What Jerry Needs to Know about Freedom

Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, has been arguing that determinism implies that we are not really free, and that the compatibilist account of freedom and choice fails to do justice to the common conception of free will. (I wonder whether he’d be uncomfortable learning that he’s agreeing with Kant, who called compatibilism a “wretched subterfuge.”)

It’s certainly true that the compatibilist account of freedom doesn’t fully capture what the common folk mean by “free will.” This is clear from the fact that the folk believe that we cannot be free if our actions are determined. So how do we decide which account is the “right” one?

Well, we could just slap different labels on the two different notions and leave it at that. Then pretty much everyone in the skeptical/atheist/pro-science community could just agree that we have compatibilist freedom, but we don’t have libertarian (contra-causal, transcendental, ultimate) freedom.

But there’s more to the debate. Incompatibilists like Jerry claim that the lack of libertarian freedom has serious and unsettling consequences. Compatibilists, on the other hand, argue that determinism doesn’t require any big adjustments in our understanding of our place in the world.

So, what scary consequences do the incompatibilists point to? Here’s a partial list:

IF DETERMINISM IS TRUE (they say):

1. It doesn’t matter what I decide (because the outcome is already determined).

2. I don’t have any real choice (because what I’ll do is already decided).

3. I couldn’t have done otherwise (because the laws of nature determined my action).

4. I’m not really responsible for my actions (since they are the outcome of laws and circumstances that I had no control over).

All of these claims are wrong.

I’ll tackle point (1) and point (3) here. Point (2) has been ably answered already by Russell over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club. [Update: I also address point (2) here.] And I’ll put off point (4) for another day, since it will require saying something about ethics, and that’s a whole other can of worms.

1. It doesn’t matter what I decide (because the outcome is already determined).

Wrong.

This mistakes fatalism for determinism. Fatalism is the view that some events are fated to occur no matter what. If Romeo and Juliet are fated to fall in love, then it doesn’t matter whether Romeo shows up to the masquerade party or not. If they don’t meet that night, they’ll meet on another occasion. If Oedipus is fated to kill his dad and sleep with his mom, then it doesn’t matter whether he leaves his homeland or not. All roads lead to the same destiny.

Now, if an event is fated, then it doesn’t matter what you do. There’s no avoiding the outcome. There are many roads available to you, but they all lead to the same destination. In this case it is correct to say that your decisions don’t matter.

But determinism is not fatalism. According to the determinist, different roads lead to different destinations. Different decisions really do lead to different outcomes, and this means that our decisions really do matter. The fact that the decisions themselves are part of a deterministic chain of events doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant. Decisions are real causes.

Whenever you hear someone talking about an event being predetermined, you should suspect that determinism and fatalism are being conflated. To say that the outcome of a game is predetermined is to imply that the outcome is fated; that it doesn’t matter what the players do, the outcome will be the same. But obviously this will only be the case if the game is rigged – if something fixes the outcome so that the players’ performance becomes irrelevant. Once you put a “pre-” in front of “determined” then you’re implying what happens in between the earlier time and the later time is irrelevant.

But in most deterministic processes, the only way to get to the outcome is through the intervening stages. And this is obviously true for our actions. I’m not going for a walk unless I first decide to do so. It matters what I decide.

3. I couldn’t have done otherwise (because the laws of nature determined my action).

Some compatibilists will be willing to accept that this follows from determinism, and then will argue that the ability to do otherwise is irrelevant for moral responsibility. (After all, they argue, why should we care about the ability to do otherwise when — by definition — we will never ever use that ability?)

But other compatibilists argue that we do have the ability to do otherwise, even though our actions are determined. And I think this is right.

Here again, we find that there are different notions in play that need to be teased apart. What does it mean to say that I “could” have ordered coffee even though I actually ordered tea? There clearly is a notion of “could” that is ruled out by determinism, but there’s another notion that has no trouble fitting in with deterministic natural laws.

And the important point is that when we normally talk about what something “can” do (or what it “could” have done – even though it didn’t) the concept we’re using is the compatibilist one. The notion of “could” that’s ruled out by determinism is a notion that we never have any use for, so it’s rather perverse to suppose that it’s all-important for responsibility.

So, what are these notions of “could”?

The compatibilist says that “could have” just means “would have if.” We allow ourselves to consider some small, relevant changes in the actual history of the world, and then we see what would have resulted from these changes.

Go ahead and think of some uncontroversially true statement about something that could have happened even though it didn’t. “The dinosaurs could have survived for another hundred million years.” What does this mean? Obviously the extended survival of the dinosaurs is not compatible with the actual history of life on Earth. So what are we saying? We’re saying that if things had been slightly different (e.g., a comet hadn’t struck the Earth) then the dinosaurs would have lived on for another hundred million years.

What we’re saying when we say that something could have happened is that there is a possible world that is not too far from our own in which it does indeed happen. Of course, that other possible world will need to have some other differences too; we can’t just change a single event, we need to alter the circumstances that ruled out that event in the actual world. But this is what we always do when we say that something “could have” happened even though it actually didn’t. We consider a slightly different situation, and then we conclude that in those circumstances, the alternative event would have occurred.

“Could” just means “would have if.”

And this is quite reasonable if you consider why we have the word “could” in our language to begin with. We’re naturally interested in the powers that objects have, and in the causal connections between different events. The way we figure out these powers and causes is by looking at what would happen in different circumstances.

Suppose I tell you that this glass of water has the power to extinguish that candle flame. It would be silly for you to deny this merely because the world is deterministic and as a matter of fact the glass remains on the table and the candle burns itself out. When I’m talking about what the water can do, I’m referring to what it would do in the right circumstances.

And the same goes for our ability to choose certain actions. When I say that I could have had coffee rather than tea, what I’m saying is that I had a certain ability, a certain power. If things had been slightly different, I would have had coffee. I’m not saying that I am able to violate the deterministic laws of physics; I’m just talking about my ability to order beverages and the causal connections between my preferences and the type of liquid that I find in my cup.

Of course, there is another notion of “could” that is not compatible with determinism. This notion is one in which there are two possible worlds that are completely identical up to some time, and then after that time, the two worlds differ from one another. This seems to be what incompatibilists have in mind when they say that determinism means I couldn’t do anything other than what I actually did. They point out that if we hold the circumstances fixed – if we don’t allow any of the details to vary – then determinism says that only one outcome is allowed by the laws of nature.

But if we use this notion, then (given the truth of determinism) the notion of what can happen collapses down to what will happen, and the notion of what could have happened collapses down to what did happen. But this just means that the proposed notion can’t do the work we want it to. It’s very useful to be able to talk about the powers that something has, and to be able to distinguish between what can be done and what can’t be done. And some of the things that can be done, won’t be.

But to make sense of this, we need the compatibilist notion of “can” and “could.” We need to talk about what would have happened if things had been different.

And even the falsity of determinism doesn’t make the incompatibilist notion of “could” helpful. Let’s suppose that there are two possible worlds that are completely alike up to some time, and then after that time the worlds diverge. In world one, I drink coffee. In world two, I drink tea. This indeterminism means that there can be no reason that I drank tea in the actual world. If you want to call this a “choice,” there’s no way the choice could be mine. I had absolutely nothing to do with which world became the actual world, because anything that can be called “me” is part of the world at the moment of divergence.

Thus if you want to use the word “could” to mean what the incompatibilists mean, anything that “could have been otherwise” will have to be the result of mere chance. There’s no way to attribute ownership of these “could”s to any person or thing. But that’s rather silly.

The reason we’re interested in whether someone had the ability to do otherwise is because we want to know whether they are responsible for the action; whether it was their power that brought the about the result. And that is precisely what the compatibilist notion captures.

Thus we do have the ability to do otherwise. That just means that we have within our powers a certain range of activities, and what we actually do depends on our desires (and commitments, and character, and so on). To say that I could have had coffee rather than tea is just to say that if I had wanted coffee, I would have had coffee. And that’s perfectly compatible with determinism.

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48 responses to “What Jerry Needs to Know about Freedom

  1. Pingback: If We’re Determined, Do We Choose? « Physicalism

  2. this is well explained and food for thought. thanks!

  3. Your arguments against (1) are very muddled, with your final paragraph doing an excellent job of illustrating the muddle:

    But in most deterministic processes, the only way to get to the outcome is through the intervening stages.

    Good so far. But since the intervening stages are also deterministic, this really doesn’t shed any light on the problem.

    And this is obviously true for our actions.

    I think you’re either assuming too much here or too little. If your position is that everything is deterministic, then everything is deterministic. Intervening steps and final action.

    I’m not going for a walk unless I first decide to do so. It matters what I decide.

    It only “matters” what you decide if you make an active decision. If your decision depends on a chain of deterministic events, then your decision is also deterministic.

    I suppose you’re really quibbling with language here, not the specific argument. You might be better to address the more well phrased version of (1):

    1. Decisions are deterministic. With enough data I could “read your mind” and predict all your decisions.

    • You seem to be assuming that I want to deny determinism at some point. I don’t — I’m a determinist.

      So I agree with your “rephrasing” of (1): Decisions are deterministic. That’s determinism. That’s A-OK.

      What’s not OK is to say, “My decisions don’t make a difference,” or “Since everything’s determined, it doesn’t matter what I choose.”

      So yes, the decision process is deterministic process. A Laplacian demon who knew the complete physical state and the physical laws and who could perform impossible calculations would be able to predict exactly what I was going to decide.

      But none of this shows that my decision doesn’t matter. It makes as much of a difference on my behavior as the comet striking the Earth 65 million years ago made on the dinosaurs’.

      The fact that the comet was determined by the laws of physics to strike the Earth doesn’t mean that it didn’t “make a difference.” It would be absurd to say that “since everything’s determined, it doesn’t matter whether the comet strikes or not.”

      But those who mistake determinism for fatalism are making the same error.

  4. I break a set of racked pool balls and the nine ball goes into the left side pocket. I think we agree that this event was not only determined, but even predictable, the moment I stuck the cue ball.
    Why would it be incorrect to say that after this moment, all subsequent movement of the balls are predetermined versus simply determined? If the event of my death in the future is in every way analogous to the nine ball going into the left side pocket, why is it not predetermined?

    • The term “predetermined” seems appropriate in your pool case because we view a pool game as a process in which there are a limited number of clear opportunities for intervention in the process. The outside world only matters when the stick hits the cue ball, after that, it is a closed system that runs on its own.

      But, of course, it would be a mistake to say, “Since the nine ball is predetermined to go in the corner pocket, it doesn’t matter whether it bounces off the two ball or not.” Someone who claimed, “It really doesn’t matter where the cue ball hits the racked balls; after all, either the nine is determined to fall in the pocket, or it isn’t,” would just be confused.

      I’m suggesting that it’s the same situation with our choices and our death. Sure it’s determined, but if you take the term “predetermined” to mean that the intervening steps are irrelevant, then you’ve got the story wrong.

    • Thats not the real question–the question is WHO struck the ball and after it is struck how in the world can random directions of balls form logical thoughts?
      People arguing about FW is so utterly baffling. How do you arguing with a person who actually believes he has no choice in what he is saying? How do you tell them they would not even come close to a rational thought without freewill– when what they are saying is irrational anyway !!

      You know the disease of atheism has infected the mind so thoroughly when someone expresses through their will that they have no will. Nothing works but the soul. Everyone has always known that and science has done nothing to prove random collisions can produce the greatest thing in the universe–consciousness. Its one thing to accept 10 to the 40000th power on DNA and quite another to actually argue that random electrical signals just happen to all be colliding precisely to give the illusion that we are really thinking. It mind boggling denial of reality. Its so much worse than magic that you might as well imagine you’re Frodo on a journey into Mordor

  5. Has anyone actually argued that the intervening steps don’t matter? I don’t think that’s what Shakespeare had in mind for Romeo and Juliet or Sophocles for Oedipus. Oedipus’ foreknowledge and his attempts to evade his fate were necessary precursors to its realization. I remember when I read the Greek playwrights years ago thinking their emphasis on fate in human affairs somewhat silly. Time for a reappraisal. It’s probably much deeper than the modern view which is wedded to free will.

    Yes, the pool balls are a closed system, but so are our lives, albeit with many more moving parts. And it means nothing different to say of my fate, it seems to me, that it is pre-determined, or simply determined. Obviously, if someone thinks that intervening steps don’t matter, they’re wrong.

    To say that I have a fate that is pre-determined is to say I have a fate that is unavoidable. This is true on naturalism. Of course, there is only one set of steps/events that is going to get me there and any attempt to fake out fate is, well, fated to fail.

    Good thing there are no Delphic Oracles around to torment us!

  6. Has anyone actually argued that the intervening steps don’t matter?

    Not explicitly, but it seems to me (and to others, like Dennett), that they implicitly have something like this in mind.

    Consider what Coyne and Harris claim is the common-sense notion of freedom (which, they tell us, is incompatible with determinism)”

    Coyne:

    You can actually make decisions, rather than simply appear to make decisions that are really physically determined.

    Harris:

    What people mean is that they—their conscious selves—are free to chose their actions. You choose what you want; you choose what you will to do.

    Now, what would it mean to say that we merely “appear to make decisions” but we really don’t? Or that it’s really not the case that you “choose what you want”?

    When Coyne says that we have the appearance of choice, but no real choice, it seems that he’s denying the causal relevance of mental act of choosing.

    Likewise, when Harris denies that you “choose what you want,” it seems that he’s denying that our desires are causally relevant to our actions.

    So yes, it seems to me (and to other compatibilists) that they are indeed ignoring the fact that the mental process of choosing is an essential part of the causal (deterministic) process.

    “pool balls are a closed system, but so are our lives

    No, all living beings are (of necessity) open systems. Try going without air for a while, and this will become painfully obvious. We could make some more careful distinctions that tried to account for whether a system is effectively closed with respect to some particular process, but I doubt that would be helpful here.

    “And it means nothing different to say of my fate, it seems to me, that it is pre-determined, or simply determined.

    While the words can be used interchangeably, I left to wonder what work the prefix “pre-” is supposed to be doing. Obviously some people are more worried about things being determined in advance than about things being determined at at the time. Why is that?

    Of course, I can’t claim to read the mind of all incompatibilists who use the phrase “predetermined”, but my suspicion is that when one speaks of an outcome being determined in advance, one is (perhaps implicitly) assuming that intervening events are irrelevant (“because the outcome is already determined”, they’ll say).

  7. Wait a minute. I didn’t mean to argue that my body was a closed system. The “block universe” is a closed system. The date, place and means of my death are as fixed in this block universe as any event in my past. Seems to me this view of things validates the idea of “fate” (even if can never be known in advance) and means everything is predetermined, or just determined, if you like. I agree that the prefix is superfluous and there is no real distinction between these terms.

  8. I guess if I’ve learned anything from the ongoing public debate between the Coynes, Harrises and compatibilists is that this subject is a difficult one to discuss, even for very smart people. Comments like those we see to Jerry’s USA Today article shows how poorly equipped people of average intelligence are to deal with the implications of determinism for our lives.

    I do think that Jerry erred above in the quote you reproduced (less clear to me that Sam did). To say that choices are determined is not to deny that decision-making is a real process, it’s just a deterministic one, like every other process. Choices made after deliberation often produce better outcomes than snap judgments. Surely, that’s why we have evolved the ability to deliberate.

    Perhaps I occupy a middle ground between Jerry and the compatibilists. I say decisions are by no means illusory, however the notion of “freedom” in this process certainly is: it is a consequence of our ability to imagine different courses of future action and their consequences. (Of course what we imagine is also determined.) Because we can imagine, we think the future really undetermined until we choose an action.

    Choice is as real as any other process and is as determined as any other process.

    To say choice is not real IS like saying any natural process (like natural selection or the ontogeny of an organism) are not real processes because they are determined.

    However, it is just as it is meaningless to apply the adjective “free” to human choices as it would be to natural selection or ontogeny.

    I heard Dan Dennett on a recent Point of Inquiry podcast recently and I had to shake my head because he reminded me of nothing so much as a theist who when challenged on the existence of god resorts to an argument from the consequences: there must be a god because without one people will become depraved baby-killers. Dennett’s worried what will happen when people internalize the truth of determinism. But if an argument from the consequences fails as an argument in the case of god, it also fails for free will.

    • however the notion of “freedom” in this process certainly is [illusory]

      I’ll agree to a certain extent. Most people do have a mistaken impression about the relationship between their abilities and the requirements of natural law. Most people are naive incompatibilists.

      And I agree that part of this has to do with the fact that we envision different possible futures and we want to say each is equally real or unreal up to the point we make our decision.

      But I’m actually inclined to say that the word “free” does some legitimate work when we’re talking about “free choice” and that this legitimate work very often gets mixed in with the mistaken notions about violating laws of physics. We can make sense of choices that are not free (e.g., someone makes a decision due to coercion), so we do need to distinguish between different sorts of choices even though they’re all bound by natural law.

      As far as Dennett goes, it’s my impression that his main worry is that people will end up with false beliefs (e.g., thinking that their choices don’t matter) because they’re failing to distinguish between different notions of freedom. I haven’t seen him make an argument from consequences (except for making the prudential point that when we choose vocabulary, we should do so in a way that minimizes the number of false beliefs that the uninitiated are likely to walk away with). But I haven’t seen the podcast in question, so I can’t really say.

  9. First: this is a great article and I agree to 99%. (But I am a compatibilist as well). Very well done.

    I have only a minor objection. I think, this: “To say that I could have had coffee rather than tea is just to say that if I had wanted coffee, I would have had coffee.” is not sufficient to cover the meaning of ‘could’ adequate – at least as I understand it.

    Let’s imagine that I am a person who first hates the taste of coffee und second get awful allergic reactions if I would drink coffee. In this case I would never drink coffee, I would always refrain from drinking coffee.

    And I think then it would be right to say that I cannot want to drink coffee. And then it would not suffice to say: “If I had wanted it I could have done it” – which of course is right – but: I cannot und could not want it. So I could not have had coffee.

    Maybe we could rephrase your sentence to something like this: “To say that I could have had coffee rather than tea is just to say that if I had wanted coffee, and there was no known reason outside my control, why I could not have want to have coffee, I would have had coffee.”

    • Thanks.

      I’m not sure I follow your example, though. How are we supposed to think of the coffee allergy coming into play?

      I first thought you were saying that the allergy would prevent me from drinking coffee (suppose unbeknownst to me, if I were to try to swallow it, I’d be unable to and would be forced to spit it out). In that case we shouldn’t say that I could have had coffee, because even if I had wanted to, I wouldn’t have drunk it. I just don’t have that ability (even if I happen to believe I do).

      But it sounds like maybe you’re saying that the allergy in fact prevents me from forming a desire for coffee? You say “I . . . could not want it. So I could not have had coffee,” and then you suggest that I am only able to have coffee if it’s the case that I could have wanted to have coffee (or at least, there is nothing preventing me from wanting coffee).

      In this case, I’m inclined to say that the “allergy” (or whatever it is — it seems like most allergies work less at a psychological level and more at a physiological level) is actually irrelevant for the question of whether I could have had coffee or not. I think the right thing to say is “I could have had coffee, but I didn’t want to . . . oh, and by the way, I also couldn’t have wanted to, even if I had wanted to want to.”

      This sounds a little odd, because we almost never have any reason to make distinctions as fine-grained as this, but I’m pretty sure it’s right.

      The problem with your proposed gloss on the meaning of “could” is that we’d once again end up saying that we really couldn’t have done anything besides what we actually did. Because even if it’s the case that if I had wanted to desire coffee I could have changed my desires (maybe I could have pretend to be from Seattle and developed a craving, or something), the incompatibilist is then just going to push things back a step. Could I have wanted to have the desire to change my tea craving into a coffee craving? If not (says the incompatibilist) then I couldn’t really have had the desire to change my craving, so I couldn’t really change my craving, so I couldn’t really have had coffee (given that I actually had tea).

      But this just shows that it’s a mistake to go down that road. So I want to say that even if I can’t change my cravings, I still had the ability to have coffee and the ability to have tea; so I really could have had coffee, even in your scenario where I’m unable to generate a desire for coffee.

      Now, in your case (as I’m reading it, at least), it’s also true that I couldn’t have wanted coffee. I can sit down and wish I wanted coffee all I like, but even then I just won’t get the desire for coffee. But that’s OK. I don’t have to say that everything is under my control to say that some stuff is under my control. And I had control over whether I had coffee or tea, so I could have had coffee (even though I didn’t, because I didn’t want to, and I couldn’t have wanted to).

      (I could say more about how things get psychologically incoherent if we pursue the idea of wanting to want to want to want to do something, and about the pragmatic aspect of assessing relevant abilities — how we’re usually interested in what can be changed given likely variables or inputs or especially motivations — , and about the incomapitilists’ notion that we need to be the “ultimate” cause of our actions, but this is probably already too long.)

  10. The allergy (and my taste) prevents (and prevented) me from wanting to drink coffee, yes. I cannot want to drink coffee, I am not able to drink coffee (in the described hypothetical case). And therefore I cannot (and could not) drink coffee.

    I think we have good reasons to make distinctions like that and that this is not too fine grained – as you say – and I do not think that it is odd to make this distinction.

    Maybe we can change the topic from free will to responsibility. (It seems to me that in this case our intuitions work better – ‘free will’ is ill-defined.)

    We have to change the example as well, because it does not matter for responsibility if someone drinks coffee or tea because this has no impact on other people.

    Let’s now imagine that I am someone with a agoraphobia. Suppose that I see – sitting inside my house – through the window a guy who is robbed by others. If I could go outside presumably I could save him from harm.

    But I cannot do that, (go outside and help him), because of my agoraphobia.

    I think in this case it would be a good answer (excuse) to the (moral) question: “you saw the man outside was robbed, you could have helped him, why did you stay inside of your house?” if I would say: “yes, I saw him and I wanted to help him, but because of my agoraphobia I could not have gone outside and helped him”.

    In short: “you could have gone outside and help the guy, right?” “no, I could not have done that, because of my agoraphobia”.

    (At least this would make sense if I translate it back to german – my native language. But maybe there ist now a cultural / a meaning difference? But in fact I do not believe that.)

    You are right that the incompatibilist may think she can make a good point here, possibly she could argue that this leads to an infinite regress, but I think: first: I as compatibilist have to grant the incompatibilist that it does not suffice for the common meaning of ‘could’ if I simply say: “I could have done X means: if I had wanted X, it would have been possible that I did X” and second: I think the charge of an infinite regress will not succeed, (but even if this is wrong i had to grant the incompatibilist that she is right here).

    The point is not that everything is (or should be) under my control. To mean that would be simply crazy. I am quite shure that nobody really would claim that, (that she can control everything in the world). And if the incompatibilist would argue with something like that then it would not matter at all.

    But if she says: “to say – as you [the compatibilist] do – ‘could’ only means that it would have been possible that I did something if I wanted to do it – does not suffice to describe the common meaning of ‘could'” then she is right.

    (My english is very bad, I am well aware of that. But I hope you understand my point anyway.)

    • Yes, I thought you probably had something along the lines of the agoraphobia case in mind. So let’s walk through it.

      Is it the case, on my account, that you could have gone outside to save the victim? Well, is it the case that if you had wanted to go outside then you would have gone outside?

      This is somewhat difficult to answer here, because on the one hand it’s natural to suppose that you did want to go out to help the victim, but your irrational fear prevented you from doing so. (In which case, it seems straightforward that you couldn’t help the person, and so we don’t hold you morally responsible.)

      But on the other hand, it’s also natural to say that you didn’t want to go outside (after all, the very thought paralyzed you with fear). And this way of looking at it, as you say, seems to spell trouble for my reading, because considering a counterfactual case in which you have a no phobia and an unfettered desire to go out and help the victim seems irrelevant for what you can really do given your actual psychological makeup.

      One thing we could say in this case is that you have conflicting desires. On the one hand, you want to stay inside. On the other you want to go out and help the victim. Now, should we say in this case that you would have helped the victim if you had wanted to?

      It might depend on how we understand the “If you had wanted to.” As a matter of fact, you did want to, but it didn’t result in your going outside. So you couldn’t go out. But if we instead read the “if you had wanted to” as ruling out your phobia-induced desire to stay inside, then we’ll say that you could have gone out (that is, you would have gone out if you had a desire that overpowered or dispelled the phobia-induced desire to stay in).

      So, how do we decide between these readings when it comes to deciding whether someone really could have done something different? Well, it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, we generally appeal to various pragmatic issues in making decisions like these.

      We ask, could the person’s actions have been altered by any threats, or enticements, or by more careful moral deliberation, or by being more concerned with moral facts? When the answer to these questions is “yes,” then we assign moral responsibility. When the answer is “no,” we don’t.

      So, for example suppose you didn’t go outside because you were watching a TV show that you really enjoy, and you didn’t want to miss the show. Then when we ask whether various threats, enticement, and moral considerations would have made a difference the answer is “yes.” (If I threatened to throw you in jail if you didn’t go, or if I offered you a million Euros if you did go, you would have gone.) So we conclude that you could have gone, and we hold you morally responsible.

      On the other hand, our agoraphobic case (I’m supposing) would result in a “no” answer. It doesn’t matter if I threaten to jail you or offer you a million dollars. It also doesn’t matter if you become an extremely moral person and work hard to act morally. You still wouldn’t go outside. So (I claim) we conclude that you couldn’t go outside, and we don’t hold you morally responsible.

      So I’m agreeing with you that we’re going to have to be a little more nuanced than I was above when I simply stated that “X could have” means “X would have if she wanted to,” but I think the nuance resides just in understanding the “if she had wanted to” part. I still think we don’t want to make the move to asking whether “X could have wanted to.”

      (Though I should mention that some prominent compatibilists do go down this road. Frank Jackson holds that what I’m talking about is just free action but that we should really care about free will which means having the will — the desire — that you want to have. So he distinguishes between what he calls “wantons” that have desires and “persons” that have second-order desires (we want to want something). I have some sympathy for this view, but I don’t think it changes anything regarding how we should understand the claim that X could have done something that she didn’t.)

    • Oh and on the coffee case, it seems you and I do disagree about whether we should say that I could have had coffee or not.

      I want to say that even though I couldn’t have had a different desire, I could have had coffee.

      You want to say that in order for it to be true that I could have had coffee, it has to be the case that I could have wanted coffee.

      But let me ask you why you insist on this requirement. And more importantly, as a compatibilist, how far back do you think these abilities have to go? Does it just have to be the case that we can have the desire (i.e., if we did want the desire, then we would have the desire), or do we also have to have the ability to have the desire to have the desire?

      The worry here, of course (as I mentioned above) is that the incompatibilist is going to point out that this chain of abilities is always going to give out at some point. You consider a case where the desire can’t be changed, but surely if we go back far enough we’ll always find a point that’s outside of our control (even with no “allergies” or mental disfuntions).

      I would have had coffee if I had wanted to

      “OK. But you couldn’t have wanted to”

      Sure I could have wanted to. If I had wanted to have different preferences, I would have instilled them in myself. I didn’t like beer when I first started drinking it, but I taught myself to like it. I can give myself desires.

      “OK, but you couldn’t have made yourself want to give yourself the desire for coffee. So you couldn’t have had the desire. So you couldn’t have had coffee.”

      Well, if I had wanted to want to instill the desire for coffee, I would have wanted to. So I could have had that second order desire.

      “Are you sure about that? What would that psychological exercise look like? It’s not like learning to like beer! In any case, you surely couldn’t have wanted to want to want to desire coffee. So all those other if-then statements that you mention are irrelevant! Sure, if you had wanted to want to . . . and so on. But you didn’t! And you could no more want coffee (given your actual second order desires) than you could drink coffee (given your actual first order desires). And so on!”

      That’s how the argument goes.

      But the right response is just to stop it before it gets going. It’s not the case that in order to have the ability to drink coffee I also have to have the ability to want coffee. These are distinct abilities and the one does not rely on the other.

      My ability to drink coffee is a connection between my desires and my actions. The desire to drink coffee (if and when I have it) causes me to drink coffee. I have the ability to drink coffee and the ability to drink tea.

      Then I have a much more limited ability to change my desires. For example, I’m not sure I can want to drink Jägermeister. I’d have to do some pretty serious adjustments of my tastes. But clearly I can drink it. (Though some teenagers who can’t stomach alcohol don’t have this ability.)

      And I submit that it is these abilities that we have in mind when we say that I could have had Jägermeister, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to. And this is true even though I couldn’t have wanted to.

  11. Of course I do not think that we can choose all our desires. That is obviously not true and obviously we do not have the power to create ourselves from scratch.

    Now in your sense of ability you could have had Jägermeister, I could have had coffee and the agoraphobic as well would have had the ability to go outside – (suppose he would not go outside if I offer him a million dollar or threaten jail to him but would do it if I threaten him much more serious).

    But at least if we talk about freedom and moral responsibility it seems to me that people have something slightly different in mind than this.

    In the case of the above described agoraphobic I think we would not held him morally responsible. And I think we would say: “he could not have gone outside” and “he had not the power to go outside” or “it was not up to him that he stayed inside” – even though he have had the ability in your sense to go outside.

    This is not to say that your sense of ability sounds somewhat odd to me. But I suspect that it is not exactly that what is seen as needed for freedom / responsibility.

    Maybe – but I am not sure – the point is here that an ability should – from your view – be seen as a binary category. (A man has an ability or he has it not.) If so: maybe this is sometimes true – but in many cases abilities or powers are part of a continuum (from none to absolute). So we mostly do not ask if someone is absolute responsible for an act or omission but we ask if he is sufficient responsible. Or if he had enough power to do / refrain from the act. Or if the act (or omission) was enough “up to him”. And then it would not suffice to ask only if someone has an ability in your sense to determine if he was responsible or not.

    As said this is only a minor objection. Apart from that I totally agree upon your postings, also to the next to last where you wrote about responsibility and the agoraphobia example.

    • I think we’re largely in agreement. A couple minor points:

      (1) I’m inclined to say that the agoraphobic does not have the ability to go outside, because I think it’s pretty unnatural to say that he would have gone outside if he wanted to. (I think it’s likely that he does want to go outside, but finds himself unable to.)

      So I’ll agree that we wouldn’t hold him morally responsible.

      (2) You suggest that the agoraphobic would have gone outside if he had wanted to because I could have forced him to do so threatening him extremely severely. But I think most of us are going to think that this goes beyond morally relevant motivation.

      I think we all have a sense of what sort of motivations are morally relevant in particular circumstances. Suppose, for example, that I’ve promised to pick you up at the airport. I leave you stranded there, and later I tell you that I couldn’t come and pick you up.

      You ask why I couldn’t, and I tell you that it’s because I had to go cash in a winning lottery ticket. Is this a legitimate excuse about what I could do?

      Well my intuition is that it matters just how much I won on that lottery ticket. If I only won 1 Euro, then it’s not an excuse. I could have picked you up. I would have picked you up if I had really wanted to (because if I legitimately had that desire, it would have trumped my desire for an extra Euro).

      But if the ticket was instead for 200 million Euros, then I think it’s quite reasonably to say that I couldn’t pick you up because I had to cash in the ticket. This is because I could have a real legitimate desire to pick you up, and nonetheless have that desire properly be overridden by my desire to become fabulously wealthy. So in these circumstances, it’s not the case that if I had wanted to pick you up I would have. I did want to pick you up, even though this desire doesn’t trump all other motivating factors.

      So again, my intuitions about the agoraphobic agree with the common folk: he couldn’t go outside (because he wouldn’t have even if he had wanted to), and we shouldn’t hold him morally responsible.

      (3) I think I agree with your suggestion that abilities aren’t really binary (either/or), although we typically think of them that way. Perhaps we should say that there’s a continuum between the case where I couldn’t pick you up because I had to claim my 200 million Euros and the case where I clearly could have picked you up rather than cashing in my 1 Euro ticket. (I’d probably say that we’d have to make sense of this in terms of likelihoods of outcomes, given the vague specification of precisely how the psychology is considered to change when we say “if you had wanted to.”)

  12. Let’s have a look at your new example. An agent (you) wanted A (to pick me up) at time t(1) and had at t(1) good reasons to want it, later, at time t(2), the situation changed significantly and therefore you deliberated again and changed your mind. After t(2) you wanted B (to cash in the ticket) – again for good reasons.

    Then we have all I need for freedom in my compatibilist understanding: reason-responsiveness and no outer or inner constraints. What you have decided and done was up to you, your deliberation and your reasons. Because of that you have had been free and were responsible for your decisisons and acts.

    I grant that there is now an understandable kind of meaning if you say: I couldn’t do otherwise in this situation. But – I think – not in a freedom / responsibility restricting way. Maybe you know the example from Dennett in which Luther is saying: “Here I stand! I can do no other!”

    In my view good reasons are not constraints. On the contrary is everything that prevents from reason-responsiveness, acting for reasons, a freedom-limiting constraint. To say: “I could not have done otherwise because my good reasons forced me to do the right thing and therefore I was not free, I was a slave of the good reasons” sounds absurd to me. If the ability to decide and act for my good reasons is not freedom then I have no clue what freedom possibly could mean.

    The two cases (the 200 million case and the agoraphic case) are very different. In the first case it was up to you what you decided and did and therefore you were free and responsible. Even if in your kind of meaning you couldn’t do otherwise. In the agoraphic case it was not up to him to do what he thought would have been the right decision. Because of his inner (psychological) constraints which limited his ability to act for good reasons. And he didn’t want to go outside, he only wanted he could want and do it, but he couldn’t – he could not make the right decision.

