I'm still waiting for someone to come up with an operational definition of "free will" sufficient for me to not just infer whether someone else has it but determine whether I myself—with my privileged epistemic access to my own mental states—have free will. Until such time, the whole area of discussion bores me in the same sense that higher order truths about chmess bore me. The boredom is even more fundamental: At least chmess is well-defined; free will is entirely mystical.
Richard Dawkins mentioned the absurdity of Basil Fawlty punishing his car. He initially gets it wrong, but in a perfect example of a scientifically-minded person, actually (gasp!) changes his mind and strikes closer to the mark. It makes more sense to view ethics in terms of finding and correcting faults rather than assigning deserts to ultimate responsibility:
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.Basil's reaction is absurd, not because the car—subject to the laws of physics and without any sort of free will, well- or ill-defined—does not bear ultimate responsibility for its failure, but rather because hitting a car with a branch is an utterly ineffective way to correct whatever fault prevents it from starting.
In a similar manner the discussion of "free will" as it pertains to ethics and responsibility, and the related idea of associating deserts to inherently wrong actions of an ultimately responsible moral agent is absurd not because it is false but because it is ineffective. Since free will is a mystical, unfalsifiable concept, it is possible that even a car has free will. It doesn't matter, though. Even if the car "chose" to fail, its just desert is to have the failure fixed.
Of course, people are not cars or computers. In addition to the quantitative difference—people are considerably more complicated—there's also a qualitative difference. We can talk coherently about what is or is not a fault in a car because there's a privileged position—outside the car's own frame of reference—to discuss what does or does not constitute a fault. A car is a slave to its owner's will: It is good if it performs the jobs the human owner expects of it, and bad if it does not do so. This principle holds even if the owner has unrealistic expectations. If the owner wants to fly, any car will be bad, but it is still the car's fault, and the owner is perfectly rational to get rid of the car by any convenient means—even to melting it down—and obtain an airplane.
Even if we rationally reconstruct our ethical dialog about human beings to be about correcting faults rather than assigning deserts, there is no uniform privileged position about which to talk about what does and does not constitute fault in human beings; or, rather, there are six billion individually privileged positions with no objective way to choose between them.
The problem of objectively determining what is faulty is not created by the fault paradigm; it's isomorphic to the problem of objectively determining what is inherently wrong about an agent with ultimate responsibility. The fault paradigm simply exposes our objectivist hypocrisy: What any person considers either a fault or inherently wrong in another is based on whether the other does or does not conform to the will of the speaker. Objective morality does not escape this basis in will, it merely obfuscates it.
Under the fault paradigm, the mystical notion of "free will" becomes irrelevant. It's not necessary to determine ultimate responsibility, only proximate causal responsibility, a coherent and feasible task. Our goal is not to determine objective ethics, find who or what is ultimately responsible, and praise or persecute it for its inherent ethical quality; our goal is merely to identify and correct faults.
The fault paradigm is just a start. We have to figure out how to determine what is faulty, how to identify faults, and how to correct them. Additionally, we must investigate why we don't currently use the fault paradigm. I'll address these issues in future essays.