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A very challenging and provocative post. I don't suppose you expect us compatibilists to take it lying down, though, do you? I really don't agree that compatibilism is morally problematic or superficial, and I don't see a big advantage here in libertarianism.

So, you write: "This path, as compatibilists will admit, is not in a garden of forking
paths (although it probably seemed so to Zed), but actually resembles a
railroad track, leading right to the prison gates."

(The style, ala EE Cummings, is cool!) But, as far as I can see, classical compatibilists WILL in fact say that we have genuine alternative possibilities in such a situation. After all, "all compatibilist conditions" are supposed to be met! I.e, no coercions, compulsion, subliminal advertising, etc., and whatever positive compatibilist conditions are supposed to be met. Why then wouldn't a classical compatibilist say it is a garden of forking paths (at relevant points), and why not say that the person in prison deserves to be there? I don't see how your story is anything but a bald and brusque denial of what the classical compatibilist holds! What have you added except some colorful terminology about "traps" to a simple denial of compatibliism?

Now I am no classical compatibilist, but I too would resist the claim that just because an act is causally determined, the agent is "trapped" or a "victim". I mean, you can SAY or WRITE stuff like that, but what is the argument? Again, I certainly don't think it follows from behavior's being predictable in advance that the agent doesn't act freely in so behaving. People disagree about this, but you can't just assert it--or you can, and you can dress it up with talk about "traps" and victimization, but what really have you added to a simple and abrupt denial of compatibilism?

Ok, them's tough words, but I guess your post is pretty tough too. I guess compatibilists like Gary Watson, Harry Frankfurt, John Perry, Keith Lehrer, well, and me--I guess we are all morally deluded or insensitive or superficial. I just don't buy that, and I don't think that stuff really is very helpful--those kinds of slurs.

Finally, why is libertarianism so much better here? Suppose it were 99% probable, given initial conditions and the laws of nature, that an individual would commit a certain crime, but it is not determined in advance that he will commit the crime? What's the big advantage of positing this?

Ok, Saul, you are such a nice guy--I hate to come on strong. Perhaps you can construe my reply in the same way I am construing your words--which, if taken in a certain way, could be highly offensive. I don't take you to be offensive, and I hope a vigorous reply by me will also not be deemed offensive.

Saul: a bit more.
You write about us compatibilists: "Not
to see a problem here is manifestly morally complacent." You also write of the "deep moral injustice" of compatiblilism, and so forth--and in other contexts you have written of the moral superficiality of compatibilism.

Ok, so I'll add to the list of compatibilists who must then on your view be morally superficial and "manifestly morally complacent": Tim Scanlon, Angela Smith, R. Jay Wallace, Terence Horgan, ... We are all morally deficient, because our views entail something so obviously morally problematic that not to see it or to ignore it would be really bad. So we are really bad, I guess.

But that's ludicrous. Really, Saul, it is unfair. Again: you can write stuff like that, but I just think it doesn't help to advance the debates. What I would say is something like this. Reasonable and morally decent people can disagree about these issues. To be compatbilist, or a semicompatibilist, or a libertarian, or a hard incompatibilist, or a moral skeptic, is not eo ipso to be morally any worse (or better) than someone who holds another of these positions. These are very, very complicated and difficult issues, and smart people of good will who are morally good people can and will disagree about these matters.

Isn't this just a more appealing, and more accurate, way of conceptualizing matters? Again: I am not offended by what you write because I know you are an incredibly gentle and nice person. I'm thinking you are just being provocative and trying to stir up discussion, which is fine. On the other hand, I think there are better ways of doing this!


Ok, let's tell a little more of Zed's story. Zed brutally raped a young woman, and that's why he's in jail. He lives in a causally deterministic world, and, according to you--and I will accept this supposition--all the compatibilist conditions for freedom are met by Zed.

So we can suppose that Zed was not coerced or forced to rape, that he was not subject to subliminal advertising or hypnosis or direct stimulation of the brain or anything like that. Further, we can suppose that if he had chosen not to rape the woman, he would not have done so, and that his actual choice was not the result of any kind of distorting or pathological condition or, again, any factor that would incline a compatibilist to say that the choice itself was impaired.

