The Separability of Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Four Degrees of Separation:

  1. The Separation of "Free" from "Will"

  2. The Separation of "Responsibility" from "Moral Responsibility"

  3. The Separation of "Free Will" from "Moral Responsibility"

  4. The Separation of "Free Will and Moral Responsibility" from "Punishment" - both Retributive and Consequentialist

We must separate the concept "free" from the concept of "will" in order to better understand "free will," as John Locke recommended we do to avoid verbal confusion. He said, "I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free."
(Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXI, Of Power, s.21)

We must also separate "moral responsibility" from ordinary "responsibility" or simple accountability. If our intentions and decisions caused an action, we are responsible for it, but moral responsibility requires that the action has moral consequences. Immanuel Kant and the modern free willist Robert Kane think that only moral decisions can be free decisions. We think that is an "ethical fallacy."

We must go even further and clarify the relationship between free will and moral responsibility. Some philosophers (e.g., John Martin Fischer, Derek Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas) deflect direct discussion of free will and study it only as the "control condition for moral responsibility."

Finally, we should explore the connection between moral responsibility and punishment , both backward-looking retributive punishment (revenge or restitution) and forward-looking consequentialism (re-education and rehabilitation).

The Separation of "Free" from "Will"
"Free Will" - in scare quotes - refers to the common but mistaken notion that the adjective "free" modifies the concept "will." In particular, it indicates that the element of chance, one of the two requirements for free will is present in the determination of the will itself.

Critics of "libertarian free will" usually adopt this meaning in order to attack the idea of randomness in our decisions, which clearly would not help to make us morally responsible.

Unfortunately, some defenders of libertarian free will (Robert Kane and his followers, for example) continue to add indeterminism into the "torn" decision itself, making such free will "unintelligible" by their own account.

Despite the claim of some professional philosophers that they are better equipped than scientists to make conceptual distinctions and evaluate the cogency of arguments, they have mistakenly conflated the concepts of "free" and "will." They (con)fuse them with the muddled term "free will," despite clear warnings from John Locke that this would lead to confusion.

Locke said very clearly, as had some ancients like Lucretius, it is not the will that is free (in the sense of undetermined), it is the mind.

John Locke liked the idea of Freedom and Liberty. He thought it was inappropriate to describe the Will itself as Free. The Will is a Determination. It is the Man who is Free. "I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free." "This way of talking, nevertheless, has prevailed, and, as I guess, produced great confusion," he said. It has and still does produce confusion

In chapter XXI, Of Power, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke calls the question of Freedom of the Will unintelligible. But for Locke, it is only because the adjective "free" applies to the agent, not to the will, which is determined by the mind, and determines the action.

Concerning a man's liberty, there yet, therefore, is raised this further question, Whether a man be free to will? which I think is what is meant, when it is disputed whether the will be free. (s.22)

This, then, is evident, That a man is not at liberty to will, or not to will, anything in his power. (s.24)

Freedom of human action requires the randomness of absolute chance to break the causal chain of determinism, yet the conscious knowledge that we are adequately determined to be responsible for our choices.

Freedom requires some events that are not causally determined by immediately preceding events, events that are unpredictable by any agency, events involving quantum uncertainty. These random events create alternative possibilities for action.

Randomness is the "free" in free will.

In short, there must be a Randomness Requirement, unpredictable chance events that break the causal chain of determinism. Without this chance, our actions are simply the consequences of events in the remote past. This randomness must be located in a place and time that enhances free will, one that does not reduce it to pure chance.
(Determinists do not like this requirement.)

Freedom also requires an adequately determined will that chooses or selects from those alternative possibilities. There is effectively nothing uncertain about this choice.

Adequate determinism is the "will" in free will.

So there is also a Determinism Requirement - that our actions be adequately determined by our character and values. This requires that any randomness not be the direct cause of our actions. (Libertarians do not like this requirement.)

Adequate determinism means that randomness in our thoughts about alternative possibilities does not directly cause our actions.

A random thought can lead to an adequately determined action, for which we can take full responsibility.

We must separate the "free" thoughts from the "willed" actions.

Our thoughts come to us. Our actions come from us.

The Separation of "Moral" from "Responsibility"
Responsibility for a willed action can be ascribed to an agent because the "adequately" determined will has started a new causal chain that includes the action and its foreseeable consequences.

But responsibility is not exactly the same as moral responsibility. It is merely a prerequisite for moral responsibility.

