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.