We could even suppose that he fully *identifies* with his behavior and specifically with the rape, and he is wholehearted in thinking that in fact the woman deserved to be raped. Or we could imagine that the rape issued from the agent's own, moderately reasons-responsive mechanism. Or that it was performed in the possession of a general capacity for reasons-responsiveness (ala Wallace).

So: no coercion, force, manipulation, psychological impairments or distortions to the ordinary human mechanisms or practical reasoning, and so forth.

Why exactly then is it so deeply unfair to punish Zed for his horrible and brutal crime?

Let's distinguish two versions of the the trap. Case (a): we implement a regime of (compatibilist-based) blaming others because so doing is, as you claim, the best game in town ('compatibilist-based' is in brackets since regard the whole determinism debate as a red herring, but we needn't enter into that now). That is, though those who are blamed and punished do not deserve it, in a deep sense, we have good reasons to preserve the system (in Zed's case, for instance, we have good reason to keep punishments too light to deter him because the cost of heavier sentences would be even greater injustice to other agents). Case (b): we implement the regime to preserve and defend injustice. In Zed's case, we do not address the socio-economic inequalities which lead to his crime because we - those with the power to address these inequalities - are beneficiaries from them. Zed's case is actually a mixed case. Indeed, real criminal justice systems are mixed cases. But the cases raise different issues. To the extent that (b) predominates, Zed is a victim, if also a victimiser in turn, and the criminal justice system a rationalisation for our injustice. To the extent to which (a)!predominates, Zed is unlucky but not our victim. It is essentially an empirical issue which alternative predominates.

When I read Neil's remarks I had to smile--he enunciated much more carefully than I could a concern I had about your case of the role society has in setting such a criminal justice system "trap". Clearly societies differ with respect to the kind of injustice you're concerned about being perpetrated on a given Zed due to wide-ranging degrees of concerns about or neglect of socioeconomic conditions, and degrees/probabilities of luck about particular injustices surely vary as a result. (I'd also point out that the origin of such socioeconomic policies in a given society has a further effect of fixing blame for that degree of injustice/luck. Being forced into criminal activity due to desperation in North Korea is attributable to the military dictatorship; here in the States it's spread over the wider populace for lots of different reasons, including democracy conducted through functional plutocracy, willful ignorance, prejudice, apathy, and widespread self-deception about who we really are.)

That said, clearly Saul you have a deeper metaphysical trap in mind that somehow colludes with any such societal trap--determinism. But say then that determinism is true. Why are things suddenly automatically worse, except that one already assumes that the truth of determinism destroys deep desert and thus introduces equally deep injustice? After all, any injustice of the society supposedly lumped in on top of that fact is a consequence of determinism as well, and certainly cannot intensify moral outrage at such a society's "trap" beyond what the basic assumption of determinism has already provided. So it seems to me that all of this once again comes down to the basic question of whether determinism threatens responsibility or not. My own view--which seems more and more to gravitate toward a form of pragmatism about all this--favors a compatibilist approach. (I would point out that pragmatism is not just a theory of truth--so do not conclude I endorse moral antirealism.)

All this said Saul, I am very mindful of the imminent danger the people in your region of the world faces. I assume you are in the north of Israel, but much of the entire Middle East is an unstable and frightening place to be, and though I am not religious, my fervent wish is that some road to lasting peace is found there soon.

So that John needn't fight the good fight himself, I thought I'd post my own (quick) reaction.

Though I'm not sure I buy this, I'll grant for the sake of argument that there is something morally problematic with Zed's situation, given that we knowingly allowed the system that contributed, in some way, to his criminal conduct, knowing as we did just what would result and why (I take it the why is important).

But what I don't see is how robust, metaphysical libertarian abilities would make much of a difference here. It can't just be that, in the absence of determinism, Zed could have chosen differently than he did. He might have had general capacities of choice that are more metaphysically impressive, but for all that, it is entirely possible that his choice-range would have been severely constrained.

The force of Saul's example, to my mind, concerns the uneasy relationship between aspects of a free and liberal society - socioeconomic conditions and the penal system, say. When young people in the ghetto turn to gang life and end up doing bad things, my thought isn't, "punishing them is a shame; if only they had had libertarian free will, then we'd be eminently justified in confining them."

