The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Reconciling Liberalism and Free Will Scepticism

by Laura Walker-Beaven

Essay originally from Counterweight.

Free will scepticism is irrefutably in vogue in pop philosophy at the moment. Indeed, a 2015 study by Scientific American showed that 41% of their readership do not believe in free will. So what implications (if any) could this wave of free will scepticism have on our key liberal traditions and the ideas that underpin them? Liberal concepts of individual freedom, law and order, moral accountability, and consumer choice form the foundations of Western societies. Our justice systems, electoral processes and, often, public morality are firmly rooted in these ideas. At first glance, these concepts seem inherently at odds with determinism. I began writing this article as an exploration of what I saw as my own internal inconsistencies. I simultaneously found myself utterly convinced by arguments in favour of determinism, whilst also living by assumptions based on concepts such as free choice, moral accountability and law and order. Admittedly, my hope was to find a way of reconciling these ostensibly incompatible positions and get rid of that icky cognitive dissonance I’d been feeling. In this article, I try to understand how free will scepticism interacts with liberal ideas, and whether the two can conceivably coinhabit the same logical realm. I conclude that maybe they can – but that it doesn’t matter anyway.

But first, a quick clarification of terms is in order:

Determinism is a theory positing that every event is causally determined by events that occurred before it.

Free will is the idea that individuals can control their own actions and make free choices which are not entirely determined by past causes or external factors.

Free will scepticism is the position that true free will (as described above) does not exist.

The rise of free will scepticism

Prior to the advent of Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, free will scepticism had remained firmly sealed within the hallowed halls of physics and philosophy departments. Darwin’s theory, though, sparked a flurry of research on the roles of nature and nurture in human development. Some believed that nurture, upbringing, culture, and surroundings were the primary factors in the characteristics, behaviour and personality of each individual. Others claimed that genetic factors were the primary indicators of a child’s future success.

The nature-versus-nurture debate that ensued dragged free will scepticism into the limelight. Scientists and philosophers saw the deterministic implications of the ever-growing evidence in favour of the ‘nature’ side of the debate: if genes are the key indicators of how a person will develop, then free will and random chance have little to no role in that person’s future success. Further advances in the area of free will came in the 1980s, when neuroscientist Benjamin Libet completed ground-breaking research. In his now famous experiment, subjects were asked to flick their wrist at a random moment. Subjects recorded the time at which they consciously made the decision to do so. Libet found that subjects’ brains seemed to be preparing for action 0.35 seconds before the conscious mind ‘decided’ to act. The study suggests that the experience of consciously deciding to act could be an ex post facto reconstruction that gives us the illusion of free will. It is certainly worth noting that in recent years, this study has faced growing amounts of controversy over its validity. Several critics have suggested that the ebb and flow of normal brain activity caused the decision-making process, rather than the other way round (find out more about the controversy here).

Nevertheless, in an article for The Atlantic, Stephen Cave, in reference to Libet’s study, observes that ‘this research and its implications are not new. What is new, though, is the spread of free will scepticism beyond the laboratories and into the mainstream’. Until recently, the debate had generally remained within the confines of academia. However, in the West’s unprecedentedly secular and information-driven era, free will has become a much more mainstream discussion, with books such as Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett, Free Will by Sam Harris and The Science of Fate by Hannah Critchlow hitting the shelves in recent decades.

So a new debate has emerged: what are the effects of the rising belief that free will does not exist and is it morally permissible to disseminate deterministic ideas? In their paper The Value of Believing in Free Will: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating, psychology researchers Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler found that, when primed with the idea that free will does not exist, subjects are far more likely to cheat on a test. This is, of course, concerning at a time when free will scepticism is making its way into popular thought. Could belief in determinism make people less moral? Vohs and Schooler issue a caveat at the end of their paper:

‘Although the study reported here raises concerns about the possible impact of deterministic views on moral behavior, it is important not to overinterpret our findings. Our experiments measured only modest forms of ethical behavior, and whether or not free-will beliefs have the same effect on more significant moral and ethical infractions is unknown. In addition, a deterministic viewpoint may have a host of possible consequences, and only some of these may be unfavorable’.

