Gregg D. Caruso Ph.D.

Unjust Deserts

Does Disbelief in Free Will Increase Anti-Social Behavior?

There is no reason to fear free will skepticism.

Posted Oct 16, 2015

Contemporary theories of free will tend to fall into one of two general categories, namely, those who insist on and those who are skeptical about the reality of human freedom and moral responsibility. The former category includes libertarian and compatibilist accounts of free will, two general views that defend the reality of free will but disagree on its nature. The latter category includes a family of skeptical views that all take seriously the possibility that human beings do not have free will, and are therefore not morally responsible for their actions in the basic desert sense.

The main dividing line between the two pro-free will positions, libertarianism and compatibilism, is best understood in terms of the traditional problem of free will and determinism. Determinism, as it is commonly understood, is roughly the thesis that every event or action, including human action, is the inevitable result of preceding events and actions and the laws of nature. The problem of free will and determinism therefore comes in trying to reconcile our intuitive sense of free will with the idea that our choices and actions may be causally determined by impersonal forces over which we have no ultimate control.

Libertarians and compatibilists react to this problem in different ways. Libertarians acknowledge that if determinism is true, and all of our actions are causally necessitated by antecedent circumstances, we lack free will and moral responsibility. Yet they further maintain that at least some of our choices and actions must be free in the sense that they are not causally determined. Libertarians therefore reject determinism and defend a counter-causal conception of free will in order to save what they believe are necessary conditions for free will—i.e., the ability to do otherwise in exactly the same set of conditions and the idea that we remain, in some important sense, the ultimate source/originator of action.

Compatibilists, on the other hand, set out to defend a less ambitious form of free will, one that can be reconciled with the acceptance of determinism. They hold that what is of utmost importance is not the falsity of determinism, nor that our actions are uncaused, but that our actions are voluntary, free from constraint and compulsion, and caused in the appropriate way. Different compatibilist accounts spell out the exact requirements for compatibilist freedom differently, but popular theories tend to focus on such things as reasons-responsiveness, guidance control, hierarchical integration, and approval of one’s motivational states.

In contrast to these pro-free will positions are those views that either doubt or outright deny the existence of free will and/or moral responsibility. Such views are often referred to as skeptical views, or simply free will skepticism. In the past, the standard argument for skepticism was hard determinism: the view that determinism is true and incompatible with free will and moral responsibility—either because it precludes the ability to do otherwise (leeway incompatibilism) or because it is inconsistent with one’s being the “ultimate source” of action (source incompatibilism)—hence, no free will. For hard determinists, libertarian free will is an impossibility because human actions are part of a fully deterministic world and compatibilism is operating in bad faith.

Hard determinism had its classic statement in the time when Newtonian physics reigned but it has very few defenders today—largely because the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics has been taken by many to undermine, or at least throw into doubt, the thesis of universal determinism. This is not to say that determinism has been refuted or falsified by modern physics, because it has not. Determinism still has its modern defenders and the final interpretation of physics is not yet in. It is also important to keep in mind that even if we allow some indeterminacy to exist at the microlevel of our existence—the level studied by quantum mechanics—there would still likely remain determinism-where-it-matters. As Ted Honderich argues: “At the ordinary level of choices and actions, and even ordinary electrochemical activity in our brains, causal laws govern what happens. It’s all cause and effect in what you might call real life.” Nonetheless, most contemporary skeptics defend positions that are best seen as successors to traditional hard determinism.

In recent years, several contemporary philosophers have offered arguments for skepticism about free will and basic desert moral responsibility that are agnostic about determinism—e.g., Derk Pereboom, Galen Strawson, Saul Smilansky, Neil Levy, Bruce Waller, and myself. Most maintain that while determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility, so too is indeterminism, especially the variety posited by quantum mechanics. Others argue that regardless of the causal structure of the universe, we lack free will and moral responsibility because free will is incompatible with the pervasiveness of luck. Others (still) argue that free will and ultimate moral responsibility are incoherent concepts, since to be free in the sense required for ultimate moral responsibly we would have to be causa sui (or “cause of oneself”) and this is impossible. Here, for example, is Nietzsche on the causa sui:

The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.

