Forgiveness, Free Will, and Materialist Theories of Personhood

Those who hold to materialist theories such as Democritus in ancient Greece, E. O. Wilson in biology, and B. F. Skinner in psychology would argue that free will is an illusion because we are formed not by our free-will choices, but instead by forces that are strictly composed of matter such as atoms colliding or natural selection, or by social forces outside the individual person such as economic structures or rewards and punishments. See Consilience, by E. O. Wilson, 1999, New York, NY: Vintage, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, by B. F. Skinner, 1971, New York, NY: Bantam.

I acknowledge that matter and social forces influence us, but they alone do not or even primarily shape us. If there is no free will, then you cannot sayDNA made me do it whether one thing is morally right and another morally wrong. If you reflect on it, you cannot say someone did wrong, moral wrong, if he is not responsible for his behavior. The legal system, for example, implicitly rejects materialism every time it says, “The defendant is guilty.” The defendant is not guilty if his genes or the principles of operant conditioning made him behave as he did. Would any materialist continue to be a materialist if his or her daughter was raped and the defense attorney said, “Rape is not morally and legally wrong. Society reinforces men for being aggressive, and he was only responding to this conditioning. My client therefore is innocent of all charges, and I ask dismissal of them all”? Either you accept free will as legitimate (and morally condemn rape, for example) or you lose your moral voice in standing up against moral atrocities.

Footnote 3, Chapter 1, The Forgiving Life by Robert Enright (APA Books, 2012)

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  1. Chris says:

    I am thinking that if B. F. Skinner took his own reinforcement theories too seriously, then he would think that he cannot do anything, literally, wrong. If he could not do anything wrong, would he even consider himself to be a person—an individual who can grow and err and be happy and make others happy? His ideas seem to take away from whom a person is and does not add to it. Skinner’s theory is bankrupt.

  2. Samantha says:

    Extreme views can lead to some extreme and untenable conclusions. I would be fascinated to see how a materialist would respond to your example of the man on trial.

  3. Nadine says:

    I find it hilarious how those who do not want to believe in God create the materialism myth and then have to suffer the consequences of their own irrationality—-denying right and wrong and left out of the opportunity to use moral language.

  4. Adhas says:

    If someone adheres to the materialist philosophy is there actually a meaningful word **person**? I doubt it. May the idea of **robot** is closer to what they have in mind.

  5. Brian says:

    Ideas indeed have consequences. Materialist ideas have the consequence of restricting the freedom of the think so that he or she cannot use moral words. That seems to me to be an intellectual prison.


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