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Essays on Free Will and Moral ResponsibilityReview - Essays on Free Will and Moral Responsibility
by Nick Trakakis and Daniel Cohen (Editors)
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008
Review by Christian Perring
Mar 3rd 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 10)

One of the most interesting areas of contemporary philosophy is in free will and moral responsibility.  The debate is flourishing, with a flurry of important books and thriving debate in journal articles.  The philosophy group blog The Garden of Forking Paths has a list of significant books in the area, and gets good discussion.  Even though the question of free will is one of the longest-running in philosophy, recent debate has covered new ground, and the same is true for moral responsibility.  One of the reasons for this is that the area intersects with a wide range of others, in metaphysics, such as action theory and personal identity, experimental philosophy, applied ethics, meta-ethics, legal theory, and social and cognitive psychology. 

This collection contains essays by many of the best known names in the field, such as Derk Pereboom, Robert Kane, Michael McKenna, John Martin Fischer, and Saul Smilansky.  Several of the essays are available online: "Introduction," by Nick Trakakis and Daniel Cohen"Defending Hard Incompatibilism Again," by Pereboom, "Restrictivism is a Covert Compatibilism," by Neil Levy, in pre-publication form, "Moral Influence, Moral Responsibility," by Manuel Vargas, and in slightly earlier versions from the 2nd Online Philosophy Conference, "The Direct Argument: You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello." By John Martin Fischer, and "Some Further Thoughts on the Direct Argument," by David Widerker.  They form an impressive set of papers, suitable for professional philosophers, graduate students, and possible undergraduates doing advanced work in this area. 

Many of the papers are concerned with incompatibilism and libertarianism, either defending or criticizing these views.  The work of Pereboom forms a central target, so it is no surprise that his paper leads off the collection.  He set out his view at greatest length in his book Living Without Free Will, (Cambridge University Press, 2001).  On his view, determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility, which is the major claim he defends against many critics.  He further makes the claim that the world is deterministic in the way that rules out moral responsibility.  He also defends his view against the charge that it forces us to a massive change in our practices: he argues that we can still hold on to much of morality even if we no longer assign moral responsibility to people for their actions.  Pereboom argues that we can still rationally maintain our practices of praising and blaming people because it will be helpful for them to learn to behave in a civilized manner.  In his contribution to this collection, he explains his view of incompatiblism in some technical detail, and then proceeds systematically to defend it from criticisms by John Martin Fischer, Robert Kane, David Widerker, Carl Ginet, Alfred Mele, and George Sher. 

Trakakis discusses Pereboom's claim that hard determinism is compatible with all of morality, taking issue with some parts of Pereboom's argument.  Trakakis distinguishes blameworthiness and praiseworthiness from moral wrongness and rightness, and also separates out moral obligation and moral permissibility.  He argues that these are indeed incompatible with determinism, but that they can be reconceived on a consequentialist approach to morality. 

Trevor Picciotta considers the hard determinism of Ted Honderish and Pereboom, and argues that the objective meaningfulness of life is indeed incompatible with determinism.  Further, he argues that the notion of subjective meaningfulness that they offer in its place is too thin to be satisfying. 

Manuel Vargas, taking a position similar to that shared by Pereboom and Trakakis, argues for the moral influence theory that praising and blaming are justified by their future effects on people.  He argues that his version of the theory evades the objections that most philosophers accept to older versions of the theory.

J.J.C. Smart, in a short paper, argues that the libertarian conception of free will is an illusion. 

Neil Levy argues against Robert Kane's libertarianism as set out in The Significance of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 1996).  Libertarians about free will generally argue that free will is incompatible with determinism, and most of the time we are not free, but occasionally there are choices we make which are not determined by the past, and these choices are free.  Levy calls such views "restrictivist" and points out that Kane believes it is a virtue of his theory that there are more incidents of free will than on other libertarian theories, so it is less restricitivist.  Levy argues that while Kane believes that he has evaded on central objection to his view, a similar objection can be put to it which shows it to be mistaken.  It's a somewhat technical paper, given to labeling principles with letters such as UR, SET, WET, and SFW.   As such, it demands careful attention. 

