The following is the full transcript of associate professor of philosophy Gregg Caruso’s TEDx Talk titled “The Dark Side of Free Will” at TEDxChemungRiver event.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The dark side of free will by Gregg Caruso at TEDxChemungRiver
So I have been thinking a lot lately about the following question: What would happen if we came to disbelieve in free will? What would this mean for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning in the law? For example, would giving up the belief in free will have dire consequences for society or something? Or would it rather have a humanizing effect on our practices and policies, freeing us from the negative effects of belief in free will?
What I would like to propose today is that the belief in free will rather than being a good thing actually has a dark side and that we’d be better off without it. Now I know that this is counterintuitive. Many people fear that life without free will lead to nihilism, there’d be no reason to go on, or that it would undermine morality. Or that we will just let criminals run free since there’d be no moral responsibility.
But I would like to paint a different picture for you today. And it begins with the idea of free will skepticism. So I am a free will skeptic. I deny the existence of free will. Free will skeptics maintain that who we are and what we do, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and because of this, we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense, that is the sense that would make us truly deserving of praise and blame.
Historically, there have been a number of philosophical and scientific arguments for free will skepticism, and I’ve promoted these arguments in my own work. But I’m not here today to try to convince you that you lack free will. That’s not my goal. I’m actually interested in a slightly different question: what would happen if we came to accept this perspective? What would happen, practically speaking, if we came to disbelieve in free will? Would it be, on the whole, a good thing or a bad thing?
And it’s here that I’m an optimist. I am optimistic about the prospects of life without free will. So I call myself an optimistic skeptic. As an optimistic skeptic, I maintain that life without free will is not only possible but that it’s preferable. Prospects of finding meaning in life and sustaining good interpersonal relationships, for example, would not be threatened.
And although certain systems of punishment like those based on the model of retribution or just deserts would be ruled out; preventive detention and rehabilitation programs would still be justified. I will say a little bit more about these in a moment.
So as an optimistic skeptic, I maintain that life without free will may actually be good for our well being, and our relationships with others, since it could tend to eradicate an often destructive form of moral anger, a kind of moral anger that’s corrosive to our relationships and to our social policies.
So to better understand the dark side of free will, what I want to do is just talk about some recent empirical work in moral and political physiology. What this work has done is it has actually shown that there is a number of interesting and potentially troubling correlations between the belief in free will and people’s other moral religious and political beliefs. In particular, what they found is that free will beliefs are correlated with higher levels of religiosity, punitiveness, and a number of conservative beliefs in attitude, such as just world belief and right wing authoritarianism.
I am only going to focus on two of these today, that is the connection between the belief in free will and punitiveness, and the connection between the belief in free will and what’s called just world belief.
So we take punitiveness for example. What this research has shown is that where believe in free will is strong as we see increased punitiveness, that is people are more likely to call for harsher forms of punishment in a number of different scenarios. And this makes sense: if you think people possess free will, then you believe they justly deserve to be praised and blamed for their actions.
And so if they engage in an immoral act, you want to see them get their just deserts, right? It’s very close to a notion of retribution: you want to inflict harm on them for the harm they’ve inflicted on others. But the downside of this is, again, you can create a moral anger that’s destructive to our relationships with others and to our social policies.
So consider this on a macro level. Belief in free will is relatively strong in the United States. In fact, it’s built right into the mythology of the rugged individual, the self-made man, the causa sui, the person that can pull themselves up from the bootstraps and overcome all of their life circumstances.
But because we are so committed to this belief, we are also a relatively punitive society. Consider this one simple fact: the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population, yet it incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. I will say that again because it’s a rather startling statistic: we make up a relatively small sliver of the world’s population, about 5%, but we house and imprison 25% of the world’s prisoners. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that our criminal justice system is broken. It is not working, it’s not making us safer, it’s not reducing crime, it’s, by no means, achieving our desired social goals, and it is not reducing the rate of recidivism, that is repeat crime.
But just perhaps, if we would adopt the skeptical perspective, we might be able to adopt more effective and more humane policies. So let me just briefly sketch quickly how a free will skeptic might address criminal behavior. There’s a professor – not too far from here, his name is Derek Pereboom, he teaches at Cornell University; he’s a free will skeptic, like myself – and he proposes a model for dealing with dangerous criminals based on analogy with quarantine.
So people who contract contagious diseases do so for no fault of their own, they’re not morally responsible for having done so; we don’t think they deserve to be punished. But we do feel justified in quarantining those individuals for the safety of society. Well, we can say the same thing for dangerous criminals, that is even you adopted the perspective that I am advocating, and you believe that individuals are not ultimately responsible for becoming who they are, we could still justify detaining those individuals for the safety of society.
But if we did this, this would entail a number of major reforms, all of which I think are actually really important and good. For one, we’d have the duty to the well-being and rehabilitation of criminals, just like you would have a duty to treat the person in quarantine for their disease.
Secondly, you couldn’t treat those individuals cruelly while being detained, just like you couldn’t treat cruelly the people that we are holding in quarantine.