Free-will, morality, long-term decision making and the law  



It seems clear that free-will remains a problem for us. We don’t exactly know what we mean by it and even less do we actually know whether or not it exists. On the other hand, most people believe that we have it and that we are responsible for our actions because of it. But whether or not it is the answer to anything, we will not know until, as in ‘The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy’, we can formulate the question.

The problem lying behind it all is one of causation - or the lack of it. Most people believe that if all our actions are caused simply by what has gone before, then that makes us mere automatons. And so we believe in our everyday lives that we are not in fact overwhelmingly influenced by what has gone before and that therefore the ‘I’ has final control over what we do.

On the other hand, we know that it is often difficult to make the ‘right’ decision - why is it that we sometimes feel that we should act in an unselfish way, but know that we just cannot bring ourselves to do so? That is, to do something which appears to be against all our natural instincts. Doing right has always been seen as more difficult than doing what our selfish-selves wished to do. The world of religion is forthright about this. Paul the apostle himself famously said that the good he wished to do he did not do and that the evil he did not want to do came all too easily. On the other hand, though, there have been many acts of heroism of the years, some involving the ultimate sacrifice.

enter free-will

So, philosophers brought on board the concept of free-will to explain how we are responsible, morally speaking, before whichever god we may worship and, more immediately, before our fellow human beings. In the latter case, we are trying to explain how we could and should be blamed and punished by our fellow-men for a failure to use our free-will to do the right thing. Except in the most exceptional cases, we have not felt able to allow people to excuse themselves by saying “I couldn’t help myself - it was past events wot done it.”. We want to believe that we, as sane human beings, could always have decided otherwise, even if we recognise that to do so would have been a struggle.

the generally accepted idea of freewill

So the generally accepted idea of freewill is that for my action to be truly ‘free’, then there can have been no sufficient prior conditions, causes, which will have made me take that decision. But the description we would normally give of an uncaused, and therefore unpredictable event i.e ‘something which just happens’, even assuming it were possible, e.g. based on some quantum level event, is that it is truly random. And surely none of us is likely to think, or welcome the idea, that freedom of will equates to the making of a random decision.

The only other apparent alternative however is the one rejected at the outset - that our decisions are completely or to some extent caused.

The idea of partial cause, of course founders as soon as you look at it. If a rock is pushed, but not hard enough to make it move, then it stays still. To say that a rock starts to move because it received a gentle, but insufficient shove in the right direction and the rest ‘just happened’ is silly, unless we again introduce a random event which just happens to supply the additional force required to send it on its way . But then we have a combination of a cause with clear antecedents and a random event - which is nonetheless another cause - together combining to cause the rock’s motion. So then the motion of the rock is caused.

Transferring this analogy to our decisions, it would mean that we could have been predisposed by the influence of, say, our parents to do right. However that may be in itself insufficient to make us help our neighbour in his hour of need, and so the rest of the impulse came from - where? Well, either another traceable cause or, if not, then it must be that random event again. And so the decision resulted from a combination of a cause which could be traced back to parental influence and another cause which was the happening of either a fully traceable prior event or a prior random event.

So we are no further forward in establishing the existence of freedom of action or why we feel that we have such freedom.

the body-soul approach

In the religious world, we have the idea of a soul inhabiting human beings. Within this soul, it seems, resides an appreciation of the moral law, something which is absent from mere animals. Our free-will therefore enables us to choose between the moral requirements which we as humans are able to understand and the baser, selfish desires of the flesh. Of course that does not actually get us any nearer to deciding what free-will is or how it can operate, but it does confirm that at the root of all of this is a wish on our part to be able to say of ourselves and others, “well, we could have decided otherwise”. That very fact is held to give us responsibility for our decisions and the consequences which flow from them.

The soul has, of course, no physical basis in our brain processes. After all, it lives on after our bodies have ‘given up the ghost’. And this moral being (our soul), without being a part of our animal selves, is supposed somehow to have an influence on the physical ‘me’.

