Libertarianism and Free Will
Reason magazine has an article that argues for the existence of free will. I don’t plan to debate that issue, but I am a bit disturbed by the implicit claim that the argument for libertarianism is stronger in a world with free will than in a world of determinism. If that’s their argument, it’s clearly wrong. The argument for libertarianism has nothing to do with the existence or non-existence of free will. Here’s Reason:
What is free will? Can a being whose brain is made up of physical stuff actually make undetermined choices?
In Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, the Trinity College Dublin neuroscientist Kevin J. Mitchell argues that evolution has shaped living creatures such that we can push back when the physical world impinges upon us. The motions of nonliving things—air, rocks, planets, stars—are entirely governed by physical forces; they move where they are pushed. Our ability to push back, Mitchell argues, allows increasingly complex creatures to function as agents that can make real choices, not “choices” that are predetermined by the flux of atoms.
Sorry, but “choices” made by the flux of atoms in peoples’ brains are real choices, regardless of whether people have free will or not. Determinists don’t argue that people don’t make real choices, they argue that the outcome of those choices is determined by a mix of brain chemistry and external stimuli. Libertarian determinists favor a free society because they believe that better choices will be made if governments don’t impose regulations that prevent people from making choices that their mix of brain chemistry and external stimuli view as being in their interest. The term freedom in a free will sense is vastly different from freedom in a political sense.
How can that be? After all, just like air and rocks, bacteria and sharks and aardvarks and people are made of physical stuff. Determinism holds that, per the causal laws of nature, the unfolding of the universe is inexorable and unbranching, such that it can have only one past and one future. Human beings do not escape the laws of nature, so any and all of our “choices” have been predetermined from the beginning of the universe.
This view poses a moral problem: How can people be held accountable for their actions if they had no choice but to behave the way they did?
This is a non-sequitur. We hold people accountable because doing so provides an external stimuli that nudges their decisions in a more socially optimal direction. Thus we threaten potential bank robbers with long prison terms in order to deter people from robbing banks. Those deterrents make people less likely to rob banks, regardless of whether the free will or the determinist position is true. Even if determinism were shown to be true, we would not legalize murder on the mistaken assumption that killers should not be held accountable.
It’s dangerous to tie your ideology to scientific models that might be discredited. Some progressives deny that there are innate differences in IQ. Wiser progressives argue that their ideology makes sense even if innate IQ differences exist. In the old days, some Christians denied that the Earth went around the sun. When this view was discredited, it pushed some scientists toward atheism. I would hate to see libertarians tie their ideology to the hypothesis of free will. If determinism were later shown to be true, this would (unfairly) tend to discredit libertarianism.
In my view, a free society is best regardless of whether decisions are made by individuals with free will, or brains in flux responding to external stimuli.