Causality, Compassion, and Control: Ethical Implications of Naturalism

A presentation for the Ethical Society of Boston.

A lightning tour of naturalism

What is naturalism?

  • Naturalism is the philosophical position underlying most secular humanism: there is a single, natural world, not split into the natural and supernatural. We are completely included in that world; there is nothing supernatural about us. Naturalism rejects the necessity for supernatural foundations for knowledge and ethics.

  • Science and inter-subjective evidence are the naturalist’s basis for knowledge claims about what ultimately exists, not personal revelation, tradition, faith, or revered texts.

  • This basis for knowledge is an inherently unifying perspective, one which leads to non-dualism about humans as fully included in nature. Explanations of phenomena inevitably connect and unify them into one world.

No soul or free will

  • If there’s nothing supernatural about us, then there’s no soul, nothing immaterial "in charge" of the brain. Thus there is no contra-causal free will. Such free will would make us supernatural, it would mean we are little gods. Other names for this sort of freedom: “interventionist,” “libertarian,” or “Cartesian” free will. Quote Dennett #1, Flanagan #2
  • So, we aren’t causally privileged over the rest of nature; we couldn’t have done otherwise given the exact situation we were in.

How does this change our views on human agency?

  • We are not the ultimate originators of our behavior, but simply the most proximate cause (really, we are our behavior), with other causes surrounding us in space and time. We can’t take ultimate credit or blame based on the soul. Responsibility for our character and behavior is distributed over the causes and conditions that created us. Crucially, to explain isn’t to excuse, but it is to undercut attitudes and practices based in the belief in supernatural free will, leading to more compassionate, effective action.
  • We are part the unfolding of the natural world, fully connected to it in all respects. Note the powerful spiritual implications of this view.

Old story, new evidence

  • Inclusive naturalism and challenging free will are not new: Buddhism, David Hume on the self, Baron D’Holbach’s “Good sense without god” in 1772, Clarence Darrow in 1924 (Stuart Banner’s book), BF Skinner in 1970s, etc.
  • But now recent evidence is piling up, e.g. recent books by Paul Breer, Steven Pinker, Owen Flanagan, Daniel Dennett, Derk Pereboom, Dan Wegner. Popular culture also: newspaper articles, Matrix. No gaps left for the soul to hide in; the brain does everything the soul was supposed to do.

Fears and environmental impact

  • The basis for all we hold near and dear seems to be threatened. Quote Goodwin #3.
  • Common fears: about fatalism, irresponsibility, people running amok, becoming passive, of being victims of circumstance, lack of initiative and individuality, can’t know reality or be rational.
  • Some think free will is too dangerous to openly question, and want to maintain it as a public fiction (Saul Smilansky on illusionism), Dennett on “environmental impact.”


  • It's not the case that not having free will undermines what we want. Quote Dennett #4 and Pinker #5. Allaying fears helps us to accept the truth about ourselves.
  • Our values stay the same, morality is still necessary to shape behavior, we remain individual persons, we don’t lose our causal powers, or fall prey to fatalism: what we do makes a difference. Being uncaused wouldn’t give us more power, in fact less. So, we have “freedom and dignity” in all the ways that are important.
  • Explaining naturalism and reassuring people about its consequences can be difficult since the issues are necessarily complex and counterintuitive. It means doing philosophy, critical thinking, and questioning traditional assumptions.
  • Best prescription: read Flanagan’s The Problem of the Soul, and perhaps “Encountering naturalism: common errors and exaggerations” along with other materials at

