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Free will

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-V014-2
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Published
2011
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V014-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/free-will/v-2

3. Pessimism

One way of setting out the no-freedom theorists’ argument is as follows.

  • (1) When you act, you do what you do, in the situation in which you find yourself, because of the way you are.

It seems to follow that

  • (2) To be truly or ultimately morally responsible for what you do, you must be truly or ultimately responsible for the way you are, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (Obviously you don’t have to be responsible for the way you are in all respects. You don’t have to be responsible for your height, age, sex, and so on. But it does seem that you have to be responsible for the way you are at least in certain mental respects. After all, it is your overall mental make-up that leads you to do what you do when you act.)

But

  • (3) You cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all, so you cannot be ultimately morally responsible for what you do.

Why is it that you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are? Because

  • (4) To be ultimately responsible for the way you are, you would have to have intentionally brought it about that you are the way you are, in a way that is impossible.

The impossibility is shown as follows. Suppose that

  • (5) You have somehow intentionally brought it about that you are the way you now are, in certain mental respects: suppose that you have intentionally brought it about that you have a certain mental nature N, and that you have brought this about in such a way that you can now be said to be ultimately responsible for having nature N. (The limiting case of this would be the case in which you had simply endorsed your existing mental nature N from a position of power to change it.)

For this to be true

  • (6) You must already have had a certain mental nature N−1 , in the light of which you intentionally brought it about that you now have nature N. (If you did not already have a certain mental nature, then you cannot have had any intentions or preferences, and even if you did change in some way, you cannot be held to be responsible for the way you now are.)

But then

  • (7) For it to be true that you and you alone are truly responsible for how you now are, you must be truly responsible for having had the nature N−1 in the light of which you intentionally brought it about that you now have nature N.

So

  • (8) You must have intentionally brought it about that you had that nature, N−1 ,. But in that case, you must have existed already with a prior nature, N−2 , in the light of which you intentionally brought it about that you had the nature N−1 .

And so on. Here one is setting off on a potentially infinite regress. In order for one to be truly or ultimately responsible for how one is, in such a way that one can be truly morally responsible for what one does, something impossible has to be true: there has to be, and cannot be, a starting point in the series of acts of bringing it about that one has a certain nature – a starting point that constitutes an act of ultimate self-origination.

There is a more concise way of putting the point: in order to be truly morally responsible for what one does, it seems that one would have to be the ultimate cause or origin of oneself, or at least of some crucial part of one’s mental nature. One would have to be causa sui, in the old terminology. But nothing can be truly or ultimately causa sui in any respect at all. Even if the property of being causa sui is allowed to belong (unintelligibly) to God, it cannot plausibly be supposed to be possessed by ordinary finite human beings. ‘The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far’, as Nietzsche remarked in Beyond Good and Evil:

it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.

(1886: §21)

In fact, nearly all of those who believe in strong free will do so without any conscious thought that it requires ultimate self-origination. Nevertheless, this is the only thing that could actually ground the kind of strong free will that is regularly believed in, and it does seem that one way in which the belief in strong free will manifests itself is in the very vague and (necessarily) unexamined belief that many have that they are somehow or other radically responsible for their general mental nature, or at least for certain crucial aspects of it.

The pessimists’ argument may seem contrived, but essentially the same argument can be given in a more natural form as follows. (i) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience. (ii) It is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (this might not be true if there were reincarnation, but reincarnation would just shift the problem backwards). (iii) One cannot at any later stage of one’s life hope to accede to true or ultimate responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of one’s heredity and previous experience. For one may well try to change oneself, but (iv) both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And (v) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience. (vi) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But (vii) it is foolish to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute to one’s being truly or ultimately responsible for how one is.

The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by members of many other cultures). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions. One can put the point by saying that the way you are is, ultimately, in every last detail, a matter of luck – good or bad.

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Citing this article:
Strawson, Galen. Pessimism. Free will, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V014-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/free-will/v-2/sections/pessimism.
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