Blog Coordinator

« Very Bad Wizards Ep. 21: Grad School | Main | CFP: Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Agency Conference »

05/11/2013

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi Bruce, glad we're going to discuss this. My thought has always been that the vast majority of philosophers agree about the kind of freedom we have (or at least can have), and that the central disagreement concerns whether this kind of freedom is enough for moral responsibility. So if we separate the questions, there wouldn't be much of a free will "debate."

(I recognize that some libertarians will object to this characterization of the debate. But really, as you note, compatibilists, skeptics, revisionists are pretty much agreed on the free will question considered independently of MR.. )

Hi Bruce,

Nice post. I agree that issues regarding each notion come apart in interesting (and perhaps underexplored) ways. You focus on compatibilist theories in the post: I wonder if there's some extra impetus for incompatibilists to start with moral responsibility as a way to motivate a theory of free will? Or do you think both incompatibilists and compatibilists have equal reason to keep free will separate from moral responsibility?

Hi Bruce-another great question.

It seems to me that the FW problem as classically put resolves into two controversies: the determinism/indeterminism (D/I) issue of what is metaphysically true about human nature, and the conceptual problem of compatibilism/incompatibilism, where incompatibilism necessarily relates freedom to the D/I issue, and compatibilism by interdefinition-by-negation says that freedom is something else. (Skeptics then say the latter conceptual problem is a pseudoproblem or just meaningless; illusionists are either pragmatic skeptics or pragmatic hard incompatibilists.)

Clearly on the metaphysical side of D/I there are no necessary implications for MR. It is a question of what reality is, nothing more.

Can one then supervene mere claims of nonfreedom/freedom on the D/I issue without MR import? Of course; thus the terms incompatibilism/compatibilism minimally referring to FW.

But conceptually freedom as relates to MR is more thorny. Some would say that a metaphysically open future (not mere counterfactuality) is a necessary condition for MR--a necessary condition for believing incompatibilist MR. Obviously (semi-)compatibilist views of MR deny that. Most of the literature ensues.

The logical distinction of the two issues assures not just that they may be separately pursued--e.g. for libertarians, as with Kane's attempts to nail down the claims for I over D in his empirical work on brains as opposed to his claims of the significance of that for SFAs on the side of MR-significant incompatibilism--but that for pragmatic reasons related to our collective need to hold people accountable for actions the MR facet of the incompatibilism/compatibilism issue has real-world precedence in our theorizing. The latter fact is why I have for the last few years turned overtly to pragmatism as the main issue of the FW problem. (I have a paper on "Free Will Zombies" to be presented at Manuel's SF conference that tries to put this point forward; sorry for the self-plug.)

Philosophers are not slaves to tradition; but neither do we work in a vacuum. It is very hard to shed the influence of the luminaries who taught us our subject. As noted in an earlier post the debate over FW began in the context of justifying the Catholic notion of the Final Judgment. Philosophers' conservatism here is also a reflection of common sense. Even lay people are loath to separate FW & MR, influenced themselves by traditions religious and legal, but also drawing on their own subjective and interpersonal experiences. All of us, then, seem to naturally think that those who act of their own free will are responsible for what they do and vice-versa, criminals and saints alike. We stray from this near universal mind-set at our intellectual peril, given the real life implications of our debate. Let us call this conceptual equivalence 'traditional free will' (TFW).

From this perspective, the philosophical attempt to define either FW or MW sans the other is bound to come up short. Fischer and Ravizza eschew regulative control and FW with it, basing MR solely on guidance control. But are reason-responsive agents lacking RC really responsible? Kane concedes (in the beginning of the SFW) that compatibilist philosophies capture a measure of freedom, while leaving something critical out. TFW is the basis of our expectations. We were hoping that F & R would provide us with reasons for believing that we are so much in control of our mental lives- so free in that realm- that we are unavoidably responsible for our choices. Vargas is building better beings without making them so free as to be responsible- does not his project similarly disappoint? What's the point in being free if others, especially God Almighty, would be unjustified in holding me responsible? Better: am I truly free if holding me responsible for my conduct is unwarranted?

So, at the end of the day, I would ask compatibilists in return: why the unswerving commitment to the Scientism that renders TFW problematic? Shouldn't our loyalty be given instead to common sense and one's intuitive appreciation of the working of one's mind?

