Advanced Search

I've heard there are people in philosophy called "action theorists" who think

I've heard there are people in philosophy called "action theorists" who think that action is always the product of one's own beliefs and desires. This view of action seems to call into question our free will. I know that I don't choose my desires and it really doesn't seem like I choose my beliefs either (e.g. I can't just choose to disbelieve that the earth revolves around the sun). So, if action is just the product of beliefs and desires, and I can't choose those, what room is left for me to choose my actions?

This is a case of dividing questions. Whether our actions are ultimately free or not, we perform actions. I'm performing one right now: I'm responding to your question. You performed an action when you asked your question. There are various issues about just what sorts of things count as actions, how actions are related to intentions, whether a reason for acting also counts as a cause of the action and so on. These questions come up whether or not there's such a thing as free will.

Whether I choose my actions in some ultibuck-stopping sense, I do choose them in various proximate senses. Going to the food co-op for lunch is an action; so is going to the sandwich shop instead. I might pick the co-op because I know they're serving vegan tacos today, and I like the way they make those. Most of us make choices like that every day, even if those choices are ultimately determined in a way that means the actions aren't really free.

If you'd like to get a better sense of what the philosophical study of action amounts to, you might have a look at this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Why don't determinists believe, at least partially, in the notion of free will?

Why don't determinists believe, at least partially, in the notion of free will? If all events are simply outcomes of antecedent choices and events, wouldn't my decisions now affect me, to some degree, in the future? Thanks for considering this question, as rudimentary as it may seem.

Many philosophers believe in both determinism and the existence of free will. Even more philosophers accept at least the compatibility of determinism and free will: they're known as 'compatibilists' (see this link). Some philosophers go so far as to say that free will requires determinism: see this link. Accepting determinism doesn't by definition imply any particular stand on the existence of free will. That's why the term hard determinist is reserved for those who deny the existence of free will because they accept determinism.

You may also want to look at these questions recently answered on this website: 5408; 5397; 5349; and 5178.

First, I want to clarify that indeterminism is there exists no fact to the

First, I want to clarify that indeterminism is there exists no fact to the matter about future events. It is different than saying that the future is extremely hard to predict. In other words, some say that a coin flip in indeterministic. However, assuming that all particles (atoms, and molecules, etc) behave in mathematically predictable ways, then an omniscient being, knowing the physical properties of all relevant matter (the coin, air current, force of flip, etc) should be able to predict the outcome. Therefore, a simple coin flip is not evidence of indeterminism, because its out come is theoretically (though not practically) possible to determine. Is this a correct way to interpret the view? Second, where do indeterminist think that indeterminism can come from, given the standard view that all matter follows predictable laws of physics?

I don't work on these things myself, but I'll make one point quickly. Nowadays, it isn't at all obvious that you could predict what will happen when the coin is flipped if you knew all the relevant physical facts about the present, for the simple reason of quantum indeterminacy. It may be that the current physical facts make it overwhelmingly likely, say, that the coin will land heads. But quantum mechanics tells us that it is possible, still, that, when you flip the coin, it will turn into a dove and fly away, let alone that it will land tails. So many people think that physics itself speaks against determinism, not in favor of it. Not everyone, mind you, but plenty of people.

Compatiblism is attractive because it finds room for human freedom in a

Compatiblism is attractive because it finds room for human freedom in a deterministic world. But objections that compatiblism is evasive or incoherent strike me as persuasive. Setting aside the indeterministic defense of free will, how might the hard determist endorse the claim that humans generally do bear moral responsibility for their actions? Or would the hard determinist have to bite this bullet and conclude that moral responsibility is illusory if we have no free will?

I like Stephen's answer, but I think you ARE asking about the hard determinist -- you're convinced by hard determinism about free will (i.e. tht determinism rules out freedom, not (directly) that it rules out moral responsibility), and you're worried about having to give up moral responsibility. But I suppose a lot rides on how one defines moral responsibility -- I don't think it's somehow intrinsic to the concept that we have to have freedom in the indeterminist way in order to be morally responsible. Dennett, for example, makes pretty powerful arguments that we don't and really shouldn't care about whether we 'could have done otherwise' generally speaking -- see Elbow Room. Now you could use that point to defend compatibilist accounts of freedom -- we're free despite determinism's being true -- and then hold that moral responsibility requires freedom. But since you are persuaded against compatibilism (though I hope you've read Dennett...), why exactly couldn't you hold that moral resopnsibility does not require freedom after all? That is, use Dennett's arguments to develop a general account of moral responsibility independent of whether we 'could have done otherwise,' and cut out the freedom middle man altogether? (You might also read Frankfurt's accounts of moral responsibility as well -- lots of literature there.)

hope that's useful --

ap

Is there a philosophical similarity between what one can't do because it's

Is there a philosophical similarity between what one can't do because it's morally wrong, what one can't do because it is contrary to one's own aims, and what one can't do because the laws of physics prevent it? Does philosophy have something to say about these various uses of the same word that we find in several languages?