This is really the crux of the matter: understanding how free will scepticism could affect our institutions will be crucial in finding out how we can protect them or even whether they need protecting. For the contemporary West, whose societies are based on classical liberal ideas, how can these ideas be reconciled with free will scepticism? And, more importantly, will the ideological foundations of our societies crumble if we cannot reconcile these opposing concepts?

Liberalism without liberty of choice?

Central to liberal thinking is the importance placed on individual liberty. People should be able to live as they choose, without coercion and as freely as is possible within an organised society. Positive liberty (see, for example, Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty) is the type of freedom most discussed in free will philosophy, as it concerns both the availability of choice and the nature of choice itself.

To put the concept of agency and choice into real-world situations, we can examine its effect on liberal institutions such as free markets and representative democracy. The two are based on the freedom of each person to make decisions, whether it is choosing between which toothbrush to purchase at the supermarket or which member of parliament to vote for. The American liberal experiment was envisioned as an opportunity for people to move up in the social order, to freely choose their own paths in life and to be free from oppression and tyranny. According to Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope:

‘These American values are rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will – a confidence that through pluck and sweat and smarts, each of us can rise above the circumstances of our birth. But these values also express a broader confidence that so long as individual men and women are free to pursue their own interests, society as a whole will prosper’.

If determinism is true, if we have no free will and if every ‘choice’ we make is determined by various internal and external factors, can we really say that we have made a free choice at all? As Yuval Noah Harari puts it: ‘I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have’. In other words, as much as we have the feeling of being free to choose, our choice is determined by factors outside of our control.

So, is it possible to make ‘free’ decisions? Martin Heisenburg, in an article for Nature, makes the case that there is, in fact, evidence of indeterministic, or ‘random’ events occurring in the brain. He gives the examples of ‘the random opening and closing of ion channels in the neuronal membrane, or the miniature potentials of randomly discharging synaptic vesicles. Behaviour that is triggered by random events in the brain can be said to be truly ‘active’ — in other words, it has the quality of a beginning’. Put simply, neuroscientists have detected random events at the quantum level which could be evidence for behaviour that is not subject to determinism. Free will could be said to exist in the random opening of ion channels in the brain, which result in some of the choices humans make. However, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris argues that this by no means constitutes proof of the existence of free will. He asks:

‘How can we be “free” as conscious agents if everything that we consciously intend is caused by events in our brain that we do not intend and of which we are entirely unaware? We can’t. To say that “my brain” decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom, is to ignore the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency. People feel that they are the authors of their thoughts and actions, and this is the only reason why there seems to be a problem of free will worth talking about.’

Even if it is true that decisions are made at the quantum level by the random opening of ion channels, this no more means that one has command their own actions or decisions than if they were controlled by rolls of the dice. ‘You can do what you decide to do’, says Harris, ‘– but you cannot decide what you will decide to do’. Ultimately, random choices made by an individual’s subconscious brain could hardly amount to the rational free choice that is assumed in liberalism.

So can free choice be reconciled with free will scepticism? I would argue that it can, in a way. Each person’s ‘choice’ is based upon their existing tastes, desires, experiences, and genes. One would expect people to make choices based on these factors in order to make a decision that best suits them. The brain weighs up the pros and cons in favour of each possible decision. Once one of these outcomes has reached a threshold barrier of pros, it is decided upon. The reasoning that liberalism expects the rational individual to take part in does occur in the brain – although the conscious ‘self’ seems not to play a part in the process. In other words, on a subconscious level, the brain makes decisions based on the interests of the individual, given their genes, previous experiences, desires, and external influences, all of which contribute to decision making. Although this may not be considered ‘free’ in the conventional liberal sense, I don’t think it makes much practical difference when applied to activities associated with positive liberty such as market choice and democratic processes.

Moral accountability

With great power comes great responsibility, they say. Indeed, with freedom of choice comes moral accountability. Isaiah Berlin, in his essay Historical Inevitability, questions the idea that history moves in patterns and that its course is pre-determined and unalterable. Although Berlin does not refute the concept of determinism, he suggests that acceptance of it would call for a re-evaluation of ideas regarding moral responsibility, law, order, and justice. He argues that, if determinism is true, to blame a human for a wrong-doing is as irrational as blaming wild animals, since neither human nor beast has moral responsibility. This is a common criticism of free will scepticism – that systems of law and order such as retributive justice are no longer coherent if blame cannot be placed upon the perpetrator of a crime. In their paper Is Belief in Free Will a Cultural Universal, Sarkissian et al. conducted research on whether public opinion absolved criminals of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe. 86% of subjects thought people living in a universe in which determinism is true are not fully morally responsible for their actions. If we see, for example, murderers as lacking responsibility for their crime, since they have no free will and the decision to murder, therefore, was not made consciously by them, how could it be fair to punish or incarcerate them?

