The Situationist

The Costs of Exposing the Myth of “Free Will”?

Posted by Adam Benforado on March 4, 2011

Having recovered from the fabulous Fifth Conference on Law and Mind Sciences, I’ve returned this week to my normal routine of teaching, researching, emailing, and procrastinating — but not without a new and fresh perspective.

Indeed, on Thursday, as my Law and Mind Sciences seminar turned to our unit on neuroscience and I began rereading Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen’s article “For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything,” I couldn’t help but think back to Situationist Contributor Aaron Kay’s compelling presentation on the benefits of believing in societal fairness for those who suffer from injustice.  In a series of studies, Aaron has documented that “members of disadvantaged groups are more likely than members of advantaged social groups to calibrate their pursuit of long-term goals to their beliefs about societal fairness.”

How does Green and Cohen’s article come into the picture?

Well, Aaron’s work makes me wonder about their conclusions concerning the negligible effects on goal-oriented behavior of dismissing the notion of “free will.”  As they explain,

[T]here is the worry that to reject free will is to render all of life pointless: why would you bother with anything if it has all long since been determined?  The answer is that you will bother because you are a human, and that is what humans do.  Even if you decide, as part of a little intellectual exercise, that you are going to sit around and do nothing because you have concluded that you have no free will, you are eventually going to get up and make yourself a sandwich.  And if you do not, you have got bigger problems than philosophy can fix.

Aaron’s experiments are obviously in a different domain, but perhaps they raise the possibility that, by altering people’s moral intuitions about responsibility, blame, and free will, advances in neuroscience may in fact undermine long-term goal pursuit in certain populations.

Then, again, maybe I just need to go fix myself a sandwich and quit worrying . . .

2 Responses to “The Costs of Exposing the Myth of “Free Will”?”

  1. Cameron Brick said

    Thanks for the article. The idea about sandwiches reminds me of a quote on free will I’ve long enjoyed by novelist Ian McEwan:

    I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.

  2. Ada,m Benforado said

    That’s a fascinating quotation — and from one of my favorite novelists (I’m especially fond of Amsterdam and Enduring Love). Thanks!

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