To me it seems that the use of the word "can't" and its meaning is the same in all three settings (moral, prudential and physical). "Can't" means there's a contradiction in saying that you do the thing you are said not to be able to do. But the contradiction does not appear without the addition of the "laws" or principles of ethics, or the statement of what one wants, or the laws of physics. There is one exception to this principle. "Can't" in logic and logic-derived fields asserts a contradiction without any body of auxiliary propositions. 'I can't lift 1000kg' means that given the facts of my strength and some facts of physics, there is a contradiction in saying that I lift 1000kg.

Should I be free to sell my freedom?

Should I be free to sell my freedom? It seems that from a libertarian perspective, I should be even though I should own my self. But a problem I have with this view is that we can, and often do, make arguably irrational decisions that will inhibit my future capacities as a person. To demonstrate using a small example, it would be better for me to eat an apple rather than a cake but I still choose the cake. Should I be allowed to do this for things as important as my own autonomy. e.g consenting to a contract that binds me to my labourer for life in exchange for shelter and food? Or is the moral responsibility on the employer to not exploit me?

Very interesting!

I suppose there are some libertarians who think that taking individual liberty seriously should permit you to go so far as to be able to sell yourself irrevocably into slavery to a master. Indeed, as some libertarians insist on persons having the right to take their own lives (self-killing or suicide), it may not be easy to avoid a slippery slope in which persons can do anything they wish (so long as it is not compromising the well being of others and meets other, base-line moral requirements). In that sense, you may be free to rationally or irrationally eat and work as you like. But for those who prize autonomy and self-determination as a great good, there will be resistance to think that "anything goes." Someone from that perspective, may well claim that contexts in which you are exploited involves serious wrong-doings on behalf of employers or contractors. From this vantage point, it may be understandable that you would "sell" your freedom in order to safeguard the more fundamental good of life itself, but those who forced you into such a situation would be found to be profoundly guilty of violating the good and right of your self-respect and the good of your freedom.

There are many questions and answers here about free will and its importance for

There are many questions and answers here about free will and its importance for moral responsibility, and about how free will is consistent with the scientific view of the world. I would like you to consider the idea that even if there is free will, many human actions are anyway caused by circumstances, and we should try to refrain from blaming people. It is known that when economy goes down, crime rates increase. Violent criminals were often victims and spectators of violence in their childhood. Child molesters were often sexually abused when they were children. Religious terrorists were born and brought up among followers of their religion and were often led to terrorism by people around them. Of course, many people experienced more or less the same circumstances and didn't become criminals, but that's easy to say when you're on the right side of statistics, isn't it? And circumstances are never really the same. I know a 5-year old boy at my daughter's pre-school who doesn't seem to be growing properly...

You're right: many questioners have asked about free will, moral responsibility, and their consistency with a scientific view -- determinism -- that sees the world as governed by deterministic natural laws. These topics are important philosophically and have serious practical implications.

A minority of the philosophers who specialize in these topics (see this link) say that deterministic natural laws would rule out free will and moral responsibility: they're incompatibilists. Some of those incompatibilists also accept determinism -- they're hard determinists -- and therefore they say that no one ever acts freely and no one is ever morally responsible. According to hard determinists, President Obama is no more responsible, morally -- and is no more blameworthy -- for any of his most carefully planned decisions than is an addict who assaults someone while whacked-out on PCP. They say that determinism by itself rules out moral responsibility and blameworthiness, regardless of particular circumstances.

The examples you give in your question contain many persuasive details. But notice that those details are relevant only if hard determinists are wrong. So the particular case you make for not blaming the agents you describe presupposes that hard determinism is false; otherwise, the details you give wouldn't matter. But presumably the details you give do matter, or at least it's the hard determinist's burden to show that they don't.

I reject hard determinism, as apparently you do too, but I agree that not everyone who intentionally causes harm always deserves blame for it, including in some of the cases you describe. However, I don't think the lesson to draw is that "we should try to refrain from blaming people" ever, or in general. I think the lesson to draw is that the details matter, as you suggest. But again they matter only if hard determinism is false.

