-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

A decade or two ago the subject of determinism and free will seemed to have died the death philosophically, and to be having a confused afterlife in the bungalows of retired physicists. Now, if it is not so full of life as, say, the subject of consciousness, it is out of that grave. One sign is the immense compendium of papers, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane. Another is the vigorous and clear-headed paper that follows here, by Richard Double. He is his own man, and, unlike some of his fellow American philosophers, not involved with determinism and freedom in order to make the world safer for religion. You don't have to agree with every word  to see that thinking is going on. I agree with a lot of the words.

ABSTRACT: The belief that only free will supports assignments of moral responsibility -- deserved praise and blame, punishment and reward, and the expression of reactive attitudes and moral censure -- has fueled most of the historical concern over the existence of free will.  Free will's connection to moral responsibility also drives contemporary thinkers as diverse in their substantive positions as Peter Strawson, Thomas Nagel, Peter van Inwagen, Galen Strawson, and Robert Kane.  A simple, but powerful, reason for thinking that philosophers are correct in making moral responsibility the prize of the free will problem is this: If we disassociate free will from deserved praise, blame, punishment and reward, reactive attitudes and moral censure, then why care about free will?  If free will is not pinned down as that degree of freedom in our choices that we need for moral responsibility, it is difficult to see why anyone would or should care about free will. In this article I argue that some of the most prominent recent writing on free will becomes sidetracked from this key issue.  For this reason, a good deal of the literature is so much spilled ink as philosophers misdirect their energies.  In section 1 I elaborate just what I believe the key issue in the free will problem is.  In section 2 I illustrate what an answer to the key issue requires.  In section 3 I suggest motivations for misdirection.  In sections 4, 5, and 6 I provide detailed examples of misdirection from compatibilists and libertarians.  In sections 7 and 8 I describe some non-misdirected answers to the key question.


1.    The Standard Question

   The best-known free will disputants -- the incompatibilists and the compatibilists -- disagree over the sort of connection that must obtain between our psychological states and our choices for us to be morally responsible for the actions those choices produce.  Specifically, they debate over whether the connection may or should be deterministic.  [Some libertarians (Nozick, 1981, 295-96; van Inwagen, 1983, 138-40) say that libertarian choices can be caused, but not causally determined, but this verbal ploy only muddies the water.]  Incompatibilists think that determinism destroys our moral responsibility by making us unable to choose otherwise than we do (alternatively, by preventing us from being the ultimate causes of our choices.)  Incompatibilists also need to argue that an undetermined connection is good enough for moral responsibility. 
   On the other side, compatibilists argue that an indeterministic relation between our psychological states and our choices would destroy our free will and moral responsibility.  Compatibilists also need to argue that a deterministic connection is the right one for moral responsibility.  This disagreement gives rise to what I consider to be the standard question in the free will problem: (SQ) "Under what conditions would our choices be suitably connected to the psychological states that precede them so as to make us morally responsible for the actions those choices produce?"

2.    To Answer the Standard Question We Need to Make a Metaphysical Specification and an Evaluative Endorsement

   To answer (SQ) we need to take a position on what sort of connection between persons and their choices is good enough to make us morally responsible for the actions our choices produce.  Our verdict will be metaphysical, because it will specify a real connection between our psychological states and our choices.  Must the relation be deterministic, as compatibilist critics of libertarianism such as Hobart (1934), Schlick (1939), and Ayer (1982) maintain?  Might it be indeterministic, as the libertarians Taylor (1966), Chisholm (1976), van Inwagen (1983), Kane (1995, 1996), and Ginet (1995) say?  One might even maintain that the connection can be either deterministic or indeterministic (Mele, 1995).  The point is that all sides must state what they believe the connection might be. 

   Our answer to (SQ) is also evaluative.  In saying that a certain hypothesized connection would or would not be good enough to support moral responsibility, we are making the evaluative claim that some nonmoral, metaphysical fact (the degree of connectedness) warrants the application of the moral term "moral responsibility."  We make an evaluative judgment whenever we say: "S's possessing property P-1, along with other properties P-2, P-3, . . . , justifies ascribing to S evaluative property EP-1."

