Free Will and Rationality: Logically Reduced to an Emergent Property of Altruism and Morality

3.0 Free Will and Rationality: Logically Reduced to an Emergent Property of Altruism and Morality



  • Freewill = autonomous decision making.

  • For rationality to transpire, the requirement is restrictions on behavioral possibilities.

  • These restrictions are a moral groundwork that stem from mammalian evolution and the emotional judgment of experiences.

  • Instinctively-dominant animals have limited rationality because of their smaller range of behavioral possibilities.

  • Our intelligence is created through a theory of mind. The working concept of free-will is intractable from empathy, altruism, and morality. 

Some research has gone to say it doesn’t exist because all our actions can be predicted. Other theorists expand the logic from quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle to show it is impossible to predict anything. The most prominent theory says that free will is actually an illusion stemming from complex brain functions and intricate lives.

The major issue of contention though seems to lie in the semantics of the phrase, “free will” or intentionality. For this paper we are using a simple decision theory definition from the Stanford Philosophy directory, free will “is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives” 1.

In order to help conceptualize a paradigm for reduction we need to explore some animal behavioral questions to guide the thought experiment. How do living creatures without free will behave compared to those with it? We assume we have free will because we experience life through the lens of making autonomous decisions. A common assumption is that some animals don’t have free will because they don’t have the same capacity for autonomous decision making.

No matter what the type of life though,we can always assume that survival is a common characteristic. This includes both survival of the individual living being as well as its offspring and species.

As a thought experiment and a guideline to continue this discussion let us group living creatures into 2 groups. One group will be those that from our perspective seem to be ruled by unconscious instincts; such as reptiles. The second group consists of humans, primates, and other mammals that seem to have free will or at least the illusion of it. Analyzing these two groups we can pinpoint the factors that lead us to perceive that group 2 has free will but group 1 doesn’t. The major distinction is that group 1 is dominated by instincts that guide the animals’ behavior for extreme self-preservation regardless of the repercussions. Group 2, also has this instinctual need for self-preservation but it has additional restrictions on behavior. For example, a docile pet snake when starved will likely attack its owner to survive but a starved pet dog would most likely starve to death before attacking its owner. Dogs with their mammalian brain, per-frontal cortex, and other evolutionary newer brain functions provide them with the capacity for reasoning. This is an extreme example that specifically highlights moral decisions.

Very often free will is used to do away with moral responsibility and make a case for determinism as a way to prove free will doesn’t exist. Other times examples of free will are high order intelligence patterns that disregard the initial and very crucial steps of acquiring information.

A combination of intelligence and empathy are the factors influencing a dog’s moral behavior. Similarly in humans our intelligence and reasoning allows us to make complex moral decisions. Now if empathy and morality are important to free will, then how do we study it further? An individual’s moral understandings has a grand effect on their decision making, and since free will is primarily about the source of our decision making the connection runs very deep. In humans, this distinction of being dominated by our instincts is even further evident. Even though the ranges of behavior options we have are seemingly infinite, humans still enact behavior that is against their own individual survival for moral and social reasons. Regardless if our behavioral possibilities are truly infinite or whether it does have a limit, we still enact actions that are sacrificial and detrimental to one’s survival.

An important question is why don’t mammals always enact self-preserving behavior? And further, how are we able to maintain complex social relationships? Research from behavioral psychology has shown that modern behavior is highly related to our primate and hominid ancestors’ social evolution. Even with a very large behavioral range, predicting behavior is still possible, so the question of if we really have free will still isn’t answered. What prevents the instinctual urge for survival from dominating and then allows us to forgo risks to aid a friend or even a stranger? The task now becomes identifying the factor that’s restricting our behavior tendencies thus creating rational behavior. It seems obvious that our internal moral compass greatly influences a decision of whether to steal food to feed ones family or to rush into busy traffic to push a child out of harm’s way. These moral tendencies and underpinnings are deeply rooted in our social evolution and are necessary to maintain social relationships. They are not unique to humans, though the complexity is most apparent in primates and domesticated animals.

