Free Will, Causality, Character, and Moral Accountability: Part 1

Over the last few months I've written a lot about the coming theological crisis concerning free will. In those posts and in the comments that followed I did not state what I felt was the biggest problem with free will doctrines. I'd like to get that problem out on the table. The problem concerns the relationship between free will and character formation.

I think it would be easiest to see the issues at stake by contrasting two commonly cited statements in the free will literature. The first quote, in support of a supernatural origin for free will, is from Roderick Chisholm:

“If we are responsible…then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.”

Chisholm’s phrase, that each of us is a “prime mover unmoved,” harkens back to Aristotle’s description of God as the Prime Mover Unmoved, the idea that God, being in the beginning, is not the product of prior causes. In this view, God creates and acts; God is a “Mover,” but is not “moved” by anything. God is, so to speak, an Uncaused Cause.

Chisholm correctly suggests that this is how we are if supernatural indeterminism were true. We are “prime movers unmoved.” Free will is like a ongoing, daily miracle. That is, like God, all the prior effects upon me, my past experiences, my current circumstance, my physical state cannot ultimately “move” me. This appears to be the common Christian view of free will.

However, can this view support moral accountability? Compare Chisholm’s comments with the sentiments expressed by the American psychologist and philosopher William James:

“If a ‘free’ act be a sheer novelty, that comes not from me, the previous me, but ex nihilo, and simply tacks itself on to me, how can I, the previous I, be responsible? How can I have any permanent character that will stand still long enough for praise or blame to be awarded?”

James points out the problem with Chisholm’s “prime mover unmoved.” Specifically, if you, as “a prime mover unmoved,” make a choice, what led you to make that particular choice? Simple question, but its answer undermines the link between “free” will and moral accountability. If your will is completely free, disconnected, and uninfluenced by prior experience, education, moral training, rewards, punishments and other causal influences then why did you make the choice you made? There seems to be no reason. The choice was made “out of the blue” (or ex nihilo as James phrases it). "But," you may counter, "I made my choice because it seemed logical to me" or "I desired to do the will of God" or "I wanted to be a good neighbor." But the question follows, where did you learn about these things? Why do you care about these things? The only logical response is from your prior experience and that places you firmly within the deterministic system.

Think about it this way. Either your “soul” has preferences (that is, it sees some things as more desirable than others) or it doesn’t. If your soul doesn’t have preferences then any choice it would make would be sheer whim; you don't really care one way or another. Clearly, this is not what we want from free will, the absence of preferences, goals, and values. But if your “soul” has preferences, where did it acquire them? The only sensible answer seems to be that the soul acquired these preferences through its experiences. That is, the “soul’s” goals, values, and preferences are the product of the soul’s prior education and experience. If this is true, if the soul is influenced by experience, then the will isn’t “free” like we claim it to be.

Look at it from yet another perspective. Why punish a child, or anyone for that matter, if the physical or emotional pain of punishment doesn’t have any causal influence upon the will? Punishment should have no effect upon a “free” will. Why teach a child? A “free” will can, because it is completely unconstrained, simply consider the teaching mere noise and choose something completely counter to the teaching. In short, why wouldn’t the “free” will simply act randomly?

A simple response to these questions is to suggest that the will isn’t completely free, that the will is only partly influenced by causal factors such as punishment or education. The difficulty with this suggestion is that a “partly free will” is an incoherent concept. It is impossible to make such a solution workable. For example, let’s say that part of our will, call it Part A, is influenced by experience thereby acquiring goals, values, and preferences. The second “free” part of the will, call it Part B, is the part that consults Part A and then “freely” makes the choice. But the question remains, why should the “free” part of the will, Part B, choose to consult your learning history in Part A? If Part B is “free” from those values you have acquired through life, stored in Part A of your will, then Part B has no intrinsic desire or motive to go with your values or oppose them. The choice of Part B again reduces to mere whim.

