Fairness and free will (1)

The concept of what is “fair” causes trouble all the way through moral and political philosophy, and even in the free will debate. Here is an argument against the existence of free will, based on a notion of fairness:

P1. We have free will only if we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.
P2. We do not deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions in circumstances where such praise or blame is unfair.
P3. Praise or blame for our actions is unfair unless we are causally responsible for our relevant actions all the way down.
P4. We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.
C1. Praise or blame for our actions is always unfair. (From P3. and P4.)
C2. We never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From P2. and C1.)
C3. ~(We sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions. (From C2.)
C. We do not have free will. (From P1. and C3.)

You can question whether the step at C3. is really needed, and you might want to rephrase something in the above to make sure this is all able to be represented in your favourite system of propositional calculus. However, at the end of the day you’ll find that it’s a deductively valid argument. So the only question is whether you accept its premises – if you do, you are intellectually committed to accepting the conclusion.

You’ll come across arguments that seem to go something like this (either expressly or implicitly), whether in the formal literature on the subject or in informal discussions on the internet and elsewhere. So, should we deny the existence of free will, based on something like this argument? (By all means, offer your improved version of it.)

Before we get to that, note a couple of points. The argument does not proceed straight from: “The world is deterministic” to “We don’t have free will.” It doesn’t even move, in a more sophisticated way, straight from: “The world is a mix of determinism and randomness” to “We don’t have free will.” That seems to be an advantage. It does not simply beg the question against theories that are compatibilist about determinism and free will (or about “a mix of determinism and randomness” and free will). Rather, it offers richer (purported) insights into how we understand free will, and if we accept these (purported) insights we might then be intellectually compelled to reject compatibilist approaches.

Conversely, note that the argument depends very much on a philosopher’s conception of free will. That may also be a strength. Philosophers are better placed than most to understand how free will has been conceived of in philosophical debate over the years and centuries. For example, they may be more familiar with the literature than scientists. If the argument shows that we lack free will, as thus understood, that is an important outcome.

Nonetheless, there may be other conceptions of free will that are not caught by the argument. What if it turns out that, when ordinary people who are not philosophers claim to have free will, they actually mean (and convey to each other) something that is rather vague and messy? Perhaps one of its primary components is merely a denial of fatalism. Or perhaps it is a denial of both fatalism and any related doctrines that involve our experienced choices being bypassed or overridden, so as to lack causal efficacy. For example, epiphenomenalism would have such an effect, even if it’s not a theory that the folk are specifically familiar with. If, as things turn out, that is really what ordinary people are trying to convey when they use the (perhaps inapposite) term “free will”, then they might not accept P1, at least not without a lot of caveats, qualifications, etc. For them, P1. might miss the point.

That said, P1. does sound rather plausible (doesn’t it?), so there is much to explore if somebody wants to reject it while also claiming that human beings have free will in some interesting sense. It seems to me that there is a lot more to be said here, but I’ll leave it for another time.

P4. is a crucial premise. It is basically a way of denying that we have libertarian free will, though again there is more to be said. Note, however, that the argument as a whole is not an argument against libertarian positions, as libertarians are likely to deny P4. Against them, I am assuming that P4. is true, and I’d support it with arguments about the world being a mix of determinism and randomness in a way that seems to preclude, if not free will (after all, there are accounts of free will that are compatible with this as far as it goes), at least ideas of ultimate self-determination and the like. The argument, then, would need to be supplemented with some further argument for P4. before it could persuade a free-will libertarian. As the argument stands, without that supplementation, it begs the question against libertarian positions on the free will question.

The drift of the argument, then, is that we cannot reject ideas of ultimate self-determination and the like while also maintaining the existence of anything that ought to be called “free will”.

So compatibilist ideas are not being rejected in P4., taken by itself. The argument is supposed to persuade compatibilists to become incompatibilists – the question is not begged against compatibilism.

Where, then, does the argument go wrong? Perhaps some compatibilists will argue that P1. is beside the point or even false, because it is not getting at what is really bugging the folk when they talk about free will (as evidenced in cultural history and contemporary popular culture). In that case, they may criticise much of the contemporary discussion of free will by analytic philosophers for having lost contact with what was bugging ordinary people in the first place. I feel some sympathy for this, as, perhaps, is evident over here, but much work would need to be done before we could be confident about this approach one way or the other.