    I suspect we have different meanings of ‘want’. For me ‘want’ means more than ‘wish’ or ‘desire’. If you say you want A, but do nothing to let A happen, then I would not believe that you want A.

    In the 200 million case after t(2) you wanted B and not A. If you had wanted A after t(2) you would have done A (at least tried hard to do A). You wanted A as well, but only from t(1) to t(2). And you could have wanted A after t(2) – in the sense that it was up to you and your estimation of the situation and your reasons and deliberation what you decided and did. That would have been different e.g. if you have had an accident before picking me up. Then it would not have been up to you that you didn’t pick me up.

  13. “Incompatibilists like Jerry claim that the lack of libertarian freedom has serious and unsettling consequences.”

    That doesn’t quite express who feels unsettled. Not we determinists. It’s many compatibilists and dualists that are unsettled by the lack of free-will. Others have pointed out where they think you are mistaken. I’ll comment on your post later, but for now I want to get at this issue of responsibility again, in the context of who is actually unsettled by the lack of free-will.

    Compatibilists Dennett fears the consequences of denying free-will:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/yet-another-failed-attempt-to-argue-for-free-will/#comment-269333

    But determinists keep on responding that non-free-will does not avoid responsibility. If anything it has positive implications for the way in which we attribute responsibility. Determinists certainly don’t fear this aspect of non-free-will but welcome it.

    1) This mistakes fatalism for determinism.

    It does not. It is you that is making that mistake. Fatalism is traditionally the view that the Gods have planned that Romeo fall Juliet, so that it will happen no matter what they choose to do. Of course this view of fatalism is predicated on there being gods and on Romeo and Juliet having the free-will of dualism. It’s a non-starter under determinism.

    “But in most deterministic processes, the only way to get to the outcome is through the intervening stages. And this is obviously true for our actions. I’m not going for a walk unless I first decide to do so. It matters what I decide.”

    And this is precisely why determinists get all detailed on your ass! You are missing out intervening stages. We keep asking, what is it that caused you to ‘decide’? The very physical process that causes your decision is itself an outcome of deterministic activity in your brain. You still sound like a dualist when you make such statements. So, please, try to explain the other stages that result in this ‘decision’ that are not also deterministic.

    I hope you don’t resort to quantum stuff, because once a quantum indeterminate event has happened it has deterministic consequences.

    3) I could not have done otherwise

    Some compatibilists will be willing to accept that this follows from determinism, and then will argue that the ability to do otherwise is irrelevant for moral responsibility. (After all, they argue, why should we care about the ability to do otherwise when – by definition – we will never ever use that ability?)

    You are making the case for determinism quite well here, and there is room for common ground between compatibilists and determinists. But there are consequences for moral responsibility. Unfortunately Dennett does worry about the social outcome that might ensue if we tell people they don’t have free-will. But this isn’t an argument not to tell if it is in fact the case that we don’t have free-will. Determinists don’t have a problem with attributing responsibility to partly autonomous systems (humans) where a great many of the spatial and temporal causal events that lead to their actions takes place in their heads.

    “we do have the ability to do otherwise, even though our actions are determined. And I think this is right.”

    Only hypothetically. Of course we never actually do otherwise. We always do what we do, so your claim about the capacity to do otherwise has no support. When you feel like you’ve made a decision to do A rather than B you can’t actually tell if you could have chosen B, because you cannot distinguish between these two cases:

    a) I chose A, but could have chosen B, but can never go back to check that.
    b) I ‘chose’ A but it wasn’t really a choice, because I could never have chosen B, even though I feel as though I chose in sense (a).

    Under determinism it’s far simpler. We observe so many other inanimate objects going down one space-time path and don’t suppose they ‘chose’ those paths in any meaningful sense. Humans are inanimate matter made dynamic by natural processes and similarly have no ‘choice’ in the matter in any way that makes sense at the level of the physics of the matter. The ‘choice’ is a human language conceptual convenience. We also do actually attribute choice to inanimate objects in a metaphorical sense (a poor workman blames his tools), but we accept this metaphor. The problem is that we have evolved with this self-aware subjective view of the world and can’t see through it for what it is. Some natural views of the world we do manage to shake off when looking in detail (all the empty space inside the atoms that make up our apparently continuously solid bodies), but this one, because it is such a disturbance to the sense of self and all that this entails, is really hard to let go.

    Your ‘possible worlds’ concept is just a hypothetical concept, as is your notion of choice. It’s just more of the same counter-factual conceptualising invented to support other counter-factual conceptualising. This is the sort of approach that bugs determinists because it too is a ploy used by dualists, and theists. The whole of the common religions are built entirely on the basis of the fact that humans can imagine this agency called God, and from there on heap more inagination on top of that.

    Being able to imagine different scenarios is easy. But it doesn’t mean they could have actually happened. Perhaps the confusion comes about because we do actually witness outcomes that are similar, but are actually different space-time events. I lost my keys when I needed them. I could have done otherwise, if I had placed them in the dish I have in place for them then they would have been there. So, from then on I place my keys in the dish, and subsequently find them there. But none of this changes the fact that on one occassion I did not place them in the dish. I did not do otherwise on that occasion, and there is nothing to suggest I could have done otherwise. All my brain states that made me not do it made me not do it – they determined that I did not do it on that occasion. End of story.

    “The reason we’re interested in whether someone had the ability to do otherwise is because we want to know whether they are responsible for the action; whether it was their power that brought the about the result. And that is precisely what the compatibilist notion captures.”

    You don’t need the compatibilist notion to attribute responsibility. And if that’s all you think it’s good for then it’s no good at all. On the low level physical description that is. I’ve no problem resorting to the language of fre-will in every day use. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

    4) I’m not really responsible for my actions

    “And I’ll put off point (4) for another day, since it will require saying something about ethics, and that’s a whole other can of worms.”

    You can put it off indefinitely since it isn’t a case determinists make, at least not in the sense that you interpret it.

    Ultimately we are not responsible in any theological sense (a sense that thinks ‘evil’). But it does make sense in the attribution of cause to spatial and temporal events inside a specific human brain, and the consequential actions of that human object. If there’s a psychopathic killer on the loose I’m as keen to attribute responsibility for the killing to that particular human as anyone is. I’m also prepared to lock him up indeffinately if necessary. But I acknowledge two things. First, his state of mind was determined – possibly at birth. There is evidence that psychopaths are born that way, but that whether they become killers, or powerful beisness people that drive profits up without too much concern for the consequences on other people, is detrmined by other factors in their lives. Any ‘choice’ to kill on his part has way too many contrinutory factors to make sense in the overly simlistic terms of ‘choice’. The second is that my ‘decision’ to want to lock him up, or even my supressed desire to kill him in return, is also determined.

    • You seem to think that compatibilists deny determinism. We don’t. We agree with people like Jerry that all of our decisions are completely determined (or close enough — quantum indeterminism isn’t relevant for the issues at hand).

      So your request — “please, try to explain the other stages that result in this ‘decision’ that are not also deterministic” — is confused. We compatibilists say that all stages are deterministic.

      The point is that free will is compatible with determinism. That’s why the position is called “compatibilism.”

      You seem to think the debate is between people who believe in free will and people who believe in determinism. It’s not. It’s between people who think freedom is compatible with determinism and people who think the two are incompatible. You can find an introduction to the issues here, for example.

      What Jerry (along with Harris) is arguing for is known as hard determinism. What I’m arguing for is known as soft determinism. We’re all determinists.

      I’m as keen to attribute responsibility for the killing to that particular human as anyone is.

      If by this you mean that the killer is morally responsible, then it sounds like you are a compatibilist. Hard determinists claim that no one is morally responsible.

      Here’s the question that’s being debated: When a person murders another (for financial gain, let’s say) is it proper to blame the person for that death?

      Note that if a hiker is killed in a rockslide, we don’t morally blame the boulders for the killing. We don’t say that the boulders are bad, and should have done better. The hard determinist says that this is the same attitude we should have towards murderers — all murderers, not just the ones whom a court would be deem not-guilty by reason of insanity. According to the hard determinist, we’re all not guilty by reason of determinism. (Note that this doesn’t mean they advocate letting murderers run free. Just as we lock up insane people — not because they’re guilty, but for our safety — so we would lock up murderers even though they’re not morally blameworthy.)

      The soft determinist (compatibilist), on the other hand, says that we are importantly different from boulders because we are able to act on our desires and understand what is right and what is wrong. Even though all our actions are determined, we sometimes do things because we want to, and in these cases we are morally responsible for our actions.

      So the question is, do you think that it makes sense to blame (or praise) people’s actions even though we all agree the actions are determined? If you do, then you’re a compatibilist.

      • Another example that might help to clarify the difference between hard determinists and soft determinists:

        Is there a moral difference between someone who robs a bank just because he finds it easier than working and someone who does so under threat of death (his own or someone else’s)?

        The hard determinist says there’s no moral difference in the two cases. Neither had a choice. Neither was free. As far as morality goes, they’re both in the same boat — and that boat also includes someone who risks her life to save a child from a burning building.

        The soft determinist, on the other hand, says that there’s an important moral difference between someone who robs a bank because he wants to, and someone who robs a bank against his will. The one who did it because he wanted to acted freely, and so should be blamed for it. Keanu Reeves, on the other hand, was just trying to save an innocent life, so he’s not blameworthy.

  14. “If by this you mean that the killer is morally responsible, then it sounds like you are a compatibilist. Hard determinists claim that no one is morally responsible.”

    At the level of physics that’s true. Morality is a human conceptual construction. But we have no more ‘choice’ in constructing it than in anything else we do.

    Try following Jeff Johnson’s arguments on Jerry’s post. He gives a good description of the equivocation of compatibilism:

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/yet-another-failed-attempt-to-argue-for-free-will/#comment-268668

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/yet-another-failed-attempt-to-argue-for-free-will/#comment-269633

    … and others. He makes a very god case and I wouldn’t want to take credit for merely repeating him here or clumsily block quoting him. Do search through the comments for all his. You might find it worth it.

    Example of such equivocation:

    “The one who did it because he wanted to acted freely, and so should be blamed for it.”

    But if his ‘choice’ was determined by the many many factors that drove his brain to ‘choose’ to do it then it is not a ‘will’ that is ‘free’ in the the sense that he ‘acted freely’ usually means. The compatibilists view that they see human action as being close to the normal use of the term ‘free-will’ is precisely why it needs to be avoided when talking about the underlying causes of these actions.

    • You say, “that’s true,” but I’m not sure what you’re referring to.

      Are you agreeing that some murderers are morally responsible for their actions and so that you are a compatibilist? If so, then I take it we’re in agreement.

      Or are you saying that no one is morally responsible for anything and that physicalism is incompatible with morality? If so, then we disagree, but it seems that questions of determinism and freedom are irrelevant, since sounds like you’re really arguing for moral nihilism, the claim that there are no moral facts whatsoever.

      I haven’t tried to rebut nihilism here, but for the record, I think physicalism is perfectly compatible with the existence of objective moral facts. These moral facts will depend on higher-level structural features of systems — just as biological facts depend on structures and aren’t to be found at the level of individual particles.

      Thanks for the links to Jeff’s posts.

      I (and nearly all other compatibilists) agree with Jeff that the common people are libertarians and that we are not free in the sense that they think we are. That’s not the relevant question.

      Of course, we could just stipulate that the term “free will” is to mean libertarian freedom, agree we don’t have that sort of freedom, and be done with it.

      But there are several reasons why we can’t just leave it at that.

      The first reason is that if we say there’s no free will, then people will likely make the four errors listed in my original post: They’ll assume (1) my decisions don’t matter, (2) I had no choice in the matter, (3) I couldn’t have done otherwise, and (4) that no one is morally responsible for his or her actions.

      None of these conclusions follow from determinism. So insofar as people have these four points in mind when they’re thinking of “free will” it will be more misleading to tell them that they don’t have free will than it will be to tell them they do have free will (even though dualism is false and determinism is true — and so nothing corresponds to their libertarian notion of a free soul).

      See my discussion of Christmas presents here for more on this.

      The second reason we shouldn’t allow “free will” to refer only to libertarian freedom is that we need some label to refer to the compatibilist notion of “doing something because you want to.” We need to distinguish between the person who robs banks because he wants to and the person who does it against his will. We need to distinguish between someone who doesn’t show up to work because she decides to go to the beach, and someone who doesn’t show up because she gets a flat tire.

      Now, we could make up some new word for this compatibilist notion of freedom, but it would be foolish to do so when we already have a phrase in circulation that does exactly the work we want it to. When a judge asks a suspect whether he signed the confession of his own free will, she’s not asking whether determinism is true. She’s asking whether the person acted in accord with his desires and character or whether he was coerced.

      (More on this in a discussion of choosing to be born vs. choosing to have a child at the post already linked to above.

      This is why we compatibilists say that the core notion of freedom can easily be severed from mistaken notions of dualism and anti-determinism.

  15. “That’s true” refers to “Hard determinists claim that no one is morally responsible.”

    There is no objective moral responsibility that we know of. Moral responsibility is associated with acts of free-will. We don’t have free-will. So the usual understanding of moral responsibility associated with free-will (associated with other notions like ‘evil’) isn’t coherent.

    That is until we construct it differently. There is a degree of autonomy in determinate systems in that much of the cause of an effect (i.e. the cause of an action by an individual) can be traced back most recently and locally to activity inside that human brain. This is what I’ve referred to as the space-time localisation of human action. In this respect we can define responsibility for human action as merely the attribution of cause of an action to a particular human. So, saying a person is responsible for some action is merely pointing this out, without any necessity for objective ‘evil’. It is just a description of the focus of an action.

    This become compex with humans because we have emotions. We do tend to have strong feelings of anger and other emotions towards the culprit. But emotions can overrule the rational mind. And this is why we attempt to have fair trials, rather than relying on some religious not simply declaring a suspected culprit to be evil and raising a lynch mod. We know this doesn’t work reliably. Think of the dterminist view as applying more unemotional rational consideration to the situation. By recognosing that free-will isn’t the issue ti gives us the breathing space to consider not only this one culprit, but also all the possible factors involved. This doesn’t rule out locking someone up if they are a danger to others. This isn’t about being unnecessary soft. It’s about being more rational.

    But to illustrate that the emotion is quite a separate issue think about the mother who discovers her son is a killer. There is a great deal of emotional conflict because rationally she wants to attribute responsibility, but as a mother she cannot harm her son. It’s clear that emotions need to be restrained.

    So what about morality? Morility is then a social construct that considers how humans behave and how they respond to acts of others. I think we need to reethink morality. The relsigious view of morality is hopelessly wrong; and many philosophical views on morality take their cues from ancient religion and ancient philosophy.

    It really does depend on being prepared to say that we might not understand how much we are biased towards accepting current moral norms. Another example I think helps here is the following. Male lions kill any existing cubs of new mates. This is natural animal behaviour, and though it appears distasteful to us I think most biologists, and anthropologists, would agree there is no moral issue here. Now, what if humans had evolved from a common ancestor with the big cats and we had acquired this tendency? Suppose that pre-humans, and maybe even early humans had practiced this. Suppose that it survived as a practice into recorded history. There are certainly many cases of conflict between a woman’s new husband and children from earlier marriages, so this isn’t a particulary big stretch of the imagination. We currently regret such conflict and thing there is something wrong wth it. But had our evolution been different we might still find it a socially acceptable norm for a mother and new husband to eject existing children from the marital home – not killing them, let’s assume we’ve changed to give up that particular practice. But making them go and live with their maternal grandparents, for example, might be customary. While you might dislike this consider some of the other social norms that survive around the world that are based on male domination of women. Though we have developed ethical notions of equality of the genders it isn’t universal. Even supposedly enlightened Church of Englan is still dragging its feet over women Bishops. Many people, including women, who would consider themselves to have a good moral conscience left the CofE when women priest were allowed.

    Our morality is guided not just by our rationality but by our feelings, some of them based on evolutionary biological drives. A determinist view of morality recognises this history, accepts that we now want a more rational and fair approach to morality. That includes not only fairness relating to gender, sexual preference, race and all the other dividers, but also for both the victim and the culprit. If we’re busy conferring rights (and we do confer them on each other – I see no objective or innate rights) then we need to learn to understand what makes culprits tick. If we want them to conform we need to understand them more. Understanding the human brain is necessary here. Clouding the issue with outdated notions of free-will doesn’t help.

    So I’m not arguing from moral nihilism at all. I’m arguing for a better undertsnding of how we construct and apply moral rules. Talking of responsibility, there’s a great deal of responsibility involved in constructing the moral rules that are then used to attribute responsibility for actions.

    Unlike you I don’t think physicalism is compatible with objective moral facts. There are no objective moral facts under physicalism. All human concepts are constructs in a physical brain, normalised over a society by interaction (physical interaction, communication) between those brains in that society. This includes moral constructs. If humans went extinct there would be no morality – unless other animals constructed it for themselves.

