Art, free will, and moral value: An interactive model

John S. Callender

in Free will and responsibility

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780199545551
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754616 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Art, free will, and moral value: An interactive model

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In this chapter, I have argued for a model of freedom that arises from the interaction between free will, art, and moral value. This provides an account of free will as comprising components such as originality, creativity, moral responsibility, moral autonomy, the creation of moral value, and the creation of moral identity. This account is compatible with determinism. It provides an element of unpredictability and unknowability to human action, without the requirement of a belief in indeterministic causation.

Much of the literature on the philosophy of free will is concerned with how single actions can be construed in terms of free will. The model presented in this chapter is not concerned with single actions but with how it is that we can create dispositions to behave in some ways and not in others. In other words, it is concerned with how we can shape our wills rather than our actions. On this interpretation, free will is not something that can be attained by the isolated agent. Instead, freedom exists in the context of social relationships and the cultural milieu of which the person is a part.

This account of free action is compatible both with our subjective sense of freedom and with determinism. I have argued that artistic creativity provides the sense of spontaneity and open possibility that seems to be foreclosed by determinism. One way in which we can utilize our creativity is in generating models of our futures, which will allow us to achieve lives in keeping with our desires and capacities. These models then become one of the causal factors that determine the decisions that we make about our lives.

We can also harness our creativity to the task of moral improvement. The possibility of moral choice depends on the presence of other moral agents. One cannot act morally in a position of isolation. One has to take account of the existence, thoughts, feelings, and reactions of others who are (or so one assumes) also forming reasons in the same context. We also have to take account of the norms and rules that pertain in our communities.

It is important to note that our cultural milieu is not a given fact of life, like the weather. We are also active participants in this culture, and it is our participation that makes it what it is. Simple actions such as buying a book, a musical recording, or going to a concert promote the success of the artist in question. We may go further and do things like joining a theatre club or a film society. If we have the ability, we can become amateur performers, creative writers, painters, and so on. These activities have the same sense of freedom and spontaneity that accompanies the production of original art.

The substantial moral content of art has already been pointed out. In shaping our cultural milieu we also shape the moral climate in which we operate.

In moral choices, the determining factors are not the immutable, physical facts of the world, such as the force of gravity. If a moral action is determined, the most important determinants will, in most cases, be its anticipated consequences. These consequences are the reactions of human beings, both the agent and other people. There will be internal consequences such as feelings of guilt and shame or, alternatively, pride and self-satisfaction. The external consequences arise from human creations such as social norms, laws, rewards, punishments, and the informal granting of things such as approval, trust, and friendship or, alternatively, resentment, mistrust, and ostracism. These practices are created by people who have a sense of autonomy, for people with a sense of autonomy. In Nagel's words, ‘What we hope for is not only to do what we want given the circumstances, but also to be as we want to be, to as deep a level as possible, and to find ourselves faced with the choices we want to be faced with, in a world that we can want to live in’ (Nagel, 1986, 136).

This dynamic interplay between individuals and the moral communities of which we are a part can, in favorable social conditions, resolve the tension between the inner, subjective standpoint of autonomy and the external, objective standpoint of determinism. This happens if we can see the external moral world as something that we help to create and maintain and our inner identity in turn as being informed by the value systems of our communities.

We are often at our best when we are fighting injustice and striving to improve the moral conditions in which we live. As Wordsworth said of the French Revolution, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!’ Dismay and disturbances of the spirit are thus relieved.

Chapter.  27090 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

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