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I take it this is meant as some kind of debunking argument. But I don't see how it's supposed to work. The claim might be that showing that something is a spandrel is showing that it does not match up with reality; eg, a disposition to judge that is produced like this isn't truth tracking. But that's false. The capacity to do philosophy most certainly wasn't selected for; that's not enough to show that philosophy is bunk. The claim might be that a disposition to judge produced like this is a disposition to produce judgments that don't play an adaptive function; in this case, don't play the role that judgements of moral responsibility are designed play. That's surely true, but would seem to be a claim that any (naturalistic) incompatibilist would assume to be the case all along.

Thanks Neil, those are good challenges; I’ll try some quick answers before calling it a day here.

First I should clarify that when I am talking about of selection here, I am not just thinking of biological or genetic selection, but also selection made by various mechanisms for learning or development, and even intentional acts of selection between consciously represented alternatives. So the fact that a capacity was not biologically selected for does not mean that it is not selected for in some other way. The suggestion here was meant to be that our general disposition to have incompatibilist intuitions has not been selected for in any way suggesting that these intuitions are reliable.

Second, although the capacity to do philosophy is likely a spandrel, at least biologically speaking, that capacity itself would seem to involve a number of other capacities that we possess because they track truth under certain favorable circumstances: capacities for participating in argumentation, recognizing consequence relations, developing plausible hypotheses, finding evidence for and against hypotheses, identifying vagueness and ambiguity, constructing new concepts, and so forth. Now, if the same could plausibly be said in the case of the explanation for why we have incompatibilist intuitions (proposed here and in the previous post), then the parallel with philosophy is a good one. But since I just don’t see a plausible account of relevant capacities given this explanation, I invite others to do better.

Third, the essence of the problem is not that the disposition to have incompatibilist judgments has no adaptive biological or broadly social function. It could have been, for example, that incompatibilism were a conceptual truth, and that our incompatibilist intuitions were the result of a general capacity to identify such truths. The essence of the problem is that the proposed explanation of our incompatibilist intuitions seems to involve no truth-tracking mechanism operating under favorable conditions. By contrast, the explanation seems to provide the compatibilist with both an account of why ordinary judgments of moral responsibility are reliable and why we nevertheless have incompatibilist intuitions (under unfavorable conditions).

Of course, even if these replies are correct and to the point, the conclusion assumes both the etiological story and what I called the “explanation explanation” of incompatibilist intuitions, and that might be assuming too much.

Thanks Gunnar. I can't help feeling - and I mean that; I can't quite articulate the worry - that there is a subtle begging of the question going on here. I think it is very plausible that our moral responsibility intuitions evolved to track certain properties of agents that might plausibly be regarded as their quality of will. In fact, I argued precisely that when I occupied the exalted slot you are now filling (featured author). Now if we stipulate that those properties are the very properties that make agents morally responsible, it follows that incompatibilist intuitions are offtrack. But the incompatibilist denies that these properties make agents morally responsible. She can accept the claim that the reactive attitudes are keyed to quality of will as part of an error theory (why do we have these recalcitrant intuitions). To use the spandrel account as a debunking argument, you need either to assume the truth of compatibilism, or to assert that incompatibilist judgments don't track anything (it is not enough to show they don't track the properties the reactive attitudes track: that's a claim that the incompatibilist ought to accept). Clearly they do track something. So that's why I think there is some begging of the question going on.

Again, these are good challenges. Here, though, is why I don’t think that I am begging the question against the incompatibilist.

Notice first that the argument was not meant to show that incompatibilism is false. (I do think that the story can be extended in such a way, but I don’t think that you were persuaded when I tried to sell you that story in Riga a couple of years ago, so I'll hold on to that for a bit.) What it was meant to do was to raise an epistemic problem for incompatibilism and induce a little bit of (no doubt passing) epistemic vertigo in its proponents.

Consider an analogy: A letter from a solicitor inclines me to accept the following (the "Aussie Hypothesis"): I have a (previously unknown) Australian relative who would like me to visit. However, I soon learn that the letter was intended for someone else entirely. This new knowledge doesn’t show that the Aussie Hypothesis is false, but it seems to leave me without reason to believe it. To think so is not to beg the question against the Aussie Hypothesis.

