Why Jerry Coyne is barking up the wrong tree on moral responsibility and free will

Professor Coyne’s website Why Evolution is True is one of my favourites and generally his views align well with mine. I part company with him, though, in his long-running campaign to get rid of notions of “moral responsibility” and “free will”.

“Moral responsibility”, as often defined and as Coyne uses it, is the notion that morality is an absolute, such that a “morally bad” act should be met with punishment regardless of what any human might think and regardless of any consequences for humans. This is often coupled with the notion that humans have dualistic “free will” and that “moral” choices are those made by this non-material, dualist “will” (in opposition to the idea that human decisions are determined by the physical state of the brain).

Coyne (writing in America) sees these ideas as harmful, first in bolstering religion, and second in leading to a justice system that is based on retribution; he considers that justice should instead be based on deterrence and crime mitigation, coupled with sympathy for criminals through recognition that they are largely the products of their environment.

I agree with Coyne’s rejection of deontological morality and with his rejection of dualistic free will, and I also agree with Coyne’s ideas about the justice system. Yet it seems to me that Europe has already progressed down the lines Coyne wishes to see, and it has done so, not by removing motions of morality and free will from society, but by becoming less religious.

The ideas of morality as absolute and of free will as deriving from a dualistic soul are interpretations, relatively superficial commentaries about ourselves. They are indeed often bound up with religion, but as we adopt better, non-religious world views, we readily adopt better, non-religious interpretations of morality and will.

While the superficial interpretations of morality and free will can be readily replaced, our morality and our choice-selecting behaviour themselves are not superficial, they are at the core of our biological nature. Thus, Coyne’s tactics are unlikely to succeed: telling people that human morals and human choice-making don’t exist will not work, since that conflicts with all our experience.

Instead, interpreting those things in a non-religious way is easy and happens automatically as people become less religious. Indeed, much better interpretations are already available, having been developed by a long tradition of philosophers back to the Ancient Greeks.

Moral responsibility:
Why do we have morals? They are programmed into us by evolution to do a job, namely to facilitate social interaction and cooperation, and thus to enable our highly cooperative ecological niche. Like aesthetic feelings and emotional feelings, moral feelings are part of our biology; indeed psychologists tell us that, for example, our disgust at an immoral act is similar to our aesthetic disgust at, say, rancid food. The former likely originated from the latter when evolution (as it often does) co-opted an existing mechanism.

Evolution is blind and pragmatic, and had no capacity for knowing or caring about “absolute” morals, and thus there is no reason to suppose that human morals have any relation to any supposed “absolute” morality. Indeed, the whole idea of deontological morals is baseless and incoherent. The Euthyphro dilemma showed that 2400 years ago. It baffles me that some philosophers still seriously discuss deontological morality, since the notion of absolute morals is the biggest red-herring in philosophy.

My own pet just-so story is that the idea of morals as absolute is a powerful illusion, an illusion programmed into us by evolution as an easy way of making our moral system more effective.

While the idea of deontological morals is a non-starter the idea of consequentialist morals is much better. However, it is not quite right. At least, it is right if you assert that in your opinion the morality of our actions should be judged on their consequences for people. The mistake would be thinking that one can establish an objective scheme of morals along these lines. One can’t, there is no foundation for any objective, absolute morality, there is nothing except people’s opinions. That is not denigrating morality by saying that it doesn’t matter, indeed the opinions of people (including ourselves) are the only things that do matter to us.

Thus, along with notions of deterrence and crime mitigation, one also has to consider human feelings, such as our notions of justice. One can’t obtain human contentment by regarding such feelings as irrelevant, though of course such feelings can to some extent be re-programmed by argument and reason.

So should we, as Jerry Coyne suggests, abandon the idea of holding people “morally responsible”, and instead just talk about what deters and what doesn’t? To me this is crazy, and is akin to trying to abandon all notions of the taste of food, to discuss instead only whether the food is nutritious.

It is true that human taste will have arisen from evolutionary programming grounded in what is nutritious, and it is also true that human moral sentiments will have arisen from evolutionary programming grounded in what will deter acts that have harmful consequences, but we can’t deny that nowadays both our aesthetic system and our moral system are parts of our nature.

Yes we should consider the effectiveness of our judicial systems rationally and on the evidence, and yes we should take a humane approach to punishing and trying to rehabilitate the criminal, and yes we can reject religious notions of vengeful retribution, but we can do all of that without abandoning the idea of morality. Indeed, we already have gone most of the way. Compared to the Middle Ages our justice system is vastly more humane; in Europe we no longer have capital or corporal punishment of criminals, and there is widespread recognition of the effects of background and environment in determining whether someone becomes a criminal.

This has occurred alongside a marked decrease in religiosity and a marked secularisation of Europe (and has also gone furthest in places such as Scandinavia, which are the most secular), however it has not occurred through any reduction in considerations of what is moral, quite the reverse: people have adopted new practices because they consider them to be more moral. Indeed, I’m willing to bet that the reason that Professor Coyne wishes to encourage a less retributive and more compassionate treatment of criminals is that he considers that to be more moral.

We can reconsider and re-evaluate what is moral, but we can’t abandon the whole concept of morality. Indeed, if Coyne did succeed in removing “moral” from the language, there would just be a need for a word that was functionally equivalent.

We need “moral responsibility”, though we should not define it as deontological. Instead we can define “moral” responsibility as susceptible-to-social-opprobrium responsibility. (Thus, someone acting violently owing to a brain tumour is not held “morally” responsible since the social disapproval would have no effect on the tumour.) This social-interaction definition of “moral responsibility” is much better since, after all, social interaction is why evolution programmed us with moral sentiments.

