Two themes predominate in Dickerson’s book: free will and the nature of morality. In his exploration of Tolkien’s views on these subjects it is fairly evident that Dickerson enthusiastically endorses those views, so in what follows I will make no effort to separate Dickerson’s treatment of those themes from Tolkien’s views on the matter.
Dickerson goes to lengths to show that the ‘good’ characters in the ring trilogy have and exercise free will, as opposed to the ‘bad’ characters who are essentially automatons. So Gandalf, Frodo, Elrond, Boromir, Aragorn and so on make choices; orcs and the ring wraiths are slaves, either literally or owing to being controlled by their rings.
Free will, in turn, is essential to an understanding of moral behavior. One can act morally, or be justly accused of not acting morally, only if one has the free will to choose how to act.
In discussing views of morality, Dickerson presents three alternatives: ethical relativism, materialistic determinism, and objective morality. The latter is to be understood as morality that is independent of any human control. That is, it exists outside of any particular cultural or temporal context. Dickerson somewhat sneeringly refers to the ‘popularity’ of ethical relativism and basically dismisses that view without further comment. He describes materialistic determinism at somewhat greater length by quoting and paraphrasing some observations by Bertrand Russell. The synopsis given by Dickerson is that materialist determinists believe that nothing exists outside the physical world, so the notion of ‘free will’ as something that is not part of the physical world is meaningless. Therefore, Dickerson goes on, in that view it makes no sense to apply moral condemnation to bad acts - such acts arise from some combination of genetics, brain chemistry, environment, or other physical factors, and so deserve no more moral praise or condemnation than a common chemistry experiment. Dickerson seems to take it as evident that such a view is ridiculous and worthy of no more discussion. In any case, both Tolkien and Dickerson seem to believe in the ‘objective morality’ thesis, specifically a morality handed down by a deity, so it’s reasonable enough that he spends no more time discussing alternative views, and understandable that he doesn’t raise any of the many problems with the idea of objective morality (or the problems with positing a deity, for that matter).
But for anyone reading this book I think it’s important to understand that there actually are fundamental problems with the idea of an objective morality and free will, and that the arguments for either ethical relativism or materialist view of ethics are not quite so easily dismissed.
Let’s start with ethical relativism. The basic motivation is that if we look at what has been regarded as ethical at different times and places, there is a pretty broad range of mutually exclusive moral imperatives. Some things don’t really change: nearly every society has a stricture against theft and murder within the society - though many cultures reward or even insist on the rightness of committing theft and murder on outsiders. Slavery has been historically regarded as either a positive good or simply outside the domain of morality. And no matter how far such distant or ancient beliefs might differ from our own, each society has been mostly convinced that its own moral codes were correct and, indeed, obvious. That being the case, how is one to argue against the idea that morality is culturally determined? For most of us, our own set of moral beliefs seems so obvious and true that we might be tempted to say that of course! we have evolved socially so that now we are in a position to understand what is true morality. We might even be tempted to treat that understanding as a kind of discovery - we have, through long trial and error, discovered the true morality, the objectively correct morality. But a little reflection will show how absurd such a belief is. Are we really so socially evolved? A mere 50 years ago segregation was still the norm in the southern US; lynchings continued well after. We have only more recently ‘discovered’ that harassing and discriminating against gays is a morally unsound thing to do. We have probably not yet fully ‘discovered’ that discrimination against women is just not right. Just two or three generations ago, discriminating against homosexuals was thought to be the morally correct thing to do - and we had laws that enshrined that belief. So who knows what ‘discoveries’ we will make in another generation and which of our currently obviously correct moral views will be overturned?
Clearly much more could be said, but do you believe that arguments of that kind should simply be dismissed in one sentence as merely ‘popular’? And, by the way, I don’t accept the arguments of ethical relativism; I simply think it’s somewhat dishonest to dismiss such arguments out of hand.
