Introduction and Context
The debate over the degree to which we have control (if any at all) over our actions is one of the longest debated topics in philosophy and there isn’t much reason to think it will end any time soon. The debate is known as the freewill-determinism debate.
Before proceeding lets quickly define some of the main positions (this in itself is a big issue in the debate):
1. Libertarian (not political Libertarianism) freewill: In all circumstances, we are able to act otherwise (unless it entails a logical contradiction). In other words, if I went to Roberto’s and ordered the bean and cheese burrito with guacamole, I could have order something else. Or if I was starving and stole a loaf of bread, I could have acted otherwise. This is the strongest freewill position (not in terms of defensibility but in terms of the size of the scope of freewill).
2. Hard determinism: The universe is physical. The laws of physics tell us that every state is an effect of a prior state. Freewill implies the suspension of the laws of physics because it requires that (a) an agent do something that isn’t the result of prior causes and (b) the physical chain of cause and effect be broken. (a) and (b) can’t be true, therefore, all actions are determined.
Even if someone wants to counter with “but the universe has mental properties too!” the hard determinist can rely “ok, but surely mental behaviors are also governed by causal laws. You acted because you had a desire. Cause and effect. And what’s more, you didn’t choose to have that desire. Did you choose to like chocolate? Or ice cream? Or philosophy 101? No. You just do.
3. Freewill Skepticism is closely related to hard determinism except it adds a dilemma for the freewill supporter. At the quantum level of physics, events aren’t determined but random. So, either events are causally determined (by the environment and the physical make-up of the agent) or they are random. If it is the former, they are not free. If it is the latter, they are not free because randomness isn’t freewill either. Therefore, since all events are either determined or random, there is no freewill.
Positions 1-3 subscribe to incompatibilism which is the idea that freewill and causal determinism are incompatible. You can only have one or the other, but not both.
In contrast to incompatibilism there is also compatibilism, the idea that freewill and causal determinism are not mutually exclusive. The classical defense of this position redefines freedom as a decision being free from compulsion or coercion. So, suppose someone puts a gun to your head and says “write an essay about freewill and determinism,” the classical compatibilist would say your decision to write the paper isn’t free. So, now “free actions” applies to those actions where there was no coercion or compulsion even though they are causally determined.
The more modern compatibilist position is that there is a distinction between acting freely and having freedom of will. I might be suggested that freedom of will is a matter of acting on our desires. But Frankfurt replies that this isn’t enough. Freedom of will requires that we have some control over what we desire and that those desires motivate us to action. This is as opposed to us being some entity that is pre-programmed with desires but has no say in what those desires are. Note that this position still agrees that causal determinism is true.
Why the Crap Does the Freewill Determinism Debate Matter?
The main reason people think it matters is because the notion of moral responsibility implies that people have some control over whether or not they do something. Do we hold our computers morally responsible for their actions? Except for that one time I had a paper due in 15 minutes and the printer decided at that moment not to work, the answer is usually no. Most of us think that justice, in part, requires that a punishment have some sort of proportional relationship to moral responsibility, but if my actions were all causally determined, it seems to follow that I’m not morally responsible for them.
Related to the question of proportionality, we also think people deserve praise, reward, or condemnation based on their actions. Again, if there is no freewill, it doesn’t seem to make sense to praise them. But maybe we’re causally determined to praise/punish them anyway! And maybe we are causally determined to puzzle over this problem…This can get very confusing very fast.
Introduction and Context