I’ll set that aside. Meanwhile, I think an equally troubling problem arises with P3. Frankly, I see no reason at all to accept this premise. Nonetheless, it appears to have intuitive appeal for many people and to enjoy some popularity. In my next post, I’ll focus squarely on P3., asking whether we should accept it and the conception of fairness that it implies.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I’d have to think this out more before settling on any kind of definitive statement, but, for a start I object to the use of “praise” and “blame” as identifiable with “right” and “wrong”. It seems to me and always has that “praiseworthy” and “blameworthy” are gratuitous, indulgent and flattering in the sense of “manipulative” and perhaps “insincere”. The value of a good act is intrinsic to the act itself. We do what is right because it is better in a general way or particular instance. It is reductionist to say there is no free will, that everything is predetermined and that we are nothing but the neurons and synapses in our brains and the organization of our genes. It is meaningless also in that it is impossible and will remain impossible to prove. Obviously, we can’t do everything, or some particular things like flying by flapping our arms, but the concept of free will, more or less, is fundamental to any human organization. In determining guilt (for our protection in the sense of limiting harm and also in the sense of maintaining our humanity) we have to factor in particular personal predilections, and experience or socialization. That is a different thing from making a quantum leap into absolute determinism. The latter position implies a complete knowledge of the universe -sheer arrogant delusion.

  2. Charles Sullivan

    I look forward to how P3 is mistaken, but I imagine it has to do with “all the way down” whatever that means.

  3. “P4. We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.”

    To me, this statement doesn’t just deny “libertarian” free will, it denies all free will completely. Then, all the other statements and references to fairness become superfluous.

    Maybe I don’t understand what you mean by “free will”. Please can you define it and, in particular, say how your definition of free will differs from libertarian free will and why your definition isn’t just a restatement of P4.

  4. Fairness and free will (2) | Talking Philosophy - pingback on January 8, 2013 at 4:15 am
  5. Yes what is meant by “All the way down”? Does it mean a chain of causation beginning at the first event occurring in reality; maybe The Big Bang?

  6. Julian

    I don’t myself think talk of ‘free will’ is useful.

    But several philosophers have suggested that all ‘free will’ could possibly mean is ‘the freedom to do what you will’ (we’re in the realm of patent nonsense if we talk of ‘the freedom to will what you will’). You’ll find something like this notion of free will in Hobbes and Hume and many other philosophers besides.

    How widespread compatibilist conceptions of ‘free will’ are amongst the general population remains an open question. But it is not uncommon to hear people distinguishing between a criminal act committed by an agent that is in full accordance with their desires and an act committed under severe duress by saying the latter was not done ‘of their own free-will’. And I’ve yet to see evidence from experimental philosophy that shows ordinary people are generally committed to the libertarian version of ‘free-will’ asserted to obtain in the doctrines of most (but not all) varieties of Christianity. (It also remains unclear that just because theologians have often equated ‘free will’ with some plainly incoherent notion, scientifically-informed non-theists need do so.)

    As I say, I don’t myself think talk of free will is useful. But plainly people have used, and do use, ‘free will’ to mean something that is not inconsistent with the claim that “We are never causally responsible for our actions all the way down.” It seems sensible for Russell to acknowledge this.

  7. “You’ll find something like this notion of free will in Hobbes and Hume”

    Hmm… that was a rather careless thing to say.

    Roughly I think Hobbes thought acts were free if they were done in accordance with what was most desired. His own views on what ‘the will’ is deserve attention. (Generally some attention to the question of what is meant by ‘the will’ seems to warranted in discussions of free-will). But I don’t think he thought ‘the will’ as he conceived of it could be sensibly called ‘free’. He was famous (at that time infamous) for advocating necessitarianism and denying libertarian free-will. Hume, very roughly speaking, followed him in this regard. But though Hume is thought to have propounded a very influential statement of a “compatibilist” position, his views, along with Hobbes’, deserve proper exposition (certainly if their names are going to be dropped).

    In any case, I think the basic point stands, not all philosophers equate ‘free will’ with ‘libertarian free will’ and it’s not at all clear that the general population is committed to libertarian free will – and I think Russell is right to acknowledge that.

