Jonathan MS Pearce on Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Continuing my look at things people have been saying about free will recently, let me take up this post by Jonathan MS Pearce on the topic that continues the theme of hard determinists and compatibilists trying to minimize the gap between them and expand the gap between those two positions and libertarianism.  But first let me look at his definitions.  He starts by defining libertarian free will:

Definition o’clock: I define libertarian free will as follows:

The real ability to consciously and rationally do otherwise in a given situation.

This is a position that I’ve likened to the “Humans evolved from apes” definition.  It’s true as far as it goes and works as a rough folk definition, but stating it this way lends itself to generating rather poor arguments that don’t really get at the issue, such as arguments that for this to work it must be the case that if we “rewound time” and replayed that decision with the same starting conditions the decision could or would change, when most libertarians would argue that most of the time it wouldn’t, or arguments like Locke’s that if someone was locked in a room then even if they weren’t aware of that their decision to stay in the room couldn’t be free.  Here, Pearce will add on using this to differentiate this view of free will from compatibilist free will in a strong way despite the fact that they are closer than he admits.  This is his definition of compatibilist free will:

Mot philosophers are compatibilists, which is to say that they believe free will and determinism are compatible. Or, if cause and effect works in any of the ways mentioned above, we can still have free will. But, and this is a big but, they would define free will slightly differently. It would be something like this:

The ability for an agent to do what they want.

This definition, though, is a pretty poor one.  First, this is not the definition of compatibilist free will, but is instead one specific position compatibilists may hold that would allow them to argue that we do have some freedom in our choices while accepting that the decisions are still deterministic.  Second, this option is itself one that libertarians can adopt — and is one that I, personally, have considered — by arguing that we have some ability to determine what our desires are but our decisions are always determined by processes simply iterating over what we want and what we believe.  So not only does it not properly capture compatibilism, it also is a position that isn’t unique to it.

The best definition of “free” that I’ve come up with for compatibilists is this one:  a free choice is one that is produced by our normal decision-making processes under the conditions where they are acting normally.  An analogy for this is with the digestive system, where we can distinguish between whether something is the result of that process not merely by looking at whether we have nutrients in the blood, but instead by how those nutrients ended up there.  So if someone is receiving nutrients through an IV, those nutrients weren’t put there by the process of digestion and so are, perhaps, non-digested nutrients.  By the same token, if a decision is not made by the parts of the brain that typically produce decisions or if those parts of the brain were interfered with — by, say, a tumor — then we can say that those decisions were not “free”, and so don’t reflect “free will” and so the person isn’t responsible for them and so the person isn’t morally responsible for them.

Now, you may note that aside from talking about the brain specifically doing that this definition is, again, pretty much one that libertarians would also accept.  The reason for that is that the rough idea of free will is indeed the thing that compatibilists and libertarians agree upon, and that hard determinists disagree with compatibilists about.  Where libertarians disagree with compatibilists is over whether we can have this sort of freedom in a deterministic world, and so they disagree that the world is deterministic, which is what compatibilists and hard determinists agree on.  So libertarians agree with compatibilists about what it would roughly mean for a choice to be free, but not that deterministic processes can do that, and hard determinists agree with compatibilists that the only option for these decisions is that they are determined but not that their choices are or can be meaningfully free in that way.  Which is why most hard determinists end up trying to collapse the distinction between normal and abnormal decisions (as Pearce does here).

Thus, Pearce’s statement here isn’t true:

The thing is, I am both a hard determinist and a compatibilist, it just depends on which definition you are using. I argued in my first book, Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will or whether I was always going to write this book, that the compatibilist position is largely a semantic one. As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

