Free Will Skepticism and the Question of Creativity: Creativity, Desert, and Self-Creation

Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 3 (2016)
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Free will skepticism maintains that what we do, and the way we are, is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense—the sense that would make us truly deserving of praise and blame. In recent years, a number of contemporary philosophers have advanced and defended versions of free will skepticism, including Derk Pereboom (2001, 2014), Galen Strawson (2010), Neil Levy (2011), Bruce Waller (2011, 2015), and myself (Caruso 2012, 2013, forthcoming). Critics, however, often complain that adopting such views would have dire consequences for ourselves, society, morality, meaning, and the law. They fear, for instance, that relinquishing belief in free will and basic desert moral responsibility would leave us unable to adequately deal with criminal behavior, increase anti-social conduct, and undermine meaning in life. In response, free will skeptics argue that life without free will and basic desert moral responsibility would not be as destructive as many people believe (see, e.g., Pereboom 2001, 2014; Waller 2011, 2015; Caruso 2016, forthcoming). According to optimistic skeptics, prospects of finding meaning in life or of sustaining good interpersonal relationships, for instance, would not be threatened. And although retributivism and severe punishment, such as the death penalty, would be ruled out, incapacitation and rehabilitation programs would still be justified (see Pereboom 2001, 2013, 2014; Levy 2012; Caruso 2016; Pereboom and Caruso, forthcoming). In this paper, I attempt to extend this general optimism about the practical implications of free will skepticism to the question of creativity. In Section I, I spell out the question of creativity and explain why it’s relevant to the problem of free will. In Section II, I identify three different conceptions of creativity and explain the practical concerns critics have with free will skepticism. In Section III, I distinguish between three different conceptions of moral responsibility and argue that at least two of them are consistent with free will skepticism. I further contend that forward-looking accounts of moral responsibility, which are perfectly consistent with free will skepticism, can justify calling agents to account for immoral behavior as well as providing encouragement for creative activities since these are important for moral and creative formation and development. I conclude in Section IV by arguing that relinquishing belief in free will and basic desert would not mean the death of creativity or our sense of achievement since important and realistic conceptions of both remain in place.

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Gregg D. Caruso
Corning Community College


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