Jonah Lehrer points to a post by philosopher Galen Strawson at the NYT blog on the nonexistence of free will. Strawson’s argument is basically that actions are performed for (causal) reasons that are outside our control, and so we have no free will.
I agree that our actions are performed for reasons, and that they are (very nearly always) outside our control if by that one means that they are reasons we did not choose. I am what I am physically, and this is largely the outcome of prior dispositions from my biological and cultural heredity. I did not choose to be an Australian white male human mammal etc. So when I behave because I am this sort of thing, that is not a free choice, of course. Moreover, I developed as an individual in a context that shaped, if not determined (to avoid begging the question) my preferences. I probably enjoy chocolate because my neural chemistry responds to theobromine, and vanilla ice cream because I associate the sugars with vanilla flavouring; thus give me chocolate chip vanilla icecream and my biological, cultural and personal history disposes me to like it.
So it’s a knockdown argument: I had no choice in these preferences, so I am not responsible for my actions based upon them. I am a preference expressing machine that must, perforce, behave as I do. Ergo nobody should be punished for their actions, as they cannot but be what they are (goes the argument).
Now, I certainly choose my actions based upon my preferences. I would not act otherwise: if I had no connection between my preferences and my actions, then I would act entirely arbitrarily and without reason. But my preferences are not fixed for all time. Humans are developmental organisms; we are always in statu nascendi. As I develop, sanctions, both positive and negative, affect how a normal human develops. As a hominid, I strive to be like the successful members of my tribe or troop. I am discouraged from actions that the norms of the tribe or troop exclude. And as a member of a social group, such sanctions affect the norms just to the degree of influence I as an individual have. So responsibility will tend to have a causal effect upon both my actions and the norms of my group.
In other words, if I am the sum total of the influences upon me as I develop, including my genetic and neural development, then I should be held accountable for my actions, in order to modify my preferences and to prevent preferences that are dysfunctional for the group from spreading. And this is a deterministic position to take. It suggests to me that we are equivocating upon the notion of “free will” somewhat.
The evidence of modern science is that we are mostly caused in our actions (I assume some noise is involved so that we are not frozen into fixed behavioural patterns and thus unable to respond to novel conditions and problem sets; and furthermore I assume that noisiness is itself the outcome of prior evolutionary success). We cannot deny this any more. The evidence is now in. The issue therefore is not whether we have uncaused actions or preferences. That debate is over. Let’s call this causal determinism.
But it does not follow that because we are causally determined we must be considered morally determined. There is a moral sense of “free will” that I think is crucial here: that one’s choices are not constrained to the point that one cannot tell if a choice is a moral one or not. In short, that one is not coerced. Some set of actions will be coerced, by moral monsters either internally (mental illness, compulsions, lack of moral knowledge) or externally (Chicago gangsters pointing guns at your children, children coerced into war or prostitution, terrorists forcing you to make the lesser of two immoral choices, etc.). In these causally determined cases you are made to make an immoral choice for which you are not morally responsible.
But in other causally determined cases, we are not morally coerced. We act (according to our preference sets) without anyone else making us choose an immoral act, and so any immorality is our own doing. Since holding someone responsible changes their developmental environment and changes the moral norms of the group, the mere fact that they (and we) are causally determined in the actions taken does not mean we are morally determined. So I think that we can be morally free even if we are causally bound. The two meanings of “free” here are distinct and not coupled.