What all these skeptical arguments have in common, and what they share with classical hard determinism, is the belief that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense—the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame or praise in a backwards-looking, non-consequentialist sense. This is not to say that there are not other conceptions of responsibility that can be reconciled with determinism, chance, or luck. Nor is it to deny that there may be good pragmatic reasons to maintain certain systems of punishment and reward (see here). Rather, it is to insist that to hold people truly or ultimately morally responsible for their actions in the basic desert sense would be to hold them responsible for the results of the morally arbitrary, for what is ultimately beyond their control, which is (according to the skeptic) fundamentally unfair and unjust.  

Rather than defend free will skepticism, however, I would like to examine an important practical question: What if we came to disbelieve in free will and basic desert moral responsibility? What would this mean for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law? What would it do to our standing as human beings? Would it cause nihilism and despair as some maintain? Or perhaps increase anti-social behavior as some recent studies have suggested? (More of this in a moment.) Or would it rather have a humanizing effect on our practices and policies, freeing us from the negative effects of free will belief? These questions are of profound pragmatic importance and should be of interest independent of the metaphysical debate over free will. As public proclamations of skepticism continue to rise, and as the media continues to run headlines proclaiming that free will is an illusion, we need to ask what effects this will have on the general public and what the responsibility is of professionals.

In recent years a small industry has actually grown up around precisely these questions. In the skeptical community, for example, a number of different positions have been developed and advanced—including Saul Smilansky’s illusionism, Thomas Nadelhoffer’s disillusionism, Shaun Nichols’ anti-revolution, and the optimistic skepticism of Derk Pereboom, Bruce Waller, and myself.

Saul Smilansky, for example, maintains that our commonplace beliefs in libertarian free will and desert-entailing ultimate moral responsibility are illusions, but he also maintains that if people were to accept this truth there would be wide-reaching negative intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences. According to Smilansky, “Most people not only believe in actual possibilities and the ability to transcend circumstances, but have distinct and strong beliefs that libertarian free will is a condition for moral responsibility, which is in turn a condition for just reward and punishment.” It would be devastating, he warns, if we were to destroy such beliefs: “the difficulties caused by the absence of ultimate-level grounding are likely to be great, generating acute psychological discomfort for many people and threatening morality—if, that is, we do not have illusion at our disposal.” To avoid any deleterious social and personal consequences, then, and to prevent the unraveling of our moral fabric, Smilansky recommends free will illusionism. According to illusionism, people should be allowed their positive illusion of libertarian free will and with it ultimate moral responsibility; we should not take these away from people, and those of us who have already been disenchanted ought to simply keep the truth to ourselves.           

In direct contrast to Smilansky’s illusionism, Thomas Nadelhoffer defends free will disillusionism: “the view that to the extent that folk intuitions and beliefs about the nature of human cognition and moral responsibility are mistaken, philosophers and psychologists ought to do their part to educate the public—especially when their mistaken beliefs arguably fuel a number of unhealthy emotions and attitudes such as revenge, hatred, intolerance, lack of empathy, etc.” According to Nadelhoffer, “humanity must get beyond this maladaptive suite of emotions if we are to survive.” And he adds, “To the extent that future developments in the sciences of the mind can bring us one step closer to that goal—by giving us a newfound appreciation for the limits of human cognition and agency—I welcome them with open arms.”

A policy of disillusionism is also present in the optimistic skepticisms of Derk Pereboom and Bruce Waller. Derk Pereboom, for example, has defended the view that morality, meaning, and value remain intact even if we are not morally responsible in the basic desert sense, and furthermore, that adopting this perspective could provide significant benefits for our lives. In Living Without Free Will and again in Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, Pereboom argues that life without free will and desert-based moral responsibility would not be as destructive as many people believe. Prospects of finding meaning in life or of sustaining good interpersonal relationships, for example, would not be threatened. And although retributivism and severe punishment, such as the death penalty, would be ruled out, preventive detention and rehabilitation programs would be justified. He even argues that relinquishing our belief in free will might well improve our well-being and our relationships to others since it would tend to eradicate an often destructive form of “moral anger.”

