What’s your most radical and controversial view about ethics? My answer: I don’t believe in moral responsibility. Believing in moral responsibility requires that you ascribe agency to human beings, and I don’t: if we’re all just cogs in the machine, blame is always inappropriate. I can’t blame you for something you couldn’t have helped doing. We’re all familiar with making choices. Categories like responsibility, blame, guilt, revenge, and consent presuppose human agency. But this doesn’t change the fact that “there is in the mind no volition” (Spinoza, 1677/1910, p. 75). You are a force that changes the universe, yes, but you don’t decide how you will do so. In this essay, I want to reexamine concepts like blame and moral responsibility in light of my firm conviction that human beings don’t have agency. I will discuss whether these concepts are harmful and propose arguments for why they are fictional.
People often use the repercussions of determinism regarding the justice system as a practical argument for free will. Yet this has nothing to do with its actual existence. So free will is thought of as a Platonic noble lie (Plato, Republic, Book III, 414c). But even the benefits of this illusion are questionable. Yes, we must radically reassess moral responsibility, blame, praise, guilt, revenge, and similar concepts in light of determinism, but do you see a convincing consequentialist case against doing so? The justice system doesn’t necessarily have to rest on the assumption that human beings have moral agency. Punishment with the aim of prevention is still fully compatible with strong determinism. All that needs to change is our view of the relationship between blame and causation.
Let’s take a famous example from 18th-century history: The execution of King Louis XVI at the hands of Charles-Henri Sanson. Now, we would all say that Sanson caused Louis XVI’s death. But the disagreement between determinists and non-determinists is about blame and responsibility, not causation. So a determinist would say that even though Sanson caused the king’s death, he is not to blame, i.e., he is not responsible. All this sounds too radical, but here’s my reasoning: If the executioner is just as much a machine as the guillotine, then blaming him is as absurd as blaming the guillotine. The guillotine is just as much a cause of Louis XVI’s death as Sanson is, but it’s not responsible because it has no agency. I can’t blame the killer or the bullet. And if I can’t blame killers, I can’t punish them for punishment’s sake.
When I was in high school, I remember having a discussion with one of my teachers about the death penalty. We were analyzing a specific scenario: imagine that there is a prisoner so dangerous that the only options we have are life imprisonment and execution. If the prisoner prefers execution, should we administer it? My teacher’s answer was no. Her answer was not necessarily problematic, but her reasoning was: She said that we shouldn’t administer the death penalty because that wouldn’t be severe enough. All this sounds so evil to me because I don’t recognize punishment for punishment’s sake as anything other than madness. In a deterministic world, such ‘justice’ makes no sense. The conclusion that punishment of this kind is unjust follows from the premise that free will doesn’t exist.
If humans have no agency, a murderer doesn’t choose to kill. An amalgamation of forces moves the murderer toward that action. No one can claim to know all of those in any specific case, but that’s not necessary for the soundness of my argument. As for punishment, it doesn’t matter whether the murderer had the choice to kill or not. What matters is that we can reasonably expect similar behavior from the murderer in the future, so we must do what we can to prevent it. I don’t want to defend utilitarianism, but it is also compatible with strong determinism. If a utilitarian claims that the pleasure gained by the offended, for example, outweighs the pain inflicted upon the offender and, therefore, punishment is justified, then determinism has nothing to say for or against doing so. So we see that even if we remove blame from the equation, we can still use the concept of justice.
As a case study of how a deterministic moral framework could function, we may consult the Odyssey. In Homeric Greece, the problems of voluntary/involuntary action and the riddles concerning free will do not arise. There was no concept of will, so the moral vocabulary looked quite different. It doesn’t matter whether you could’ve acted courageously or the circumstances made it impossible for you to do so. You still wouldn’t be considered courageous. Odysseus can blame the suitors for having false beliefs (Homer, Odyssey, Book XXII) even though we would today think of having a false belief as an involuntary error. As MacIntyre explains, “it is not that Homer thinks that beliefs are voluntary; he is engaged in an assessment to which what the agent could or could not have done otherwise is irrelevant” (MacIntyre, 1966/2017, p. 7).
Almost any tragedy from Ancient Greece, and most famously Oedipus Rex, implicitly confronts us with the problem of free will. We see Oedipus try to avoid his destiny and achieve the exact opposite. While Sophocles had no concept of free will, he would probably have agreed that usually, we don’t see the true causes behind our actions, even when we think we’re acting freely. Even when we are the cause, we don’t choose to be.