He can’t be both a hard determinist and a compatibilist depending on what definition is being used, because he himself sees no substantive difference between decisions produced by typical or atypical decision-making processes, and compatibilists do.  They would clearly draw a sharp distinction between a kleptomaniac stealing something because of their overwhelming urge and someone who steals something because they want it and can do it.  Hard determinists tend not to, and then to argue (like Jerry Coyne usually does) that the distinctions and categories that follow from the common notion of free will are not at all useful, meaningful or beneficial and that all we want are concepts that allow us to determine how to shape behaviour to produce behaviours that we think better or more reasonable or, well, more in line with what we want.  But in order for the positions to merely be a semantic difference, it must be the case that the hard determinist can either capture or eliminate all of these distinctions, or else the difference would be functional, not semantic.  If they have to include most or even all of these distinctions, then they might be able to claim that it’s a semantic difference … but not in a way that helps them, because at that point they have captured pretty much everything that everyone involved — compatibilist, folk, and even libertarian — thinks is important about free will but are just balking at calling it “free will” for some reason, even though, again, most people understand those things as following from free will and not being there if there is no free will.  And since there are differences in how we need to treat kleptomaniacs vs people who steal to survive vs people who steal to gain monetary advantage vs people who steal for the heck of it and since those differences are neatly captured by our existing language and concepts then that sort of hard determinist position seems pointless.  They are just going to have to invent the same concepts and language but will have to call them something different, so why bother?  To avoid any hint of anything that might be called a “soul”?  To avoid having to worry if the libertarian claim that deterministic processes can’t actually allow for those distinctions might actually be correct?

Pearce himself, of course, does seem to be a bit overly concerned about religion:

I argue with a lot of Christians about all sorts of things. But if they are Christians who believe in heaven and hell, who believe in divine judgment based on what we do in our lives, and having moral responsibility for doing so, then they have a problem.

Indeed (and I have frequently said this about debating people like William Lane Craig), if they cannot refute this argument—if they can’t establish how libertarian free will exists—then the rest of their God-belief falls down. Their theism rests inexorably on the foundations of a coherent notion of libertarian free will.

Pearce gave a quote from Strawson about that, but it doesn’t show that the concept is incoherent.  As my latest way of framing it states, what we really, really want is not some kind of completely “causeless” free will or free choice, but is instead one that follows from intentions, and where the decisions are made from understanding the meaning of things instead of mere “symbolic” processing like a simple stimulus-response model.  And it’s hard to get that in a deterministic model and a brain model because it looks like the outcome of the decision-making process is determined before it even starts, and the decision-making process is the only one that can actually consider meaning and intent and change its outcome based on that.  Neurons don’t process things on the basis of meaning, and given that it looks like the meanings and intents considered wouldn’t have to be the ones we are using or wouldn’t even have to be there to get the results we do.  So contrary to Pearce and perhaps Strawson, free will for libertarians isn’t about denying our nature, but instead about being able to make decisions considering our nature, and the ability to indeed change our nature or act according to it or reject it.  Based on our experiences, it really does seem like we can do that, and so if Pearce is going to argue that we really can’t that’s a flaw in his view, not in the libertarian view.  The libertarian is indeed noting that we need some kind of process that can actually consider it and, as I am arguing, a form of causation that can pull that off.  If deterministic causation and quantum causation can’t do it, then it really looks like we need some kind of causation that can, and assertions that there is no such kind of causation cannot overturn our impression that, nevertheless, it happens.

And turning to religion is a bad move.  If God is creating us and creating all mechanisms, and needs a mechanism that will do that, then He could indeed create such a mechanism.  It just wouldn’t be deterministic, and that’s pretty much all Pearce has to rely on here.

Pearce then turns to trying to argue against how we could identify moral responsibility at all:

Apportioning moral responsibility to one agent because their action was the closest caused to the effect is very simplistic. It is like saying the green snooker ball was responsible for knocking the red one in as it was the most proximal cause. This says nothing about the fact that it had rebounded off the yellow, after the blue, after being hit by the white cue ball, itself shot by the snooker player, involving all their causal circumstances, including all their training, the support from their parents, the evolution of man, and the big bang. Without each and every necessary condition and event, the red would never have been pocketed.

So was the green ball responsible? In some small, arbitrary sense, along with all other aspects of the causal circumstance. Was it ultimately causally responsible? No.

What does this say about moral responsibility?

Now such philosophical exactitude doesn’t easily help people organize society and suchlike, which is why we have shortcut rules of thumb: you pulled the trigger, you’re responsible. But that’s not technically correct.

