Should We Abandon the term “Free Will”?

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language”- Wittgenstein 

Recently, Daniel Dennett decided to abandon the term “Free Will” in favor of “Moral Responsibility”. His decision, however, has more or less to do with terminology of “free will” than the more substantive concept of “free will”. So, to avoid a possible misunderstanding, he really hasn’t abandoned compatibilism, but slightly reformulated a motivation for it. The motivation is by reformulating the question from “Do we have free-will” to “Do we have moral responsibility”. I think I agree with Dennett’s decision to reformulate the question. When the first question is asked, the philosophical community would most likely answer “yes, we do have free will in a compatibilist sense”, however the public would give polarized reactions between hard determinism and libertarianism. When one tries to present compatibilism to the public, most dismiss it as not really being committed to free-will or accuse it of reducing the free-will debate into a terminological issue. The second question (“Do we have moral responsibility?”),  on the other hand, probably won’t elicit the polarized reactions, since it appears to be asking a slightly different question.

I think Dennett’s decision to abandon the term “free will” is understandable and tactically sound. By “tactically sound”, I mean that Dennett’s rhetorical strategy to get his audience to consider the compatibilist concept behind the term “free will” is probably on the right track. However, while I’m inclined to agree with Dennett’s approach from a pragmatic or tactical point of view , I’m also concerned whether or not his abandonment of the term “free will” is warranted in a philosophical sense. One of Dennett’s reason for abandoning the term “free will” is that it connotes a libertarian notion of free will. When you hear the word “free will”, the  first thought that most likely comes to your mind (assuming that you haven’t studied the philosophical debate about free will) would be a libertarian intuition of free will. Moreover, its very hard to convince someone that the term “free will” need not be about that intuition. When you try to convince people that the term “free will” can also refer to a non-libertarian conception of free-will, many would insist that it’s not really “free will” at all. The association between the term “free will” and the libertarian intuition about it is very much ingrained into most of our minds. It’s hard to convince them to think otherwise (no pun intended…). So, someone like Dennett, who wants to convince his audience about the truth of compatibilism, would abandon the term “free will” in favor of another term “moral responsibility” in order to get people to think about the debate a little differently.

This is all well and good from a pragmatic standpoint, but there are some things I want to point out. Firstly, abandoning the term on the basis of its connotation doesn’t seem like a very strong reason. After all, there is a difference between a connotation and a definition of any word. A connotation elicits initial reaction or thought about a meaning or idea associated with the word, whereas a definition of a word is the actual meaning or concepts that constitute that word. Connotations have little or no philosophical relevance, since it’s really the definitions that is important to consider. “Consciousness”, for example, has this popular connotation that ranges from new age woo woo to dualistic intuition about mental states. However, in philosophy of mind, philosophers are debating about the theoretical definition  of “consciousness”; connotations are beside the point. Should we abandon the term “consciousness” to a bunch of dualists and adopt another term? So far, Dennett hasn’t abandoned the term “consciousness” simply because of its connotation.

To use another example, the term “morality” connotes conventional absolutist morality taught by religions. This connotation is quite popular among many people, but should atheists abandon the term “morality” for the religious populace in favor of another term? I don’t think so, since many atheists do think that there are right” and “wrong actions independently of God’s command. Many atheists will simply deny that popular connotation as a definition of morality. Furthermore, should atheists stop using the term “atheist” due to its negative connotation that is popular among people who know little about atheism? Perhaps some would like to, but I like to keep the term “atheism” since I think its definition is a rejection of the belief of the existence of God, rather than a sociopathic killer who lacks a moral compass.

Perhaps we can use a political example. I have a friend who is a liberal (i.e. he’s critical of U.S. foreign policy, loves to listen to Chomsky, opposes capital punishment, likes diversity, etc.) but grew to hate the term “liberal”, because for him it connotes a bunch of white liberals and the media that pay lip service to liberal values, but end up doing very little for minorities and women. So, he stopped calling himself “liberal” in favor of the term “reformed”. It’s really his decision about what to call himself, but it doesn’t seem warranted to abandon the term “liberal” due to how many self-professed liberals act anymore than someone abandoning the term “Christian” due to how many self-professed Christians act.

Lastly, I think Dennet’s question “Do we have moral responsibility” is very different from “Do we have free will”. Dennett said that he only changed the “verbiage” than the subject, but in some subtle sense I think there is a difference between two questions “Do we have free will” and “Do we have moral responsibility”. The former is asking a metaphysical question, whereas the latter is asking a basic normative question. So, abandoning the term “free will” to replace it with another term “moral responsibility” seems to do more than just replace the verbiage. However, Dennett could argue that the question “Does moral responsibility exist?” is in fact a metaphysical question at the level of social ontology. In other words, he thinks that moral responsibility is a social construct (i.e. like President of the United States or the Constitution) that derives from our natural capacity to participate in society as competent rational agents. However, I think this possible reply misunderstands what “moral responsibility” means. “Moral responsibility” has little to do with what exists in the fabric of society, but more or less predicated on what one ought to do if one wants to be moral. So, I think changing the question from “Does Free Will exist?” to “Does Moral Responsibility exist?” potentially changes the subject.

Someone could complain that this entire blog post is meddling in terminological issues or semantics. I think there is a point to that complaint insofar as my blog entry does dispute about terminologies, but I don’t think it is entirely fruitless. Moreover, I don’t think this dispute it merely terminological. If a term “X” refers to an observable phenomenon “A” and two parties want to know what constitutes that phenomenon “A”, but they have contrary conceptions about it, can they still use the term “X”? I think so. After all, what is not at dispute is the use of the term “X”, but the phenomenon “A”. For example, in the past biologists obviously agreed that life exists, but there use to be two opposing views: materialism and vitalism. On one hand, you had people who thought that life can be explained in a mechanistic biochemical terms. On the other hand, you had people who thought there was an essence or vital spirit that constitutes the intrinsic nature of life. Eventually, the materialists ultimately won when they discovered the DNA. Nonetheless, both materialists and vitalists could use the term “life” to refer to a phenomenon of living organisms, but dispute about their nature. Likewise, I think compatibilists and libertarians can agree that “free will” refers to an introspective or first person phenomenon of what looks like choosing or deciding an option among others, but disagree about the nature of that phenomenon.

For many people, this introspective phenomenon really looks like a compelling case of libertarian free will just as an observable phenomenon of the sunrise or sunset looked like a case of the Geocentric model of the solar system. Even after Galileo showed that the geocentric model is false, people nonetheless continued to think that it’s appropriate to call the phenomena “sunset” or “sunrise”. Likewise, I think  the term “free will” remains appropriate even after we show that this introspective phenomenon is not really the case of libertarianism.

I think the term “free will” may be worth keeping. Moreover, I don’t think compatibilists and libertarians are talking past each other. Both agree that there is an introspective phenomenon of what seems like (from a first person point of view) choosing or deciding an option among other possible options. The disagreement lies in what actually constitutes or underlies that phenomenon.


One thought on “Should We Abandon the term “Free Will”?

  1. Pingback: The Compatibilist Conception of Free Will | Ethical Realism

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