"But conceptually freedom as relates to MR is more thorny. Some would say that a metaphysically open future (not mere counterfactuality) is a necessary condition for MR--a necessary condition for believing incompatibilist MR. Obviously (semi-)compatibilist views of MR deny that. Most of the literature ensues."

Jeez--quoting myself for clarification, and that is embarrassing:
it's really here that value judgments enter into the FW problem. D/I qua description of reality implies nothing about values, and even when we describe that closed/open metaphysical future as somehow (valuelessly) unfree/free. But when we add in MR via incompatibilism/compatibilism then values are not eliminable, and are essential to the debate, and as I said in other threads about values specifying certain facts as relevant (as with the definition of death), they are here the most relevant factor of interpretation of the metaphysics. All I'm sayin'.

Thanks for raising these interesting questions Bruce.

In regard to your last question (So why shouldn’t we take advantage of the wonderful possibilities of mixing these views?), I am not sure what is wonderful about mixing views. 'Free will' strikes me as having very little determinate meaning. Some contend (Tim O'Connor, for example) that it is a term of art. I think it is very natural to give it meaning by connecting it to moral responsibility: namely by contending that free will is the strongest necessary condition for the control required to be morally responsible.

Frankfurt and van Inwagen both offer different definitions and both uses of the term 'free will' strike me as justified.

Supposes we opt for the first definition (this strikes me as the most common definition in the contemporary literature), what would be lost? It seems to me nothing. We can say everything you said about Kane, Dennett, Nelkin, Vargas, etc. Granted we might not use the term 'free will' but why is that a loss?

Hi Bruce,

I tried to comment previously but my comment seems to have disappeared. Trying again. I was actually going to blog about this issue next month: now I'll have to try to think of something else...

I've been thinking about this issue ever since I read your book. The move you make there, distinguishing between free will and moral responsibility and reserving scepticism for the latter alone is quite attractive (not least because if I adopted the view my life would be simplified, insofar as I could defend compatibilism without all the hedging I now have to do). Here's why I continue to resist. In a recent paper, David Chalmers gives the free will debate as an example of a dispute that is merely verbal. Once we produce appropriate subscripts, there is not a lot more to say. Do we have free will (subscript libertarian)? Well that's an empirical question (as Mark Balaguer has pointed out): is the brain indeterministic in the right kind of way? Do we have free will (subscript Fischer)? Well, yes, we do. Debate over; at least for philosophers.

If the dispute is not to be merely verbal, there had better be some substantive question remaining, The obvious one is: is free will (subscript Fischer, or subscript Frankfurt, or..) sufficient for moral responsibility (in the post I was going to write, I was going to ask whether there are other candidates besides MR to make the issue substantive). Of course we can ask that question while distinguishing fw and mr, but at the cost of making the latter question merely verbal. By the way, a similar kind of issue arises wrt theorists who make mr very insubstantive. I need not be a skeptic about responsibility (subscript Scanlon) but that's because nothing hangs on that kind of responsibility.

Bruce,

Thanks for the kind words, which, as always, I appreciate.

I like the "mix and match" strategy, although perhaps I find "divide and conquer" a better name for it. In any case, I think the answer to your question about why more philosophers don't accept say a compatibilist account of free will as adequate but then remain skeptical about moral responsibility is roughly as follows. Going back to Aristotle, many think that there are two necessary conditions for moral responsibility: a control (or freedom) condition and an epistemic condition. If one has an adequate account of the control condition, this only leaves the epistemic condition. And, although it is obviously tricky and delicate to give an adequate account of it, it has seemed to many (although not all) that the epistemic condition should end up being compatible with causal determinism. So if one is a compatibilist (in particular, and similar points may apply to libertarians), once you have the control condition nailed down, there doesn't seem to be too much of a gap, too much left over, to get to moral responsibility.

Capisce?

Thanks for all the interesting and challenging comments; am in meetings this afternoon, but hope to respond this evening (it will definitely require some System Two thought, and right now I'm ego-depleted). At the moment, wanted to respond quickly to Neil and anyone else whose comments are not being posted. This has recently been happening, according to Thomas, because of some changes that type-pad is undergoing; if you post a comment, and it doesn't show up in a reasonable amount of time, please email me at bnwaller@ysu.edu, and I'll try to pull it out of the folder where type-pad sometimes erroneously sends comments. Cheers.