Except, we can indeed easily make these distinctions by appealing to intentionality.  We in fact do not assign moral responsibility on the basic of proximity.  Taking his own example, we would distinguish between the green ball being the proximate cause but would also argue that the person with the cue stick who started off that specific chain would actually be ultimately responsible from the perspective of intention.  It was that person’s intention that caused that to happen, and we can analyze that result on the basis of that intention to explain why that happened as opposed to something else … even if they were trying to do something else, like hitting the yellow ball and accidentally hit that one.  And it’s from the latter responsibility that we derive moral responsibility.  But this isn’t just a presumption or an artifact of our language, as we can differentiate — and seem to need to differentiate — between the rock that strikes and breaks a window and the person who picked it up and threw it to break the window, and it’s the latter who is morally responsible for breaking the window and not the former.  Not convinced?  Okay, note the difference in experience and internal decisions between the case where you throw a rock at a window and break it and I throw you at a window and break it.  You are morally responsible in the first case but are not morally responsible in the second case.  That difference is a difference in intent and we can track the specific differences in internal experiences that make you responsible in the first case and me responsible in the second case.  That’s a real experiential difference that cannot be simply illusory if we are going to grant that we have any kind of consciousness that has any impact on the world, and yet just from that we can come up with perfectly reasonable ideas of moral responsibility.  So why, then, is it at all reasonable to claim that moral responsibility doesn’t exist?

Back to God:

The problem here is saying that (1) God is the only originator of a causal chain, but also, (2) human agents are the originators of causal chains every time they make a freely willed decision!

Alas, I digress. The takeaway point here is that theists can’t have it both ways, believing in both libertarian free will and the KCA. Neither work, and both are mutually exclusive.

That’s only if you claim that humans are indeed the originator of a new causal chain, as some libertarians do claim.  But this fails because arguments like the KCA link to and can benefit from the Thomistic arguments, which don’t have one simple notion of causation, and so would allow for God to create a mechanism in the strong sense needed for creation that then causes decisions in the right way to produce free will decisions.  While I think Ed Feser is a bit harsh at times on those who reject the Aristotlean idea of causation, here is indeed one case where a) you need to understand that to make a real criticism here and b) it starts to look like that sort of model avoids all sorts of crazy problems that denying it would cause.  So, no, they aren’t obviously mutually exclusive, and it only appears so if you adopt a very specific idea of causation that itself is somewhat dubious.

I will finish with Pearce’s quote from Pereboom on moral responsibility:

Living without a conception of our choices and actions as freely willed in the sense required for moral responsibility does not come naturally to us. Our psychologies and our patterns of behavior presuppose that our choices and actions are free in this sense. Nevertheless, not only are there good arguments against this belief, but also, despite our initially apprehensive reactions to hard incompatibilism, believing it would not have disastrous consequences, and indeed it promises significant benefits for human life. Hard incompatibilism would not undermine the purpose in life that our projects can provide. Neither would it hinder the possibility of the good interpersonal relationships fundamental to our happiness. Acceptance of hard incompatibilism rather holds out the promise of greater equanimity by reducing the anger that hinders fulfillment. Far from threatening meaning in life, hard incompatibilism can help us achieve the conditions required for flourishing, for it can assist in releasing us from the harmful passions that contribute so much to human distress. If we did in fact relinquish our presumption of free will and moral responsibility, then, perhaps surprisingly, our lives might well be better for it.

This perfectly captures the problem hard determinists get themselves into when they deny things like moral responsibility.  Pereboom asks what we would lose if we give up moral responsibility but then says that we can still have things like freedom from harmful passions and relinquishing flawed ideas to make our lives better … all things that we don’t have control over if we don’t have free will and so aren’t responsible for.  A lot of the things that hard determinists say that we can still have even without moral responsibility are either things that follow from either moral responsibility or the very mechanisms that would give us moral responsibility.  It’s the exact same argument as people who insist that morality is subjective but then insist that we can still meaningfully criticize people for being immoral even if they don’t agree and can even impose our moral views on them, ideas that follow from objective morality but don’t follow from subjective morality.  You can indeed not lose anything important if you smuggle all of the important things into your view, but then it is perfectly reasonable to ask what the point of denying the concepts was in the first place.


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