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Agency Revisited: Dr. Heidi Ravven on Moral Psychology, Ethics and the Myth of Free Will

By Stephanie Hare

Stephanie Hare is a second-year PhD student studying neuroscience at Georgia State University. She is the recipient of the first 2CI Neuroethics Doctoral Fellowship and has research interests in psychiatry, law and the normative impact of neuroimaging research. You can connect with Steph via email at [email protected] or use her Twitter handle, @NeuroSteph.

On September 20, Emory University hosted a book talk and signing with Dr. Heidi Ravven, author of The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences and the Myth of Free Will. Dr. Ravven received an unsolicited $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to write a book rethinking traditional ethical frameworks and theories of moral agency. As a leading scholar on the work of Baruch Spinoza and Jewish philosophy, Ravven is perfectly situated to recognize socio-cultural assumptions regarding our beliefs about free will and agency, allowing for the consideration of alternative perspectives. For nine years, she performed research on new findings from psychology and neuroscience to gain deeper insight into the fundamental facts about human nature and flourishing, and in turn, what we can and should reasonably expect of each other as moral agents.


Over the course of her talk, Dr. Ravven aimed to dispel two myths.1

1. We (moral agents) are predominately motivated to act out of self-interest, and we each make our own choices.

2. Each of us has free will.

To challenge the first claim, Ravven draws on literature from evolutionary neurobiology – especially the work of Dr. Jaak Panksepp – claiming that empirical evidence reveals that we are motivated by much more than selfish motives. Panksepp’s research and theory suggest that each of us comes equipped with a foundational motivational system, which he terms the SEEKING system.2 While Panksepp claims that the SEEKING system drives us to pursue certain ends, and is evolutionarily conserved across many (mammalian) species, Ravven draws attention to the fact that this system “not only drives (humans) to protect our bodies but also permeates the mind, which is to say our desires and beliefs.”3

If we consider the SEEKING system in isolation – a system that provides the basis for self-preservation, perseverance and goal-oriented action – we can easily get caught up in the idea that we (human agents) are wholly self-interested. Ravven reasons that this perspective does not provide the whole story since “more often than not, the self we protect is the Group Self rather than the discrete self whose boundaries are our skin”4 and that we can think of ourselves as selfy in a groupy kind of way.5 Many theories of moral agency do not account for the fact that we are social beings with complex goals and aims, far exceeding the simple motive of self-interest. Ravven shows us that the assumption that individual agents act (exclusively) out of self-interest is oversimplified and inaccurate. Thus, it would suit us to find or develop theories of agency that are compatible with the complexities of goal-oriented action and group decision-making.

In the next part of her talk, Ravven set out to show that free will is a myth. She began by defining ‘free will’ as the idea or notion that “we can make choices and decisions above or beyond our biological inheritance, our cultural and social influences and location, and our present situations.”6

Many of us will likely find the claim that free will is false to be unsettling. Ravven reasons that this claim strikes a nerve precisely because free will has become so deeply indoctrinated in our culture that it feels natural to us.7 Although it feels natural to us, Ravven argues that free will is “a particularly American and Western way of conceiving of human nature”8 and we can trace the origins and development of this belief by looking across the history of philosophy.

As early as the 4th century, we arguably see the first mentioning of the (free) will in the work of Saint Augustine: “I sighed after such freedom . . . but was bound by the iron of my own choice. The enemy had a grip on my will.”9 This Augustinian notion of the will had widespread influence on the work of modern philosophers like René Descartes. Ravven recognizes the foundation for modern notions of free will in Descartes’ theory: “Virtue, according to Descartes, consists in judging what is best and then acting with complete resolve on those judgments. Our virtue is thus our strength of will in shaping the self, the body and the world rather than being shaped by them.”10


But Ravven recognizes that this is just one way to conceptualize human action and agency.11 Furthermore, she thinks that these notions of free will are attributable to a form of magical thinking:

This (way of thinking) is to attribute to the human person a supernatural character . . . [Instead,] we are within nature and not beyond it; we are within social and cultural contexts and not beyond them; and our motives are shaped by all this and our immediate situations as well. We are of the world and not beyond it . . . our inner selves and the outer environments and contexts are mutually constitutive.12

Here, Ravven’s central aim is to show that this widespread idea that we act above and beyond nature and nurture to exercise a free will is grossly incompatible with what we know about human nature and functioning. So what does this mean for ethics?

If Ravven’s arguments are compelling, then we have reason to call into question at least two assumptions that often serve as the cornerstones of dominant theories of moral agency: (1) We predominately act out of self-interest and make individual choices, and (2) each of us has free will. If Ravven is right, the field of ethics may be in need of a major overhaul — we will likely have to re-conceptualize these theories of moral agency in light of what we know (and what we continue to learn from the sciences) about ourselves as human beings.


1 This list is not intended to be exhaustive. For example, Ravven also attempts to dispel the myth that there is an innate moral module in the brain, drawing on the work of Jesse Prinz and other researchers in the field of neuroplasticity. For her take and interpretation of Prinz’s arguments, see pp. 261-263 of her book: Ravven, H. (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences and the Myth of Free Will. New York: The New Press.

2 Panksepp, J., Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., p.95.

3 Ravven, personal communication, 29 October 2014.

4 Ibid.

5 Here Ravven borrows jargon from Stephen Colbert’s notion of truthiness, to discuss aspects of human nature — namely our selfiness and groupiness.

6 Ravven, personal communication, 29 October 2014.

7 Ravven, 2013, p. 3.

8 Ibid.

9 Augustine. (1992). Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 140.

10 Ravven, 2013, p. 180.

11 Baruch Spinoza was born only 36 years after Descartes. Yet, in his great work, The Ethics, Spinoza repeatedly challenges Descartes’ notion and account of free will. Spinoza even expresses astonishment that “this illustrious person” embraced in free will, “a view which I could scarcely have believed to have been put forward by such a great man.”  In embracing free will, Spinoza continues, Descartes “adopt[ed] a theory more occult than any occult quality” of the Scholastics (Spinoza, B. (1982). The Ethics and Selected Letters. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing: Part V Preface, p.204).  Influenced by Aristotle and Jewish philosophers like Maimonides, Spinoza had a completely different vision of ethics and agency.

12 Ravven, personal communication, 29 October 2014.

Want to cite this post?

Hare, S. (2014). Agency Revisited: Dr. Heidi Ravven on Moral Psychology, Ethics and the Myth of Free Will. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


  1. The repeated arguments 'against' free will range from humorous to annoying. If you set up a straw man definition anyone can knock off "free will". And concept is not an elegant or pure one except that it is the experience of all but a few humans. And if we can't trust our experience as reflecting our universe then why bother with all the other observations we make. It is the experience of the conscious human that we have "free will". I agree with Gazzaniga that the biggest problem with the concept is the notion that it is FREE. And the second problematic notion (perhaps part of how you are defining it) is that it is unlimited in time and space. Free will is nothing less nor more than thinking and deciding on a course of action and then approximating that in your actions. I will close with a question. Why did you decide to write a book on the myth of free will? Did it turn out about as you expected it to? if so, bravo and best wishes.


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