As John notes, one with libertarian free will may be able to do otherwise, statistically, but for all that, under the influences of nature and nurture, the chance they don't end up committing some crime may be quite low. And if it is just the fact that there is no arbitrarily low chance that Zed doesn't commit his crime that's doing the heavy lifting here, then this just expresses a common incompatibilist thought - one that denying doesn't amount to moral complacency.

Apologies for the late reply, it has been a long day with meetings and teaching for four hours but I still want to reply to John's first two posts about my rhetoric rather than wait. I'll respond to the arguments against my "Trap" argument tomorrow.

John - I certainly had no intention of causing offence and apologize if I have done so to anyone. I believe that all participants in the free will debate are smart and decent people and we are all engaged in the same pursuit after the truth; I take this as too obvious to be said. I do not think that by saying that when compatibilists do not recognize ultimate injustice this is complacent, or that the ultimate perspective goes deeper than compatibilism, I AM saying that compatibilists are morally bad, or that I am morally better (or smarter) than others. I merely take myself to be saying that because of certain arguments that I find convincing, I think that I can say that compatibilists are not recognizing a problem, or not seeing something deep. One can be a good and smart person and not recognize a problem, and hence be satisfied with something too easily.

Let's take a case that we will both not be emotionally involved with, that of Peter Strawson in "Freedom and Resentment". A common and plausible interpretation of his argument is that he is saying that the whole philosophical free will debate is pointless and indeed a bit silly, because whatever philosophers decide, the form of life embedded in reactive attitudes that assume free will, will continue unaffected. This is a respectable Humean sort of argument, and I am sure P.F. didn't think that other FW philosopher were idiots or hysterical (although he did speak about the "panicky metaphysics" of the libertarians). I think the right thing to say about his position is that it IS complacent, for the free will problem is worth worrying about, and change (particularly for the worse, I would say) is possible. As Tamler has recently shown us in detail, there were and are societies that do not take free will to be necessary for holding people responsible and e.g. punishing them. I argued against Strawson's position in such ways in "Free Will: From Nature to Illusion" (Proc. Aristotelian Society 2002) –

Implicitly every one of us who continues to work on the free will problem is saying that P.F. Strawson was complacent ABOUT THIS MATTER, although no one would presumably deny his moral seriousness, good will, or philosophical ability. It makes perfectly good sense to say that he was one of the greatest philosophers of the second half of the 20th century, and that "Freedom and Resentment" deserves a place in the shortlist of the most important papers of the century, and yet see his position as fundamentally complacent. Perhaps I am underestimating the bite of the word "complacent", but I take it to be the idea that someone is missing something important, and is satisfied too quickly, without sufficient recognition of dangers or deficiencies. Whether one uses the term or not, this sort of charge is one that we make all the time.

Or take the debates about utilitarianism. One can and should see typical utilitarian philosophers as morally well-meaning and smart. Yet one can hardly read criticism of utilitarian understandings of, say, human rights, or justice, or friendship, without encountering the charge that utilitarianism is superficial and complacent.

I have argued at length for Illusionism on free will, i.e. the idea that illusion (particularly the belief in robust libertarian free will) is prevalent, and probably positive; arguably even a morally necessary illusion. This s a very disturbing argument, with reactionary potential. I am worried whether I am not being too complacent about the dangers, and would welcome critical discussion of my position in these terms.

Particularly because the free will problem is so important, and so much is at risk psychologically, morally and socially, there is, I feel, always a danger that we will deceive ourselves. I hope that other philosophers will help me to overcome my specific limitations and biases, see more deeply and not be complacent.

So, in conclusion, I will certainly take greater care in using those words, so as not to cause offence. I certainly have no intention of doing so. I do not think that by saying what I said I implied that the philosophers whose specific views I criticized are anything but good persons and smart philosophers. I think that often when we are thinking about philosophical problems we are asking whether positions are too complacent (as with proper criticism of P.F. Strawson's free will view), or whether a deeper view is called for (as with typical criticism of utilitarianism). Finally, I think that actually there is some positive value in putting things in such terms, because of our natural biases and tendencies to be complacent – and I welcome such challenges to my own work.