Let me elaborate so there is no confusion. Let’s say the soul, both Part A (the storage unit of life experience) and Part B (the free “maker of choices”), start off in life as generally “blank,” with no specific knowledge of right from wrong. During life I teach my child “Do not steal.” This value gets implanted in Part A of the soul, the repository of my experiences. This sequence of events is entirely deterministic. I teach my child, my child forms a memory. If I don’t teach the value, my child has an impoverished moral upbringing, with little in his experience to discriminate right from wrong. Now, at some later date, my child is confronted with the choice to steal. Part B, the free part of the will, will have to make this choice since only free (i.e., nondeterministic) choices are believed to create moral accountability. So, Part B of the soul consults Part A, the history of prior moral influences (good and bad). Part B sees that Part A learned, at some point, that “Stealing is wrong.” So, what should Part B do? Well, Part B we know is free of all deterministic influences. Thus, Part B is independent of the influence of Part A, which means that the mechanism of choice is causally disconnected from all prior moral education and training. Thus, Part B can choose whatever it “wants” to, but, since Part B intrinsically doesn’t “want” anything (how could it?), its choice is essentially random. If this is true, why teach our children not to steal? In short, as I hope it can be seen, a “partly” free will is a nonstarter.

The conclusion, as I see it, is this: Free will disconnects us with our moral training and efforts. This is simply intolerable. The mechanism of choice must be causally connected to our moral training. How else could moral training be effective? But if we accept this conclusion we are trapped by the equally unpleasant conclusion that our choices are the causal product of our moral upbringing. If so, this undermines moral accountability: How can I be held accountable for stealing if I was, let’s say, raised by thieves and praised for stealing? I would simply be the current product of my past.

This, then. is the little noticed problem concerning free will. Supernatural indeterminism does appear to get around causal determinism, but in the end it doesn’t really support moral accountability. It seems that moral accountability, as traditionally understood, is an incoherent concept that is incompatible with both determinism and free will. If this is so, can the idea of moral accountability be rescued? More on that next week.

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12 thoughts on “Free Will, Causality, Character, and Moral Accountability: Part 1”

  1. I think I understand the construction of free will v. experience-based decision-making, but it seems like you're creating something of a straw-man with regard to free will. Does anyone put forward a model (perhaps other than Chisholm) that actually holds that free will, in order to be "free", must be completely unaffected by one's principles, rationality, moral experiences & learning, etc.?

    I thought, perhaps naively, that the idea of free will over and against determinism, simply allowed me to make a choice based on a new principle or new evidence - or allowed me to choose against my nature for some reason (randomness or noetic dysfunction), rather than being "locked in" by my experiences.

  2. CJR,
    What I'm trying to do here are two things:

    1. Generally, when people say they believe in free will they ground out the idea in a Chisholmequse way. I'd like to try to figure out how free will (as a kind of mental module) pulls off its feat. What does "free" mean in these debates? Is "free" even a coherent concept? How would free will work if we had it? How would it interface with morally-relevent experiences? In short, I'd like to move past the debate of "free will vs. determinism" to look at the models of the mind each propose and see what implications each have for the church. In the end, I want this to be a constructive exercise.

    2. I'd like to highlight, and this will be important for next week, the issues between free will and virtue (moral character). This interface (one I think is problematic for free will) is little explored. I think James' quote is important for the church to think about. It seems to me that his point is that character is inherently causal. What I'm going to argue is that the church embraces causality when she addresses character formation but plays the acausality card (free will) on salvation issues. And I'm not sure she can have it both ways. (Maybe she can. That is why I'm writing. To get the ideas out there for people to push back on.)

    In the end, this post could be worthless in its details. But my main goal is to focus certain ideas/issues:

    1. How does the mind really work? And does its workings have implications for the theology and life of the church?

    2. To get the church to focus less on Choice and more on Character.

  3. I'll be interested to see how you rescue moral accountability ... if you really are convinced that both free will and determinism undermine it, and that compatibilism is incoherent. =)

  4. You know, Matthew, I should have deleted that sentence. I don't think I "rescue" it in the normal sense of rescue. I think I reframe what it might look like, but I don't think I rescue it.

