Freedom is one of the most challenging and important questions in metaphysics. In our own freedom-loving society, it is often taken for granted that we are free to do what we want, at least for the most part. But there is an important distinction between political and metaphysical freedom, and how we address the second question has important implications for moral responsibility.
Metaphysical freedom refers to the question of whether human actions are ever the result of their own volitional acts, as well as whether this is compatible with causal determinism. The issue is that two things seem to be true. First, the sciences hold that the rule of universal causality is true. This means that all events that occur are caused by other events. There is no such thing as an uncaused effect. Everything that occurs is causally determined in some way, such that if X, Y, and Z all happened, A had to happen.
The other consideration that creates an interesting philosophical problem is that human beings subjectively experience themselves as having freedom of some kind. When I choose to do A, it seems that my choice is what determined my doing A. It does not seem to be the case that X, Y, and Z caused A, and that my own decision to do A had nothing to do with this. There is thus a substantial conflict between the truth of causal determinism and our experience of freedom. We need some explanation of what is really going on.
There are two significant replies to this problem, with various ways of addressing the details of these positions. First, one can be an incompatibilist, which means that it cannot be the case that humans are free and that everything is causally determined. From this, there are two options. We can either deny that humans are free while maintaining causal determinism, or we can deny causal determinism and maintain that some human actions truly are free. Both of these replies have problems. If we deny causal determinism, we must reject a fundamental claim in the sciences regarding how events come about. If we reject human freedom, it seems difficult to claim that humans are ever responsible for their actions.
This brings us to why this question is important to our own everyday lives. It seems that causal determinism is the case, but the structure of our society assumes that humans are responsible for their actions. Our systems of social welfare, economics, and criminal justice all critically depend on this being the case, yet causal determinism deeply threatens it. Resolving this problem has a potentially deep impact upon the way we structure our society.
The other option, one that leaves open the possibility of causal determinism and moral responsibility, is known as compatibilism. This is the view that humans are free despite the fact that all events are causally determined. There are many ways to develop a view of this type, but the central focus will be to explain what freedom actually is, how it is consistent with causal determinism, and why it leads to the kind of moral responsibility that our social structure assumes and depends on in order to function properly. So perhaps metaphysics is not only relevant, but crucial to the concept of moral responsibility that underwrites our social institutions.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.