Thanks for the thoughtful and (characteristically) kind post. Again: I did NOT take offense. But I did --and do--think there must be better ways of formulating your position--ways that avoid the risk of unintended (and unnecessary offense).

I agree however that there certainly must be room for arguing that (say) compatibilism implies something morally problematic, without thereby asserting or suggesting that those who are compatibilists are morally bad or missing something so obvious that the best explanation is that they are morally insensitive (or something in that ballpark). It is delicate and tricky!

Again, no offense taken. But it is also healthy I think to consider how your views could be stated without the suggestion that those on the other side are either missing something obvious or morally insensitive. After all, there are really smart and morally very subtle folks on both sides. Typically, as you know, the philosophers who come to these issues from the "normative" side of things--Scanlon, Watson, A. Smith, P Hieronymi, R.J. Wallace--are all compatibilists. Now of course they could all be under-appreciating a problem for their view--a specifically moral problem. But it is delicate when the issue should be so obvious.

I look forward to the further discussion, especially about how libertarianism fares better (on your view) in the context of someone like Zed.

Infinitely up the ante, Professor Fischer, and Saul's point becomes even more salient. How could God Almighty consign someone to Hell were that individual not himself the ultimate cause of his evildoing? Sure he could have acted morally had he chosen to; but, given Determinism, a different choice was not even possible. If he’s embraced his evil inclinations, that is only because of another (higher) evil desire. There is no way to choose in opposition to whatever urges one was born with or has acquired. What difference should it make that he responds to reasons if he is being fed poor reasons by Nature or his milieu? Sure he would have chosen differently had different reasons been salient, but neither was that alternative possible. Others have left him alone- only so that he could unavoidably choose on his own unimaginable horror. And unlike his fellow men, God knew exactly the sort of intervention needed to avert this tragedy, but refused to act. Now He’s going to damn the poor fellow? You can begin to see from this perspective why Compatibilism has often been thought of as a “wretched subterfuge.” It would be a cruel being indeed who created someone who had no way of escaping damnation. Agent Causalism is obviously the only way to go for someone who believes in the Final Judgment.


I don't see how Agent Causalism helps with the heaven/hell type of moral responsibility. The luck problem seems especially salient.

There is no luck problem when it comes to AC, Lucky. The whole point of AC is do away with the element of chance in choice formation. Take Anselm for example. The Fallen Angels had the ability to preserve the rectitude of their wills and simply chose not to, exercising instead their ability to seek happiness. They weren't unlucky; they caused themselves to turn away from God. An unlucky person is caused by something besides himself to do something that lands him in trouble.

A fascinating -- and clearly provocative -- problem. Anything that stimulates such detailed responses by John, fascinating reflections by Robert, and Neil's very nice distinction together with Alan's comment on it, is a successful posting by my lights. Robert's point about robust agent causation libertarian views is important: the point is, they must be really robust AC views to meet John's concerns:Anselm's godlike choices of the fallen angels; and my own favorite, Pico della Mirandola's human choices to become beasts or gods or anything in between. Of course trying to make sense of that -- who is doing the choosing? -- is a challenge; but this is not the somewhat more modest view of someone like C. A. Campbell, where we can generally predict how people will choose. The question of whether compatibilism tends to make us less sensitive about those unfortunates like Zed is a particularly interesting question. Now obviously, as John points out, there are lots of very decent and concerned and deeply insightful compatibilists in the world, many of whom have been very disturbed by the obvious injustices of the brutal U.S. system of "justice" and incarceration combined with the gross inequities that foster the criminal behavior that is then harshly punished. Simply to list the morally exemplary compatibilists is sufficient to refute any suggestion that compatibilists cannot be both morally sensitive and deeply insightful. But it seems to me that Saul's point (and of course Saul is there to correct my misunderstanding) is still a very important one. The point is that the compatibilist perspective itself makes it more difficult to recognize the subtle causes that shape behavior (not impossible, as John's counterexamples make clear). At some point, the compatibilist is profoundly tempted not to look further, not to look deeper; because if we continue to look at all the details, we'll find (assuming no self-causal miracles) causal factors which the person did not control and which led to the bad behavior. Take the brutal Zeb, as John develops him. He may fully identify with his brutal character, and reflectively approve of it; and he is not suffering from any pathological condition, nor is he under powerful subliminal influence. But if we keep pushing, we find -- or at least as determinists we believe that we could find -- more subtle causes that were outside of Zeb's control. Zeb has comparatively little self-control (a capacity that is shaped at a very early age, as Baumeister notes); he does not think carefully or extensively, because he was shaped as a cognitive miser, or he has a very weak sense of cognitive self-efficacy, or he has a strong external locus-of-control, or he is suffering from ego-depletion; and Zeb was shaped by a culture that regards violence toward women as acceptable, even "manly," and Zeb has had little opportunity to experience other perspectives (and little chance to be motivated to seek other perspectives). Now certainly there are compatibilists who can and do consider such factors, and worry about the early conditioning that shaped Zeb's violent and mercurial character, and that are even now shaping others in like manner. But if we insist on claiming that Zeb is morally responsible (in the sense that he justly deserves punishment) then there is a strong temptation to halt the search before we look too closely and find causal factors that lead to doubts about moral responsibility (the sorts of factors that Neil describes so clearly in Hard Luck). That there are morally exemplary compatibilists such as John and Gary Watson and Harry Frankfurt is evidence that at least some compatibilists are moral saints, who are capable of rising above and probing below the moral short-sightedness that compatibilism fosters.

