The Scientific American article, What Happens to a Society That Does Not Believe in Free Wıll?, looks to answer the question from a research perspective and The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion? explains how free will is an illusion. Which philosophers have looked at the same question, that of a society with no belief in free will?

Most of the material I find is a discussion of how hard incompatibilism is incorrect. Are there writers who accept incompatibilism as true and that free will is an imaginary phenomenon; and from there, looked at how a society with no belief in free will could function and what changes would follow for the meaning of what it is to be human?

My question is different from the suggested question in that I am looking for philosophers who have written about the issue and not direct answers.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 8:54
  • "The same thing that happens to all societies"?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 11:22

4 Answers 4


The question of whether (dis)belief in free will and agency affect human behavior has been tackled mainly by scientists and obliquely by some philosophers. Philosophers have mostly been interested in arguments for/against free will rather than consequences of (dis)belief in free will per se. That being said, some arguments are also relevant to such questions. Arguments, for example, about responsibility or rationality related to free will are obviously relevant to such a question.

Experiments have hinted at how disbelief in free will and agency tends to increase both aggression and conformity as well as attitudes towards criminal behavior and punishment.

Does disbelief in free will reduce people's willingness to exert the effort needed for autonomous thought and action rather than simply conforming to group norms? Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be associated with greater conformity than a belief in free will. In Study 1 (correlational), participants who expressed a greater belief in free will reported that they were less likely to conform in a variety of situations than participants who expressed greater disbelief in free will. In Study 2 (experimental), participants who were induced to disbelieve in free will conformed significantly more to the opinions of ostensible other participants when judging paintings than participants in free will and control conditions. In Study 3 (experimental), participants who were induced to disbelieve in free will conformed significantly more to experimenter-provided examples than participants in a meaning-threat control condition, as well as more than those encouraged to believe in free will. These findings suggest that belief in free will contributes to autonomous action and resisting temptations and pressures to conform.

Determined to conform: Disbelief in free will increases conformity

Laypersons' belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior. In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and increases aggression.

Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness

Do free will beliefs influence moral judgments? Answers to this question from theoretical and empirical perspectives are controversial. This study attempted to replicate past research and offer theoretical insights by analyzing World Values Survey data from residents of 46 countries (n = 65,111 persons). Corroborating experimental findings, free will beliefs predicted intolerance of unethical behaviors and support for severe criminal punishment. Further, the link between free will beliefs and intolerance of unethical behavior was moderated by variations in countries’ institutional integrity, defined as the degree to which countries had accountable, corruption-free public sectors. Free will beliefs predicted intolerance of unethical behaviors for residents of countries with high and moderate institutional integrity, but this correlation was not seen for countries with low institutional integrity. Free will beliefs predicted support for criminal punishment regardless of countries’ institutional integrity. Results were robust across different operationalizations of institutional integrity and with or without statistical control variables.

Free will beliefs predict attitudes toward unethical behavior and criminal punishment

Philosophically it has been argued that free will is a necessary ingredient for rationality and acting in rational ways.

In this thesis, I give an a priori argument in defense of libertarian free will. I conclude that given certain presuppositions, the ability to do otherwise is a necessary requirement for substantive rationality; the ability to think and act in light of reasons. ‘Transcendental’ arguments to the effect that determinism is inconsistent with rationality are predominantly forwarded in a Kantian manner. Their incorporation into the framework of critical philosophy renders the ontological status of their claims problematic; rather than being claims about how the world really is, they end up being claims about how the mind must conceive of it. To make their ontological status more secure, I provide a rationalist framework that turns them from claims about how the mind must view the world into claims about the ontology of rational agents. In the first chapter, I make some preliminary remarks about reason, reasons and rationality and argue that an agent’s access to alternative possibilities is a necessary condition for being under the scope of normative reasons. In the second chapter, I motivate rationalism about a priori justification. In the third chapter, I present the rationalist argument for libertarian free will and defend it against objections. Several objections rest on a compatibilist understanding of an agent’s abilities. To undercut them, I devote the fourth chapter, in which I give a new argument for incompatibilism between free will and determinism, which I call the situatedness argument for incompatibilism. If the presuppositions of the thesis are granted and the situatedness argument works, then we may be justified in thinking that to the extent that we are substantively rational, we are free in the libertarian sense.

