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Free Will

Materialism, Freedom & Ethics

Philip Badger constructs a materialist ethical theory, with the help of John Rawls.

I want to begin this article with the assumption that reality consists entirely of physical things and the forces which bind them. That is to say, I will assume the truth of materialism: the idea that the only things that ultimately exist are matter, energy, and physical forces. I will argue that this is consistent with a ‘materialistic compatibilism’ which preserves some sense of freedom and responsibility, and that this implies a positive conception of political and social liberty.

You might wonder what on earth might possess me to want to start with something like that, but as I unpack it, I hope you’ll see that it makes sense.

Reality Consists of Physical Things

A materialist view of the world might strike you as characteristically modern and Western. In fact, it isn’t quite so modern, as Democritus was talking about reality consisting of ‘atoms and the void’ 2,500 years ago. You might be itching to tell me that the idea is not originally a Western one, either. Nevertheless, let’s acknowledge that, for most of history, most people have lived with an explicitly dualist understanding of reality: they’ve thought that the world consists of what we might call ‘lumps of stuff’ on the one hand, and minds, spirits, or souls on the other. Yet what a great number of us think these days is that consciousness is not some non-physical thing, but something physical which emerges from the processes of the brain.

All of this is, of course, hugely controversial, and the philosopher David Chalmers for instance has vigorously defended a form of what is called ‘property dualism’, which suggests that while physics has managed to explain all manner of natural phenomena, it will stumble and fail to find a purely physical account of consciousness. Consciousness is, for Chalmers, a unique example of what he calls a ‘strongly emergent property’. In the other corner of this philosophical heavyweight contest stands Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s position is that while consciousness is presently mysterious, the physical sciences will yield its secrets in good time.

All of this is very interesting, but the important point for us is that even Chalmers does not question that consciousness emerges from the physical brain (he says that it ‘supervenes’ upon it) but only that we can never understand how it does so. No matter; the fact that you can radically alter my consciousness by hitting me over the head or drugging me suffices to demonstrate that my mind is, somehow or other, bound up with the operation of my brain. As we shall see, we know quite a bit about what parts of the brain do what, and this knowledge is going to be very important to us in what follows.

Compatibilism and Responsibility

chain break

Compatibilism is the idea that the materialist picture of a cause-and-effect universe can be reconciled with the intuition we have that we are free and responsible for our actions. The reason why many consider this a stretch isn’t hard to understand. If my consciousness is the mere by-product of physical forces, then everything that flows from it is equally a product of those forces. Indeed, the atoms and molecules in my brain are there because of a chain of causes going back to the Big Bang. This position is called ‘hard determinism’, and seems pretty consistent with the ‘atoms and the void’ universe I defend. ‘No minds or spirits’ frequently equates, on this view, with ‘no choice’, but I want to modify that conclusion.

The most famous philosopher to be sceptical about floaty metaphysical stuff yet also try to maintain a notion of moral responsibility was David Hume (1711-76). For him, the issue is not whether our actions are caused (they must be, since our actions would be unpredictable otherwise), but the origins of the causal chains involved. Broadly, if the causes of our actions are to be found within our own personalities or characters, we can be held responsible for them. This sounds reasonable. If I rob because I am greedy, then my greed is the cause of my actions and I am responsible for them. On the other hand, if I rob someone because you have threatened me with violence if I don’t, then the origin of the causal chain lies outside of me and I am not responsible.

However, this kind of thinking, which equates freedom with a lack of coercion, flies in the face of what we now know about the origins of what Hume called ‘the passions’ and their role in motivating behaviour. Exploring these issues has, it turns out, profound implications for the role of philosophy in our lives, as well as calling into question the sufficiency of Hume’s conception of freedom as non-coercion.

Hume rightly considered that the passions, or in modern terms, our emotions, are essential for understanding human motivation. As he famously put it: “Reason is and only ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office but to serve and obey them.” He was rightly scathing about Kant’s idea that bloodless reason could motivate action. We now know that our emotional responses have their source in the limbic system deep in the brain. Anger and fear reside in our amygdala, while the reward centre of our brains is the ventral striatum. The frontal cortex, just behind your forehead, by contrast, is both the rational instrument by which we work out how to satisfy our desires, and the source of plenty of rationalisations of them.

