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Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in LifeReview - Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life
by Derk Pereboom
Oxford University Press, 2014
Review by Byron D. Smith
May 5th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 19)

In Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, Derk Pereboom "present[s] a reworked and expanded version of the view . . . [he] developed in Living without Free Will (2001)" (p. 4); by addressing objections to his earlier account of free will, he establishes a compelling case for what he refers to as free will skepticism in chapters 1-4 that drives a surprisingly optimistic articulation of its practical implications throughout the rest of the book (chapters 5-8).

          Otherwise known as hard incompatibilism, Derk Pereboom's free will skepticism assumes "that the moral responsibility at issue [in the free will debate] is the sense that involves basic desert" (p. 9): "For an agent to be morally responsible for an action in this sense is for it to be hers in such a way that she would deserve to be blamed if she understood that it was morally wrong, and she would deserve to be praised if she understood that it was morally exemplary. The desert at issue here is basic in the sense that the agent would deserve to be blamed or praised just because she has performed the action, given an understanding of its moral status, and not, for example, merely by virtue of consequentialist or contractualist considerations" (p. 2). He then distinguishes the debate's leeway position, in which case "the accessibility of alternative possibilities is per se relevant in explaining an agent's moral responsibility for an action" (p. 28), from the source view, which contends "[that an] agent must be the source of her action in an appropriate way [for her to be morally responsible for it]" (p. 28). Appealing to Tax Evasion (p. 15), a Frankfurt story developed with David Hunt, Derk Pereboom effectively undermines the Kane/Widerker/Ginet dilemma defense of the leeway position (pp. 14-18), concluding that "the actual causal process that resulted in . . . [the story's main character's] decision to evade taxes is consistent with this decision being free in accord with libertarian theory" (p. 18), which asserts that "we human beings have the capacity to freely will actions, . . . crucial to . . . [which] is [the notion] that . . . [the action] not be causally determined by factors beyond the agent's control" (p. 30; cf. p. 5).

          After rescuing the source view from all of the principal arguments for the leeway position by also addressing the timing criticism of Frankfurt stories posed by leeway incompatibilists such as Ginet, Franklin, and Palmer in the form of a second Frankfurt story (viz., Tax Cut, p. 23), Derk Pereboom begins chapter 2 by identifying event-causal libertarianism as the most attractive of three major types of libertarianism that include non-causal and agent-causal versions as well. He then proceeds to highlight its internal incoherence by way of what he refers to as the disappearing agent objection (p. 32). A type of luck objection, the disappearing agent objection finds its roots in Hume, who argues in A Treatise of Human Nature "that if an action is uncaused, it will not have sufficient connection with the agent for her to be morally responsible for it" (pp. 31-2). More specifically, the objection calls attention to the fact that event-causal libertarian agents cannot have the role in action that secures the control required for basic desert moral responsibility because they lack "the power to settle whether the decision will occur" (p. 32). After exploring how the disappearing agent objection lays bare the internal incoherence of Mark Balaguer's theory, which serves as a representative of event-causal libertarianism, Derk Pereboom proceeds to do the same for the non-causal variety of libertarianism, noting that its "advocates use prima facie causal language to express the purportedly non-causal relation, and that either causation is being invoked, or if it is not, the control required for moral responsibility is absent" (p. 40).

 

          Having established the primacy of the source view over the leeway position in chapter 1 and exposed the internal incoherence of the event-causal and non-causal versions of libertarianism in chapter 2, Derk Pereboom takes up agent-causal libertarianism in detail in chapter 3, where, after identifying Immanuel Kant, Thomas Reid, Roderick Chisholm, Richard Taylor, Timothy O'Connor, Randolph Clarke, and Meghan Griffith as some of its more notable advocates, he explores Mele's contention that it is as vulnerable to luck objections and internal incoherence as event-causal libertarianism, concluding that while Mele's position cannot be dispensed with categorically, agent-causal libertarianism appears to withstand his challenge: "[Although] our conception of ourselves as agent-causes might turn out to be empty after all, . . . we [currently] lack decisive warrant for this verdict" (p. 58). Despite Derk Pereboom's suspension of the verdict of internal incoherence against agent-causal libertarianism, he ultimately rejects the position on other grounds: "Thus while it hasn't been established that agent-causal libertarianism is internally incoherent, it's doubtful for empirical reasons that derive from our best physical theories that we are agents of the sort specified by this position" (pp. 69-70, emphasis added; cf. p. 66). Hence, by the end of chapter 3, he has dispensed with libertarianism altogether: "While we might hope that we are free agents of the libertarian kind, we shouldn't regard this option as credible" (p. 70).