Kane then responds to Levy's criticisms, defending his libertarian theory, and doing more to spell out his crucial notion of self-forming actions (SFAs).  He places emphasis on the importance of character formation and the relation between SFAs and one's responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. 

Ishtiyaque Haji argues that libertarianism in both simple and sophisticated forms implies that it is a matter of luck whether we have some moral obligations, or as he puts it, that obligation is luck-infected. He concludes that this is also true of our personal well-being, and he says he finds this a disappointing conclusion. 

Michael McKenna defends compatibilism against objections from philosophers such as Galen Strawson who make what he calls an Ultimacy Argument, that in order to be morally responsible for one's actions, one must be a self-causing being, but humans are not self-causing beings, and so are not morally responsible.  McKenna argues that the central premise of the argument is highly implausible.  He then turns to an incompatibilist version of the argument from Saul Smilansky.  This refines the central premise of the argument to say that in order to be morally responsible for an action, one must be its ultimate source, and then he spells out the meaning of 'ultimate source.'  McKenna proceeds to argue that there is no good reason to believe this refined premise.  He further argues that it is possible to construct a compatibilist version of a concept of an ultimate source, which ipso facto is compatible with indeterminism. 

John Martin Fischer addresses David Widerker's paper "Farewell to the Direct Argument," published in the Journal of Philosophy in 2002.  The Direct Argument, stemming from the work of Peter van Inwagen, aims to show that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism, directly, without going having to assess whether we have free will.  Fisher agrees with Widerker that the Direct Argument is invalid, but he finds problems with Widerker's proof of this.  He discusses this, argues that in fact the Direct Argument is best understood as one of a family of direct arguments, all of which are flawed.  

David Wideker's paper is a response to Fischer's.  He defends his original argument, conceding that Fischer is right in one criticism but arguing that ultimately the original argument can be mended. 

Saul Smilansky addresses the connection between moral responsibility and fairness in the context of compatibilism and incompatibilism.  It is a general discussion of the benefits of thinking about how compatibilists and incompatibilists can accommodate the concept of fairness, and Smilansky argues that engaging in this discussion helps sharpen our understanding of the relation between hard determinism and moral responsibility.  In the course of his paper, he makes some criticisms of R. Jay Wallace's compatibilist work on the relationship between moral responsibility and fairness, arguing that he does not take enough account of the concerns of incompatibilists.

Daniel Cohen and Lauren Saling contribute the final paper, which I will discuss in more detail.  They argue that there is no significant moral distinction between weak-willed action and compulsive or addictive action, so agents are just as morally responsible for weak-willed actions as for their addictions.  Despite the provocative title of their paper, "Addiction Is No Excuse," they do not make any argument as to whether addiction is a moral excuse, and they end by saying that they are sympathetic to the view that we are not morally responsible for either weak-willed or addictive actions.  This is a surprising claim, and quite counter-intuitive.  The standard way of thinking about the difference between the two kinds of action is that in weak-willed action, one could have refrained from doing something that one did not value/believe was best/want to want, while in addictive action, one is unable to stop oneself.  Thus the standard view is that we are morally responsible for weak-willed action but not for addictive action.  Cohen and Saling first discuss Harry Frankfurt's case of the willing addict -- someone who likes being addicted and has no desire to change.  On Frankfurt's view, the willing addict is morally responsible for their addictive actions, while, roughly, unwilling addicts are not morally responsible.  Cohen and Saling argue Frankfurt's view is open to a couple of interpretations, but on either interpretation, weakness and compulsion are in the same basket.  The basic idea for Frankfurt is that one is free if one wills what one wants to will, and this applies equally to addictive action and weak-willed action.  So it is impossible for there to be free weak-willed action on Frankfurt's approach.  Cohen and Saling apply a parallel criticism to the analyses of free will by Gary Watson and Susan Wolf, who they argue both deploy Frankfurt's 'one level up' approach to the freedom of one's actions.  Watson's view is, on their interpretation, that one is free if one values the action one performs.  This implies that it is impossible to freely act against one's own values.  The authors then address Susan Wolf's view of freedom, who argues that a freedom is, basically, rational action, and a rational, or normatively competent agent, will always respond to reason, which rules out any free irrational action. 