Gee, I’m shocked; I thought everyone would think this was a great idea, so we could give up this vile thing called moral responsibility and focus our attention on enhancing free will. Josh seemed to agree we could separate the questions, which I found encouraging; then Neil sort of liked the idea, but concluded it wouldn’t work because (as Tamler suggests) when we separate the questions there’s not much left to discuss about free will; John proposes renaming it a “divide and conquer” strategy, which is fine with me, and says some encouraging things about it – but then God hardens his heart, and he refuses to give up moral responsibility. In any case, thanks for all the very interesting comments; here are some grossly inadequate responses.

I think Josh is probably right that there is an “extra impetus for incompatibilists to start with moral responsibility as a way to motivate a theory of free will”; or at least, that seems to me true of some libertarian incompatibilists such as Pico Della Mirandola and C. A. Campbell, and I think also on the incompatibilist reading of Kant, as well as for a contemporary such as Timothy O’Connor; but I would really like to know if O’Connor would agree, and I would love to hear what Randy Clarke thinks about that (I’ll certainly ask him the next time I’m down south at Florida State, but maybe he will inform us earlier). I’m guessing that for Bob Kane the motivation goes the other way; a very strong commitment to open alternatives freedom may be a stronger motivation than keeping moral responsibility; but Bob’s position is so rich and multifaceted, I’m not at all sure; Bob, if you’re on board, your answer on this would certainly be of great interest. And it would be very interesting to know David Shoemaker’s views on this, given his uniquely personal identity/emotional capacities approach. And Robert Allen’s views – as a strong libertarian voice, unless I am grossly misunderstanding him – would also be very interesting; Robert, am I correct in thinking that providing a foundation for moral responsibility is the key motive for your views on free will? If you became convinced that moral responsibility is impossible (a very unlikely scenario), would libertarian free will still be important to you? In any case, Josh, that’s a very interesting question; and if we could get Timothy, Randy, David, Bob Kane, and Robert to comment on it, that would be an interesting exchange indeed.

Alan, a nice way of distinguishing these issues; I was particularly struck by your comment on Kane’s work, that even without moral responsibility he would still have the fascinating question of working out his empirical studies on brains and how his model of free will would work related to such studies. It seems to me that there is a great deal in Kane’s work that is of profound significance in our understanding of free will, even if we believe (the universal opinion of the good and just) that there is no moral responsibility. Also, I would agree with you (if I understand correctly?) that when we get into moral responsibility questions we get into value/morality questions, and it seems to me that those are at least somewhat distinct from free will questions (which leads me to suppose that the two issues can be examined separately).

Robert, the question you pose seems to me the nub of the issue: What’s the point in being free if there is no moral responsibility? It seems to me that Chris and Tamler and Neil are raising a similar issue: if we separate free will from moral responsibility, doesn’t the question of free will become empty or “merely verbal” or arbitrary? That seems to me the key issue: what is left for the question of free will if we do not connect it with moral responsibility? As usual, John focuses the question beautifully (and I like the “capisce”; Dean and Frank would certainly approve): once we meet the control and epistemic conditions, moral responsibility seems to follow. But suppose that there are some stubborn mule-headed folks who cannot understand how any of the control and epistemic conditions proposed can justify moral responsibility. Aren’t there still very important – and difficult -- questions concerning control and understanding that are of interest in trying to work out an adequate account of free will? And if we divorce those questions from moral responsibility, there are still ways of anchoring those questions so that they are not merely verbal or arbitrary; and – to my way of thinking – those are better anchors than in moral responsibility. Rather than trying to anchor our understanding of free will in something that is supposedly unique to humans, such as moral responsibility (and in the tradition, something that makes us almost godlike) why not base our understanding of free will in an examination of the psychological and biological basis of what is valuable in free will? Control is extremely important, not only to humans but also to other animals (the studies of learned helplessness started with dogs, and psychologists such as J. Lee Kavanau have done extensive study on the importance of control for animals other than humans); and we know the debilitating effects of loss of control by examining institutions (hospitals, prisons, long-term care facilities) where that control is lost. There is also the issue of integrating control with self-disclosure (Watson) or real self (Wolf) views, and understanding the importance of that strong sense of identity for psychological well-being (something which Fischer’s work on narratives/stories and Ron Dworkin’s work on narratives make very clear, even if one separates their insights from any concern with moral responsibility – when we divorce people from their life narratives, as often happens in long-term care facilities, the results for their sense of freedom are terrible; when we post very large photographs of the residents in their pre-institutionalized lives, the effect on their sense of identity and on their sense of freedom and control is quite positive). And Bob Kane’s emphasis on “open alternatives” seems to me – with apologies to Bob – deeply rooted in the importance of open alternatives for foraging animals (which is a legacy we share with white-footed mice and wolves and many other species). How do we pull together the insights on free will from all these different (and sometimes apparently conflicting) sources into a coherent account of free will for animals like ourselves, in light of all the continuing research in biology and psychology and anthropology and neuropsychology? Those seem to me substantive questions, and the answers to them will not be merely verbal. Anyway, that’s my answer for Neil’s question of “whether there are other candidates besides MR to make the issue substantive”; since I have stolen one of his issues for next month, I hope this will prompt him to share his own candidates. Forgive the length; but the comments have been fascinating, and they have stimulated lots of reflection, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Thanks for the response Bruce. I agree (and think you nicely illustrate) that there are many issues concerning agency and control that we are and should be interested in. Moral responsibility is, of course, one such issue--and a very important one. But you note other issues that also of interest, issues about the real self, the survival value of alternative possibilities, etc.

