Uses of the illusion of agency: why some Buddhists should believe in free will
What if the free will issue was never really about determinism? What if the only reason determinism ever seemed relevant to the question of whether our actions are truly our own is that causal chains stretching far back into our past constitute a vivid way of showing that our actions belong to the universe? What if the absence of free will is just a special case of the frightening, liberating truth that nothing is our own, because there is no self? That might explain why the free will issue seems intractable: despite the enormous attention lavished on it, philosophers haven’t fully understood it. It might help explain recent surprising empirical results suggesting that belief in free will and in determinism are not opposed, but represent two largely statistically independent factors (Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto 2013, p. 126). It might explain why critiques of free will feel threatening: they have the potential to undermine the one thing we are most invested in, our false belief in a real self. Since what is most philosophically distinctive about Buddhism is its rejection of that false belief, Buddhists should be committed to the non-existence of free will. Many scholars appear reluctant to accept this conclusion, though, perhaps because they overestimate how destructive and revisionary it would be. I have proposed that the most defensible Buddhist view of free will would be a form of ‘hard incompatibilism’ (Goodman 2009), the view that free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism (Pereboom 2007). Hard incompatibilists do not claim that we cannot change, or that our actions make no difference, or that making an effort to improve is pointless. Instead, they reject the existence of basic desert and regard interpersonal reactive attitudes such as anger and resentment as cognitively inappropriate. We can be said to deserve many things: praise, blame, rewards, punishments, and so on. The specific form of desert that Pereboom (2007, p. 86) says we should reject, considered in relation to blame or credit, is basic in the sense that the agent, to be morally responsible, would deserve the blame or credit just because she has performed the action (assuming she understands its moral status), and not by virtue of consequentialist or contractualist considerations. Thus, Pereboom does not want to issue a blanket ban on blaming or praising, or to say that no one deserves anything. Practices of holding people responsible can have socially beneficial consequences that can create derivative, institutional,
non-basic forms of desert and responsibility. What Pereboom denies is that our actions could give rise to reasons to treat us well or badly, independently of the consequences resulting from such treatment. The issue about praise and blame is, in its direct practical implications, almost trivial; the rubber meets the road when we consider the justification of punishment and systems of criminal justice. Note that much blame consists of accurate descriptions of a person’s character. For instance, in a world without basic desert or deep moral responsibility, someone might persistently neglect his responsibilities due to laziness. To tell that person “You are lazy!” would be an accurate description, and ‘appropriate’ as such. But no amount of laziness could cause that person to deserve, in a basic sense, the distress it might cause him to be told so. We should tell him, truthfully, he is lazy only if that would be helpful, and never simply to hurt his feelings, no matter how much havoc his laziness has caused. Hard incompatibilism includes a claim I summarize by saying that anger, resentment, and other interpersonal reactive attitudes are cognitively inappropriate. When I say that a particular emotion is cognitively inappropriate, I mean it is partly constituted by a judgment that is false and unwarranted. Thus, a hard incompatibilist could say that anger at person X for doing action A involves construing X as being, in some deep and ultimate sense, the source of A; but we are never the sources of our actions in this sense. It’s hard to deny that Buddhists disapprove of anger and resentment; but few Buddhist texts consider the free will problem in any recognizable form-few, but not none. Many scholars agree that the problem is raised explicitly by Śāntideva in Ch. VI of his Bodhicaryāvatāra (BCA; all references to BCA are to the Crosby and Skilton, 1995 translation; Goodman 2009 examines this in detail). Here’s one crucial verse from Śāntideva’s discussion of the issue:
In this way everything is dependent upon something else. Even that thing upon which each is dependent is not independent. Since, like a magical display, phenomena do not initiate activity, at what does one get angry like this?