Hume was good at recognising our tendency to go in for such rationalisations, but, I’d suggest, a little too sniffy about the role of reason as a moderator of our urges. I say this because we also know quite a bit about how the ‘impulse control function’ of the frontal cortex can be either nurtured or neutered. Specifically, people with a damaged frontal lobe tend to be very bad at impulse control. Damage to the frontal cortex can be the result of head trauma (a good reason not to let children play high impact sports), neglect, abuse, poor diet, or a lack of certain micro-nutrients including lithium, or due to environmental pollution by, amongst other things, lead and nitrous oxides. Not surprisingly, exposure to these things seems correlated with relative poverty. Moreover, social inequality itself may be a major trigger of the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which is the key neurotransmitter for the amygdala and the chemical enemy of serotonin (see Wilkinson and Pickett, 2011). Serotonin is the ‘fuel’ of the frontal cortex and the impulse control associated with it.

In short, what the development of neuropsychology has done is to extend the causal chain so we don’t have to stop our explanation, as Hume did, with the individual’s personality. We now know quite a bit about what makes us the way we are, including understanding certain genetic predispositions. This has profound implications for ideas about responsibility and freedom. Hume’s view of freedom as lack of coercion was too simple. We can say that, to the extent that a person has a fully functional frontal cortex, they have good impulse control and so are responsible for their actions. This is the materialistic compatibilism I referred to at the start of the article. My frontal cortex is, largely, the reason that the flash of anger I feel when you rear-end my car doesn’t turn into a physical assault upon you. If I lack such frontal cortex function, I may well pose a danger to others and this may justify intervention to prevent me causing them harm. It does not, however, justify retribution being visited upon me for any supposedly ‘wilful’ wickedness, as my action is now beyond my wilful control.

A Positive Conception of Political & Social Liberty

The tendency to equate freedom with a lack of coercion has a long history and some complex motivations. John Stuart Mill (1806-73), who was much influenced by Hume’s compatibilism, explicitly states at the beginning of his famous 1859 essay On Liberty that it is not going to deal with issues pertaining to the “so-called liberty of the will” but instead with civil or social liberty. He tells us this as a point of clarification, but as scholars such as John Skorupski have suggested, Mill’s occasional nods to paternalism in terms of state intervention belie his claims to see liberty in purely negative terms (that is, as non-coercion). Specifically, he acknowledges that certain social goods, such as education and free debate, are prerequisites for the growth and development of the individual “according to the inward forces which make them a living thing.” He even goes so far as to suggest that the state should fund such education for those who can’t afford it, although he worries about the state limiting what might be learnt in school. This is one reason why Mill is sometimes held to be at the crossroads between ‘classical’ or ‘negative’ liberalism, and its ‘progressive’ or ‘positive’successor.

Other philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), have an even more tortured relationship with the positive/negative liberty divide. Kant famously defended the death penalty on the grounds that in not executing the murderer we fail to treat him as a properly free agent who is fully responsible for his actions. Animals might act out of automatic responses and ‘passions’, but human beings have the capacity for rational reflection, and their will is the origin of their actions. But Kant’s morality was based on the dualist rejection of materialism in favour of the claim that the human will acts from outside the physical (‘phenomenal’) world.

Nevertheless, some philosophers, such as Isaiah Berlin, worried that Kant had opened up space for a corrosive idea. If the part of us that’s governed by physical causes is, as Kant suggested, our animal passions, it follows that reason, and so free moral decision-making, involves the part that isn’t. Yet equating freedom with reason opens up the possibility of saying that some people are more rational and hence more capable of exercising freedom than others. If I decide you are less rational than me, it might lead me to treat you with mercy; but it might lead me to treat you as a lesser being. For Berlin, who had personally seen the horrors of the supposedly ‘rational society’ that emerged from the Russian Revolution, this was the road to ‘personal re-education’ by way of the Gulag.

In ‘materialising’ rationality by making it synonymous with frontal cortex function, I might for some have made the situation even worse. Being rational is, on my model, a developmental process, and how far we attain our rational potential is dependent on all manner of contingencies (Bernard Williams talks about this in terms of ‘moral luck’). If this is the case, and freedom is something I value, it looks like there could be a rationale for all kinds of interventions in people’s lives to maximise their freedom by cultivating their rationality. Berlin must be spinning in his grave.

Rawls, Freedom & The Public Good

While I’ve argued that non-coercion is insufficient as an account of freedom, I am not saying that it is unnecessary. This thought should reduce Berlin’s posthumous rotations to a minimum.

John Rawls
John Rawls by Woodrow Cowher

I certainly think that some choices in our lives are quite beyond the legitimate reach of the law or of state action to curtail them. To Mill, these choices are our ‘private’ or ‘self-regarding’ ones. The big questions here relate to which kinds of choice should qualify for this category, and what justification we might find for leaving some things off the list. The philosopher who helps us most with this is, arguably, John Rawls (1921-2002). In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, Rawls sets up a dynamic struggle between abstract principle and what Hume and Adam Smith called our ‘moral sentiments’, in order to help us decide which principles we might reasonably agree to be constitutive of a just society. Not surprisingly, Rawls picks a version of what he calls ‘the liberty principle’ as being of primary importance to a just society. Rawls does not argue, as the utilitarian Mill did, that liberty is good because it leads to good consequences – although it might incidentally do so. Instead, in a Kantian manner, he claims that as rational beings we are bound to claim a certain amount of liberty for ourselves, and justifies this by arguing that, as rational beings, we are capable of self-government. However, on pain of contradiction, we have to grant the same liberties to all who share the same capacity for rational choice. Later I’ll be more specific about what should be on the list of things about which our liberty is absolute, but Mill and Rawls have already done the heavy lifting.

For his second principle, Rawls goes for a more explicitly utilitarian idea, arguing for a principle promoting the general welfare of the community. This so-called ‘difference principle’ is that we should only allow inequalities to the extent that they benefit the least well-off. Here Rawls invokes some common-sense psychology, to claim that better outcomes for all will result from providing some incentives for the creative and industrious. In a later work, Justice as Fairness (1985), he modified this principle to suggest that it’s subordinate to maintaining ‘equality of opportunity’ for all. In making this amendment, Rawls was being mindful that staggering levels of inequality might be excused on the grounds of maximising incentives, and that, over time, such inequalities might become entrenched, actually to the detriment of the general welfare he sought to promote.

One of the things I find exciting about Rawls’s method is that it generates what he calls a ‘lexical ordering’ of principles – an order of priority – in which we can see two great ethical traditions being reconciled. The ‘liberty principle’ is based on the idea of a Kantian absolute principle of justice (a so-called deontological principle); while the ‘difference principle’ is based on the utilitarian idea that aggregate benefit should be considered ethically significant. If you’re in any doubt that utilitarian consequences should be considered, kindly contemplate the mess Kant gets himself into with his absolute principle that we should never lie – even to an axe murderer who asks us the hiding place of his intended victim!

In the spirit of Rawls, I’ve lexically ordered a couple of principles myself. Here they are:

1. Respect the autonomy of autonomous beings in regards to their large scale concepts of the good.

To translate this, I mean that we should leave people uncoerced to live their own lives in accordance with their own deepest beliefs and commitments, so long as they show the same respect to others. (Some other choices we might make are off-limits to interference for the opposite reason: for instance, taste in interior design is too trivial to regulate.)

2. When it is consistent with the first principle, we should aim to minimise suffering.

This is a principle of so-called ‘negative utility’, since it’s about avoiding pain rather than maximising pleasure. But the minimisation of suffering may well mean interfering in what we might call ‘medium or small scale’ choices, and certainly in the choices we make on behalf of, for example, children in our care.