Return to the case of incompatibilism. My only reason for accepting incompatibilism seems to be that when I reflect on deterministic scenarios in certain ways, I have the strong feeling that responsibility is undermined in these scenarios. If I cannot trust those sorts of intuitions, I don’t see what reason I have for accepting incompatibilism. (The intuitions correspond to the letter from the solicitor.) But if both the proposed etiological story behind EH and the explanation explanation of incompatibilist intuitions are correct, then even if incompatibilism is in fact correct, I don’t seem to have these incompatibilist intuitions *because* it is correct. The intuitions do not seem to be produced by mechanisms selected for tracking these sorts of facts under the sort of circumstances we are in when having the incompatibilist intuitions. (Coming to accept the proposed account of our incompatibilist intuitions corresponds to learning that the letter was intended for someone else.) To me, the explanation of why I have incompatibilist intuitions seems to undermine my reason to treat these intuitions as evidence for incompatibilism, and so to undermine my only reason to accept it. But I don’t see how drawing this conclusion begs the question against incompatibilism any more than drawing the corresponding conclusion begged the question against the Aussie Hypothesis.


All along I have suspected you of committing the genetic fallacy and now my suspicions have been confirmed. (Tell me the difference between positing an error theory to discredit a philosophy and committing the genetic fallacy.) What difference does it make where my incompatibilist intuitions came from? Suppose they were instilled in me by my daft grandmother. As long as they subsequently appear philosophically defensible, their origin shouldn't matter to me. Your letter analogy does not hold because there is a flat out defeater there. (The AH is debunked when you discover that the only reason you have for believing it was meant for someone else.) I have been given no compelling reason to abandon my incompatibilist intuitions, their unreliable source notwithstanding.

Robert, I agree that my argument has little bite if we have independent reasons to accept incompatibilism, i.e. reasons that are independent of the incompatibilist intuitions produced in the way I have sketched here. But I doubt that we have such reasons. That incompatibilist intuitions “subsequently appear philosophically defensible” matters little if that appearance hinges on these very intuitions—then the whole appearance of philosophical defensibility is defeated. So let me ask, what positive reasons for accepting incompatibilism do you think there are that do not rely on incompatibilist intuitions?

I am waiting for and interested in Robert’s response, but in the meantime want to suggest one possible reply to Gunnar’s question on behalf of the incompatibilist (which I am not). I think that some incompatibilists see their claims as theoretical claims that go beyond intuition. Take for example Christopher Franklin’s recent treatment of ‘opportunities’. Chris relies on intuition to make the point that having the opportunity to do otherwise is required for moral responsibility. But then he takes himself as going beyond intuition when he provides a possible worlds analysis of the notion of opportunity that is supposed to show what the opportunity to do otherwise actually boils down to (and more notably whether it is compatible or incompatible with determinism). Thus, those of his claims that are controversial as to the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate are settled by appeal to a methodology that is supposed not to rely on intuition (not on folk intuitions at any rate: whether the assessment of the correctness of a certain possible world analysis turns on something that can be called 'intuition' – expert intuition – is another matter).
In general, one extreme reaction by the incompatibilist to the challenge presented by the Explanation Hypothesis may be to entirely reject the idea that folk intuitions should somehow constrain theoretical claims and to take their theories to be supported by their exhibiting theoretical virtues such as elegance, simplicity, etcetera. Not sure how may incompatibilists should want to go this way, but this is in principle a possibility - incidentally in line, I think, with Williamson’s philosophy of philosophy
[I am aware that this post is a bit sketchy considering the complexity of the issues involved, still I hope it can somehow be useful]

Hi Gunnar,

Thanks for your posts. They have been intriguing thus far. Here's a question I legitimatley wonder about: what are "incompatibiilist intuitions" exactly? The phrase gets bandied about alot, but I'm often not sure what its referents are supposed to be. Are they "seemings" that people have when asked to make a judgement about responsibility in a deterministic context? Are they "judgments" that people make (perhaps on the basis of seemings) that so-and-so is not responsible in a deterministic scenario? Are they "seemings" that certain premises in various arguments for incompatibilism are true? All of the above, perhaps? I find it doubtful that your error theory could be applied to these latter seemings (though perhaps I'm wrong about taht), but these are the seemings that really seem to matter most, right?