But I am still wondering why it would be of value to say that investigations into these issues are investigations into issues about *free will*, rather than say agency or control. Indeed, much of your descriptions say nothing about free will, but rather use the vocabulary of 'real self', 'alternative possibilities', 'psychological well-being', etc., and nothing seems lost to me.

Bruce, just building on what Chris said, I'm not sure what the term "free will" is contributing on your proposal. I completely agree that it's worth while investigating the value of "control with self-disclosure (Watson) or real self (Wolf) views, and understanding the importance of that strong sense of identity for psychological well-being" and so forth. But the word just seems like a distraction in this investigation.

The danger is that you have all this cool (empirically informed) work done on agency and control and value, but that the debate gets bogged down on the conceptual question "yeah but is that FREE WILL?" Like Chris and Neil, I don't see much substance to that question. Of if I'm being honest, I don't see any substance to that question. (I feel the same way about the knowledge debate, which way too often gets sidetracked by the question "yes, but is ____ KNOWLEDGE?")

Now if the question is [type of control/freedom] FREE WILL just code for "is it enough for desert/moral responsibility?" then the question has substance. But if that's not the question, then what's the point of asking it?

The thing is, Bruce, in being unable to separate the issues, I cannot conceive of circumstances in which I would have abdicated MR sans having forfeited FW. On the other hand, were I to work out to my satisfaction, based on the reaction of dedicated colleagues like you, a libertarian philosophy, I would eo ipso have secured MR.

LFW, as portrayed by someone like Anselm, is perennial satisfaction of the principle of alternative possibilities plus undetermined self-determination of one's choices. If one is in possession of such a power, then one must be MR: having complete control over which one of 2 "wills" will become one's choice, one has no valid excuse for initiating illicit activities. LFW secures for him an indictment of Satan and our first parents.

Thank you for the kind words.

