Determinism and Frankfurt Cases


The indirect argument (IA) for incompatibilism is based on the principle that an action to which there is no alternative is unfree, which we shall call ‘PA’. According to PA, to freely perform an action A, it must not be the case that one has ‘no choice’ but to perform A. The libertarian and hard determinist advocates of PA must deny that free will would exist in a deterministic world, since no agent in such a world would perform an action to which there were alternatives: an action there being the necessary consequence of preceding events and the laws of nature, it would not be possible for a person to perform actions besides those he actually performs. Determinism is seen here as “indirectly” ruling out free will by making the satisfaction of a necessary condition of free agency impossible, the former requiring, according to the leading proponent of libertarianism, Robert Kane, the performance of free actions. To have a free will, on his view, is to have committed “self-forming” actions, that is, to have done things to which there were alternatives the doing of which led to the development of the desires, preferences, and beliefs that make up one’s character. The range of phenomena obeying probabilistic laws has yet to be ascertained. Under certain assumptions, both STR and GTR entail an indeterministic mechanics. But, contrary what is often claimed, quanta do not behave indeterministicly: the wave function/probabilistic laws being necessary only insofar as we wish to macroscopicly describe their behavior. It is far less clear, however, that the macro-events involved in human decision making and behavior, such as the releasing of neurotransmitters and the contracting of muscles, occur indeterministically. The ontological status of these events-whether or not they are the necessary effects of prior occurrences-is, of course, what matters in the free will debate. For present purposes, however, this question will be put aside. Instead, I will concentrate on buttressing the existing case against PA, aiming to show that even if deterministic laws hold at the level of macro-phenomena, free will remains a possibility. That is to say, I shall defend the thesis that so-called “Frankfurt cases” demonstrate that alternatives are not required to perform an action that is free in the sense of being something for which its agent is responsible. My defense will be carried out in three stages. First, I must respond to those who maintain that a Frankfurt case is not a counterexample to PA because it is not an example of someone acting without alternatives. Here, I confront the question of how “robust” an alternative must bein order to provide an agent with a way of avoiding praise or blame for the action that she actually commits. Secondly, I must show that an agent may be praiseworthy or blameworthy despite lacking alternatives at the time at which she acts, i.e., an appropriate object of one of a Strawsonian “reactive attitude” sans what I shall call “local” alternatives. At this point, I must attend to David Widerker’s recent critique of the use of Frankfurt cases as counterexamples to PA. Finally, I set for myself what I take to be the most difficult task of a compatibilist: demonstrating that not even an “historical” alternative-the possibility of having chosen a different path in life than the one that one has actually taken-is needed to have a free will. In this connection, it will be incumbent upon me to explain why it would be fair to hold someone accountable for behavior issuing from a self she did not create, dispositions originating from natural conditions she did not establish. That is to say, in denying that a free will entails the ability to transcend oneself, I shall be faced with what Kane calls the “ultimacy” problem: how to explain away the incompatibilist’s intuition that it is senseless to adopt a reactive attitude towards someone incapable of self-transcendence, even if such a reaction is itself unavoidable. By showing that the desire for self-transcendence is itself irrational, I intend to solve this problem. I will, thus, be left defending a version of compatibilism according to which a free will is to be understood as a healthy faculty-the will-being exercised in an environment conducive to self-realization, which is its purpose.

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Robert Allen
Wayne County Community College District


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