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11/29/2012

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Hi Saul, Thanks for inspiring lively discussions this month. (Sorry I haven't been able to participate more.) I don't want to distract too much from this one, but I have to say something in response to this claim:

"It is a widespread topic for conversation among philosophers teaching the free will problem, how hard it is to convince many of our students of compatibilism: the abandonment of libertarian beliefs typically leads to a free fall into the denial of free will and moral responsibility."

Really? I'd love to see how you (and others) teach the topic such that this is the outcome. I typically have no trouble getting most students to appreciate or accept compatibilism. And I've had very few who have ended the discussion free falling into rejection of moral responsibility (yes, even after reading Galen Strawson).

The numerous claims from incompatibilists like yours is part of what inspired me to test pre-theoretical intuitions. I suspect that students' reactions depend largely on how teachers present the issues (and perhaps on the views of the teachers themselves?).

It is easy to get people to worry about determinism if it is presented in a way that suggests fatalism or bypassing (e.g., in a way that would lead Brent to conclude that determinism means "control" is just a metaphor!). It is easy to do this with subtly misleading metaphors, as I think you have even used in your posts here ("the trap" and "being swept away"--see my comment linked below).

What I am finding from the x-phi work is that, more than anything, people associate free will with *making choices*. So, if one presents determinism to lead people to think that no one really makes choices, then that'll do it. (In current work, I'm finding that people will say agents in Frankfurt cases *make a choice* but do not *have a choice* and nonetheless they have free will and responsibility.)

http://agencyandresponsibility.typepad.com/flickers-of-freedom/2012/11/is-it-about-time.html?cid=6a0120a8bb6b2e970b017c335f3efc970b#comment-6a0120a8bb6b2e970b017c335f3efc970b

Eddy - when teaching the FW problem, I have always made an effort to get people to understand the compatibilist interpretation, and use every means I can think of, including the methods that even experimental results show are best suited to that purpose (e.g. focusing on concrete cases). Just because most students have an intuitive resistance here, it is an excellent exercise in growing philosophically, so I put a lot of effort into it. And recall that I too am a partial compatibilist, so when trying to "sell" compatibilism I believe in the product. Certainly the confusion between fatalism and determinism, and the idea that choices disappear, are things I help them to avoid. I imagine that others who try to explain compatibilism are also doing their best. So I would love to see one day how you do things in class, but I don't find the thought that people can easily become e.g. semi-compatibilists at all plausible.

One thought that leads me to further skepticism as to your view here follows from what seem to be fairly robust results in experimental results, e.g. by Knobe, the ethical bias. I suspect that once many people become worried that they will not be able to blame and punish people, then they are more ready to back-track and lower their standards from free will and moral responsibility. So I suspect that much of the ability you report of making converts to compatibilism might not be attaching so much to their deep intuitions, as to their pragmatic concerns. But even here, in my experience, the default position tends to be something like utilitarianism, and not compatibilism.

Incidentally, I have had a similar experience with various colleagues, including some who have read my own attempts to make compatibilism plausible - and still find it totally unconvincing. Such philosophically sophisticated people are not confused about fatalism, but typically, in my experience, just have strong incompatibilist intuitions.

I know my anecdotal account doesn't mean much, but in the several intro to 200 level FW courses I've taken in the past 2 years, I think a majority of my fellow students have tended to follow Saul’s path to either incompatibilism or compatibilism for practical reasons (and perhaps without fully appreciating the challenges against it). Disclaimer: In one course we used Kane’s A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, which (while doing a great job of being fair to everyone) might not be the most compatibilist-friendly intro text around.

I found during discussions that something like the following evolution was common: 1) belief in libertarian free will 2) turns into anxious incompatibilism when students are introduced to the basic argument, 3) then after learning about compatibilism, 4) finally settling into either strong incompatiblism (after rejecting compatibilism) or backtracking to compatibilism for utilitarian reasons.

Note: the later category—of “compatibilsts for practical reasons”—aren’t even compatiblists for what I imagine most professional compatibilists would deem the right reasons.

Brent - thanks, that represents very well my experience and that of most people who I have talked to. Moreover, it is likely that the percentage of compatibilists among those teaching such courses is much larger than among the relevant student population, and so if anything compatibilists have more of an opportunity to influence their students than libertarians or hard determinists. Yet they do not seem to make much headway. I think that this should lead us to doubt the applicability of compatibilism, and towards conservative skepticism about change more broadly.

