free will and morality

by Steven Novella

it is a brilliant piece. You should all read it.

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African Religion and Philosophy

by Canon John Mbiti

This is a good introductory book to students on African religion. It is short on philosophy though. In any case, the only time he talks about anything close to philosophy is when he talks about African time and the concept of evil, justice and ethics, on this, shortly.

It seems to me however, that at some point his ideas of god, African gods, is coloured by his christian beliefs. It is Christianity that has an abstract or unnamed god. The Egyptians named their gods and one would expect, at least, named gods if the idea of god was not an abstract thing among traditional societies in Africa.

There seems to be a thin line between secular and religious authority. In fact, this distinction doesn’t even come into play. There is no sphere of life, per Mbiti, that is not religious or doesn’t involve religious feeling.

I am not sure I agree with Mbiti that there was no irreligiousness in African traditional societies. This, in my view is erroneous and should be worthy of study. In every age there have always been people skeptical of the traditions, including the religious ideas active in their times. So of interest to me is how skepticism was articulated.

His comments on evil, ethics and justice I found to be quite interesting and it is to that we now turn.

He writes for example about the Ankore who do not feel they can offend god because god is the final principle or among the Azande, Akan and so on who believe god has no influence on people’s morals.

Among the Bavenda, they believe in a god who punishes the community for the infractions of the chief.

Among the Nuer, he tells us, there is a belief that to be proud of one’s wealth may offend god causing them to take away cattle and children.

What I find deeply disturbing is the belief among some communities that never or rarely does a person or being of higher status do what constitutes an offence against a person of lower status. It is this belief or principle that supports the argument that god cannot commit evil against his creation.

The belief on restitution is however quite interesting. African life is earthbound, very much so. Mbiti tells us that according to most African peoples, god punishes in this life. The gods are concerned with the moral life of mankind and that with a few exceptions, there is no belief that a person is punished in the hereafter for what they do in this life.

I am not sure of the source of his next point concerning the Africans view of humanity in totality. He says to most peoples, no person is inherently good or bad but acts in ways which are good when they act in conformity with the mores of the community and bad if contrary. So for example, in a society that does not forbid sleeping with another’s wife, to do so is not bad unless there is a breach, maybe sleeping with a person’s wife not in your age group or cohort.

To expand on this, he argues in African societies, morality is more ‘societary’ than spiritual. It is a morality of conduct rather than a morality of being, that is, it defines what a person does rather than what they are. That is to say, a person is what he is because of what he does rather than he does what he does because of what he is. Kindness is not a virtue unless someone is kind.

Moving away from the above considerations, I found his comments on secularism, communism and capitalism interesting, and I will quote it extensively

[]In their extreme positions, these -isms despise, reject and even oppose religion. They are movements away from religion, and it is this which makes them relevant to any discussion on religion.

Secularism has an undermining effect upon religion, but it may well be to the good of religion if the latter injects religious principles into secular life instead of waging a war against secularism.

Capitalism, he writes, is anti-religious when it exploits man to such a degree that he becomes simply a tool or robot and loses his humanity. If capitalism reduces man to the material level only, then it has contradicted the religious image of man which in all traditions, depicts man as both physical and spiritual.

And as I mentioned earlier, I am not sure of some of the views Mbiti expressed were not coloured by his Christianity. At the end of thos work he writes or rather wrote

I consider traditional religions, Islam and other religious systems to be preparatory and even essential ground in the search for the ultimate. But only Christianity has the terrible responsibility of pointing the way to that ultimate identity, foundation and source of security.

I should in passing that he saw schools as breeding or recruitment grounds for churches and was for the idea that schools should be used to indoctrinate.

On free will

First a thought experiment

Buridan’s Ass

an ass

A donkey who is much happier than the one in our experiment. (Wikimedia Commons)

Variations on this experiment date back to antiquity, this formulation was named after the philosopher Jean Buridan, whose views on determinism it ridicules.

Imagine a donkey placed precisely between two identical bales of hay. The donkey has no free will, and always acts in the most rational manner. However, as both bales are equidistant from the donkey and offer the same nourishment, neither choice is better than the other.

Question: How can it choose? Does it choose at all, or does it stand still until it starves?

If choices are made based on which action is the more rational one or on other environmental factors, the ass will starve to death trying to decide on which to eat- as both options are equally rational and indistinguishable from one another. If the ass does make a choice, then the facts of the matter couldn’t be all that determined the outcome, so some element of random chance or free will may have been involved.

It poses a problem for deterministic theories as it does seem absurd to suppose that the ass would stand still forever. Determinists remain split on the problem that the ass poses. Spinoza famously dismissed it while others accept that the donkey would starve to death. Others argue that there is always some element of a choice that differentiates it from another one.

and a guardian article

An example of bad argument

The argument below is a logical argument but it’s also invalid.

Logical, because the conclusion, in my view follow from the premises but invalid because the premises are all wrong and thus the conclusion cannot hold.

