Phil 101: Is Determinism Compatible with Free Will? (Part 2 of 2)

We were considering the Compatibilist proposal:

(C2) You do X freely iff:

  1. you do X, and
  2. doing X is what you want and choose to do (we still need this, to rule out cases of coercion), and
  3. if you had chosen to do something other than X, nothing would have prevented you, so you would have succeeded in doing that other thing

It was objected that this would count some people as free who, as they are, couldn’t have chosen any differently. (But if they had been different enough that they could choose differently, would have succeeded.) But the objector says, these people intuitively don’t seem to be free. So this proposal makes counter-intuitive claims.

A More Sophisticated Form of Compatibilism?

It looks, then, like acting freely requires more than we laid down in (C2), before. It’s not enough that you’re merely such that if you had chosen to do otherwise you would have done otherwise. That might be true even in a case where, intuitively, it was not in your power to choose to do otherwise. You might be choosing the way you do because you have a psychological obsession or addiction; or perhaps an evil scientist is causing you to choose in the way you do. In such cases, we wouldn’t want to say that you’re acting freely.

A more sophisticated form of Compatibilism accepts that criticism. It proposes the following:

(C3) You do X freely iff:

  1. you do X, and
  2. doing X is what you want and choose to do (as before), and
  3. if you had chosen to do something other than X, you would have succeeded in doing that other thing (as before), and
  4. if there were a good reason for you to act otherwise, you would have chosen to act otherwise

This account does rule out people who are unable to choose otherwise. Such people don’t count as acting freely, because they do not satisfy condition (d) of the account. They are not sensitive to reasons in the right way. It doesn’t matter what reasons the obsessive-compulsive, or the addict, or the scientist’s victim have for not doing X. They would still choose to do X anyway. X is the only choice they are able to make.

We’ve already seen that being causally determined to do X does not prevent one from satisfying conditions (b) and (c) of this account. Is being causally determined to do X also compatible with satisfying condition (d)? It seems that it is. For it may be that one is causally determined to do X because one is causally determined to have good reasons to do X. If one had been causally determined to have good reasons to do something else, instead, then one may have gone ahead and done that other thing. All that’s important, according to this Compatibilist, is that your choices are sensitive to and track your reasons. The mechanisms that produce those choices have to be reasons-responsive mechanisms. They have to be such that, if you had had different reasons, they would have produced different choices. If your choices are produced by reasons-responsive mechanisms, and you also satisfy conditions (b) and (c), then you do act freely, on this account. It is not necessary that your choices or actions be causally undetermined.

This theory sounds pretty good. It’s very sophisticated, and it avoids most of the problems that we’ve discussed so far. However, there are difficulties for it, too.

One difficulty is this. Not just any reasons-responsive mechanism will do. Suppose my choices are being caused by the neural manipulation of a benevolent scientist. This scientist always causes me to choose and act in the way that accords with the reasons I have. If there is a good reason for me to X, the scientist causes me to choose to do X. If there is a good reason for me to Y, the scientist causes me to choose to do Y. And so on. In this case, my choices are produced by a reasons-responsive mechanism, but I do not seem to be choosing or acting freely. Perhaps we can get around this problem by requiring that the reasons-responsive mechanism be located entirely inside the agent.

A second difficulty is this. On the current view, it sounds like I can act freely only if I always choose to do what I have good reason to do. I have to always choose to do “the right thing.” But if I’m free, can’t I also choose to do the wrong thing? Can’t I choose to do something which I recognize I don’t have good reasons to do? Sure, maybe that would be foolish or evil. But it does seem like it ought to be in my power. The current view says that such a choice would not be free, because it would not have been produced by a mechanism that responds to my reasons in the right way. But it’s hard to see why choosing to do the wrong thing has to be less free than choosing to do the right thing.

The Consequence Argument for Incompatibilism

There is an important argument that we have not looked at so far. This is an argument that the Incompatibilist uses. If this argument works, then we don’t have to bother with questions about how the Compatibilist analyzes words like “could have done otherwise.” This argument threatens to show that free will just can’t be compatible with Determinism, no matter how you analyze our words.

Some of our texts call this the Consequence Argument; others call it the Before You Were Born Argument.

The argument goes as follows:

If Determinism is true, then how we act today is the necessary consequence of the laws of nature and the way the world was before we were born. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born. And neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. We have no control over those things. And if it’s not up to us whether certain things happen, then neither is it up to us whether the consequences of those things happen.

If we have no control over the laws and the past, and they have the consequence that we will act a certain way, then we have no control over how we act. Hence, if Determinism is true, then it is not up to us how we act today.

This is called “the Consequence Argument,” because it appeals to the principle “If we have no control over certain things, then we don’t have control over the consequences of those things, either.” It is a very plausible argument.

There are things the Compatibilist can say in response, but those things are rather subtle and may not be convincing.