Saul,

I should think that the "crazy" implications of HD and Compatibilism make up as good a reason as any to embrace and vigorously defend AC. From a methodological standpoint, you seem a tad too quick to simply embrace EC. (One of my dissertation advisers would always say, when presented with any form of skepticism, "Now there's a philosophy intrinsically worth stamping out.") You say that you find the notion of LFW incoherent. Instead of giving up and declaring EC, why not continue trying to rebut Strawson's argument? To the extent that we fail to resist crazy philosophies of any stripe, are we not guilty of intellectual defeatism?

Saul,
You have a remarkable talent for raising disturbing questions: a damned good thing you aren't pursuing your philosophical career in ancient Athens. As a poster child for crazy ethics -- what could be crazier than supposing society might possibly reject moral responsibility? -- I have a question about what really counts as crazy ethics, and whether philosophers are in a good position to make such judgments. In FREE WILL AND ILLUSION you raise some very challenging philosophical questions regarding the dangers of denying moral responsibility (particularly your question concerning whether it would entail abandoning our special concern for the innocent). That strikes me as very fine philosophical work, a genuinely new and very substantial philosophical argument in an area where it is not easy to develop genuinely new arguments. But judgments concerning what views could "serve as a basis for social life," or would undermine society, or would be "far too demanding and thus would be overwhelmingly rejected" are a different order of judgment altogether; and they quickly lead to armchair "psychologizing" or even armchair "sociologizing" and "anthropologizing", on questions that even psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists have very limited basis for judgment. It seems to me that there are many positions that philosophers and ethicists have advocated that may have seemed crazily implausible at the time, but have eventually been taken much more seriously and even adopted. Giving up the demand for revenge -- and not necessarily against the wrongdoer, but perhaps against the wrongdoer's children -- would seem like crazy ethics to an honor culture. Rejecting the idea that we should inflict serious physical punishment on children ("spare the rod and spoil the child") would have seemed like crazy ethics not very long ago. In the antebellum south, most whites (especially the most "respected" large plantation owners) regarded abolition as the craziest of ethics. The push for the adoption of animal rights and vegetarianism does not seem nearly so crazy as it once did. In short, ultimately I'm not sure it is part of the philosophical job to determine which views can or cannot work in society; I suppose philosophers have as much right to speculate about that as anyone else, but no special claims of expertise. The philosophical task -- or a key philosophical task -- is to examine carefully our best scientific understanding of humans and human behavior, and then consider carefully the implications of that understanding for some of our basic value beliefs (such as belief in moral responsibility). The first and essential philosophical step in trying to determine what is socially possible is to be convinced that there are changes that should be made if they are possible. If our society should become genuinely convinced that moral responsibility claims and ascriptions are not defensible, then it seems not unlikely that we would find new ways of living (and living better) without moral responsibility.

Eddy - a further thought on this important issue: has there been any sort of survey of philosophers who teach free will? If not, that seems to me no less interesting than asking their students. If, as I suspect, we will get many confirmations of the sort of situation that Brent and I report, then this will go some way towards making my worries about the applicability of compatibilism quite plausible, and hence perhaps push us towards conservatism and Illusionism (as well as the idea of crazy ethics, insofar as it follows from the worry as to whether we can really live as compatibilists). If on the other hand there is considerable success in converting students to compatibilism, then this would confirm your optimism. One thing that would need to be thought out is how to weed out those who opt for "compatibilism" for merely utilitarian-like reasons. I don't mean to say that you or anyone else ought to do this sort of thing, and I certainly don't have the necessary knowledge, but it just seems to me a worthwhile thing to do.

Robert – I take AC to be agent-causality and EC to be ethical craziness, right? I agree that if we had a robust libertarianism then the idea of a crazy ethics (in my sense, i.e. craziness that is a property of true or at least plausible views) would not appear, or be less strong. It IS a drawback for compatibilism and hard determinism (and let's not forget compatibility-dualism) that they seem to lead to craziness. But I believe in the division of labor, I don't think I will be useful in working on LFW, and will leave this to others; continuing to make other sorts of trouble for compatibilism, HD, and myself. As to the idea that craziness should be shunned: yes, methodologically it is a good idea to work hard and try and avoid it, but not if it means denying whatever otherwise seems very compelling. One of the thoughts I began to develop in 10 Moral Paradoxes is that moral paradoxes are not necessarily an indication that things are mistaken. In addition to "standard" paradoxes which indicate that we have made some mistake in our premises, argumentation, or both, thus ending up with an unacceptable conclusion, I suggest that there are also "existential paradoxes", whereby true premises lead by perfectly kosher arguments to an absurd conclusion, but the absurdity is not a mistake, it is just there, as our true result. Life is absurd, and this is what we find out. Some corners of moral reality, for example, seem to be absurd in this sense. So it is not that the paradox merely indicates our lack of understanding, but rather it is a revelation of absurdity that is there, i.e. the paradox is not an error but a discovery. Similarly, I believe that it is quite likely that much of the free will problem is crazy in the sense under discussion, but this craziness simply is. For example I think that it is quite likely that (a) compatibilism, hard determinism and compatibility-dualism all cannot serve as a morally adequate basis for social attitudes and practices; and (b) that at least one of them is true. This would mean that life was, in some sense, a cruel joke, that arguably LFW is a moral necessary illusion, and other such distasteful implications, but there is no a priori reason to think that life is a rose garden.