But while it may not have an obvious physical link, if souls exist and if, as it seems, they have purposes and aims, then the wish to realise them must somehow be conveyed to the body and fed into the decision making process, which would otherwise necessarily simply ignore the soul’s wishes - ‘I’ would be left as a simple bystander watching ‘my’ body do things. So the soul’s wishes must feed into the chain of causes and effects at some point; in some way.

So then, if the soul is pitting its wish to do good against the body’s natural urge to do what animals naturally wish to do, then actually all we have succeeded in describing is a more complex person - one who has aims, instincts, drives (call them what you will) in different compartments, but which communicate with each other and which will sometimes clash with each other. And so we are still left with the problem of explaining how those clashes are resolved.

It could perhaps be argued that the soul is merely telling me what the moral law is in any particular situation without trying to impose upon me any particular outcome as regards the decision I might make. But unless I want to act in accordance with that moral law, there is no chance that I will do so. We do not make and act upon decisions without the wish, or perhaps multiple wishes, to do things. As explained in more detail below, a mere analysis of a situation, without any wish actually to do anything as a consequence, will not result in a decision. Actions will only arise from the application of the analysis of the situation to the aims and objectives of the person faced with making the decision.

So then, the soul becomes something of a red-herring. If it exists, then it simply introduces an extra, moral, motivation into our already quite complicated lives. It does nothing to resolve how we might choose between different aims and end up as responsible for our decisions.. And the concept of the separate part of ourselves may well be redundant in any event if, as we shall explore a little later, our ‘moral’ motivation may simply be a part of our normal human (i.e. animal) nature along with everything-else.

The fact is that despite our ready acceptance of the idea of free-will, we don’t even really know what we mean by it. When we analyse the idea of free-will, any notion of it as setting us apart from the rest of the animal world rather crumbles away in our hands. So what can we say more generally about decision making that may give us some comfort? Because this talk of the necessity of accepting the notion of causes and effects as the explanation for our actions sits uncomfortably with us - we don’t want to feel that decisions just occur, that they arrive as part of the flow of an inexorable tide of events without so much as a by your leave. We want to feel that we are at least somehow a part of the process and that our conscious reflection upon the decision to be made has had a real effect. And it seems to me that it has.

some basic concepts

Firstly, a few preliminary thoughts -

1. It is commonly assumed that in the ideal world we should try to act more rationally, less emotionally, but that it is very hard to do so because of our weakness of will. What is ignored is that the emotionless Mr Spock from Star Trek would be a very poor role-model. Because if our emotions are not engaged, then we will do nothing - a Mr Spock, with all his logic would actually do nothing unless he had an aim he wanted to achieve. It is our emotions which give us our aims and not our reason. Reason merely assists us to achieve more efficiently the emotional wants which we have.

2. If then, we imagine ourselves as coming into the world as adults fully equipped with reasoning power, language and all the other tools that we use in our daily lives, but no particular aims, where would we get them from? How would we decide? We would not even ‘want’ to have any aims. Even if we had the aim to have some aims, it is not clear that the aim of surviving would make it to the top of the list, as without an inbuilt wish to survive, there is no logical reason why we should choose to. Death or life would be equally likely choices. Assume though that we get past first base and survive, what do we do then? Well there is no reason to choose any one direction or activity over another. In the absence of being born with some emotional framework, there would be no motivation to do anything. And in those cases where the connection between the areas of the brain dealing with the ‘drives’ which we have and the rest has been severed, then the person does indeed become largely incapable of making decisions.

3. But like it or not, we are born with emotions. They push in this direction and that. As we shall see, though, the range of emotions and drives that we have is wider than was once thought. They include a wish to see fairness, a wish to act in an altruistic manner and an ability to be moved to help others though our empathy with them (using our 'mirror neurons'), as well, of course, as all of the 'baser' instincts. Over the years we learn the consequences on our lives of too much of this or not enough of that and modify how we act accordingly.

