I think many people are thoroughly confused by the problem of free will. I think the easiest way to understand is this: there is a metaphysical definition of free will and there is an ethical definition of free will. The metaphysical definition is that there exists a will that is uncaused and undetermined. The metaphysical debate is concerned with whether this is true or not. Now, the ethical definition of free will is an uncoerced, self-controlled will. This doesn’t mean that such wills are neceessarily undetermined. It is rather that one isn’t coerced by others or that one has the ability of self-control –”essentially a means by which one consciously decides to overrule subconsciously delivered impulses—an exercise of free will if you wish.” (Patricia Churchland) Not every animal is able to override their subconscious impulses through reason. Yes, even this rational process is determined by bio-chemical processes and physical constraints. So what? Like I mentioned already, this is something of which only rational animals seem to be capable, and it profoundly influences our ethical intuitions. Hence, the name– the ethical defintion of free will.
These two definitions do not necessarily conflict with each other. Even if one were a determinist, one could still acknowledge that human beings do have this peculiar ability to not eat ice cream when we’re on a diet. Of course, these two definitions do conflict if one believed in libertarian free will –the belief that the will is uncaused and undetermined. However, this is not where most of the conflict in the free will debate comes from –most thinkers are not libertarians! The debate actually mostly takes place between determinists.
So what is causing those on the same side to feud so much? Well, the contention is whether or not we ought to replace the metaphysical definition with the ethical definition of free will. Let’s call these two sides Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Sam Harris believes that the metaphysical definition is the one many people care about; therefore, it needs to be the one we use. This might ring a bell with those who grew up religious –particularly, the abrahamic religions. They do claim that free will is libertarian. We also see some manifestations of such definitions of free will from existentialists and even popular shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This seems to be a very plausible posotion, because it does indeed seem to be the case that the metaphysical definition of free will is the one we truly care about. So why does Daniel Dennet keep insisting that we must replace it?
Well, Dennet has a case. First, he believes that the metaphysical definition of free will –a will that is uncaused and undetermined– is meaningless. Why? Because it obviously doesn’t exist. It’s like arguing about whether unicorns exist or not. There is nothing to argue. The case is closed. Let’s move on. Let’s replace this stupid definition with an ethical definition of free will. Second, Dennett makes the claim that, if we probe deeper into our psychology, the one we truly care about is the ethical definition. Often the positions in which we claim to believe do not necessarily coincide with what we actually believe. For example, many pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder. Yet, when you ask them if the mother is a murderer for having aborted the baby, many of them believe that it is wrong to call the mother a murderer. When you probe deeper into one’s belief system, you often find more than what they seem to suggest in the surface. This just might be the case with free will. People might claim to be concerned with the metaphysical definition, but when we probe deeper they might actually care more about the ethical definition. There are clever ways to devise experiments to see if one truly cares about the latter or the former definition of free will. Rather than asking, straight ahead, do you believe in the metaphysical or ethical free will, we could ask them whether the consequences of either are troublesome or not. It’s better to do this because these terms are so loaded with biases and tribalism –like abortion– it gets in the way of seeing what people truly care about.
So who’s right? I lean more towards compabilism –also known as Daniel Dennett’s position. I think the metaphysical debate is fruitless. There is no God, there is no will outside the constraints of the physical world. Let’s move on. I know that this may sound deflationary, and that Sam Harris might be right in that people do truly care about the libertarian definition of free will even if it were false. Well, I wouldn’t be so hasty. Such claims ultimately are determined by empirical data. If it turns out that people care more about the metaphysical definition of free will, then we might just have to stick with it. If it turns out that we, in fact, care more about the ethical definition of free will, then Dennett is right –we should replace the metaphysical with the ethical.
Addendum: I forgot to mention the fact that the ethical definition of free will is used quite often in ordinary language. When one claims: “did you go with him of your own free will?” This person is obviously not asking whether their friend was free from the laws of physics. They’re asking whether their friend wasn’t coerced by another person. I’m sure you can think of many other examples and that is evidence for the fact that the metaphysical definition of free will isn’t as overwhelmingly dominant as Sam Harris often makes it out to be. I don’t think such thought experiments are sufficient to conclude that the ethical definition means more to us. But they do hint at the unwarranted assumption that the metaphysical definition is overwhelmingly used – we actually use the ethical definition quite a lot.