Final Points from “Four Views on Free Will”

So, I finished off this book by reading the last forty or so pages where each person responded to the others.  I’m not going to get into this in detail because for the most part they didn’t really address issues that I personally was bothered or concerned about, and since obviously I’m not really on board with any of the views I didn’t find the defenses compelling, but neither did I find the defenses of the defenses compelling.  So instead of doing that, and since I’m going to be doing more with free will over the next little while, let me pull out a couple of points of interest that were talked about in that section and then let this book go.

Kane, for obvious reasons, takes on the Frankfurt cases directly, with an interesting argument.  Let me remind everyone of what these cases are:  they are cases where in general there is some kind of trigger set so that if an agent would make “the right choice” on their own, they are allowed to make it, but if they are going to make “the wrong choice” the trigger is hit and things are manipulated so that they instead make “the right choice”.  These are aimed at showing that someone can have moral responsibility even if they really could not do otherwise, and so that there really aren’t alternate possibilities.  There is really only one possible outcome given this, but nevertheless if they choose the action freely we would still hold them morally responsible for their actions.  This, then, is meant to show that in order to have the right kind of choice for free will — the kind of choice that preserves our moral responsibility — we don’t need to actually have real alternative possibilities.

Kane replies that the issue here is that all of these examples rely on there being some kind of phenomena that the trigger can use to determine that the “wrong” decision is being made before the decision is actually made so that the trigger can instead manipulate the decision-making process to produce the “right” decision.  However, this actually assumes a deterministic universe, because that point has to be one where the decision is completely determined but also has to be before the decision is actually made.  Libertarians about free will and anyone who thinks that free will requires alternate possibilities will point out that if this is true then there really aren’t any alternate possibilities after that point.  For the examples to work, the trigger must work 100% of the time and by necessity.  Otherwise, it’s indeterminant and based on probability, which means that there indeed could be an alternate possibility.  And it can’t wait to trigger until after the decision is made because that would be an obvious example of someone’s free will being overridden.  So Kane argues that this is a bit of a problem for those sorts of examples.

While I do think that’s true, I don’t think it really refutes the point.  The idea here is more that even if there was only one possible outcome we would intuitively still consider the person to be morally responsible if they happened to choose using their normal decision-making processes as opposed to some kind of external decision-making process or strong external determining factor.  And I think that’s true, and it’s important for compatibilists, because in general those theories rely on arguing that the decision is free if it was done by our decision-making processes working properly and without undue external influence (ie they aren’t being overridden by some external process or cause, like we see in the Frankfurt examples).  So these examples show that if the person made the decision themselves but there was a case where their decision would be overridden to that decision anyway so they’d always only make a specific decision we’d still want to differentiate the case where the person’s internal processes made the decision instead of the external cause.  So, as I noted earlier in this examination, I think the alternate possibilities model is being overinterpreted to insist that there be a “real” alternate possibility or else the decision isn’t free, when really that’s meant in a far more colloquial or folk way where we think that it must be a real possibility that the decision — as per the normal decision-making processes — could come out with a different decision than the one it did.  Kane is right that Frankfurt cases can’t actually produce that case, and so it must be a different notion of alternate possibilities that we’re after.  So I do side with the idea that what we’re really after is that the person themselves must be responsible for the decision in an important way, which I also then agree with Kane that that implies the sort of alternate possibilities that I outlined above:  in order for the decision-making processes to be properly responsible for the outcome it must be reasonably possible that they could have ended up with a different decision.  And from here we can ask if that’s possible if determinism is true.

The other thing that was raised by a couple of them is the idea that we don’t hold people morally responsible for their actions if, say, someone puts a gun to their head and threatens to kill them if they don’t.  As I noted earlier, this is a very common example used to show that someone in that case really doesn’t have free will.  But speaking as someone who is at least Stoic-leaning, it’s difficult for me to accept that because the Stoics would hold them morally responsible for their actions, and the fact that they do that is in fact one of the more appealing things of Stoic moral philosophy for me, because it follows from the idea that someone is morally responsible for what they do, not what other people do.  So if they choose to commit that immoral action because of that threat, they did choose to do that and so are responsible for it.  So the question, then, is whether or not they should be considered morally responsible for it.

I think it’s educational to look at how most people intuitively react to the Stoic view.  They don’t react to it as if it’s contradictory, but instead seem to react to it as if it’s heartless.  They don’t tend to respond to that with an argument that no, the person isn’t responsible and really couldn’t have chosen otherwise, but instead that it’s heartless and cold to expect someone to do that.  This carries on to cases where someone, say, is stealing for themselves or especially for their children.  It’s not that they couldn’t choose to not steal that food or that money or whatever, but that it’s difficult for us to expect them to not steal that under pain of accusing them of immorality.  So it looks like this is less an example where they lose responsibility, but instead a case where they lose morality, or at least that morality should not judge them for that action.

We can carry on from this to look at how this works wrt kleptomania vs these cases.  The kleptomaniac is clearly not responsible for their choice to steal things, as they have a compulsion that they cannot resist.  They literally cannot choose otherwise.  But in the other cases when pressed everyone has to admit that the person could choose otherwise.  They are not under an irresistible compulsion to steal that thing.  But it seems like asking too much to demand they do that.  So I’ve captured the distinction as I see it with the statement that we understand why they made that choice or even felt that they had no other choice, while understanding that they do indeed have another choice.

I was recently reminded of another case that might capture this distinction, from the show “Beast Wars”.  In “Code of Hero”, the character of Dinobot has been struggling with the idea that if a set of disks that tell the future unerringly capture that future, then everything he does has already been determined and so he has no free will.  However, through various means he discovers that, yes, the future can indeed be changed.  Heavily damaged, he discovers that his enemies are going to attack and possibly eliminate the creatures that will become the humans and thus ensure that the Decepticons win the Great War.  His allies will arrive too late, but if he tries to engage his enemies he will almost certainly die.  And he says this:

The question which once haunted my being has been answered. The future is not fixed, and my choices are my own… and yet, how ironic! For I now find, I have no choice at all!

He didn’t literally have no choice.  He could have stood down and not disabled the internal process that would have preserved his life but left him unable to fight.  But based on who he was and what the situation was, he was going to choose to defend them.  He was, in this sense, perhaps morally compelled to do what he did.  And we’d obviously consider him morally responsible for doing the moral thing even though, for him, it was as irresistible a compulsion as the gun to the head or the starving children.  So if we’d consider someone morally responsible for this when the compulsion is moral, surely we have to do the same when the compulsion is immoral.  In both cases, the person is facing a strong influence, not a completely irresistible compulsion.

So, for me, the focus on moral responsibility in the modern discussions, at least, always focuses far too much on the moral part and not enough on the responsibility part.  For free will, the issue was that we felt that determinism would remove responsibility, because we couldn’t be held responsible for those actions if it wasn’t us who decided them.  In these other cases, it’s morality that’s being challenged, where we don’t think that a proper morality can reasonably demand such resistance from its adherents.  So despite everyone always raising those as examples where we don’t have free will or don’t make free choices, I now insist that we, in fact, do.  And thinking that we don’t is responsible for confusing the issue of just how free will and determinism are claimed to be incompatible.

Anyway, that’s all I want to talk about wrt this book.  I actually did enjoy it, even if I didn’t agree with it all that much, and do think it a decent resource for someone who wants to get a basic idea of what this free will thing is about (some parts might be too technical, but you also get advocates for each view all talking about it in one place, which I think makes up for that).  I will be moving on to more incompatibilist views in the near future, including a book-length one by Pereboom.


One Response to “Final Points from “Four Views on Free Will””

  1. Choice and Outcomes | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] refute — the competing views on free will, and so is summarizing a lot of the points found in “Four Views on Free Will”, usually using the same people as references.  So there isn’t really anything new yet.  […]

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