Free will:
Our brains are choice-selecting devices. They are there to process real-time information from our environment, and then select the course of action to achieve our desires. Our basic desires have resulted from programming by evolution, revolving around survival and reproduction and around means to those ends, such as social success. Genes, of course, can’t evaluate and respond to real-time information from our environment, so can’t do the choosing themselves, so they build brains to do that job for them.

The whole point is that the choice is determined by the physical state of the brain, and thus by the genes, environment, and life experiences. The brain would be pretty useless if it weren’t deterministic. A decision unrelated to the physical world would not be much good for finding food, shelter, mates, et cetera. Some argue that quantum indeterminacy might be at work in human decision-making, but throwing a quantum dice would just give random decision, and the whole point of a massively expensive brain is to to do much better than random.


Thus the idea of non-deterministic decision making is nonsensical and incoherent (as is the notion of deontological morality; no-one has ever explained how either concept makes sense). Of course we are not consciously aware of what most of our brain (1014 synapses in a vastly complex neural network) is doing. This network makes our decisions and then reports them to our consciousness.

Our “consciousness” might attribute these decisions to itself, but that’s just an illusion born of lack of awareness of the machinery under the bonnet. The products of this physical machinery, the desire to act out our choices to achieve our goals, are what we call our “will”.

When we are free to act on our will we call it “free” will. We are not “free” to go to the cinema if we are in jail, and if someone is holding a gun to our head and threatening us then we are coerced rather than free. But if there is nothing external, no other human, preventing us from doing one of the range of things humans normally do then we regard ourselves as “free”.

Again, as with “morality”, this is a social-interaction understanding of the terms. It is fundamentally about interactions with our fellow humans, not about physics or metaphysics. Thus this “freedom” is entirely compatible with the fact that our brain’s decisions are determined by the laws of physics.

However, if one is religious, one might believe in a non-material “soul”, and one might be a dualist, believing that there is something non-material and non-physical that makes the decision, and then compels the material body to comply. But there is no evidence for this, and, further, there is no coherent and sensible account of how it might work. It is, again, only a superficial rationalisation that humans make about themselves.

Jerry Coyne is on-target in wanting to dispel such dualist, non-physical notions. I suggest, though, that he is off-target in identifying “free will” solely with these dualistic, non-physical notions and thus wanting to reject all notions of free will. Indeed, he goes further, rejecting even the concept of “choice” in favour of a deterministic “appearance of choice”.

To me this won’t work, because the goal-oriented, choice-selecting behaviour of our brains is at the core of our nature (it’s the whole point of having brains) and at the core of our experience. Thus compatibilist notions of “free will” — interpretations of will that are entirely compatible with a deterministic outcome — simply work better.

Again, if Coyne did succeed in erasing concepts of “will” and “choice” from the language, he’d then just have to invent concepts that are functionally equivalent.

Consider the conversation: Father: “What ice cream flavour would you like?”. Child: “Strawberry!”. Somewhat later, with the child licking the ice cream: “But I don’t like strawberry”. Father: “Well you chose it!”. And also consider this variant: Father: “Here is your ice cream, it’s strawberry”. Child, licking the ice cream: “But I don’t like strawberry”.


The salient issue here is not whether the choosing or the liking is dualistic or determined by physics, the salient difference is whether the choice was in accord with the child’s will. The “freedom” of our will is not about where our will comes from, it’s about whether we can act on it. We can certainly ditch dualism, but we do need this concept of compatibilist free will and choice selection. As Schopenhauer summed it up: “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”.

Perhaps Professor Coyne might reply that notions of dualistic free-will and deontological moral responsibility are buttresses of religion, and that we need to tear them down to then over-turn religion. But it seems to me that nobody turns to religions because they first believe in dualism and deontological morals, rather they point to these things when they are already religious. Yes, theologians such as Alvin Plantinga and apologist Christians such as Francis Collins regard these things as explainable only by a god, and therefore as evidence for religion, but such theological reasoning is only ever a rationalisation of what someone already believes.

In Europe, much more so than in the US, we have become much less religious. This was not achieved by first attacking dualism and deontology, indeed I’m willing to bet that, as a population becomes more secular, belief in those lingers longer than belief in the major religions.

My disagreement with Jerry Coyne is that he is too readily ceding ownership of the language to the religious. When science abandoned vitalism scientists didn’t invent new words to replace “life”, nor did they try to persuade people that, lacking vitalism, nothing was really alive, instead they just adopted a better understanding of life. Similarly, promoting a better understanding of morality and free will is likely to work much better than trying to persuade people that they do not really make choices and that there is no such thing as morality. The facts — that people are alive, that they make choices, and that they have a sense of morality — are too obvious for that to work.

3 thoughts on “Why Jerry Coyne is barking up the wrong tree on moral responsibility and free will

  1. Aaron Browder

    “Free will” in particular is a concept invented for religious purposes and has no purpose outside of religion. The problem began in the garden of Eden, where God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but they did anyway. If God was all-powerful, how could anyone or anything deny his commands? Rather, how is it that humans can deny his commands, while the rest of the world is powerless under his will? The answer is that God gifted man uniquely with free will. If you eliminate the concept of an all-powerful god, the concept of free will becomes unnecessary. Unfortunately the problem of choice vs. illusion of choice still exists.

  2. Ken B

    Coyne’s positions are inconsistent and incoherent. Consider some examples.
    You rob a bank. The law punishes your sister as the most effective deterrent on your future behavior. Absent any notion of responsibility Coyne cannot object . ( He does in real life, inconsistently, of course.)
    We pass a law to imprison robbers. This deters you. This requires beliefs and desires to be causal. That is the entire content of compatibilism, which he denies.


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