Derk Pereboom and Hard Determinism/Incompatibilism

The next view in “Four Views on Free Will” is Derk Pereboom’s view on what he calls Hard Incompatibilism and I call Hard Determinism.  I’ll get into that terminological difference in a minute.  First I want to note that I actually have one of his books on my reading queue, and so it is quite possible that when I read that his view will be fleshed out and I’ll have a different view on it.  However, for now, all I have to go on is what he says here.

So, let me start by looking at why he wants to call the view “Hard Incompatibilism”.  As I understand it — again, it’s from an actual book and this is a simple blog post so quoting things in detail isn’t going to be happening — the main reason is that he is taking the position here as being more opposed to the Libertarian and Compatibilist view in the sense that it holds that free will doesn’t exist.  Thus, he thinks both that free will wouldn’t exist if determinism is true but even if determinism isn’t true there is at least one case — if the source of the indeterminism is not the right sort of source — where we don’t have free will either.  The problem I have with this renaming is that when it comes to the actual form of the debate, it ignores that both Libertarians and what I’d call Hard Determinists share what should be call the Incompatibilist position that free will is incompatible with determinism.  Libertarians accept that and say “So much the worse for determinism” and Hard Determinists accept that and say “So much the worse for free will”.  Pereboom’s definition makes the Libertarian and Compatibilist views seem far more similar than they really are.  Pereboom is more anti-free will in general, and calling that position Hard Incompatibilism confuses what the traditional debate was about.  I don’t disagree that perhaps a classification is required for people who think free will as traditionally understood is just plain impossible, but don’t really think it is beneficial to insert it into the classic positions by redefining those who at least used to be called Hard Determinists into a new one.  Pereboom would need, then, to create a new one to insert himself into, but I’m not sure it’s a significant difference for us to have the two categories of Hard Determinist and Hard Incompatibilist, but even to Pereboom the two positions are not the same.

Moving on from that, though, Pereboom also wants to clarify what sort of thing we need to have free will.  As with the other two, he doesn’t like the “alternate possibilities” idea, instead want to focus on the “agent is ultimately responsible” idea, which I have no issue with.  However, he wants to talk about that responsibility being moral responsibility, which always raises alarm bells for me.  A lot of Hard Determinists like to make the split between responsibility and moral responsibility because they want or need to claim that the agent is in some way responsible for their actions but aren’t morally responsible, and often attempt that — Jerry Coyne is a really good example here — by trying to eliminate morality from the picture:  we aren’t morally responsible for our actions if determinism is true because morality becomes meaningless and so there is nothing moral that we can use to make any kind of responsibility moral responsibility.  This ignores that the main reason we think that you can’t have moral responsibility if determinism is true has always been that we don’t think that the person can be properly or meaningfully responsible for their actions.  So we are arguing that it’s the responsibility part of moral responsibility that’s lacking, not the moral part.  After all, it’s pretty easy to see that even if morality is true we could describe a process as maximizing utility or treating other agents as ends as well as means, so the specific moralities wouldn’t go away, but since morality is based on oughts and ought has to imply can, if they couldn’t do anything else than what they do then they can’t be held morally responsible for it (this is what drives the “alternate possibilities” classification).  So we always have to be aware that proper responsibility is the challenge here, not morality.

Pereboom is actually better at this than most I’ve read, as he doesn’t rely as much on us having real and meaningful responsibility (although he does talk a lot about what we should do if we properly understand Hard Incompatibilism, which always implies that we are responsible for what we do and don’t do).  But his definition of moral responsibility, I feel, isn’t all that helpful.  He argues for adopting the “blameworthy/praiseworthy” definition, where we are morally responsible for our action if we could properly be blamed or praised for it.  The problem with this is that it’s still pretty vague.  It sounds good for thought experiments where we can talk about whether the person should be blamed or praised, but it opens up the potential for all sorts of confusions when we try to look at the cases to see just why someone should be blamed or praised for their action, and confusions right around the precise cases that those debating free will will be disagreeing about.  We probably need a more robust notion of “responsible” in order to make any headway on this issue.

Case in point:  Pereboom gives four cases that he thinks forms a progression that shows that in most common cases a person is not morally responsible for a specific action (he seems to be using an example from Clue and so talks about Professor Plum and Mrs. White).  As I understand the cases, they are this:

1) Neuroscientists can deliberately manipulate Professor Plum’s reasoning process to make him have desires, at least, that are more rationally egoistic than moral, even though sometimes — I guess either when they don’t manipulate him or when the desires that are there at the time happen to work out that way — he can act morally.

2) Instead of directly manipulating his reasoning/desire-formation, they instead build in a set of desires that strongly bias him towards rationally egoistic choices, although he can overcome them with his other decision-making processes.

3) Instead of those desires being implanted by the neuroscientists, he gets them from training from his culture and upbringing.

4) This is all determined by physicalist determinism.