Consider the following three premises of the Christian religion, and a conclusion that follows from them:

God exists.
God is divine.
Man is made in the image of God.
Therefore: human divinity exists in all humans conferring special rights and corresponding responsibilities to all human beings simply because they are divine and therefore sacred.

 

What Does It Mean to Have Free Will?

Freedom is a mystery ~ Arthur Schopenhauer

Is the title of a post by Joseph Laporte.

Since the post by Joseph is quite long, I will only attempt to respond to the first section. the second section where he tries to reconcile Scotus and Aquinas, I will leave to theologians, but I encourage you to read it if you have time. But before I do that, I would want to define freedom of will as other philosophers have done.

While not defining freewill, Sam Harris in his book, Freewill, writes

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. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

and for the moment we will leave it at that.

In a prize winning essay on Freewill, Schopenhauer defines freedom as

simply the absence of everything that impedes or obstructs

He goes further to note there are three distinct notions of freedom, viz;

  1. physical freedom- which is the absence of material obstacles of any kind. In this physical meaning, animals or humans are free when no physical, material obstacle impedes their actions
  2. intellectual freedom
  3. moral freedom- is simply whether we act out of necessity

Schopenhauer in his exposition on freedom, argues further that

a free will would be one that was determined by nothing at all.

Leaving Schopenhauer momentarily, I turn to Chapman Cohen, who says of the freewill believer, that they hold

intentional action is the unconditioned expression of absolutely free beings, and is what it is because of the selective action of an undetermined will.

You will allow two more instances to refer to Schopenhauer and D’Holdbach before we look at the post by Joseph. D’Holdbach writes

Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant. He is born without his own consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. He is good or bad, happy or miserable, wise or foolish, reasonable or irrational, without his will being for any thing in these various states.”

while Schopenhauer in almost the same line of thinking, writes

[A]s little as a ball on a billiard table can move before receiving an impact, so little can a man get up from his chair before being drawn or driven by a motive. But then his getting up is as necessary and inevitable as the rolling of a ball after the impact. And to expect that anyone will do something to which absolutely no interest impels them is the same as to expect that a piece of wood shall move toward me without being pulled by a string.

I have gone to great length in defining what other philosophers who have written about freewill have written to help give the issue some clarity. We can now look at the work by Joseph.

He, while referring to tradition by St. Augustine, says to act freely is to act without constraints. He says, per Augustine,

the mark of freedom is to be able to bring about an effect as an “uncaused cause.”

The question we must ask at this point is whether such is possible? Do you know of a scenario in your life or of your neighbour’s life when an act of will was without cause? That there was no desire, no motive? You acted without cause or does ignorance of proximate cause translate to no cause?

The same originalist position, Joseph tells us, is shared by Dons Scotus, who argued

we are “total cause” of what we freely will.

To this statement of Dons Scotus, I, following Schopenhauer must ask, can we will what we will?

The other school of thought is represented by Thomas Aquinas who Joseph tells us argued that you choose to act but god causes you to make that choice. The school that has developed for an interpretation of this line of thought has become known us

“freedom-for-excellence” — freedom understood as acting virtuously for true human happiness.

I find it quite illogical, as Joseph writes about Aquinas, that

 God causes me to choose whatever I choose to do, but I still do what I do freely.

In which universe would one call this freedom? Introducing god to the equation does not make it any easier. How does one know their choice is the action of a god? To be truly free, as the volitionist would have us believe, we would have to be the causa sui of our actions.

How does acting virtuously for true human happiness amount to having free will as Joseph would want us believe when he writes

Here behavioral scientists could appeal to freedom-for-excellence as an example of one genuine kind of freedom that seems compatible with my being caused to act as I do

Keep in mind freedom for excellence is where god does the choosing and you do the acting. In this causal chain, whatever the outcome, one must be a contortionist to see this as a case of freedom.

I am not sure, when Joseph writes that

Freedom-for-excellence is a genuine kind of freedom; it is a kind of freedom worth having

if he is still talking about freewill or, he, like compatibilists Marvin and Dennett, is arguing for a freedom worth having. Freedom worth having brings us no closer to an understanding of freewill. It tells us nothing of what freewill is.

I don’t see how Joseph, can still maintain he is talking about freewill when he believes

 [P]inckaers says we act freely when we act virtuously to achieve excellence, even though we are forced to conform to moral laws. These laws enhance freedom, rather than spoiling it, because by conforming our behavior to them we are able to achieve excellence, in the same way that by conforming our behavior to grammar rules we are able to achieve linguistic excellence.

For, by accepting the effect of laws on our actions or as would say, manifestations of the will, he is moving over to the determinists’ position. In this case, therefore, there is a contradiction in his position that he should address. If we are, as he argued earlier, originalists, then the action of laws are irrelevant. On the other hand, if there are laws or even a god influence in our actions, the argument for uncaused cause is no longer be sustainable.