Cohen and Saling briefly address the concept of irresistible desires, arguing that it is basically incoherent, on the grounds that intentional actions must be mediated by rationalizing beliefs and desires, so actions stemming from truly irresistible desires would more like reflexes. If this argument were strong, then we would have to give a more refined definition of addiction that drops reference to irresistible desires and instead talks of strong desires that are very hard to resist, and this would certainly require reconfiguring the distinction between compulsion and weakness of will.  However, it is not at all clear that it would make the distinction impossible. The authors themselves continue to use the traditional distinction between weakness and compulsion in the following two sections. 

 They then move on to discuss Watson's skepticism about weakness of will.  He argues that there is no metaphysical difference between compulsion and weakness of will, but that the distinction lies in our normative expectations of people: weak-willed actions are those we could reasonably expect the agent to resist, while compulsive actions are those that we do not reasonably expect the agent to resist.  This expectation is based on our moral norms rather than metaphysics or science.  This expectation is based on what we could have expected the agent to do previously to avoid being in a situation in which she would perform the action.  This is to say, "weak agents, unlike their compulsive counterparts, would have controlled themselves had they (earlier) developed normal capacities for control" (257).  Cohen and Saling press the question of why the agent did not develop the necessary self control.  If she tried, but were unable to succeed, then they say this reduces weakness to compulsion.  If she could have done it but did not try, then we can again ask for an explanation of why not.  The authors say "it isn't clear how such an explanation can avoid a regressive appeal to ever higher-order levels of capacity."  This poses an interesting challenge to Watson, but does not end the argument.

Cohen and Saling attempt to block some possible ways to address this challenge by looking at the work of Alfred Mele in his Irrationality.  Mele argues that weakness of will is possible because if someone had employed better alternative tactics to stop themselves from doing what they do not value, they would have been able to stop.  In contrast, someone who is not free would have been able to stop, no matter what strategies they employed which were immediately available to them.  Cohen and Saling press the question of why the agent did not employ these effective methods of self-control if they could have.  First, they point out that if the reason was simply misjudgment or inaction, then this does not capture an important intuitive element to weakness.  It is not clear that this is a strong objection, especially if the misjudgment or inaction was due to unintentional self-deception.  However, it is not their main objection.  They argue that it the agent's fault is cognitive, an error in judgment about what they would need to do in order to overcome temptation, then in order for the agent to be blameworthy, there would need to be a further explanation of why they made this error, and so on ad infinitum

There are a couple of points to make regarding this objection to Mele.  First, it is odd for Cohen and Saling to be addressing this in the context of Watson's normative view, since Mele's distinction between weak-willed action and compulsion is metaphysical, based on counterfactuals, rather than normative expectations.  Maybe their assumption is that a normative distinction must ultimately rest on a metaphysical distinction, which is a common assumption in the literature.  Be that as it may, it is not clear why there needs to be a search for an ultimate explanation.  Consider an alcoholic A with a glass of wine before her and drinks it and the dieter D eats the piece of cake before her.  Can we make sense of the counterfactuals that A could not have resisted the temptation while D could have?  If we assume the traditional definition of addiction, and further assume that addiction is possible, then that can be enough for a moral distinction.  It seems that Cohen and Saling are assuming that we can only make a moral distinction if there is some deeper moral explanation of the difference, but they don't justify this assumption. 