Why then do I think that we can at least regard ourselves - the conscious ‘me’- as a part of the decision making process, rather than being swept blindly into decisions by the inexorable tide of causes and events? It’s an information gathering and processing thing.

complex decision making and the need for conscious reflection

Decisions which are little more than reactions are of little interest - they correspond to the sort of decisions which do not need to involve much or, sometimes, any conscious reflection, like moving your hand away from a fire. What is more illuminating is to look at how a rather more complex decision is made.

An instance of a moderately complex decision may be, for example, a need to decide whether or not I shall walk to my business meeting at high speed - perhaps I have resolved that I should use walking to improve my heart-lung function. I shall probably therefore bring the different scenarios into my mind in order to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages. I shall try to see the possible outcomes. Do I really go for it and arrive there a bit sweaty for that meeting or do I moderate my pace and arrive perhaps less fit, but at least not out of breath and red-faced? In conjuring up the possible outcomes, I shall feel the effect of them in advance - the embarrassment of sitting at a conference table gently sweating, although with the inner glow of knowing that I am doing myself some good - or not, if I just go at my usual pace. So I may decide to compromise and walk just a little faster than normal.

Now the fact is that unless I had started to think about it all, I would not have made the decision which I ultimately do. I would not, as it were, have brought the outcomes of the different possible courses of action back in time to the present for examination in advance. And so I would not have ‘felt’ which one was the right one for me to take. If I had not started to reflect on the possibilities, I would probably have carried on walking at my usual pace, although it is not possible to be certain about it.

It seems to me that although every part of the decision making process may be explicable in terms of neurophysiological causes and events, my consciousness of the process and of likely outcomes may well be a necessary part of the ability to make a decision of that sort. Why should it not be the case that conscious reflection - seeing and feeling the likely results of different decisions in advance - is a pre-requisite of getting to a conclusion? It is said that brain imaging tells us that decision are made before we are in fact conscious of them. I don’t see a great problem with this, if indeed it is true. The reflection on options will produce virtually immediate emotional reactions to the possible outcomes and the resulting emotional ‘drive’ may well be formed in advance of my being able to articulate it or be properly conscious of what it is. That does not mean, however, that the previous imagining of likely outcomes or the application of our reasoning to it is irrelevant or unnecessary or that the decision when it surfaces is likely to be a surprise

A decision such as I have described, however, would likely be made quite quickly and easily. There are not many variables to take into account in making the decision. There are though more complex cases which take us one step beyond this.

I could for instance have to decide whether or not to make pension provision for my old age. This is not something on which my mind is going to come to a conclusion just like that. Or at least, I hope not. The decision will entail knowledge of how much it’s going to cost and what benefits I shall have at what age. I shall need to look at endless prospectuses and web-sites to find out where my money should be placed if I decide to go down that route. I may want to contrast it with using a buy-to-let strategy, setting up a spread sheet to help me, or simply deciding to spend my money now and rely on the state pension when I am old.

the need for conscious acquisition of knowledge from outside sources

For all of this, I will first of all have to decide that it is something that I should spend my time looking into If I do, then I will go ahead and amass the information and try to get hold of advice, so that I can then weigh up all the pros and cons in order to come to a decision. Some of that weighing-up may well consist of making written lists of advantages and disadvantages or calculations on the backs of envelopes or on my computer, because without them I cannot hold all the information together in my head. Now the making of the decision may well be explicable in terms of sequences of innumerable neurological and other physical causes and events, but unless I am consciously involved in it all then nothing will happen. That is how we acquire such information and process it.