Robert Allen: yes there is a (devastating) luck problem for AC.

Thanks, John. I was thinking of devoting one post to the psychology of the free will debate and to the possible validity of ad hominem arguments (Illusionism being a prime target), but will skip that idea :)

Back to Zed. If I may, I would like to ask you to think of him as a gentle burglar and not as a brutal rapist. This is not because I think that a HD case cannot be made otherwise, but because (1) I think that it is harder for us to imagine ourselves developing into brutal rapists rather than, say, as pedestrian burglars; and (2) the "economy" of social tradeoffs and decisions is more plausible if we think of Zed as a burglar than as a brutal rapist (namely, burglary is related to a socially-induced shortage of money in a way that brutal rape is not related to a shortage of women).

John and Matt – where is my (new) argument? Well, there isn't one, in the way that, say, my argument a few years ago about compatibilism and prepunishment was a novel argument, or in which the "funishment" argument against HD is a straightforward argument. But not all philosophy is like that. The Trap is an attempt to draw a picture, which will capture the intuitions of incompatibilists (or the HD side of the intuitions of a complex compatibility-dualist person like myself). In a way The Trap doesn't cover new ground that is not covered by, say, the consequence argument; I simply find it more salient to think not of laws of nature but of social arrangements, as victimizing people. Another advantage of The Trap is that it focuses the ultimate or HD concern on what we, as a society, do.

Here it raises a question which I have not tackled in previous writing but hope to do in the future, about the individuation of responsibility: assuming (for the sake of simplicity) a determinist world, how do we determine who is responsible for an act, given the social nexus in which it took part? Why focus on the agent? But here I will focus on The Trap as a way to argue against compatibilist sufficientism, i.e. the idea that if compatibilist free will criteria are satisfied, e.g. the person compatibilistically-deserves punishment, then there is nothing more to worry about. The Trap tells the story of our compatibilistically-free burglar in a way which makes his criminal career part of his life, and hence his lengthy prison sentence, which effectively ruins his life, is seen as, well, a trap which he is victim of – simply in the light of playing the role of burglar, a role he has been molded into by his heredity and environment. On the ultimate level, his choices are merely an unfolding of the way he has been formed by life, with no wriggle room, and ultimately beyond his control. Yes, he has a bad motivation set, which leads him to choose to take other people's property, but (when I wear my HD hat) all I see is A PERSON MOLDED BY LIFE INTO SOMEONE WHO INEVITABLY DOES THE THINGS THAT THEN LEAD HIM TO HIS DOOM. If, as in my story of The Trap, we are all the time aware that he is doomed from the onset unless we do something, but nevertheless do nothing to save him, and when he indeed plays his inevitable role we blame and send him to rot in a hellish prison - then I feel that there is a moral problem here.