Robert, thanks for the answer to my query; Anselm is a nice ally for your side; working out a libertarian view that you find satisfying is a challenge, and working out a view that denies moral responsibility to my satisfaction is also challenging; and while we may not agree on everything, I would certainly agree that the reactions of thoughtful colleagues on Flickers is an enormous help in such projects.
Chris and Tamler (and Neil, whom they join) have posed a tough challenge to any account of free will which denies moral responsibility. The way Tamler poses the problem is wonderful: I’ve got “all this cool (empirically informed) work done on agency and control and value” [that’s the mild anesthetic before plunging in the knife] but when I try to use it to make a case for free will without moral responsibility, I’m pursuing a question that has no substance. This is vintage Tamler Sommers, as anyone who has enjoyed his Wizard material is aware: he is well-informed, scrupulously fair, and Boston blunt, which makes his interviews superb – and which also makes his critiques very valuable, and tough to answer. Anyway, here’s my best shot. It’s rather long – but if you didn’t want long answers, you guys shouldn’t post such tough challenges.
First line of defense: Look, I’m not really doing anything new here; just following along with Dan Dennett and Harry Frankfurt and Susan Wolf and Mike McKenna and Bob Kane (they all – along with many others – have basic ideas about free will that can, I think, be incorporated into a more comprehensive free will account that fits our empirical knowledge of human and animal behavior); that is – to focus only on Frankfurt – I basically agree with the account of free will given by Frankfurt, but I don’t think his account provides a justification for moral responsibility. So if Frankfurt calls that free will, why shouldn’t we continue to call it free will even if we believe that the account fails to justify moral responsibility? The account of free will remains the same; it is only the implications of that view that are in dispute; so it seems appropriate to continue calling it free will, with or without moral responsibility.
Second – and here I appeal to Neil’s interest in self-preservation – it’s bad enough to deny moral responsibility; but if people suppose you are also denying free will, the grief is doubled. I don’t have Wizard at hand, so I can’t quote it verbatim; but in the marvelous interview with Galen Strawson, Tamler mentions that at one time he was (before he lost the faith) a skeptic about free will and moral responsibility; Galen responds that that position is rather dangerous, and Tamler answers: “Tell me about it.” When you say you are denying moral responsibililty, it is quickly assumed that you must believe everyone is insane or at least badly flawed (P. F. Strawson), that you reject all moral claims and you are completely amoral, that you refuse to ever apologize for anything, that you favor brutal Clockwork Orange treatment of everyone for even the mildest offenses, that you believe people are incapable of self-improvement, that you see no value in free choice and the exercise of personal control, and so on. But it’s important (from my perspective) for people to realize that those of us who deny moral responsibility are NOT denying any of the “free will worth wanting”; we still believe that it is very important for people to exercise control, make their own choices, exercise (H. L. A. Hart’s) role-responsibility (what I’ve called take-charge responsibility, in a somewhat larger form), deliberate about their decisions, develop and exercise their genuine talents and skills, make new discoveries and accomplish great things, and so forth. In fact, it seems to me that much of the opposition to denying moral responsibility is really based on the false supposition that those who deny moral responsibility are also denying all those vitally important and valuable elements of genuine free will.
Finally, I believe that without moral responsibility there remains a very substantive question about free will, and it will basically be the question of what elements of our philosophical accounts of free will can be effectively integrated into an optimum account of free will that meets the needs of human foraging animals. It seems to me that the obsession with moral responsibility has forced philosophers into looking too narrowly at one element or one aspect of free will (or a limited number of aspects of free will) which each philosopher hopes can provide adequate grounds for moral responsibility. Due to this narrow focus, philosophers have been rather like the blind men of the Hindu parable, who encounter the elephant and dispute endlessly about whether the elephant is more like a tree trunk, a rope, or a fan. By moving away from the question of moral responsibility, we can better appreciate what is valuable in Kane’s libertarian open alternatives, in Dennett’s taking responsibility, in the rationalism of Susan Wolf and Dana Nelkin, in the “real self” or self-disclosure work of Frankfurt and Gerald Dworkin, in Vargas’ work on building better beings, and in Fischer’s work on narratives. All of these – perhaps with some minor modifications -- are important elements of free will in human foraging animals equipped with limited but important exploratory powers of deliberation and reflection. Of course, it is also possible that no such unified empirical account can be constructed; but the possibility of doing so means there is something quite substantive remaining to the free will question when moral responsibility is consigned to the scrap heap (where it belongs).

'Finally, I believe that without moral responsibility there remains a very substantive question about free will, and it will basically be the question of what elements of our philosophical accounts of free will can be effectively integrated into an optimum account of free will that meets the needs of human foraging animals.'

How could an account of FW sans MR meet our needs? Do we not have a deep-seated desire to see ourselves as responsible for our doings? Isn't MR an ineluctable and cherished aspect of our self-image? Isn't the willingness to take responsibility for one's actions the distinguishing mark of an adult?

In literature some of the most powerful scenes involve characters finally coming to terms with the fact that all of their excuses for wrongdoing are self-servingly false, entailing the soul-cleaning realization that all along they had been fully in charge of their lives (Bigger Thomas, Raskalnikov}. To treat such an epiphany as of a piece with the preceding illusions is to dash our hopes of becoming fully human.

