Moral Responsibility if Free Will is Unconscious

I read Tor Nørretranders’ book “The User Illusion”:

when it was published and have been a keen follower of Daniel Dennett’s works, especially those on consciousness and free will:

I recently started following up the research in Neuro-Psychology around this subject:

Benjamin Libet (who died last month)

and Daniel Wegner

being major contributors.

What seems to arise from the empirical investigations strongly implies that:

If Free Will exists, it is difficult to contend that Free Will is exercised by what we recognize as our Conscious Mind; if it is locatable anywhere, it is deep within the unconscious brain.

A corollary of this is that Personal Responsibility cannot be placed empirically on our conscious mind.

This proposition may be referred to as “Free Will occurs, if at all, in the Unconscious Mind”

If this is true (and for the purposes of this post I would ask that we accept that this is the case) then what does this say about our current moral stance.

Key questions are:

We ‘excuse’ people from moral responsibility for of certain their acts if:

They have some psycho-biological conditions (Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Paranoid and other Psychotic beliefs etc.)

They have certain excuses under the law (Diminished Responsibility, M’Naghten rules etc.)

These excuses are based on the fact that the conscious mind is unable to control the acts of the person.

If the above proposition is true, how do currently non-excusable acts (obesity and anorexia, alcoholism and other substance abuse, criminality, sexual perversions etc.) from those currently excusable acts.

My view is that if the Proposition is true, then it removes much of the basis of our current moral stance and suggests that alternative measures to current sanctions (punitive imprisonment, compulsory medication, social exclusion, blaming etc.) might be more empirically justified, and that our current moral stance is unscientific in its premises and prescriptions.

I welcome any discussion of the above as I am trying to integrate it into a social care course and would like to see what type of response might be made to the Proposition.

I am aware that people may wish to debate the underlying proposition itself and would ask that this discussion (if it ensues) occurs in the concurrent post I am making (link to follow).

I was trying to think of a reply, but every time I think about free will, the conscious mind, or determinism my head explodes. So I’ll just say this: maybe it doesn’t make any more sense to yell at the asshole who cut me off in traffic or my wife for cheating on me than it does to curse out a table when I stub my toe, but damn if it isn’t a useful fiction.

I agree with the exploding head, but that is for the other thread!

If Free Will is unconscious, what does this say about our current moral stance- this is less head exploding!

I would agree that it (the conventional response) is a useful fiction, but is it an acceptable moral stance?

To me, as loathe as I am to say it, it means that I agree with you – much of our current moral stance needs reconsideration.

While I’d agree with the latter part of that (“our current moral stance is unscientific in its premises and prescriptions”), I’m not so sure about the alternative measures. As I see it, the question becomes, what is the purpose of the sanctions? If there’s no free will, then there’s no possibility of a person modifying their own behavior. If there’s no hope of (self-)reform, then either we accept and allow their behavior or move to change it some other way.

Punitive imprisonment and social exclusion would have to be re-characterized as the removal of disruptive/dangerous elements from society. Compulsory medication would be justified as the only method of actual reform. Blame would still exist, but not in its current form – hate the behavior, not the behaver. Seems like lack of free will better justifies current forms of sanction than it does permit alternatives. (Although I might change my opinion given a list of alternatives.)

Further reply, I think, belongs in the companion thread, as it necessarily includes issues of whether free will exists.

It’s an interesting proposition, and I have great sympathy for the position that alternative measures to current moral sanctions are desirable.

Now, stipulating that there may be measures other than imprisonment and medication, etc., which might be more morally desirable and (possibly) more effective means of dealing with criminal behaviour and psychological difficulties, I’m not sure that I believe that removing moral and legal responsibility/accountability from the conscious realm is a good or necessary idea.

My position would be, that even if Free Will does rest with the unconscious mind, the unconscious mind still obtains and processes its information from the world with which we interact consciously, and that the idea that some things are wrong (murder, rape, drinking and driving, etc.) is accessible (and possibly integral) to the unconscious, and hence available to the hypothetical (and/or metaphorical) agent of the unconscious that exercises Free Will, and therefore that maintaining the (possibly fictional) position that the conscious mind is responsible/accountable for our actions is not inconsistent with the idea of Free Will being only exercised by the unconscious.

A good point: the unconscious is shaped to some extent by the (external) environment. A sort of “top-down” influence, separate from the “bottom-up” self-awareness aspect. Having gone all introspective, I hadn’t considered it.

I must say: that’s one long sentence you’ve got there. :slight_smile:

Yeah, Digital Stimulus, it is a lot of words to say we should act “as if.” I guess I’m not the most efficient thinker in the world. :slight_smile:

(Oh, and just to clarify, I don’t see the interaction or influences between the conscious and unconscious mind being either “top-down” or “bottom-up,” but rather a combination of both. Of course, IANANP. )


But even this very question seems nonsensical to me. It’s almost having it both ways. You’re assuming free will doesn’t exist, and then asking us to judge our current practices with a morality that (presumably, to me) only exists if we have free will. After all, we don’t ask if it’s moral for termites to eat their crippled brethren, do we?

Now, on a grand, societal level I think it would be dangerous to disregard morality and free will – if that’s even possible to do with our human brains. But to me that seems like a really slippery slope which leads to a society which just executes people en masse, maybe undertakes some genocide and euthanasia of criminals, the poor, the elderly, minorities, or anyone who does anything the society doesn’t condone (“these people are just meat robots anyway, they can’t help doing what they do”).

Me either. Take prison reform. If there are better ways to decrease recidivism, those should come about in result based experiments and a discussion of the role of prisons in our society. Other than that, I’m lost.

So we don’t have free will. How should I change my day to day activities? Again, I come back to it, how am I supposed to react when my wife cheats on me? Just not get angry/betrayed/depressed?

