Free will

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

6. Challenges to pessimism

The preceding discussion attempts to illustrate the internal dynamic of the free will debate, and to explain why the debate is likely to continue for as long as human beings can think. The basic point is this: powerful logical or metaphysical reasons for supposing that we cannot have strong free will keep coming up against equally powerful psychological reasons why we cannot help believing that we do have it. The pessimists’ or no-freedom theorists’ conclusions may seem irresistible during philosophical discussion, but they are likely to lose their force, and seem obviously irrelevant to life, when one stops philosophizing.

Various challenges to the pessimists’ argument have been proposed, some of which appear to be supported by the experience or ’phenomenology’ of choice. One challenge grants that one cannot be ultimately responsible for one’s mental nature – one’s character, personality, or motivational structure – but denies that it follows that one cannot be truly morally responsible for what one does (it therefore challenges step (2) of the argument set out in §3).

This challenge has at least two versions. One has already been noted: we are attracted by the idea that our capacity for fully explicit self-conscious deliberation, in a situation of choice, suffices by itself to constitute us as truly morally responsible agents in the strongest possible sense. The idea is that such full self-conscious awareness somehow renders irrelevant the fact that one neither is nor can be ultimately responsible for any aspect of one’s mental nature. On this view, the mere fact of one’s self-conscious presence in the situation of choice can confer true moral responsibility: it may be undeniable that one is, in the final analysis, wholly constituted as the sort of person one is by factors for which one cannot be in any way ultimately responsible; but the threat that this fact appears to pose to one’s claim to true moral responsibility is simply obliterated by one’s self-conscious awareness of one’s situation.

The pessimists reply: This may correctly describe a strong source of belief in ultimate (moral) responsibility, but it is not an account of something that could constitute ultimate (moral) responsibility. When one acts after explicit self-conscious deliberation, one acts for certain reasons. But which reasons finally weigh with one is a matter of one’s mental nature, which is something for which one cannot be in any way ultimately responsible. One can certainly be a morally responsible agent in the sense of being aware of distinctively moral considerations when one acts. But one cannot be morally responsible in such a way that one is ultimately deserving of punishment or reward for what one does.

The conviction that fully explicit self-conscious awareness of one’s situation can be a sufficient foundation of strong free will is extremely powerful. The no-freedom theorists’ argument seems to show that it is wrong, but it is a conviction that runs deeper than rational argument, and it survives untouched, in the everyday conduct of life, even after the validity of the no-freedom theorists’ argument has been admitted.

Another version of the challenge runs as follows. The reason why one can be truly or ultimately (morally) responsible for what one does is that one’s self – what one might call the ‘agent self’– is, in some crucial sense, independent of one’s general mental nature (one’s character, personality, motivational structure, and so on). 62One’s mental nature inclines one to do one thing rather than another, but it does not thereby necessitate one to do one thing rather than the other. (The distinction between inclining and necessitating derives from Leibniz (1686. 1704–5).) As an agent-self, one incorporates a power of free decision that is independent of all the particularities of one’s mental nature in such a way that one can, after all, count as truly and ultimately morally responsible in one’s decisions and actions even though one is not ultimately responsible for any aspect of one’s mental nature.

The pessimists reply: Even if one grants the validity of this conception of the agent-self for the sake of argument, it cannot help to establish ultimate moral responsibility. According to the conception, the agent-self decides in the light of the agent’s mental nature but is not determined by the agent’s mental nature. The following question immediately arises: Why does the agent-self decide as it does? The general answer is clear. Whatever the agent-self decides, it decides as it does because of the overall way it is; and this necessary truth returns us to where we started. For once again, it seems that the agent-self must be responsible for being the way it is, in order to be a source of true or ultimate responsibility. But this is impossible, for the reasons given in §3: nothing can be causa sui in the required way. Whatever the nature of the agent-self, it is ultimately a matter of luck (or, for those who believe in God, a matter of grace). It may be proposed that the agent-self decides as it does partly or wholly because of the presence of indeterministic occurrences in the decision process. But it is clear that indeterministic occurrences can never be a source of true (moral) responsibility.

Some believe that free will and moral responsibility are above all a matter of being governed in one’s choices and actions by reason – or by Reason with a capital ’R’. But possession of the property of being governed by Reason cannot be a ground of radical moral responsibility as ordinarily understood. It cannot be a property that makes punishment (for example) ultimately just or fair for those who possess it, and unfair for those who do not possess it. Why not? Because to be morally responsible, on this view, is simply to possess one sort of motivational set among others. It is to value or respond naturally to rational considerations – which are often thought to include moral considerations by those who propound this view. It is to have a general motivational set that may be attractive, and that may be more socially beneficial than many others. But there is no escape from the fact that someone who does possess such a motivational set is simply lucky to possess it – if it is indeed a good thing – while someone who lacks it is unlucky.

This may be denied. It may be said that some people struggle to become more morally responsible, and make an enormous effort. Their moral responsibility is then not a matter of luck; it is their own hard-won achievement.

The pessimists’ reply is immediate. Suppose you are someone who struggles to be morally responsible, and make an enormous effort. Well, that, too, is a matter of luck. You are lucky to be someone who has a character of a sort that disposes you to make that sort of effort. Someone who lacks a character of that sort is merely unlucky. Kant is a famous example of a philosopher who was attracted by the idea that to display free will is to be governed by Reason in one’s actions. But he became aware of the problem just described, and insisted, in a later work (1793: 89), that ’man himself must make or have made himself into whatever, in a moral sense, whether good or evil, he is to become. Either condition must be an effect of his free choice; for otherwise he could not be held responsible for it and could therefore be morally neither good nor evil’. Since he was committed to belief in ultimate moral responsibility, Kant held that such self-creation does indeed take place, and wrote accordingly of ’man’s character, which he himself creates’ (1788: 101), and of ’knowledge [that one has] of oneself as a person who… is his own originator’ (1793: 213). Here he made the demand for self-creation that is natural for someone who believes in ultimate moral responsibility and who thinks through what is required for it.

In the end, luck swallows everything. This is one way of putting the point that there can be no ultimate responsibility, given the natural, strong conception of responsibility that was characterized at the beginning of §4. Relative to that conception, no punishment or reward is ever ultimately just or fair, however natural or useful or otherwise humanly appropriate it may be or seem.

The facts are clear, and they have been known for a long time. When it comes to the metaphysics of free will, André Gide’s remark is apt: ’Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.’ It seems that the only freedom that we can have is compatibilist freedom. If – since – that is not enough for ultimate responsibility, we cannot have ultimate responsibility. The only alternative to this conclusion is to appeal to God and mystery – this in order to back up the claim that something that appears to be provably impossible is not only possible but actual.

The debate continues; some have thought that philosophy ought to move on. There is little reason to expect that it will do so, as each new generation arises bearing philosophers gripped by the conviction that they can have ultimate responsibility. Would it be a good thing if philosophy did move on, or if we became more clear-headed about the topic of free will than we are? It is hard to say.

Citing this article:
Strawson, Galen. Challenges to pessimism. Free will, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles