Free Will and Moral Practice

Without free will, how might we show contrition? Is free will necessary for morality? Does moral practice hinge on the idea that we “could have done otherwise?” Can we do otherwise? If not, does that spell the end of morality?

Let’s take a closer look at our moral practice, so we can tidy up around the edges of the issue a bit.

Free Will and Contrition

When we do something that violates (or seems to violate) prevailing social norms, people will ask us why we did it, giving us a chance to show contrition. Contrition is an important tool in human social interaction, as it allows us to reassure others that we want to remain a person in good standing in the group.

One of the criteria for showing full contrition is that we should indicate that, if given the opportunity to do it over again, in the same circumstances, we would make a different choice this time.

But that seems to require that, given the exact same conditions, we could do otherwise. And that means that, given the exact same conditions, including the state of our mind at the time, our actions would be simultaneously undetermined AND in our control.

According to some, this is the crux of what it means to have “free will”. And, according to others, not only is there good reason to think that we don’t have this kind of free will, there’s some reason to think the very description is incoherent. Hobbes speaks for many:

“I hold that ordinary definition of a free agent, namely that a free agent is that which, when all things are present which are needful to produce the effect, can nevertheless not produce it, implies a contradiction and is nonsense; being as much as to say the cause may be sufficient, that is necessary, and yet the effect shall not follow.” (Thomas Hobbes, Of Liberty and Necessity, § 32)

Following this reasoning, and accepting the “could have done otherwise” test for free will, some will claim that we have no free will at all.

Let’s assume for the moment that these folks are right, and that free will is an incoherent illusion. Does that mean our practice of showing contrition is incoherent? When we encourage people to indicate that, if they had it to do over again, they would make a different choice, are we encouraging them to lie? Or to deceive themselves? Or to embrace incoherent thoughts? If so, where do we go from here? Do we give up on coherence? Or do we give up on showing contrition?

Are those who deny “free will” asking us to proudly declare that, if we had it to do over again, in the exact same circumstances, we would, in all likelihood do the exact same thing we did the first time? How then would we reassure others that we are fit to be members of the group in good standing?

Here’s one way: Consider these three versions of “would do otherwise” (WDO):

WDO-1: “If all circumstances, including my own mental state, were again as they were then, I would do something different.”

WDO-2: “If all external circumstances were again as they were then, but my mind were as it is now, then I would do something different.”

WDO-3: “If I am in similar circumstances in the future, I will make a different choice.”

WDO-2 and WDO-3 seem like perfectly coherent things to say, and seem to reassure others that we are capable of being persons in good standing just about as well as does WDO-1.

So what? What does this mean for us in our daily lives?

Well it means that, when we show contrition, if we have WDO-2 or WDO-3 in mind instead of WDO-1, we can take comfort in the idea that we are at least saying something coherent.

And it might help us become a little more comfortable with the idea that for any action we take, there is a very strong sense in which we really “couldn’t have done otherwise.”

For, while we might have to admit that, as we were then, we could not have done otherwise, we can take comfort in the fact that, as we are now, we could have, and might well have, done otherwise.