Sam Harris thinks that criminals must still be incarcerated, making the utilitarian argument that ‘everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter – assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc.’. Neuroscientists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen also explored the issue of free will and judicial processes in their paper For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything (2004), which gives an optimistic view of determinism. Greene and Cohen hypothesise that changing views on free will could encourage people to see justice as a ‘consequentialist’ rather than a ‘retributive’ process. Understanding that criminals have no conscious control over the ultimate cause of their own actions could lead to justice reforms that take a more humane approach, which, according to Greene and Cohen, are certainly optimistic findings. In essence, a better understanding of free will and the way the mind works can allow policy makers to find solutions that will deter crime, protect the rights of victims, treat criminals in a more compassionate way, and, as Harris argues, maybe even find a neurological cure for conditions such as psychopathy.

Patricia Churchland, a Canadian philosopher, claims that free will scepticism may not necessarily do away with retributive justice entirely, as the biological need to punish others for their transgressions overrides the logical conclusion that people cannot have moral accountability if determinism is true. She says that ‘from an evolutionary perspective, punishment is justified by the value all individuals place on their social life, and by the limits on behaviour needed to maintain that value’.

Although one can fairly coherently reach conclusions that reconcile free will scepticism with classical liberal values and institutions, it does take a certain amount of reading and reasoning to arrive at this point. In addition to this, each topic requires a careful and different response to free will scepticism. My concern is that if too many people doubt the existence of free will, they may do so with an over-simplified understanding of what that means. As the tides of free will scepticism continue to rise, it seems imperative to me that we devise a solution to avoid this over-simplification that may lead to unfortunate consequences.

The good, the bad and the ugly: solutions in Western philosophy

Luckily, in its long history of free will scepticism, Western philosophy has devised a number of blanket solutions to the problem of free will. Many philosophers agree that determinism is true. However, belief in the extent to which determinism affects free will varies hugely amongst free will thinkers. This section looks at three strands of thought on free will scepticism with the aim of finding an ‘all-purpose’ way to approach reconciling free will scepticism with our existing liberal institutions and ideas.

The good: reframing free will scepticism

Some free will sceptics argue that the way we frame determinism is a deciding factor in how it will colour existing views on justice, freedom and tolerance. The term determinism, says philosopher Daniel Dennett, is often wrongly confused with fatalism. However, the potentially negative consequences of free will scepticism can be avoided by reframing the concept. ‘Determinism’, Stephen Cave explains, ‘is the belief that our decisions are part of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Fatalism, on the other hand, is the belief that our decisions don’t really matter, because whatever is destined to happen will happen’. It seems logical that, when determinism is framed in a fatalistic way, people will have pessimistic reactions. For example, in the experiment by Vohs and Schooler that found that subjects were more likely to cheat after reading passages explaining the non-existence of free will, the passages portrayed free will scepticism in a fatalistic way.

Sam Harris (in an interview with Cave), suggests that many of these experiments measure introspective elements of free will scepticism rather than looking at how subjects treat others:

‘Whereas the evidence from Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues suggests that social problems may arise from seeing our own actions as determined by forces beyond our control—weakening our morals, our motivation, and our sense of the meaningfulness of life—Harris thinks that social benefits will result from seeing other people’s behavior in the very same light. From that vantage point, the moral implications of determinism look very different, and quite a lot better.’

The bad: compatibilism

Approaches to free will in general tend to take one of three positions: determinism, libertarianism, or compatibilism. Both determinism and libertarianism are incompatibilist approaches, as they both view free will as incompatible with determinism – they assert that determinism is true and, therefore, free will does not exist (determinist) or that determinism is not true and, therefore, free will does exist (libertarian). The compatibilist position aims to reconcile free will with determinism. If an action comes from you then you can call it a free action, say compatibilists.

