentally, though, Miles says that free will is used to justify things, such as punishment and poverty, that would otherwise be seen as scandalous -

Western law recognizes that the penal system is so harmful to the existing life and future opportunities of persons that to convict requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet libertarians provide no objective evidence whatsoever for the existence of free will, and therefore no apparent justi?cation for the mass poverty and brutal punishments that belief in libertarian free will often brings with it. The leading legal theorist Stephen J. Morse freely admits that harsh prison conditions and execution are only morally tolerable where the presumption of free choice exists...

...In June 2009, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published research showing that up to 83% of Britons think that ‘virtually everyone’ remains in poverty in Britain not as the result of social

misfortune or biological handicap but through choice (Bam?eld & Horton, 2009, p. 23; 69% of those surveyed agreed with the statement and an additional 14% were unsure but did not disagree.) Because of their belief in the fairness of ‘deserved inequalities’, such respondents were discovered to have become almost completely unconcerned with the idea of promoting greater equality while at the same time asserting that Britain was a beacon of fairness that offered opportunities for all...

...Free will may just be the primary excuse many use to legitimize a contempt for the poor that would exist independent of their professed belief in free will, but free will assertion nonetheless provides the ethical ?g leaf for such contempt that would be far harder to rationalize (and therefore tolerate) without the myth of free will.

This is a polemical piece (remarkably so, for an academic journal), and clearly this is only one side of the story, but it's hard to deny that he has a point: there's a dark side to the belief in free will. If you doubt free will, and yet praise the myth of it, as some scientists seem to be doing, you need to accept that you're condemning some people (prisoners, most obviously) to suffer as a result "through no fault of their own".

Personally, I think the great majority of people do believe in free will and always will - the arguments against it have been around for millenia, they're as convincing as they'll ever be, and they haven't convinced most people, however irrational that might make most people. So I think the debate over belief in free will is academic; it's not going away.

Miles JB (2011). 'Irresponsible and a Disservice': The integrity of social psychology turns on the free will dilemma. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 22074173

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