Bruce Waller has also made a strong case for the benefits of a world without moral responsibility. In Against Moral Responsibility, he cites many instances in which moral responsibility practices are counterproductive from a practical and humanitarian standpoint—notably in how they stifle personal development, encourage punitive excess in criminal justice, and perpetuate social and economic inequalities. Waller suggests that if we abandon moral responsibility “we can look more clearly at the causes and more deeply into the systems that shape individuals and their behavior,” and this will allow us to adopt more humane and effective interpersonal attitudes and approaches to education, criminal justice, and social policy. He maintains that in the absence of moral responsibility, “it is possible to look more deeply at the influences of social systems and situations,” to minimize the patent unfairness that luck deals out in life, and to “move beyond [the harmful effects of] blame and shame.”

Who then is correct? What would the actual consequences of embracing free will skepticism be? In my work, I have tried to make the case that belief in free will and basic desert moral responsibility, rather than being a good thing, actually has a dark side and that we would be better off without it (see, for example, here and here). My position is therefore one of optimistic skepticism and disillusionism. I have argued that belief in free will, rather than providing the pragmatic benefits many claim, is too often used to justify treating people in severe and demeaning ways. The problem (or at least one of the problems) is the belief that individuals “justly deserve” what they get. The idea of just deserts is a pernicious one. For one, it often encourages punitive excess in criminal justice, including extreme forms of retributive justice such as the death penalty. It is also used to perpetuate social and economic inequalities. The myth of the “rugged individual” or the “self-made man,” which are closely tied to the belief in free will, fail to acknowledge the important role luck plays in our lives. The simple fact is that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control. We are not (as the moral responsibility system would like us to believe) purely or ultimately self-made men and women.

In response to my optimistic skepticism, however, critics often point to a widely cited study by Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler (available here) which purported to find that participants who were exposed to anti-free will primes were more likely to cheat than participants exposed to pro-free will or neutral primes. In one study, they asked 30 college students to solve math problems on a computer. The volunteers were told that owing to a computer glitch, the answers would pop up on the screen after the problem if they did not hit the space bar. They were asked to do so but told that no one would know either way. In addition, some of the participants in the study were first asked to read passages by well-respected scientists to the effect that we do not have free will. In particular, they read one of two passages from The Astonishing Hypothesis, a book written by Francis Crick, the Nobel-Prize-winning scientist. The participants read statements claiming that rational, high-minded people—including most scientists, according to Crick—now recognize that free will is an illusion. Vohs and Schooler found that students exposed to the anti-free will primes were more likely to cheat than those in the control group.

While these findings appear to support concerns over the anti-social consequences of relinquishing free will belief, I advise caution in drawing any universal or sweeping conclusions from them. There are powerful criticisms of the methodology of these studies that put into doubt the supposed connection between disbelief in free will and any long-term increase in anti-social behavior. First of all, the passages used to prime disbelief in free will appear to be priming the wrong thing. Several critics have noted that instead of priming belief in hard determinism or hard incompatibilism (the view that free will is incompatible with determinism and indeterminism), the Crick excerpt subjects read is actually priming a scientific reductionist view of the mind, one that is proclaimed to demonstrate that free will is an illusion. Free will skepticism, however, need not entail such a reductionist view and the priming passages may be giving participants the mistaken impression that scientists have concluded that their beliefs, desires, and choice are causally inefficacious—a claim not embraced by most philosophical skeptics.