I’ve gone into the reasons for ordering these principles in this way and explored their implications in articles in earlier issues of this magazine. But suffice it to say that my principles would allow voluntary euthanasia for competent adults, but not involuntary euthanasia; the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, but not the prohibition of hang-gliding; and the levying of taxes to pay for public goods, but not the imposition of the sexual morals of the majority on the rest. There is plenty more to discuss here, but let me introduce a third principle:

3. When it is consistent with the first two principles, we should try to maximise the autonomy of potentially rational beings.

This principle acknowledges that rationality, and the freedom that comes with it, involve a developmental process. We don’t let children make huge decisions about their lives, at least not without guidance and support, and we expend significant effort getting them to the point where they’re able to do so.

I’ve resisted any temptation to go beyond a materialist account of our ethical impulses, but this raises two questions I’d like to address: first, how to explain the origins of those impulses; and second, what a continued role for philosophy might be if such an explanation can be given.

Hume observed that our instincts often tend to be sympathetic rather than self-interested, noting, for example, how great an effort people make to avoid treading on the toes of others in a crowd. This was perhaps a problematic observation in an era which conceived of human beings as naturally wicked, and it continues to be so for us if we are gripped by the modern idea that evolution makes us necessarily selfish. But there is a plausible evolutionary reason to expect physically feeble big brained apes like us to be kind to others – or at least, to others we see as members of our own group. Communication and co-operation offer big advantages in terms of surviving and leaving offspring, so it’s no surprise if we evolved to exploit this. A few of us might be psychopaths, but, in general, that’s not a combination of traits that is going to keep the human species in the evolutionary game. Moreover, I’d speculate that both the duty-based urge to fairness towards others, as well as the utilitarian insight that we should maximise group welfare, are part of this evolutionary heritage. The remarkable research of Karen Wynn at Yale, for example, suggests that even young babies react strongly against those who are unfair to others (see Paul Bloom’s Just Babies, 2013). Other research by Harvard’s Felix Warneken shows toddlers being naturally ‘pro-social’ (‘Precocious Prosociality: Why Do Young Children Help?’, Child Development Perspectives Vol.9, No.1, 2015). Meanwhile, social psychology demonstrates our tendency to prioritise the collective interests of what we see as our group over those of others, but also the ease by which our sense of what constitutes that group can be ‘hacked’, so that what Peter Singer calls the ‘circle of concern’ can be expanded. (Amongst other things, this might give us a very good reason to get young people involved in cross-cultural, collaborative, pro-social activities.)

These insights into the evolutionary origins of our moral sentiments have other implications. They suggest, for example, that the efforts of so-called ‘intuitionist’ philosophers such as G.E. Moore to explain morality as involving a special kind of ‘moral perception’ were thoroughly misguided. Another concern, for some at least, is that a purely evolutionary explanation of morality means that while we might explain human morals by such means, we have to give up on their philosophical justification.

This is, I think, an unfounded worry. Given that we have the moral instincts we do have, both for fairness to the individual and for collective welfare, it is our job to construct a consensus which can serve as the best proxy for moral truth we can manage. The fact that this ‘overlapping consensus’, as Rawls would put it, is based on a shared human psychology, means that there should be some limit to idea that our values are relative to particular cultures. The process of construction will involve all kinds of mental toing and froing between ‘hard cases’ and our instincts; but reason, focused through our frontal cortex, is the ideal foreman of that building work. This construction of a moral consensus is one continued role of philosophy, and I believe it should have a place in the lives of every student in every educational institution in the world. (For more, see Stephen Law’s book, The War for Children’s Minds from 2006, and my own attempts to encourage thought in my own students, ‘A Way of Thinking About Ethics’ in Philosophy Now, Issue 53, 2005).

Far from being on the retreat in the face of materialism, philosophers should embrace it, and in doing so, be recognised as providing the same service that Socrates claimed to perform for the citizens of Athens. We are here to make people think. Training people in thought is not sufficient to enable us to reach the kind of harmony that we aspire to, both with others and with ourselves, but it is necessary.

© Philip Badger 2023

Phil Badger studied social sciences, including economics, psychology, and social policy with philosophy. He teaches in Sheffield.

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