    “The first reason is that if we say there’s no free will…”

    These are not reasons to say there is free-will. This is lying to the plebs in order to control them. This is what religion does and it’s dispicable.

    “They’ll assume …”

    Well many already assume that there is a God, and you don’t seem to have too much trouble wanting to dislodge that misapprehension. It they think it the absence of free-will means that they can choose to do nothing then it clearly doesn’t. If they can’t choose to do good because they can’t choose, then they can’t choose to not do good either. If they can’t choose not to kill then they can’t choose not not to kill. This fear of how the plebs might react to the news that they don’t have free-will is easy to overcome. The first time it comes up in court the judge merely says, “Well I don’t have the free-will to let you off. Lock him up.”

    “None of these conclusions follow from determinism.” – Only if you interpret them incorrectly.

    1) My decisions don’t matter. In terms of the deterministic outcome that’s true. But they do matter to other humans who observe the actions that are a consequence of those decisions. You will suffer the consequences. See if that matters to you.

    2) I had no choice in the matter. True. But neither do the courts that lock you up, when considered on the same physical deterministic level. But what will play out is that what appears to your to be a choice will result in a court appearing to have a choice in locking you up.

    3) I couldn’t have done otherwise. True. Tough luck. Neither could the court in locking you up.

    4) No one is morally responsible for his or her actions. True, as an objective observation. But as a social construct that occurs (though nobodies free-will) in a society you will have moral rules applied to your behaviour.

    “we need some label to refer to the compatibilist notion of “doing something because you want to.” ”

    So have your notion, in everyday language. I’ll use it too. Just because we acknowledge that we are under an illusion about free-will doesn’t mean we can ditch it completely. Look at a rotating necker cube. We all know it doesn’t change direction but only appears to. This is how we view free-will. It appears as though we have it, but we haven’t.

    “We need to distinguish between the person who robs banks because he wants to and the person who does it against his will.”

    This is such a vague statement that it needs to be looked at carefully. What do you mean by ‘against his will’? Do you mean the case where a bank manager assists other robbers because his family are held at gun point? This is trivially ‘against his will’.

    But beyond this trivial case your statement has a deeper logical problem. By using the phrase ‘against his will’ you are already presuming a free-will that he can be held against. So my simplistic response would be that your statement is incoherent on this point. The first part ‘because he wants to’ is superficially coherent under determinism because ‘want’ is a physical biological drive. But for what I suspect you mean by it, it still remains incoherent because it seems that by ‘he wants to’ you mean something like dualist free-will. This is the type of equivocation that Jeff was referring to.

    “We need to distinguish between someone who doesn’t show up to work because she decides to go to the beach, and someone who doesn’t show up because she gets a flat tire.”

    This is clearer and coherent because we can treat this deterministically and it does not include an obvious appeal to dualist free-will. So, ask yourself, what was the most localised focus in space-time of his not coming in to work? If the cause of the effect of him not coming into work on time was a flat tyre then it is the focus of the cause, not him. If ‘he wants to’ (if his brain deterministically acts to make him) go to the beach then the focus of the cause is his brain, him. This is an example where we can ‘blame’ the tyre, and give him the time to change it, or ‘blame’ him and fire him. Either way the appropriate ‘culprit’, the most appropriate cause of the effect has been determined and responsibility apportioned appropriately.

    “Now, we could make up some new word for this compatibilist notion of freedom”

    We don’t need to. In a normal work environment we can still use ‘free-will’ if we wish. If the manager is a determinist he knows he’s applying it metaphorically, while if the late guy is a dualist he’ll interpret it literally. If the manager is the dualist and the late guy is the determinist and the late guy tries to use the excuse, “Well I went to the beach, but it wasn’t a free-will decision, my brain made me do it.”, then the manager won’t buy that because he is a dualist and doesn’t believe him. If they are both determinists the manager will respond, “Yeah, and my brain is making me fire your ass.”

    I really don’t think the compatibilist is offering anything useful. He’s trying to apply day to day metaphorical expressions to a deterministic situation in the context of trying to understand the universe. Aren’t there enough problems trying to overcome Creationism? Are there enough plebs out there already without worrying that a few chancers might try to use ‘my brain made me do it’ inappropriately?

    In real cases where it matters, say for a psychopath, his lack of empathy may allow him to kill. But once caught he might have a genuine self-preservation reason to ask for help in changing his brain. In some states it might actually get him out of the execution chamber. It might help brain science further. Locking up a known killer psychopath will protect others. But simply demonising psychopaths and killing them will not help. (I’m not suggesting compatibilists would, by the way. I’m saying that politicians do, when they take free-will too seriously.)

    In other situations where there is no obvious psychopathy it’s more complicated. Sure, lock up the culprit to protect others. But still study them, help them to change, fix them. Do not demonise them, which is almost inevitable once you grant free-will.

    “She’s asking whether the person acted in accord with his desires and character or whether he was coerced.”

    Another easy distinction that does not challenge determinism. Of course the distinction here is between internal brain action and external coercion to cause brain action. Ask again what is the most significant focus of causation? If it’s some external coercion (e.g. beating the crap out of someone until the ‘confess’) then this is not only not free-will, it is also not a deterministic localised brain decision.

    “This is why we compatibilists say that the core notion of freedom can easily be severed from mistaken notions of dualism and anti-determinism.”

    I’m not sure it can. But even if it can then we also need to act to correct that. Lying to the public the way the religious do is not a useful policy.
    If you’re worried about the public then I think they are more likely to continue to believe in a dualist free-will while compatibilists are blurring the issue. I find the danger from mistaking compatibilist free-will for dualist free-will (the attribution of evil, such that if someone is ‘pure evil’ we should execute them) is greater than the danger of mistaking deterministic illusory free-will for a free pass to do what you want.

    • Do you mean the case where a bank manager assists other robbers because his family are held at gun point?

      Yes. (Or, more theatrically, Keanu Reeves in the the Point Blank scene linked above.)

      “This is trivially ‘against his will’.

      Exactly. Some actions are done on purpose, because one wants to do them. These actions are performed freely, of one’s own will. Other actions are not free. We are morally responsible for our free actions, we are not responsible for unfree actions. This is all we compatibilists are saying.

      ” If it’s some external coercion . . . then this is not only not free-will, it is also not a deterministic localised brain decision.

      What you need to realize is that what you are calling “deterministic localised brain decision” just is what compatibilists have meant by the term “free will” for thousands of years. (Well, compatibilists are usually a bit more careful, in that the decisions need to be of a certain sort — flowing from one’s desires and character, for example — but the basic idea is the same.) The point is that this is enough for freedom and responsibility.

      Overall, it seems that we are largely in agreement. I’d say you are — for the most part, at least — a compatibilist who rejects the label of “compatibilism” (for no good reason that I can make out).

      A few problems and disagreements remain (not all of which I can take time to address).

      The first is that you still fail to recognize that the compatibilist account of freedom embraces determinism. Thus, when you reply that the distinction between coercion and voluntary action is “[a]nother easy distinction that does not challenge determinism,” you are saying exactly what the compatibilist says. Of course it doesn’t challenge determinsm. It’s compatible with determinism. That’s what we’ve been saying all along. You’re agreeing with us.

      Second, we compatibilists are not suggesting that we lie to the public. We are simply saying that the language of freedom should not be thought of as inseverably linked to dualism. Numerous analogies have been trotted out to make this case.

      We don’t abandon the term sunset just because geocentrism is false. We don’t abandon the term Christmas present just because there’s no Santa. We don’t abandon the term life just because vitalism is false.

      It is not a lie to say that there are sunsets, that there are Christmas presents, and that there are living organisms. Likewise, it is not a lie to say that we sometimes act freely, and that there is an important moral difference between free actions and unfree actions. It seems to me that you have admitted as much.

      And it is not the case that the meaning of “freedom” championed by the compatibilist is new. The compatibilist notion of freedom as doing what you want to do goes back at least to Aristotle.

      Third,the compatibilist use of the phrase “free will” is not metaphorical. We’re saying that the best way to understand the term “acting freely” is as meaning “doing what one wants to do.” This isn’t a metaphor. It isn’t embracing an illusion. It’s meant to be applied quite literally.

      If you did it because you wanted to, you did it freely. If not, not.

      It seems that you mostly accept this, but you seem unwilling to articulate the position and call yourself a compatibilist.

      The question you should be asking yourself is what is the proper attitude towards responsibility given the truth of determinism?

      You imagine a determinist (hard determinist?) response to the the claim that determinism absolves one of moral responsibility:

      If they are both determinists the manager will respond, “Yeah, and my brain is making me fire your ass.”

      This flippant response doesn’t address the issue. If the manager really is a hard determinist, then she’ll agree that the employee isn’t responsible. Of course, this doesn’t decide the question of whether to fire the employee or not, but your use of profanity gives the impression that you actually think it’s morally relevant that this employee decided to skip work, while the employee with the flat tire wanted to show up to work on time. So it doesn’t sound like you’re embracing hard determinism.

      If the manager is a compatibilist, on the other hand, she will simply say, “Of course there were no violations of deterministic physical law involved in your decision to go to the beach. Nonetheless, you skipped work because you wanted to, not because something external to yourself forced you to miss work against your will. The deterministic brain processes just were you — making a decision to goof off. So you’re responsible for missing work. The fact that your brain made the decision to go to the beach shows that you’re a lazy person, because your brain is you and you are your brain. So you deserve to be fired.”

      If you agree with this last quotation, you’re a comptatibilist.

      Finally, a few points on morality.

      a) I quite agree that knowing how the brain works has important moral implications, and might lead us to radically rethink our common notions of who is and who isn’t responsible. Pretty much all compatibilists agree with this, and the people who actually work in the field are actively trying to figure out what it means to be sane or insane, for example, and how this fits in with moral responsibility.

      b) You say “Morality is then a social construct,” but the important point (which you seem to agree with) is that there can be better or worse social codes. This fact means that there are objective moral facts that transcend the beliefs of particular societies. It’s not just that we find slavery distasteful, while other earlier societies found it permissible or even laudatory — it really is the case that slavery is (objectively) wrong.

      c) I’m not going to go into a full physicalist defense of objective moral values (maybe I’ll post on it in the months to come), but you should recognize that most meta-ethical positions (utilitarianism, virtue ethics, Kantianism) make no appeal to gods or religion, and are perfectly compatible with physicalism.

  16. Your bank robber example is completely inappropriate. By claiming Reeves acts of his own free-will you are already assuming the free-will that determinism is challenging. You are simply saying he has free-will because he acted on his own free-will. This doesn’t distinguish at all between the compatibilist and determinist case because it is the free-will bit that is being debated.

    Compatibilism can only come about logically by declaring what is being thought to be compatible with what. It is clear that the whole point of compatibilism is that determinism is thought to be compatible with something like dualist views of free-will, though not actual dualist free-will. But that’s a non-sensical view: determinism is compatible with deterministic human behaviour but not with dualist free-will, but we will call it free-will anyway?

    When you ask, “compatible with what?”, the nonsense become apparent. We have free-will or we don’t. We both agree we don’t, but you want to call what we do have free-will? If you don’t actually want to call it free-will but want to say your determinism is compatible with free-will, which free-will is it compatible with?

    Compatibilism is such a confused position; and it’s confused because compatibilists fear we lose responsibility and morality if we let it go. This is patently obvious every time a compatibilist raises the issues of responsibility and morality, and when they get really desperate and bring moral nihilism into the debate. I don’t know how many debates I’ve seen where compatibilist bring these very points up, and when it is pointed out how irrelevant they are to the very specific point of free-will, they back track and say they are not the important points. Compatibilists argue like theists.

    “Well, compatibilists are usually a bit more careful” – No. They are not careful enough. They equivocate over the meaning of the term ‘free-will’. All the other twists and turns are unnecessary.

    “decisions need to be of a certain sort – flowing from one’s desires and character, for example”

    All human decisions are of this sort. So the next question is, what causes these desires to form and be acted upon, and what causes the formation of the character? More decisions? This is circular. The whole point is that we do agree on the deterministic sources of these. Compatibilists put up this linguistic barrier, where they are prepared to discuss determinism at some lower physical level, but then want to talk about ‘decisions’ as if they are something else, to which they can then associate the term ‘free-will’.

    “The point is that this is enough for freedom and responsibility”

    Determinism is already enough. Freedom of action is all about the localisation of action, the autonomy. But that’s the same type of freedom available to any autonomous machine. The only difference for humans and other animals is that the system that controls that autonomy, the brain, is more complex in its use of prior states (memory) and the variety of contributory factors to the decsion making process. In engineering terms it is about the number of ‘degrees of freedom’, which is related to the number and type of variables. This has nothing to do with dualist freedom of the will. It is all about the locality and complexity of the machinery making a decision.

    The problem is that a human brain only has limited introspection and can’t consciously internally experience the machinery of decision making that is the activity of the neurons – the decisions seem to pop out of thin air, as if free of physical cause. But at least it has some introspection, some subjective experience, and this is another difference between us and current complex machines like computer control systems. But our subjective view is no more than a machine that is not only aware of it’s environment, not only sense its environment, but also sense its own sensing, processing and decision making, but only to a limited degree. This gives us the impression that the human ‘mind’ is a self-contained spiritual entity that is free of the physical bonds. We both know it isn’t, but you compatibilists still seem enthralled by that feeling to the extent that you can’t let it go even for the purposes of objective analysis.

    Responsibility is deterministic and is simply attributed to the individual in accordance with how much autonomy we feel an individual has in acting. Keanu Reeves acted autonomously, but was coerced externally to an extent that might induce us (deterministically) to abrogate some of the responsibility we would otherwise attribute to him.

    “Third, the compatibilist use of the phrase “free will” is not metaphorical.”

    If not metaphorically then literally? But the most common use of free-will in a literal sense is that the will, the decision making capacity, is free from physical cause.

    Let me ask you this very specific question then. You do not think we have dualist free-will, so do you think dualist free-will is an illusion?

    “We’re saying that the best way to understand the term “acting freely” is as meaning “doing what one wants to do.” ”

    Then ask again, what you mean specifically be the term ‘acting freely’. You’ve already said you’re a determinist so, acting freely of what? Then ask again what you mean by ‘what one wants to do’? You’ve already said that you’re a determinist so you must mean that what you want to do is caused deterministically. You are in one breath claiming determinism and in the next wanting to distance yourself from it, for fear of the consequences, so you use these terms as if they stand alone without need for explanation.

    “If you did it because you wanted to, you did it freely. If not, not.”

    What cause the want? Free of what? This is circular language. You want simply because you want? You are free simply because you are free? Dig deeper. How do you come to want? What are you free of?

    “The question you should be asking yourself is what is the proper attitude towards responsibility given the truth of determinism?”

    I’ve asked that of myself and given to you what I feel are clear answers. Responsibility is the attribution of cause to an individual for an action, where the many actual contributing causes come together in space-time to be localised in one sum of causes. Simplistically think of it as a countless number of tiny arrows of causation coming into an individual and, for a specific action, one big arrow of cause coming out. The point of this deterministic view is that it specifically avoids the requirement for the dualist concept of free-will, and it allows a rational view of responsibility that avoids conjuring up the ghosts of satanic evil. I’ve given you what I think are clear examples of the consequences, in how it does not lead to moral nihilism, for example.

    “You imagine a determinist (hard determinist?) response to the claim that determinism absolves one of moral responsibility.”

    I’ve very specifically distinguished between the religiously motivated objective morality and that derived from human behaviour that makes us (deterministically) decide to construct rules of behaviour. They are pragmatic rules that make us (deterministically) feel comfortable and safe when we apply them. We use them as simplistic measures of deterministic responsibility. This is going to get off-topic, so I’ll add a separate comment on this.

    • “Let me ask you this very specific question then. You do not think we have dualist free-will, so do you think dualist free-will is an illusion?

      I am a physicalist. I reject dualism. I am a determinist (effectively — quantum caveats being irrelevant for this discussion). I reject libertarian freedom — which would be incompatible with determinism — and which I assume you have in mind when you say “dualist free-will.”

      I actually am not very inclined to claim that it is an “illusion” so much as I’d say it is a mistaken belief or theory. It doesn’t really seem to me that I can break the laws of physics, and I’m not convinced that others really have this impression either.

      Analogy: Is the flatness of the Earth an illusion? Well, some people who were previously in the grips of flat-Earthism might say so, but I’d ask whether there was really anything about what they saw of the Earth that really counted as an “illusion” of flatness. Actually, the Earth looks just like a very large sphere. Someone would only think there was an “illusion” of flatness if she didn’t understand what it would look like to stand on a very large sphere.

      So my answer is that dualist (libertarian) freedom is at most an illusion, and probably not even that.

      By claiming Reeves acts of his own free-will you are already assuming the free-will that determinism is challenging.

      You seem confused here. Reeves is not acting freely, because he is being forced to do things he doesn’t want to do. And it isn’t at all clear what you mean when you speak of “free will that determinism is challenging.” It would help considerably if you could use the labels “soft determinism,” “hard determinism,” “compatibilism,” and “incompatibilism.”

      It is clear that the whole point of compatibilism is that determinism is thought to be compatible with something like dualist views of free-will, though not actual dualist free-will.

      No. You’re mistaken. You’re arguing against a straw man here.

      I don’t know how I can make it clearer. Compatibilists are not interested in “dualist free-will” (i.e., libertarian freedom). Indeed, compatibilists spend a lot of time and energy arguing that being able to break free of deterministic physical laws would be completely without value.

      You are simply misunderstanding the position that is advocated by the the vast majority of people who have thought carefully about the issue of freedom (that is, you’re misunderstanding compatibilism).

      Compatibilists say that what matters for freedom is that I act on my desires, and not because something outside myself forced me to do it. The slave is not free; the master is. Why? Because the slave cannot act as he wishes, but the master can.

      Determinism and indeterminism are irrelevant. That is the important point that you need to grasp. We aren’t saying that when we do what we want we somehow break out of the deterministic chain of events. We’re saying that the question of whether

      Arghh!!! WordPress ate the rest of my reply!

      • [Ron Murphy got sent my reply before WordPress eated it, and he very kindly sent me copy, so I'm belatedly pasting it in here.]

        Determinism and indeterminism are irrelevant. That is the important point that you need to grasp. We aren’t saying that when we do what we want we somehow break out of the deterministic chain of events. We’re saying that the question of whether our acts are part of such deterministic chains is completely irrelevant to the question of whether we are responsible for those actions and for the question of whether those actions were freely chosen.

        Determinism is irrelevant to the question of free will.

        Of course, determinism is relevant to the question of libertarian (dualist) freedom, but we don’t care about that. Libertarian freedom isn’t good for anything. Even if we could break the laws of nature, that would do nothing to make us more responsible for our actions. It would give us no more choice than we in fact already have.

        So we have zero desire for libertarian (dualist)freedom. None. Zip. Nada. If you offered it to us, we’d laugh at you.

        We already have as much freedom as we could want. We already have as much freedom as we can make sense of.

        The next question is, what causes these desires to form and be acted upon, and what causes the formation of the character?

        The desires and character are determined by earlier physical facts. Hardly surprising since compatibilists — soft determinists — embrace determinism.

        Compatibilists put up this linguistic barrier, where they are prepared to discuss determinism at some lower physical level, but then want to talk about ‘decisions’ as if they are something else, to which they can then associate the term ‘free-will’.

        No. Decisions are not “something else.” They are deterministic processes just like all the rest.

        Of course, not all determinstic processes are examples of free decisions. Waterfalls are not making decisions. People doing something because guns are pointed at their heads are not acting freely.

        The key point is that there are important differences among deterministic processes. Compare: Some determnistic processes are living organisms, some aren’t. To say that something is alive is not to “talk about [them] as if they are something else, to which they can then associate the term [life].” Some deterministic processes are alive, some aren’t. Some determnistic processes are free decisions, some aren’t.

        This has nothing to do with dualist freedom of the will.

        Exactly. Compatibilists reject “dualist freedom of the will.” We aren’t defending it, we don’t wish we had it, we don’t want people to think we have it, and we wouldn’t take it if you offered it to us. You’re agreeing with us. You’re a compatibilist, you just don’t realize it.

        What caused the want?

        The want was determined. We’re determinists. The whole point is that freedom has nothing to do with determinism.

        Free of what?

        Free of external constraints or coercion. Not free of the laws of physics. We don’t care about being free of natural causal laws. We suspect that doesn’t even make sense, and we don’t see why it would be a good thing

        Freedom is freedom from chains, freedom from threats, freedom from barriers in your way. Freedom is the freedom to do what you want to do. It is NOT freedom from deterministic laws that govern the atoms we’re made of.

        The point of this deterministic view is that it specifically avoids the requirement for the dualist concept of free-will, and it allows a rational view of responsibility.”

        This is compatibilism. You are a compatibilst. You think that responsibility is compatible with determinism. Now you just need to ask yourself what makes some people responsible for some actions and not for others. The answer — as you’ve pointed out — will have to do with control. With what is in our power and what isn’t. And the consensus among professionals is that it will also have to do with whether something happens because we want it to happen, or whether it happens despite our not wanting it to happen. The criteria for someone being morally responsible for an action are what we compatibilists mean by the term “having free will.”

        If you want to cede that term to the dualists then you can cook up some other label for what-makes-us-responsible-for-actions (i.e., for compatibilist free will). But if you want to engage in debates with people who have studied the free will debate, you should always use the term “libertarian freedom” when you are speaking of what you mean by free will. Libertarian freedom, of course, is the “dualist freedom” that you speak of, which we all agree that we don’t have.

        It will make conversations much shorter if you just say, “I don’t believe in libertarian freedom, but I think we are sometimes nevertheless morally responsible for our actions.” Then we compatibilists will simply say, “Me too,” and the debate will be over.

  17. “If the manager really is a hard determinist, then she’ll agree that the employee isn’t responsible.”

    I’ve tried to skip around this because it leads us of in quite another topic. But I’ll try to be concise (I usually fail). There is a lot of confusion introduced into issues of ethics precisely because of the confused nature of ethics historically. Why would you even consider your managerial problem a moral issue rather than one of mere pragmatics? Because historically the religious and otherwise virtuous philosophers have tried to impose notions of morality onto nearly everything humans do.

    The managerial example isn’t even a moral issue for me. The guy has every right to go to the beach if he wishes. There is no ‘moral’ obligation to turn up for work every day. He does, I presume, have a contractual obligation, as part of the terms of his employment. If he fails to meet that obligation he can be fired.

    In a pragmatic world that would be the end of it. Assume they are both determinists. The manager would not feel any ill-will toward the guy, because though the guy failed to meet his contractual obligation he was exercising his rights of freedom of choice. Deterministically the manager recognises that something in the character, the brain, of the guy has made him unreliable. The manager has a contractual duty to make the business run smoothly. These two conditions conflict. So he ‘lets the guy go’. The guy, being a determinist, realises that the manager was doing his job and accepts fully his own responsibility and accepts being let go without any ill-will on his part.

    The problem arises because humans generally have difficulty dealing with it this way. There are emotions to consider. And emotions are deterministically prodding at the human mind incessantly. We all know examples where people have the tendency to shift blame from themselves to other people. What if our two people were religious? The manager feels that the guy has not lived up to his moral obligations – he has let the manager down after he put his trust in him. The manager resents this, is angry and disappointed that the guy is so weak willed (he assumes free-will). The guy felt he really needed a break from work that day, and now he resents the lack of understanding from the manager. He resents the managers anger -” it’s not very Christian of him, this manager goes to church on Sundays and as a lay preacher tells us all about forgiveness and it’s total bullshit. He’s a hypocrite”. They part blaming each other with entirely conflicting views about who is to blame.

    Evolution has left us with some pretty strong emotions. Emotions even seem to be necessary for us to make decisions at all (Antonio Damasio). And when we lack emotional empathy we show characteristics of psychopathy. What are we supposed to do about this? Do we stick with our emotions and feelings of good and evil and the strict application of moral judgements to each and every human action? Or do we abandon emotions and suffer what we perceive to be moral nihilism?

    We obviously compromise. We do it already. Humans have conflicting emotional instincts that can lead us in both directions.

    We acknowledge that humans can kill each other, but we feel empathy too, and we feel we each have the right not to be killed. We don’t want to be killed for the simple reason that survival is built into us evolutionarily, and we translate that feeing into a claim to a right.

    Our best compromise here is to learn not to kill, and to put in place pragmatic rules to persuade people not to do it. But simplistic rules aren’t enough. We explain, we teach our kids some of the problems associated with killing. Unfortunately some still use explanations of objective morality and God – but these are easy to see through as totally inadequate responses.

    We apply similar rules to simple problems like property ownership and theft.

    We include the more difficult issues of what amounts to consensual sex, because here there is a very clear potential conflict between deep desires for contact on the one hand and the desire to be able to deny that contact on the other. When we apply the simplistic notions of objective morality and God to this we get into all sorts of a mess that we see coming from the religious: if she behaves like a slut she deserved it. Obviously throw backs to animal male domination that still has a foothold in the religious world. These are still complex issues even for the more pragmatic views of atheists and free-thinkers, as can be seen from the Elevator-gate affair.

    Sometimes the issues are serious enough in their consequences and are strong enough emotionally for us to decide that rules are required that we are willing to call moral rules. We can negotiate and debate the balance between personal autonomy to do what our feelings drive us to want to do, and the similar autonomy of others. Where these conflict we construct rules. Historically these have been called moral rules.

    I’ve no particular need to change the terms right now. One struggle at a time. I’m prepared to talk about morality, ethics, for now.

    But there does need to be a change in point of view about morality, and this change is driven by determinism. We need to get rid of the old religious and philosophical notions of objective or God given morality because they are so arbitrary. Cleary if you get to pick your God you get to pick your morals. This is the problem we have in persuading the Islamic world that apostasy is not a moral problem that requires the death penalty. If you get to decide which moral rules objectively exist then you are making arbitrary decisions based on emotional feelings, but you are ignoring the true source of those feelings and the consequential source of your objective morals by simplistically declaring that they are out there to be discovered.

    Objective and God given moral rules are made-up in the context of wanting to control people and the fears of a retributional deity. It’s all arcane nonsense.

    I would love to change the language of morality. Objective or God given morality is an illusion, just as much as dualist free-will is. So, in terms of objective and God given morality, there is no morality. But in terms of humans social rules we construct rules, and historically we define as moral rules.

    If you believe in objective morality, something out there that humans can discover, and you believe in determinism, then I guess the best term for your point of view is moral compatibilism. That would be just as confused a position as free-will compatibilism.

    “This fact means that there are objective moral facts that transcend the beliefs of particular societies.”

    But this is only coincidental upon the fact that the most significant common denominator is our recent common evolution that drives human behaviour to come to some common beliefs about our relationships with each other. But this only applies to a very few deep drives, relating to killing, harm, property. There’s a lot of moral stuff that is very clearly socially and culturally dependent, such as the moral value of apostasy. Check this list:

    http://matadornetwork.com/abroad/5-common-american-gestures-that-might-insult-the-locals/

    Within verious cultures we take offense at certain gestures because they have acquired certain meanings. We attribute moral value to the underlying meaning, and this gets conveyed to the gesture. We are very flexible, globally, in how we apply moral value, and we can apply it to quite trivial behaviours. Moral relativism, as a description of what moral values are out there, is very much the case.

    And you need to be clearer in your use of the term ‘objective’. I can see in your case (d) you are using the term in the sense that Sam Harris might use it, that once you establish some principle like moral well-being you can ‘objectively’ examine behaviour and attribute moral value to it. I would agree with that to some extent, but this again leads to confusion. Objective morality is usually referring to the question raised about the ultimate source of morality: the Euthyphro dilemma.

    “It’s not just that we find slavery distasteful, while other earlier societies found it permissible or even laudatory – it really is the case that slavery is (objectively) wrong.”

    This is a case in point about your equivocal use of ‘objective’. The only thing that makes slavery wrong is that we have empathy for other humans and choose not to enslave them. So let me be clear on the use of ‘objective’ here.

    If you want to say that humans have ‘objectively’ evaluated that our empathy towards others and think that this empathy outweighs one’s desire to force others to work for you, then we have ‘objectively’ assessed the situation and reached a decision.

    But if by ‘objective’ you mean tha there is some cosmically sense in which slavery is wrong, then no, slavery is not objectively wrong because there is no such objective morality. It would seem odd to me that in some cosmic sense the slavery of other humans is wrong but the slavery of horses is not. Does the cosmos really have a view on the distinction of the species? This seems like the cosmic moral woo of New Ager spiritualism; the stuff of Deepak Chopra.

    Ask yourself, if there were no humans, if they went extinct, would there be any ‘objective’ morality left? If not, then human morality is entirely about the relationships between humans as an evolved species that feels the need to balance one’s desires with those of other humans. If you do then you believe in cosmic woo morality.

    Ask yourself, if you were the last surviving human and there was no chance of reproducing others, would you have any moral obligations whatsoever? If so, could you describe some and justify them.

    There is some very irrational emotionally driven thinking on morality, precisely because it is associated with emotive issues.

    • I’ll have to (try to) keep this brief. More on morality someday in the future.

      The managerial example isn’t even a moral issue for me.

      Fair enough, I only used the example because you had brought it up earlier. Substitute your favorite moral issue and the point remains the same. Would you acquit a murderer because his actions were determined? If not — if you would say that there are some people who are morally responsible for reprehensible actions — then you’re a compatibilist.

      (Note that we can even agree that some — perhaps many — murderers are not responsible for their actions because they’re insane, or what have you. That’s not relevant. The point is that the incompatibilist will say that that no one is ever morally responsible for his or her actions — given the truth of determinism. The compatibilist, on the other hand, says that some people are sometimes responsible.)

      We can negotiate and debate the balance between personal autonomy to do what our feelings drive us to want to do, and the similar autonomy of others.

      I thought you were defending a version of emotivism there for a bit, but now it sounds like you think that autonomy has objective moral value apart from emotions.

      Objective or God given morality is an illusion

      I’d suggest that it’s a mistake to conflate objectivity with “god-given-ness.” There can be objective moral facts in the absence of gods. There are many ethical theories that purport to articulate objective moral facts, and very few of these theories appeal to gods.

      Compare: There are objective mathematical facts. They don’t depend on gods. There are objective biological facts; they don’t depend on gods.

      Why shouldn’t there be objective moral facts that don’t depend on gods either?

      There’s a lot of moral stuff that is very clearly socially and culturally dependent, such as the moral value of apostasy.

      Yes, but it would help if you distinguished moral beliefs from moral facts. The mere fact that people believe that apostasy is evil doesn’t make it so . (Compare: the belief that demons cause sickness doesn’t make it so; the belief that the Earth is a few thousand years old doesn’t make it so.)

      Objective morality is usually referring to the question raised about the ultimate source of morality: the Euthyphro dilemma.

      Sounds false. Plato’s point in the Euthyphro is that objective morality doesn’t need any gods. Only theists think that gods are required for objectivity. You seem to grant them far too much.

      Does the cosmos really have a view on the distinction of the species

      Does the cosmos have a view on the distinction between sand and sharks? Does this mean that there are no objective facts about whether something is alive or not? There are objective facts about complex structures — and we view things differently when we recognize these structural facts.

      Ask yourself, if there were no humans, if they went extinct, would there be any ‘objective’ morality left?

      If all life went extinct, would there still be an objective distinction between living systems and non-living systems? Between healthy organisms and sickly organism?

      Of course, the subject matter needs to be there to ground the structural facts, and morality is about the actions of intelligent creatures. But this in no way makes these facts non-objective.

      Would I have any moral duties if I were the last living being on Earth? Well, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantianism would all say that I do. Hobbesian social-contract theory would say I don’t, but I’ve always found Hobbes a bit silly.

      I’ll have to leave it at that. Ethics is above my pay grade.

  18. “Would you acquit a murderer because his actions were determined? If not — if you would say that there are some people who are morally responsible for reprehensible actions — then you’re a compatibilist.”

    You’re putting words into my mouth: reprehensible. You are introducing the emotive language that clouds the issue.

    Sure we find the incident distasteful, shocking, etc., because we are humans animals and this is how we react.

    If you are a real detrminist and not one trying to have their cake and eat it, then you may well say you feel the acttions are reprehensible. But this islready linguistically wrong under detereminism. Surely you find the actor reprehensible (open to criticism or rebuke; blameworthy) and not the actual actions. No matter how much you dislike the fatc that the actions took place, actions themselves are the product, not the agent performing them and they have no moral value by anybodies view. So, once we’ve clarrified that, so that you are blaming the actor, the killer, then we ask what you mean by ‘blame’.

    If you mean there is some sense in which the actor is ‘evil’, so that you are attributing traditional religious-type moral blame, then you are failing in your determinism, and this is where compatibilists are confused.

    If you really are a determinist then all you can say is that the actor was the focus, the most localised cause of the actions, and you need to say this without any emotional attachment. Only then can you attribute this type of deterministic responsibility. This is simply saying that there was a deterministic cause and effect. The cause was the actor person that killed, and the effect was the death of the person killed.

    Then, when we have avoided the notions of ‘evil’, comes the consideration about whether constraint is required: will he kill again, and so on.

    What we currently have is a retributional system that is modelled to some extent on the free-will model. Even if we think the killer might have committed a one-off murder so that there is no likelyhood he’ll kill again, should we let him go free? We could actually do this without actually acquitting – he would still be guilty of the murder.

    A lot of people don’t like the sound of this because it sounds like he’s gotten away with it, to some extent. But we need to consider that retributional inprisonment may feel good, but is it actually doing anything useful?

    This isn’t to say that determinism requires a complete change to the system. Maybe it can be shown that the feeling of ‘justice’ by the victim’s relatives is worth some inprisonment, and on balance we may still want to imprison for that reason. We can also ask what it’s doing for the killer’s likelihood to do it again. Even if it was a one-off killing he could learn that he can get away with killing and attempt again. So even under determinism there may be many good reasons, to do with the psychology of the killer and the victim’s relations, why we would still impose a custodial sentence.

    Then there’s the rehabilitation to consider. How do we rehabilitate a person guilty of murder? It depends on the circumstances of course, but again imprisonment with some psychological processing may be necessary.

    All these questions and possibilities remain open to evaluation under determinism, for the purposes of preventing further killing, by this murderer and by others.

    But the retribution (retaliation or reward according to merits or deserts, especially for evil) seems petty and theological and completely inappropriate as a rational considered reaction to why humans murder and how we can adapt our behaviour to reduce it.

    And it is a wider question of human psychology and neurobiology. It’s no good simply locking up individual murderers in acts of retribution because the jails will fill and new murderers will come along to take their place – as is the case. If we really want to reduce murders we need to do more rational deterministic evaluation of cause and effect.

    Though we’re still in a difficult position where the neuroscience is new I don’t see any tecnical barriers to one day being able to prevent murder by altering the minds of humans to stop them wanting to murder. This of course strikes horror into current humans because they feel it impinges on their freedom – as if they are free now. Is it okay to continue to allow killers to kill and only to apprehend them after they have killed? Would the victim, had they the foresight rather have had the would be killer prevented from killing? Would anyone seriously question the victims rights in the situation where the foreknowledge was available? The film Minority Report posed this interesting question.

    Following through your determinism allows you to consideer many more possibilities than does the simplistic free-will retributional model.

    • ”You’re putting words into my mouth: reprehensible. You are introducing the emotive language that clouds the issue.”

      Um, no. I’m asking a question, and suggesting an answer that seemed to fit with your earlier replies. I’m happy to be corrected on your view.

      And it’s not the emotional content that relevant here, it’s the moral content. The debate over free will is fundamentally a debate about moral responsibility. The question is whether (given the truth of determinism) any of us are morally responsible for our actions. To discuss this, we need to discuss actions that are generally accepted to morally blameworthy or praiseworthy.

      If you want to defend a clear position in this debate, you need to be clear about whether you are defending hard determinism (the claim that there is no moral responsibility) or soft determinism (the claim that we sometimes are responsible for our actions and that it makes sense to praise or blame people for what they do).

      Surely you find the actor reprehensible (open to criticism or rebuke; blameworthy) and not the actual actions. No matter how much you dislike the fatc that the actions took place, actions themselves are the product, not the agent performing them and they have no moral value by anybodies view.

      I’m not sure I follow you here. Anyone who thinks there are moral facts (i.e., anyone who isn’t a moral nihilist) is going to say that some actions are right and some actions are wrong. Actions have moral value.

      That said, it is true that blame and responsibility apply to the agent, not to action per se. But the agent is responsible or blameworthy for an action, so I still wouldn’t say that the actions “have no moral value.”

      But perhaps this is a minor point that can be set aside.

      ”If you really are a determinist then all you can say is that the actor was the focus, the most localised cause of the actions, and you need to say this without any emotional attachment. Only then can you attribute this type of deterministic responsibility.

      Now you are sounding like a hard determinist.

      Replies:

      1. Emotions are a red herring here. The debate over moral responsibility and moral desert is quite independent of emotional reactions. Of course, if you are right that there are no moral facts – that there is nothing but emotional reactions – then the question of moral responsibility becomes moot. But then the whole debate will rest on your arguments for moral nihilism, and I don’t see considerations of determinism and free will doing much work.

      2. So the real question is whether I can attribute moral responsibility to a particular “localised cause of the actions” as you put it. You assert that I “need to say this without any emotional” attachment,” but I fail to see why this should be the case. I can be extremely pleased – or angry – that my close friend was the “localised cause” of some particularly beautiful – or heinous – outcome. You have done nothing to show that this view is contradictory or irrational. And, more importantly, I can attribute moral values to certain bits of the universe that are the “localised cause” of good things or bad things. We do this all the time, and you have given us no reason to suppose that doing so is unreasonable if we accept determinism.

      ”If you mean there is some sense in which the actor is ‘evil’, so that you are attributing traditional religious-type moral blame, then you are failing in your determinism, and this is where compatibilists are confused.

      I don’t care much for the concept of “evil,” so I have a bit of trouble engaging you on your terms here, but I am defending the reasonableness of moral blame (and praise), so perhaps for the purposes of this discussion I shouldn’t shy away from the term.

      I, along with most compatibilists, do hold that some people act wrongly, and it is proper to blame them for those actions. In extreme cases, we could even say that their actions are so consistently and thoroughly wrong that the agents are evil.

      As a first approximation, we say that a person should be blamed for some (evil) deed just in case he did it because he wanted to. He wasn’t forced to do it against his will. If he had wanted to do what was right, he would not have performed the evil act. He did it of his own free will (using our compatibilist account of freedom, and completely rejecting any appeal to violations of deterministic laws of nature).

      Now, it what way is this “failing in [my] determinism”? I accept determinism. I say that someone who knew all the physical facts and laws could have (in principle) calculated that the person would act in this evil way. Nonetheless, it makes perfect sense to say that a particular part of the deterministic universe is to blame. The blameworthy part just is the person who performed the action because he wanted to. It was his fault. If it’s bad enough, we can even say that he is in fact an evil person.

      We compatibilists find absolutely nothing here that’s inconsistent with our embrace of determinism.

      If you want to convince us that we’re wrong about this, you’ll need to give us some good reasons. And pretending that we’re covertly trying to sneak in some anti-determinism isn’t going to cut it.

      On retributivism: A hard determinist holds that punishment for desert – for retribution – is never justified. On the other hand, the compatibilist can either accept or reject retribution. The mere fact that she holds that some agents are morally responsible for some actions does not imply that she is committed to retributive punishment. She might be a utilitarian. She might embrace a humanitarian account of punishment.

      Personally, I’m not a big fan of retribution, so I’m not going to defend it here. But my unwillingness to defend retribution in no way implies that I’m a moral nihilist or a hard determinist.

  19. There are two broad models of morality:

    1) All morals are human inventions. If humans went extinct then there would be no morals at all. If a single lone humans is the last human to exist then he has no mral obligations whatsoever, unless he chooses to make some rules up for himself.

    2) Morals that are ‘out there’ somewhere for humans to learn and discover. These morals would still exist even if all humans went extinct, and any sole remaining human would still have moral obligations that he should live by. This model has two sub-models:

    2a) Morals come from God. Obviously applies only to the religious.

    2b) Morals are not from God but are out there anyway for humans to discover. This of course could be believed by atheists, but also by theists who think that God is not the source of the morals he prescribes.

    Which do you think is the case? From some of your words it sounds very much like (2b). This is what I’m disagreeing with you about (if indeed this is what you do hold to). If I’ve simply misunderstood you and you really go for (1) then at least we agree on that. I’m not sure if you think this is compatible with physicalims or not. I think not, and that’s why I’m confused because your words imply (2b), but this doesn’t work under physicalism and determinism.

    Here are some of your words that are causing me to think you go for (2b):

    “Does this mean that there are no objective facts about whether something is alive or not?” – What are objective moral facts to you?

    “Would I have any moral duties if I were the last living being on Earth? Well, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantianism would all say that I do.”

    I’m not asking Kant I’m asking you.

    “If all life went extinct, would there still be an objective distinction between living systems and non-living systems? Between healthy organisms and sickly organism? Of course, the subject matter needs to be there to ground the structural facts, and morality is about the actions of intelligent creatures. But this in no way makes these facts non-objective.”

    I can’t tell from this response what you’re answer is. I didn’t aks about sickly organisms. I asked about humans specifically because my claim is that only humans invent morality, and if humans didn’t invent it htere would not be any morality, and if humans that did invent it went exitinct any of the morality that humans invented would be gone with them. Morality is only a human invented code of conduct, is it not?

    • ”Which do you think is the case?”

      You are correct that I’m defending your (2b): “ Morals are not from God but are out there anyway for humans to discover.”

      (Though I might mention in passing that my views on ethics are much more tentative than my views on physicalism and freedom. My positions on the latter questions are based on good deal of study and research, and I’m quite confident that I’ve got things pretty well figured out. I’m not at all confident that I’ve got ethics figured out.)

      . . . but (2b) doesn’t work under physicalism and determinism.

      Why not? Consider utilitarianism: Pleasure is good, pain is bad. Obviously pleasure and pain are compatible with physicalism and determinism. So what’s the problem?

      Consider Kantian ethics that admonishes us to always act rationally – i.e., for good reasons. How is this incompatible with physicalism or determinism?

      Likewise, I see no problem with embracing both virtue ethics and determinism.

      All of these are well-known accounts of objective (type-2b) ethics.

      Morality is only a human invented code of conduct, is it not?

      No, it is not.

      Of course, we humans did have to develop an understanding of morality. Compare: We had to “invent” mathematics, but mathematical truths are nevertheless objective, and don’t depend our developing representations of them. We had to “invent” quantum mechanics, but the physical structures described by our theories are nevertheless mind-independent and objective.

      Now, if I were the only person on Earth, there are many moral facts that would no longer be relevant. For example, it’s immoral for me to go rob a bank so I can live a life of leisure. If there were no banks, this moral rule wouldn’t really apply. (Likewise, I could hardly love my neighbor if I had no neighbors.) Nonetheless, there would still be a general moral principle that would make it true that if there were a society of people with banks, it would be immoral for me to steal that money to increase my own leisure at the expense of the others who had stored their money there.

      As for my own view, I’m attracted to aspects of utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantian deontological accounts. Problems arise when these accounts conflict, but in a healthy majority of cases they agree with one another, so in that region I’m pretty comfortable making ethical judgments.

      So, yes, I think that even if I were the last person alive on Earth I would have certain ethical obligations. I would be morally required to live the best, most rewarding life I could, and to act rationally to the best of my ability. Of course, with no others around, the significance of moral considerations would be reduced quite significantly, but I nevertheless hold that objective moral facts would remain.

  20. Illusion: something that deceives by producing a false or misleading impression of reality, misapprehension, an erroneous concept or belief.

    You: I actually am not very inclined to claim that it is an “illusion” so much as I’d say it is a mistaken belief or theory

    I don’t see a great deal of difference.

    “It doesn’t really seem to me that I can break the laws of physics, and I’m not convinced that others really have this impression either.”

    You’re equivocating again, because I wasn’t claiming that you were suffering the illusion that you thought you could break the laws of physics. I was referring to your feeling (and mine and most humans) that the will is free from physical constraint, intuitively, even though you and I think it is not, rationally. That is what it feels like when we choose because we can’t detect within us the connection to physical cause of our choosing – the brain simply does not sense this and report it to our consciousness.

    Dualists in particular do think they can break the laws of physics, by merely thinking, because they think conscious thought is not determined by physical reality.

    Determinists think that thinking does not break the law of physcial reality, and so the feeling that we have that our will is free of physical reality is the illusion. OK, you now want to call it a mistaked belief. That’s equivocating.

    I will now accept your word that your compatibilism is not claiming compatibility between determinism and free-will. Not all compatibilists think this, but I’ll accept you do.

    Now with the above, the similarity between you’re thinking that dualist free-will is a mistaken belief, and what is claimed by those that claim free-will is an illusion, leads me to think that you really do think that dualist free-will is an illusion. So I can’t understand why compatibilists don’t like this use of illusion.

    Let me try and make the question clear again.

    When you say you are a compatibilist and a determinist and in your compatibilism you are claiming your determinism is compatible with something, what is your determinism compatible with?

    • . . . your feeling (and mine and most humans) that the will is free from physical constraint, intuitively, even though you and I think it is not, rationally. That is what it feels like when we choose because we can’t detect within us the connection to physical cause of our choosing – the brain simply does not sense this and report it to our consciousness.

      I agree that we aren’t able to detect all the relevant causal chains within our brains. I’m just not comfortable saying that this is equivalent to having a feeling “that the will is free from physical constraint.” Do I have feeling that the bones in my big toe aren’t made up of molecules? Am I under the illusion that the bone is completely solid – or composed of some non-particulate matter? I don’t think I do have such feelings. To say that I don’t have a feeling that I’m made of molecules is not the same thing as saying that I do have a feeling that I’m not made of molecules.

      Likewise, I’m inclined to say that even though I don’t have a feeling that I am completely governed by deterministic laws, I also don’t have a feeling that I am free from the application of deterministic laws. I think our seemings/feelings just don’t speak to the matter.

      But it seems to me that this is relatively minor point. If it would help for me to agree that we have an illusion of libertarian free will – that it “seems” to us that we can break the laws of physics – then let’s stipulate my agreement for the sake of argument.

      I will now accept your word that your compatibilism is not claiming compatibility between determinism and free-will. Not all compatibilists think this, but I’ll accept you do.

      No, no, no.

      You need to carefully distinguish between two notions of free will. The first is libertarian freedom — what you call “dualist free will” — and is indeed incompatible with determinism. This libertarian freedom requires that nothing but “me” is the true cause of my actions; incompatibilists sometimes say I must be the “ultimate” cause of my actions, or that I must be causa sui or self-caused. No compatibilist thinks we have this sort of “free will.”

      The second is compatibilist freedom, which says that we act freely just in case we do what we want to do, and nothing outside of us is forcing us to act against our desires.

      (I laid this out in the part of my comment that WordPress deleted. I don’t suppose the original reply got e-mailed to you? If you did happen to receive the full reply by e-mail, I’d be grateful if you could send it my way, so I can re-insert it.)

      If you want to engage with people who are involved in the debate over free will, you really need to be clear about what sort of “free will” you are talking about.

      Compatibilists reject libertarian freedom. Everyone agrees that we have compatibilist freedom. The debate is over the question of whether compatibilist freedom is enough for moral responsibility. Incompatibilists (i.e., hard determinists and libertarians) agree that we have compatibilist freedom (i.e., the ability to do what we want to do), but they argue that this is not enough for moral responsibility. Compatibilists argue that as long as we can do what we want, we are free in the relevant sense, and we are morally responsible for what we do.

      Every compatibilist rejects libertarian (dualist) freedom. None of us think that it’s valuable. None of us think that it’s morally relevant.

      When you say you are a compatibilist and a determinist and in your compatibilism you are claiming your determinism is compatible with something, what is your determinism compatible with?

      We are saying that determinism is compatible with our doing things because we want to. We are saying that determinism is compatible with our decisions making a real difference in the world. We are saying that determinism is compatible with our being morally responsible for some of our actions.

      We are NOT saying that determinism is compatible with a non-physical soul that violates the deterministic laws of physics when it makes decisions. We are NOT saying that determinism is compatible with libertarian (dualist) freedom.

      When the compatibilist says that free will is compatible with determinism, what she is saying is that libertarian freedom (i.e., the ability to escape deterministic laws) is irrelevant to the sort of freedom that matters for moral responsibility. What matters for moral responsibility is the ability to do things of your own free will – that is, to act voluntarily – that is, to do things because you want to do them.

      Determinism is compatible with the only sort of free will that we could reasonably want, the only sort of free will that we can make sense of. This is compatibilist notion of freedom. We are free when we can do what we want to do.

      • But it seems to me that this is relatively minor point. If it would help for me to agree that we have an illusion of libertarian free will – that it “seems” to us that we can break the laws of physics – then let’s stipulate my agreement for the sake of argument.

        No, it’s not a minor point. You should insist on it: it bears strongly on the issue of who has the better analysis to capture the content of the concepts people actually use. The referents of a term depend more closely on perceptual features associated with the term than on theoretical claims associated with it. When people use a dualist theory to infer that they have contra-causal decision making powers, this cuts very little ice in determining the meaning of the term “free will”. But if, contrary to fact, the term “free will” were used primarily in contexts of perceptual illusion, that would lend substantial weight to the incompatibilist case.

  21. “You are correct that I’m defending your (2b): Morals are not from God but are out there anyway for humans to discover.”

    This is a breakthrough in our conversaion because that’s what I thought you meant all along but it really wasn’t clear.

    “Why not? Consider utilitarianism: Pleasure is good, pain is bad. Obviously pleasure and pain are compatible with physicalism and determinism. So what’s the problem?”

