Fairness and free will (2)

In my previous post, I considered an argument against free will (let’s call it “the fairness argument”) along these lines:

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.)

As I indicated in the earlier post, you can quibble with this formulation if you like; however, the fairness argument, properly formalised is deductively valid.

I accepted P4. for the sake of argument, and in any event I think P4. is actually true. Beyond that, I engaged in a certain amount of fencing, some of which, I think, casts (serious) doubt on P1. Whatever you think of either P4. or P1., however, there seems to be a real problem with P3., and this turns on the nature of “fairness”. I actually see no reason at all to accept P3. – it does not strike me as intuitively compelling, or even appealing, or as something that could be given any decisive intellectual support. To be fair(!), though, something like it appears, at least from my reading and interactions, to be rather popular.

Part of the problem with P3. is that there’s a mystery about what “praise” and “blame” really amount to. Perhaps on some conceptions of these things (error theories about praise and blame), sentences that praise or blame are always false. To keep this simple, let’s stick with praise. What if, when we praise someone for an act, we are stating (perhaps among other things) that the act complied with some objectively binding standard? If no such objectively binding standards exist, it follows that we are always saying something false when we praise somebody.

Again, what if, when we praise someone for an act, we are saying (perhaps among other things) that the person is causally responsible, all the way down, for a good act? If no one is ever causally responsible for an act all the way down, it follows, again, that we are always saying something false whenever we praise somebody.

But what if, when we praise someone for an act, we simply mean that the act is a good one in the sense of one that has such properties as to tend, relatively efficiently, to bring about the sorts of consequences favoured by the people involved in the conversation? In that case, we might often say something that is simply true. There might also be non-cognitive content to our praise, such as an expression of approval, but that content cannot be true or false – and there is going to be an interesting question about how such non-cognitive content can be unfair. Perhaps it can be, but we’d need to explore some arguments to see whether this makes sense.

I suspect, meanwhile, that praise involves both more and less than any than this. E.g., when I praise someone for an act I might be saying not just that the act is good (in the sense discussed above) but that the person is good. I.e., the person’s performance of the act has provided me with evidence that she possesses certain dispositions of character (courage, kindness, honesty, or whatever they may be) such as to be a desirable person to have around: such as to tend to act in ways favoured by me and the other people involved in the conversation, etc., etc.

If this is what expressions of praise really amount to, and if something analogous applies to dispraise or blame, then there is nothing necessarily unfair about praising someone for an act for which she was not causally responsible all the way down. Indeed, the fact that the action flowed from the dispositional structure of her character might support my words of praise or blame. The action did not happen at random, but was, to some extent, caused by the person’s character (even if this also had causes).

There is a huge body of academic literature on the words “praise” and “blame”, and what they mean, but at this stage someone who wants to run the fairness argument is already in trouble. P3. depends on a highly controversial idea, perhaps far detached from the thoughts of the folk, of what it is to praise or blame people. Or so it seems.

That’s troublesome enough, but P3. also depends on a controversial idea of fairness. The idea actually seems rather vague. Its essence seems to be an absence of bias, favouritism, patronage, nepotism, hostility, “bad vibes”, etc., in situations where, first, we are allocating/withholding benefits, rights, penalties, etc., and, second, the situation is such that exercising bias, favouritism, and so on, is somehow socially inappropriate or “bad”.

So Alice is not acting unfairly if she favours Bella as her lover rather than Clarice, even if Clarice’s good qualities might exceed Bella’s from some supposedly objective viewpoint. In a situation like this, bias, favouritism, idiosyncratic feelings of liking or attraction, “good vibes’, etc., are permitted (or so we usually assume), and fairness does not even enter into the picture.

In certain other situations, we think that bias, favouritism, etc., are not appropriate, and these are the situations where questions about fairness arise. But what does “fairness” then require? Well, the requirements will vary from situation to situation, as will the justifications that support them. In some cases, the requirements and the justifications will be deeply contested. For example, we tend (don’t we?) to think it fair that a person who is on trial in the criminal courts, or who is being sued in the civil courts, be given an accurate idea of what is alleged against her before she has to answer it. She should not be denied this because of bias, favouritism, hostility toward her from the judge, or the like.

