He Never Willed to Have the Will He Has: Historicist Narratives, “Civilized” Blame, and the Need to Distinguish Two Notions of Free Will

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Abstract

Harsh blame can be socially destructive. This article examines how harsh blame can be “civilized.” A core construct here is the historicist narrative, which is a story-like account of how a person came to be the sort of person she is. We argue that historicist narratives regarding immoral actors can temper blame and that this happens via a novel mechanism. To illuminate that mechanism, we offer a novel theoretical perspective on lay beliefs about free will. We distinguish 2 senses of free will: (a) Freedom of action, which portrays the will as a dynamic choice-making mechanism and concerns whether the actor can exert volitional control via that mechanism at the time of action, and (b) Control of self-formation, which portrays the will as an enduring disposition (e.g., persistent desire to humiliate) and refers to whether the actor is truly the source of that disposition. Six experiments show that historicist narratives have no effect on perceived freedom of action, but rather temper blame by reducing perceived self-formative control. We also provide evidence against several additional theoretically derived alternative mediators (e.g., intentionality, perceived suffering). Further underlining the need to distinguish free will concepts, we show that biological narratives—unlike historicist narratives—temper blame via reductions in perceived freedom of action. Finally, to illuminate the meaning of “civilized” blame,” we show that historicist narratives specifically reduce the urge to inflict spiteful punishments on offenders, but leave intact the urge to nonviolently guide the offender toward moral improvement.

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