Pereboom is aiming this at compatibilism, and he argues that if we have to follow the chain down in all of these cases it means that intuitively we think that these are cases where the person is not morally responsible, in particular by the definition that compatibilist cases say that our decisions should follow from the person’s character and in all of these cases the rationally egoistic cases the decisions are following their character but are more or less determined outside of them.  The big problem I have with these cases is that I think that proper moral responsibility comes in at Case 2), and so the rest of his chain fails, but as a Libertarian I also think that there is no moral responsibility in Case 4).  The reason for this is that I see both Cases 2) and 3) and essentially defining tendencies for Professor Plum, but his normal decision-making processes can overcome those tendencies (because in the cases Pereboom specifically says that he can).  Since he can overcome those tendencies and if he’s observing any of his actions at all he could come to know that he has those tendencies, he is indeed properly responsible in those cases where he doesn’t overcome those tendencies.  In fact, while I may be misremembering — and I didn’t talk about it — I think that for Robert Kane making free decisions is entirely about interrupting the causal path through an act of will, whatever that means.  So we can indeed claim that someone is praise or blameworthy for their decision to follow a tendency and not override it.  And even for the character argument, when one overcomes tendencies and when one doesn’t is a reflection of their overall character, so I don’t even think that the compatibilists that Pereboom aims this at will be refuted by these cases.

For Case 1), I think that Professor Plum isn’t morally responsible because no matter how you interpret the case it’s more than overcoming tendencies.  My first blush interpretation was that the neuroscientists go through the entire reasoning process for him and come to that conclusion, even though sometimes they come up with the more moral option.  In this case, the entire reasoning process has been subverted and if he isn’t responsible for his reasoning then he isn’t responsible for his decisions.  I also think that the more common — at least in my experience — view of compatibilism would agree, since it would insist that the decision-making process must be functioning properly and in that case it isn’t.  If they are merely determining all of his desires, then I would again argue that he isn’t morally responsible because even as a Libertarian we should reason based on our actual desires, and his desires are completely determined by others.  That’s more than his having a simple tendency.  It is impossible for him to ever want anything else than what they determine he wants, and naturally he will try to act based on the desires he has.  In Cases 2) and 3), he can form new desires and potentially remove old ones, which is not the case here.  And for the compatibilism I’ve talked about above, implanting desires clearly invalidly manipulates the reasoning process, and so the decision-making process isn’t valid, and so it’s not a free choice either.

For 4), compatibilists, of course, will argue that once we suss out how this system will all work, we will see that in the physically determined case the decision-making process is working properly.  For libertarians like me, what we see is that there’s no agent-causality at all and so no real decision-making process, as everything is determined by things outside of the agent.  So Pereboom’s fourth case does capture the clash between compatibilists and incompatibilists, but his chain doesn’t really show that compatibilists are forced to accept that Case 4) is the same and is similarly problematic to Case 1).

The last thing I want to talk about is Pereboom’s attempts to deal with the argument from phenomenology, which is that it really, really feels like we really make decisions.  He uses at least twice Spinoza’s argument that maybe once we understand the causal process, we would then see how the phenomenology is illusory or at least misleading.  The problem is that the phenomenology of something is what would get preference unless we have a very good explanation for why it shouldn’t get preference.  If I stick a stick into water and it looks like it bends, I’m perfectly justified in thinking that it really does bend until I get contradictory phenomenology or a good explanation for why it looks like it bends but really doesn’t or at least get a good argument for why the stick case is similar to other cases with light and so it would only look like it bends.  What Hard Determinists are trying to do here is appeal to the latter case, arguing that the components are all determined and so the process itself should be, even though the phenomenology strongly suggests otherwise.  This, though, is challenged by how consciousness itself does seem to be pretty special and so not standard, and so opponents can suggest that those material, determined things are correlations, not causes, and so don’t trump phenomenology in that way.  In short, Spinoza’s argument will work once Hard Determinists have provided sufficient evidence to think that the phenomenology is wrong, but Libertarians and Compatibilists will deny that they have (Libertarians because they feel Hard Determinists invalidly assume that mental things are deterministic, and Compatibilists because they feel that Hard Determinists invalidly assume that determined processes can’t work in a way that is consistent with the phenomenology we have).  So I felt his dismissal of the phenomenology to be too quick, and in fact it really seems like an attempt to assume that his position is correct and then demand that his opponents demonstrate that he’s wrong, which isn’t really a fair demand.

The last one is a new one to me, Revisionism.  I look forward to discovering what the heck it actually is …


2 Responses to “Derk Pereboom and Hard Determinism/Incompatibilism”

  1. Free Will is Not Defined By Moral Responsibility | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] case, as Pereboom’s chapter here very much repeats what he said in his essay in that book, which I’ve already covered.  So here what I’m going to talk about is how I think we’ve gone astray by making free […]

  2. Professor Plum, Richard Carrier, and Compatibilism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] before I get into the specific case from Pereboom — that I myself have addressed here — I will have to address Carrier’s preamble to defining and justifying compatbilism.  […]

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