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BoundReview - Bound
Essays on Free Will and Responsibility
by Shaun Nichols
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by William Simkulet
Jan 12th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 2)

Shaun Nichols' Bound:  Essays on Free Will and Responsibility is an important attempt to resolve the longstanding philosophical problems surrounding free will and moral responsibility.  He characterizes these problems as surrounding determinism, specifically its apparent incompatibility with free will and moral responsibility.  Nichols argues for a compatibilist theory, one that requires that we reject certain commonsense, but purportedly unjustified incompatibilist beliefs while retaining many of our moral practices.

Notably Nichols sets his project apart from similar projects in his metaethical analysis of the concepts of "free will" and "moral responsibility," which involves both analytic, armchair philosophy and the analysis of experimental data.

Following a clear introduction the book is divided into two sections -- the first consisting of three chapters concerning moral agency and the second consisting of four chapters concerning moral responsibility.  In the introduction Nichols divides the problems at hand into two topics and three subtopics; the two topics -- corresponding to the book's two sections -- are (1) agency/free will and (2) moral responsibility.  Inquiry is further divided into three subtopics -- (i) a metaethical inquiry concerning what people mean by "free will" and "moral responsibility", (ii) a metaphysical inquiry into whether free will and moral responsibility are possible at the actual world and whether people genuinely possess free will and moral responsibility when they believe they do, and (iii) a moral or practical inquiry into whether we should change our behavior.

Surprisingly Nichols contends that if the metaethical inquiry concludes that our moral intuitions are wholly compatibilist (that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism), then "we need not bother with" the metaphysical and moral inquiries (5).  This is absurd.  Certainly philosophers should be as interested in metaphysical and moral questions if compatibilism is true as they would be if incompatibilism is true.  Most compatible theories contend free will and moral responsibility are not merely compatible with determinism, but require it; notably David Hume (1975a, 1975b) argued that chance (indeterminism) in the decision making process would be responsibility undermining. 

It is understandable that Nichols would choose to focus on the (apparent) threat determinism poses to our commonsense intuitions about free will and moral responsibility, but at the same time it is troublesome that he doesn't at least acknowledge on the (apparent) threat indeterminism might play to this same set of intuitions. 

          Nichols' metaethical inquiry into the nature of agency begins in earnest in chapter 1.  He contends "[d]eterminism is alluring when we think about explaining the world, but indeterminism is compelling when we contemplate our own actions" (17).  This claim evokes Galen Strawson's contention that when confronted with a choice, such as whether to donate to charity to go on with our day, even the most committed determinist cannot help but to believe that either option is possible given the actual past and she is the undetermined author of what she chooses (Strawson 1994/2002).  However this characterization is misleading.  Nichols cites work in developmental psychology that suggests that young children already believe in determinism (Gelman 2003, Schulz and Sommerbille 2006), yet other work suggests that they make a distinction between objects, which they believe act deterministically, and agents, which they believe act indeterministically (Nichols 2004, Kushnir and Chernyak 2009).  Our belief in indeterminism is not limited to ourselves, but is understood as a feature of agency.

Nichols concludes that our concept of moral agency contains both compatibilist and incompatibilist elements, which he grounds in an explanatory compulsion and our intuition that our actions are not determined.  He claims the explanatory compulsion cannot be explored more, but that our incompatibilist intuitions might have a deeper psychological component, which he explores in chapter 2, beginning with two philosophical explanations for this belief -- (1) the character of our experiences, along the lines of Galen Strawswon's case, and (2) ignorance; because we lack knowledge of the actual causes of our actions, we believe them to be undetermined.  Nichols ends the chapter with an argument that our belief in indeterminism is unjustified, but given he leaves our compulsion to believe in determinism (about non-agents) equally unjustified it's not clear this move helps to resolve the free will conflict.

In chapter 3 Nichols argues that reference is systematically ambiguous such that the claims "free will is an illusion" can be both true and false in different contexts, but he is aware that this is a rather strained attempt to have his cake and eat it too.   

Chapter 4 begins Nichols discussion of moral responsibility which makes up the rest of the book.  He argues that although incompatibilism is intuitive, it is only one aspect of people's beliefs about moral responsibility and that it can be isolated and deleted without affecting much of the core concept (75).  The most notable aspect of the chapter is Nichols' discussion of manipulation; most believe manipulation undermines moral responsibility.  Nichols argues that the manipulation intuition need not be tied to the incompatibilist intuition he seeks to cast off, but contends that we can hold onto this intuition as a "brute attitude" (94), a primitive belief that we can neither give up nor justify.  He makes similar claims in later chapters, ultimately concluding that retributivism is similarly primitive.  Whereas many compatibilists, such as Hume, contend that punishment is only justified when it's practical, Nichols seems to conclude the opposite -- that punishment is justified if we conclude someone acted wrongly, even if such an action was completely causally necessitated by circumstances outside of the agent's control... barring manipulation… Ultimately the problem with this approach is that if determinism is true holding people accountable in this way is inherently arbitrary and unjustified, where as if agent causal indeterminism is true holding people accountable for this way is justified -- they are responsible for their actions because they are the original, first-causes of said actions.

Conclusions aside, Nichols work is an invaluable asset, bringing together recent work in psychology and experimental philosophy and analyzing them in the context of the free will debate.

References:

Strawson, Galen, 2002, "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility." In Ethical theory, Classic and contemporary readings, ed. L. P. Pojman. Originally published in Philosophical Studies 75: 5--24 (1994).

Gelman, S., 2003, The Essential Child, Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Hume, David, 1975a, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. revised by P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hume, David, 1975b, Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 3rd edition revised by P. H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kushnir, T., Wellman, H., Chernyak, N., 2009, "Preschoolers' understanding of freedom of choice," Proceedings of the Thirty-First Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society 87-92.

Nichols, Shaun, 2004b, "The folk psychology of free will: Fits and starts," Mind &

Language, 19, 473--502.

Schulz, L. E., and Sommerbille, J., 2006,  "God does not play dice:  Causal Determinism and Preschoolers' Causal Inferences," Child Development, 77(2), 427-442.


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