Sunday, June 3, 2012
I think it safe to say that without a doubt, the unease and resistance people feel when confronted with the argument against “moral responsibility,” comes from the difficulty they have with what becomes of “free will.” After all, “free will” and “moral responsibility” are generally seen as inseparable. And, when both are based upon the assumption of some supernatural, transcendent soul or essence, known as atman in the Indian philosophical context, acting completely independently of causality, then yes, such a free will and moral responsibility are indeed inseparable. This inseparability is well-voiced by Janet Radcliffe Richards: “Free will is thought of as the capacity to be genuinely responsible for actions and genuinely deserving of praise or blame for the choices that are made.” (2000, 136)
This inseparable connection between free will and moral responsibility forms the generally unquestioned assumption behind all arguments for moral responsibility. Libertarians assert that their viewpoint supports both free will and moral responsibility; compatibilists believe that their view can accommodate both free will and moral responsibility, and hard determinists argue that determinism makes both free will and moral responsibility impossible. The common thread here is that free will and moral responsibility either stand or fall together!
But again, this understanding of the inseparability of free will and moral responsibility arises only because the account usually given of free will was originally developed to support moral responsibility: that is, to support the claim that it is fair and just to punish and reward because individuals could always choose to do otherwise independent of all causality!
A solid, naturalistic conceptualization of free will – one that the buddhist tradition holds – is possible, and it can be held without having to hold the view of moral responsibility.
Let us begin by asking “What is free will?” The most “person on the street” definition would seem to be that it is the ability to make a free choice among alternatives. If we then ask, “So, why do you want to be able to make your own choices among alternatives?” the responses tend to be weak and circular: “I want to make my own choices because I don’t want to be forced to choose anything in particular.” The weakness and circularity of the reasoning is an indication that the desire for freedom is so deeply embedded in our nature, that it is hard to give any further justification.
Evolutionary biologists have discovered that our very survival depends upon us keeping our options open! Even mice have a degree of variability built into their behavior, so that once they’ve learned a path to food in a laboratory setting, they still will occasionally choose an “incorrect” path. This variability is adaptive to conditions in the wild. Food isn’t always to be found in the same direction; there are many relationships in the natural setting that are not so strictly prescribed. The same holds true for humans; those with very rigid behaviors are at a disadvantage in a world that is always changing. The inclination toward exploring options is part of what psychologists call “sensation-seeking.”
The natural need for open alternatives is an important element of freedom. It involves “spontaneous behavior.” This isn’t the acausal, miraculous ability to act free of any antecedent causes and conditions, but simply the natural desire to occasionally take a different approach to a given situation, to try something new, and to deviate from the pattern. It is a “conditioned” evolved tendency toward spontaneous action: those animals that tried new paths found more food and more escape routes and thus were more likely to survive, procreate, and pass along their tendencies to deviate.
This “relative” free will depends upon conditions! We need freedom to respond differently when environmental conditions change, and our natural inclination to preserve options was itself shaped and determined in such a way as to make our behavior more adaptive to the changing environmental conditions.
The buddha did not isolate “will” from among all other mental formations as being absolutely free and unconditioned. I did not choose the conditions that made me open to try buddhist mediation practice. That I did was conditioned by my inclination to try alternatives. Some alternatives (like homeopathy) I found lacking and useless and so dropped them; meditation proved valuable and I kept up the practice. The practice itself became a cause and condition that determine my behavior. I do not “deserve” any praise for my having taken up the practice, nor in continuing the practice and changing my unwholesome behaviors toward more wholesome ones, though I did choose to do so freely!
Richards, Janet Radcliffe. 2000. Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Routledge.