Why free will matters

free willAnytime a newspaper reporter tries to tackle the subject of philosophy in a serious way, it's a good thing. Carey Goldberg's report in The Boston Globe on Harvard professor Marc Hauser's work to prove that morality is universally hard-wired into the brain is no exception. Tucked 12 paragraphs into the story is "huge news" that sadly receives little attention from Goldberg, who seems to focus more on the arguments of whose theory has the most validity rather than the possible real world effect of Hauser's work:

Some critics also charge that Hauser's emphasis on biology negates the concept of free will and implies that all our moral choices are predetermined.

What is the big deal regarding free will? Yes, I am all too familiar with the free will vs. predestination debates, and no, these critics are not saying that negating free will means the Calvinists won. That is not what this is about, at least for now. Eliminate the free-will doctrine and nobody is responsible for things anymore, at least in the courtroom. Here is The Economist in December:

Free will is one of the trickiest concepts in philosophy, but also one of the most important. Without it, the idea of responsibility for one's actions flies out of the window, along with much of the glue that holds a free society (and even an unfree one) together. If businessmen were no longer responsible for their contracts, criminals no longer responsible for their crimes and parents no longer responsible for their children, even though contract, crime and conception were "freely" entered into, then social relations would be very different.

It is no new development in the American legal system for accused criminals to challenge the charge that their crime was their fault. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood started chipping away at that concept 40 years ago.

And it's not just in the legal system that this matters. More from The Economist:

Markets also depend on the idea that personal choice is free choice. Mostly, that is not a problem. Even if choice is guided by unconscious instinct, that instinct will usually have been honed by natural selection to do the right thing. But not always. Fatty, sugary foods subvert evolved instincts, as do addictive drugs such as nicotine, alcohol and cocaine. Pornography does as well. Liberals say that individuals should be free to consume these, or not. Erode free will, and you erode that argument.

In fact, you begin to erode all freedom. Without a belief in free will, an ideology of freedom is bizarre. Though it will not happen quickly, shrinking the space in which free will can operate could have some uncomfortable repercussions.

This type of discussion is also key to figuring out the future of the culture wars in a society that bases its laws on the will of the people. A "moral dilemma" example given by Hauser is why most people find it wrong to kill a sick patient with no chance of surviving while it would be OK to do nothing and allow that patient to die. Is that type of moral reasoning hard-wired into the human brain? If so, why? If this "experimental philosophy" is somehow able to gain credibility in our society, how soon until we see it being used in determining the basis for our laws?

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