It is quite evident in Joseph’s and the church fathers’ insistence on freewill comes from this theological problem, that

 if God is the cause of my actions, and if I choose to do evil, then it appears that God is the cause of my evil actions. How, then, could anyone be allowed to suffer punishment, much less eternal punishment? We’re just victims of circumstances and events outside our control.

As I said at the beginning, I see no need in trying to respond to his attempts at reconciling Dons Scotus and Aquinas for both positions do little to advance the cause of free will. I contend further that Joseph has not only failed to tell us what freewill is, but has also failed to demonstrate that it is possible. He has instead tried to reconcile the theological problem stated above which it is my contention he cannot get away from without altering the meaning of words, that is, talking gibberish.

If you have read this post up to this point, know you could not have acted otherwise than you did.

In the face of death

These two questions intrigued me. What would be your course of action in each and why?

In the Face of Death: Cannibalism at Sea

Scenario 1: The Mignonette Case

In May 1884, the British yacht Mignonette set sail for Sydney, Australia with four crew on board. On July 5, disaster

struck, the yacht was lost, and the crew were forced to take to a small lifeboat. For eighteen days, they drifted around the ocean more than 1000 miles from land. By this point, things were desperate: they had been without food for seven days and water for five. All crew members were in a bad way, but worst off was 17 year old cabin boy, Richard Parker. He was barely conscious, if indeed he was conscious at all.

At this point, the captain of the ship, Tom Dudley, suggested they ought to draw lots to select one of them to be killed, thereby giving the others a chance of survival. The thought was they could use the body of the dead person as a source of food and liquid. This idea was in the first instance rejected by one of the crew members, Edmund Brooks, but Dudley didn’t let the issue drop, and later the same day discussed the matter with Edwin Stephens, the fourth member of the crew. He pointed out that it was overwhelmingly likely that Richard Parker, the cabin boy, was going to die whatever happened, but if they killed him – which was the best way of ensuring his blood would be in a fit state to drink – there was a chance that he and Stephens would see their wives and families again.

The following day, with no prospect of rescue, Dudley, with the assent of Stephens, killed the boy. The three remaining crew members then fed on his body, enabling them to survive long enough to be rescued on July 29th. Dudley later described the scene as follows: “I can assure you I shall never forget the sight of my two unfortunate companions over that ghastly meal we all was like mad wolfs who should get the most and for men fathers of children to commit such a deed we could not have our right reason.”

The facts in this case are well-established. Richard Parker was killed by Tom Dudley, with the consent of Edwin Stephens, because they genuinely believed there was no immediate prospect of rescue, that Parker would likely die regardless of what happened, and that all of them would die if he was not sacrificed.

The question is were they morally justified in killing him?


Second scenario

In the Face of Death: I Killed All the Children

Scenario 2: The Warsaw Ghetto Doctor

In the late summer of 1942, 22 year old Adina Blady Szwajger was working as a doctor at Warsaw’s Children’s Hospital. It was no ordinary summer, though. Some 18 mnonths earlier, the Nazi occupiers of Poland had shut the gates on Warsaw’s Jewish population creating what is now known as the Warsaw ghetto. As a result, Szwajger had for at least a year worked in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering as the hospital filled with children dying of starvation and tuberculosis. In her memoir, she talks of “famished skeletons” lapping up the slops of a spilled soup pot from the floor; and of the attempt to live a “principled life” in circumstances of the utmost moral depravity.

But in August 1942, it became impossible to go on. The Germans had begun to round up the Jewish population, loading them into cattle trucks and shipping them off to the death camps, where their fate was to meet a grisly end. By this point, the hospital was no longer functioning as a hospital – there were “no children’s wards, just the sick, the wounded and the dying everywhere.”

The moment which came to define Szwajger’s life arrived when the Nazis turned up at the hospital, and began the brutal process of shutting it down. A nurse begged Szwajger to end her elderly mother’s life: “Doctor…I can’t do it. I beg you, please. I don’t want them to shoot her in bed, and she can’t walk.” Dr. Szwajger administered morphine, first attending to “families of staff.” Then she went to the ward which housed the smallest infants, and one by one gave each child a lethal dose. “Just as, during those two years of real work in the hospital, I had bent down over the little beds, so now I poured this last medicine into those tiny mouths…And downstairs, there was screaming because the…Germans were already there, taking the sick from the wards to the cattle trucks.” She told the older children “that this medicine was going to make their pain disappear…So they lay down and after a few minutes – I don’t know how many – but the next time I went into that room, they were asleep.”

Adina Szwajger took the lives of her young patients as the final act of what she saw as her duty of care, in order to spare them ignominious and certain death at the hands of the Nazis. But, of course, the infants and children did not and could not have consented. The issue, then, is whether she did the right thing. Was she morally justified in taking the lives of her patients in order to save them from their fate at the hands of the Nazis?