How would libertarian free will help? Well, in fact it cannot help because it does not exist, and in the robust (non-Kane-like) sense it is even probably incoherent. But the point is that LFW was a story which was intended to show us how, if we had it, things would be less grim. For if we had LFW (the story goes) then people could escape the determinist trap, it would often be the case that whatever the social or other circumstances, the agent could TRANSCEND them. If he freely (in the strongest sense) chose not to do so, then surely we can feel less bad about blaming and punishing him. LFW was supposed to give us magic powers which would allow us not to be trapped by forces beyond our control, so that if we did bad things it might (or might not) be sad if we then paid a price, but not unfair or unjust.

Neil and Alan – good points. I think that it would be most fruitful to grant the strongest compatibilist case here, namely to assume that the moral order could not be much improved (i.e. Neil's #1). Nevertheless I wouldn't want to speak of Zed's fate as merely unlucky, but as unjust. He is paying a huge price for social arrangements that exist because they serve the rest of us, while – from the HD perspective – he is, just like us, not free to avoid where he ends up. We set up social arrangements which serve us well, but for Zed they are a trap leading to a social hell – and that is, in my book, unfair and unjust TO HIM. I think Neil and myself have fundamentally different conceptions of justice here. One thing going for my broader conception of justice is that it helps to show why The Trap is a problem for compatibilist sufficientism.

Bruce – the pragmatic effect of the prevalence of certain social beliefs rather than others has of course been central in my work. I think that awareness of ultimate or hard determinist injustice can be a corrective to a compatibilist-induced satisfaction with social arrangements that are fundamentally unjust (in the broad sense). However, I am in fact skeptical whether a denial of moral responsibility altogether will, in fact, prove to make for a more humane, decent and civilized society. A compatibilist Community of Responsibility which allows for compatibilist excuses, and is then further mitigated by a HD awareness of the injustice of even the optimal compatibilist social arrangements, and the inevitable tragedy of life, seems to me much safer than a utilitarian-style view. When the NY police pushed out of town or into prison "undesirables", those who found moral fault with it had to look elsewhere than to point out the disutility of the practices. "Cleaning up" the town may well have been overall beneficial. As I said in previous posts, I think that you are being overly optimistic about life without belief in moral responsibility.

Robert – my thought is that if there is a benevolent God, he would not punish people for ever; even not a Hitler. But I won't enter such theological issues, they are too deep for me.


Thanks for your very generous and thoughtful comments. Not surprisingly, I disagree with some of them, for instance (but not limited to!):

"The point is that the compatibilist perspective itself makes it more difficult to recognize the subtle causes that shape behavior (not impossible, as John's counterexamples make clear). At some point, the compatibilist is profoundly tempted not to look further, not to look deeper; because if we continue to look at all the details, we'll find (assuming no self-causal miracles) causal factors which the person did not control and which led to the bad behavior."

Really? Compatiblism makes it more difficult to recognize the "subtle causes that shape behavior"?? Why? A compatibilist is in just the same boat as anyone else with respect to scrutinizing the sequences that lead to behavior, seeking to identify the causally relevant factors, to analyze and interpret them, and so forth. I just don't see that a compatibilist is in any worse position in this respect that anyone else; indeed, I would have thought that it would be much more difficult say for an agent-causal theorist (who is an indeterminist) or a non-causalist to identify the relevant factors!

And, of course, no surprise: NO SURPRISE!!! I causal determinism is true, there will be factors outside an agent's control that lead to our behavior. But surely the compatibilist knows this!!! How could he or she not? And so how could it be something that he/she fears (perhaps implicitly) and leads to him/her not looking carefully at the causal antecedents of behavior??

I'm puzzled.

In my view, compatibilists encourage us to look carefully and in detail at the causal antecedents of our behavior. The right kinds of compatibilists ask us to look with just the right level of magnification at just the right range of data: not too much, and not too little. Asking for too much is metaphysical megalomania, and for too little leads to admittedly a shallow and unsatisfactory view. Goldilocks would be pleased--and so would the Budda. Semicompatibliism is the Middle Path--and the path of wisdom, as well as freedom.

