In this essay, I argue that the question of whether humans have free will need not be viewed as important, as it is largely irrelevant to whether one is living a good life, and is even mostly irrelevant to questions surrounding punishment and desert except insomuch as we cast it as—believe it to be, treat it as being, etc.—relevant.
Free will is understandably of concern for those who believe that an all-loving deity would only punish those who deserve it. But for the rest of us, there is no principled reason to view it as relevant, and so it should accordingly be struck from, for example, our core conception of justice, particularly as a vehicle for retribution. Indeed, free will seems to be one of many current questions that turn out to be potentially outmoded holdovers from a theological framework that has been gradually disassembled since the start of the scientific revolution. Where once stood a serious concern about deserving punishment for offending a deity, now stand questions about what counts as being responsible for one’s actions and thus deserving an F in calculus, low socio-economic status, or the death penalty; or, less significantly, about whether one really freely chose to push a button in a psychology experiment.
Depending on one’s definition of free will, what I describe here may imply that humans don’t have it. If so, it’s a trivial kind of lack, due to free will simply not existing any more than a square circle does. This is different from merely saying that humans don’t have free will, because that statement alone doesn’t imply anything about other sorts of beings (deities, alien lifeforms, post-humans, conscious computers…). In other words: If free will turns out to be such a confused or vague concept that the term doesn’t actually denote any phenomenon at all, then no entity of any sort has it or, really, can be conceived of as having it.
On other definitions of free will, what I describe here will seem to imply that people do have free will. That’s fine as well.
My point is that it doesn’t—or at least needn’t—matter either way whether or not one has free will according to this or that definition. What does matter is that we have an understanding of the phenomena that relate to our conceptions of free will—such as justice, praise, blame, and punishment—and how those phenomena relate to our lived lives as beings capable of suffering or thriving (I put more emphasis on the former). Continue Reading