          Derk Pereboom concludes his case for free will skepticism in chapter 4, where he argues against compatibilism, "the position according to which the sort of free will required for being morally responsible for an action in the sense at issue in the free will debate is compatible with the agent's being causally determined so to act by factors beyond her control" (p. 71, emphasis added). He achieves this by neither the Consequence Argument, whose force apparently depends on the validity of the leeway position he undermined in favor of the source view in chapter 1, nor van Inwagen's Direct Argument, which, despite the persuasiveness of Seth Shabo's defense of it elsewhere, "is not especially powerful" (p. 74). Rather, he rests the incompatibilists' hopes on a four-case manipulation argument, "the core idea of . . . [which] is that an action's being produced by a deterministic process that traces back to factors beyond the agent's control, even when she satisfies all [of] the . . . [compatibilist] conditions on moral responsibility specified by . . . [Hume, Frankfurt, John Fischer, Mark Ravizza, Jay Wallace, Alfred Mele, and Ishtiyaque Haji], presents no less of a challenge to basic-desert responsibility than does deterministic manipulation by other agents" (p. 6; cf. pp. 74-5). In other words, "these cases, taken separately, indicate that is possible for an agent not to be morally responsible even if the compatibilist conditions are satisfied" (p. 74), thereby leaving us with hard incompatibilism.

          Committed to free will skepticism after meticulously revealing the shortcomings of the libertarian and compatibilist positions in chapters 1-4, Derk Pereboom addresses various practical concerns in chapters 5-8. After recognizing that "skeptical views about free will threaten to undercut our self-conception as deliberative and rational agents, to make morality incoherent, leave no reason to be moral, [and] render unjustifiable our policies for dealing with wrongdoers" (p. 104), he proceeds to develop, among other things, an account of moral responsibility that focuses on blame, noting that "free will skepticism will challenge any practice of holding morally responsible that endorses as a core feature overt expressions of . . . [reactive attitudes such as moral resentment and indignation]" (p. 129). Consequently, Derk Pereboom proposes a revisionist account of blame that is altogether forward-looking, grounded not in basic desert, "but in three non-desert invoking moral desiderata: protection of potential victims, reconciliation to relationships both personal and with the moral community more generally, and moral formation" (p. 134, emphasis added). In doing so, he effectively undermines those who would argue that free will skepticism necessarily compromises morality and rationality.

          Before concluding that we might be surprisingly better off if we were to give up the assumption of the type of free will at issue (as doing so would at least moderate resentment and indignation in our daily lives), Derk Pereboom analyzes responses to criminal behavior to determine if the ones free will skepticism would permit as justified are sufficient for acceptable social policy. Given his position on blame, it should come as little surprise that in this discussion that would interest legal scholars, the retributivist justification of punishment, invoking as it does the basic desert sense of moral responsibility, fails to win his support. Echoing Ferdinand Schoeman, Derk Pereboom instead argues "that if the right to protect justifies quarantine for carriers of severe communicable diseases, then it also justifies isolation of the criminally dangerous" (p. 169). In practice, such a response to the criminally dangerous would "demand a certain level of care and attention to the well-being of criminals . . . [that] would change much of current policy . . . [so as to preclude death as punishment and] endorse measures for reducing crime that aim at altering social conditions, such as improving education, increasing opportunities for fulfilling employment, and enhancing care for the mentally ill" (p. 174).

          With errors on no fewer than 45 pages that the publisher should have addressed, Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life is not without its distractions. Fortunately, they fail to obscure the author's evidently impressive command of the history of the free will debate, which makes for a read whose density is surpassed only by an account of free will skepticism that is both compelling and surprisingly optimistic in its practical implications.

 

© 2015 Byron D. Smith

 

Byron D. Smith's formal education encompasses undergraduate studies in psychology and philosophy, including supervised research on mental self-control with human subjects under Daniel M. Wegner, the former John Lindsley Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He holds a graduate degree in religion from Yale University, where he explored the free will problem within the context of an early theological debate between St. Augustine and Pelagius. In addition to his work as a German-to-English translator, he has served in various editorial capacities, including for the world's largest educational publisher and a leading public relations firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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