Again, we tend to think that parents should give their various children roughly equal opportunities for happiness and success in life over time, and that any blatant lapse from this is “unfair”. We don’t want a mother or father, or the combination, to show blatant favouritism to a particular child. However, a parent may normally show bias, favour, etc., toward her own child, vis-à-vis other people’s children.

In some familiar cases, things get more complicated. What if I am working out what rates of pay to give my employees? There may be a problem if I do this based on personal bias, favouritism, patronage, whim, nepotism, etc. But it does not follow that I should pay them all equally. Fine, so how should I pay them? Should I pay my employees on the basis of their respective developed skills; on the basis of the responsibility that they have willingly taken on within my enterprise; on the basis of their average or daily productivity, as individuals, compared to similar employees in the enterprise (which may bring in issues of diligence, industriousness, etc.); on the basis of what employees with similar skills, records, etc., are likely to be paid by other enterprises (within the same labour market); or some mixture of all this (in which case, how do I measure and weight these things?); or something else? These questions weigh heavily on the minds of wages negotiators, industrial arbitration tribunals, etc., and they often develop pay fixation principles that are of at least some local assistance.

So… if I praise you as having performed a good act, or as being a generally good (or morally virtuous) person, or for having certain good dispositions of character, or having made a good judgment, or anything of the kind, am I under any obligation to be fair? Well, perhaps these important judgments should not be made on the basis of whether or not I like you (or have a family connection with you, or some such thing). They should, perhaps, be based on general criteria that I would apply to others, irrespective of personal feelings, familial loyalties, or the like. But that does not tell me what criteria I should actually use!

I take it that a claim that I am, first, in a situation where fairness is relevant (I should not exercise bias, favouritism, etc.), and, second, that I should use certain specific criteria (not others) in handing out benefits and rewards, will require something like a utilitarian justification. Of course, in many circumstances there is much conventional wisdom that may be worth deferring to about when fairness is (and is not) relevant, and about what criteria should be used to make judgments and to grant benefits, apply penalties, etc. There may be some merit in not trying to review these from scratch, using explicit utilitarian criteria. Either way, to say that I acted fairly is more or less to say that I applied the criteria that were relevant (whatever they were), in a situation that called for them (i.e., in a situation where I was not entitled to act on bias, favouritism, etc.), and (if this has to be said separately) without distortion from my personal feelings toward an affected person, etc.

Nothing at all follows from this that I must praise or blame people only if I find virtue or fault with them all the way down. People can genuinely make mistakes, act badly, show poor judgment, evidence a vicious character – or the opposites of any or all of these – without being causally responsible for their actions, judgments, characters, etc., all the way down. When we appraise them, we act fairly if we apply appropriate standards to the facts in evidence, without being biased by whom we like or dislike, the wish we could help or hinder the individual, etc.

Whatever, exactly, the ideas of praising and blaming really amount to, it is not at all obvious that they can be done fairly only if the people being appraised were responsible all the way down for their actions, judgments, and characters. Accordingly, P3. is not an attractive premise at all… and hence the whole argument is in trouble.

I’d love to see a similar argument that does not (in the view of its author) fall prey to this problem.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Dianelos Georgoudis

    Discussions about free will quickly become complicated because most people, even some theists, try to fit our experience of free will with some entirely mechanistic view of physical reality. But at the very least we should be able to agree about what we mean by “free will”, and about what we mean by “personal responsibility” (or about praise or blameworthiness, which are the related concepts you here use).

    So, first of all, freedom of will is not freedom of actions. If they encase you in cement up to your nostrils you have very little freedom of action, but retain the whole of your freedom of will. And personal responsibility does concern itself with one’s actions but with one’s will. Thus I think that when you in P1 write about being “praised or blamed for our actions” you are already misusing language.

    Suppose somebody intends to kill an enemy of hers by pushing him in from of an incoming subway train. She stands behind her enemy and just before the train passes raises her arms and tries to push her enemy’s back. But at the last instance she is stopped from completing her murderous action by somebody else who restrains her arms. She will still be held responsible for attempted murder. It’s not her action that counts, but her *willing* to kill her enemy, which is made evident in her visible attempt to act.

