The Necessity of Free Will for Human Improvement 

An essay on free will written for my senior year philosophy class.

Determinism-free will cartoon

Thomas Nagel and David Eagleman, in trying to reconcile the problem of external factors impacting an individual’s action, ultimately arrive at contrasting perspectives on the implications these factors have on one’s moral responsibility. Nagel, while recognizing the role external factors have on the assessment of an individual’s moral responsibility in what he defines the problem of moral luck, nevertheless believes in an inherent internal understanding of the behavior of humans that upholds the conception of humans as rational agents rather than a product of a series of uncontrollable circumstances and events. In contrast, Eagleman views the increased scientific understanding of the human mind as empirical evidence that the biological and chemical makeup of humans, factors that we have no control over, dominate our behavior and actions. From this, Eagleman advocates for society to forgo the concept of responsibility and attempts at trying to create a distinction between an individual’s action and the biological mechanisms of the human body in favor of a forward-looking legal system that prioritizes providing individuals the appropriate treatment they need to prevent future wrongdoings. While Eagleman sees the need to dismiss ideas of individual responsibility and blameworthiness in their entirety in favor of understanding all human behavior as a consequent of biology and background, I will argue that in constructing a successful future focused legal system as Eagleman proposes, we must still retain the conception of moral responsibility and humans as free agents with the capability to self-reflect and choose to improve themselves instead of reducing humans to biological causes and effects.  

Nagel’s views center around his skepticism of the applicability of the common understanding of moral assessment under circumstances in which an individual’s moral assessment can be influenced by factors outside the individual’s control. These external factors include luck in terms of the results that come from your actions, the kind of person you develop into, or the situations that you face (3, 6). For instance, Nagel raises the example of an ordinary citizen of Nazi Germany being put to the test to either rise to the occasion of opposing the regime or falling into submission while citizens from other countries being in a different situation cannot be similarly heroic or culpable (6). Similarly, Eagleman brings to light examples in which the behavior of individuals is completely out of the individual’s control due to biological issues the arise. These examples of biological mechanisms overriding the faculties of humans include how frontotemporal dementia causes lack of impulse control or pramipexole to treat Parkinson’s disease can result in an addiction to gambling. Beyond biology, Eagleman notes that other factors such as an individual’s upbringing, education, or whether or not they were subject to abuse as a child can significantly drive one’s actions 

While both Nagel and Eagleman acknowledge the prevalence of these uncontrollable biological and circumstantial factors that alters one’s outcome, they ultimately arrive at opposing perspectives of how to reconcile moral luck and external factors with the severe consequences that follow for the usual understanding moral responsibility and practice of moral assessment. The usual understanding of moral judgment of an individual requires assigning praise or blame in accordance with the action controlled by the agent (1). In other words, if we take the case of two reckless drivers, one of whom by random luck hits a pedestrian while the other driver continues safely home, under the condition of control, it must be interpreted as the two drivers having no difference in their moral evaluation (3). This is because the circumstantial luck of a pedestrian walking along the sidewalk at the exact moment when one of the reckless drivers swerves is outside the control of the driver. However, observations of the behavior of our society clearly demonstrate that this is not how individuals or legal system currently conduct moral assessments. 

Through his examination of the prevalence of biology taking over an individual’s agency to control their actions, which can occur a variety of different ways to varying degrees of severity, Eagleman advocates for understanding humans as having minimal control of our behaviors. Who we are can be reduced down to the neuroscience within our brains, of which we have no control over. Eagleman writes, “if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment.” He takes the evidence of individuals breathing, blinking, and swallowing, habits we do on autopilot entirely because of the rules of biology and not due to any conscious choice, as supportive of the idea that humans are run by biological mechanisms. In relating this conception to the implications for our legal system, Eagleman explains that we should abandon ideas of assigning moral responsibility and “instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward” with a violator of the social contract by focusing on methods to prevent future insurrections and bad behavior. 

