The Basic Argument Against Freedom and Moral Responsibility

As you’re learning in the readings, there seems to be a tension between our ordinary conception of ourselves as free, morally responsible agents, on the one hand, and certain things we seem to know about the world, on other. In particular, we seem to think that we’re free and responsible in virtue of our ability to do otherwise — i.e., our ability to do other than what we actually choose to do. (This is known as the libertarian conception of free will.) On the other hand, it’s not at all clear that we have the relevant sort of the ability to do otherwise. For we have strong scientific evidence from physics, biology, psychology and other disciplines that our actions are determined by factors outside our control, such as the laws of nature, heredity, and environment.

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Here’s one way to motivate the problem. We seem to act on our strongest competing desire. So, for example, as I was lying in bed and thinking about what I wanted to have for breakfast, I thought about the different things in the kitchen that I could eat. The two main options were (a) coffee and a bagel with cream cheese, and (b) coffee and a cheese omelette with sourdough toast. After reflecting on the two choices, I weighed them against my desires (e.g., my desire for something I haven’t had in a while, a desire not to feel rushed and not to take too much time to cook, etc.). At the end of a short deliberation period, I chose (a) coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. Why? Because it met my list of desires better than option (a): I had option (b) yesterday, and wanted something new; I was tired, and short on time, and I didn’t want to feel rushed; etc.

In the scenario above, then, it seems that my choice was determined by my strongest competing desire(s). Now of course I could’ve chosen option (b) if I had wanted it more, i.e., if my strongest competing desire was for (b) instead. But here’s the problem: I can’t change my basic wants on the spot: they’re determined by factors beyond my immediate control (e.g., genetics, environment, past choices, etc.). And so just as I can’t make myself have feelings of love for someone I don’t love on the spot, I can’t make myself want an omelette over a bagel with cream cheese on the spot. And the same seems true of all my other choices — at least all my choices I’ve made after early childhood. *Those* choices were ones I made *before* I was a rational, morally responsible agent, and they were shaped by non-rational factors outside my control (again, heredity, environment, etc.).

At this point, people raise two main objections to the claim that our actions are determined, and thus not free in the libertarian sense of the ability to do otherwise. The first objection is that we know by introspection on our own thoughts and feelings during deliberation that we can imagine alternative choices before the moment of decision, and that this is sufficient evidence that we have libertarian free will. However, the reply is that the ability to imagine alternative choices isn’t good evidence that you could have actually chosen them at the moment of decision. For while it’s of course true that you could’ve chosen one of these other options if your desire for them were stronger, that’s irrelevant to whether you could’ve chosen one of these other options given your actual desires and preference structure immediately prior to your decision (remember the problem of being unable to change your preference structure on the spot — e.g., you can’t make yourself desire someone by an immediate act of sheer willpower). The second objection is there is good evidence for libertarian free will that comes from our ability to act against our strongest competing desires. So, for example, some people who have been longtime chain-smokers have overcome their strongest competing desire to keep smoking, and this is sufficient evidence that we have libertarian free will. However, the reply is that an such people quit because they reached a threshold point that triggered an even stronger competing desire to live (or some other relevant desire, e.g., to live long enough to raise their child), which in turn determined their choice to quit smoking.

The first half of the problem of free will, then, is that if free will and moral responsibility require the ability to do otherwise, and if it’s not clear that we have the ability to do otherwise (i.e., to act against our strongest competing desires, the laws of physics, genetics, etc.), then it’s not at all not clear that we are free and responsible agents. The second half of the problem of free will and moral responsibility is that we seem to lack the right kind of control over our own actions even if determinism is false, and the laws of nature are indeterministic. For if there is literally nothing at all that determines our choice to do some action A rather than some other action B, then it looks as though our actions are uncaused and random (and sad). But no action that is uncaused and random is one for which we can be counted as a free and responsible action. Therefore, even if determinism is false and indeterminism is true, we still lack the right kind of control over our actions to count as free and responsible agents.


After reading the introductory notes and the reading from van Inwagen:

(i) State whether you think we’re free and responsible.

(ii) State why you do or don’t think we can act contrary to the sorts of factors mentioned above (your strongest competing desire, genetics, the laws of physics, etc.).

4 replies.
As you’ve been reading, it seems that it’s part of the libertarian notion of freedom and responsibility that both require the ability to do otherwise. In the free will literature, the ability to do otherwise is often cashed out in terms of alternative possibilities. So, for example, if you’re free to raise your hand, then this requires that at least one other alternative possibility is available to you (e.g., keeping your hand at your side, or clapping, or…). This, in turn, is often called The Principle of Alternative PPAP) A person is morally responsible for an action only if they had other possibilities available to them.

Discussion 2:

Frankfurt’s Counterexamples and Compatiblist Freedom

However, in “Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”, Harry Frankfurt famously argued that alternative possibilities are not required for moral responsibility, and thus that PAP is false. The implication is that libertarianism is false: moral responsibility is compatible with determinism (since one could then be determined — thereby lacking the ability to do otherwise — and yet still be morally responsible). He offers several criticisms of it, but the last one he gives is considered the most important:

Suppose someone wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. Whatever Jones’s initial preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way…Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones4, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. (463)

So in this possible scenario, we have a case in which a person, Jones, couldn’t have done otherwise (since Black would have intervened and made him do it if he were about to choose something different), yet he clearly seems morally responsible for his actions. But if so, then as it’s currently stated, PAP is false.

For this post:

(i) Read Frankfurt’s paper “Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”.

(ii) State whether you agree with Frankfurt that he has offered a possible case in which a person can be morally responsible and yet lacks the ability to do otherwise, and briefly defend your position.


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