    Pleasure and pain are real physical experiences. The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are words that can be applied to various subjects, so I see more equivocation here. In applying them to pleasure and pain we are just saying we prefer pleasure to pain and so we label pleasure good and pain bad. There is no moral implication here. Humans, as physical animals simply prefer one or the other, though in some case pain can be good too, and pleasure can become bad; pain can bring pleasure and excessive pleasure can turn to pain. This is merely the complex biological world of human sensation. There are no moral implications at all.

    The morality comes in, as a human construct, when we decide that to inflict pain on someone is bad. We acknowledge that pain is generally bad, so we attribute the label bad to the act of inflicting pain, and so invent a moral code that states that inflicting pain on others is bad. There is zero moral implication for inflicting pain on oneself. Unless, as yet another human construct, a person is cause to so label self-inflicted pain – and this is what has heppened historically as religions have turned self-inflicted pain and suicide into a ‘morally bad’ act. Note that this is quite arbitrary in that there really are no moral truths out there to discover, only ones to invent. Until its Westernisation Japanese culture saw suicide as an honourable act in the face of shame. Some religions see death in attacking the religion’s emenies as an honourable act of martyrdom. Even Christianity has had its martyrs that see what amounts to their suicide as being more honourable than their survival. Humans really do make up these rules. We in the West are stuck with mental models forced upon us by our religious history.

    Claiming that there are moral values to be discovered is nothing more than a mthod of Rationalism (coming up with some idea and claiming it to be true, as if we know it innately). But this goes entirely against the grain of determinism and empiricism. All of known evolution, biology, neuroscience should be telling us that such innate capabilities, to intuit or discover some cosmic rules, is nonsense.

    “Consider Kantian ethics …”

    Kant and other philosophers form a few centuries ago had none of the sciecne we have now. They were inventing ideas that seems to be good ideas to them, because they had nothing else to go on. And historically there is a great deal of Rationalism, even from empiricists. See “There is great irony here since historically…” here:

    http://www.skepdic.com/empiricism.html

    We cannot keep dragging up this old philosophy as if it is entirely relevant today. There are many good ideas that we get from these philosophers, but their philosophies are full of holes, even by the standards of their own age. As great as they were and as much as they contributed to the progress of philosophy why accept their ideas so basically. I presume to accept that when scientists got it wrong about phlogiston that this was simply a matter of science having more to do on the matter. We seem to accept these early errors of scientists, and acknowledge the part they played but reject their old ideas when wrong. Why the insitannce on relying on old philosophers?

    But even so…

    “Consider Kantian ethics that admonishes us to always act rationally – i.e., for good reasons. How is this incompatible with physicalism or determinism?”

    I don’t see what this has to do with our currrent debate at all. Of course we want to act rationally. If anything I’m claiming that the compatibilists adherence to some form of inadequate free-will is driven not by reason but by attachment to current moral systems. Why else would morality keep coming up in the way it does. Yes, deterministic rejection of free-will has implications for how we understand our morality; but our need for a moral system should not dictate our evaluation of fee-will. The morality question comes after we (both being determinists) have rejected free-will as an idea.

    “Likewise, I see no problem with embracing both virtue ethics and determinism.”

    Fine. But again, this comes after determinism disposes of free-will. You can then build something like virtue ethics on top of the knowledge that our character is based deterministic outcomes of hte biology of the individual. Virtue ethics, like most other ethics that refuse to take this deterinist step, are wallowing around in a debating space that is still based on Rationalism: you feel you have some innate insight into morality, invent some system of ethics, and then debate it with other ethicists. No wonder ethics is so slow in progressing, with so many systems to choose from. They are all made up in human minds and then argued as if they come from somewhere out there independent of human beings.

    Me: “Morality is only a human invented code of conduct, is it not?”

    You: “No, it is not.”

    What evidence do you have that this is the case? I presume you would like evidence?

    “For example, it’s immoral for me to go rob a bank so I can live a life of leisure.”

    Why? Let’s stick with this one example. Really, why is it immoral?

    “Nonetheless, there would still be a general moral principle…”

    Why? where is it? Where does it come from? What is a simple ‘principle’, about morals or anything? Be careful not to equivocate on the multiple uses of principle. There are principles that we say undeerly some scientific ideas, for example, but here ‘principle’ simply means some underlying idea.

    The other use of ‘principle’ has to do with things like principled acts, which is already a term used with morals. This is like declaring I have moral morals. It’s tautologous and so uninformative. What I really want to know is how you come to believe that moral rules are our there to be discovered?

    “… would make it true that if there were … ”

    This use of the conditional is not adding to the debate. If there were moral truths out there then if there weree banks to be robbed, etc…. well of course *if* there were moral truths; but this is the point we’re debating. How do you know there are moral truths out there?

    “I’m attracted to aspects of utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantian deontological accounts….”

    Why? Granted you can construct ethical systems on top of whatever it is you think is the source of ethics. I too think some utilitarian ideas are useful. But I base than on morals being a human construct that is built in turn on top of our biological and social history. I see no evidence for moral rules being out there to discover. I’d love to know what your evidence is.

    “So, yes, I think that even if I were the last person alive on Earth I would have certain ethical obligations. I would be morally required to live the best, most rewarding life I could, and to act rationally to the best of my ability.”

    Why? I find this to be typical of moral hand waving: “I would be morally required to live the best, most rewarding life I could” What does that even mean in the context of being alone? Does it just mean ‘be happy’, or does it mean ‘don’t use bad language’, or ‘don’t have sexual thoughts about that last woman that was alive because she was married to the penultimate man that was alive, before they both met with that fatal accident’. What would be the best and most rewarding life for you?

    Try to avoid equivocation on the meanings of these words. I’m sure if you could define it then it would be worth living, but only because being human animals who have genetic instincts to survive and enjoy pleasure. I don’t see any moral reason to live such a life because I see no source of morals to dictate that life prescriptively. It would be entirely your choice.

    To emphasise this point I would see no moral implication if you chose to do a bit of self-harm, just to experience the pain, or maybe you could partake in extensive self-pleasure with thoughts of every conceivable act that you might once of thought of as immoral, before finally throwing yourself off a cliff. And note here that this need not include a depressive state of mind – it could be done entirely in the state of bliss as a final experience. I’m not sure what moral transgressions to suggest really, since I don’t see any existing at that point. I’m just picking a few acts that would have been constructed within a tyical society of multiple humans.

    I wonder if the Victorians thought that a woman showing a bit of ankle was a trangression of some moral code that is ‘out there’. Morals seem such flexible things. Just the type of variable stuff unsupported by evidence that is similar to lots of other Rationalist ideas.

    • Can’t take much time, but here are few brief replies:

      ”we are just saying we prefer pleasure to pain and so we label pleasure good and pain bad. There is no moral implication here. Humans, as physical animals simply prefer one or the other,

      I see the assertions, but I don’t see much in the way of argument. I find Bentham and Mill more convincing than your bald claims that they are wrong. You’re going to develop more careful and informed arguments against utilitarianism if you want to convince me (or others) that pleasure isn’t objectively good and pain isn’t objectively bad.

      The one argument I do see you presenting is based on the diversity of various cultural moral norms:

      . . . martyrs that see what amounts to their suicide as being more honourable than their survival. Humans really do make up these rules.

      I agree that there have been (and are) many incompatible moral codes held by different people, and they cannot all be right. But this only implies that at least some of these people are wrong. It does not imply that there are no objective moral facts.

      People have had various beliefs about the age of the Earth, about whether demons cause illness, about which gods exist and what one needs to do to appease them. But this variety of beliefs in no way shows that there aren’t objective facts about these topics.

      As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have a strong position on ethics. But for the sake of argument, I’ll just go all in with utilitarianism. I claim it is an objective moral fact that pain is bad and pleasure is good. We have a moral duty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

      Now, if you’re a moral nihilist, I’m not sure I can convince you that pleasure is in fact good.

      But the reason we got into this debate is that you insisted that morality is incompatible with determinism and/or physicalism. So the burden is on you to show that I am making some sort of mistake when I embrace physicalism, determinism, and the utilitarian commitment to pleasure being (objectively morally) good and pain being (objectively morally) bad. I see that you only feel comfortable talking about preferences, not about objective moral facts, but I don’t see any reason why my commitment to physicalism or determinism should incline me to agree with you.

      Claiming that there are moral values to be discovered is nothing more than a mthod of Rationalism (coming up with some idea and claiming it to be true, as if we know it innately). But this goes entirely against the grain of determinism and empiricism.

      I completely fail to see how determinism has anything to do with this. What does determinism have to do with the origin or nature of knowledge?

      As for rationalism and empiricism, neither I nor anyone else I’m familiar with embrace a Platonic or Cartesian rationalism that appeals to innate ideas. However, a thorough-going empiricism is self-defeating in that it leads either to idealism (Berkeley) or skepticism (Hume).

      Much of mathematics and physics is empirical only at the edges. The internal structure is for the most part supported by broad principles of reasoning (coherence, simplicity, explanatory power, etc.) and not by any direct empirical evidence. (See Quine on holism.)

      We cannot keep dragging up this old philosophy as if it is entirely relevant today. . . Why the insitannce on relying on old philosophers?

      Because if we are going to struggle with questions like “what is knowledge” or “are there objective moral facts” it would be foolish to start from scratch when smart people before us have already explored much of the relevant conceptual and argumentative ground.

      If someone wants to claim that determinism is incompatible with objective moral truths, we don’t have to come up with our own fresh account of objective morality to test the claim. We can instead look at some well-developed and widely accepted accounts of objective morality and ask where the supposed incompatibility with determinism or physicalism lies.

      I’m perfectly happy to point out that our current scientific understanding undermines many things that Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant believed. Indeed, I point these things out professionally. But it’s foolish to ignore centuries of philosophical reasoning just because Plato didn’t know about black holes. You can start from scratch if you like, but you shouldn’t expect to make more progress than someone who is standing on the shoulders of older philosophers (and scientists).

      Of course we want to act rationally.

      Great! And is it an objective fact that we should act rationally? If it is, then we’re half way to establishing an objective foundation for morality along Kantian lines. Kant, of course, argued that reason establishes a framework for knowing what our duties are. Now Kant was no friend of compatibilism (see OP way way up top), but I see no problem with embracing both the categorical imperative and determinism.

      Once again, my point is that standard accounts of objective morality seem to be in no way undermined by determinism.

      But again, this comes after determinism disposes of free-will.

      You’ve been told many times that it is question begging to use the phrase “free will” in place of “libertarian freedom.” This indicates either that you fail to understand the debate, or that you aren’t arguing in good faith.

      me:“For example, it’s immoral for me to go rob a bank so I can live a life of leisure.”
      you: “Why? Let’s stick with this one example. Really, why is it immoral?”

      Because the pleasure that I get from my life of leisure is less that the sum of the pleasure that the investors, owners, and so on get from having their money and having it secure in a bank. I sum up the pleasure (and subtract the pain) that results from my taking the money, and sum up the pleasure (and subtract the pain) that results from my leaving the money in the bank. And I find that it is immoral to steal the money because it leads to less pleasure than leaving it in the bank.

      ”Why? where is it? Where does it come from? What is a simple ‘principle’, about morals or anything?

      The principle is Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle”: Always act so as to maximize the total amount of pleasure and to minimize the total amount of pain.

      This use of the conditional is not adding to the debate. If there were moral truths out there . . .

      You misunderstand. I’m only conditionalizing on the circumstances, not on the moral facts. So, it is an objective moral truth that if there were intelligent beings on the moon, it would be morally wrong to torture them to death for the fun of it. Along the same lines, it is an objective physical fact that if the moon were completely composed of uranium-235 it would explode. Of course, given the actual circumstances of the world, neither of the truths is terribly relevant.

      Why? . . . I see no evidence for moral rules being out there to discover. I’d love to know what your evidence is.

      Well, as I’ve said before, I don’t have a well-worked-out (meta-)ethical position. But here’s the gist of my line of reasoning (which I expect I’ll flesh out in years to come):

      I think there are objective moral rules because I think I can make sense of morality. This isn’t all that different from the reason that I accept mathematical, or physical, or biological facts. I accept things when I understand them – especially if I think I can explain away counter-arguments, and explain why some people erroneously disagree with me.

      I think I can make sense of rationality in a physicalist deterministic universe, and this gives me one form of normativity. I see no reason to suppose that there couldn’t be other forms of normativity – specifically, moral normativity. And I think I can make sense of how people end up with a lot of false moral beliefs, so the diversity of moral commitments doesn’t trouble me any more than the diversity of non-normative beliefs.

      And I think that hard-core empiricism is deeply confused, so I’m not at all deterred by people claiming that physical properties can be seen but moral properties can’t.

      And I think I have a pretty good grip on how seemingly non-physical properties emerge in a purely physical world, and I see no clear reason that moral properties couldn’t also be emergent physical properties.

      “I would be morally required to live the best, most rewarding life I could” What does that even mean in the context of being alone?

      It means maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Cf. Bentham and Mill. (I have, of course, simplified my response by going all-in with utilitarianism.)

      In my own case, what this would mean in practice would depend quite a bit on what resources I had available, but the moral facts would be no less objective for that.

  22. “Do I have feeling that the bones in my big toe aren’t made up of molecules?”

    You don’t have the feeling they are, until you learn that fact. And even after learning it, and coming to accept it rationally, you still don’t ‘feel’ as though they are. Legs feel like solud flesh and bone, not like molecules. What does it feel like to sense individual molecules? You’re know that your legs are made of molecules, and you know that adjacent molecuels, and indeed atoms, are mostly empty space, but the illusion is that you are solid. There are lots of illusions that we accept as illusions. I’m not sure why the illusion of having free-will is particularly difficult to accept, unless other emotional factors are preventing that. Our reluctance to accept even a suggestion that morals have no foundation in themselves but are just made up by humans is such an emotional issue that it seems to ge getting in the way.

    “I don’t think I do have such feelings.” – Then you have learned to overcome such a feeling. I don’t think you’re admitting to the surprise that we experience when we learn some of these facts because we learn them piecemeal during our earlier education. I remember clearly an incident in class of discovering the empty space of ataoms, and the follwoing debate about how we could walk through walls if it weren’t for the forces between the atoms. Of course the teacher had heard such debates before on many occassions.

    “I also don’t have a feeling that I am free from the application of deterministic laws”.

    OK, may be you personally don’t. But many people do (the dualists at least) and most determinists I’ve engaged with do too, but they accept the rational explanation that this is an illusion.

    “But it seems to me that this is relatively minor point. If it would help for me to agree that we have an illusion of libertarian free will”

    That’s all determinis non-compatibilists have ever said on the matter. Compatibilism only makes sense in terms of determinism being compatible with free-will.

    “This libertarian freedom requires that nothing but “me” is the true cause of my actions”

    And this is the type of statement compatibilists trot out all the time when objecting to determinist claims that free-will is an illusion. So, if you mean something else by your compatibilism I hope you can see where the confusion comes from.

    “The second is compatibilist freedom, which says that we act freely just in case we do what we want to do, and nothing outside of us is forcing us to act against our desires.”

    But the forces that cause your desires have already acted. So of course when you follow your desires you are acting according to prior forces. Nobody is denying we act on our desires. If anythin compatibilists intriduce more confusion by claiming ‘I could have done otherwise’.

    This must be the case otherwise you desires are being claimed to be free of prior causes. This is pointed out so many times to compatibilists that this is the basis upon which determinists claim free-will must be an illusion. Determinists also then say, in response to compatibilists, that you are defining this causal outcome as a different kind of free-will, you are re-defining the term free-will in dterminist terms, but simply applying emphasis to the localised sum of prior causes that contribute to this current act of responding to one’s desires.

    So, the main points of contention are the refusal to call free-will that everybody else sees as free-will as an illusion, and the insistence on redefining free-will because it causes cofusion.

    “If you want to engage with people who are involved in the debate over free will, you really need to be clear about what sort of “free will” you are talking about.”

    It has always been clear that determinists are talking about dualist free-will, in claiming that this free-will is an illusion. Compatibilists then say, no, free-will is not an illusion and free-will is compatible with determinism. So if anything it seems that the compatibilists are confused about this aprt of the debate. And the other claims from compatibilists (‘acting on my desires’ and ‘could have done otherwise’) are clearly not the case for even the this alternative compatibilists free-will, except in the trivial sense that determinists have already pointed out, which is we do act on our desires because our desires are determined; and we could not have done otherwise.

    “…hard determinists … agree that we have compatibilist freedom (i.e., the ability to do what we want to do), but they argue that this is not enough for moral responsibility.”

    This is a misrepresentation again. To say we accept compatibilist freedom is yet more equivocation, because clearly we do not accept the compatibilist claims (rejection of ‘free-will is an illusion’, insistance on ‘I could have done otherwise’).

    “Compatibilists argue that as long as we can do what we want, we are free in the relevant sense”

    But this is entirely inadequate language when we are discussing determinism. The whole point is that determinism takes you much deeper than this. So ‘as long as we can do what we want’ has no meaning, because you must do what you want.