Compatibilism, or soft determinism, is the view that if one is able to make a decision without external factors affecting it, then that is considered to be an act of free will, making it a debate over sourcehood. The simplest way of understanding this stance is the following Frankfurt-style thought experiment (named after compatibilist philosopher Harry Frankfurt):

In a non-deterministic universe, a woman is on her way to vote for either political party A or B. What she does not know is that a chip has been implanted in her brain that will make her vote for party A if she chooses to vote for party B. In scenario 1, she gets to the voting booth and chooses party A of her own accord. In scenario 2, she gets to the voting booth having decided to vote for B. Therefore, the chip is activated and she votes for party A. The woman could not have done otherwise but in scenario 1 she chose freely and in scenario 2 she did not. Compatibilists see an action as free if the individual acts unencumbered by external coercion (negative liberty).

A number of free will thinkers see compatibilism as incoherent within the usual confines of the debate. Just because a decision is seemingly solely based on internal factors and deliberation, this is a product of everything that has led up to this moment including our genes, experiences and desires which are out of our control. If we are looking for a simple, blanket way of framing free will scepticism, compatibilism seems too complex and controversial to be a viable option.

The ugly: illusionism

Saul Smilansky is the founder of the illusionism theory of free will, the idea that humans have illusory ideas about free will but that losing faith in these is dangerous to the individual and to society. He argues that ‘humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issues, and this seems to be a condition of civilised morality and personal value’. Smilansky makes the case that humans tend to over-simplify ideas, and that if the view that free will does not exist prevailed, it might be taken as a pure determinism or nihilism, which are wholly incompatible with agency or moral responsibility.

According to the illusionist position, if free will scepticism becomes widespread:

‘a broad loss of moral and personal confidence can be expected. The idea of action-based desert, true internal acceptance of responsibility, respect for effort and achievement, deep ethical appreciation, excusing the innocent – all these and more are threatened by the ‘levelling’ or homogenising view arising from the ultimate perspective’.

In other words, the inevitable simplification of the free will problem could lead to the breakdown of key liberal ideas and institutions. Smilansky offers the suggestion that, since the illusion of free will seems to be part of human nature, ‘scientists and commentators merely need to exercise some self-restraint, instead of gleefully disabusing people of the illusions that undergird all they hold dear’. Illusionists argue that liberal traditions and institutions might be so damaged by determinism that it is better for society as a whole to keep free will scepticism out of public consciousness.

The illusionist position is not particularly popular amongst philosophers, in part because many disagree that free will scepticism is incompatible with the values listed above, and also because denying the public access to ‘truths’ uncovered by philosophers and scientists is often considered to be paternalistic and unethical. After all, the point of science and academia is to shed light on the truth rather than to obscure it for the perceived greater good of society.

Moving forward

A slightly kinder alternative, although somewhat pessimistic one nonetheless, is this: maybe free will scepticism does not need to be hidden from the public because they will not be able to draw the full implications of it by themselves anyway (myself included). Although when thinking rationally about the subject I am fairly sure that I have no free will, I have been unable to internalise this belief. I wonder if it is possible for anyone to internalise it completely, or if the illusion of conscious thought is just too strong to ignore. In the words of Greg Boyd ‘People may sincerely think they believe in determinism, but they act otherwise, every time they deliberate’. His argument comes from a theological perspective, but putting that aside, I interpret it in this way: determinism is incredibly complex and goes against many of our human instincts and evolutionary mechanisms that cause us to value ideas such as freedom, rights, law and order and organised society. Perhaps public scepticism of free will indeed has no profound effect on how people view liberal concepts because it is simply too counterintuitive and complex to internalise.

Isaiah Berlin said that ‘there are those whose determinism is optimistic and benevolent, and those whose determinism is pessimistic’. To me, determinism constitutes the former. I hope, not only that those classical liberal ideas that form the bedrock of our societies can survive free will scepticism, but that they will be strengthened by a refreshed view of the human brain. For me, understanding our own minds better does not mean inevitably casting aside our existing institutions. Rather, it can help us to be more tolerant, more forgiving and ultimately, to have strong neuroscientific and philosophical bases for our liberal institutions.

I leave you with a quote from Einstein that generally makes me feel a whole lot better about it all…

‘I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.’- Albert Einstein


After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She recently completed a masters in Human Rights, during which she became increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.

Skip to content