...or being a zombie

From an evolutionary point of view, it would seem likely that being conscious of what is going on around me rather than existing in a non-conscious zombie-like state must give me a survival advantage - certainly a good part of my brain’s function must be devoted to it and to have such large scale redundancy of such a critical organ seems very unlikely. In any event, why should it be thought that the conscious involvement is superfluous? The alternative zombie strategy is that the information is absorbed as a computer might - being directly fed in and processed and either more data somehow called for or an action set in train - something which we would perceive (if we could perceive anything) as a reflex. Such a mechanism is possible. It works for us in respect of decisions needed to be made instantly, such as withdrawing our hand from a fire.

At the more complex level of human decision making we are talking about, however, the reflex seems to be displaced by the decision made after reflection, after consciously weighing things up. The reflex model works for computers as long as we are there to arrange for the data to be available - in the analogous situation with humans, I think that storing and reading back information externally in pictures and writing may well never have taken off if the reflex model worked for complex decision making. Neither can I quite see how advice from others would fit into that picture very easily. Learning from others seems to me to be a very valuable means of getting things right. If our sociability generally is of any benefit to us, as it seems it is, then again, that does not fit in with the zombie-like version either of man or of many other animals.

creating a picture in my mind

Perhaps it is the case that the construction of a sort of picture of likely outcomes in my mind, with all the information it can portray, is simply the most efficient way of getting our emotions engaged. Because if our emotions are not engaged, then we will do nothing - as I mentioned at the outset, Mr Spock, would do nothing at all as a result of the mere exercise of logic. It is our emotions and not our reason which give us our aims. Reason assists us in achieving the emotional wants which we have.

But our basic emotions are triggered by information coming via our senses - things we are, in the main, conscious of.  To create a hypothetical picture of future circumstances - an analogue - which we can change as we look at it and which would be made up of the outcomes from different possible decisions on our part would be a very efficient way of plugging into those same emotions - getting them to engage. After all, the picturing, as I understand it goes on in the same part of the brain that creates our internal world-view from the data it receives directly from our senses.

getting hold of the information

If I am conscious of what is going on and if my conscious involvement is a pre-requisite of things happening which are to my advantage, then another question is as to the tools I am using in the process. It is here that experience of what has happened before and what the consequences were (i.e. memory), the ability to read and generally locate relevant information and the ability to reason come very much to the forefront.

But peoples’ experiences will be very different and their ability to find out information and to reason will be very different. The information which they alight upon will be subject to a degree of serendipity, especially in these internet times. Before I start researching my subject, I can have little idea of what I am going to unearth. It is not surprising, therefore that faced with what may seem essentially to be the same set of circumstances, different people will come to different conclusions as to the steps they wish to take in response.

the practical impossibility of forecasting people’s decisions

Indeed, forecasting peoples’ decisions is likely to be far less accurate even than the average weather forecast, granted the even vaster number of variables there will be. And so even though the ultimate outcome could in principle be traced back through its various causes and effects to the day we were born and before, we will nonetheless each feel that our decision didn’t come out of a sausage machine, but was based on the information available to us, both from our memories and from the outside sources and the reasoning we applied to it. And that will be true. And so it will be my decision.

In the case of any complex decision, therefore, it seems to me that I cannot get away from the fact that the decision is not foisted on me, as it might be if someone got hold of my arm and forced me to hit someone-else. Neither is it a reflex.  I am essentially conscious of the process by which the decision is arrived at and have consciously taken part in its making.  Indeed, it seems that this is the more so, the more complex the decision and the more externally sourced information is required in order for that decision to be made.  I don't know about others, but generally the more complex the situation I am trying to grapple with, the slower will be my decision-making process.  I shall be conscious that I may not have taken into account all the relevant factors and so may well decide to put the decision on hold while I look for more information.  Only when I am forced to make a decision because I have run out of time, or I am reasonably sure that I have looked at things as thoroughly as they deserve, will I finally make the decision.

could I have made a different decision?