Robert: It is logically possible that we have even controllably indeterministic FW and yet we lack moral responsibility for its exercise if moral skepticism/subjectivism is correct (thus there are by definition no morally based reasons of control of a specific action). In that case incompatibilist FW illusionism would have some traction at least on pragmatic moral grounds given some other pragmatic/authoritarian valuation of action.

Hi Bruce,

You're way too nice, but I appreciate your kind words about the book all the same.

You write: “First line of defense: Look, I’m not really doing anything new here; just following along with Dan Dennett and Harry Frankfurt and Susan Wolf and Mike McKenna and Bob Kane (they all – along with many others – have basic ideas about free will that can, I think, be incorporated into a more comprehensive free will account that fits our empirical knowledge of human and animal behavior)"

I realize I’m objecting to one traditional way of approaching the question, which is to develop an account of agency and argue in addition that this account gives us “free will.” But tradition is not always right. (Like when people defend the “is X really knowledge?” debate by saying “Plato approached the debate like this.”)

You write: “I basically agree with the account of free will given by Frankfurt, but I don’t think his account provides a justification for moral responsibility. So if Frankfurt calls that free will, why shouldn’t we continue to call it free will even if we believe that the account fails to justify moral responsibility?.”

I have no objection whatsoever to you calling it free will. My objection is having a DEBATE over whether we should call that “free will.” That seems terminological, not substantive, as Neil mentioned earlier, and it wastes valuable time.

On your second point, I agree that it’s important to explain why the doomsdayers are wrong, and that denying MR doesn’t mean the denial of (a) any sort of morality, and (b) any kind of freedom/control. But I think you can effectively paint an optimistic MR skeptic picture by describing the different sorts of freedom, responsibility, and control that we can have (as you do so well). That’s why I try to do in my Objective Attitude paper, which was in part inspired by your own work. We don’t have to in addition insist “oh and that’s FREE WILL.”

You write: “I believe that without moral responsibility there remains a very substantive question about free will, and it will basically be the question of what elements of our philosophical accounts of free will can be effectively integrated into an optimum account of free will that meets the needs of human foraging animals.”

I’m still not seeing how that’s a substantive question about “free will.” The substance boils down to (1) what are the valuable types of agential capacities for human beings? and (2) do we have those capacities? If you want to call the answer to (1) “free will,” God bless you. But if Robert Allen doesn’t, God bless him too. At that point, it becomes an “is it an ‘elevator’ or is it a ‘lift’?” kind of question. Or maybe a “is bowling a sport” kind of debate. If people want to insist that free will is contra –causal freedom, fine, let them, who cares? So then they can’t have that, but they can have all the other forms of valuable freedom that we do have. What we decide to label it doesn’t seem all that important to me.

Here's one line of response available Bruce. You might accept a causal-historical theory of reference and, roughly, hold that "free will" is whatever set of agential properties that causally regulate our use of the term. That move seems far more plausible for fw than mr, since it would be a substantive claim that that set of properties justifies harsh treatment. It would have the (to me, acceptable - YMMV) entailment that fw becomes an essentially empirical issue. Whadyathink, Bruce?

Manuel, stop hacking into other people's accounts.

Good point, Alan. However, in the unlikely event that some argument should succeed in convincing me of the veracity of MS, I would then revert to my 'Why Bother with FW' thesis. Then again, being an Anselmian, I see FW not only intertwined with MR, but morality itself. ('FW is preserving rectitude of the will for its own sake.') FW exists for a purpose, to enable us maintain its excellence, viz, rectitude. Thus, unless there is an objective difference between right and wrong FW would be pointless. But there is such a difference, as given to right reason in divine and natural laws: Anselm's definition leads almost inexorably to the Divine Command Theory. FW is exercised in conformity to God's will, so that we may draw ever closer to Him.

Hi Bruce

I’d be grateful if you would say a bit more about what you mean by ‘moral responsibility’? What do you think is lost with your denial that there is such a thing? Does its denial have implications for how we should act? May we still say things like ‘Well done!’ or or ‘How could you?!’ or ‘That’s an evil thing to do!’ or ‘Let’s lock him up!’ or ‘He’s mentally ill so let’s not imprison him,’? What would be our criterion for whether to say them – whether we think that saying them will have good consequences?

