Social illusions, freedom, autonomy, authenticity

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.

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3 Responses to “Social illusions, freedom, autonomy, authenticity”

  1. Niska Says:

    You can’t hold anyone responsible entirely for their own actions, since their personality is the result of genetic and environmental factors.

    Change the environment, change the way they behave; change the environment and modify the way some genes are expressed. I’m not sure how we can justify having a society that revolves not around having a healthy environment for everyone in order to prevent social disruptances, but around inequality and the enforcement of imaginary desires upon everyone, from birth and onwards.

    People are not responsible for their actions; the sooner you recognize it, the sooner you want to understand the way the human “mind” works, and the sooner you find solutions to prevent rather than fix.

  2. rob Says:

    You make so many excellent points about the realities of human behavior and the obvious direction of responsibility for it. We can’t justly hold anyone entirely responsible — except we ourselves do take our own responsibility. And if we deny responsibility, we risk declining towards indifference and moral apathy.

    Maybe it wouldn’t be an issue, if we all lived in a perfect environment. Until then, the paradox of agency seems to help us towards morality.

    On the other hand, if, in a perfect environment, we gave all our responsibility to that environment I’d predict, as Dostoevsky loved to do, that people would, out of sheer self-assertive self-willfulness, spite their own best interests just to prove their autonomy — even knowing that their autonomy is entirely negative and its results likewise.

  3. Jay Byrnes Says:

    I thought Dennett did a pretty good job with this. The universe is deterministic, but that is not the same as pre-determined. The persistence of the “I” illusion creates it’s own reality. Thus “I” do actually make decisions when “I” reason out which course of action will produce the most pleasant chemical equilibrium in my brain and choose that over which will produce only a short term buzz. The existence of “self disciplined behavior” shows freedom does grow (or evolve) out of a deterministic universe.

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