Although different people may make different decisions faced with the same problem, could I personally have made a different decision? I hope not, because it was one which was based on my then perceptions of the possible outcomes and the weight they carried with me, coupled with my ability to grapple with the information gathering and reasoning processes involved at that time. If I had made a different decision, it would have been perceived by me to be a decision which had somehow been foisted on me - one which had indeed come out of the blue. Indeed, if my decisions could not be explained as I have suggested, then I would think that someone-else had taken over my mind or that I was doing the mental equivalent of playing dice.

making less than satisfactory decisions

Of course that does not mean that I will always feel entirely happy with any particular decision. When we are faced with a ‘difficult’ decision, we rarely come to a conclusion certain that we have made the right choice. It may be because we are aware that we are basing our decisions on inadequate data or simply because we feel that someone-else may have come to a different, perhaps more courageous conclusion. We may indeed despair of the fact that we seem to give too much weight to the immediate ‘pleasures of the flesh’ to the detriment of giving adequate weight to the longer-term consequences of our actions. We do not seem to ‘feel’ the consequences of decisions like these with such immediacy as those which are closer to us in time. That is part of the human condition. I shall discuss this point further below.

Can ‘I’ have an effect on my future decision making?

Can I change how I will make decisions in the future? Well yes, probably I can - in two related ways -

Firstly and more simply, if, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, I did get my decisions wrong, I can learn from my error and that experience will feed back into my decision-making process. It may even eventually enable me to give greater weight to the longer-term and less immediately attractive.  Such a transition is indeed typical of the human species.  We learn to overcome the idea which we are born with that instant gratification is not always the best policy.

Secondly, I may come to the conclusion from my past experience that taking in information and opinions from lots of sources, rather than leading a blinkered life leads to a better quality of decision, i.e. one which gives me a more satisfactory life.  In that event, I may set myself the task of getting hold of information which, whilst not necessarily relevant to anything in particular, may at some time become relevant. And so I may decide on a general policy of listening to the news or reading the newspapers, although not the Daily Mail, obviously.  I may seek out other peoples' opinions. I may also learn from experience that the quality of my decision-making is helped by my getting used to analysing things in detail.  And so rather than just listening to the news or reading the papers I may wish to and therefore decide to read and listen more critically.  All of this will influence the decisions I take in the future so that the outcomes will most likely be different to what they would otherwise have been.

what about morality?

I go in to detail regarding morality elsewhere, but the existence of morality is very relevant to our lives as decision makers. If we look at it carefully, the reason why we feel that it is desirable to do the right thing is not only that organised religion usually demands altruistic actions but that, regardless of religion, the world doesn’t seem to work too well without some degree of consideration for others.

Whether on the small scale of living with one’s neighbours or the larger scale of the neighbourhood of nations it seems that altruistic actions are required from time to time. You might hope or indeed expect that your actions will produce a quid pro quo at some time. You may well have mixed motives - there may be something in it for you as well. At the time of your action, however, it is up to the beneficiary as to how and when he reacts. Perhaps this is not altruism in the purest sense, but I suspect that it is as near as most of us get, most of the time. Maybe I should call it something else, like ‘altruism with a purpose’, but I’ll continue with the shorter version, as that is generally how people see it.

altruism as part of our instinctive behaviour

A limited form of altruistic behaviour appears to be quite normal in social animals other than humans. It seems to be the glue that enables such social groupings to exist.  It is not surprising, then, that we find it also amongst humans.  Indeed humans have taken social behaviour to new heights and experiments by Dawkins et al. have shown that they are significantly more inclined to altruism than was previously thought to be the case.  According to the reported research, cooperation pervades society as a whole and is its foundation.  We are not after all beings motivated purely by selfishness, even though many economic models still stuck in the dark ages continue to suppose this to be the case.

