Free Will and Compatibilism, a brief sketch

Discussions on “free will” inevitably lead to analysis of (a) moral responsibility, (b) the limits of metaphysical freedom – from autonomy and pure contingency to necessity and causality, and (c) divine foreknowledge. What is indubitable is that moral agents, when they choose, are morally accountable. Therefore, if determinism is true, then determinism must be compatible with moral responsibility. Secondly, if moral agents must possess freedom in order to be morally accountable, then there must be a kind of freedom that is compatible with determinism.

Although we might feel as though we have possibilities within fixed relevant states of affairs antecedent to any volitional act, we would not in any strong sense; nor would free moral agents be the ultimate source of choices but rather, from a Reformed Christian perspective, God’s eternal decree and divine ordering of providence outside of man would be the locus of ultimate source. For the Reformed Christian, the freedom that is compatible with determinism is not just the most desirable freedom; it is the only kind of freedom, without which moral accountability would be destroyed.

Incompatiblists Define The Debate & Set The Trap

Incompatibilists maintain that the power to do otherwise is a necessary condition for freedom. If we are powerless to change the past along with the governing laws of nature and if volitional acts are necessitated by such, then such acts are a necessary consequence of the past of which we are not the ultimate source nor in a position to fully control. This basic “argument” against determinism should not have caught any thinking compatibilist off guard. It merely cashes out as a complaint that libertarian freedom in not compatible with determinism. (No surprise there.) It does not address the freedom of compatiblism.

But why should freedom be seen as the power to do otherwise and not merely the ability to do as one wills? What if freedom merely is the liberty to do what one desires without impediment? In other words, rather than the ability to exercise power of contrary choice, why isn’t the essence of freedom the possession of those cognitive capacities that produce different willed acts given different states of affairs?

Accomodations For PAP Backfire

Classical compatibilists have tried to work within the strictures of alternative possibilities. Although classical compatibilists don’t affirm a strict ability to do otherwise, they have traditionally affirmed a version of the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) couched in hypothetical or conditional terms. Although Jane could not have done other than x; she could have done not-x had she willed. Such an accommodation to PAP has been met with criticism. For one thing, it doesn’t meet the incompatibilist demand of radical freedom to do otherwise. (Again, no surprise.) Secondly, it is alleged by more than incompatibilists that for Jane to will contrary to how she would, such freedom to will entails regress. The first criticism fails for lack of evaluation of conditional analysis on its own terms. The second criticism fails because conditional analysis does not posit actual ability to do otherwise. Accordingly, the hypothetical condition of willing to do otherwise, which was merely intended to satisfy PAP on a conditional basis, was never intended to cash out as actual ability to do otherwise. Therefore, an incompatibilist’s objection that such hypotheticals fail to establish actual ability to do otherwise should never have been met by a compatibilist’s appeal to hypothetical ability, let alone back and forth ad infinitum. The objection that determinism does not comport with actual ability to do otherwise is something the compatibilist should gladly concede, not appeal. Full stop.

Compatibilists never sought a theory of metaphysical access to alternative possibilities. Actual ability to do otherwise was not being defended, let alone on the basis of a conditional ability. Conditional analysis was merely a way of illustrating a theory of freedom that entails responsibility when one has liberty to do as one desires according to cognitive capacity. The analysis remains particularly useful with respect to the matter of responsibility when we stop to consider the difference between (a) one’s moral ability to act as one wills, and (b) one’s natural inability to, say, fly if one wills: Jane could morally-x if she willed. Jane could not physically-y if she willed. The goal was to put forth a kind of alternative possibility that complements moral accountability. Being able to x if one wills to x is sufficient for responsibility. Furthermore, the implication of conditional alternatives, given determinismis that counterfactual desires would be ultimately sourced outside the will, again making any regress-appeal to defend actual ability (to will and to do other) an undesirable project for the compatibilist. (We could just as easily observe that guidance control does not satisfy the requirements of regulative control, but so what? That compatibilism does not meet all the demands of incompatibilism is neither surprising nor interesting.)

Dispositional Analysis, An Improvement?

Notwithstanding, PAP yielded much good. The discussion advanced. Certain compatibilists have been moved by the “consequence argument” to consider freedom to do otherwise not according to ability but dispositional powers: Jane does not need to be able to do x if she has the power to try. Although arguing from a position of dispositional powers gets out from under regress or circular objections, there was no conundrum to begin with for the compatibilist who employed conditional analysis with a singular intent. We may also say that dispositionalism, although a helpful tool in the compatibilist toolbox, does nothing to advance a metaphysical arrangement for freedom to do otherwise, but why should it?

