Free will is an illusion [1]. What does this say about moral responsibility?

If the purpose of morality is to maximize the happiness of sentient beings, as I often claim, then whether free will exists is irrelevant. In fact, whether free will exists does not matter as long as morality focuses on the consequences of actions, rather than their motives.

The traditional argument goes: if free will is an illusion, then we are not in control of our own actions, which means we cannot be held responsible for them. So it doesn’t matter what actions we take, right? We can run around killing people, right? Well, no. Our actions still matter just as much as they ever did: they affect the outside world whether they are the product of free will or the result of deterministic processes. Others are still affected by our actions. We still feel emotions, even if those emotions arise deterministically.

Right and Wrong

The question of what is right or wrong is still relevant. Some actions make people happy, and other actions cause people to suffer. A “good” action increases well-being, and a “bad” action decreases it.

The non-existence of free will has some implications regarding the definition of “ought.” Without free will, it does not make as much sense to ask what we ought to do, since we are unable to freely control our actions; we can only ask what we do do. One might conclude that morality itself is meaningless; but good and bad still exist, whether we are freely able to create them or not.

It is possible to make sense of “ought” by defining it in terms of consequences rather than strict moral rules. The question of moral obligation relates to what actions will likely bring about the best outcomes–we ought to increase happiness, and we ought not increase suffering, in the sense that increasing happiness is good and increasing suffering is bad.

It also makes sense in some situations to treat people as “good” or “bad.” People may not freely choose how they act, but giving them different kinds of feedback (for example, punishment and reward) causes them to behave in certain ways, and the best possible social arrangement would be one in which the feedback consistently encourages morally desirable behavior.


Once free will is out of the picture, we can actually make more sound moral judgments. Anthony Cashmore wrote an excellent paper on how free will affects the criminal justice system. In the paper, he argues that we should eliminate “the illogical concept that individuals are in control of their behavior in a manner that is something other than a reflection of their genetic makeup and their environmental history,” and that once we do so, the justice system will be much improved.

It is better to acknowledge the truth regarding free will and adjust our judgments accordingly than to continue to base so many important moral decisions on such a nebulous concept. We can make judgments on a purely consequentialist basis, and choose whichever course of action we decide will do the most good.

Let us ask the question: how might we change the justice system if we focus solely on consequences, and give no regard to the notion of free will? It might not actually be that much different. Our goal is to maximize happiness for as many people as possible (including the convicted). Sometimes the best way to do this is to imprison a dangerous criminal, not for retribution [2] but for the good of society. That said, prisons should be made as comfortable as possible for the benefit of the people in them (keeping in mind certain considerations, e.g. prison should not be more comfortable than poverty–otherwise, poor people would break the law specifically so they could go to jail). For more on this subject, see an essay by Cody Franklin.

Cashmore has a list of purposes for imprisonment, none of which has anything to do with free will:

To a), protect society; b), protect the offending individuals from society; c), provide such individuals with appropriate psychiatric help; d), act as a deterrent (the act of incarceration and the presence of a criminal code forming part of the environment [that influences people’s actions]); and e), alleviate the pain of the victim.

Society ought to use these principles to enact a justice system, rather than focusing on retribution.

Moral Responsibility

It is commonly argued that if we do not have free will, then we cannot be held responsible for our actions. In some sense this statement is correct, but in another sense it is meaningless.

The traditional definition of moral responsibility would hold responsible the person or persons who caused some event. However, without free will, this definition does not make sense. A man who shoots his wife caused the trigger to be pulled, the trigger caused the bullet to fire, and the bullet caused the woman’s body to cease functioning. If the man was the first cause, he can be held responsible. However, he was not the first cause: his action was the direct result of previous actions, and completely determined by his genes and environment. The processes that caused the man to pull the trigger were the same sorts of processes that caused the trigger to make the bullet fire. The man did not kill his wife any more than did the gun, the trigger, or the bullet.

This traditional definition of moral responsibility is nonsensical. It has no concrete definition; arguments about whether someone holds moral responsibility cannot be resolved, because different people may adopt different definitions of the term.

Fortunately, the concept of moral responsibility is not concrete; it is an abstract idea created by humans to try to make morality easier to understand. It does not exist in reality. Once we understand that responsibility is a human invention, we are free to use it to whatever ends we want. Therefore, we should define moral responsibility in the manner that brings about the most favorable consequences.

It makes sense in some cases to treat people as though they are morally responsible for their actions, even though they aren’t. Similarly to why we identify good and evil, we can identify moral responsibility because doing so helps to clarify our ethical judgments.

Consider some concrete examples, taken from an article by Sam Harris:

  1. A four-year-old boy was playing with his father’s gun and killed a young woman. The gun had been kept loaded and unsecured in a dresser drawer.

  2. A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.”

  3. A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and behavioral impulses).

In the case of the four-year-old, it does not make sense to treat him as responsible for his actions. He is unable to fully understand what he did, and holding him responsible would not teach him anything. To revisit Cashmore’s five reasons for imprisonment, none of them apply to this case, so it does not make sense to imprison the child: (a) he will soon grow up and learn to examine the consequences of his actions, and this event is unlikely to repeat itself, so society does not need protection; (b) children are easily forgiven, so he needs no protection from society; (c) his mistake did not stem from psychiatric troubles, but merely from ignorance; (d) four-year-olds are not in a suitable environment for deterrence to be effective (they are not usually familiar with the laws regarding four-year-olds), nor could they necessarily comprehend the concept of deterrence even if they were; (e) the family of the victim is unlikely to hold a grudge against a young child. Note, however, that some of the five reasons for imprisonment do apply to the father who left the gun unlocked, so it makes sense in some ways to hold the father responsible. Imprisoning the foolish father could potentially do some good.

For the second example, where the twenty-five-year-old shoots a young woman for fun, all five of Cashmore’s reasons are applicable. It makes sense to hold this man responsible for his actions because he was fully aware of what he was doing, and holding him responsible could prevent murders like this from happening in the future.

In the case of the man with the tumor, he may be likely to kill again, but he is not sane. Holding him responsible makes partial sense: society needs to be protected from people like him, but there is no way to deter his behavior since people like him are not acting rationally. Removing the tumor would be far more effective a response than imprisonment.

On some level, the absence of free will means that moral responsibility does not exist. However, it often makes sense to act as though rational people are responsible for their actions, because treating them as such will improve society.


[1] The compatibilist position has merit, and I can understand why one may prefer a definition of free will that allows for its existence. However, the definition I use–“the capacity to make a choice that ultimately is not influenced by any outside entity and completely unpredictable, but also is completely rational from the perspective of the entity making the choice”–makes the most sense in the context of this essay. Every time I refer to free will, I refer to this definition; all my arguments still hold water even if you prefer to use a different definition of free will.

[2] Here is an interesting piece on Less Wrong that helps to explain why so many people believe in retributive justice (i.e. “criminals deserve punishment”). To paraphrase:

Saying “People who commit crimes deserve to get hurt!” is not tough-minded. It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe. Real tough-mindedness is saying, “Yes, prison is harmful, and no, criminals do not deserve to get hurt, but we’re going to imprison them anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation.”