Bruce - thanks for the nice things you say. People mostly take this for granted, but we should be aware and grateful how lucky we are to be living in periods and societies where we can freely engage in philosophy, going with the arguments wherever they seem to us to lead and experimenting with ideas. I agree that we should be skeptical about conservative claims that no change is possible, or could only be for the worse, in the light of the sort of examples you mention, but then there are equally compelling examples of undue optimism (e.g. the huge social experiment of communism) which indicate that we should move carefully and abandon common beliefs or advocate radical changes with hesitation. Arguably the story of the 20th century is a lesson more about the perils of optimism than of pessimism. As to the competence of philosophers here: again, I don't see an argument for asymmetry. Your arguments for radical changes are not privileged here over my own for erring on the side of caution (or of course vice versa). I think philosophers have a role to play at least because (a) the nature of philosophy is such that we often see problems that others do not recognize, (b) we often show higher standards of thinking (because of prior selection or training) than non-philosophers, and (c) some of the relevant work is inherently philosophical. Sure, whoever thinks about social issues should try to be well-informed, and be ready to admit his or her limitations. But I see no general reason to think that philosophers are any less useful than any other group. One should try to maximize the benefits of one's strengths, and minimize the drawbacks resulting from one's limitations. But that's always sound advice.

There are no surveys on philosophers' own views of how their students receive or respond to the free will debate or the positions presented to them. I'm not sure how reliable such a survey would be, since it's hard to see how reliable we can be at gauging these things (me too!).

But you say: "If on the other hand there is considerable success in converting students to compatibilism, then this would confirm your optimism."

My point is that no conversion is required. Most people (my research suggests at least 70-90%) begin without incompatibilist intuitions. They have to be convinced that there is a problem with philosophical arguments (or thought experiments or subtly misleading metaphors). At that point, yes, you might need to "convert" them back by presenting the mistakes in those arguments or the ways determinism does not suggest what it might seem to suggest (e.g., fatalism or the impossibility of making choices). And at that point, some people might not be easily convinced, leading to the impression that they have deep incompatibilist intuitions. At least that's the story I think is most likely to be the case given the (admittedly limited) evidence I've gathered/seen so far.

Eddy – I am still unclear as to how you take things to be. I take it that the typical student (as representing the folk) does not begin off as a compatibilist, because she doesn't think that there is anything problematic (determinism, or absence of LFW irrespective of determinism) that free will, moral responsibility and desert need to be compatible WITH. So she must first be shown that there is an apparent problem, e.g. be made to think about what assuming determinism would mean. In other words, I assume that before we start poisoning their minds, most students are tacit libertarians, right? Then they (let's be optimistic) clearly see the problem. But, you are saying, unless they have been misled in the process of explaining the problem (e.g. into confusing determinism and fatalism, or into thinking that consciousness doesn't matter), then they will not be worried at all about determinism (absence of LFW), because they (or at least 70%) are naturally compatibilists? (Natural semi-compatibilists?)

Eddy and Saul: FWIW, my experience with students has gone something like this: they start as pro free will/moral responsibility, but are neutral with respect to the incompatibilism/compatibilism debate partly because they don't really know what determinism is. Indeed, one of my biggest challenges is to get them to understand the thesis. To be sure, they sometimes come off as libertarians at the start, but this, I've found, seems to be because they initially think determinism involves bypassing of the sort Eddy is interested in. But once I explain to them that that's not the case, they're not sure what to make of determinism. Then, once they do see the (alleged) problems for free will/responsibility that arise from both determinism and indeterminism, some go libertarian and some go compatibilist. I've had very few students opt for a skeptical position.

Eddy: how does that description fit with your research thus far?

Justin - thanks, that's helpful. Those who, when they (more or less) understand the problem go libertarian certainly don't support the easy-applicability-of-compatibilism thesis. But it is not clear how many of those who go compatibilist actually confirm it, for many of them are likely to be there out of pragamatic worries about the social consequences rather than out of the conviction that the correct interpretation of the implications of determinism, say, is genuinely compatibilist.

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