Dickerson takes a similarly dismissive view of objections to the idea of free will. And it’s easy to be dismissive and avoid much criticism for such a dismissal. After all, we all of us believe at a deep level that we have free will. I can choose to finish this paragraph, or just skip the whole thing and close my browser. I can stand up, sit down, go outside, stay where I am - these are all choices I make of my own free will. Of course when I look at the table in front of me I ‘know’ that it is solid, and if I look at a lump of lead I ‘know’ it is solid as well. But in a different way, in a scientifically verifiable way, I know that both the table and the lump of lead are mostly empty space, about as solid as the solar system. So simply ‘knowing’ by intuition that something is true doesn’t make it so.
The objection I have to the idea of free will is that it is barely an idea at all. For believers in supernatural deities, free will is associated with a ‘spirit’ that ‘animates’ a sentient being; this ‘spirit’ is granted to us by the deity, or is a kind of link between ourselves and that deity. The spirit, and free will itself, exist side by side with the physical world, yet are not part of that world. Yet they are able to alter the behavior of the physical world. How? I do not see how one can coherently claim that a non-physical entity, that is, something that is not subject to the normal physical laws of the universe, could possibly interact with the physical world. The mere fact of interaction implies being part of the world, and therefore subject to the laws and constraints of the (subject matter of) physics. This objection applies equally to those who believe in free will but do not inject a deity or spirit or soul into the equation. It is the concept of free will itself that is incoherent.
But what is the alternative? Does the incoherence of free will imply determinism? I don’t see why it would, at least not in any practical sense. I think we can all agree that our decisions, our choices, arise out of processes in the brain. Brain function is partly inherent, based on genetics and early development, and partly influenced by environment, including the environment of our own actions over time. Synapses form and fade as we learn and forget, as we study, as we train, as we eat, drink, exercise, and so on. So to say that the negation of free will is determinism is to stretch the notion of determinism past the breaking point. Our choices are the endpoints of an inconceivably long network of events (most of them accidental in a fundamental sense) and physical structures which themselves evolve and devolve over time.
Nonetheless, Dickerson claims that for the materialist ‘determinist’ it makes no sense to apply moral praise or condemnation. I would answer: so what? Let’s suppose we have learned that a terrible crime has been committed - the murder of a small child for example. And there is overwhelming incontrovertible evidence, proof if you will, that a certain person committed that crime. Let’s see how the materialist determinist would respond. I think he might say something like the following: “This was a terrible crime, a great loss to the child’s family, and an act that chills me to the marrow. The person who did this crime must be locked away for a very long time, in part to keep him away from society so he can’t commit another crime, in part because we must use the power of the law to deter others from committing similar crimes (though we know that doesn’t work as well as we would like) and in part because at a deep level we want to punish this person.” [You might dispute whether the materialist would agree that punishment is appropriate - but materialists are themselves a product of their history and evolution, and we humans seem to have a universal taste for retribution.] Now - what would the believer in objective morality say different than any of the above? I would suggest that the believer would say the very same things, with the exception that he would then conclude by calling the criminal names - various synonyms of ‘evil’, ‘depraved’, etc. That’s it, that’s the sole difference: name calling.
So at an operational level there’s almost nothing to distinguish objective morality from materialist determinism (a misnomer as suggested above), nor for that matter from ethical relativism, at least for acts that are regarded as wrong in an overwhelming proportion of societies.
So we are left with the question of which seems more plausible: objective morality or materialist determinism. Well, since it’s by no means obvious, I think the burden is on believers in objective morality to say something about what is the nature of this ‘objectivity’ and how one could possibly investigate its properties. Is it another one of those ‘spirits’ that, though not physical, somehow interacts with us, infuses us, as it were, and that we can somehow sense (though how one senses a non-physical ‘thing’ is a mystery)? If it is a such a spirit I would ask why we should believe in such a thing. How could one ever adduce evidence for or against such a concept? It’s simply not a testable hypothesis.
I could go on, believe it or not, but you get the point: the mere fact that Dickerson sneers at or dismisses ideas that neither he nor Tolkien accept is no reason you should follow along.