Personal ethical implications of naturalism

  • How does naturalistic view of agency change our attitudes and behavior? It undercuts the traditional justification for assigning ultimate credit and blame, since responsibility for behavior is distributed, not a matter of free will. We are not first causes, we don’t deserve credit and blame in the way ordinarily supposed. So we will feel less resentment, hostility, blame, and shame of the sort that’s premised on the idea of metaphysical origination (being a self-caused self or causa sui).
  • Seeing the actual causes of behavior is the route to compassion, empathy, even forgiveness, since there but for circumstances go I. Example: homelessness - had I the same environment and genetics, I'd be that homeless person in front of me. It's also the route to better self-control, other-control (e.g., kids) and better interpersonal relations, since we appreciate the causal story behind behavior. We must take seriously and answer the rhetorical question: “Why the hell does he keep doing that?!?!”
  • Focus on the individual alone is to make a mistake about causality based on a pre-scientific understanding of ourselves. So called "reactive attitudes" (e.g., retributive feelings, the fawning “celebrity response” that assigns ultimate credit) are hard-wired, and had a crucial natural function. They are part of our natural “moral sense.” These attitudes track perceived causality, so, crucially, we can second guess them in the light of science: when we understand the actual causality, our attitudes will change. Quote Pereboom #6.
  • Addiction, mental illness, obesity: under naturalism we move from stigma to understanding, from willpower to causes. Both voluntary and involuntary behavior are caused, not a matter of willpower, but of conditions which create choices. Anytime we cite willpower as a cause, we’re evading the question about the actual causes of desires and motives. But we must acknowledge the impact of one’s own behavior as well: we don’t become powerless, we still have all our causal powers. So interventions directed toward the individual are still necessary, we are not let off the hook. But we hold others, and are held by others, compassionately accountable.
  • The personal attitudes shaped by naturalism form the basis for more enlightened social policy, will motivate support for non-punitive approaches to crime and inequality. Plus, we have the conceptual tools (causal understanding) to implement such approaches. We’ll be smarter in preventing harmful dysfunction and deviance in the first place.

Social policy implications

  • Western radical individualism: We’re now in the conservative age of “personal responsibility”, (e.g., welfare law reform) e.g., basically things are, or should be, ultimately up to you; your situation doesn’t explain or help you do what you essentially do on your own. So you deserve punishment for failure to toe the line, and punitive policies are permissible. This is the logical consequence of the radical individualism based in the free will assumption. Examples: the homeless choose to be homeless (Reagan); criminals are the root cause of crime (Pataki).
  • But we’re now in a good position to question this assumption. We can see that individuals and their behavior are entirely functions of various causal factors. This leads to less punitive, more compassionate attitudes and therefore support for more effective policies based in causal understanding. Both motives and means are affected. Quote Flanagan, #7, #8

Examples of issues and social policies

  • Criminal justice: retributive justifications for capital punishment and harsh prison conditions are no longer tenable. To understand is not to excuse, but it is to become compassionate. We move from reactive punishment to compassionate accountability, pro-active prevention, rehabilitation, and restorative justice (The Sentencing Project, James Gilligan on preventing violence). This is a "smart on crime" policy informed by causes. Quote Banner #9, Richards #10
  • Social justice: since we don’t ultimately deserve our advantages and talents, we move from radical individualism and a winner-take-all mentality to social responsibility for the least well off Quote John Rawls #11. Examples: economist Milton Friedman on a negative income tax: he agrees there’s no free will, its all a matter of luck in Boston Globe; Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy writes that the rich didn't get there on their own.
  • Environmental ethic: naturalism shows that this is the only world we have, there's nothing in the "hereafter," hence more concern with sustainability, for the others who come after us.
  • Public education: science should be understood as a method of knowing that leads to naturalism; science doesn’t presume naturalism as proponents of intelligent design claim, so it doesn’t need to be “balanced” by creationism in the classroom.
  • Evil is naturalized as a causal product of human nature in certain circumstances, it’s not a mysterious, inscrutable supernatural force. To understand evil is not to excuse it, but it can help in forgiveness, and to cut short the cycle of retaliation and revenge. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a prime example of this thinking in action, while the ADL response to documentaries on Hitler is very much the opposite.

Conclusion: Causality, Compassion, and Control

  • Despite its seemingly radical denial of free will, inclusive naturalism has much to recommend it.
  • Naturalism is the truth about who we are as seen from a scientific causal perspective, but this doesn’t dehumanize us. We remain unique, moral, responsible individuals with all our causal powers.
  • Naturalism leads to more mature, compassionate, and more effective interpersonal attitudes and relations and reduces egoistic and punitive attitudes based in assumption of free will. It adds to the motivational basis for a humane society. However, it’s not unique in this since there are motivations for compassion based in dualistic views.
  • By undercutting notion that people ultimately deserve their fate, e.g., deserve harsh punishments or huge rewards, naturalism leads to more effective social policies based in a causal understanding of human behavior.
  • We should follow the lead of writers such as Dennett, Flanagan, Pinker and seek to understand ourselves and our society in the light of naturalism, to see exactly how we fit into nature, and to see we don’t need free will to have what we want. By acknowledging our true, natural nature we can make progress in bringing about a less punitive, more flourishing, and more humane culture.