Here we touch upon metaphilosophy. Your question is in a way unfair: of course I can't defend my philosophy without appealing to its basic principles. (Plus I am not a Darwinian.) But if it allows me to make sense of certain important things that I take to be obviously true, for which no other explanation is in the offing, then it is to be favored. For example, I believe in the Final Judgment along with life sentences for murder. Neither one of those things makes sense unless PAP is true and applicable to human agents: how could anyone in good conscience inflict severe punishment upon someone who could not avoid committing his sin/crime? Hence my incompatibilism, if we are talking intellectual origins. (As I have said here before, the FW debate really began in earnest when Roman Catholic thinkers realized that any form of determinism was inconsistent with a just God consigning certain creatures to Hell for eternity.) Now, of course, that's far from the philosophical end of the matter. There's always the raucous, if not rancorous, debate to follow. Now let's suppose that in that contest I wield that philosophy so as to make sense of other important matters, such as my grading policies, otherwise inexplicable, not to mention hold my own. Down through the ages let us assume further that other incompatibilists have had similar explanatory and competitive success. I would then have another reason for continuing to embrace incompatibilism. 'By your fruits ye shall be known', meaning here that the above intuition appears defensible not because of itself, but its explanatory and dialectical power.

Thanks Stefano. You are right that methodological concerns might enter at various points, and that matters seemingly unrelated to moral responsibility might conceivably tip the scale one way or other. My impressions thus far, though, is that what we think of the relevance of such matters will depend, to a significant degree, on recognizably compatibilist or incompatibilist intuition. For example, it is hard to see how one should answer the question of whether opportunities are required for responsibility, and if so what sort of opportunities (libertarian?, compatibilist?), without thinking about what the upshots would be for deterministic cases. But if I am wrong about this, that provides one way of escaping the argument sketched here.

I should say something about reliance on folk intuitions too. In my argument I have not, I think, assumed that we should trust the verdict of the folk in settling a philosophical question. It is true, of course, that I take studies of folk intuitions about deterministic scenarios to provide some of the evidence for EH, but in our 2012 paper, Karl and I looked at how EH might explain the appeal of certain philosophical skeptical arguments, and the hypothesis here is that EH underlies incompatibilist intuitions among philosophers no less than among the folk. The epistemic challenge raised here concerns what conclusions we should draw about *our* incompatibilist intuitions if the proposed etiological account and the explanation explanation of incompatibilist intuitions are correct about us.

Hi Justin, you are right that I have used the expression “incompatibilist intuitions” informally, so I should try to add some clarity. First, I have primarily had in mind seemings rather than judgments (though I am aware that this introduces a problem with interpretations of survey results, as nearly all surveys ask for judgments). Second, what I have primarily had in mind are intuitions about deterministic scenarios.

This raises exactly the worry that you bring up, namely that the explanations that I have proposed fail to account for the seemings that (seem to) matter most, i.e. those concerned with premises in arguments for incompatibilism. As I just hinted at in my reply to Stefano, however, I do think that the explanations have something to say about why people (including philosophers) find various premises in incompatibilist arguments compelling.

One reason that I think this is that philosophical arguments are often attempts to articulate relations that are first intuitively felt. In particular, premises in incompatibilist arguments tend to highlight features of the sort of abstract explanatory models that I have suggested give rise to incompatibilist intuitions, whereas compatibilist arguments tend to highlight features of the sort of models from which agents seem responsible (i.e. motivational structures and choice).

Another reason to think this is that philosophers tend to evaluate premises in arguments holistically, with an eye to the role they play in the argument. Such holistic evaluation often makes good sense, as abstract premises tend to be hard to evaluate without thinking about their consequences, but it means that antecedent convictions tend to play an important role in determining how plausible we find premises, on reflection. It is no accident, then, that debates over arguments such as the consequence argument tends to produce increasingly sophisticated views rather than bring about changes of mind.

For these reasons (and for more detailed reasons having to do with the structure of some of the canonical arguments in the debate), I do think that the explanation proposed in these posts extends to philosophers’ incompatibilist intuitions, and intuitions about premises.


I'm assuming you are only talking about incompatibilism about causal determinism and moral responsibility, right? Or are you also talking about incompatibilism about determinism and freedom to do otherwise?

With respect to the latter, I think the basic premise of the incompatibilist's argument is best put (as Carl Ginet put it) roughly as follows: our freedom is the power to add to the actual past, holding fixed the laws of nature. And I have a pretty strong intuition that this is true. I think there are also other reasons, apart from support from intuition, to accept it. I don't think *this* is a spandrel, is it?

"One reason that I think this is that philosophical arguments are often attempts to articulate relations that are first intuitively felt. In particular, premises in incompatibilist arguments tend to highlight features of the sort of abstract explanatory models that I have suggested give rise to incompatibilist intuitions, whereas compatibilist arguments tend to highlight features of the sort of models from which agents seem responsible (i.e. motivational structures and choice)."

