The Question of Free Will

I was thinking of holding off on releasing this so I could do a weekly schedule, but, well, it was a question, and it’s rude to hold off answering a question. So enjoy a bit of an early release…

Anyway, in this video I discuss my thoughts on the importance of Free Will in regards to talking about Ethics. I don’t actually talk about ponies much in this one, but good chance stuff I say in here will be brought up in possible future topics. Also, I get to talk about a utilitarian, and by now you should all now I really love talking about that XD.

Thanks to Digibrony, the topic of the relationship between free will and the question of good and evil has popped up again, and a lot of people are joining in on the conversation. Apparently, that conversation now includes me as I have been asked by The Oneiromancer what my view on the topic is.

Luckily, my view on the topic is can be summed up quite easily; I think it’s completely irrelevant.

[Ending Spiel][Credit Music][Record Scratch]

Okay, that probably requires a little more explanation doesn’t it?

Recently I have begun reading Henry Sidgwick’s “The Methods of Ethics” for my own personal exploration of utilitarian ethics. In Chapter Five of Book I, Sidgwick discussed the relationship between the Free Will Question and Ethics. He comes to the conclusion that the question has no practical relevance to discussing ethics. For the sake of time I won’t completely cover what he discusses, but I will be putting a link in the description to where you can read it in full. So let’s begin.

First off, what exactly IS the Free Will Question? Sidgwick puts the question like this:

“Is the self to which I refer my deliberate volitions a self of strictly determinate moral qualities, a definite character partly inherited, partly formed by my past actions and feelings, and by any physical influences that it may have unconsciously received; so that my voluntary action, for good or for evil, is at any moment completely caused by the determinate qualities of this character, together with my circumstances, or the external influences acting on me at the moment-including under this latter term my present bodily conditions?-or is there always a possibility of my choosing to act in the manner that I now judge to be reasonable and right, whatever my previous actions and experiences may have been.”

The Determinist view is, of course, are actions are determined by a variety of factors external to ourselves while the Libertarian position holds we are capable of acting independent of these factors. But how does this question relate to ethics? The Libertarian position states that in judging that I “ought” to do something implies that I “can” do it, and that praise or blame implies that I “could” have acted otherwise.

Sidgwick, however, argues that these are in fact two separate question and should be discussed separately as the question of praise or blame is not focused on the present Freedom of the agent but the past Freedom of the person.

So with the question of “moral actions” separated from the judgment of blame and praise, Sidgwick begins to discuss the relation between Free Will and moral actions, and why the question of Free Will is irrelevant to discussions of the later. This discussion occurs in two parts; the relation of Free Will to the value of the ultimate ends of ethical actions, and the relation between Free Will and the means to those ends.

For Sidgwick, there are two possible ultimate ends that a system of ethics strives for; the first is Happiness, such as in utilitarianism, and the other Excellence or Perfection, such as in deontology or what we would now label “virtue ethics”. If Happiness is taken as the ultimate end of ethics, then there is nothing in the theory of Determinism that would require us to reject it. In theories which hold Excellence to be the ultimate end, Excellence is considered to be valuable in of itself. If this is so, than the manifestations of virtue are no less admirable simply because we can trace this back to inherited dispositions developed by a careful education. Therefore, regardless of the ultimate end of ethics chosen, the value of these ends are not affected by whether we accept a Deterministic or Libertarian view.

As for the relationship between these ends and the means to achieving, Sidgwick also states the question of Free Will appears to have no practical effect. An act does not appear to be more or less a means to an end simply because it is predetermined.  Furthermore, in considering the question of how to act in any situation, we have to take into account the probable future actions of others and of ourselves. This, of course, requires us to be able to predict human behavior. The Determinst position has no problem with this as, if behavior determined by a series of cause and effect, with perfect knowledge prediction of behavior would be possible. Even if we accept Libertarianism, however, Free Will simply become an unknown cause of behavior, and recognizing its existence does not lead us to modify our predictions.

To demonstrate this, Sidgwick proposes a thought experiment. Imagine that all the planets were endowed with Free Will, and that they maintained their periodic motions simply by free choice. While our confidence in the future may be reasonably impaired, the details of our astronomical calculations would not be affected.

In short, in order to reason about the future actions of ourselves or others, we must consider them to be determined. If they are not completely determined, our reasoning is simply liable to error, but we have no other option . While on the other hand, in attempting to ascertain what choice is the reasonable one to make, Deterministic concepts are irrelevant as they have no effect on whether or not an act is a means to an ulterior end. Therefore, there is no practical importance to answering the question of Free Will.

With both the ends of ethics and the means of ethics not being affected by the Free Will question, we finally return to the question of how Free Will interacts with the question of Blame and Reward. Sidgwick is willing to admit that in regards to this question, adopting a Deterministic position does have an effect. By accepting that actions are the result of causes antecedent or external to a person, moral responsibility no longer rests on them. Punishment, then, is required to be seen as a tool for the encouragement of good and the prevention of bad through a combination of deterrence and reformatory practices instead of a punitive system.

I will admit, however, his dismissing of the Free Will problem on this topic is due to arguing that such a view of punishment is the morally superior viewpoint regardless of acceptance of Determinism or not, arguments which I haven’t gotten to yet. So, in this sense I guess I could care about the Free Will Question as one could disagree with his arguments and therefore not consider the issue closed, but I still don’t.  As one doesn’t have to be a Determinist in order to argue this viewpoint, I feel there is plenty to discuss in regards to this question without necessarily bringing in the Free Will question on top of it. That, and even if I have yet to get to his arguments, I already agree with the viewpoint anyway so…

Hmm, it may be an interesting topic to discuss whether or not justice in Equestria is either deterrent/reformation based or punitive based….

But we’re already starting to get rather long here, and I think this is enough to go on as it is. In summation, I’m willing to simply sidestep the question of Free Will as I don’t think it has any real importance in discussing ethics. If the ultimate ends still remain valuable regardless of the answer and the discussion of the means is not affected by the answer, then for discussing ethics, which is my main interest, I have no reason to be concerned by it. Only in regards to punishment may it be relevant, but again I’m willing to put it aside since it’s fully possible to discuss the situation without necessarily bringing in Free Will arguments.

[Ending Spiel]

Henry Sidgiwck “Methods of Ethics”:

Digibrony’s Video:
OC Character designed using DavionX’s Model Kit:

Record Scratch Sound:

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September 13, 2013 · 11:25 pm

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