SMBC: Free will and personal responsibility

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via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

7 thoughts on “SMBC: Free will and personal responsibility

  1. It is clear that society has to assume there is some level of personal responsibility, but furthermore (most) people have to believe that there is a level of personal responsibility. The rational understanding that it is necessary to hold people accountable for their actions in order to have a functioning society, or a predictable relationship with one’s friends for that matter, is not enough to motivate one to hold others accountable. And certainly not enough to motivate oneself. One must feel that oneself and others are responsible for what they do.

    Such a belief usually comes from or goes along with a belief in free will. Unfortunately the belief in free will and responsibility usually drags along a belief in justice, which surely does not make sense in the traditional sense if there is no free will. And actions and decisions done purely for the sake of “justice” can be detrimental in every other aspect except justice. The person who committed a crime deserves to rot in prison, or to be beaten up, or to have no job, because it was his/her choice to commit the crime. The kid who cannot keep quiet in class or do his homework deserves a poor education and resultingly a poor job; it is his choice to make noise and to not do homework. One does not need to help or accommodate people who do not work or behave as others do.

    With having people believe in free will and therefore personal responsibility too much comes a lot of detrimental side effects. The same ideas that make people behave in such a way towards others that one gets one’s act together and behave/work/study as one “should” also make people blind to those that cannot help it and who need something else to get their act together.
    What should the source of personal responsibility be then? Without free will the concept is “fake” in the sense that it is used only because the effect of having it is desirable. Such a rational understanding of it is, as noted, rarely enough to motivate people. Whether by culture or nature, however, people just feel that there is some personal responsibility; the challenge is only to get this feeling of it to match the form of it that is most desirable in the practical sense.

    Now I want to pose a question: If free will does not scientifically, logically and philosophically make sense, but it is beneficial for society to behave as it exists, why should not the same be true for other concepts and beliefs? Even perhaps beliefs of religious nature. I play with this idea in without making any conclusions.


    1. Setting aside whether free will is philosophically defensible, I think it’s clearly the case that some beliefs we may judge to be false can sometimes be beneficial. I know people who have cleaned up their life because of their religious convictions, convictions I personally think are wrong.

      Of course, false beliefs can also be dangerous. We’re all well aware of examples that fall into this category.

      But cold hard rationality itself has a mixed track record, and is often outright rejected if the person simply isn’t in a position psychologically to accept it.

      I think a better question is, what evidence should we require before we decide that a belief must be contested? Should we contest every belief that can’t be justified, even if that belief provides comfort and purpose, or only ones that are demonstrably harmful?


      1. That “belief X is harmful in the sense of Y” can be a demonstrable fact of reality. That avoiding harm in the sense of “Y” should have priority over consideration “Z” is little more than a belief. An emotional conviction. The topic of beliefs is a difficult one – and very interesting (at least to me). Cold hard rationality cannot say much at all if it does not assume some irrational foundation. Socrates used “pure” reason once, and could say but a single conclusion. Apparently he disregarded reason afterwards though, and we have all the writings of Plato about what he could say without it…

        You pose a good question though, which I agree is important, but answering it is of no help if it is not considered together with another question: how should a belief be contested? Dawkins foundation for reason and science has created more believers in reason and science than practicioners.

        What evidence we should require is clearly a complicated manner. I much of the focus is on surface level manifestations of the beliefs, e.g. specific actions or attitudes of the believers. In connection with the question how beliefs should be contested there must be more focus on less conscious and visible effects of the belief, as well as how (and why – in an psychological/biological sense) particular beliefs are formed.

        For example, beliefs are very important for social cohesion, which can have great benefits for society, while on the other hand a too “groupish” form of believing leads to a great deal of irrationality.


        1. Well said. I like the way you think.

          If you’ve read my previous stuff, you’ll know that I’m personally skeptical that there is anything like “pure reason”. Reason is a tool for intuitive or emotional impulses, whether it be truth, care, loyalty, freedom, or some other value.

          On false beliefs, I think it’s also important to understand that we all hold some. Some of us try harder than others to shed them, but it seems to be impossible to completely eliminate them. Like so many things in life, we often have to settle for “good enough”.

          For example, I have few qualms about challenging someone’s belief in snake handling, faith healing, or martyrdom, because the harm in such beliefs seems glaringly evident. But I’m unlikely to challenge someone’s belief in heaven unless they force the issue, particularly if they generally accept the scientific view of reality. Such a person is often “good enough” for me.


          1. I posted a post (what else would one post?) just now about beliefs. Not exactly with our discussion here in mind, but still relevant:

            And yes, I also think it is important to understand that all hold some “false” beliefs, and that some false beliefs are necessary (moral beliefs are never absolute truths, as I said in my previous post) and this is an essential part of much of my writing.

            The value and even meaning of truth when it comes to questions of value, which is purely a trait of our minds and not of the objects/events we attach it to, should be reconsidered.


  2. I think the question of punishment and the question if there is free will should be separated. If there is no free will, punishment does not make sense. But if there is free will, punishment can also not be justified. It is simply cruel to inflict suffering on somebody, no matter if that person has done something bad or not. And what is it good for?

    Society might define certain behaviors as unacceptable. If somebody is dangerous, it might be justified to lock them away or use other measures to protect others. It also appears rational to me to do therapy with such a person as well as with the victims of such actions. But punishing, i.e. causing somebody to suffer seems absolutely irrational to me.

    I am also not convinced that a society without the illusion of free will could not function well. It is just an idea we are not used to, since the ideas of free will and punishment are deeply ingrained in our tradition. There are other things we could do away with, and find other ways of organizing our societies. We have done away with death penalty (well, there are some who still have to take that step), we don’t carry our personal weapons around with us again (OK, again, there are some who still have to take that step), we don’t have slaves again, we don’t think again that a society must be founded in a religion, we found that we don’t need kings and nobility, that nationalism and racism and colonialism are bad, in short, we have done away with a lot of institutions and concepts that we once thought of as indispensable. The claim that a concept of free will and personal responsibility or an institution of punishment is necessary is just another belief, unless it is supported by clear evidence or good arguments.


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