In the big-picture motivational sense of why postures are taken on FW, I agree Gunnar. I take it that many--if not most--incompatibilists approach FW arguments from logically prior world-view commitments that are heavily value-laden. (This is not a criticism, but an observation, and I'm certainly open to some sort of empirical evidence that would falsify this generalization.) On the other hand compatibilists appear largely differently motivated, and by what I would call pragmatic interests axiologically. (Insert same remark as before.) It seems implausible that FWers of any stripe start from some view-from-nowhere-argumentatively-axiologically-neutral position. (Ditto insert again.)

Thanks for this major brain-tickle!

Robert, I am a little unsure whether the sorts of reasons you appeal to are independent of incompatibilist judgment. Suppose that you had not antecedently felt that the absence of a *libertarian* possibility to avoid murdering would undermine the agent’s responsibility for the murder. Would you then have thought that life sentences for murder “make sense” only given such a possibility to avoid murdering? My guess – you can tell me if I’m off the mark—would be that the answer is “no”. But then the reasons you enlist rely on antecedent incompatibilist intuitions: only because of these intuitions do you think that incompatibilism make sense of everything from punishment to grading policies. And if so, the epistemic challenge remains (though I understand that you reject its etiological premises).

John, you are right, I’m talking about incompatibilism of determinism and responsibility. I think that talk about what we can and are free to do is highly context-dependent but that there are senses of “freedom to do otherwise” that become particularly salient in relation to deterministic scenarios and given which our freedom to do otherwise is indeed undermined if determinism is true. However, I am also some inclined to think that our sense that the absence of this sort of freedom deprives us of something important is itself a spandrel (for reasons related to those presented here) – but this might depend on what sort of importance we are talking about.


I needn't have given any thought at all to justifying my sense that 'murder cries out to heaven for vengeance.' It is only when pressed to defend that gut reaction that incompatibilism, basic principles and all, comes into play: 'Why of course he deserves to suffer horribly. Not only did he do something horrible himself, but it was completely unnecessary. He didn't have to take that poor man's life.' Or something like that. In other words, my sense of justice is a pre-philosophical intuition of which I LATER make sense by appealing to incompatibilism.

Back to Justin's question. Are they incompatibilist intuitions OR are they intuitions about free will coupled with the belief that it is incompatible with determinism?

I like the point about "seemings" and that incompatibilism might be "intuitively felt." But it is also the case that when pushed the incompatibilist often resorts to argument, as John just did above (once we got clear about the meaning of "incompatibilism") and as Robert continues to do.

This is what interests me about free will and moral responsibility. It is not just that the folk have opinions about these matters -- which isn't always the case when it comes to metaphysical debates. They also seem to have arguments. And the folk arguments match the philosophical arguments (or vice versa). Which is to say that a principle like the John/Carl principle noted above is often proposed, though perhaps not always as clearly as Carl proposes it, when you push one of the folk into cashing out her intuitions.


I really like your Explanation Hypothesis and this post too. Still, I want to put a new spin on an objection similar to what others have raised, and see what you make of it.

There are a lot of evolutionary spandrels that, on reflection, we really want to keep. For example, we are emotionally disposed to devote lots of time and attention and other resources to each child. As a pretty direct result, many of us have very few children. This made sense as an evolutionary strategy in the ancestral environment, where survival was difficult even with many advantages, and virtually impossible without them. But in the modern environment, this is emphatically not the way to maximize genetic fitness. On the contrary, poverty and poor education in childhood predict reproductive success later in life. Our emotions are telling us to do the exact "wrong" thing.

Our deep love for our children is a spandrel. Still, I take it as obvious that we should keep it. To hell with our evolutionary fitness, we'd rather dote on our children.

Moreover, the explanation of our deep love for our children doesn't seem to involve any truth-tracking mechanism. At least it's hard to see how it does. But maybe that's perfectly OK! At the risk of buying into the fact/value dichotomy, "loving our children is good and we ought to continue" seems like it falls on the value side of that alleged divide. If "loving our children is good" is not a truth claim, then it need not worry us that there was no tracking involved in how we got to endorsing it.

If all the foregoing is plausible, it gives the incompatibilist a way out of your argument. Namely, claim that incompatibilist intuitions are evaluative (and also non-cognitive?) and that this frees them from the need for truth-tracking. I think there are indeed a few incompatibilists who frankly identify some core intuitions as ethical or evaluative, so this might be a good fit for them. (There are perhaps more who claim to build upon conceptual truths - they, I think, are in big trouble.)

Robert, I wasn’t suggesting that your sense of justice depended on incompatibilist intuitions. The (speculative) hypothesis was that you take incompatibilism to make best sense of of these intuitions because you intuitively take determinism to undermine responsibility. Otherwise, why wouldn’t a compatibilist principle, say one requiring only Fischer-style guidance control, make equally good sense of these intuitions?