Robert, I agree that “taking responsibility” is very important; but by my lights, the responsibility one can TAKE is not moral responsibility, but something much closer to H.L.A. Hart’s role responsibility: I can take responsibility for planning a party or teaching a course, but that does not imply moral responsibility. Though Dennett and Kane believe taking responsibility can involve taking moral responsibility, and I greatly admire their work, on this I can’t agree: it seems to me taking responsibility is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral responsibility. For example, even if I refuse to take responsibility for my vile efforts to lead the philosophical faithful down a destructive path, you would still hold me morally responsible for my terrible acts; and if I take responsibility for a brilliant posting, but you discover that the post was actually written by my brilliant student, you would not give me credit for that posting. It is psychologically healthy for people to confidently take responsibility; but the responsibility that is legitimately taken seems very different from moral responsibility.

Neil, I like your line of response, particularly since it makes fw an empirical issue; I think that’s a very nice alternative way of making the issue substantive and empirical, and though it may well yield different results I think my “psychological integrative” approach (for lack of a better phrase) might also work. Quick question, I wasn’t sure I followed how “it would be a substantive claim that that set of properties justifies harsh treatment” is being applied. Am I correct in thinking that you are saying that it’s the mr claim that would offer such justification, and the reference approach would be better because it avoids that justification for harsh treatment?

Dan, that’s a very tough set of questions, except for the first. Though “moral responsibility” is now used in a bewildering variety of ways, I like the definition given by Michael McKenna, when he describes “the sort of moral responsibility that is desert entailing, the kind that makes blaming and punishing as well as praising and rewarding justified.” Galen Strawson also has a nice account: moral responsibility is “responsibility and desert of such a kind that it can exist if and only if punishment and reward can be fair or just without having any pragmatic justification”. I think nothing worth having is lost with its denial (how’s that for a bald claim). We can still say that an act is well-done, that a person is virtuous (or vile). Can we lock him up? That’s very tough indeed; I want to get to that question with my last post, in about a week, and would like to have your thoughts on it. Tentatively, I think we can lock him up, but should do so with the realization that he doesn’t deserve it; and I think that makes a very big difference. But that’s another discussion.

Tamler, I can’t quite imagine that we have any deep disagreement on this issue; after all, it’s not like I’m a Yankees fan. But maybe that’s what you’ve been trying to tell me, and I’m too stubborn to realize it. But rather than compare it to “is bowling a sport,” why not make it the question of whether it still counts as baseball when a league uses a DH. Ultimately, I agree it doesn’t matter that much whether we call it free will (though I’m still concerned that when denying MR, people take me to be denying all the positive elements I see in free will). Let me take one more stab at seeing if I can get clearer on this. In your Wizard discussion of the perils of denying free will and moral responsibility (which is in the Greene and Young interview, not the Galen Strawson interview, my bad), you talk about embracing fw and mr because of your reflections on the legitimacy of desiring to harm someone who harmed your daughter (an episode you may regard as an epiphany, but I see as your fall from grace – but leave that for another day). So now suppose someone (like John Fischer, maybe) says, “Look, Tamler, you’re right to embrace mr; but that fw stuff, you should remain skeptical about that.” Would that raise a substantive question for you? Suppose you have another life changing experience, and you return to the path of the true and good, and you now renounce mr and also return to skepticism about fw; and someone (like me, maybe) says, “Look, Tamler, you’re right to give up that nasty old mr, but you should hang onto your belief in fw.” Would that be an empty suggestion? Would your consideration of this question of whether to be skeptical of fw (having renounced mr) be a question like “is bowling a sport”? Sorry to keep flogging this poor old horse; but I would really like to be clear on your views on this, and I think the old horse might hold together for one more furlong.

Hi Bruce,

Yeah, I can see maybe that I haven't been completely clear about this. Partly that's because of my use of the term "free will" in past work which is has always (for me) been synonymous with "kind of freedom that could ground MR". So whenever I expressed skepticism about FW I was (in my mind) just expressing skepticism about MR. I finally got it through my thick head that this was a contentious issue around the time of Relative Justice. So I asked if 'free will' could be excluded from the subtitle of the book, because I didn't see the book as being about anything but responsibility. But they thought this would be a bad idea because of library purchases. And hey, what's standing on principle compare to that?