While Nagel himself is unable to arrive at a system to fully resolve the problem of moral luck, he would certainly disagree with Eagleman in this respect because despite recognizing the existence of moral luck, Nagel remains to hold onto the belief that we have an internal self from which we can distinguish the identity, action, or personality unique to us. Nagel anticipates that a solution of any kind would require the incorporation of the internal conception of human agency rather than understanding humans as a thing solely produced by external factors or chemicals in the brain. He explains that because as humans we are capable of adopting an internal first-person view, “we are unable to view ourselves simply as portions of the world, and from inside we have a rough idea of the boundary between what is us and what is not, what we do and what happens to 4 us, what is our personality and what is an accidental handicap” (7). Nagel, in his desire to preserve personhood, advocates for understanding humans as rational agents with the ability to have an internal individual perspective distinctly different from an external third-person observer view of the word. Humans are not only the sum our circumstances and luck but have the faculty to enact change. As such, we still require the idea of moral responsibility and need to be held accountable for our actions. 

Eagleman argues that a future-focused legal system requires the dismissal of responsibility in favor of treatment to prevent future bad behavior, but in doing so, he undermines the necessity for individuals to have a sense of responsibility if they are to have any hope of affecting their circumstance and improving themselves for the future. By reducing humans to chemical mechanisms in the brain and the product of a series of events, it follows that such a societal conception that Eagleman proposes must also deny individuals of their freedom and ability to make a choice to alter their current trajectory towards improving themselves and changing for the better. For example, in the case of an adult that has a tendency towards violence because they were neglected and physically abused by their parents as a child, if we maintain a societal perspective that their violent tendencies are fully accounted by their past circumstances, there is little hope of change in this individual’s mental attitude through medicine, treatment, or imprisonment if we assume that they have no ability to change the result of their circumstantial luck. However, this same adult, if equipped with the acknowledgment that they may have been negatively impacted by their upbringing, is still a free human agent who is not solely the product of his or her experience, can vow to change and be for their future kids what their parents could never be for them. Regardless of circumstance and biology, humans uniquely possess a first-person internal perspective that Nagel argues for in the form of self-reflection and that enables the pursuit of self-improvement. It is because of this internal view through which we can distinguish between the actions of us as individuals apart from the external choices of the world around us that allows us to similarly identify parts inherent to ourselves that we can control and modify for the future.  

The prior example is representative of situations in which medicine is not an appropriate treatment to reform behavior and actual change requires a transformation in the internal view to move towards improvement. However, Eagleman spends a great deal of his writing discussing the control of biology on human action and the majority of the situations that he brings can be categorized as exceptions where the natural ability to internally look at one’s own action is inhibited or removed entirely such as Kenneth Parks killing while sleepwalking.  In these cases, such as Eagleman is correct in advocating for the dismissal of responsibility since the condition of the individual led them to lack any form of agency to identify their internal self. Along this reasoning, in the situation of Charles Whitman, despite having his brain damaged by a tumor, moral responsibility should be assigned to him for not seeking help during his lapses of consciousness as the letters he left behind revealed. As Nagel suggests, we can still hold onto moral responsibility and judgement for nearly all action, but allow for exceptions during in instances “coercion, ignorance, involuntary movement” or more generally conditions that are outside of one’s control because they prevent one from distinguishing the boundary between what is internal them and external factors (6).  

Overall, Eagleman offers a productive outlook in suggesting a forward-thinking legal system which moves towards the continual improvement of society by greatly focusing on legal action only for the purposes of deterring future bad behavior or violations of social contract. However, in requiring such a perspective to remove ideas of blameworthiness and responsibility for past actions because he views individuals as fundamentally the result of their uncontrollable biology, Eagleman too hastily dismisses the presence of human faculty in any individual and fails to recognize the consequences of such a perspective in terms of achieving the goal to further societal improvements for the future. To truly enact a legal system that seeks to move towards the betterment of a society composed of individuals, we still require the principle of moral responsibility to be assigned to the large majority of actions individuals take that are distinctly their internal choices. By attributing infractions, behaviors, and choices to the responsibility of an individual as opposed to circumstance or biology, we enable change through self-reflection and empower individuals with the ability to improve themselves regardless of past causes. 

Eagleman, David. “The Brain on Trial.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 Oct. 2015. Web. 

Nagel, Thomas. “Moral Luck” CRA Course PDF 

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