Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Why we do what we do

You walked out the door this morning. Why did you do it? Perhaps because you wanted to stretch your legs. Perhaps because you wanted to feel the fresh air on your face and the wind blowing through your hair.

Is that it?

Not quite. I bet you also walked out the door this morning because the phone didn’t ring a second earlier. And because you didn’t see a huge storm approaching. I bet you also walked out the door this morning because you didn’t promise a friend that you would meet him at home. And because you didn’t have to help your spouse with some household chores. And, more generally, because you had no moral obligation that required staying at home. (The list doesn’t end there. In fact, it may continue on indefinitely.)

Now, imagine your cat walked out the door this morning too. Why did he do it? The list of reasons is more limited in his case. In particular, it doesn’t make reference to any moral reasons. Cats don’t listen to moral reasons!

Humans can be morally responsible for their actions. Cats can be awesome in other ways, but we don’t think that they bear moral responsibility for anything. When we blame them for something, we don’t really mean to! (Or we shouldn’t mean to: they are not morally responsible agents.)

Why is that? Why is it okay to hold humans, but not cats, responsible for what they do? Arguably, it’s because human acts can be free in a sense that feline acts cannot. We have free will, and cats don’t (in a full-blown sense of having free will, which is required to be morally responsible for things).

cat
Photo of a cat (probably not being morally responsible) by rihaij. CC0 via Pixabay.

But what does having free will consist in?

Perhaps you thought that it consists in not having causes, or in not being subject to causal influences that determine what we do. However, the example of the morning walk suggests an alternative picture that is more plausible, on reflection.

According to this alternative picture, acting freely doesn’t consist in being free of causal influences. It doesn’t consist in being uncaused. Quite on the contrary, acting freely consists in having many and complex causes. Most of those causes are not immediately apparent to us (unless we are incredibly self-conscious persons!). Some of them concern moral reasons.

Also, many of those causes are not positive reasons, but lacks of reasons. When we do something freely, we do it because we see good reasons to do it, but also, at least typically, because we don’t see sufficiently strong reasons to refrain from doing it. The lack of reasons to refrain is an important part of the explanation of why we act, and of why we act freely.

Although the whole range of causes of our behaviour may not be immediately obvious to us, the causes are still there, shaping our behaviour. We see this in simple cases like the morning walk. Even in those very simple cases, the list of causes is long and rich, and it contains reasons and lacks of reasons, some of which are moral in nature.

Like the happenings in the world around us, our acts have multiple and complex causes. In the world’s complexity lies its beauty. Similarly, in the complexity of the causal sources of our acts lies the beauty of our free will.

Featured image credit: Footprints in the sand, by Unsplash. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Traruh Synred

    Well here’s a question I got in ‘trouble’ for in Theology class at Santa Clara University:

    I suppose I decide to rob a bank.

    Then that decision is either caused or uncaused. By caused I mean pre-determined by the previous state of the world. I can’t NOT do it.

    Uncaused means there ;s some random (say quantum mechanical) element to it. Is that my fault?

    Accidental or predetermined I have no choice!

    I didn’t get in real trouble for this; just scolded that my thinking was ‘too mechanical’ The Jesuit Prof. knew I was a physics major.

    That’s why I never discuss free will w/o a pitcher of beer at the Dutch Goose (Menlo Park, CA)

    But here I am violating my own rule? What made me do that? Vanity? Boredom?

  2. Traruh Synred

    Cat’s and I think any animal with a dominance based social order do, I think, have some rudimentary ‘moral’ sense. You can see the same kind of guilty looks when they get caught on the kitchen counter and the dominant animal (some times a human) expresses disapproval. It’s not, of course, full blown Saint Augustine, but the bare beginnings.

    Morality cannot have appeared ex nihilo in humans, but evolved from something. Monkey’s cheated of a ‘grape’ when they do a trick get made at the experimenter. Gorillas hide their ‘bad’ actions form the dominate male.

    -Traruh

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *