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Anger and Forgiveness"Are You There Alone?"10 Good Questions about Life and DeathA Casebook of Ethical Challenges in NeuropsychologyA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to BioethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Companion to Muslim EthicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Critique of the Moral Defense of VegetarianismA Decent LifeA Delicate BalanceA Fragile LifeA Life for a LifeA Life-Centered Approach to BioethicsA Matter of SecurityA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Mirror Is for ReflectionA Natural History of Human MoralityA Philosophical DiseaseA Practical Guide to Clinical Ethics ConsultingA Question of TrustA Sentimentalist Theory of the MindA Short Stay in SwitzerlandA Tapestry of ValuesA Very Bad WizardA World Without ValuesAction and ResponsibilityAction Theory, Rationality and CompulsionActs of ConscienceAddiction and ResponsibilityAddiction NeuroethicsAdvance Directives in Mental HealthAfter HarmAftermathAgainst AutonomyAgainst BioethicsAgainst HealthAgainst MarriageAgainst 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Nomy Arpaly's book is a contribution to that hoariest of philosophical problems, free will versus determinism. The book sets itself two tasks. The first is to lay out a compatibilist solution to the problem. The other, rather ironically, is to offer what we might call an "error theory", explaining why it is that even if its compatibilist account is correct, most of us will tend naturally to rebel against its implications.
For those not in the know, some terminology is in order. Determinism is the position which holds that all events, including human actions, are determined by some precedent cause. Indeterminism, to the extent that it can be coherently stated, holds that not all events are determined by precedent causes. Libertarianism typically goes hand in hand with indeterminism in holding that at least some human actions are examples of undetermined events. Compatibilism (also sometimes referred to as soft determinism) holds that although determinism is the case, we are still in some sense morally responsible for at least some of our actions. In other words, as some have pointed out, compatibilism is an attempt to have one's cake and eat it too: determinism seems correct, or at least it seems less mysterious than indeterminism, but most of us are not prepared to bite the bullet and give up on moral responsibility, which an acceptance of determinism would prima facie force us into. Therefore, compatibilism promises to be a way of allowing us to adhere to both determinism and to our practice of attributing moral responsibility.
The cornerstone of Arpaly's compatibilism is her attempt to detach the concept of moral responsibility for action, from the freedom of action. In other words, as most compatibilists will do, she tries to weaken the maxim, typically accepted by moral philosophers, that "ought implies can". If we say someone "ought to do X" we are effectively implying that it is possible for that person to do X. Arpaly is a compatibilist, which means she accepts the truth of determinism. But obviously, determinism seems to undermine the maxim that "ought implies can". Arpaly therefore argues that "ought implies can" is not as crucial to moral responsibility as is commonly supposed. She does this by offering interesting hypothetical cases where, for example, we blame people for actions they could not avoid doing, or praise people for things that they could not but do. Thus, the drift of the argument is that our practices of moral praise and blame need not be rendered incoherent by the fact of determinism.
Arpaly undermines indeterminism by noting the seeming incoherence in our notions of supposedly free action. For example, many see the romantic and inspired artist as the very paradigm of free and creative action. But such inspiration seems a blind force from without, moving the agent to create and making of him a passive vessel awaiting inflation by some exogenous agency (indeed, look up the etymology of "inspiration" in any decent dictionary to see the truth of this). Rather than refuting determinism, such supposed "romantic incompatibilism" perversely seems to confirm it.
In addition to undermining indeterminism, Arpaly also tries to make her position more palatable by softening some of the implications of her determinism. We often think of determinism in the hard terms of what she calls robot-causality. An example she gives is of an opera singer who hits a note that causes a glass to break. It is due to simple physical causation that the glass breaks. However, human action may be explained in ways other than robot-causality. One other way is what she calls content efficacy: an example would be when the same opera singer's love song reduces a recently-divorced listener to tears. We are still in the realm of deterministic causality, but here the behavior seems to be caused by the content of the music. In addition to robot-causality and content efficacy, there is what Arpaly calls reason responsiveness: we may describe human actions as responses to reasons. This is parsed in counterfactual terms: if it weren't for reason X, Sally would not have done A.
Robot causality seems to offer no handle for attributions of moral responsibility to lay hold of. However, responsibility dwells in the vicinity of content efficacy and reason responsiveness. It is here that the quality of the agent's will is made manifest, and praise and blame attach to the quality of the will, not to the putative freedom of the act. If we would only stop thinking of determinism in simplistic robot-causal terms, we could see that determinism and moral responsibility are entirely compatible. However, it is with regard to Arpaly's analysis of the explanation of behavior that a limitation of the book becomes apparent: Arpaly leaves it to philosophers of mind to work out exactly how the content of a song or a reason for acting can have a causal effect on an agent's brain states and by extension on her actions. She simply assumes (though probably rightly) that content efficacy and reason responsiveness are consistent with determinism. To be fair, to deal with these issues would swell the size of her slim volume immensely.
Arpaly freely admits that her account will not be acceptable to libertarians. Compatibilist free will is really just, as she humorously terms it, "cheap will". This reluctance to accept the truth is because -- and here the error theory makes its appearance -- we have set our expectations too high. We "demand a higher sense of self-authorship, Absolute Responsibility" (p. 117). So, she devotes her closing chapter to a demonstration of the incoherence of Absolute Responsibility. For example, properly viewed, many of our paradigm instances of self-authored action may be seen in a deterministic light. Think of Martin Luther's famous statement, "Here I stand; I can do no other". We admire the quality of the will displayed, though Luther's action was, even by his own admission, determined. It may even have been the case that, upon reflection, Luther would have wished that he could have done other. This does not subtract from one's admiration for his action (or rather, for the quality of his will), nor does it subtract from his responsibility for it.
Merit, Meaning, and Human Bondage is concise, clearly and engagingly written, and well worth the reader's time.
© 2007 James Pratt
James Pratt teaches philosophy at York University in Toronto.