Free will fictionalism

Let’s first assume determinism is true, at least with respect to all human actions.

Next, let’s agree that we inevitably talk and think about what we could do, or could have done, even if we end up doing or having done something else. That’s what deliberation is: mapping out what we could do, predicting results, and making a decision. And that is what happens when we are deciding whether to praise or blame someone for what they did: we are assigning value to a behavior that need not have come about. Even card-carrying compatibilists do this. They may say that all behavior is determined, but when they start talking about the faculties or mechanisms in a human being from which free decisions are made, they always end up talking about the general capacities of those faculties or mechanisms, which means the wide range of decisions they are able to produce, in some range of circumstances. I submit that this ends up being disguised talk about being able to do otherwise. Free actions, according to the compatibilists, are actions that stem from faculties that would have behaved differently, had reasons for different actions been present. But that’s just to say I could have done otherwise, if I had had reason to.

So all of us talk seriously about being able to do otherwise, even though the truth is that no one ever can do otherwise. So this serious talk about free will is just so much fiction. But it is useful and beneficial fiction. By pretending that we have free will, and by holding people accountable for what they do in a free-will sort of way, we create systems of incentives and disincentives which then act as causal determinants for behavior in the future. So when you steal my coconut, and we blame you for the theft, and sentence you to cleaning the hut, we make it less likely that you or others who witness your punishment will steal coconuts in the future. It may be true — though how on earth would anyone prove it? — that a society which believes in the fiction of free will ends up with better-regulated social behavior than a society of genuine, “no talk of freedom” determinists, whether hard or soft.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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9 Responses to Free will fictionalism

  1. But to create systems of incentives and disincentives *is* to create reasons to do otherwise.


  2. Huenemann says:

    Agreed. But that doesn’t mean we genuinely deliberate over those reasons (as the incompatibilist defenders of free will would insist). The systems of incentives and disincentives (when successful) just increase the likelihood of certain patterns of behavior. (I’m trying to see a clear way to collapsing reasons into causes.)


  3. I see. But something like the converse point can be made: the fact that we acted “freely” in a given case doesn’t mean that that action involved deliberation. Example: I see a baby drowning and jump in and save the baby; my action was instinctive, but that’s not to say anyone would count it as un-free. (In fact, one should probably *hope* that my action was instinctive rather than the product of deliberation!) Systems of incentives may be mechanisms of rule-internalization that result in more desirable “free” action of this sort. Just thoughts…


  4. Huenemann says:

    I agree with all you say. I only insist you keep those quotes around ‘free.’


  5. Rob says:

    Wonder if the moral valence of the action in that case doesn’t have something important to do with the unlikelihood of it being counted as un-free; in contrast to the instances in which regarding an action as “freely” willed is part of the process of rendering its agent (or instigator, as Nietzsche puts it in GM2, where he seems to hold that”no talk of freedom” determinism obtained in primeval regulation of social behavior) a legitimate object of sanctions, here the imputation would function as a form of encouragement, signaling that this kind of behavior is laudatory.


  6. Rob says:

    I’m thinking of some of the ExPhilo stuff on how the moral salience of an action (or how it is described) can affect ascriptions of responsibility. From what I’ve gathered, morally “bad” actions (or descriptions) might tend to increase the likelihood of ascribing responsibility more than “good” actions. (Or maybe it’s the morally bad descriptions over the morally good descriptions of the same action.) But I was thinking that one way a direct incentive might be created is by dubbing certain behaviors as “free”, which would be different from incentive-via-discincentive of being oneself or seeing another made punitively accountable… And this got me to thinking about GM 2.4, 2.14, 2.15, where Nietzsche seems to be describing an archaic “no talk of freedom” environment of social behavioral regulation…


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