The Times the other day had an interesting piece about free will: When people are persuaded that their actions are deterministic, they give reign to their desires irrespective of ethics. People who believe themselves to be free agents tend to curb their selfish inclinations in consideration of the consequences for others.
It’s a wonderful support for the notion of moral realism and moral universalism: as soon as people believe they are moral agents, they incline towards the universal principles (see below a couple of posts ago “Jesse Prinz at Philosophy Now”). It’s not conclusive — there might be cultural pressures — but it makes a great test for other cultures. It turns morality into an empirical question, which really is kind of wonderful.
The piece goes on to wonder whether people actually are moral agents — are we free? It seems odd to me that this is still a question. On the one hand, if you reject determinism, you still can’t give an account of freedom. Suppose your choices originate from yourself. So what is that self? If there’s a motivation behind it, then it’s not free. If it has no motivation, then it’s just mere randomness, not a coherent self.
On the other hand, if you accept determinism, there’s no reason to reject selfhood and responsibility. Just because it’s an illusion doesn’t mean you can’t believe it and hold to it, and allow yourself to be treated as if it were real — for the simple reason that you believe it and insist that others believe it too.
Surely we all by now know that the self is an illusion. It isn’t integral, it is moved by unconscious motives, it shifts according to context and emotion, it is deceived by motives that are hidden from itself.
But it’s a useful illusion. The question of agency is one of personal dignity. We accept responsibility in order to maintain the fiction that we have integrity and dignity. Otherwise how would we take credit for our accomplishments? I helped that family — I get to congratulate myself. I wrote that book — I’m proud of myself. I fixed up that chair — how clever I am! My friends like me — me for me, not for some robot. It’s all foolishness, but a very pleasant foolishness.
It’s a sham but one we cherish. And it seems to be determined for us. We all have it as individuals. But it’s also convenient socially. It’s the basis of criminal law and punishment and an integument of social, business, academic, interpersonal interaction.
We don’t hold to it categorically. The criminally insane are not held responsible. We fudge on our own self identity. We are always in a twilight between the illusion of integrity and succumbing to selfish interests, aware or unaware. The whole point of the illusion of free will and agency is a kind of self flattering. It is itself a selfish interest, but with a difference. It’s about human dignity, which is well beyond mere selfishness. It’s noble, even if completely false. And its nobility only emerges in traditional, universalist morality.
The selfhood that brags about its great accomplishments, however delightful to ourselves, is, after all, repulsive to everyone else.