We are now led to ask, what exactly is free will? Even with morally influenced decision making, predicting the outcome is still possible. The outcome though cannot be known for certain because there is a decision to be made. Something is causing our minds to “hang” and choose a course of action. This something is an individual’s moral underpinning; although it ultimately varies among each person, it still directly influences our actions by putting limits on behavioral possibilities. While an individual’s specific moral conceptions may vary, basic understanding of pain and suffering are cross-cultural. This logical understanding of each other’s basic needs and intentions is heavily studied in the disciples of child psychology and animal behavior with regards to a theory of mind.

Through extrapolating we can envision the brain process of a person’s mirror neurons 2 3 in conjunction with their theory of mind, leading them to feel empathetic. This results in their inherent moral stance which creates a rational dilemma by setting restrictions on behavioral tendencies. The chosen course of action among the entire myriad of possibilities is affected by an individual’s internal beliefs. Without the self-imposed restriction, free will would not be a factor in human behavior. Without these moral restrictions, humans would essentially be bound to their instincts with the chosen action being a behavior that fulfills the self-preservation desires of the person. Such is the case with a snake whose course of action in any scenario would be highly predictable. And if we assume the same behavioral capacity, it becomes impossible to contemplate altruistic-cooperation without autonomous decision makers guided by moral underpinnings.

Since it seems evident that hominids evolved great intelligence through ethics in social groups, we further see how important moral and value judgments are in consciousness. Free will becomes logically reduced to the interaction of automated behavior constrained by altruism. This definition is most powerful because it shows how important altruistic behavior is on our success as a species and additionally encompasses our mammalian lineage.  The same moral value judgments that maintain acceptance within a social group are the same ideals that make us rational agents. If all living beings have free will then the important aspect is rationality. Overall it doesn’t exactly answer if a free will is an illusion, with brain monitoring it seems plausible to detect a decision before the person could express it. And all living beings essentially behave rationally in respect to their capacity. Regardless, rationality requires both behavioral capacity and goal-derived restrictions. Without restrictions we are essentially saying that the exact course of action will be random among those possible.

In order to further clarify, we ask “what would free will be if there was no conception of right and wrong?” If there is no moral underpinning within humans, does rationality still exist? What would prevent every decision resulting to form of self-preserving behavior? Ultimately, we live with free will and are rational agents because we can behave both rationally and irrationally through restrictions imparted by empathy and morality. Although moral values vary from individual to individual, it still guides our rational decisions and actions. Even if we choose to act against its notions; the mental restriction creates the internal state of rationality.

By expanding on this notion of rationality stemming from moral judgments we come across many instances of human behavior where instincts dominate. In scenarios where reflexes are involved such as being startled and with a fight or flight response, our unconscious pathways tend to dominate. Similarly, every reptile doesn’t behave the same; they also have some level of learning and autonomy. The overlap bridges the gap between both groups of living beings. By understanding that not all human behavior is bound to rationality and that not all of reptilian behavior is dominated by instincts we see that the barrier to overcome for artificial general intelligence is  mathematically formalizing a paradigm for an unlimited behavioral range. Evidence points to a mammalian evolutionary path reaching a higher behavioral complexity through empathy and altruism. Ultimately what separates us from other primates is a superior symbol grounding epistemology that leads to rationality, theory of mind, and free will.


Works Cited

2Rizzolatti, Giacomo, and Laila Craighero. “The mirror-neuron system.” Annu. Rev. eurosci. 27 (2004): 169-192.


4 Keysers, Christian (2010). “Mirror Neurons”Current Biology 19 (21): R971–973. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.08.026PMID19922849

5 Keysers, Christian, and Valeria Gazzola. “Social neuroscience: mirror neurons recorded in humans.” Current biology 20.8 (2010): R353-R354.

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