So let me try to clarify my position without hurting that poor horse any more than necessary. (And I recognize that I could be tragically misguided about this.) You write:

"So now suppose someone (like John Fischer, maybe) says, “Look, Tamler, you’re right to embrace mr; but that fw stuff, you should remain skeptical about that.” Would that raise a substantive question for you?"

No. I would reply to John (very politely) that I'm neither skeptical nor non-skeptical about 'free will'. I'm only interested in (1) the kind of freedom we have—an empirical question—and (2) whether that's enough to justify MR. I just don't care whether we call the kind of freedom we have 'free will' because I think that’s terminological issue. Just like I don't care whether people call bowling a sport (although it might be fun to argue about in a bar).

“Suppose you have another life changing experience, and you return to the path of the true and good, and you now renounce mr and also return to skepticism about fw; and someone (like me, maybe) says, “Look, Tamler, you’re right to give up that nasty old mr, but you should hang onto your belief in fw.” Would that be an empty suggestion?”

Here I would respond (with equal politeness), "yes it’s an empty suggestion." First of all, I never had a belief in ‘free will’—all of straying from the path of the true and good involved a partial renouncing of MR skepticism. (Plus whatever that had to mean for free will to maintain library purchases.)

“Would your consideration of this question of whether to be skeptical of fw (having renounced mr) be a question like “is bowling a sport”?"

Yes. And honestly, I’m confused about why you disagree. You say yourself that “it doesn’t matter that much whether we call it free will.” I sympathize with your concern that “when denying MR, people take me to be denying all the positive elements I see in free will.” But the fact that people may misunderstand your position doesn’t transform a terminological question into a substantive one, right?

Sorry to be joining the party late, but hopefully I can still be a nuisance. An important post, Bruce. I've recently reviewed your book in NDPR where I explain my doubts in more detail, but in short form, to follow John, why should we think that MR requires more than FW (whatever our belief on FW might be)? Let's focus first on compatibilist forms of FW and MR. Think about the development of a normal human being. As a baby, she clearly isn't free in various ways, and as she grows up, becomes more so: more capacity for self-control, more reflection, reasons-responsiveness[, and the like. But those very capacities then allow her to be part of a community of responsibility, where others (and indeed herself) hold her accountable for her free decisions. Because at 4 she lacks the control required to drive a car, she cannot be a responsible driver, and we wouldn't lend our car to her, while by 24 she will have acquired both the FW and the capacity to be a MR agent, and if e.g. we think she will exercise due control, we would think that she is sufficiently responsible and lend our car to her.

Of course we can have more demanding conceptions of FW and MR, and if in fact they cannot be met in reality (because there is no libertarian FW) then I agree that this matters. But again, FW and MR would go in tandem.

So, I simply do not see why it makes sense to put the bar of control or FW so low, as you do, but then go on and put the bar for MR so high.

[Being a compatibility dualist, I think we should say two things at once: we can have compatibilist forms of FW and MR, and that greatly matters, and we cannot have libertarian forms of FW and MR, and that too greatly matters.]

Tamler, thanks for your comments. I think we still disagree, but your comments have certainly made your position as well as the larger question must clearer.

Saul, you are always welcome to the party, early or late. The question you raise is a very large one (why compatibilist accounts are adequate for fw but not for mr); I do set a very high bar for mr, but then I tend to think of mr as something quite different from fw, involving questions of justice that don't arise when thinking exclusively of fw (and for the sorts of reasons that Neil has so effectively presented in Hard Luck, it seems to me that there are problems in trying to meet those justice demands). But if we set the bar much lower (as, for example, it seems to me Mike McKenna does in Conversation and MR, and he gives his reasons for doing so) then compatibilism might suffice for mr; and your accountability approach perhaps fits that model. But still, would it make sense to you if someone said: "really, in order to meet the justice demands of mr, you must have a remarkably powerful agent libertarian view" (a claim you would dispute, but surely one that makes sense) "but for what we really want out of free will, the compatibilist accounts are fine"? Would that strike you as totally implausible? In any case, I've been thinking a lot about your excellent paper on funishment, as well as some of Dennett's remarks on punishment; and that will be the subject of my final post; for that party, I hope you will come early and stay late.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Books about Agency


3QD Prize 2014: Marcus Arvan