   To answer (SQ), we need to remain focused in two ways.  First, we need to recognize that (SQ) needs an answer -- we need to defend some specification of the nature of the connection we think needs to obtain between our antecedent psychological states and choices in order to sustain moral responsibility.  This is the easier task.  Second, we need to keep locked onto this question and not be tempted onto spurious issues that we substitute as answers to (SQ).

3.    Reasons for Misdirection

   Philosophers change the subject of the free will debate in subtle and not-so subtle ways.  If we realize we are doing this, we are duplicitous.  If we do it unwittingly, we are either self-delusive or confused.  The lines between duplicity, self-delusion, and confusion are sometimes blurred.  I can think of two main causes of misdirection.

   One reason for misdirection is the fact that if we stay focused on (SQ), we quickly run out of things to say and arguments to concoct.  Staying focused on (SQ) leaves little room for the exercise of philosophical creativity, or, more cynically, philosophical one-up-man-ship.  This is hard on philosophers who think of themselves as earning their pay through the clever use of thought experiments, definitions, and counter-examples.  Instead, if we doggedly persist in framing the free will problem in terms of (SQ), we see that we immediately run into a clash of compatibilist vs. incompatibilist intuitions, which everyone has understood since Philosophy 101.

   Thus, if we remain focused on (SQ), we are likely to see ourselves as providing rhetoric, some moralizing, and some warmed-over "intuition pumps," as Daniel Dennett (1984) calls them.  This is a difficult path for analytical philosophers to take.  So, we are motivated to change the subject to one where we can put our analytical skills to good use.  There is an adage, "If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  If your philosophical methodology is thought experiments, definitions, and counter-examples, then philosophical problems will tend to look as if they need such tools.

   Something like this shift occurred in the 20th century treatment of the mind/body problem.  As philosophers found the idea of nonphysical minds increasingly implausible, they shifted from seeing the mind/body problem as the traditional ontological contest between materialism, dualism, and idealism.  Instead, philosophers moved toward asking what kind of materialism is best for the purposes of psychological theory construction -- behavioristic eliminative materialism (Ryle, Skinner), neurophilic eliminative materialism (Rorty, the Churchlands), identity theory with its many sub-divisions (Smart, Davidson, Searle), or functionalism (Putnam, Fodor).  This had the advantage not only of reviving interest in the mind/body problem, but it enabled philosophers to exercise their analytic skills.  It did this, of course, at the expense of recasting the mind/body problem as a different issue.

   A related, second reason for misdirection is the desire to win the argument, even at the cost of turning the initial issue into a different one.  When we frame the free will problem as I do in (SQ), it becomes clear that we are not going to win the debate -- the intuitions of our opponents are too solid for us to vanquish.  But if we can get the issue turned in another direction -- e.g., for libertarians, teleological intelligibility explanations or for compatibilists, thought experiments where non-intervening controllers make it impossible for us to choose otherwise -- we may win a skirmish.  Better still, we may convince ourselves that we have thereby won the war.

4.    Three Examples of Compatibilist Misdirection

   First, the great historical compatibilists Hobbes, Locke, and Hume established a venerable precedent for misdirection by casting the free will problem as the free action problem.  In doing so they ignored the injunction from Aquinas that the free will problem is, in fact, a question about the will.  The existence of free action -- understood as doing what we want without constraint -- requires no philosophical justification.  But dispute arises as soon as compatibilists mistake free action for free will.  Bishop Bramhill pointed this out to Hobbes, who pretended that he could make no sense out of the claim that the will, rather than the person, is free.  This maneuver of making free action a surrogate for free will continues to attract contemporary compatibilists.  This is all the more remarkable because one of compatibilism's luminaries, Harry Frankfurt, explicitly distinguishes between free will and free action in one of the major papers that introduced hierarchical compatibilism, today's most popular variety of compatibilism (1986, 74-75).

