Does Determinism undermine moral obligation?

puppet-strings.jpgAt least one shred of recent research shouts an emphatic “YES!”

“The fact that brief exposure to a message asserting that there is no such thing as free will can increase both passive and active cheating raises the concern that advocating a deterministic worldview could undermine moral behavior.”
Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler, in the January issue of Psychological Science

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7 Responses to Does Determinism undermine moral obligation?

  1. yakima says:

    are you kidding me? this is all you will post? no response. maybe you cheated. moral obligation, and the extent to which we adhere, flows from the determiner of morals, not from our decision to adhere to them.

  2. Clinton says:

    Yakima,

    First of all…thank you for your response. We appreciate your comments here. However, you seemed to have misunderstood the post. Nowhere do I actually make any assertion that this is true or that I think it is true. I merely stated that there is “recent research” which points towards the question/title of the post. Thus, on your behalf it might be wise to use the rule of charitable interpretation and not assume too much.

    I am interested in your comment where you say “moral obligation, and the extent to which we adhere, flows from the determiner of morals, not from our decision to adhere to them.”

    Could you flesh this out a little more?

    .

  3. Justin says:

    Even if they’re right that “exposure to a message asserting that there is no such thing as free will… could undermine moral behavior”, we shouldn’t draw any conclusions concerning determinism and moral obligation.

    First, the claim that “there is no such thing as free will” is not equivalent to “determinism is true”. Second, and more importantly, the fact that people act immorally when told that there is no such thing as free will doesn’t provide any evidence for any claim concerning their actual moral obligations.

  4. Clinton says:

    Hey Justin,

    Thanks for stopping by. I am now going to have to give up my objectivity and enter the debate.

    You said, “First, the claim that ‘there is no such thing as free will’ is not equivalent to “determinism is true”. This is true if you hold to a compatibalistic view of freedom. However, many that would hold to a libertarian view think that eventually compatibalism breaks down into determinism.

    Your also said, “the fact that people act immorally when told that there is no such thing as free will doesn’t provide any evidence for any claim concerning their actual moral obligations.” Your claim here seems to be absolutely correct. Yes, people acting against moral obligations when told they don’t have free will does nothing at all to actually prove that they don’t have free will.

    But then again, that is not what the researchers were claiming in their article either. The entire point is that the idea that one does not have free-will (according to their research) produces particular characteristics in a person, namely, characteristics that are typically seen as going against moral obligations. So, their article is not a tour de force demonstrating that we must have free-will to behave morally, but at the very least, the illusion of free-will.

    What are your thoughts?

  5. Justin says:

    Hi Clinton,

    It’s right that according to some views about free will, if determinism is true, then no one ever acts freely. But, I don’t think libertarians are committed to the converse. That is, they aren’t committed to the claim that if no one ever acts freely, then determinism is true. So, even if we are libertarians, we shouldn’t think (or, at least, aren’t committed to thinking) that the claim that there is no such thing as free will is equivalent to the claim that determinism is true. Libertarians are committed to one direction of the relevant bi-conditional, but not the other.

    I also said that the study doesn’t give us any reason to think that determinism undermines moral obligation. I was noting that the study cited in the post doesn’t give us any reason one way or the other with respect to the questions which is the title of the post. That still seems right to me. The study gives us some evidence for the claim that people act immorally if they’re under the impression that they are not free. But, that doesn’t tell us anything about the obligations they’re actually under.

  6. TKL says:

    The experiments described in the Psychological Science paper are a bit strange. In the first experiment, so-called “passive” cheating, a supposedly broken computer automatically provides the answer to a test question unless the participant presses a button. The authors readily admit: “…note that simply doing nothing is coded as cheating. Hence, the anti-free-will essay may have induced passivity generally, rather than immoral behavior specifically.” Also, they write towards the end, “This scenario is perhaps akin to accidentally receiving too much change from a store clerk but not returning the extra money.” The analogy appears imprecise. The button has to be pressed to prevent a computer error from occurring, whereas failing to return change to a store clerk is correcting a human error after the fact.

    In the second experiment, so-called “active” cheating, the participant is given an envelope of $15 and is asked to pay himself $1 for each of 15 questions that he answers correctly after quizzing himself in private. The experimenters say that the participants who read anti-free-will essays took more money on average, but that “None of the other groups differed from each other” (p. 52). As far as I can tell, this means that reading a pro-free-will essay did not alter the amount of self-reimbursement from those who read neutral essays.

    One question I would raise about the second experiment is the intellectual level of the respective essays given to participants. If certain essays seem more complex, lofty, or counter-intuitive, people might feel smarter after reading them, and therefore score themselves higher on intelligence tests. Or the reverse might happen: people might question their intelligence after reading a difficult essay and therefore score themselves lower on intelligence tests. If either of these is the case, the experiment results might have more to do with how people’s assessment of their own intelligence varies after exposure to new intellectual concepts, rather than concepts about free will in particular.

  7. Clinton says:

    Justin,

    Thanks for the clarification. I agree with you fully!

    Clint

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