I agree that common sense morality has been useful to an extent, but it has also justified horrendous treatment of individuals which may have no empirical basis.

Are we justified in allowing the existence of a belief system that is not only empirically unsound, but also damaging to individuals.

Although the concept of unconscious free will might lead to treating people as meat, this would be a misinterpretation. The concept does not deny the reality of consciousness, nor of human suffering, only that such a phenomena has no or limited effect on behaviour.

I’m curious; how do you get from “no free will” to “no personal responsibility”? If there is not “free will” (whatever the heck that is) in the conscious mind, then there certainly is a conscious analysis of the sitation and deliberate calculation of a response, based on factors at hand such as emotion, prior knowlede, and the available facts of the situation. These are more than enough to justify attibuting blame for an action on the agent perpetrating these thought processes, even if the result was (given the precise circumstances and brain state of the person at that moment) inevitable.

I would say that there is no free will, and my views of personal responsibility are clouded by it… but there is certainly the *illusion * of free will. I may not believe that “I” am a free decision making entity, but it seems to me like I am. And punishments/rewards need to be catered towards the person in question, not just an overall moral system. A person who believes they have free will, even if they don’t, is going to feel totally let off if they aren’t punished. And they’ll do it again.

The question is; if we don’t have free will, what effects it’s replacement? If we’re only responding to outside factors in a way determined by those outside factors, then punishment still makes perfect sense; it’s an outside factor designed specifically to associate itself with the criminal act. In computer terms, if we imagine a malfunctioning machine, we don’t just leave it alone after it kills three people because it has no self and no blame. We try and change the code. That’s what punishment is, though we have less access obviously.

If consciousness is purely an observation of what is going on in the unconscious brain and is merely an epiphenomena- having no causative effect on behaviour- then no ‘blame’ can be attached to consciousness.

The research suggests that (almost) all human action is automatic and unconsidered. Only a minimal amount of action involves conscious consideration, and even that is doubtfully causative.

I find this grossly implausible to the point of laughability; it has been my observation both within myself and from what can tell, in others as well, that the vast, vast majority of my non-autonomic actions are based in conscious thought, which I have the ability to consciously review and assess the value and consequences of before actually acting upon. Because I have this review process available to me (my conscious mind), I am certainly accountable for my actions, and blame can be attached to the consiousness for choosing to carry out the actions that it did.

This would hold true even if there is no “free will” (whatever that is) at all; it is common to speak of totally inanimate things as being “at fault” for various things; it only makes more sense to do so if informing the acting agent of their action causes it to account for the effects of its actions in its decision-making process.

I am highly suspicious of any research that says that says, for example, that the text my fingers are typing into this message board is the result of some instinctual, unconsidered, and uncaused process. Sure, the mental processes that convert my conscious thoughts into finger movements might be subconscious, but at the core, there is a conscious thought driving the process.

Isn’t that the point? The research demonstrates, pretty conclusively, that action impulses are initiated prior to the (conscious) “review process”. That’s the whole idea of the title The User Illusion.

Is the pie I left on the windowsill “at fault” for falling to the ground when pushed? “Common” usage does not necessarily equate with proper meaning.

I will concede not having read the book, but based on what the Libet link from the OP says about the subject, there seems to be some conclusions leapt to in deciding that the review process is secondary. (This concern was brought up in the other thread as well.)

Unless there’s something overt I’m missing based on my limited sources, the research “pretty conclusively” shows only that something happens in the brain a half-second before the decision-making process is finished. The assumption that the subconscious makes a decision (presumably literally instantaneously), then this half-second passes entirely away and then the conscious process starts (and then presumably finishes literally instantaneously) seems entirely unwarranted. Who is to say that the initial pulse is not just the effect of ‘firing up’ the conscious processing system and routing to it the approriate data from memory and senses, which are then used over the course of the half-second to compile the data and produce the result at the end?

Another possibility that the Libet experiment seems to leave open is that the process of self-reporting that the decision has been made takes half a second (or less, if the decision isn’t made instantly). Now, to some degree, this lets you say that the ‘conscious mind’ lags behind the ‘unconscious mind’ in knowing things - but what’s happening is that the ‘unconscious mind’ is the mind that’s actually making all the rational, well-thought-out decisions, and that the ‘conscious mind’ is not really a mind at all, but more of an afterthought; it doesn’t do any thinking, but merely is the memory that a thought occurred. In which case, of course, the terms are misnamed, and again the ‘unconscious mind’ that initated the pulse is actually the conscious, rational mind which we’re accustomed to using, albeit in a state prior to knowing that it’s finished making the decision.

Both of these models I have here presented (which are actually not all that different; varying only in the speculated time the conscious rational decision is made between the pulse and the 500ms mark) seem to much more realistically model what I at least have experienced, in that they don’t make some harebrained claim that we have a separate mind in there that makes all our decisions entirely separate from our conscious awareness.

Is the pie supposed to be analogous to the mind, the thought, or the action? Regardless, since there seems to be no real reason to believe that we are of two minds, I don’t see this analogy as relevent.

Perhaps you misunderstand me; maybe my tone came across too strong. The above is a very different stance than the one to which I responded, specifically:

I have no issues with a conjecture that Libet’s experiments (or other findings with which I am not familiar) are overlooking something. It’s an open question, whether or not you personally “find this grossly implausible to the point of laughability”.

Again, I think you misunderstand me. I was responding specifically to a point you made. To wit:

My point is that a pie does not have anything remotely resembling “free will” and therefore cannot be “at fault”. Thus, neither accountability nor blame can be assigned to it. In exactly the same way, if a human has no free will, they can neither be held accountable nor blamed.