My usual take is on free will is that it’s an illusion, but that it also doesn’t much matter, because (contrary to the belief of its most ardent defenders—which belief is really the only reason anyone would try to defend it) it doesn’t make much real difference in terms of moral practice, the assessment of blame and responsibility, and so on. The fairly unreflective, colloquial sense of “freely chosen” (nobody was holding a gun to your head, you formed an intention and carried it out, etc.) will do the job quite nicely without any elaborate metaphysical doctrines required. But reading Michael Ignatieff’s piece in the New York Times Magazine this Sunday reminded me of one way in which the metaphysical doctrine has sufficiently infected popular consciousness as to pose at least a minor problem. In his discussion of “Arab humiliation,” Ignatieff feels obliged to spend several paragraphs defending any mention of the causes of evil acts, lest they be seen as justification.
And that is unfortunate: The sense that explaining behavior takes it out of the realm of moral judgement—which, when it comes to terrorists, we are correctly unwilling to do—sometimes makes us impatient with potentially vital inquiry into those explanations, defaulting to useless bromides like “they hate our freedom.” It’s wrong, of course: It can be the case both that someone fully consciously chose to commit an evil act, and that if circumstances X, Y, and Z, had not obtained, they wouldn’t have done so. I don’t think even someone who wants to defend free will is in the position of having to deny anything quite that obvious, but it seems to be an easy slide.