But not only do we engage in reciprocal altruism, but we also engage in what researchers in the field call “strong reciprocity”. Clearly reciprocal altruism as previously discussed can be analysed rationally in terms of foreseeable benefit amongst your friends and others with whom you have frequent contact.  It seems though that we are pushed by our nature to go further, to act fairly towards people whom we have never met before and will not knowingly meet again. For a paper by Ernst Fehr and others on the associated but different influence of what the authors call 'Strong Reciprocity' click here

Evolutionary theorists will tell us that this sort of behaviour can have advantages for the species, if not for each particular individual on all occasions. Clearly, altruistic behaviour taken to the ultimate limit may cut short the progress of any particular set of genes. But for there to exist a genetic predisposition to such behaviour is quite possible, if it confers a survival advantage on the species as a whole.  The predisposing genes will not fade away simply because of the death of individual humans whose end has been brought nigh because of the action encouraged by those genes.  If the genes enable the species as a whole better to survive, then those genes will survive in the species as a whole.

When you think about it, it seems obvious that a species that can manage give and take amongst its members will do better than one which can’t.  It’s a requisite for achieving more than we could individually.  Our lives are built upon it.  As a group, we’ve achieved an awful lot over the centuries. We’ve built up vast amounts of knowledge, created cities, found out how to cure or prevent many illnesses and even make the computer this piece has been written on. Scientists routinely share knowledge, as indeed do people in business and the professions through their representative organisations.  Without a willingness to help each other, it is difficult to see how this could have happened.

It is interesting to note in passing that we actually feel good about doing someone a good turn. We feel even better about it if it is recognised by the beneficiary by just a simple ‘thank you’. It would be rather odd that such reactions existed if one presumed there to be no genetic advantage to such behaviour. On the other hand, if you assume that our endocrine system is designed to reinforce such behaviour, then it is not at all surprising that we should have good feelings about it. And at a practical level, the acknowledgement of a good turn would seem to me to indicate that that person will probably reciprocate at some time in the future. Of course, if we keep doing things for someone-else and there is no reciprocity or gratitude, our kindness will soon dry up.


Likewise, various studies show that fairness is an important part of our behavioural system. We get very upset if we are unfairly treated, even if it relates to something very minor. And so do brown capuchin monkeys - as was reported in Nature in September 2003. For a useful summary, see  Fairness is an integral part of the sort of reciprocal ‘altruism’ which we and, it seems, other animals practice. If someone tries to put one over on us then we get upset.  The person treating us unfairly will get short shrift from us the next time around.

enlightened morality as an evolutionary benefit

So it can be argued that morality is simply a set of rules by which we tend to live because that is how we, as members of our species, need to live for our best advantage. It is one of our instincts or drives just as the others are. Just as with the other instincts, we can use our brains to see (and feel) the likely consequences of our actions and so decide whether it is to our advantage to follow this ‘altruistic’ instinct on any particular occasion.

This instinct is though unusual in that, from a rational point of view, the starting-off point for the individual (as opposed to society as a whole) should be to ignore it. It is only if there exists a real advantage to the doer of such apparent altruism that it should be indulged in. Such an advantage may be social advancement or simply that you will keep your friends. With our ability to reason things through, we can see more clearly than other animals how to finesse the way in which we respond to our instincts. I have no doubt that some people get to be very good at refining the way they go about their ‘morality’. For it is essentially a question of game theory each time. Not that we necessarily sit down and analyse it in these terms, but it is not unknown for us to look at how we can get away with things, is it? However, it seems that our initial reaction is one of cooperation, at least amongst members of our group.

We should not lose sight of the fact, however, that it is often very difficult to find sufficient emotional counterweight to overcome the pull of short-term pleasure, even when our reason tells us that in the long-term we will benefit from doing something-else.

altruism as part of long-term decision making

This takes me to a wider point: I see this form of altruism as simply one example of the weighing up of longer term advantage against short-term gain, whether on a conscious or sub-conscious level.

Animals other than humans tend to decide what to do based on the short-term consequences of their decisions. They have little alternative, as they mainly cannot look forward very far. As humans, however, we are much more able to anticipate the long term consequences of our actions. And as our society has developed, this has become ever more important. Not only have our lives become longer than they used to be, but with the relative stability of society (at least in the West) and the structures that it puts in place, the long-term takes on an ever-increasing importance. Take just two examples - education and health.