A rationalist argument for libertarian free will

In recent years, philosophical discussions of free will have focused largely on whether or not free will is compatible with determinism. In this challenging book, David Hodgson takes a fresh approach to the question of free will, contending that close consideration of human rationality and human consciousness shows that together they give us free will, in a robust and indeterministic sense. In particular, they give us the capacity to respond appositely to feature-rich gestalts of conscious experiences, in ways that are not wholly determined by laws of nature or computational rules. The author contends that this approach is consistent with what science tells us about the world; and he considers its implications for our responsibility for our own conduct, for the role of retribution in criminal punishment, and for the place of human beings in the wider scheme of things.

Rationality + Consciousness = Free Will

It has been argued, for example by G. Strawson, that ultimate responsibility is impossible, thus belief in free will, regarding (ultimate) responsibility, is in some sense useless. For an answer to Strawson's argument and similar arguments see the post: Strawson on Free Will: What are the most persuasive challenges to his position?


It is clear that both experiments and philosophical arguments about free will intersect at the point where (belief in) free will is a necessary ingredient for rational agents operating in a complex society.

Finally, it has been argued that if free will is a dangerous myth, its denial is a much more dangerous myth:

To the totalitarian mind, human beings are livestock, to be managed and culled, not free agents to be held personally accountable for good or evil. The denial of free will is the essence of totalitarianism.

Is Free Will a Dangerous Myth?

Further references:

  1. Does encouraging a belief in determinism increase cheating? Reconsidering the value of believing in free will
  2. Determined to conform: Disbelief in free will increases conformity
  3. Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness
  4. Belief in free will: Integration into social cognition models to promote health behavior
  • 1
    TL;BU +1 for quote about Totalitarianism at the end.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:26
  • What does "TL;BU" mean?
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:56
  • 1
    Too Long; But Upvoted, obviously ;-) Perfect for Stack Exchange. "Use it" (John Brunner)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 11:16
  • 1
    @ScottRowe the post had to include some quotes from referenced sources for completeness, but these can be skipped.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 11:20

The only thing I'm well-familiar with in this connection is Kant's claim that we act "under the idea of freedom" no matter what. Unfortunately (or not?), this makes the belief in free will (a rather strong form of it, no less) incorrigible, which would render the question "whether" we believe in it moot.

There's also a modern philosopher, Yuval Harari, who recommends abandoning some sort of belief in free will so as to try to prevent society from continuing in a harsher vein than it really needs to operate in, though see also Kant's implicit address of moral luck (see The Metaphysics of Morals, esp. the Doctrine of Virtue IIRC) for related concerns dealt with from the perspective of a supporter of belief in strong free will.

  • 1
    Right. We should do what works, not what we would like to work.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 23:10
  • 1
    @ScottRowe correct me if I'm wrong, but your sentiment is (and if so, I agree with it almost wholeheartedly) that sermonizing and being otherwise authoritarian towards people we think have "done wrong" is often not effective at motivating them to change their behavior, and worse might often provoke people into being defensive about their "wrong" behavior and continuing to do as they did before, perhaps even more aggressively. OTOH I do have beliefs about akrasia (weakness-of-evil) that are informed by Donald Davidson enough to open the door to compelling (behavior-influencing) moral arguments. Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 23:23
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    I tend to focus on the role of specific words we use as knee-jerk inducing little hammers. If the word 'moral' gives us so many problems, switch to 'compelling', or whatever. Drop things down from the lofty Idea Realm, toward seeing that people instinctively conform, to a large degree, and pick the social strategies which get helpful outcomes, whether we like it or not, understand or not. By my reading, there are some conundrums, like how giving too much choice and too little 'punishment' produces, not sophisticated people but brats and thugs. Well too bad but we need society to continue.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 11:34

Free-will is actually more than an illusion (or less), and through this understanding one can self-actualize like never before.

Sam Harris writes a book called Free Will, where he attacks the issue from all sides, concluding free-will is actually more than an illusion, in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent.

"Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them"

“I generally start each day with a cup of coffee or tea—sometimes two. This morning, it was coffee (two). Why not tea? I am in no position to know. I wanted coffee more than I wanted tea today, and I was free to have what I wanted. Did I consciously choose coffee over tea? No. The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness of my thoughts and actions, could not inspect or influence. Could I have “changed my mind” and switched to tea before the coffee drinker in me could get his bearings? Yes, but this impulse would also have been the product of unconscious causes. Why didn’t it arise this morning? Why might it arise in the future? I cannot know. The intention to do one thing and not another does not originate in consciousness—rather, it appears in consciousness, as does any thought or impulse that might oppose it.”

He begins the book discussing a violent incident between an aggressor and a family, and he dissects the scenario from all sides. Towards the end, he goes on to state how this conclusion about free-will has changed his life.

“Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible. There is no telling how much I might change in the future. Just as one wouldn’t draw a lasting conclusion about oneself on the basis of a brief experience of indigestion, one needn’t do so on the basis of how one has thought or behaved for vast stretches of time in the past. A creative change of inputs to the system—learning new skills, forming new relationships, adopting new habits of attention—may radically transform one’s life.”

“Liberals tend to understand that a person can be lucky or unlucky in all matters relevant to his success. Conservatives, however, often make a religious fetish of individualism. Many seem to have absolutely no awareness of how fortunate one must be to succeed at anything in life, no matter how hard one works. One must be lucky to be able to work. One must be lucky to be intelligent, physically healthy, and not bankrupted in middle age by the illness of a spouse.”

I love this book and 10/10 recommend; it provides the science, the philosophy, and Sam's beautiful articulation.

For me personally, understanding these conceptions have allowed me to identify the irrelevancy in debating my axiological opinions. Morals, politics, normative behavior, it's all a consequence of our experience. Every wave of light to hit my eyes, every wave of sound to hit my ears, every force and particle to interact with my body since my conception has altered the molecular structure of my nervous tissue, sculpting entirely the beliefs I have and the totality of my identity. There's no sense in debating what's moral, only understanding the diversity of environmental context from which the spectrum of morality is derived. There's no sense in hating one for an action they did, only a conceivable framing of how action is enslaved to perception; how one acted was bound to the environmental context that preceded the behavior. You can act to change environments to pragmatically alter future behavior, but you can't support hate with the framing one could've acted differently (there's simply no evidence for this metaphysical libertarianism). I could go on for ages about this subject; it's been life-changing, especially for my research interests. If you want to speak further I'd gladly do so via another medium.

  • I sympathize with Harris, saying that his belief made him more free. But denial of free will, is not used in this sense usually. Those who deny free will do not appraise your freedom to change (a-la Harris), rather they insist on enforcing a specific route, according to their beliefs/theory and rather devalue your own change.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 17:57
  • 1
    I respectfully disagree entirely. I have never once devalued change nor have I become consistently more and more close-minded. The opposite has been true really. I don't intrinsically value my identity at all; through deduction I always begin with a substantial self-scrutiny of the evidence I've collected making me me, because it's the diversity of the evidence we collect that inform our beliefs. Life ought not be a battle over what's considered universally valid, just a continual maximization of evidence through constructive dialogue. Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 19:48
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    Else if the denial is not based on such a hypothetical theory and one can accept lack of determination of the outcomes, there is no actual difference between accepting and denying free will for all practical cases.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jan 27, 2023 at 20:10
  • 3
    The phrase "more than an illusion" implies that it exists, yet the rest of your answer seems to be discussing the view that it doesn't exist. This could use some clarification. Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 0:59
  • 1
    Explore your prison! 🤣
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Jan 28, 2023 at 19:34

That means that society does not believe in either non-deterministic incompatibilism (although indeterminism does not entail free will) or compatibilism, then deterministic incompatibilism remains, you may be interested in the opinion of Derk Pereboom:

If quantum theory is true, the position and momentum of micro-particles exhibit randomness in this same sense, and natural indeterminacy of this sort might also be conceived as the metaphysical foundation of indeterministically free action. But natural indeterminacies of these types cannot, by themselves, account for freedom of the sort required for moral responsibility. As has often been pointed out, such random physical events are no more within our control than are causally determined physical events, and thus, we can no more be morally responsible for them than, in the indeterminist opinion, we can be for events that are causally determined.

The hard determinist might deny that at the moment of choice, one must assume that more than one option is causally possible. One might instead believe that one’s actions are determined by way of one’s choices, that one’s choices are determined by means of one’s deliberation, and that one does not know in advance of deliberation which action one will choose. As long as one’s actions are determined by deliberation and choice, and one does not know beforehand what the result of one’s deliberation will be, there will be no interference with the deliberative process. Indeed, the deliberative process might be jeopardized if one had previous knowledge of the choice that would result. Perhaps it is even incoherent to suppose that one might know in advance of deliberation which of two roads one will choose, for in such a situation genuine deliberation would be undermined. But given that one cannot know the results of one’s deliberation in advance, the process can go on unimpeded.

Someone might argue that even if no one ever deserves blame, it would nevertheless be best for us to think and act as if people sometimes do, because thinking and acting this way is a superb method for promoting moral reform and education. More generally, even if no one is ever really morally responsible, it would still be best sometimes to hold people morally responsible. Such a view might be justified on practical grounds, were we confident, for example, that thinking and acting as if people sometimes deserve blame is often necessary for effectively promoting moral reform and education. But this option would have the hard determinist thinking that someone deserves blame when she also believes him not to, which is an instance of theoretical irrationality, and would have her blaming someone when he does not deserve to be blamed, which would seem to be morally wrong.

