Saturday, July 22, 2017

If We Don't Have Free Will Then We Are Not Morally Responsible

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Lake Michigan beach

In my MCCC logic classes (17 years of teaching logic ended for me in May...) I taught a section on applying logic to ethical systems (utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, emotivism, divine command theory).

I gave my class an introduction biological determinism and moral responsibility. It seems to me that if biological determinism is true, then persons have no moral responsibility. Yale Neuroscientist Eliezer Sternberg agrees.

Sternberg, in My Brain Made Me Do It: The Rise of Neuroscience and the Threat to Moral Responsibility, argues that thinking (such as moral decision-making) cannot be fully reduced to biochemical constraints. But who might think such a thing?

Francis Crick did. He wrote that "'you,' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." (In Sternberg, 24)

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has said: "You are your synapses. They are who you are." (Ib.)

Regarding free will, neurologist Mark Hallett asserts that "the more you scrutinize it, the more you realize you don't have it." (Ib.)

Hallett's comment is odd. "Scrutinize" means to search, to examine, to inspect. If I don't have free will, then there is not an 'I' that "inspects" anything.

Sternberg reasons that, if biological determinism is true and all behavior is caused by neurobiological wiring, then no decision could be made freely. With this belief comes a powerful argument against moral responsibility:

  1. Neurobiological interactions in my brain determined that I did X.
  2. Determined actions are not free.
  3. One cannot be held morally responsible for actions that are not free.
  4. Therefore, I cannot be held morally responsible for doing X.
"In short," says Sternberg, "moral responsibility does not exist." (25) And this, in spite of the fact that "my deepest feelings tell me that every decision I make is mine. I am a moral agent with the power to control my decisions." (Ib.)

Sternberg's book argues for a way to affirm both that the principles of neurobiology are true, and that we have free will that is not fully reducible to biological constraints, hence we are morally responsible creatures.