Free Will, Morality, and Libertarianism How can you be held responsible for something that wasn't your fault?

An astute reader sees an apparent contradiction between my last post and my post on free will, asking “how can a libertarian reconcile no real choice with the importance of being free to choose?”

It’s a great question. If free will doesn’t exist, if every single action is pre-determined, can we even have a consistent concept of morality? I made a distinction between actions made freely and those forced by the state, but isn’t that distinction meaningless in a deterministic world? When all actions are at some level outside an individual’s control, is there any difference between the direct coercion of government and more indirect factors influencing the decision (like genetics, education, religion, etc.) that are also completely removed from the realm of free choice? The answers to these questions are far from obvious and I certainly don’t pretend to have a perfect response, but I hope this post will clarify the way I think about the issue. My ideas here are heavily influenced by (who else) Hayek’s discussion of similar topics in chapter 5 of The Constitution of Liberty.

First, it is important to understand my earlier defense of determinism. The key point is that every action can be traced to a chain of previous events. Going back far enough in each person’s chain, some link will be the result of an event that is outside of their direct control. And if I know all of the links in this causal chain, if I know everything that has ever influenced an individual, I can predict with absolute certainty their next move. Their “choice” was determined long before they are required to make it.

If we accept this argument, then at the moment of a decision nothing can be done. There is no way that a given individual would have made any decision different than the one they made. We could replay the same history a million times and get the same result in every single trial.

But here’s the problem. Go back to the example I gave in the last post. A person is trying to decide whether to give money to the poor (let’s call him Bob). Note that I will consider giving to the poor to be a good thing. If for some reason you disagree with that assessment, replace “giving to the poor” with any action you consider moral and the argument should still go through.

Now assume Bob exists in two universes (A and B). In each universe, Bob has had almost the exact same experience. He has the same parents, the same teachers, read all the same books. As a result, in each universe he has developed a system of values which teaches him to care for his fellow human beings. Now introduce one difference between the two universes. Universe A has a government which forces Bob to give to the poor through taxation. In Universe B, Bob is free to do as he pleases. Of course, we know  that Bob is not really free to choose. If he chooses to give to the poor, it is only because he grew up in a society that taught him that that was the right thing to do, and only because of his upbringing that he has any desire to do the right thing at all. Universe B Bob doesn’t choose to give to the poor any more than Universe A Bob does. Both only give due to the influence of others. How can we say one is more moral?

Consider George. George also exists in both universes, but he has had a different experience than Bob. Where Bob was taught to live a life of compassion, George only cares about his own material well being. Help the poor? How does that help George? In Universe A, George still has to give to the poor. The government forces him to give against his wishes. And it makes him angry. He works hard to earn his money, why should he give to those who don’t? He sees Bob gives to the poor as well, but he believes it is only because the government forces him to do so.

In Universe B, George doesn’t give to the poor. His values tell him that you get exactly what you deserve in life and he acts on those values. There is no government to force him to do otherwise. And yet he sees Bob give to the poor anyway. Maybe he just dismisses Bob as too stupid to realize that his money won’t help them, that the poor need to help themselves. But maybe Bob’s actions give him pause. Maybe they form a new link in George’s causal chain. Maybe he questions his decision, and even though he could never have changed his choice at that moment, he might think about the situation differently next time. Maybe his system of values begins to change.

Phrased in this way, we begin to see a real distinction between the decision to give in each universe. It is true that in both universes Bob would have given to the poor. Our reason for calling Bob’s actions moral cannot be that he himself could have made another choice at the moment of his decision – without free will, he really couldn’t have. But we can compare Bob’s choices to those of another individual. If we replace Bob with George in Universe A, the result is the same – both give to the poor, and we can’t judge morality because nobody could have acted differently. In Universe B, however, Bob and George are allowed to act differently in the same situation. Their decision tree has two branches. Neither will choose any branch other than the one already pre-determined by their life experiences, but the existence of the branches matters because somebody else could have.

So now we can give an answer to the original question. If nobody can truly make choices of their own volition, why does choice matter for morality?

Because if a choice is available, even if each individual will always make the same choice, another might have acted differently.

But even if you buy the argument above, a question still remains. We might agree that Bob made a moral decision in the example above even though it wasn’t truly his choice, but does that mean that George is responsible for his actions? Can we blame George for not giving to the poor? After all, it’s not his fault that he didn’t have Bob’s life. Here I defer to Hayek:

Strictly speaking, it is nonsense to say, as is so often said, that “it is not a man’s fault that he is as he is,” for the aim of assigning responsibility is to make him different from what he is or might be. If we say that a person is responsible for the consequences of an action, this is not a statement of fact or an assertion about causation. The statement would, of course, not be justifiable if nothing he “might” have done or omitted could have altered the result. But when we use words like “might” or “could” in this connection, we do not mean that at the moment of his decision something in him acted otherwise than was the necessary effect of causal laws in the given circumstances. Rather, the statement that a person is responsible for what he does aims at making his actions different from what they would be if he did not believe it to be true.

We assign responsibility to a man, not in order to say that as he was he might have acted differently, but in order to make him different.The Constitution of Liberty, p. 137-138

What do we want from our society? Do we want to move from Universe B to Universe A, from a world where people are free to make their own value judgements to one where they are not given any choice, where we claim to know what is best for them? Or do we want to convert people from Georges to Bobs, to convince them to buy into the system, convince them that the ideals we aim for are ones worth striving to achieve? In my view, a free society gives us the best chance of achieving the latter goal. Only a free society allows us a choice, and even if our choice is set long before we make it, knowing that other individuals could have made another choice remains important.