If free will does not exist, then we should not praise good behaviours.
Can we behave as though free will doesn’t exist? What would we do if we believed that all human behaviour (and everything else, for that matter) was determined by causal chains which stretch back to the Big Bang? What would we make of other people’s behaviour? Would we still judge them for bad actions and praise them for good actions? Would we ever punish any criminals? Would we award prizes to those who’ve performed well?
After all, if we don’t believe in free will, all of these actions are not caused by the person themselves. They are caused by a series of causal chains affecting their bodies, brains, and everything else around them, which stretch back a great distance into the past. Unless we’re willing to state that souls or other spiritual entities exist and have some as yet unknown effect on causality, all the best scientific evidence we have points to the fact that free will is illusory. Plenty of people in the world believe this to be the truth. The problem is, however, that these same individuals walk around judging people, praising people, assigning moral and political responsibility as though everyone still has free will. Why?
There’s been a bit of a furore recently over a blog post by Emily White, an intern at NPR All Songs Considered and GM of her college radio station, in which she acknowledges that while she has 11,000 songs in her music library, the vast majority have been obtained through borrowing from friends, mix CDs, ripping music from her college radio station, and – yes – even some from file sharing sites. She’s only ever paid for about 15 CDs in her life.
This isn’t particularly surprising; in the internet age, it is astonishingly easy to access music for free, and a huge number of people do – 95% of music downloads in 2008 were illegal. What has surprised many people is her unashamed tone:
“I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience… What I want is one massive Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices… All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?”
There have been prominent articles condemning and defending this attitude. I don’t wish to get embroiled in a debate about the morality of her post. What I find interesting are the parallels we can draw with other moral behaviour and what this may say about human moral cognition.