  8. Jim, I agree. It makes sense to use the term “free will” in some ordinary contexts, where we have in mind an alternative. “Did the hostage do it of his own free will [or was he coerced]?” It’s the existence of this implied alternative that gives the question its meaning. Philosophers use the term in a way that deprives it of context, and so deprives it of meaning. As Wittgenstein might put it, this is a case of language “going on holiday”.

    Experimental philosophers sometimes provide context, by asking respondents questions about a specific scenario. But that makes the answers inapplicable to the context-free question, “Do we have free will?”. I recall reading one of Eddy Nahmias’s papers, about an experiment in which respondents were asked whether, in a particular scenario, the agent had acted “of his own free will”. Note the word “own”. When philosophers ask their usual context-free questions about free will, they typically don’t use the word “own”. I think this (among other things) signals that the term is not being used in the same way in each case.

    I would add that the ordinary use of the term has potential explanatory and predictive value. For example, knowing whether someone acted because he was coerced may tell us how he will act in other similar situations. The philosophical usage has no such value. Deciding whether we have philosophical free will is not going to help improve our explanations and predictions.

  9. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Ob4c_iLuTw

    In this discussion on free will, with Dennett, Coyne, Rosenberg and Massimo Pigliucci, among others, all of them, even the compatibilists, agree that the term “free will” is not useful, as Jim says above, and suggest alternatives, for example, “morally competent volition” (as I recall)

  10. Hi Richard,

    The meaningfulness of ‘free will’ talk in ordinary contexts does indeed seem to depend on there actually being cases where acts are done ‘of one’s own free will’ and contrasting acts that aren’t. I think it’s very useful that you’ve drawn that out explicitly and clearly. I think you’re right to say experimental philosophy hasn’t shown us much as yet. And I certainly think you have some warrant to wonder if the philosophical problem of ‘free-will’ has not arisen because language has ‘gone on holiday’.

    On a not unrelated note, I’ve tracked down the source of part of what I was saying to a conversation between Bryan Magee and Quine, where the latter says:

    “Clearly we have free will. The supposed problem comes of a confusion, indeed a confusing turn of phrase. Freedom of the will means that *we* are free to *do* as we will; not that our will is free to will as it will, which would be nonsense. We *are* free to do as we will, unless someone holds us back, or unless we will something beyond our strength and talent. Our actions count as free insofar as our will is a cause of them. Certainly the will has its causes in turn: no one could wish otherwise. If we thought wills could not be caused, we would not try to train children… you would not try … to deter criminals.”

    I first read this a couple of decades ago, and I think it must have ‘stuck’.

    The other influence on my thinking would have to be Patricia Churchland, who has a nice little piece on ‘free will’ here:


  11. Argh!

    Free will, deserve, actions – so many terms that may be varyingly defined!

  12. Interesting read. P3 seems absurd. Also, I don’t know many people who think the causal bucks for actions stop wholly or entirely at individual humans (or other species, ftm).

    We all stop the buck whenever the “good” of praise or blame outweighs the “bad” of taking more time and energy to sift through causal chains of evidence… but I think “the folk” realize that even very distinct buck-stoppage (e.g. a judge’s sentence) isn’t an ultimate account of every extenuating circumstance. People understand that courts aren’t perfect and that they merely produce the best approximation of justice possible given the constraints of time, evidence, procedure, personality quirks, etc.

    I don’t know why “compatibilism” or “incompatibilism” should exist given that only absurd “libertarian” free will is incompatible with causality. I think the more sensible distinction would be “those who believe in libertarian free will” and “everybody else” (with most people being in the “everybody else” category).

    I don’t think “free” is the appropriate word to use when discussing the will. Compatibilists seem to think free will means something like “I can do whatever is possible for a human of my configuration to do” and I find that very agreeable but it is more about constraint than freedom (those constraints being the laws of physics, a human form, the genetic lottery, the circumstances of one’s birth and life, etc).

  13. P1 and P3 seem to be circular arguments.
    Also, stating a premise does not necessarily make it so. 🙄

  14. What makes P2 differ (non-trivially) from:

    We do not deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions in circumstances where such praise or blame is undeserved.

    Doesn’t it amount to the same thing (i.e. not very much)?

    And if we can replace ‘unfair’ with ‘undeserved’ in P3, doesn’t this make P2 redundant?

    Just wondering…

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