Picture: devil dopamine. Normally we try to avoid casting aspersions on the character of those who hold a particular opinion; we like to take it for granted that everyone in the debate is honest, dispassionate, and blameless. But a recent paper by Baumeister, Masicampo and DeWall (2009), described in Psyblog, suggests that determinism (disbelief in free will) is associated with lower levels of helpfulness and higher levels of aggression.  Another study reported in Cognitive Daily found that determinists are also cheats.

It’s possible to question the way these experiments were done. They involved putting deterministic thoughts into some of the subjects’ minds by, for example, reading them passages from the works of Francis Crick (who besides being an incorrigible opponent of free will in philosophical terms, also, I suppose, opened the way for genetic determinism). That’s all very well, but it could be that, as it were,  habitual determinists are better able to resist the morally corrosive effect of their beliefs than people who have recently been given a dose of persuasive determinism.

However, the results certainly chime with a well-established fear that our growing ability to explain human behaviour is tending to reduce our belief in responsibility, so that malefactors are able to escape punishment merely by quoting factors that influenced their behaviour.  I was powerless; the crime was caused by chemical changes in my brain.

PsyBlog concludes  that we must cling to belief in free will, which sounds perilously close to suggesting that we should pretend to believe in it even if we don’t.  But leaving aside for a moment the empirical question of whether determinists are morally worse than those who believe in free will, why should they be?

The problem arises because the traditional view of moral responsibility requires that the evil act must be freely chosen in order for the moral taint to rub off on the agent. If no act is ever freely chosen, we may do bad things but we shall never ourselves be truly bad, so moral rules have no particular force. A few determinists, perhaps, would bite this bullet and agree that morality is a delusion, but I think most would not. It would be possible for determinists to deny the requirement for freedom and say instead that people are guilty of wrong-doing simply when connected causally or in other specified ways with evil acts, regardless of whether their behaviour is free or not.  This restores the validity of moral judgements and justifies punishment, although it leaves us curiously helpless. This tragic view was actually current in earlier times:  Oedipus considered himself worthy of punishment even though he had had no knowledge of the crimes he was committing,  and St Augustine had to argue against those who contended that the rape suffered by Lucretia made her a sinful adulteress – something which was evidently still a live issue in 1748 when Richardson was writing Clarissa, where the same point is raised.  Even currently in legal theory we have the notion of strict liability, whereby people may be punished for things they had no control over (if you sell poisonous food, you’re liable, even if it wasn’t you that caused it be poisonous). This is, I think a case of ancients and moderns reaching similar conclusions from almost antithetical understandings; in the ancient world you could be punished for things you couldn’t have prevented because moral taint was so strong; in the contemporary world you can be punished for things you couldn’t have prevented because moral taint is irrelevant and punishment is merely a matter of deterrence.

That is of course, the second escape route open to determinists; it’s not about moral responsibility, it’s about deterrence, social sanctions, and inbuilt behavioural norms, which together are enough to keep us all on the straight and narrow. This line of argument opens up an opportunity for the compatibilists, who can say: you evidently believe that human beings have some special capacity to change their behaviour in response to exhortation or punishment – why don’t we just call that free will? More dangerously, it leaves the door open for the argument that those who believe their decisions have real moral consequence are likely to behave better than those who comply with social norms out of mere pragmatism and conditioning.

Meantime, to the rescue come De Brigard, Mandelbaum, and Ripley (pdf): as a matter of fact, they say, our experiments show that giving a neurological explanation for bad behaviour has no effect on people’s inclination to condemn it. It seems to follow that determinism makes no difference. They are responding to Nahmias, who put forward the interesting idea of bypassing:  people are granted moral immunity if they are thought to suffer from some condition that bypasses their normal decision-making apparatus, but not if they are subject to problems which are thought to leave that apparatus in charge. In particular, Nahmias found that subjects tended to dismiss psychological excuses, but accept neurological ones. De Brigard, Mandelbaum and Ripley, by contrast, found it made no difference to their subjects reactions whether a mental condition such as anosognosia was said to be psychological or neurological; the tendency to assign blame was much the same in both cases. I’m not sure their tests did enough to make sure the distinction between neurological and psychological explanations was understood by the subjects; but their research does underline a secondary implication of the other papers; that most people are not consistent and can adopt different interpretations on different occasions (notably there were signs that subjects were more inclined to assign blame where the offence was more unpleasant, which is illogical but perhaps intuitively understandable).

I suspect that people’s real-life moral judgements are for the most part not much affected by the view they take on a philosophical level, and that modern scientific determinism has really only provided a new vocabulary for defence lawyers. A hundred or two hundred years ago, they might have reminded a jury of the powerful effect of Satan’s wiles on an innocent but redeemable mind;  now it may be the correctable impact of a surge of dopamine they prefer to put forward.


  1. 1. Rodger Cunningham says:

    First, although I’m an incompatibilist, I agree with you that a study like this doesn’t prove anything about people of any philosophical position who’ve actually thought these matters out already.

    However, I’d like to point out another problem with a strict deterrence-based theory of punishment: it seems to make it irrelevant whether the accused actually committed the deed at all, as long as the public thinks he or she did. I’m sure the state of Texas will be very happy with this.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Yes, that’s true. In fact you could go further and argue that if deterrence is all we’re worried about, it might help if the public think a few innocent people get punished. it might make them think that the whole area of that particular crime is so dangerous they’ll take special care to keep away from it.

    Something a bit like this may be behind this business of strict liability – the thinking may be that if people know, say, that they’re liable to be punished for things they didn’t know were happening in their food factory, then they’ll take good care that they know about everything. But to be honest I don’t know a lot about that.

  3. 3. steevithak says:

    Not all determinists disbelieve in free will. Dennett pointed out that free will would be meaningless in a non-deterministic universe. (What good is a choice if you can’t predict the result of your choice!) He wrote a whole book defending the idea that free will and moral responsibility are only meaningful with determinism (Freedom Evolves). And it’s the only thing I’ve read on the subject of free will that made real sense to me in years.

    In the end, though, I’d have to agree with you that most people’s behaviour is not affected much by their philosophical views.

  4. 4. Peter says:

    It’s true that there are gradations – hard determinists, soft determinists, compatibilists who think some version of free will can be accommodated within a deterministic universe. But I think they all at least disbelieve in old-time full-strength free will, which involves spiritual or other interventions in the natural course of physics.

    ‘Freedom Evolves’ rounds out the Dennettian world view with impressive consistency, but I thought there were some odd bits in it, and overall it didn’t quite fulfil the promise of some of his early essays on the subject in the way I’d hoped. He’s always well worth reading, though.

  5. 5. Rodger Cunningham says:

    Plainly cause and effect (not “determinism”) exists, or choices would have no meaning. Equally plainly, we make choices which wouldn’t be choices without the belief in two actually possible futures. (I believe all choices are ultimately binary.) Both facts seem necessary for making sense of the world. Reconciling them is the problem.

    I’m not a dualist, nor are Searle, Hodgson, Pearson, Trout, etc. It’s not necessary to suppose that freedom intervenes “spiritually” in the universe (which would at any rate violate conservation principles); imho, freedom is an emergent property of “matter” or it is nothing, but to define the universe as “the natural course of physics” is where I have the problem. Perhaps it’s physics (the name of an academic department, not a body of truth) that needs intervening in.

  6. 6. jon.m.dobson says:

    “Dennett pointed out that free will would be meaningless in a non-deterministic universe.”

    Well, I will have to find this book, then. Title? I have had this same notion for just over a year: it occurred to me while listening to a body of students in my robotics class argue over fate and self-determinism. It seems to me that objective meaning must exist in the universe for this to be the case. Without it, the whole idea is hard to defend (from my rather vague inclinations, anyhow).

  7. 7. Mr P says:

    “Well I will have to find this book, then. Title?”

    The book you’re after is Freedom Evolves and IMHO is one of Dennetts better works. Gilbert Ryle in his book The Concept Of Mind that the physical determinism of the environment we inhabit doesn’t dictate what we can do but rather what we can’t. It’s a seemingly subtle semantic distinction but he then goes on to illustrate his point by using the analogy of a chess game. The rules are strict and very limited yet the number of potential gamescould be infinite.

    Also Steven Pinker in his book How The mind Works makes frequent references to what he calls open ended combinatorial systems and defines these using similar analogies.

