Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Douglas Jesseph, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Brook Sadler, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Charles Guignon, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Derk Pereboom, Ph.D.


Criminal Justice, Determinism, Free Will


Free will skepticism denies that humans possess the type of freedom required for moral responsibility (FMR). While not the most popular position in scientific, philosophical, or mainstream communities, I contend that this lack of acceptance is due not to flaws inherent in the position, but to misconceptions concerning its ethical and practical implications. In my dissertation, I endorse free will skepticism, beginning with a refutation of contrary positions, followed by a response to objections, and ending with a defense of social reforms necessitated by the denial of free will. Ultimately, I support Derk Pereboom's optimism that a global acceptance of free will skepticism would result in societies that are more moral, beneficial, and just than those which perpetuate the illusion of free will.

Because of flaws in the alternative positions, I argue that free will skepticism is the most feasible view to hold regarding free will. Libertarianism, which denies causal determinism and purports that humans possess FMR, is not compatible with our current scientific understanding of the universe. On the other hand, while compatibilism accepts causal determinism, it retains free will only by relaxing the requirements for it. I explain why accepting a position contrary to science, or accepting weakened definitions of freedom, is both untenable and unnecessary.

Some object to free will skepticism not because they found something inherently wrong with the logic of the position but because of practical concerns. Their arguments against free will skepticism assert that if such a view is accepted, society will unravel, interpersonal relationships will become compromised, personal identity will be undermined, and life would lose all meaning. However, largely inspired by Derk Pereboom's book "Living without Free Will," I will show why such misgivings are unfounded. Pereboom offers good reasons to believe that not only would society, relationships, identity, and meaning remain intact, but also that society would enjoy practical advantages by accepting free will skepticism. Furthermore, a society based on the belief in free will perpetrates grave injustices on its citizens, and beliefs in desert and blame fuel destructive reactive attitudes inimical to flourishing interpersonal relationships.

The social advantages of accepting free will skepticism involve sweeping reforms necessitated by its acceptance. I discuss two such reforms pertaining to the institutions of punishment and parenthood. If those who commit immoral or illegal acts are not to blame for their transgressions, then our current system of punishment is unfair and unjust. There are alternative ways to cultivate a safe society without subjecting wrongdoers to desert-based penalties. Using an alternative model of justice, one that tailors a punitive response to the specific risks and needs of each perpetrator, would be far more effective than mere incarceration. Furthermore, since the root cause of criminality can, in many cases, be traced to childhood abuse or neglect, I argue that society should do more to ensure that incompetent parents are not raising children. Therefore, I advocate a licensing program for parents for the benefit of both future children, and for the safety of society.

Building on the arguments of notable free will skeptics, I conclude that free will skepticism is the most scientifically defensible position, that the objections to it are unfounded, and that the benefits of accepting it surpass those of alternative positions. While a discussion of all ethical and practical implications would surpass the space allowed here, I hope that my limited discussion inspires more research and challenges the many misconceptions surrounding free will skepticism.

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Philosophy Commons