Whenever the subject of free will versus determinism is discussed the question of crime and punishment is raised. This is quite reasonable for if human life is a chain of cause and effect wherein choice has no place, it is clearly wrong to punish people for deeds that they could not avoid committing.
A defence based on this concept has sometimes been used in court to sway the judge in favour of the accused, saying that the latter found himself in such a fix that he was unable to avoid committing the crime. Such defences are not usually more than partially successful because the view entertained by courts, reflecting Western moral beliefs in general, is likely to be that while we may be disposed by nature, by temptation or by circumstances to commit a nefarious act, we are nevertheless sufficiently masters of ourselves to step back from the deed and to refrain from it.
The simplistic view is that I will be tempted to perform some prohibited action (e.g. saving money by travelling on a train without buying a ticket), recognize that this is “wrong” but do it anyway and that I am therefore “guilty” of knowingly doing a wrongful act. However, if we look more closely at our motives and feelings, I think we will see that any action really results from a mass of conflicting impulses: we may have many reasons for doing something and many reasons for not doing it and unless we are to remain frozen in indecision, there needs to be some way of resolving the conflict. Take the following imaginary scenario.
Fred has a violent disposition. He has been charged with assault on several occasions and served a prison sentence for one particularly vicious attack. He is known for responding violently to anything he perceives as an offence against him. He is married and loves his wife dearly and hates the idea of her coming to harm. One day, his wife admits that she has been having an affair. Anger, bitterness and hurt rise within Fred and he raises his hand to strike her.
What happens next?
I think that what happens next depends on the resolution of all the conflicting impulses generated within Fred’s brain. His resentment and anger might win the day leading to him giving his wife a beating; or his love for her – or fear of going to prison – might cause him to relent and lower his hand. Whichever happens, he will afterwards explain to his mates down at the pub how he decided to beat her or to let her off. But was it really a conscious free decision?
One recommended way of choosing between competing products or courses of action is to make a list of features that you consider important and then to score each product for each feature. For example, if you are buying a kitchen appliance, you might rate highly such features as ease of use, small size and low running costs and less highly features such as colour, advanced options and the fact that Victoria Beckham has the identical model. You then add up all the scores and choose the particular item that has the highest score.
Would you say that by applying this method you were exercising free will? You might say yes because you chose to use the method in the first place but that is irrelevant since it raises the question of free choice on its own behalf. What we want to know is whether, having reached a “decision” by a more or less automatic process, we consider that we have operated according to free will. More simply still, if I “decide” by tossing a coin, am I really “deciding” at all or acting deterministically?
Now again consider this web of conflicting impulses within us whenever we choose a course of action, illustrated by Fred hovering between hitting and not hitting his wife. In other words, a decision emerges from the unchosen resolution of all these conflicting impulses. This is more obviously the case when we act on reflex as when angered by an insult or frightened by some threat because there is then simply not enough time for us to think things through; we have to respond instantaneously. But even if we do have time to list all the relevant factors, assign their respective scores and do the arithmetic to find the “best” solution, does that get us off the hook? Are we not still responding to a set of impulses beyond our control?
None of this proves that we do not have free will but it does suggest that all of our “decisions” are at least “strongly guided”. Oscar Wilde famously said “I can resist anything except temptation.” How many of us privately recognize besetting sins – obligations we fail to honour, vices we fail to avoid – for which we chide ourselves but which we never manage to correct? Can we really insist that we have choice in such matters?