These days, it is inconceivable in western society that we would do other than require our children to undergo long-term education in what are mostly abstract subjects. Without it, they will not be able to earn the sort of living we would want for them. And yet until very recently, in evolutionary terms, this was not the case. Children would learn, but only those things which were then required for their immediate survival - for example, hunting or which plants could be eaten safely.

Nowadays, we know that our health can be affected in many other ways by how we live - drainage and other public health measures have made a tremendous impact on our life-spans. We know that smoking will, in most people, cause major illnesses later on in their lives. All of these things involve a long-term view which is completely remote from the life of our forbears.

Have our decision-making processes caught up with modern life?

But it is essentially the same brain that is being used to arrive at these decisions. It has not had time to evolve significantly since those simpler, more brutish days when short to medium-term action was all that there was. Life has changed radically in a very short time. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that we feel a bit at sea sometimes in following through a decision to act in our long-term interests.

It may be the ‘rational’ way forward, but even looking ahead a few months to the exams at the end of a degree course can seem like an eternity when the pub and your mates beckon. Likewise, the struggle to give up fags must be very difficult when comparing the lure of just one more, as against possible illness in twenty years time. When thinking about pensions, it is difficult to envisage being 60 when you are only 20 and it is even more difficult to believe that the 40 years will pass as quickly as they do.

I am afraid that the human mind has not yet evolved in a way which enables us to make what we would regard as well-balanced decisions in such circumstances. That it can cope at all, for example with decisions about pensions, is something of a bonus.

But I think that we already knew that we weren’t very good at making that sort of decision. The major religions have been telling us that we should do the right thing because our future life depended on it, but we always knew that the here and now had a much greater draw despite religion’s system of threats and offers of rewards.

Maybe this will change over the coming millennia as evolutionary pressure to give more weight to the long-term can feed into the system. It’s early days yet for the human race.

our decisions and the role of law in society

As for our responsibility to society, society will no doubt continue to see it as essential to its well-being that certain types of action are categorised as criminal and punished accordingly.

The law already gives a dispensation for things done under duress i.e. actions which are genuinely imposed on me by a third party or those which result from some mental disorder which prevents me from seeing the world around me as others see it. Other than in these cases, the cry ‘I couldn’t help myself’ is not normally a sufficient excuse when considering the pragmatic requirements of society - a failure to abide by the rules simply because we did not rate them as important enough to outweigh the contrary sway of our emotions is exactly what does call for a sanction to be imposed - precisely to help to protect society from lawlessness and to persuade me next time to decide differently. Our long experience tells us that it is necessary to ‘persuade’ people to do the ‘right thing’ at least within the limited range of actions governed by the law.

Although the penalty imposed by society for non-compliance with our laws becomes one of the factors weighed up when we decide what to do, the jury is actually still out on the best forms of persuasion currently available, although it seems that the probability of being caught is a very strong influence. Ultimately, of course, the best means of persuasion is for us somehow to live and feel the longer-term consequences of our actions more acutely. Only then will we possess the greater emotional counter-weight to short-termism that we need to have in today’s long-term world.


So are my decisions free? For the reasons already given in this essay, it seems to me that it is an essentially meaningless question, except in contra-distinction to decisions made under duress. It is really only a matter of how I feel about my decisions, rather than any complicated philosophical problem. In normal circumstances, the relevant questions are simply: was my decision one which I felt at the time was right for me in all the circumstances; was it one which I had consciously thought through and was therefore willing to own?  This though is subject to the caveat that I have the feeling that, in the ideal world, we would be able to give greater emphasis than is currently the case to the long-term effects of our decisions.  Maybe Captain Kirk will be able to weigh things differently.

Paul Buckingham

© Paul Buckingham 1st February 2007; rev 14th June 2011, 13 June 2016, 17 March 2018.

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