After considering Homer and Sophocles, we can also look at Aristotle’s case. He expounds on a theory of voluntary and involuntary actions that obsoletes the concept of free will. He divides actions into voluntary and involuntary ones based on their causes. Actions that are caused by chance or necessity are involuntary, while those caused by one’s own wants and habits are voluntary. Note that each kind of action still has a cause that we don’t “control”:
Now, all human actions are either the result of man’s efforts or not. Of the latter some are due to chance, others to necessity. Of those due to necessity, some are to be attributed to compulsion, others to nature, so that the things which men do not do of themselves are all the result of chance, nature, or compulsion. As for those which they do of themselves and of which they are the cause, some are the result of habit, others of longing, and of the latter some are due to rational, others to irrational longing. Now wish is a rational longing for good, for no one wishes for anything unless he thinks it is good; irrational longings are anger and desire. Thus all the actions of men must necessarily be referred to seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reason, anger, and desire. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book I, Chapter 10, Sections 7-8)
We cannot control our appetites, anger, reasoning, and habits. All this is because we cannot control who we are and what we think. To understand this, consider the following question: How do your thoughts arise? Not through any conscious decision on your part. Could it even be possible to decide what and when to think? No. The succession of thoughts always is and can only be unplanned.
Imagine the opposite: a thought, X, arises because of a preceding decision. I decide to think about X. But for this to be voluntary, I would have to decide to decide what to think. I would have to decide: I am going to decide whether to think X or something else. Even if this happened, I am in an infinite regress. At a certain point, the cause of my thoughts will necessarily be outside of my control. Furthermore, at any point in this chain, the decision is determined.
In the form in which it comes, a thought is a sign with many meanings, requiring interpretation or, more precisely, an arbitrary narrowing and restriction before it finally becomes clear. It arises in me – where from? How? I don’t know. It comes, independently of my will, usually circled about and clouded by a crowd of feelings, desires, aversions, and by other thoughts, often enough scarcely distinguishable from a ‘willing’ or ‘feeling’. It is drawn out of this crowd, cleaned, set on its feet, watched as it stands there, moves about, all this at an amazing speed yet without any sense of haste. Who does all this I don’t know, and I am certainly more observer than author of the process. Then its case is tried, the question posed: ‘What does it mean? What is it allowed to mean? Is it right or wrong?’ – the help of other thoughts is called on, it is compared. In this way thinking proves to be almost a kind of exercise and act of justice, where there is a judge, an opposing party, even an examination of the witnesses which I am permitted to observe for a while – only a while, to be sure: most of the process, it seems, escapes me. – That every thought first arrives many-meaninged and floating, really only as the occasion for attempts to interpret or for arbitrarily fixing it, that a multitude of persons seem to participate in all thinking – this is not particularly easy to observe: fundamentally, we are trained the opposite way, not to think about thinking as we think. The origin of the thought remains hidden; in all probability it is only the symptom of a much more comprehensive state; the fact that it, and not another, is the one to come, that it comes with precisely this greater or lesser luminosity, sometimes sure and imperious, sometimes weak and in need of support, as a whole always exciting, questioning – because every thought acts as a stimulus to consciousness – in all of this, something of our total state expresses itself in sign form. (Nietzsche, 2003, pp. 34-35)
So the ‘I’ that thinks is itself a construction of thinking. The conjunction ‘I think’ is a grammatical convention that might not correspond to reality. Nietzsche’s claim that “something can be a condition of life and nevertheless be false” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 21) applies equally well to the thinking ‘I’ and to free will. You are not the thinking I. The ‘I’ feels, observes, and experiences. It doesn’t decide. If all this follows from determinism, then it is understandable why people often consider it a nihilistic worldview. Despite my belief that true nihilists don’t exist, this is a fair objection and merits a response.
I think the objection arises out of a different understanding of the relationship between being a cog in the machine and being coerced. I do not claim that we are just acted upon by outside forces, making all actions coercive. And, of course, no one likes being coerced all the time. But the nonexistence of free will doesn’t imply that all we do, we do reluctantly or against our will. “The absolute necessity of everything that happens contains no element of compulsion” (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 62). I claim that we also partially comprise those forces. You can influence the life of someone in good or bad ways. You can be the cause of someone’s happiness or pain. The fact that your behavior is determined doesn’t change this. You can’t be blamed or credited for who you are and what you do, but you can still be honest or dishonest, courageous or cowardly, proud or humble, and so on. There is no element of unpleasant compulsion in any of this. No one compels you to act against your will. It’s just the way the machine operates.
