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.

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