Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Mechanism: Experiments on Folk Intuitions

"Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Mechanism: Experiments on Folk Intuitions." (with D. Justin Coates and Trevor Kvaran). Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31: 214-42, 2007.

It seems that people—from philosophers to scientists to journalists to the ordinary “folk” we have surveyed—share the intuition that “if our brain makes us do it, then we aren’t morally responsible.” We think that this intuition runs deep and that it is driven by people’s tendency to view a reductive, mechanistic explanation of behavior as inconsistent with a mentalistic (or intentional) explanation—in the psychological language of thoughts, desires, and plans. Because people also tend to ascribe free will and moral responsibility only to agents whose actions can be understood in terms of their mental states, people tend to see reductive mechanism as incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. That is, we think that most ordinary folk have intuitions about freedom and responsibility that accord with a position we will call Mechanism Incompatibilism (MI), that free will and moral responsibility are incompatible with reductive mechanism.

We take it to be a separate question whether most people express intuitions that accord with the position at the heart of philosophical debates about free will, what we will call Pure Incompatibilism (PI), the view that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. Mechanism Incompatibilism is a distinct position from Pure Incompatibilism. One could, for instance, hold that MI is true but PI is false. Indeed, we think it is likely that most people have intuitions that indicate an acceptance of MI but not of PI. If this is true, it would be easily overlooked, since most people conflate determinism with mechanism. This conflation of mechanism with determinism would also provide an explanation for the common claim that PI represents the commonsensical and intuitive position, a claim we think is false. One way to examine the relevance of determinism and mechanism to people’s judgments about free will and moral responsibility is to present them with agents in a range of scenarios, varied according to whether determinism and/or mechanism holds in the scenario, and examine their judgments about the agents’ freedom and responsibility. The experiments we describe in this paper were developed to test folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility in this way.

(My publication)Posted:Sep 01 2007, 12:00 AM by enahmias
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