    Now consider a different scenario. While standing behind her enemy and watching the approach of the incoming train, at the last moment she decides against pushing him, and moves away. Now she is not responsible of attempted murder, because even though she thought and prepared for it she did not in the end *will* the murderous action.

    Yet another scenario. While standing behind her enemy and watching the incoming train and before deciding to push or not to push him she suffers a heart attack, which causes her to fall, and by falling to push her enemy in front of the incoming train, thus killing him. Again, in this scenario we won’t hold her responsible of murder, because she did not *will* the action that led to his death, and could not avoid that action from happening. So here we see that personal responsibility exists only if one could have *willed* differently, and thus only if countercausal free will (or “libertarian free will”, or “free will” for short) exists. Only if we are “little gods” with some power over and beyond the previous state of the physical universe can we be held responsible for our choices. Of course such power does not fit with naturalism (even though it does not in fact contradict the physical sciences). Therefore on naturalism free will does not exist. But then on naturalism what we mean by “personal responsibility” does not exist either, and that’s that. For pragmatic reasons the naturalist may decide to speak of “free will” or of “responsibility” as if they meant something else from what they in fact do, and also hope that with time the meaning of these concepts in popular usage will change as to not create trouble for her metaphysical assumptions. But at least let’s be clear that this is what she is trying to accomplish. Because non-naturalists are not fooled by the charade.

  2. “We have free will only if we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.”

    This is a cheap and unrealistic definition of free will. Considering its function in language, I see the opposite of free will to be coercion, and both relate to the way in which motivation arises, not metaphysics

  3. My, that is certainly thought-provoking.

    I am uncomfortable with the idea of “fair.”

    Most people mean by fair, that he got some, she got some, but where is mine? It has a negative connotation, one of selfishness. I like to use the word deserving, and undeserving, because the connotation is that you have possibly earned something, that you worked for it, and you may have earned (or deserved it) it, and it would be unfair not to give it to you.

    What in life is fair? Only one thing I can see, we are all born, and have a chance, though not an equal chance to “grab the brass ring of success.”

    Our laws, are imperfect and are inherently unfair, unless you can “afford” fairness. Working for a holes isn’t fair, taking less than a living wage is unfair, having a child with cancer is unfair, etc. etc.

  4. There are is no acausal free will, of course, simply because there’s no such thing as ultimate cause.

    We are not the ultimate causes of our actions, but we still cause them. So we have volition.

    That’s all there is to it. Since we have volition, we probably should think carefully before we do anything though.

  5. Not knowing what you mean, please identify what logic process gets you to the declaration in the first paragraph. I certainly am in agreement with your last paragraph.

    Problem with mankind is that our reasoning processes are fallible, although we do the best we can. If our reasoning was infallible, we should unlikely have so many avenues of philosophical thought.

  6. Massimo puts it rather succinctly that humans have the greatest amount of volition among conscious creatures, but that doesn’t mean we have free will. If humans had infinite volition, then yes humans have ‘free will’, in the sense that we are free to make any choice that wouldn’t be determined by external factors, but since the human brain is a product of all previous causations we experienced in life, we only have finite volition. Are you free to choose with which we had no prior experience of? Would it be likely that a person – brought up in an impoverished neighborhood with an abusive dad, and an alcoholic mother – would hold regular thoughts that the world is peaceful, altruistic, and valuable? It would be very unlikely. It’s not impossible, because we undertand the idea of opposites, and if there’s sorrow, there’s also happiness etc. so a person can learn to go against the grain and be a successful adult even in such circumstances, but not because of free will, it’s because the person realizes there is a choice. And I contest that the idea that there is a choice is also determined by your personal experience through causation.

    Some people argue that if we think that we are just puppets and all just a product of nature, and have no choice, then of course the world would seem a little bit depressing, but we do have a choice, and it would essentially be our duty to instill an idea that the world would be a better place if we acted on altruism, cooperation, and compassion (I think we can all agree this would be a better world to live in). The idea that people are 100% completely free to think that they want to murder someone even with decades of growing up to believe in compassion, love, and empathy is preposterous (Unless of course the idea that if you murder people and garner fame is greater than living the rest of your life in prison – which is not a product of free will – but the fact that your experience of compassion isn’t as great as your experience of fame).