There is, however, an alternative practice for promoting moral reform and education which would suffer neither from irrationality nor apparent immorality. Instead of blaming people, the determinist might appeal to the practice of moral admonishment and encouragement. One might, for example, explain to an offender that what he did was wrong, and then encourage him to refrain from performing similar actions in the future. One need not, in addition, blame him for what he has done. The hard determinist can maintain that by admonishing and encouraging a wrongdoer one might communicate a sense of what is right, and a respect for persons, and that these attitudes can lead to salutary change. Hence, one need not hold the wrongdoer morally responsible for what he has done, but rather consider him responsive to moral admonishment and encouragement. Likewise, although one could not justifiably think of one’s own wrongful actions as deserving of blame, one could legitimately regard them as wrongful, and thereby admonish oneself, and resolve to refrain from similar actions in the future. But like blame of others, blame of self, and more generally, holding oneself morally responsible, would be best avoided.

If the hard determinist were to acknowledge that a determinist conviction could affect the reactive attitudes, but that adopting an objectivity of attitude would be practically irrational in virtue of being destructive to human relationships, she might well override theoretical rationality by retaining her normal reactive attitudes. If she acted in this way, however, she would be reduced to the uncomfortable position of maintaining attitudes that are theoretically irrational. But the hard determinist is not clearly forced into such a difficult situation. For first, although many ordinary reactive attitudes might be irrational, these reactive attitudes are not obviously required for good interpersonal relationships. Some reactive attitudes, like certain kinds of anger and resentment, may well not be good for relationships at all. And secondly, the reactive attitudes one would want to retain have analogues that do not have false presuppositions. Such analogues by no means amount to Strawson’s objectivity of attitude, and they are sufficient to sustain good interpersonal relationships.

References: Pereboom, D. (2009). Free Will (2nd ed.). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

And since there is a close relation of necessity between moral responsibility and free will, then you may also be interested in Skepticism About Moral Responsibility:

Skepticism about moral responsibility, or what is more commonly referred to as moral responsibility skepticism, refers to a family of views that all take seriously the possibility that human beings are never morally responsible for their actions in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise. Some moral responsibility skeptics wholly reject this notion of moral responsibility because they believe it to be incoherent or impossible. Others maintain that, though possible, our best philosophical and scientific theories about the world provide strong and compelling reasons for adopting skepticism about moral responsibility. What all varieties of moral responsibility skepticism share, however, is the belief that the justification needed to ground basic desert moral responsibility and the practices associated with it—such as backward-looking praise and blame, punishment and reward (including retributive punishment), and the reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation—is not met. Versions of moral responsibility skepticism have historically been defended by Spinoza, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach, Priestley, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Clarence Darrow, B.F. Skinner, and Paul Edwards, and more recently by Galen Strawson, Derk Pereboom, Bruce Waller, Neil Levy, Tamler Sommers, and Gregg D. Caruso.

And more specifically, since disbelief in free will generally entails disbelief in moral responsibility, see Implications of Moral Responsibility Skepticism:

Turning now to the practical implications of moral responsibility skepticism, we can ask, what would happen if we came to accept this view? In recent years a small industry has grown up around precisely this question. Since disbelief in moral responsibility would clearly have profound consequences for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law, it’s important to question whether these consequences would be (on the whole) good or bad. Critics of moral responsibility skepticism fear that it would undermine morality, leave us unable to adequately deal with criminal behavior, increase anti-social conduct, and/or destroy meaning in life. Moral responsibility skeptics, on the other hand, offer up a number of different views—including illusionism (Smilansky 1999, 2000), disillusionism (Nadelhoffer 2011), and optimistic skepticism (e.g., Spinoza 1677 [1985]; Pereboom 1995, 2001, 2002b, 2009, 2011, 2013a, 2014a; Waller 1989, 1990, 2004, 2006, 2011, 2014; Sommers 2007a,b; Caruso forthcoming-b; N. Levy 2011; Vilhauer 2009a,b, 2012, 2013a,b; Milam 2016, 2017; Smuts 2014; Morris, forthcoming).

  • 1
    As a skeptic, I am skeptical about all forms of skepticism, and Moral Responsibility Skepticism seems like a particularly wrong and irresponsible thing to choose to promote. But that's after a lifetime of deciding to look in to and consider such things deeply. Not everyone chooses to do that. But gullibility is also culpable, and should be pointed out.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 10:39
  • @ScottRowe It was already included in the article but I pointed it out even more Commented Feb 3, 2023 at 13:24

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