Saul, we may be closer than you think in our conceptions of injustice. I agree that given the hypothesis, Zed is treated unjustly. But he is not victimized by us, as he would be were his treatment in the service of furthering our comforts.

Metaphysical megalomania! That hurt; not the megalomoniacal part, which is obvious truth, but the metaphysical: my first real delight in philosophy was with the logical positivists, and being called metaphysical is the harshest criticism imaginable. In any case, whether inspired by the Buddha or by Goldilocks, I loved your essay on the middle way; I always learn a lot from your essays, even when I disagree, and here I do disagree. I do, certainly, agree that compatibilism is a clearer path to learning about human behavior than is the agent-causal libertarian approach -- but that is damning with faint praise. But why is the middle/compatibilist path "just the right level of magnification"? It seems to me that in any science, we are never satisfied with stopping when there are still causal inquiries left unanswered: why did this medication work for everyone else, but not for Joe? So long as we have unanswered questions, it is important to keep looking. Jack and Jill are both moderately reasons responsive; but Jill keeps thinking, and avoids temptation, when Jack stops too early. Isn't it very important to keep searching for why Jack failed and Jill succeeded although they seem very similar and in similar situations. And if we keep looking, then we find that Jack was shaped as a cognitive miser, and that Jack is currently in a state of ego depletion. And when we find such causes -- and it seems to me very valuable to find them -- then it casts doubt on the fairness of holding them morally responsible (had Jill also been a cognitive miser, her behavior would have also been bad). Aristotle, Goldilocks, and the Buddha notwithstanding, the golden mean does not seem helpful in this context. Saul, am I right in thinking that that is the problem you see in compatibilism, even though you consider it worth keeping for other reasons?

I'm still not clear on what the supposed injustice to Zed is, precisely. Is it

(1) That we are holding Zed morally responsible at all,

(2) That we are punishing Zed at all,

or (3) That we are punishing Zed very harshly?

To be contrary to compatibilism it would have to be (1), but the affect-inducing terminology ("ruin his life", "railroad track, leading right to the prison gates") suggests that it's actually (3) that's the problem. If (2) were the injustice, then simply making Zed sit still for two hours while people wagged their fingers at him would be an injustice (regardless of whether he was guilty of theft, rape, murder, or jaywalking). If (1) were the injustice, then simply having people think ill of him would do for your story. But you didn't go for either of those. I don't think your story would work with either of those.


I too am unconvinced by this sort of distinction: "The right kinds of compatibilists ask us to look with just the right level of magnification at just the right range of data: not too much, and not too little."

This is arbitrary. 100 years ago, if you employed the same golden mean method, the ideal "level of magnification" for assigning praise and blame would have been, not only laughable, given the period's limited understanding of human behavior, but undeniably unjust!

Is it so impossible to imagine that 100 years from now, our understanding of human behavior, though perhaps still incomplete, would make our current compatibilist criteria for moral responsibility seem equally or likewise unjust?


Well, then in 100 years I'll change my compatibilist criteria! I'm not saying that it is inconceivable that I am wrong. I believe I am right, but certainly I could be wrong! (Hey--perhaps this is another reason to want immortality--to keep working on just the right set of compatibilist criteria! Take that, Immortality Curmudgeons.


It is interesting to me that none of the considerations you invoke, as far as I can see, apply distinctively and solely to compatibilism. They would seem equally to apply to libertarianism, where someone could be "shaped" so that it was 99% or say 85% probably that he would behave badly, and so forth. Now of course I know you are on the responsibility-skeptic side, so perhaps this doesn't bother you; but you seem to be presenting this as a problem for compatibilism, as Saul did. But, on your way of putting it, it is not distinctively a problem for compatibilism (as opposed to libertarianism).

And what does "shaped" mean? If it means, we can causally explain why Jack did one thing and Jill another, well, again, no surprise, given the truth of causal determinism, but why does the fact that an agent's behavior can be explained rule out responsibility? "Shaped" suggests something passive, like when one shapes a sculpture. But that's not how moral education and upbringing typically works! And "ego-depletion"? If what is intended here is that there is a causal explanation--a deterministic causal explanation--for why Jack behaved as he did, which includes that he didn't try very hard because he was weak or tired or exhausted--I guess that doesn't get Jack off the hook, in my mind.