   Second, a shameless approach of some compatibilists writing in the middle of this century was to announce that they were working within the framework of ordinary language and then conclude that, because common sense is compatibilist, compatibilism is correct (Flew, 1959; Meldin, 1964; Austin, 1970).  The Paradigm Case Argument maintains that we learn the meaning of by "free action" by reference to unimpeded actions; thus, the free will problem can be put to rest.  A clever variation on the paradigm case strategy is provided by Mark Heller (1996), who compares free will to Hilary Putnam's natural-kind terms: Just as cats might turn out to be non-biological robots, so free actions might turn out to be determined, or even Martian remote-controlled.  [To Heller's credit, he acknowledges in correspondence that his maneuver does not purport to ground moral responsibility, which Heller believes is insupportable on either compatibilism or incompatibilism.]

   My objection to appeals to commonsense views of freedom by compatibilists (or incompatibilists) is that the free will problem begins by questioning common sense's assumptions.  Philosophers may announce that the only court of appeal they recognize is common sense; but there is no reason why anyone not committed to a view of philosophy wherein it is philosophy's job to support commonsense beliefs (Double, 1996, Chapter 2) should accept such a stipulation.  Appeals to common sense trivialize the compatibilist conclusion, because common sense does not recognize the free will problem in the first place.  Common sense holds that most persons choose freely most of the time: If you doubt this claim, ask 100 non-philosophers whether persons are ordinarily free and morally responsible.  Taking this commonsensical assumption seriously would eliminate any theory that denies free will exists.  So, even if common sense (counterfactually) were as strongly compatibilistic as practitioners of the paradigm case strategy believe, the appeal to common sense would be misdirected.

   Third, with greater subtlety, some compatibilists provide thought experiments to investigate whether we should say that determinism per se poses problems for free will.  The most famous example of this type is Harry Frankfurt's 1969 Principle of Alternate Possibilities paper, where he imagines a non-intervening controller who would intervene if and only if his subject begins to choose a certain action.  According to Frankfurt, the subject is not made unfree by the unactualized power of the monitoring controller.  Analogously, we are not made unfree if determinism takes away our alternate possibilities. 

   Although Frankfurt's maneuver is very clever, it succumbs to the same type of criticism that the paradigm case arguments do.  When the free will problem is framed as (SQ), it is clear that our everyday intuitions cannot answer it.  When we are not being philosophical, we do not take seriously the hypothesis that all choices might be unfree, recognizing instead only practical difficulties such as overt threats, massive deprivation (Klein, 1990), or gross irrationality.  But not seeing the problem in the first place debars one's insouciance from counting as an answer.  The genius of Frankfurt's maneuver is that he gets us to put on compatibilist spectacles without realizing we are doing so.  Unfortunately, this instance of misdirection has spawned a generation of S-knows-that-p type papers where philosophers refine Frankfurt's Principle of Alternate Possibilities through epicycles of increasingly esoteric counter-examples, as if that could settle anything.

5.    Incompatibilist Misdirection: The Consequence Argument

   Some libertarians think that they can show that a deterministic answer to (SQ) is clearly wrong, but misdirection spoils their attack.  In his Consequence Argument Peter van Inwagen (1983, 56 ff) argues with great precision and at considerable length that because we cannot control the laws of nature and the conditions that existed before our births, if determinism is true, then none of our choices are "up to us."  Van Inwagen (1980, 34) recognizes that for his consequence argument to bear on moral responsibility he must endorse a clearly moral principle: If we are not responsible for: (1) the laws of nature, (2) conditions existing before our birth, and (3) the fact that the former logically entail our present actions, then we are not morally responsible for our actions.  Van Inwagen acknowledges that this moral premise is unprovable, but he says that the principle looks good to him and quickly concludes his argument.

   The trouble with this move is that the crucial, problematic premise occurs at the end of a long, technical discussion as if it were simply an after-thought.  But the dispute between the incompatibilists and compatibilists is over whether the consequence argument's transfer of powerlessness -- which is acceptable in nonmoral instances (e.g., our blood-type or eye color) -- works for moral responsibility.  Compatibilists think that when it comes to moral responsibility, non-responsibility does not transfer.  Compatibilists think that moral responsibility requires only that we satisfy a sufficiently rich compatibilist account of free choices.  This is debatable, of course, but that's the point.  This is an evaluative dispute that is not resolvable by formalism using words like "up to us," "power," or "can," but by defending one's evaluation.  To offer technical examinations of these problematic notions as if they bear on the evaluative issue is to lose sight of the evaluative nature of (SQ).

6.    Incompatibilist Misdirection: Teleological Intelligibility

    A subtle misdirection lurks when libertarians defend their positive answers to (SQ) by championing teleological intelligibility (TI) explanations of libertarian choices over contrastive explanations.  Teleological intelligibility explanations place an explained event in a context that makes its occurrence seem plausible.  Contrastive explanations say why an explained event had to occur AND why its not happening could not have occurred.  Philosophers who think we need contrastive explanations of human choices believe that to understand why a person A-ed, we must explain why the person A-ed rather than not-A-ed.  Critics of libertarianism such as Thomas Nagel argue that because libertarian choices are explainable at most only in the TI sense and not contrastively, such choices are not fully explainable.  Nagel objects that if a choice is undetermined, then a TI explanation might

   explain either choice in terms of the appropriate reasons, since either choice would be intelligible if it occurred.  But for this very reason it cannot explain why the person [chose in favor of the action for the pro-reasons rather than against the action for the con-reasons.]  It cannot explain . . . why one of two intelligible courses of action, both of which are possible, occurred. (1986, 116)

   The libertarians Carl Ginet (1995), Robert Nozick (1981), Robert Kane (1996), and Randolph Clarke (1992) argue that their critics' demand for contrastive explanations is question-begging, because only deterministic explanations are contrastive: By demanding deterministic explanations of free choices their critics are ruling out libertarian free will by fiat.      Libertarians are correct to note that it would be question begging of their critics to assume that our psychological states must cause our choices in order for the connection to be good enough to support moral responsibility.  (Of course, if the critics of libertarianism argue for this premise, they are not guilty of begging the question.  The boundary between assumption and argument is sometimes unclear.)  Libertarians err, however, to the extent that they use that correct point as license for ignoring the need specify and argue for some degree of real metaphysical connection.  Libertarians should not let the fact that assuming deterministic relations would be cheating blind them to their need to argue for their idea of what the real connection should be.

   The thing to note is that even mentioning the two types of explanations risks misdirection.  Remembering (SQ), the key issue in the free will problem is the degree of the metaphysical connectedness between our psychological states and our choices.  This is not the philosophy of science issue of what gives an informative explanation for the purposes of physics or the social sciences.  The answer to that question depends on our interests and what we think the various sciences are or should be all about.  This, of course, is a very large issue.  But any answer we give to the question about scientific explanation is tangential to (SQ).  Explanation is entirely a linguistic matter.  If the truth of contrastive explanations logically implies deterministic metaphysical connections, then there is some relation between explanations and metaphysics.  This does not mean, however, that talking about explanatory relations can stand proxy for talking about metaphysical relations.  Thus, it would be confused for libertarians to suppose that science's endorsement of TI explanations, to the extent it occurs, validates the evaluative judgment that an indeterministic relation between our reasons and our choices is adequate to support moral responsibility.

   Here is a criticism of using TI explanations as a proxy for addressing (SQ) that I have used before (Double 1996, 74-75).  Suppose that as Hamlet decides whether to avenge his father's murder he is monitored by a very powerful demon who has the power to deactivate the parts of Hamlet's brain that produce his reasons for both choices.  Just as Hamlet's reasons for refraining begin to get the upper hand, the demon deactivates those reasons, and, with only his other reasons left standing, Hamlet opts for the murder.  Anyone who thinks that the notions of free will and moral responsibility make sense would say that Hamlet is neither.  For left to his own devices, Hamlet would have refrained; if anyone is morally responsible for the murder, the demon is.

   Nonetheless, Hamlet seems to satisfy Ginet's TI requirements that free agents' reasons match their actions (1995).  Hamlet also seems to satisfy Kane's (1995) more elaborate conditions for responsibility.  Kane argues that an agent enjoys dual-rationality for a choice just in case:

   the agent (r1) has reasons for doing so (whichever occurs), (r2) does it for those reasons, (r3) does not choose (for those reasons) compulsively, and (r4) believes at the time of choice that the reasons for which it is made are in some sense the weightier reasons (1995, 126).

Because Hamlet satisfies this account, we (and Hamlet) can tell a plausible teleological intelligibility story about his motivations that make his choice understandable.  But due to the demon's handiwork, such stories are mere narratives (incorrect attributions) in the sense of being handy fictions we tell ourselves in order to make our lives more sensible to us (Nisbett and Ross, 1980).  If we stay focused on (SQ) we will see that teleological intelligibility is a red herring.  Losing sight of (SQ) allows libertarians to take the question of explanation as a surrogate for the real issue.

   A referee for this journal notes that Ginet and Kane may be treating teleological intelligibility as a necessary condition for libertarian free choices, not as a sufficient one.  Thus, even if the Hamlet-example shows that a TI explanation is not sufficient to guarantee free will, their accounts are not necessarily impugned.  I find that defense unpersuasive.

   First, libertarians need to specify what they think would be sufficient for free choices.  Caginess in specifying one's theory is real misdirection.  (In Kane's defense, in The Significance of Free Will (1996) he makes suggestions that go beyond his account of dual-rationality cited above.)  Second, and far more important, I believe that libertarians are using teleological intelligibility to support their claim that indeterministic relations between our prior psychological states and our choices are good enough for a degree of freedom that produces moral responsibility.  Indeed, I think that any libertarian account has to avail itself of teleological intelligibility: "Don't you critics see that our ability to offer intelligibility explanations of libertarian choices shows that such choices are reasonable; this makes those choices good enough to support moral responsibility?"  The only question is whether TI explanations are being treated as a justification or as a smoke screen.

   Consider this dilemma.  Either TI explanations are being offered to justify the libertarian claim that indeterministic relations are good enough for moral responsibility or they are not.  If they are so offered, then the Hamlet example shows that they are inadequate, and libertarians must look elsewhere to support their answer to (SQ).  If they are not being offered as justification, then the whole idea of TI explanations is transparently irrelevant to the free will problem, i.e., is misdirection.  Either way, libertarians need to look elsewhere if they hope to support an answer to (SQ). 

   I find an irony in libertarian interest in TI explanations.  Most libertarians start out being very concerned about the nature of the metaphysical connection between reasons and choices.  As we have seen with the Consequence Argument, libertarians strenuously object to deterministic connections.  But when libertarians offer TI explanations as a surrogate for talking about the metaphysical connection in their own positive accounts, they turn the free will problem from a metaphysical issue into something looser and more attitudinal.  By making free will a product of narrative, libertarians give it away.  Free will becomes a thing we can secure by choosing to talk about human actions in a certain way, not a thing that exists due to some intrinsic quality of the choices themselves.  As a non-realist about free will, I endorse such a view, (Double, 1991; 1996), but one would scarcely expect libertarians to champion such a doctrine.

7.    Non-Misdirected Approaches: Objectivist Answers

   Non-misdirected answers to (SQ) would say: "This is the connection between our antecedent psychological states and choices needed to secure moral responsibility, and here is why that connection is required."  We have seen that some philosophers who endorse free will are tempted into misdirection.  There are also clear examples of philosophers who keep their eyes on (SQ) and are pessimists who believe we do not in fact enjoy free will due to determinism (hard determinists) or who cannot see how we could enjoy free will whether our choices are caused or not (no-free-will-either-way theorists).

   Taking the latter first, Galen Strawson (1986) believes he has a good grasp of what the connection between our prior psychological states and responsibility-warranting choices.  According to Strawson, we would have to be truly responsible for the principles we use in making deliberate choices.  But to be truly responsible for those principles, we must consciously choose them.  This, in turn, requires that we rely on further principles, which have to be consciously chosen on the basis of other principles, ad infinitum.  Thus, according to Strawson, whether we are determined or not, we cannot meet the objective requirement of being truly responsible on pain of having to complete an infinite regress of choices of principles.  The determinist Ted Honderich (1993) also believes he has a clear grasp of what we need in order to vindicate the type of freedom that underpins moral responsibility. Honderich is equally sure that determinism prevents us from meeting those conditions.  Bruce Waller (1990) makes a similar case that determinism destroys our moral responsibility.

   Whatever the ultimate plausibility of their arguments, all three thinkers address (SQ) directly.  These thinkers believe that: (1) being morally responsible is itself a sensible idea, (2) it makes sense to ask what the degree of connectedness between our psychological states and our choices needs to be for free agents to be morally responsible, and (3) due to determinism (Honderich and Waller) or due to the impossibility of creating ourselves ex nihilo (Strawson), these conditions cannot be met.

8.    Non-Misdirected Approaches: Subjectivist Answers

   I want to note a final non-misdirected position, subjectivism.  (SQ) requires a moral judgment.  If we are subjectivists with respect to moral judgments per se, we will believe that this question has no objective answer.  We would regard any 'feelings' that deterministic or indeterministic connections can support moral responsibility as mere feelings that are incapable of being true.  So, if we think that moral questions lack objectively true answers, we will think likewise for (SQ).  Any sort of metaethical subjectivism will suffice for this purpose: that of Hume, Ayer (1952), Mackie (1977), or Harman (1977).

   If we are subjectivists regarding (SQ), we may elect to go in either of two ways regarding our applications of the moral term "moral responsibility" (Double, 1996A).  This is similar to the two different ways we may move regarding the application of "right" and "good" once we adopt the general subjectivist line in metaethics.  We might take our metaethical subjectivism to undermine our ability to ascribe moral terms, because there are no moral truths that underpin those ascriptions.  On the other hand, we might continue to apply moral terms with full force and no hesitation, even though we believe that there are no moral truths.

   Likewise, in the application of the term "moral responsibility," we might take our subjectivism to weaken our application of the term.  I call this reaction sheepish subjectivism, because such subjectivists feel embarrassed when they apply terms they believe to be subjective.  On the other hand, we might insist on applying "moral responsibility" with just as much vigor as any libertarian does, our subjectivism not withstanding.  I call this strident subjectivism, because these subjectivists feel no embarrassment about using subjective words with their full emotional force.  On grounds of internal consistency, subjectivists cannot argue that anyone makes any error --moral, logical, or psychological -- by attaching either the sheepish or strident interpretation to subjectivism.  By subjectivist lights, there CAN be no answer to this.

9.    Conclusion

   I have argued that if we keep focused on the justification of moral responsibility, we have to conclude that several influential contributions to the free will literature miss the point.  Among the theories examined, three that are not misdirected (hard determinism, no-free-will-either-way theory, and sheepish subjectivism) are pessimistic in their conclusions.  These theories also are in the minority among philosophers who write on the free will issue.  What does this show?  The lesson may be simply that looking at the free will issue in terms of (SQ) is confused in some way that I do not recognize.  On the other hand, the lesson may be that even philosophers do not like to end up with pessimistic conclusions and will do sly things to avoid them.  If the latter is true, realizing it may help us to understand philosophy itself a little better (Double, 1996).


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This paper was originally published in the American Philosophical Quarterly, July 1997, vol. 34, no. 3. See Richard Double's books, included in the bibliography above, for amplification.

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