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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Free will and moral responsibility

I'm reading Against Moral Responsibility by Bruce N. Waller (MIT Press 2011). There's much to say about it, but the book is notable for challenging the tight connection that analytic philosophers make between ideas of free will and ideas of moral responsibility. Indeed, there is a near consensus among recent and current philosophers (at least those in the analytic tradition) that we possess free will just insofar as we possess the capacity to act with moral responsibility.

However, it's possible to find exceptions, philosophers who've questioned the consensus. There do seem to be other conceptions of free will - whether in philosophical writings, popular culture, or elsewhere - and I question whether the anxieties that ordinary people have in mind when they worry about having free will actually do track so closely with the idea of moral responsibility (whatever this might amount to).

Waller takes an unusual position in arguing that we possess a form of compatibilist free will (and he seems to think that this is a good answer to much of what we are concerned about with free will talk), while at the same time denying that we ever have moral responsibility. If that combination of ideas sounds untenable, bizarre, or plain heretical, you might like to check out his book and the arguments he offers. I'm not really persuaded, but it's possible that he's hit on a position which does better justice than outright hard determinism to the intuitions and concerns of people like Sam Harris who want to deny the existence of free will. He certainly develops his position with much detail and care.


Christian Munthe said...

What exactly is he denying in this denial?

That we never have reason to act differently than we in fact do (although our action may be bad from a moral point of view)?

That we ever have any reason to respond to each other's actions on the basis of our moral evaluation of them?

That we never should respond in certain particular ways (e.g. resenting ones) to the actions of others?

Something else?

Anthony Paul said...

I've only started reading the book, but I think Waller will be arguing that "moral responsibility" is an old and now outmoded concept and that the arguments that support it are poor, particularly in light of what science can now tell us about how our brains work. How do you think he's doing as compared to Neil Levy in "Hard Luck" in re moral responsibility?

Russell Blackford said...

Christian ... the answer is something else. But there is a question of what "moral responsibility" really amounts to. If it includes some kind of metaphysical ability along the lines of libertarian free will or a sort of ultimate self-creative power, I would argue that we don't have it.

But what if it's something less than that, something that fits more readily into a naturalistic view of the world? Waller thinks it is going to be whatever naturalistic powers we have that make us deserve punishment, moral blame, moral praise, etc., for our acts. He then thinks that a system which allocates these things is unfair, given that it's a matter of luck whether we turned out to have virtuous characters, vicious characters, etc.

So, for Waller it seems to be a fact that I have free will in the sense that I can make all sorts of decisions based on my actual values, etc., as I actually am. What I do is a product of what I am like, not something controlled by the stars. Nonetheless, he thinks, it's unfair to blame me for bad acts when I'm not in ultimate control - I was shaped by all sorts of forces before I had any say in the matter.

This raises interesting questions about what "fairness" really amounts to. I'm not at all sure that fairness has to go all the way down in this way - e.g. we often think it's fair for people to win prizes when we know very well that they've relied on abilities that are beyond their ultimate control. I suspect that our ordinary notions of fairness are both less ambitious and far-reaching than someone like Waller thinks and more complicated than he allows. On this subject my thinking is more in line with people who are regarded as political libertarians or conservatives, like Robert Nozick or John Kekes (and that will come out in Humanity Enhanced, where I'll be discussing notions of fairness, distributive justice, etc.).

All the same, our current systems of social and legal rewards/penalties may be operating very harshly as well as very inefficiently, and in that sense we might be able to agree that it's "bad" and needs radical reform. That's the political upshot of a lot of this discussion - e.g. you can see it in the Sam Harris book on free will - and my views on this would probably not be politically conservative at all. Quite the opposite.

And yes, Anthony, Neil Levy makes a similar point about fairness in Hard Luck, though as I understand Neil he is firmly part of the modern philosophical consensus about the relationship between free will and moral responsibility. As far as I know, he has never wanted to drive a wedge between them in the way that Waller does.

Neil sometimes reads this blog, so maybe he'd like to comment if he's around. Tom Clark might also want to comment if he's reading - he's given Waller's book an endorsement,and he may be attracted to a view that combines compatibilist free will with a rejection of conventional ideas of moral responsibility.

Neil said...

Did someone say my name? As Russell says, Waller's claim that we have free will but not moral responsibility is at odds with the mainstream. Not only do most (though not all) philosophers think that possession of free will is typically sufficient for possession of moral responsibility, typically in the debate, we use 'free will' for something reasonably demanding (something that, for instance, most non-human animals lack). Now if you want to define free will as Waller does, that's fine, but you make a mess of the standard debates: it is reasonably obvious that causal determinism doesn't threaten what Waller means by free will. There is some way of defining 'God' so that Russell is a theist, but it's not an especially interesting way of defining 'god'. That said, there might be good reason to change the subject; I just want the change of subject to be recognized for what is.

