It is claimed by some that we need free will in order for there to be such a thing as ethics. Without genuine free will, they say, it doesn’t make sense to label someone as good and evil given that they couldn’t have done anything else, because in a sense then their actions wouldn’t be their fault. Now this is not a claim that has gone unopposed. Many, myself included, think that we can make sense of moral responsibility even in a deterministic world, and that in the sense that matters free will is compatible with determinism. It is not my point though to make that argument again here. Instead I wish to attack directly the intuitions that give rise to the idea that free will is a necessary requirement for moral responsibility, namely the intuitions that simple devices and people acting because of an external compulsion aren’t responsible for their actions because they lack free will.
To address them we must first turn briefly to the point of making ethical judgments. Why do we say that someone’s actions were good or bad? Not just because they are good or bad surely; it is equally the case that people do or don’t live in the northern hemisphere, but we don’t obsess over such judgments like we do ethical judgments, nor do we share them with other people as if they were of great importance. We make ethical judgments then so as to influence the behavior of other people.* When we call a certain action wrong the point of calling it wrong is so that other people won’t act in the same way. Specifically we hope for people to consider whether their actions are right or wrong and then act so that their actions would be called right.
Which means that, given our intent in making moral judgments, there is no point in passing judgments in situations where no decision making process involving considerations of right and wrong could possibly have been involved, since we can’t influence future such situations with our judgments. And that means that we will be naturally disinclined to pass moral judgment in such situations, to say that such actions are right or wrong, because it serves no point. And this explains our strong intuition that actions that occur as a result of some compulsion, those that aren’t free, aren’t to be condemned. Of course this says nothing about whether they actually are exempt from being judged morally. Perhaps those compelled to act and unintelligent objects can be morally judged and perhaps they can’t (I would argue that they can’t, but for reasons that have nothing to do with free will).
So given such an explanation of our ethical intuitions in these cases we can’t use them to motivate the conclusion that free will is necessary for moral responsibility. As I have described them so far both explanations of our intuitions in these situations have equal weight, it is just as reasonable to explain our intuitions by saying that our intuitive ethical judgments depend on the existence of free will as to say that our intuitive ethical judgments are affected by the ability to deliberate on whether an action is ethical and to be influenced by such deliberations (something that I should note can occur in the absence of free will). But the second explanation of our intuitions is a better explanation, I claim, because it explains another set of our ethical intuitions as well, and thus is a superior explanation by virtue of explaining more. The additional intuitions that it explains are our intuitions that the actions of animals aren’t good or evil. When a lion kills a man it is unfortunate, but that doesn’t make the lion evil. And we can explain this by noting that the lion is not in a position to be affected by ethical deliberations, and like in those cases where it seems we lack a certain freedom, there is no point to calling the lion evil, as it won’t have any affect on the future actions of other lions. (Now some might try to give this a free will explanation by claiming that the lion lacks free will because it is controlled by its instincts. But this is a fallacious response, because it treats instinct, something that is part of the mind of the lion, as an external force that can be said to compel the lion. Which is as absurd as saying that people aren’t free because their reason occasionally compels them to pick one option over another. Both our reason and our instincts are part of us, they make us who we are.)
In any case, putting aside which is the better explanation for the moment, it is clear at least that we don’t need to invoke free will in the context of ethics. And free will serves no other purpose, without a connection to ethics it becomes a kind of theoretical epiphenomena. Now if we define free will in a way that is compatible with what we know about how the brain works (such as: free means from external influences) then it may turn out that we have such free will, independently of whether our other theories require it. But if we insist on defining free will as some kind of counterfactual ability (the ability to do otherwise, all things held equal) then we can simply dismiss it as a confused idea, without putting a hole in ethics.
* This isn’t to say that what is right is what we want other people to do, but that what we claim is right is what we want other people to do, and that the development of our intuitions is affected by that. What actually is right and wrong may be quite different, but we can’t just expect our ethical intuitions to track it, as there is no motivation to develop ethical intuitions where they don’t matter. (We can expect that when we do make intuitive judgments as to what is right and wrong that we will be correct at least half the time, but that is only because if we were less accurate than that it would flip the meaning of the words, which would have the effect of making us right at least slightly more than half the time. Some complications omitted.)