Did Myra Hindley deserve to be punished? Does any criminal? Is belief in free will an essential foundation for morality, or is it just an excuse for unwarranted cruelty? Is free will a myth and, if so, can we let go of it?
In this entertaining, accessible but deeply serious book, the author brings a refreshingly original approach to the age-old conflict between free will and determinism and comes down firmly against free will. But what does "free will" mean? And, if we rejected it, what would the consequences be?
Our society, at its present stage of development, is one in which (one might say) Free Will Rules OK. Some people are aware that there is such an idea as determinism but they tend to misunderstand it or push it to the back of their minds, and most people never consider it at all. Nearly everyone maintains an unquestioning, if very vague, belief in free will. This belief, supported as it is by most (if not quite all) of society's attitudes and institutions, is a norm - just as, in earlier times, unquestioning belief in God was a norm, absorbed just as uncritically and unthinkingly.
Richard Oerton has been interested in this subject for over half a century. He strongly believes that it does not belong exclusively to philosophers. The questions which this book raises are important ones and they should be of concern to everyone. No one who is willing to look at them should be afraid to judge for themselves and reach their own conclusions.
Does the idea that we have free will serve to foster our cruelty to one another? Richard Oerton has already dismissed the idea of free will as incoherent and illusory, doing so in The Nonsense of Free Will, a book described as “wonderfully clear – and very clever” by the New York Times bestselling author Sam Harris. The Cruelty of Free Will starts by recapitulating the theme of the earlier book, but then goes on to develop it in important ways. It asks two questions: why – and how – does free will belief persist so stubbornly?
Philosophers and others who try to uphold free will are guided less by reason than by their own (probably unconscious) emotions. Blind to the fact that our everyday explanations of human behaviour are based, not on free will, but on an unacknowledged determinism, they try to preserve the idea of free will by means of sophistry and word-play. Their methods include a conjuring trick: that of replacing our common idea of free will with some other concept which, though they call it by the same name, actually involves no freedom of choice.
Free will is thought to be a good thing and determinism a bad one, but Richard Oerton insists that we’ve got this the wrong way round because belief in free will fosters ignorance and cruelty. It allows us to think that those whose lives are bleak have only themselves to blame, and that criminals and other bad guys are embodiments of self-created wickedness deserving of retributive punishment – whereas in reality, we are all of us simply the products of biological and environmental luck. The Cruelty of Free Will asserts that human beings belong to what is still a savage species with few inhibitions against harming one another, and that we cling to the idea of free will mainly because it purports to justify the escape and expression of this savagery.
Richard Oerton has written two books about free will - the first The Nonsense of Free Will (2012) and the second The Cruelty of Free Will (2016)
Facing up to false belief
How sophistry and savagery support a false belief