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Free Will

The New Argument About Freedom

Natasha Gilbert says out with the old arguments, and in with the new.

There has been a recent surge of interest in the old problem of free will. But away from time-worn debates over the questions ‘Are we free?’ and ‘Are we morally responsible?’ some fresh waters are at last in reach. As I will show, some progress can be made here by putting the age-old problem of determinism aside and by giving up the libertarian ghost. This will leave us open to asking new, clear and sensible questions in a debate that is surely close to everyone’s heart.

Traditionally, conflicting positions on free will have diverged and defined themselves according to the question: ‘Are free will and moral responsibility compatible with determinism’? It does seem that we are free to act, if our choice is not the result of external coercion and reflects our own desires, beliefs and deliberations. This is enough for ‘compatibilists’ to grant us moral responsibility for these actions and declare that free will is compatible with determinism.

However ‘libertarians’ are steadfast in their plea for persons to be truly deserving of praise and blame. If determinism is true then the situations in which we make our choices, and the desires and beliefs upon which we base them, are the inevitable result of chains of cause and effect starting long before our births. So in what sense can we be truly responsible for them? To secure the libertarian quest for moral responsibility it is required that a person is self-determined, rather than merely not physically determined by something else or the result of chance. But as Galen Strawson has demonstrated, any attempts at establishing this will lead to a self-defeating infinite regress.

Consider that a choice or free action must be done for a reason to be non-arbitrary. The reason can be in the form of principles, preferences or values. But if someone is responsible for their actions, they must act in accordance with principles, preferences or values they themselves have freely chosen: that is, one must be responsible for the preferences upon which one acts. The question must then arise, where do these preferences come from? In order to be responsible for our preferences, etc, they too must be chosen in a reasoned and conscious fashion. But for this to be the case, one would have to exist prior to that choice, with a certain set of preferences about how to choose one’s preferences in a reasoned and conscious fashion. And so it goes on. It seems then that being the sort of person one is, having the desires and beliefs one does, is something over which we cannot have ultimate control – it’s only the result of our upbringing, etc. And one’s life and all one does is an unfolding of non-self-chosen preferences. So ultimately speaking, one is not free in any meaningful sense. Determinism is not the problem with responsibility, then; rather, it’s the incoherence of the libertarian quest. As Strawson says, “True self-determination is impossible because it requires the actual completion of an infinite regress of choices and principles of choice” (Freedom and Belief, 1986, p.29).

What is striking about this is that since the argument didn’t appeal to determinism, it seems that the problem that has been the bane of the free will debate can be dispensed with. This realisation opens up a whole new avenue of investigation. Determinism is moot, but this does not mean that the issue of moral responsibility is also dispensed with. Rather the question becomes something like “Is moral responsibility compatible with the ultimate absence of libertarian free will?”

Strawson’s approach to this question is to take the same line as the hard determinist: he concludes that moral responsibility is impossible, and hence that it would be wrong to praise or blame anyone on account of his or her actions. In response, Professor Saul Smilansky, author of Free Will and Illusion (2000), claims that Strawson demonstrates the impossibility of libertarian free will, but not of moral responsibility; even though libertarianism is incoherent so that ultimate responsibility eludes us, there still remains the real and important compatibilist sense in which we are free to act and so can take responsibility for our actions. For the compatibilist, distinguishing between an action that was coerced and one that was conducted with autonomy is relevant to the way we should treat the agent. Consider Adam, Beryl and Cheryl. Adam steals something whilst Beryl does not. Cheryl also steals, but is a kleptomaniac. The hard determinist perspective hold all morally equal – as morally unresponsible. From the compatibilist perspective, however, since both Adam and Beryl were able to resist, yet only Beryl did, there are grounds for holding Adam responsible. However, since Cheryl is a born kleptomaniac, we have reason to distinguish her from Adam. Despite some potential ultimate injustice in holding Adam responsible and punishing him, to hold Cheryl responsible and punish her would be much more unjust. In fact, the failure of hard determinism in distinguishing between such cases shows its inadequacy.

It has been shown that determinism need no longer be our main concern in considering moral responsibility, since the problem over it arises whether determinism is true or false. The futile search for libertarian free will can also at last be laid to rest. I have tentatively suggested what seems the most fruitful avenue of investigation from this point: this is also Smilansky’s suggestion, to “start from the collapse that results from the realization of the absence of libertarian free will and its implications, and then reconstruct the free will related conceptual world on the basis of the shallower compatibilist resources” (from a personal correspondence).

A revolution is occurring in the debate on free will that requires the renouncement of instinctively-held ideals and beliefs. The first step is to renounce the idea that the central problem concerns determinism. This will in turn pave the way for the truth about libertarianism to be seen. Giving up libertarianism, however, isn’t a step to be taken lightly, since it encapsulates the kind of freedom we normatively think we have and need. The greatest obstacle therefore, is going to be whether people can live with the truth concerning free will.

© Natasha Gilbert 2016

Natasha Gilbert is a freelance journalist. She has an MSc in the Philosophy of Science from the London School of Economics.

Finding out more
• Galen Strawson, (1986) Freedom and Belief, Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0199247509
• Saul Smilansky, (2000) Free Will and Illusion, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0198250180

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