Is libertarian free will a necessary assumption for any decision theory because

Is libertarian free will a necessary assumption for any decision theory because “one has to suppose that one has a choice to make”? It seems to me that decision theories needn't rely on the formulation that agent1 can x or ~x regardless of preceding states-of-affairs, but that it can equally well rely on agent1 x'ing because state-of-affairs1 determines that agent1 x's or agent1 ~x's because state-of-affairs2 determines that agent1 ~x's. The point is not whether the agent can make that decision with exactly the same preceding state-of-affairs, but whether the agent could make both decisions, however the decisions are brought about. My reason for this position is that if libertarian free will is a necessary assumption for any decision theory is correct, determinists should not make normative suggestions ever. One would suggest this perhaps, because they'd claim determinists cannot ever make normative suggestions coherently. I believe this is wrong because normative suggestions a determinist makes...

Like you, I don't see why rational decision theory must assume that agents have libertarian freedom. Indeed, if memory serves (it's been a while), Richmond Campbell argues that fundamental principles of rational decision theory rule out libertarian freedom on the part of the agent: 'Moral Justification and Freedom', Journal of Philosophy 85 (1988): 192-213.

I think you're right to emphasize that if there's a deterministic causal chain leading to an agent's choice, that chain can, and typically will, include the agent's rational deliberation about which choice to make.

It has been said that if there is human freedom, then we are responsible for our

It has been said that if there is human freedom, then we are responsible for our actions. By this, it seems natural to suppose that "given that there is no human freedom (let's just suppose for the sake of argument) then it would follow that we are not responsible for our actions." But this seems an instance of what is called the "fallacy of denying the antecedent". Is this really an instance of the fallacy or is it an exemption to the case because personally I don't see any error in the form of the argument.

In the form you've presented the claims, there would be a fallacy of denying the antecedent. If free, then responsible. Not free. So, not responsible.

But I don't think philosophers typically agree with the conditional claim, which says that having free will (or doing A freely) is sufficient for moral responsibility (or being responsible for A). And we should not agree with it. After all, I might freely decide to back my car out of the driveway and in doing so run over the sleeping cat I could not be expected to have seen. If so, I do not seem to be responsible (blameworthy) for killing the cat. There might be ways to fix up the terms, but there is likely an epistemic condition (a justified belief requirement) for responsibility that goes beyond the free will (or control) condition.

However, it is more plausible to say that moral responsibility (being responsible for A) requires free will (that one did A freely, or did some earlier action freely that one should have known would lead to A). So, if I am responsible for killing the cat, I must have free will and must have exercised it in such a way that led to my cat killing.

Suppose we accept: If one is responsible, then one has free will.

Then, by modus tollens (or denying the consequent--i.e., saying we lack free will), we validly conclude that one in not responsible.

Some people suggest that it is so implausible (and/or costly) to assert that humans are never ever responsible for anything at all (e.g., that no one deserves blame for anything) that we have good reason to question any argument (or premises) that concludes that no one has free will.

I'm interested in the issue of whether people would have moral responsibility

I'm interested in the issue of whether people would have moral responsibility under determinism. So if a person in a deterministic universe would happen to commit murder, some people would say that they are morally responsible for the action, and others would disagree. When I speak of "moral responsibility" here I'm thinking along the lines of whether the person would deserve blame and retributive punishment. (If it actually happened that we lived in a deterministic universe, I assume that we would have to hold people morally responsible in some sense for practical reasons. We would have to punish to protect society and to deter future crime; but some might give up on the idea of retributive punishment and see criminals rather as unfortunate victims of the blind process of nature.) I'm not expecting a solution to the question, "Would people be morally responsible under determinism?". Rather I'm going to ask: could the issue be a conflict of opposing moral principles that may just be forever unsolvable...

You asked: "Could the issue be a conflict of opposing moral principles that may just be forever unsolvable by rational argument? So maybe you just can't produce arguments that can 'bridge the gap' between the two sides, i.e., the arguments just don't exist that would have the rational force and traction against the other side." I don't see it as a conflict of opposing moral principles. I think each side sees itself as trying to work out the implications of our shared concept of moral responsibility. One side thinks that our shared concept requires indeterminism; the other side thinks it doesn't. Or maybe our shared concept is inconsistent in both requiring and not requiring indeterminism, or we have two distinct concepts of moral responsibility, but even that I wouldn't classify as a conflict of moral principles. In any case, I'm not pessimistic about the possibility of making progress in this debate. Indeed, I think we've made progress in the last several years and will continue to. The new field of experimental philosophy may offer some help in resolving it.

You also asked: "Do some moral disputes...come down ultimately to people holding differing instinctive moral principles that can't be proved or disproved?" Some moral disputes might fit that description, but I don't see the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate as fitting it, again because I don't see it as a moral dispute. I'd also distinguish between (1) resolving an issue beyond reasonable disagreement and (2) getting everyone on the losing side of a debate to agree that they've lost. (1) can happen without (2).

Pages