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APPLIED ETHICS: Science and Freedom

by Thomas W. Clark

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 2.

In 1998, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank headed by Elliot Abrams, hosted a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., on "Neuroscience and the Human Spirit."1 As psychologist Dr. Frederick Goodwin, an organizer of the conference, put it, the core question was "Do . . . scientific advances challenge the first principles that the majority of our citizens believe provide the very foundation upon which our civilization rests—free will and the capacity to make moral choices? . . . Does [the] growing understanding of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior leave any room for free will?"

Underlying these momentous concerns is the libertarian view of human freedom, the notion that persons are exceptions to the natural order by virtue of a unique capacity for self-creation. On this essentially supernaturalistic conception of the self, we are all first causes—effectively miniature gods. Some crucial part of us is ultimately not the effect of anything else: human beings are causally privileged over the rest of creation.

Since science inevitably tends to illuminate the causal antecedents of phenomena, including human behavior, it is no surprise that this notion of free will is threatened by advances in neuroscience, biology, and other fields that place behavior in a genetic and environmental context. Just as science has naturalized our understanding of cosmic evolution, the origin of species, and the mechanisms of life, the project of naturalization now focuses on ourselves. Instead of supposing that there is within us some spiritual or mental essence separate from the body that miraculously makes decisions and controls action—something in effect supernatural—science is showing how consciousness and behavior arise in terms of physically instantiated operations, functions, and processes. These processes operate quite nicely on their own, without benefit of anything "in charge" directing or witnessing the show.

The problem, of course, is that the existence of the freely willing agent is widely thought necessary to ground judgments of morality and responsibility. If human behavior turns out to be explicable without appealing to free will, then on what basis do we hold people accountable?

This concern perhaps explains the undercurrent of urgency at the conference, the manifest desire to find a safe haven for the traditional, metaphysically autonomous self. But since many of the conference attendees were neuroscientists and behavioral scientists themselves, there was no escaping this looming threat to free will. After all, how can we pursue science aggressively yet save the libertarian agent from the very knowledge we amass? Answer: with great difficulty.

Those secularists committed to scientific empiricism, not folk metaphysics, to decide what's ultimately the case must concede the truth of our complete inclusion in the natural causal order. Since there exists no freely willing agent that inhabits the person, they must find alternative grounds for moral judgments and ascriptions of responsibility.

Fortunately, there is a long-standing philosophical view of human freedom, known as compatibilism, which does precisely that. Although not yet widely disseminated in lay culture, this view holds that we are free to the extent our actions flow from our character-based motives and desires, not from coercion or duress. Such freedom is compatible with our being fully caused creatures, in that it is a freedom from external or internal constraints (e.g., from chains and psychoses), not the patently implausible ultimate freedom to choose our selves or actions ex nihilo. Suppose we had such freedom: on what basis would we choose?

On a compatibilist view, what justifies moral judgments is that those acting freely as described above are potentially sensitive to such judgments: as rational agents they can be cognizant of, and have the capacity to conform to, our moral codes as expressed in law and social expectations. This view of morality—the instrumental shaping of behavior—needs no freely willing, intrinsically deserving agent that could have done otherwise in the exact situation in which a given behavior arose. Moral agents, instead, are simply that rather broad class of persons who can anticipate the rewards and sanctions carried by moral evaluation (e.g., praise, credit, blame, punishment); it makes pragmatic sense to hold moral agents responsible to such standards, since doing so helps modify their behavior. On the other hand, those with serious mental illness or those forced at gunpoint (or similarly threatened) to act contrary to their characters are not held responsible.

Even though the project of naturalizing ourselves and morality can successfully ground moral judgments, it obviously challenges the basis for Western radical individualism. Under naturalism, we can't any longer suppose that individuals, by means of metaphysical bootstraps, are the ultimate authors of their virtues and faults. Rather, a scientific understanding of ourselves reveals that good and evil stem from the myriad conditions, environmental and genetic, within which persons are formed. To the extent that retributive and punitive attitudes are based on the notion of a supernatural chooser, they will be moderated by naturalism, and emphasis will shift from after-the-fact punishment to ameliorative policies that attack the scientifically documented causes of criminality and evil. Naturalism also undermines the "abuse excuse": true, persons are caused in every respect, but there are still adequate justifications (deterrence, incapacitation, and personal reform) for incarcerating wrongdoers, if not for capital punishment and "hard time" in prison.

Finally, accepting a compatibilist, naturalistic view of freedom and morality will unify our self-understanding. Since moral mechanisms have a clear social function that science can help us to understand and improve, no longer will morality have to seek shelter from science. We may not be free in the exceptional, ultimate sense we once supposed, but we are more than compensated by the pragmatic benefits that flow from recognizing our complete inclusion in the causal order. The "human spirit"—our dignity, freedom, and power—is not threatened by science, only shown its true home in the natural world.


1. For more information see http://world.std.com/~twc/neurosci.htm 

Thomas W. Clark is a freelance philosopher and writer. He can be contacted at his Web site, www.naturalism.org

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