The offence taken at the doctrine ‘of the unfreedom of the will’ is that it seems to assert ‘you do what you do not voluntarily but unwillingly, i.e., under coercion’. Now, everyone knows how it feels to do something unwillingly, that is, reluctantly, ‘against your will’ – and one doesn’t concede that, because one does many things, in particular many ‘moral’ things, gladly. One thus understands ‘unfree will’ as meaning ‘a will coerced by an alien will’, as if the assertion were: ‘Everything you do, you do under coercion by somebody else’s will’. Obedience to one’s own will is not called coercion, for there is pleasure in it. That you command yourself, that is ‘freedom of will’. (Nietzsche, 2003, p. 57)
Free will may not exist, but the distinction between free men and slaves, like the distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions in Aristotle’s theory, remains. You may still know which actions are good for you and perform those, hence being free. Alternatively, being ignorant of your good coerces you to act in a way that is contrary to your actual will.
We shall easily see what is the difference between a man who is led by opinion or emotion and one who is led by reason. The former, whether he will or not, performs things of which he is entirely ignorant; the latter is subordinate to no one, and only does those things which he knows to be of primary importance in his life, and which on that account he desires the most; and therefore I call the former a slave, but the latter free. (Spinoza, 1677/1910, pp. 186-187)
Augustine needed the concept of free will to explain the problem of evil. God is all-good and all-powerful, so why do atrocities happen? Because God preferred to give us free will rather than make us slaves to destiny. This belief has persisted even among atheists due to inertia and its intuitiveness. So what is the practical significance of refuting responsibility and blame? Why go against everyday experience and common sense?
My issue with the concept of free will, when it comes to politics, is the notion of just desert that comes with it. If there is no free will, no one is inherently more deserving than anyone else. And the only reasons for permitting inequalities would be practical ones (Studebaker, 2013). So, for example, in a determinist world, the only reason to pay a neurosurgeon more than one pays an architect would be that being a neurosurgeon requires more years of training and is a more difficult job. Consequently, we need to give them a stronger incentive so that the profession does not die out. We would never pay doctors more because they are inherently more deserving or meritorious.
The other reason for problematizing moral responsibility, blame, and guilt are their usefulness to the oppressors. The concept of punishment for the sake of punishment that I wrote about in the beginning would not exist if not for the invention of free will:
Today we have no sympathy anymore for the concept of “free will”: we know only too well what it is—the most disreputable of all the theologians’ tricks, designed to make humanity “responsible” in the theologians’ sense, that is, to make it dependent on them . . . Here I am simply offering the psychology of all making-responsible.—Wherever responsibilities are sought, what tends to be doing the seeking is the instinct of wanting to punish and rule. One has stripped becoming of its innocence when some state of being-such-and-such is traced back to will, to intentions, to acts: the doctrine of the will was essentially invented for purposes of punishment, that is, for purposes of wanting to find people guilty. (Nietzsche, 1889/1997, p. 35)
Blame is, therefore, a machine for oppression. Thought up by the powerful to satisfy the desire to punish and suppress. Blaming the people is like blaming the bullets. What we can do and what we cause are not up to us. Like impersonal forces that have no agency, we make things happen. Whether we like it or not, what we want and when we want it is not for us or anyone else to decide. It’s just how we are and always will be. As Luther would say: “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.” I know this vision doesn’t sound all that attractive. You may agree with Nietzsche and say that “truth is terrible” (Nietzsche, 1908/2018, p. 84.). I might not be able to change your mind. It is not my intention to convince as many people as possible. I’m no missionary. In my personal experience, I’ve found that people seem very keen on denying these claims, so I wouldn’t expect an essay to succeed. But here, I tried at least to make you consider these questions, even if they seem so contrary to what you currently believe.
- Aristotle (1926). Rhetoric. In Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22. Harvard University Press. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0060
- Homer. Odyssey. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0136
- MacIntyre, A. (2017). A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Second Edition. University of Notre Dame Pess. (Original work published 1966)
- Nietzsche, F. (1997). Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize with the Hammer. Hackett Pub. (Original work published 1889)
- Nietzsche, F. (2003). Nietzsche: Writings from the Late Notebooks. Cambridge University Press.
- Nietzsche, F. (2018). Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is. Immortal Books. (Original work published 1908)
- Plato. Republic. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0168
- Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0192
- Spinoza. (1910). Ethics. http://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.263056 (Original work published 1677)
- Studebaker, B. (2013, May 2). Leftism and Determinism Part I. https://benjaminstudebaker.com/2013/05/02/leftism-and-determinism-part-i/