Secondly, subsequent studies have had a difficult time replicating these findings. Some readers may be familiar with the recent unprecedented attempt to replicate 100 studies published in three of the top psychology journals. Surprisingly, the Reproducibility Project was only able to replicate 35 out of the 100 studies and one of the studies that failed to replicate was the Vohs and Schooler study—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article. This, however, was not the first time there have been difficulties replicating these findings. Rolf Zwaan at the University of Rotterdam, for example, attempted to replicate the findings but was unable to do so (see here). Eddy Nahmias and Thomas Nadelhoffer also attempted to replicate the findings and, as Nahmias describes it (here), “the effects don’t always replicate and they only seem to work with the over-the-top primes that suggest all kinds of threats to agency.” He goes on to say, “no one has shown that telling people they lack just what philosophical … skeptics say they lack and nothing more has any bad effects on behavior or sense of meaning.”

Setting aside these replication failures for the moment, let's assume that there is a small effect but that it is highly sensitive to the primes used and how the study is conducted. There is still a third concern I have and it has to do with the relevance of these findings to disbelief in free will. Assuming for the moment that the findings are real and can be replicated, there are alternative explanations for the cheating behavior that have nothing to do with belief in free will, per se. Thomas Nadelhoffer has argued that it is equally plausible that the cheating behavior is being driven by the more general fact that participants are being told that one of their cherished beliefs has been shown to be an illusion by science. On this alternative, the cheating behavior would have less to do with disbelief in free will and more to do with ego depletion more generally. That is, perhaps people are simply more likely to cheat after reading passages from scientific authorities challenging (or even mocking) one’s cherished beliefs because it depletes one’s self-control, which in turn weakens one’s ability to trump the self-interested baseline desire to cheat. It would be rather easy, in fact, to test this alternative. One could, for example, challenge participants' (say) pro-American beliefs by having them read extended quotes from a famous authority (say Noam Chomsky) that challenges or mocks the belief, then checking to see whether this increases one’s propensity to cheat. If it does, this would support the alternative explanation above since it would suggest that the results in the Vohs and Schooler studies are not being driven by anything unique about belief in free will. Until this alternative is tested and ruled out, Vohs and Schooler’s findings remain in doubt.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, these anti-social consequences come immediately following the prime, are limited in scope, and appear only to be temporary. Hence, these studies establish, at best, that participants were temporarily morally compromised after being exposed to anti-free will primes. While this may suggest that (say) I should not do my taxes immediately after being told that I do not have free will for the first time, they say nothing about the long-term effects of free will skepticism. Once people properly understand what the denial of free will entails (and what it does not entail), and once they have sufficiently come to terms with it, there is no reason to think (at least not from these studies) that we would find an overall increase in anti-social behavior.

More empirical work in this area clearly needs to be done, but the fact that the Vohs and Schooler study has been cited more than 340 times (the most of any of the 100 studies that the Reproducibility Project tried to replicate) highlights that we need to move forward with caution and avoid making too much of any one study. Vohs and Schooler themselves are rather careful and qualified in the conclusions they draw, but some philosophers have not been so careful or forthcoming about the limitations of the study. If what I have argued here is correct, we should stop trumpeting this study as evidence of the harmful effects of disbelief in free will.


Caruso, Gregg D. 2012. Free will and consciousness: A determinist account of the illusion of free will. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

———. ed. 2013. Exploring the illusion of free will and moral responsibility. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

———. (forthcoming). Free will skepticism and its implications: An argument for optimism. In Free will skepticism in Law and Society, eds. Elizabeth Shaw and Derk Pereboom.

Honderich, Ted. 2002. How free are you? The determinism problem. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levy, Neil. 2011. Hard luck: How luck undermines free will and moral responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nadelhoffer, Thomas. 2011. The threat of shrinking agency and free will disillusionism. In Conscious will and responsibility: A tribute to Benjamin Libet, ed. L. Nadel and W. Sinnott-Armstrong, 173-88. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living without free will. New York: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2014. Free will, agency, and meaning in life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smilansky, Saul. 2000. Free will and illusion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strawson, Galen. 2010. Freedom and belief. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vohs, Kathleen D., and Jonathan W. Schooler. 2008. The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science 19:49-54.

Waller, Bruce. 2011. Against moral responsibility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.