Sep 6 • 4M

You have free will if I don't like you

Why do we attribute free will to people? When do we do it? And who precisely do we do it to?

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Ideas Sleep Furiously
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Why do we attribute free will to people? When do we do it? And who precisely do we do it to? These are as much psychological questions as philosophical ones. But they’re also political, because we know that conservatives tend to be more moralising than liberals. That is, they seem to categorise a larger number of acts as morally problematic. 

In a recent paper, a team of psychologists led by Jim Everett and Cory Clark tried to find out how free will belief is associated with differences in moralisation. If you’ve followed Jonathan Haidt’s work, you’ll know that conservatives seem to have a broader sphere of morality, with, generally speaking, more affinity with what Haidt calls the authority, loyalty, and purity foundations. Haidt is also famous for the idea of moral judgements being driven by intuitions and emotions. It is these two ideas that are at the heart of Everett and Clark’s experiments.

Over 14 studies the team found that, more often than liberals, conservatives first decide whether someone is blameworthy and then judge how much free will they have in a way that allows them to justify blaming those they want to blame and excusing those they want to excuse. In short, it seems conservatives believe in free will more because it allows them to make greater moral judgements. But liberals don’t get off the hook.

In the 5th study, participants were presented with acts designed to be viewed as more immoral by liberals, such as:

Robert sends a formal complaint to his child’s school after finding that his child’s kindergarten teacher is transgendered.

I think you already know what happened. Liberals now attributed more free will to the actors in question, in this case the fictional Robert.

Study 4 acted as a control group. Researchers found that if you present politically neutral immoral actions, such as spreading malicious rumours about a co-worker, you no longer see any correlation between participants’ political stance and their evaluations of how much free will the transgressor had.

Thus, the difference in the perception of free will between conservatives and liberals may not represent a general difference in their world views, but a similarity in how they instrumentalise their free will judgment to justify biases.

This obviously has predictable effects in the real world that we might wish to mitigate. Imagine a judge presiding over a case where the nefarious acts were committed by a transgressor from the opposing political side, for example.

On a more philosophical note, it’s remarkable how many studies like these can coexist with adherents of libertarian free will. Such studies should entirely erode the idea that “you” are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul.

The writer and painter Raoul Martinez put it succinctly:

The notion of ‘individual responsibility’ is just a fig leaf that covers the current gaps in our knowledge.

We should extricate ourselves from the illusion that there are greater and smaller fig leafs — brain tumours and motivated social cognition. But perhaps that can only be achieved with a sufficiently high dose of hallucinogenics or intensive meditation. I doubt reading psychology papers will do the trick.

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