    This is a problem with blogging. Your writing is fast and not as well thought out as it should be and then, BAM!, it's on the Internet. A mistake for all to see. I could re-draft and re-post, but I prefer to let the mistakes ride.

  5. Richard,

    It seems to me that the idea of "moral training" as the cause for behavior can actually work well in mainstream Christain theology. Consider the "meaning of life" question. A view that is very compatible with Christianity (I think) is one that holds the purpose of life to be experientially learning. Specifically, learning to be like Christ. In other words, to have an extremely high degree of moral training. Christians might call this "the salvation process." Perhaps experience is the only way that virtue and morality can be learned; i.e. it is not something God can simply bestow us with knowledge of. Even Jesus “learned obedience by what he suffered” (Hebrews 4?). In this light then, life on earth is really just about training to be highly moral creatures, through experience, which will help us somehow in the afterlife.

    This seems especially compatible with Universalism (which I was first introduced to, in some detail, in this blog). We are all simply in different stages of moral training. Some advanced, some novice. Hell, or Purgatory, or whatever you want to call it, becomes a place of remedial training. Making up for deficiencies, until we are all ready to be with God.

    It also speaks somewhat to the problem of evangelism within Universalism, making the imperative to be helping one another in this moral training. And maybe even learning something about selflessness in the process.

    I am bothered by how humanistic this all sounds.

  6. Pecs,
    I keep banging this drum about free will because I'd like the make the following switches in the churches (all consistent with the thrust of your comment):

    Choice to Character
    Rhetoric to Behavior Change
    Trying to Training
    Evangelism to Moral Formation
    Missions to Social Justice
    Moral blame to Moral Luck

    All those things on the left side are products of strong volitional (e.g., free will) models implicit in many Christian doctrines. I'm not comfortable with determinism, but I am a weak volitionist. I thing our "will" (whatever that is) is contingent. And, thus, if the church is to thrive she needs to make the shift to the right column.

  7. Another problem that a weak volitional model would solve is that of heaven. Heaven, even for strong volitionists (I think), is a place without much choice. Once you make it, your in, and once your in, you're there to stay. You will not want to choose any alternative to God. Strange that a God who supposedly values choice so highly would have us spend eternity in a choiceless realm.

    So with a weak volitional model, instead of choices, what you really have are "reflexes" contingent on your moral training. Heaven is now a place where those reflexes have become perfectly in line with God's. Choice is no more hindered than it ever was.

  8. Hi Richard,

    “If a ‘free’ act be a sheer novelty, that comes not from me, the previous me, but ex nihilo, and simply tacks itself on to me, how can I, the previous I, be responsible? How can I have any permanent character that will stand still long enough for praise or blame to be awarded?”

    I'm a big fan of James and I don't know the context of this quote but it does not represent the model of reality that is commonly accepted by fundamental scientists today.

    The model that is most prevalent is that given a current state of affairs in reality there are many potentials that can be actualized in the next moment. These potentials are not ex nihilo but constrained and influenced by the past. However, what becomes actualized is not deterministic. There is an openness which in the language of physics is affected by conscious decision.

    Thusly, freedom is finite freedom depending on the past but not determined by it.

  9. In restorative justice processes, offenders are held personally accountable for their crimes. How is the idea of free will related to accountability?

  10. I think James is wrong. The character of my mind can change (indeed, I can help to change it), but my mind is still identical in some sense to my mind at any other point during its existence. I can be happy, I can be sad, I can be altruistic or greedy, but there is an overriding I to which we attach various adjectives for every moment in my life. I suppose a parallel can be made with Descartes' argument about wax, since wax can take on various different forms depending on the temperature, but it is ultimately the same stuff. To suggest that moral accountability and free will are mutually incompatible strikes me as a very odd and false.

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