    In closing, I believe all human beings are capable of living a life of value and meaning in the sense that the world would be a better place if we treated each other fairly, kindly, etc. because we are conscious beings. We are capable of feeling empathetic, love, compassion, etc. (and science can tell us we are predisposed to these behaviors!), and it’s not until we grow older that these values can be skewed and swayed to a higher degree or lower degree.

  7. Re P3: It’s perhaps somewhat intuitive that since no one is ultimately self-made, their character and qualities are not deserved but simply given to them out of impersonal circumstances. Everyone is who they are as a matter of luck; there’s no fair (equal) distribution of personal qualities and advantages – life is unfair in this sense. In which case, if someone gets praise and other perks for being virtuous, loyal, hardworking, etc. we can see this as a manifestation and amplification of the original inequality or unfairness, so it’s perhaps unfair in this sense that they get praised (or blamed).

    On the other hand, praise and blame function as reinforcers that shape behavior we want to encourage or discourage, so it’s fair to apply them so long (as you point out) as the standards are applied equally and so long as they are applied to those who meet compatibilist criteria for being responsible agents, e.g., being reason-responsive, uncoerced, sane, etc. So long as we don’t suppose people ultimately *deserve* praise and blame in a contra-causal, causa sui sense (a sense which Dianelos thinks exists), then we can praise and blame as consequentialist good practice (and of course we’re naturally inclined to do so anyway).

    But seeing the (naturalistic) truth of P4, that we *aren’t* causally responsible all the way down, will help keep praise and blame in check, in line with the causal story showing that the individual is just one link in the chain of the behavior we want to shape. That is, our tendency to focus unlimited praise and blame solely on the individual as a response to virtue (hero worship) or wrong-doing (burn in hell) might get attenuated in favor of other or additional responses that take the wider causal story into account and that help to mitigate the unfairness of life.

    These issues come up in an exchange between me, Dennett and Bruce Waller on Waller’s book Against Moral Responsibility, http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerexchange.htm

  8. The notion of ‘fairness’ seems somewhat redundant in all this. What is ‘fair’ (in so far as it might be distinguished from what is ‘deserved’) seems to concern how one is treated relative to others (possibly it may be that one could get no less than one ‘deserves’ but still be treated ‘unfairly’). It’s a notion worthy of philosophical consideration that includes its connection to desert. But, in this context, why have a ‘fairness argument’ when you can have a shorter ‘desert argument’? Why not replace ‘unfair’ with ‘undeserved’ in P3 and ditch P2 as redundant? What is lost if one does so?

    If Russell says he finds something like this argument in the literature or general discussions then I trust that it is so. But it’s not at all obvious to me why anyone wanting to argue in something like the way he presents would want to bring in talk of ‘fairness’ if she is already leaning on ‘desert’.

  9. Jim:

    I agree with you that one could ditch p2 as redundant and replace “unfair” with “undeserved” in p3.

  10. P1 taken as a proper If-Then statement would be:
    “If we sometimes deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions, then we have free will.”

    The contrapostive of this statement that would also be true (if P1 is true) is:
    “If we don’t have free will, then we never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions.”

    This seems valid so far.

    However the C indicates the inverse of P1 which is not necessarily true.
    “If we never deserve to be praised or blamed for our actions, then we don’t have free will.”

    Therefore C is not necessarily true.

    I am also confused by the attempt to correlate, with any certainty, the truth of of a supposedly objective fact (free will or the lack of it) with subjective judgements (levels of blame or praise and whether either is deserved or not, or fair). Can this be done? If actions can be judged truly objectively, as a certain neuroscientist would have us accept, then praise and blame would be deservedly fair and cause problems with P2 and C2.

    The temporal order dictates that (free will/not free will) results in an action which results in a situation where subjective judgements of praise or blame may be made. Because of this it seems that neither free will nor its lack can be reverse-engineered with any certainty from blame or praise as the argument seems to attempt.

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