Joe, it is my impression too that arguments can often be had, and that they often look like rough version of philosophers’ arguments. This is part of my reason, articulated in my reply to Justin, for thinking that the acceptance of premises in philosophical arguments often rely on prior intuitions of incompatibility.

Paul, thanks for pressing that worry; I’ll have to wait with my thoughts on this until tomorrow, as time is well after midnight where I am.

No, Gunnar, I caution my students all the time against assuming determinism by itself is inconsistent with FW. It is only when I realize that it means an agent cannot satisfy PAP that I see it as a threat. My intuition here is PAP. Determinism is just something I learned in Science 101: philosophically innocuous until paired with that intuition.
GC won't do because it's consistent with failure to satisfy PAP; only RC gives me the sort of freedom I want. Let's also be clear that it's Agent Causalism that best explains my sense of justice. Incompatibilism includes HD, which, of course, robs one of the notion of desert.

Paul, thanks for pressing those worries; apologies for not answering sooner.

First a minor terminological remark: in my I use “spandrel”—which I take to be fairly standard—the fact that something no longer has an effect for which it was selected does not make it a spandrel. Quite to the contrary, in fact, as it has been selected for its effect. So on your story about our deep love for our children, this love is not a spandrel.

However, this doesn’t matter for the important questions your raise about the relevance of an evolutionary story and the relevance of the sort of truth-tracking that played a crucial role in my epistemic argument. Since our moral or evaluative judgments seem autonomous relative to issues of what best maximises reproduction or to the function of emotions that guide our moral judgments, why should we dismiss judgments of undermined responsibility in response to deterministic scenarios on the ground that they are not produced by mechanisms selected to deliver these sorts of responses?

One answer is that judgments of responsibility might not best be understood as evaluative or normative judgments. Of course, judgments of responsibility are often taken to have normative consequences, in particular related to desert. But this is also true about many non-normative judgments, and it seems possible to accept that someone is responsible for some bad action while thinking that nothing follows about what the person deserves just in virtue of that fact, because one rejects the existence of such desert on responsibility-independent grounds.

If we nevertheless suppose that responsibility judgments should be understood as normative or evaluative, what follows will depend on why moral and evaluative judgments would not be subject to concerns about truth-tracking. One sort of reason is one that you point to: perhaps such judgments lack truth-conditions. Exactly what the epistemological consequences of non-cognitivism are is of course controversial, and an issue too big to take on here. Another sort of reason would be that values and norms might be constructed or constituted in part by various non-cognitive attitudes. So in your example, that we value our love for our children could be part of what constitutes the value of that love, whatever the explanation is that we have a positive attitude towards this love. Now, I think evaluative judgments are still subject to truth-tracking constraints on this story, but ones that are easier to satisfy: our sense that our love for our children is valuable is produced by a mechanism that has been selected to produce this sort of intuitions, i.e. to produce evaluative intuitions in response to to what we have the right sort of positive attitudes towards. Still, constructivism suggests a way of avoiding the truth-tracking worries in relation to incompatibilism: perhaps the fact that many have a strong negative attitude towards holding responsible people lacking in incompatibilist freedom constitutes its negative value. Of course, this sort of possibility would raise tricky issues concerning what sorts of attitudes might constitute values: the attitudes people actually have, or would have, or converge upon, under certain idealised circumstances? Since not everyone shares the relevant incompatibilist attitudes, these questions become particularly pressing. But again, these issues are too complex to discuss here. (For a little more about related issues, see “The Explanatory Component of Moral Responsibility”,

Robert, that’s helpful: now I understand why you think that the intuitions grounding your acceptance of incompatibilism are independent of incompatibilist intuitions. I have thought of incompatibilist intuitions in a slightly wider sense than what you have in mind. As I have thought of them, they are not necessarily intuitions about what follows from Science 101 Determinism, but rather intuitions of undermined responsibility in response to scenarios about which it has been made explicit that at any time, given what has happened before, there is only one possible future (or something similar). For such scenarios, PAP-violations seem very obvious as long as PAP is understood in terms of incompatibilist possibilities.

Still, even if I would classify your PAP-related intuitions as “incompatibilist intuitions”, it is not so clear that the Explanation Explanation of incompatibilist can account for them. In fact, I think that there is a class of incompatibilist intuitions (in my wider sense) that have to do exactly with the absence of opportunities, and are not directly covered by the Explanation Explanation.

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