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The illusion of choice: Ethical implications

The idea that an individual is responsible for his or her actions is something that we accept everyday without questioning. Indeed, the notion of individual responsibility is what underpins our legal and law enforcement systems, what drives our notions of fairness and what justifies our criticisms of individuals who we believe have failed. However, if we instead believe that, as humans, we actually have little to no individual control over the actions we “choose” to make, then the basis of our belief in individual responsibility becomes null. I intend to make an argument against human free will and explain the pursuing ramifications for our notion of morality and progress.

Any action that is made by an individual is based on factors outside the control of that individual. Sam Harris, a Stanford graduate with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, succinctly summarizes the argument by claiming, “free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.”

The choices we make can be traced back to the various factors of our life experiences leading up to the moment a choice is made. In particular, environmental factors, such as our ethnicity, parenting and schooling; biological factors, such as our genetic predispositions and neurochemistry; and, finally, random chance, such as when/where we were born and who we run into, constantly shape our thoughts and impulses and channel them towards a single decision at every juncture. These factors are outside the control of the individual and, if the universe were to be replayed with these identical circumstances, then that individual would most certainly make the same exact life decisions.

Moreover, seminal scientific experiments have also helped verify that the actions we choose are often outside our conscious control. In the early 1980s, Benjamin Libet conducted famous EEG experiments demonstrating that the unconscious electrical processes in the brain precede conscious decisions to perform volitional acts. In essence, the unconscious brain seems to make decisions before the conscious brain is aware, even though humans perceive to be in control over their decision making process. Experiments like these demonstrate that human choice is an illusion, something that increasingly can be attributed to external, “background causes,” such as neurobiology, that we are oblivious to.

If we accept that free will does not exist and that choice is an illusion, then the implication is that we should focus more of our moral energies on external factors, such as social structures, that affect outcomes, rather than solely criticizing the individual. In psychology, the term “fundamental attribution error” describes the overemphasis that humans tend to place on internal characteristics, such as personality, to explain a situation rather than considering external factors affecting the situation. By acknowledging that even a person’s “internal characteristics” are often outside their control, we can better empathize with people’s shortcomings and imperfections. For example, instead of morally condemning character flaws such as being “lazy” or “unintelligent,” we now have more reason to use our moral energy to criticize the larger social structures (i.e. access to equal opportunity, discrimination) for either producing these behaviors or creating unfounded stereotypes.

Walking down the street, we might pass by individuals who are saints, criminals, philanthropists, drug addicts, billionaires or beggars. If we are to believe that free will is an illusion, then we cannot possibly believe that the life outcomes of these individuals are a consequence of their “choices.” The most we can do to ensure positive social outcomes is to debate and reform the external factors within our control (i.e., economic, political and social structures) to minimize overall suffering.

This is not to say that the concept of individual responsibility is obsolete or useless. Indeed, the concept of individual responsibility can still hold positive social benefit by enforcing that individuals abide by the socially agreed upon rules and norms that hold society together. However, it would be wrong to morally condemn an individual without acknowledging that she is a product of forces outside her control. And in that lies a greater appreciation of human beings and a more nuanced moral understanding of our actions.

 

Contact Neil Chaudhary at neilaman ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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