Monday, January 9, 2012

Do We Have Free Will? (Pt. II)

Biologist Jerry Coyne, an atheist, wrote a column for USA Today in which he teases out the implications of an atheistic worldview for our belief in human free will. I shared some thoughts on the article on Saturday and would like to finish those up today.

Coyne argues that atheism, or metaphysical naturalism, entails that there is no free will as it is commonly understood. In other words, at every given moment there really is only one possible future and the conviction that we really were free to choose other than what we did choose is an illusion.

Toward the end of his column he talks about the implications of his denial of free will for our belief that we're morally responsible for the choices we make:
But the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can't really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren't freely chosen?

We should recognize that we already make some allowances for this problem by treating criminals differently if we think their crimes resulted from a reduction in their "choice" by factors like mental illness, diminished capacity, or brain tumors that cause aggression. But in truth those people don't differ in responsibility from the "regular" criminal who shoots someone in a drug war; it's just that the physical events behind their actions are less obvious.

But we should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you'll behave badly in the future. Even without free will then, we can still use punishment to deter bad behavior, protect society from criminals, and figure out better ways to rehabilitate them. What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the "wrong choice." And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.
Set aside the objection that, given determinism, there is no "good" or "bad" behavior, just behaviors that we like or don't like. Still, Coyne never addresses the important point. If determinism is true not only are reward and punishment never deserved, but moral outrage is absurd. The man who tortures children and then kills them is not immoral. Those who let others starve while indulging themselves to excess are not immoral. The person who legally bilks the elderly out of their life savings is not immoral. There's no moral duty not to do any of these things.

None of those things are wrong because to be wrong an act has to be in some sense freely chosen by the agent. If a "choice" is merely the result of fermions and bosons spinning about in someone's brain then there simply is no moral responsibility.

It's understandable why Coyne would finesse this point by raising it and then changing the subject to crime, though. If he were to follow the logic of his claim that we can't hold people morally responsible for their actions most of his readers would be repelled by his conclusion and thus repelled by the atheism that leads to it.

Is Romney Worse Than Obama?

One of the left's criticisms of presidential candidate Mitt Romney is that his work at Bain Capital resulted in people losing their jobs. In order to make their business clients stronger in the long-run real people were sacrificed. This is cited as proof that Romney is heartless and ill-suited to be president.

It's an amusing ploy as A. Barton Hinkle, in a column at Reason shows. It turns out that this very criticism of Romney, that he eliminated some jobs in order to make his clients stronger and better off in the end, is precisely the same rationale that the left uses to justify the loss of jobs in the fossil fuel industries.

Hinkle notes that:
[J]ust a couple of weeks ago the AP reported that “more than 32 mostly coal-fired power plants in a dozen states will be forced to shut down and an additional 36 might have to close because of new federal air pollution regulations.” That estimate is based “on the [EPA]’s own prediction of power plant retirements.” When a plant shuts down, people lose their jobs – regardless of whether the job losses are offset by gains elsewhere.
In other words, forcing people out of work is okay when government does it in the name of improving human well-being, but it's a terrible thing when a private firm does it in order to make their business more efficient. Hinkle goes on to say that:
The Center’s overview notes that green-energy cheerleading includes “no analysis of job destruction due to increased cost of energy.” Furthermore, “there is no effort to balance the potential positive impacts with potential negative impacts of job destruction and higher energy costs. In a sense, these studies are cost-benefit analyses without any cost considerations.”

Now, you can argue—the EPA certainly does—that environmental regulations which force coal plants to shut down make society better off in the aggregate. You also can argue ... that while environmental rules might cause job losses over here, they are more than offset by job gains over there. And you can likewise argue that, in the long run, Americans will all be better off if Washington forces the country to embrace green energy.

Just remember: If you do argue those things, then you are making the same point Romney makes about the “creative destruction” of leveraged buyouts: Over the long term, it makes everybody better off—despite the temporary “human toll.”
Here's Hinkle's conclusion:
There is one major difference, however. If you disapprove of what Bain and other venture-capital firms do to companies, you don't have to support it. That's one of nice things about free enterprise: You're free to choose. But if you disapprove of what the federal government's energy policies do to companies, too bad. You're going to take part—whether you like it or not.
During the campaign candidate Obama promised, essentially, to destroy the coal industry. If Romney were to say something like this the media would be apoplectic over the number of jobs people would lose:
For more on the human consequences of the president's war on fossil fuels see this article at Prison Planet.