TWC 8/04 (talk originally delivered 11/23/03)

Recent quotes on the soul and free will

1. “It has been tempting over the ages to imagine that …striking differences [between individuals] must be due to the special features of some extra thing (a soul) installed somewhere in the bodily headquarters. We now know that as tempting as this idea still is, it is not supported in the slightest by anything we have learned about our biology in general and our brains in particular. The more we learn about how we evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all.” Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003), p. 2.

2. “My primary target…is the widespread belief in our permanency as persons, the belief that there is an abiding “I” that accompanies experience but is irreducible to the continuity of our natural lives as embodied beings…[W]hy am I questioning these beliefs? Perhaps they are false, but they aren’t causing trouble. The answer is that they are causing trouble. Most philosophers and scientists in the twenty-first century see their job as making the world safe for a fully naturalistic view of things. The beliefs in nonnatural properties of persons, indeed of any non-natural thing, including – yes– God, stand in the way of understanding our natures truthfully and locating what makes life meaningful in a non-illusory way.” Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul (2002), pp. 167-8.

3. "Do …scientific advances challenge the first principles that the majority of our citizens believe provide the very foundation upon which our civilization rests – free will and the capacity to make moral choices?....Does this growing understanding of genetic and environmental influences on human behavior leave any room for free will?....How can the ever-mounting discoveries of biological, genetic, and environmental factors shaping human behavior be integrated into our culture without contributing to further erosion of individual responsibility?" Dr. Frederick Goodwin, opening remarks, conference on Neuroscience and the Human Spirit, 1998. (See Does Neuroscience Threaten Freedom and Dignity?)

4. “I claim the varieties of free will I am defending are worth wanting precisely because they play all the valuable roles free will has traditionally been invoked to play. But I cannot deny that the tradition also assigns properties to free will that my varieties lack. So much the worse for tradition, say I.” Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, p. 225

5. “My goal is defensive: to refute the accusation that a materialistic view of the mind is inherently amoral and that religious conceptions are to be favored because they are more humane.” Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002), p. 187

6. “Determinism is a threat to retributive desires, and more generally to reactive attitudes … because determinism is incompatible with origination… [G]iven human nature, determinism will serve as a reason to relinquish these attitudes.” Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (2001), p. l34.

7. “Our practices of holding people morally and rationally accountable will need to pay close attention to the many forces that constrain our choice and our reason. By so doing, we will show due respect for our increasing knowledge of human nature and perhaps discover more humane ways or responding to and treating our fellows.” Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, 158.

8. “The view that assumes nonnatural causation of the sort a Cartesian free will requires not only assumes something we have good reason to believe is false …but is actually a morally harmful picture. It engenders a certain passivity in the face of social problems that lead certain individuals to be malformed.” Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, p. 152.

9. “The death penalty is so popular that abolition will be impossible without a significant shift in public opinion. Such shifts have occurred several times in the past 250 years, however, and may occur again. In the past they have been caused by changing attitudes about the extent to which crime is a consequence of the criminal’s free will, changes that seemed to flow from better understanding of human behavior. We can expect similar developments in the future…[T]he balance of Americans’ beliefs about free will is not likely to remain static forever. When it changes, so too will opinion on capital punishment.” Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History (2003), p. 310-11

10. "...if we understand that there are good evolutionary reasons for our wanting people to suffer when they have done direct or indirect harm to us, then we can account for our strong feelings about the appropriateness of retribution without presuming they are a guide to moral truth.... We may be able to recognize our retributivist feelings as a deep and important aspect of our character - and take them seriously to that extent - without endorsing them as a guide to truth, and start rethinking our attitudes toward punishment on that basis" Janet Radcliffe Richards, Human Nature After Darwin, (2001) p. 210.

11. “It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases." John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1974) p.104.


  • Paul Breer, The Spontaneous Self
  • Owen Flanagan, The Problem of the Soul, esp. chapter 4, “Free Will”
  • Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves
  • Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, esp. chapter 10, “Fear of Determinism”
  • Derk Pereboom, Living Without Free Will
  • Ted Honderich, How Free Are You?
  • Bruce Waller, The Natural Selection of Autonomy
  • Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will
  • Janet Radcliffe Richards, Human Nature After Darwin
  • Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: An American History
Wednesday, September 1, 2004