Free Will Sceptics: We’re Not So Bad.

Written by Neil Levy

A number of philosophers and psychologists suggest that belief in free will – whether it is true or not – is important, because it promotes prosocial behavior. People who disbelieve in free will might become fatalists, holding that their choices make no difference to how events play out, because they’re already determined (say). They might think that our lives lack value, in the absence of free will, and therefore that they do not deserve respect. There is, on most accounts of free will, a close link between free will and moral responsibility: if we lack free will, we’re not morally responsible. This link provides a third path whereby lack of belief in free will might lead to antisocial behavior: because people believe that they do not deserve blame for acting badly, they might be less motivated to act well.

What is at stake here is not whether people would be justified in concluding that if they lack free will, they might as well behave badly. Instead, the question is whether people would actually behave less well were they to become convinced of the non-reality of free will. A number of studies have been conducted which purport to show that this empirical proposition is true. They appear to provide evidence that free will belief is correlated with a greater willingness to help others and that challenging free will beliefs leads to a greater willingness to cheat (this last study has been cited 666 times). All of this seems to lend support for the view that Saul Smilansky has called illusionism: if free will is an illusion, it is a beneficial one and we should maintain the illusion.

In a recent paper, Damien Crone and I provide evidence that illusionism is false: free will beliefs do not promote prosocial behavior. We measured free will beliefs in our participants using two scales: the FAD-Plus and the Free Will Inventory (developed by philosophers and psychologists together). We then measured the degree to which free will beliefs correlate with measures of prosocial behavior (donating money to charity) and with a disposition to cheat. We provided participants with an opportunity to cheat by asking them to roll a die (a real one or a virtual one, on an external website) and then report their result: the roll would determine the size of a bonus payment they received. In the aggregate, these reports can be used as a measure of the propensity to cheat: if people who disbelieve in free will are luckier than would be expected by chance, they must be cheating (though we could not identify individuals who were cheating).

Here’s what we found: nothing. There was no significant correlation, in either direction, between free will beliefs and prosocial behavior. In fact, the association between free will beliefs and prosocial behavior was negative, though non-significantly so.

In our sample of over 900 people, at least, there was no correlation between free will beliefs and prosocial behavior. On that basis, we think a concern for maintaining the illusion of free will (if it is an illusion; I believe it is, but that’s a minority view among philosophers) are overblown. If belief in free will promotes better behavior, the effect is seems to be subtle, or specific to particular contexts.

The illusionist might still worry about the effects of challenging people’s free will beliefs, even if there is no association between stable free will beliefs and prosocial behavior. They might cite the paper mentioned above, which appears to show that challenging such beliefs leads to a greater willingness to cheat. Work from other groups has thrown this finding into doubt, too: finding no effect of manipulating general free will beliefs.

Of course, we can’t conclude from the fact that we uncovered no evidence that free will beliefs correlate with prosocial behavior that there is no such correlation. Perhaps a larger sample, or a different measure of pro- and anti-social behavior, or a different way of measuring beliefs would paint a different picture. Given the currently available evidence, however, we don’t think that philosophers, psychologists or the general public should worry about the effects of challenging people’s free will beliefs.

Our full paper is available here.

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