Responsibility is similar to accountability. Just as an action can said to be a cause of its consequences, so the agent can be held accountable for the action.

Different moral codes, which are the business of ethicists, may have different degrees of moral responsibility for the same actions and its consequences.

We must separate "moral" from "responsibility."

The Separation of "Free Will" from "Moral Responsibility"
From the earliest beginnings, the problem of "free will" has been intimately connected with the question of moral responsibility. Most of the ancient thinkers on the problem were trying to show that we humans have control over our decisions, that our actions "depend on us", and that they are not pre-determined by fate, by arbitrary gods, by logical necessity, or by a natural causal determinism.

John Martin Fischer says that some philosophers want to relate these two very strongly:

Some philosophers do not distinguish between freedom and moral responsibility. Put a bit more carefully, they tend to begin with the notion of moral responsibility, and "work back" to a notion of freedom; this notion of freedom is not given independent content (separate from the analysis of moral responsibility). For such philosophers, "freedom" refers to whatever conditions are involved in choosing or acting in such a way as to be morally responsible.
(Free Will, vol 1, p. )
The question of the existence of "free will" is an empirical and factual question about the nature of the mind. It does not depend in any way on the existence of "moral responsibility," which is a question for ethics.

Here is an example of the kind of problems caused by conflating free will with moral responsibility. Manuel Vargas follows John Fischer in connecting free will to moral responsibility, then he wonders how and when children can suddenly acquire free will at a certain age. Vargas says:

It is not clear that there is any single thing that people have had in mind by the term "free will." Perhaps the dominant characterization in the history of philosophy is that it is something like the freedom condition on moral responsibility. Roughly, the idea is that to be morally responsible for something, you had to have some amount of freedom, at some suitable time prior to the action or outcome for which you are responsible. That sense of freedom — whatever it amounts to — is what we mean to get at by the phrase "free will." However, there may be things for which free will might be important or other senses of free will that are independent of concerns about moral responsibility. For example, philosophers have worried whether free will is required for some human achievements to have a special worth or value, or for there to be values and valuing in any robust sense. Although I think much of what I will say can be applied to other aspects of thinking about it, I will primarily concerned with free will in its connection to moral responsibility, the sense in which people are appropriately praised or blamed. (Four Views on Free Will, p.128-9)
Vargas then puzzles about children becoming free agents.
Consider the question of how we go from being unfree agents to free agents. This is a puzzle faced by all accounts of responsibility, but there is something pressing about it in the case of libertarianism. As children we either had the indeterministic structures favored by your favorite version of libertarianism or we lacked them. If we lacked them as children, we might wonder how we came to get those structures. We might also wonder what the evidence is for thinking that we do develop said structures. Suppose the libertarian offers us an answer to these questions, and the other empirical challenges I raised in the prior section. We would still face another puzzle. What, exactly, does the indeterminism add? What follows in this section is not so much a metaphysical concern as it is a normative concern. It is a concern about what work the indeterminism does in libertarianism, apart from providing a way to preserve our default self-image as deliberators with genuine, metaphysically robust alternative possibilities. (p.148)
Children have free will from birth. It is part of their biological makeup. It is the moral responsibility that they "come to get" at some age.

We must separate "free will" from "moral responsibility."

The Separation of "Free Will and Moral Responsibility" from Retributive Punishment (Revenge, Restitution) and Consequentialist Punishment (Education, Rehabilitation)
Liberal and humanitarian thinkers who see that retributive punishment is sometimes cruel and unproductive should not try to argue that punishment is not "deserved" because free will does not exist.

They have excellent reasons for preferring rehabilitation and education to vengeance.

Naturalists argue that humans are just a form of animal and that we lack free will because animals do. The idea that there is no free will in animals, that they are completely determined, was the old religious argument that God had given man the gift of free will. The new version is that animals lack moral responsibility, which is now bweing questioned in many sociobiological studies.

Whether man - and higher animals too - have free will is an empirical scientific question. Whether they have moral responsibility is a social and cultural question.

To make it depend on arguments against vengeance and retributive punishment is to get the cart before the horse.

Equating free will with moral responsibility, then to use spurious arguments to deny free will, and thus to deny moral responsibility - in order to oppose punishment - is fine humanism but poor philosophy, and terrible science.

We must separate "free will and moral responsibility" from "punishment," retributive or consequentialist.

Chapter 3.7 - The Ergod Chapter 4.2 - The History of Free Will
Part Three - Value Part Five - Problems