Although analysis of dispositional powers allows us to consider free will in the realm of natural ability and inability in a focused sense, it also entails a limited sense. Although Jane could not fly with her arms if she willed to do so, she would be free to exercise the power to try. The former consideration of doing what is tried escapes dispositional consideration. Whereas conditional analysis offers a fuller picture. Conditional analysis could correctly conclude not just a lack of freedom to fly due to natural inability (Jane could not fly if she wanted), but also an ability to try to fly if so willed. (If Jane willed to try to fly she would try to fly.) Therefore, conditional analysis loses nothing in this respect relative to dispositional analysis, but it retains something outside dispositional analysis. Moreover, conditional analysis would seem to have an advantage with respect to an analysis of responsibility. A crippled Jane (for no fault of her own) would not be responsible to take walks with her child in the park because she could not do so if she willed. An analysis limited to dispositional powers, by the nature of the case, could conclude a freedom to try to walk but offers nothing with respect to the potentiality to succeed at walking. Freedom to try is not always sufficient for moral accountability, whereas the freedom to do in a conditional sense would imply accountability. The conditional analysis of classical compatibilism offers much with respect to understanding freedom and responsibility in light of determinism.

A Semantic Regress Accomodation

Another contemporary attempt employed by compatibilists to get out from under the supposed regress condundrum is to speak in terms of what would have been necessary if x were now true. Rather than speaking in conditional terms: “Jane could have done not-x had she willed,” it is now considered advantageous to speak in terms of: If Jane were feeding her baby, she would have married rather than remained single. The focus was no longer fixed on hypotheticals that change a fixed future by altering the past – e.g. I could have x had I willed to have x. Instead the focus shifted to an agent’s power to act in a way that contemplates a different past. Such an approach doesn’t posit acting contrary to what the past caused but rather contemplates acting in a way that would entail a different causal past for acts present or future. Although a more refined and perhaps insightful way of addressing PAP, I find this to be more a semantic distinction without a profound difference relative to classical compatibilism given that (a) conditional analysis in the first place should not have been evaluated on strict incompatibilist terms (i.e. on the basis of whether it makes room for the power to choose otherwise) and (b) if “Jane were feeding her baby and, therefore, married in another possible world” is no less susceptible to misguided arrows that point to an alleged compatibilist regress conundrum. (Paper will never resist incompatibilism’s ink.)

Both classical and contemporary compatibilism in this narrow sense are approaching the weight of PAP from different angles but saying nothing distinctly different relative to compatibilism simpliciter. (Refinement of a general thesis in the face of objections does not entail complete abandonment.) In the final analysis, it’s not the ability to exercise power of contrary choice but rather the possession of certain cognitive capacities that produce different acts given different states of affairs that is relevant to compatibilism.

Second Order Volition, A Step Toward Completing The Picture

Another tool in the compatibilist toolbox pertains to: first order desires; will; second-order desires; and second-order volition. A beast and a human can have the same first-order desire to eat ice cream. When the first order desire gives way to action, the will to eat ice cream fully obtains. Unlike with beasts, moral agents have a capacity to deliberate. Moral agents approve on a second-order what they desire, or else they disapprove and refrain. The resultant action is a second-order volition. The point is, moral agents desire what they will. They approve of their desires. They desire their desires. This is an improvement relative to classical compatibilism because it not only addresses freedom of action but also takes a step toward completing the free will picture by incorporating a “mesh” of first and second-order desires that is both intuitive and particular to choices in contradistinction to brute instincts, perhaps addiction and phobias too. For the determinist it is no concern that moral agents acquire their wills through a deterministic chain as long as we possess the wills we want. Although this brief discussion on second-order features distinguishes moral agents from lesser creatures (as well as offers distance for non-volitional physical addictions and phobias perhaps) it too is not likely to satisfy the incompatibilist’s demands for a particular kind of control, source and alternative possibilities.

For The Fun Of Frankfurt

A survey like this would not be complete without referencing Frankfurt. It has been discerned that if one could be fatally prevented from doing other than x when it is true that she would do ~x, then to x can be secured as the only possible act. Doing other than x would become impossible. When xing is done, it would obtain without possible alternatives. Therefore, the ability to do otherwise is not a necessary condition for moral accountability if the possibility of libertarian freedom can be prevented from being exercised other than in one direction. (Of course, there are counter arguments to Frankfurt’s challenge to PAP.)

Incompatibilism Has Some Catching Up To Do

At the end of the day, there are insurmountable problems with libertarian freedom that relieve the compatibilist from always assuming the burden of having to work within PAP. Just to name a few…

  1. Grounding objection / God’s foreknowledge
  2. Nowhere is LFW taught in Scripture; yet determinism is, as well as moral accountability
  3. If LFW were true, without a Word from God establishing LFW we’d have to be omniscient to know something was not the ultimate source of our wills
  4. Given LFW, either our choices are not moral or an infinite regress accompanies all choices
  5. Accidental or historical necessity
  6. Choices are rational, not random

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