As Russell says, Waller's case is based on the unfairness of holding others morally responsible. But there's no analysis of fairness in the book. What I like most about the book is the attention to data, and especially data (sociological, criminological data) that is too often neglected in this debate. The central argument, however, has to be false. Waller argues that naturalism is incompatible with moral responsibility, because if naturalism is true, then there is a total explanation for all actions. But if that is the case, it would be unfair to blame agents. But naturalism is neither necessary nor sufficient for total explanation. God might provide a total explanation, and indeterminism - which rules out a total explanation - is perfectly natural(and according to most physicists true). So I think naturalism is a red herring here.

Reading suggestion, Russell (if you haven't got there already): Tamler Sommers' book *Relative justice*.

Russell Blackford said...

The Sommers book looks interesting. Thanks for the tip.

Tom Clark said...

Hi Russell,

Yes, I'm very sympathetic with Waller's take on moral responsibility, see my review, "Singling out the agent", at http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerreview.htm

Dennett is not so sanguine, see his review at http://www.naturalism.org/DCDWallerreview.htm and an exchange with him, me and Waller, http://www.naturalism.org/Wallerexchange.htm

Have to think about what Neil said. Off top of head, I think the unfairness Waller sees comes not from the fact that there is necessarily a complete explanation (there may not be), but that we aren't libertarian agents. As far as we can tell there's no naturalistic basis for the libertarian, contra-causal, causa sui type of agency that would make it fair to hold someone responsible as it's normally meant in talking about *moral* responsibilty, which is non-consequentially.

Christian Munthe said...

Thanks for that, Russell! It seems, then, that what he talks about is something more akin to desert than MR. Or, if one prefers, the idea that only desert-based reasons can justify certain responses to wrongdoing as "fair" - where fair such responses are instances of actual MR. I agree with you completely that this seems to rest on an assumption about fairness in this context that is far from obvious.

Anthony Paul said...

Thanks. I suspect I'll read the reviews and comments before I go back to the book. (And I also feel compelled (so much for free will) to finish reading Hard Luck.)

Bruce Waller said...

Delighted to have such thoughtful and insightful readers; and it is always great to have Tom commenting on the book -- frankly, I think he understands it better than I. Concerning Neil's comments, he is right that I really want to think about free will in a different way (particularly as NOT something that makes us distinct from other animals, but as something that we can find in the behavior of other animals -- at least in a rudimentary form -- and thus help us in better understanding the real value of free will as we free it from its traditional link to moral responsibility); but Neil is right -- he usually is -- that I should have been clearer about making that break. On the question of fairness, that's a much bigger one. Rather than trying to give a thorough account of fairness (which it seems to me would require at least another book, and someone else would have to write it) I think there are some basic beliefs about fairness that most of us hold, and that come into conflict with a naturalistic attempt to justify moral responsibility. But as usual, Neil puts his finger on a key point. Finally I heartily endorse Anthony Paul's plan to finish reading Hard Luck: it is a remarkably good book, the very model of combining careful philosophical analysis with a rich appreciation of empirical research. And I strongly second Neil's suggestion to next read Tamler Sommers' Relative Justice: there is no better contemporary philosophical writer than Tamler, and even apart from the insights, it is a pleasure to read his prose. Thanks again to all for the comments.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I have not read any of the recent books being discussed, but I have an observation or two to make about the exchange between Waller, Dennett and Clark. Both sides seem, in a sense, to want to have their cake and eat it, too. I'm more sympathetic with Dennett at the moment, but I have doubts.

Dennett seems to deny any notion of justice or responsibility that cashes out in natural kind terms, but argues that we can rationally rely on the notions of "just deserts" and "ultimate responsibility" because these concepts are required by the nature of social contracts. You cannot enter a contract without accepting responsibility. The possibility of the contract therefore requires the notion of ultimate responsibility, and therefore the notion of just deserts. To reject these notions would be to reject the possibility of contractual agreement, and thus the notion of rational agency, period. The rejection of MR, to Dennett, might therefore look like a rejection of intentionally itself. (That might be where Dennett and Kant agree, incidentally.)

Perhaps, then, Waller and Clark err in combining the notions of contra-causal freewill and moral responsibility. On the other hand, if a pragmaticized notion of ultimate responsibility? is possible, then why not a pragmaticized notion of contra-causal freewill? If Dennett's argument works to save belief in MR, then shouldn't it also work to save belief in contra-causal freewill? I.e., if ultimate responsibility is presupposed by the logic of contracts, then isn't contra-causal freewill also presupposed? But then we end up even closer to Kant, don't we? (Not that that's such a bad thing, in my opinion.)

Jason Streitfeld said...

One more comment, or question, rather: Isn't it self-defeating to appeal to fairness in an argument against moral responsibility? Isn't there an assumption that we are morally obligated to be fair, e.g, to have a fair justice system?