The argument gets a little clearer when Cohen and Saling move on to discuss a proposal by Jeanette Kennett and Michael Smith on distinguishing weak-willed action from addictive action, in their 1996 article in Analysis, "Frog and Toad Lose Control."  Their approach is to spell out the difference in terms of dispositions to exercise control, very much along the lines of Mele's approach.  Frog has the ability to stop himself from eating cookies by thinking of them as lumps of fat, while Toad lacks such an ability.  After some quibbling about possible worlds and counterfactuals that doesn't advance the argument much, Cohen and Saling fall back on the empirical claim that true addiction is rare, and that most addicts are indeed able to control their behavior.  This falling back on an empirical claim when the conceptual claim is not faring well is not very convincing, especially in the light of further empirical work on ego depletion, which suggests that it is indeed very difficult for addicts to maintain self-control for a sustained period of time.  They may be able to resist temptation for a short period, given incentives, but their stores of self-control then become depleted. In short, Cohen and Saling do not make a strong case against the intuitively plausible view that for some people it is very difficult to resist temptation, while for others, it is not so difficult. 

Cohen and Saling basically acknowledge this point in their final section of the paper, which addresses the question whether responsibility can be a matter of degree.  They argue that even if it is hard for some people to resist temptation, this should not count as an excuse.  They make their argument by considering a comparison between the reader and the golfer Greg Norman.  It is harder for the reader to sink a putt in one than Greg Norman.  If Norman fails to exercise his ability to sink the putt, he is more to blame than you, because it is easier for him to do sink the putt?  Cohen and Saling provide an argument regarding the frequencies of success for activities, but they seem to miss the fundamental point about the difficulty of an activity, which is ultimately not about the behavioral outcomes but rather about the effort and concentration required to do it.  They say their fundamental objection to contemplating degrees of responsibility is that "it makes blame for a particular act of wrongdoing relative to blame for other instances of wrongdoing" (p. 261). However, this again judges the blame on the behavioral outcomes rather than what is going on the wrongdoer's mind, and the difficulty he has in refraining from acting.  They say that blame is attached to the wrongness of the action and should not be relative to what else the agent did during his life.  However, they don't support this claim, and indeed, there are many instances where how much we blame someone does vary depending on how else they have live their life. 

In short, Cohen and Saling do not make a strong case for their claim that there is no principled distinction between compulsive action and weak-willed action. 

Going against custom, I have left discussion of the book's introduction until the end.  This is because it seems that the introduction was itself written after the other papers, and departs from the editors' original thoughts in its exposition of a Wittgensteinian approach to free will.    After discussing some of the difficulties of achieving a theory-neutral account of free-will, Trakakis and Cohen turn to ideas in the Tractatus about the difficulty of expressing some truths such as those regarding free will.  They suggest that on this view, both determinism and its denial cannot be meaningfully affirmed and are bound to result in nonsense.  They contrast this with the approach of the Investigations, in which meaning is rooted in the use of words.  On this later view, words such as freedom and responsibility would not have a hidden meaning to be revealed by a complicated theory.  Rather, the words find their meaning in their everyday use.  The editors suggest that belief in freewill can be seen not as a scientific or empirical belief but rather more as a way of living, similar to Wittgenstein's understanding of religious belief.  They draw comparisons with Sartre's view of freedom and the Kantian view that freedom is a precondition of action and so must be presupposed.

On this view, the sort of philosophical debate about free will conducted in most of the rest of the book occurs because language has gone on holiday, and has become divorced from its grounding in everyday life.  It's rather odd that the editors have written an introduction that casts doubt on much of the project engaged in the papers they are introducing.  The editors also do not delve into their suggestive ideas much, especially with regard to controversies in everyday use about when people are free.  People tend to describe themselves as lacking freedom when they have mental illnesses such as addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and, at least retrospectively, during periods of mania.  If one were going to explore the editors' Wittgensteinian suggestion about the free will debate, one would want to look at the ways that debates over people's freedom have gone in the public domain, as opposed to in philosophy journals, to see how language is being used and what sorts of factors are taken to rob people of their freedom.  This might help us consider what sorts of claims about unfree action and diminished responsibility are reasonable and which are outlandish.

Overall, this is a valuable collection that advances the philosophical debate over free will and moral responsibility.  Researchers in the field will want to add it to their libraries.

Link: Publisher's page for book

© 2009 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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