  8. 8. Andy T. says:

    I am not at all impressed with Dennett. The more I read his stuff and watch his lectures and debates, the less impressed I become. Here is a recent lecture by Dennett on free will at Edinburgh University: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cSgVgrC-6Y

    It is ironic that he talks about magic tricks at the end, because I think he spent the majority of the lecture pulling free will out of an empty hat by the ears.

    If we were to assume Dennett’s naturalism/determinism is true, my questions are:

    1) He asserts chess programs contain elements of free will and he spends a considerable amount of time with this metaphor. If we were to decide bad chess playing is immoral, should we then punish the chess program for playing poorly to satisfy his need for justice based on retribution? No, of course not. It is the programmer that should be punished, and following this metaphor, this points to our program–nature–as the responsible party for our misdeeds.

    2) His argument seems to hinge on this idea of “competency”–that our moral responsibility depends on our competency. Given 10 tries with slightly different conditions, we might choose correctly 9 times. But isn’t our competency determined too? What difference does that make?

    3) In his discussion of “possible worlds” he said that we should not be concerned with specific “initial conditions”, that there could be nearly an infinite number of possible worlds and we don’t know which one we are in. Perhaps a butterfly was flapping its wings in China last week, and that changed the outcome. If a bad deed happens in our specific world, and may not have happened in a similar world, shouldn’t we blame our world (i.e. nature)?

  9. 9. Tom says:

    To me, the bizarre thing about the “free will versus determinism” issue is that it seems to me that everyone assumes they have free will, because, paradoxically, they have to in order to live and interact with others! For example, such things that everyone does such as assigning blame or trying to persuade others would make no sense from a deterministic standpoint. And yet, I cannot figure out what free will would even mean. The only things that would seem to be involved in a person’s choices would be his past experiences, his biological makeup (“hardware”, so to speak), and random influences. In other words, nature and nurture seem to exhaust what could account for the state of an acting agent. None of these are really what I think we all mean when we speak of free will.
    It is also odd, and as far as I can tell seldom noted, that there are two kinds of determinism which would seem to “over specify” the actions of an agent. There is the deterministic physics sense, in which the entire universe consists of deterministic energy and particles interacting and evolving according to fixed laws, and there is no room for any independent actions by organisms outside of that. Indeed, time would even be in a sense a meaningless parameter in that view.
    Then there is the contrasting nature/nurture sense, in which a person’s previous experiences and biological makeup seem to determine what he/she will do. The latter seems to be the one most people in the social sciences tend to assume, in my experience. The former type, physics based, is pretty much what Laplace referred to, and more recent theorems in chaos theory do not really affect the seeming validity of that view (rather, chaos theory just says that no mind could ever predict the future state of the universe from mathematical laws).
    It is not clear to me how a determinist could reconcile these seeming contradictory, or incompatible, types of determinism.
    I would be interested to know if any of the authors mentioned in the other comments have broached these above issues.

  10. 10. Vicente says:


    For example, such things that everyone does such as assigning blame or trying to persuade others would make no sense from a deterministic standpoint

    Not necessarily… think how many times you have acted under some subconscious conditioning… Between absolute determinism and complete free will, black and white, there is a “grays range”. All those beheviours could be explained in “competition” terms.

    Anyway, that is the point, to remove the programming, to have inner freedom, no conditioning. Once that state (awakening? enlightment?) has been reached, maybe one can check if something like freewill exists, or not.

    To begin with I haven’t seen any satisfactoy definition of “free will” for time being.

    What is “will”? what is the driver of action? there is always an infinite chain of cause-effect action progress, maybe free will is to break it.

    Free to do what? what determines what you want? maybe free will is just not to want anything. To know what is fair and to stick to it unconditionally.

    How is all these implemented in neurological terms? what a conundrum.

    My guess is that in what to the free will problem concerns, the current approach in the phylosophical and neuroscientific arena is wrong. We are making the wrong questions.

  11. 11. Dave Lindsay says:

    It’s interesting to think of free will mathematically. If you use the axiom of choice on infinite sets, you’re applying a rule without any rule for applying it. This seems to meet the definition of free will fairly well. Mathematicians don’t even know any basis choosing the axiom of choice!

  12. 12. notesfrombabel.wordpress.com says:

    Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

    (No, I’m afraid I decided that realistically Twitter was one more demand on my time I couldn’t accommodate; but thanks anyway – Peter)

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