Tom Clark said...


As I pointed out in my reply to Dennett, his consequentialist reading of just deserts is non-standard, in that most compatibilists want to retain a non-consequentialist, deontological, non-pragmatic notion of desert. No one disputes the necessity of the threat of punishment to enforce contracts, but most compatibilists wouldn't agree that receiving such punishment is getting one's just deserts. What they think is compatible with determinism is being justifiably punished for reasons *independent* of any good consequence, and that's what it means to get one's just deserts. See for instance Stephen Morse on desert as quoted at http://www.naturalism.org/morse.htm:

"Some things… we do only because it’s right to do them. For example, we give people what they deserve. Why? Because it’s right to do so. Not because we’re going to produce good consequences. If we do produce good consequences, terrific. But that’s not necessarily why. We do it because we think they deserve it."

Btw, Dennett is only trying to put *just deserts* on a consequentialist footing, not ultimate (Kantian) responsibility, which he explicitly disavows in his review of Waller. We don't need ultimate responsibility for desert, he says. Similarly, he wouldn't want to pragmatize contra-causal free will (an impossibility anyway), since the whole point of compatibilism is that we needn't appeal to anything contra-causal to secure moral responsibility.

Jason Streitfeld said...

Thank you for that, Tom. Perhaps I'm just confused, but let me try to justify my initial reading.

Part of what I'm doing is saying what I think Dennett is saying despite what he actually says he is saying. He is saying that contracts require a notion of responsibility. I added the word "ultimate," even though he says he doesn't want to do that. From where I'm sitting, there's no reason to leave it out. If Dennett wants to justify punishing somebody for breaking a contract by claiming that the contract entails responsibility, then his argument can only be this: The ability to enter a contract entails a sufficient level of responsibility to justify punishment. What other ultimate level of responsibility could there be? If ultimate responsibility is not responsibility before the law, then what is it? Of course Dennett denies a God's eye view: there is no relevant law above human law. But we can and should still call it "ultimate responsibility," I think.

As for just deserts . . . I think Dennett might be (unknowingly, perhaps) leaning towards a very traditional view of it. Dennett applauds our self-correcting system of rational justifications for our primitive inclinations towards retributive justice. Doesn't that mean he thinks retributive justice can be justified? (It can be directed "down justifiable channels.") Dennett seems to be saying that belief in rational agency justifies manifestations of our retributive instincts. Maybe Dennett does not really want to say that. But if he does, then it would explain why he keeps the phrase "just deserts." It wouldn't make sense to claim somebody was accountable when they signed a contract, but not deserving of the punishment stipulated by the contract. So maybe there's an internal tension in Dennett's position. (Perhaps because he is sticking to closely to consequentialism?)

So that's why I claim that Dennett is pragmaticizing both just deserts and ultimate responsibility. And if his argument does work along those lines, then why wouldn't it work against contra-causal free will? Couldn't a compatibilist say that contra-causal freewill is a social construction, just like rational agency itself?

As an aside, I don't have much sympathy for consequentialism. I wonder if the problems I'm pointing to in your and Dennett's arguments (if I am right, and not just confused, of course) might be dealt with more easily with a non-consequentialist approach.

Russell Blackford said...

It's changing the subject from the point of view of philsophers involved in the mainstream philosophical discussions that Neil and others (including me) have referred to.

But is it changing the subject from a larger perspective? If we look at what has bugged people historically, cross-culturally, and in our own contemporary culture (perhaps as revealed in literary narratives, movies, etc.), what is it that's really bugging people when they worry about whether they have free will, and what's really bugging people when they talk about moral responsibility? If the answers are less closely connected than the philosophers assume, then arguably it is the philosophers who have changed the subject, and have lost track of what was bugging ordinary people, or people at different times in history, in the first place. If so, Bruce's approach may be a perfectly good one.

As I look at these issues historically, and as they manifest in popular culture, I think that may be very arguable. Still, I'd like to see the argument made with some care and rigour. Intuitions, including mine, aren't going to cut it with something like this. Bruce does make a start with this, e.g. by quoting Shakespeare for one understanding of what non-philosoophers' free will talk might be about.

I made similar points in my long argument against Sam Harris earlier in the year, though Harris has the problem that his definition of free will doesn't seem to align either with what is being discussed in mainstream philosophical debates or with any alternative that might plausibly be constructed from wider cultural history.

Thanks for dropping by, Bruce - we now have a good very discussion going. I'm grateful to you all, and I hope we can keep it up.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I've put my thoughts together in a much clearer and more elaborate form: Moral Responsibiility and Rational Agency: An exchange between Dennett, Waller and Clark.

Russell Blackford said...

Hmmm, "a good very discussion". I'm sure we have one of those going, but probably also a very good one.