I'm trying to imagine telling my wife that really I'm not responsible for coming home drunk because there was a causal explanation for my going to the bar on my way home from work which showed that I was, lamentably, "ego-depleted". And, btw, I was "shaped" to be "ego-depleted". Or imagine telling that to the police officer or judge, after you're run over a pedestrian while driving home drunk...

Ok, I'm sure I'm not being entirely fair to your position, and, well, I'm getting ego-depleted. I certainly wouldn't dream that I could convince someone like you or Saul, who have a vested interest in a kind of moral skepticism, just as I have a vested interest in defending Semicompatibilism. But it is fun taking pot-shots nevertheless, which is I guess ok on a blog, no?


And, of course, our intellectual humility in light of the progress of science and the complexity of philosophy goes both ways, right? That is, it is presumably conceivable, isn't it, that in 100 years science will have progressed in such a way as to vindicate (or at least significantly support) compatibilism, and, in particular, specific forms of compatibilism? That's at least possible, isn't it, and, as it were, just as possible as the reverse? I mean, these considerations are always in the background and cut both ways, right?


You write, "So far as we have unanswered questions, it is important to keep looking." Well, there's a lot to think about here. You know about the kid who asks "Why", "Why", "Why" and never stops, no matter what the parent says? Most of us think that maturity consists in part in a kind of wisdom as to when to stop pressing that question. But of course philosophers are kind of like kids in that we like to press the "why" question past where most people will stop, and I suppose that's ok. But it is just not true that even we never stop, or think it is always appropriate to keep pressing the "why" question.

And, again, I don't see why it FOLLOWS from our having a causal explanation (even a deterministic one) of someone's behavior that it is eo ipso behavior for which the agent is not responsible. Yes, we want to know why someone did what he did--why was Jill cool and Jack a jerk. Compatibilists want to know this as much as anyone, and compatibilists are actually in a pretty good position fully to explore the causal antecedents of behavior! It is simply that we do not conclude straightaway from there being an explanation that the agent is not responsible!

And I apologize: is it "Mark", with "Brent" as the last name? Sorry!

Thanks for your patience.

Woops--I meant "Michael"--did I finally get that right?

The ego-depletion is addlepating me. Lamentably, and pathetically, I have been SHAPED today by too much (DELICIOUS) German beer last night. So--no responsibility, right?

Also, and I know some of you think my beloved Semicompatibilism is a TURKEY, Happy Thanksgiving from Germany to all Flickerers!!

Why is it that a compatibilist needs to think that persons deserve punishment? Isn't there room for a compatibilist view in which persons deserve only the appropriate reactive attitudes for their actions, and not punishments? By punishment I mean something like being damned to spend eternity (or even just a very long time) in Hell. I can't see how such a punishment is ever justifiable or deserved, even for agent-causal agents.

It seems to me that most compatibilists do not think that such punishments are justified, but rather that moral responsibility is only about reactive attitudes. But I could be wrong about that. In any case, it doesn't seem obvious that "cosmic" responsibility (the basis for God's judgement) is entailed by moral responsibility. In other words, it seems that a person could be morally responsible without being cosmically responsible. Perhaps I'm wrong about that, but I need to be convinced first.


I disagree that these considerations cut both ways. Two reasons.

One, the arch of the scientific study of human behavior has always bent towards moral responsibility impossiblism. There has not been one advancement in this field (or any related field, physics, biology, evolution...) that has made moral responsibility make *more* sense.

Second, intellectual humility does not necessarily cut both ways. For example, I *don't* think it’s presumably conceivable that in 100 years science will have suddenly proved evolution false. Of course there is a “chance,” but to equivocate that purely philosophical chance to the chance that instead, evolution is even more supported and fleshed out by that date, is being dishonest.

On a side note, I’m curious why you would think it possible for science to be *more* supportive of compatibilistic moral responsibility than it already is. I thought compatibilists were content with the current scientific understanding of all the relevant forces. What I’m asking is, does your suggestion that science could *more* support compatiblism betray a certain uneasiness about its current, possibly precarious, relationship with a scientific understanding of human behavior?

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