    Of course this whole notion gets messy for the compatibilist because you have to then start coming up with scenarios such as the coerced bank robber – he didn’t really ‘want’ to rob the bank but in the end he did actually ‘choose’ to. Compatibilism creates inconsistencies such as this, “I don’t want to rob the bank but I choose to to save my family”. Determinism avoids this altogether in that they are just different combinations of causes that result in a similar effect.

    Note the effects are similar but not the same, since even the act of the robbery will contain some subtle differences, maybe even undetectable ones to bystanders, for at least in the brain of the coerced robber there is a not the brain states that would exist had he been a willing uncoerced participant; the ‘willingness’ being just one more deterministic outcome of this other robbers past compared to our coerced robbers past.

    “Every compatibilist rejects libertarian (dualist) freedom. None of us think that it’s valuable. None of us think that it’s morally relevant.”

    Why address it’s ‘value’ and it’s ‘moral relevance’ as if these are the deciding factors. Both are irrelevant if you are a detrminist. You should be rejecting dualist free-will because it is oncompatible with your determinism. It can hardly have ‘value’ if it does not exist. As for morals, in rejecting dualist free-will there is nothing free of deterministic causes, and so we have to re-address what we mean by morality *as a consequence* of already rejecting dualist free-will.

    “We are saying that determinism is compatible with our doing things because we want to. We are saying that determinism is compatible with our decisions making a real difference in the world.”

    Again, not that this starts from the point of view of wants and desires. This is the slippery means by which compatibilists jump in at this point, which just happens to be the point at which dualist free-will operates. This is precisely what causes the confusion, along with the reluctance to label dualist free-will as an illusion. This is why compatibilist free-will seems so much like equivocation.

    “We are saying that determinism is compatible with our being morally responsible for some of our actions.”

    But this isn’t enough of an explanation, because it does not take on board the implications for morality that determinism implies.

    “We are NOT saying that determinism …”

    I’ve already accepted that. I’m objecting to the slippery avoidance of calling dualst free-will an illusion.

    It would help if compatibilists said something like the following:

    “We accept fully the implications of determinis: that dualist free-will is an illusion; that when we ‘want’ to do something that ‘want’ is a desire determined by prior causes; that we could not have done otherwise because our whatever we supposedly choose to do is determined by causes that cause the brain to ‘choose'; that nevertheless we do not like and cannot accept the im-lications of determinism for morality, and therefore re-define free-will in vague terms that avoid this conflict.”

    At least that would be mroe honest.

    “When the compatibilist says that free will is compatible with determinism, what she is saying is that libertarian freedom (i.e., the ability to escape deterministic laws) is irrelevant to the sort of freedom that matters for moral responsibility.”

    Again more slipperiness in order to save existing notions of morality. dualist free-will is irrelevant I agree. But it is irrelevant because it is incompatible with determinism; and feeling we have dualist free-will is an illusion – do you agree?

    “What matters for moral responsibility is the ability to do things of your own free will – that is, to act voluntarily – that is, to do things because you want to do them.”

    Completely irrelevant words if ‘act voluntarily’, ‘want to do them’ are already made deterministic outcomes. This is just the slippery evasion a theist will use when trying to define the God of sophisticated theology.

    “Determinism is compatible with the only sort of free will that we could reasonably want, the only sort of free will that we can make sense of. This is compatibilist notion of freedom. We are free when we can do what we want to do.”

    So, there is this other type of free-will. You have re-defined the term free-will. Why do compatibilists deny this so often?

  23. “I see the assertions, but I don’t see much in the way of argument.”

    But we do have evidence from evolution, biology, neuroscience, that human emotions are biologically evolved drives, and a more plausible explanation than the magical existence of moral codes written in the stars is that morals are a human social construct built on top of biological drives. We make up very complex social constructs with all sorts of rules, many of which would not be considered as moral rules. Moral rules are just one type of socially constructed rules that we have strong feelings about. This argument is made all over the place, and I’ve been making it here.

    It is you that is making an assertion: that there is a moral implication. Your whole claim that morals are out there to be discovered is no better Rationalism than saying there is a God out there to be discovered. It is you that is making this unsupported claim.

    Just because there have been millennia of religious belief does make any of those individual beliefs true. Just because there have beenn millennia of Rationalist claims that morals are out there to discover doesn’t make them true. So you can quote as many philosophers as you like, that’s no better than quoting the Bible, if you’re simply going to list their names and their theories. You are not constructing an argument from Bentham, Mill, Kant or anyone. You are not giving any grounds for believing that morals are out there to be discovered.

    So, what evidence do you have to support your claim?

    “I agree that there have been (and are) many incompatible moral codes held by different people, and they cannot all be right. But this only implies that at least some of these people are wrong.”

    You could infer that at least one is wrong, if you have already provided evidence that there are morals out there to be discovered. Until you do that you can’t infer anything that uses it as a premise.

    You can also infer that this diversity is evidence that for millennia, as different cultures developed, they made up their own rules, even though each thought they were discovering them. This is also consistent with other views: all cultures that developed their particular ethics had no guidance from evolution, biology or neuroscience to figure out that this is natural human diversity at work; because they had no understanding of the inability of the brain to access physical internal processes all thought seemed to spring freely within the mind; it appeared that ideas come to the mind innately; mistaking common biology for common innate ideas all commonly held strong feelings about human interaction were viewed as either God given or innate signs of an absolute moral code lying out there.

    “It does not imply that there are no objective moral facts.”

    Not absolutely, but then nothing is absolute. But you are the one claiming the moral rules out there, and that is an even less likely implication.

    “People have had various beliefs about the age of the Earth, about whether demons cause illness, about which gods exist and what one needs to do to appease them. But this variety of beliefs in no way shows that there aren’t objective facts about these topics.”

    And God? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? You are using the very same weak argument to support your claim that morals exist out there? You have no evidence for it. It is a presupposition used as a premise for your views on morality. As shown next…

    “I claim it is an objective moral fact that pain is bad and pleasure is good. We have a moral duty to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.”

    You’re second statement would be true if only the first was. Evidence for the first? You really won’t convince me of the second until you have given any good reason for accepting the first.

    “Now, if you’re a moral nihilist, I’m not sure I can convince you that pleasure is in fact good.”

    But I’m not a moral nihilist. I’ve explained why I’m not several times. If you missed it I’ll explain again: I think the evidence shows that morals are a human construct; I want to construct what I see as worthwhile moral codes based on this evidence; I see other claims about the source of our moral codes (God given or just out there) and I see nobody ever providing evidence to support those claims. So, with that, can you stop implying that I’m a moral nihilist. Incidentally, I have no problem with people who are moral nihilists because I can see that they are following certain logical paths, but perhaps have different preferences.

    My desire for moral codes is a matter of the expedient running of society and the best route to fairness – a personal preference. Neither of those desires are requirements of any universal law. If the majority of society held that killing old people off was the moral thing to do, for the benefit of the young, then I would not like it (not least because I will one day be a victim). But I see no code written in the universe that would prevent that. There are no moral codes out there that say you cannot abuse your children. But most humans don’t do that. But even this last view has changed in degree over the centuries; children were abused far more frequently than now and it wasn’t viewed by everyone as immoral. In fact the Roman Catholic Church has abused children for centuries – my mother can personally attest to the vicious nature of many of the nuns at her school who thought that beating the kids viciously was moraly good, for the benefit of their souls.

    I don’t think utilitarianism needs morals to be out there to be discovered. Utilitarianism is a varied philosophy with all proponents having slightly different views. But certainly we can take the view that humans biologically prefer pleasure to pain, and so we can construct a moral code on top of that so that it fits utilitarianism. So I’m not saying determinism is incompatible with utilitarianism.

    I am saying that determinism and empiricism lead to science, and the sciences of evolution, biology, neuroscience all imply that moral are human inventions. Physicalism in particular does include the principle that everything is physical, and so for the ‘moral codes out there’ view you do need physical evidence. Where is the evidence?

    “I see that you only feel comfortable talking about preferences, not about objective moral facts…”

    Yes, of course. Where is the evidence for objective moral facts? Each human is constructed from a wide range of genetic diversity on the one hand, but it is from the same genetic pool. On top of that we have both a great deal of commonality among our different historical cultures, but also a great deal of detailed diversity too. So there is a combination of diversity and commonality. This would lead naturally (following the evidence of evolution, biology, neuroscience) to some common areas of preference and some diversity. And this is what we see. The strength of feeling we experience as humans about some matters, along with our lack of science historically, has lead us to think that there are moral codes just out there, or that they are God given.

    “I don’t see any reason why my commitment to physicalism or determinism should incline me to agree with you.”

    Those commitments should lead you to take your implications from science, not form rationalist voodoo that’s no better supported by evidence than God is.

    “What does determinism have to do with the origin or nature of knowledge?”

    Epistemology comes first. We don’t know how we come to know; and we don’t know how we can know what we think we know is true. There seem to be two main routes we can take.

    First, we are all Rationalists – we have only our mental view of the world; we’re on the inside looking out. We can’t even be sure there is a physical world. But if we follow only that route then that leads to solipsism. I cannot refute solipsism, and I have never seen anyone else do it. The only other experience we seem to have is a sensory one. Again, this could be a trick of my solipsism, making me think I’m having sensory experiences when in fact I don’t even have a body. Note that under solipsism I have no reason to think you are not an invention of my mind. Solipsism is a dead end where anything you could possibly think of might be true.

    But the sensory experience seems so real. What if we explore this second route, where does it lead? It leads to empiricism – the combination of sensory experience and our reasoning about that experience. Empiricism leads us to science (which is not some ‘other way of knowing’ but just a more rigorous form of empiricism that helps us compensate for the fallibilities we discover in our reasoning and in our sensing). Science in turn gives us evolution and biology. Those tell us that our ancestors did not have brains and did not reason. So, historically, evolutionarily, we are first and foremost sensing experiencing creatures, which have had an evolutionary upgrade: first with basic senses of a few specialised cells, then with even more specialised neurons, in small numbers in simple animals, then brains that are not specifically conscious and self-aware, and eventually we humans have acquired reasoning.

    These two routes are provisional, tentative, contingent. We can arbitrarily choose either: rationalism all the way to solipsism, or alternatively empiricism. Under one there is only mental phenomena, and possibly only my mental phenomena. Under the other there is the physical world that has created physical brains that think, but don’t think so well that they can prove the other metaphysical alternative wrong. These are the metaphysical ontologies we are left with. Make your choice.

    You and I have chosen empiricism as an epistemology that leads us to discover all of the physical world that we now know of. But this is still a contingent choice – contingent on it not being the case that my solipsist mind is fooling me, about my senses, about an external physical world, about you and other people. My solipsism may have invented all this – including you. Of course your solipsism may have invented me so that I’m a figment of your mind. You can see, I’m sure, how uninformative solipsism is. That’s why I have chosen empiricism. It’s a choice, a preference. Everything after that is contingent upon that choice (and later, when I conclude determinism, it appears it might not be a choice after all).

    Within that empiricisms and metaphysical view we can look back and see that we are still left with rationalist views, such as the souls, dualist free-will, etc. But if we take the science seriously we conclude that the universe is a physical deterministic place (there are issues of quantum indeterminacy, but they don’t really change much about this view). All rationalist views about free-will, moral codes being out there, God, souls, fairies, … they are all rationalist propositions. But if we are empiricists then we want matching evidence.

    Under the empiricism epistemology and consequential determinist metaphysics, where is the evidence for God, souls, or there being morals just out there?

    So, to answer your question, that’s what it has to do with knowledge.

    “However, a thorough-going empiricism is self-defeating in that it leads either to idealism (Berkeley) or skepticism (Hume).”

    Only if you’re irrational about it. I’ve explained that we do find that both our reasoning and our experiencing are fallible. So I’ve already explained why it’s all contingent. Empiricism, if it’s going to be useful, needs a rational approach that takes these fallibilities and this contingency into account. Science does this. We demand evidence to back up our ideas. We allow sceicne to be adequately right but possibly wrong. Idealism doesn’t have that. Idealism is just another Rationalist point of view that is unsupported by evidence. Scepticism is required. But it’s a rational scepticism that balances what we can discover from our senses and our reasoning, through science. It’s a rational scepticism that acknowledges our fallibilities and our efforst to compensate for that; a scepticism that balances evidence and declines certainty. The complete and utter scepticism I think you’re referring to is just one more irrational Rationalism that leads us to doubt everything so thoroughly that we end up back in solipsism.

    Pure mathematics is a Rationalist activity of the mind. It isn’t quite the same as vague philosophical rationalist ideas in that it has very specific premises – axioms. From there it is precise, but in and of itself quite useless (except that it is mentally interesting). Only when it is applied to our understanding of the physical universe that we have chosen to accept (empiricism) do we have something to use it on. We use maths, and theoretical physics, to build models of the world we experience, and if we can create further experiences (experiments) that show some compliance between those experiences and the models, then we feel we have a better understanding of reality. But it’s all contingent in the first degree on our epistemology (empiricisms over Rationalism), in the second degree on our metaphysical ontology (all the mind, or all physical with some physical processes producing activity we call the mind), and in the third degree our use of science.

    ” it would be foolish to start from scratch when smart people before us”

    I’m not starting from scratch. I’m taking what I see as the best from the past. I’m not merely listing names and theories. But if you want: my ideas are based on the following. Descartes cogito ergo sum was on the right track. When you doubt everything you are left with the mental experience of a thinking thing. I discard much of what then follows from Descartes because his presupposition about God clouded his thinking. Hume provided the best of our understanding of empiricism, and I take a lot from him. But he had the problem of having no access to the science we have, so naturally not all his ideas stand up to modern scrutiny. Most other philosophers can’t really escape the Rationalism, and yet neither can they see that it ultimately leads to solipsism. The only route that seems to be productive is a modern empiricism that is founded on science, where science is simply a rigorous application of methodologies invented to compensate for the fallibilities of our natural empiricism.

    “If someone wants to claim that determinism is incompatible with objective moral truths, we don’t have to come up with our own fresh account of objective morality to test the claim.”

    Surely you should expect to come up with evidence? Otherwise what’s to distinguish your claim from any other Rationalist claim. Without evidence you have absolutely nothing to refute a similar claim that it is morally good to suicide bomb in the name of your god. Really, let’s see you refute that in a way that uses moral codes that are out there, using only logic and no evidence. You can’t appeal to statements about what you personally think is the case, or what the majority think, unless you have separate evidence. If you simply state that your rules are right and the suicide bomber’s wrong you are not providing an argument from evidence.

    “We can instead look at some well-developed and widely accepted accounts of objective morality…”

    But those accounts are just personal claims of those that believe in them. Give me evidence that supports them. Don’t simply restate those claims.

    “But it’s foolish to ignore centuries of philosophical reasoning just because Plato didn’t know about black holes.”

    It would be equally foolish to accept it. I do neither. I think about how old philosophical ideas relate to what we know now.

    “And is it an objective fact that we should act rationally?”

    No, not at all. Where is your evidence that we should? If you are claiming we should because that’s what we prefer and it makes sense to do what we prefer, then I agree; but that’s just a ‘should’ of preference, as in if you like vanilla but dislike chocolate you should choose vanilla. If you’re claim some moral reason why we should act rationally then you need not only to show that it is a moral requirement but also show that there are actually moral requirements out there – we you have not done.

    I’m stating it as a desire. One I observe in everyone who makes an argument, everyone who attempts to be rational. I might be mistaken in that observation. I know that some people prefer faith to rationality in matters of religion – they say that explicitly. But generally everyone wants to be rational. There is nothing in the universe, out there, that requires humans be rational. Rationality just happens to be a product of their biology.

    “Once again, my point is that standard accounts of objective morality seem to be in no way undermined by determinism.”

    Maybe. If your determinism is also just plucked out of thin air then I guess there’s nothing stopping you plucking morals out of thin air too. I also know atheists who are what I’d called faith based atheists – they haven’t given any thought to the matter, they just think the concept of God is stupid and are happy to have faith in their instincts. But for anyone who does consider the philosophy I think that by the time we get to determinism and physicalism there is nothing in our understanding of the physical universe that has shown any sign of being related to morals.

    “You’ve been told many times that it is question begging..”

    Well I’ve been told wrong. I can’t quite see why you’re even bringing question begging into it.

    “This indicates either that you fail to understand the debate”

    Again, that wouldn’t be question begging. But which debate? The original debate (on Jerry Coynes site, and historically) has been that determinists don’t see dualist free-will as being compatible with determinism. That’s the original debate. Then compatibilists claim determinism is compatible with free-will, but then it turns out they are using a different definition of free-will. It’s compatibilists that are muddying the debate. Well, if you want to confuse the debate and then claim we don’t understand the debate because you have moved the goal posts? Well, really?

    “I sum up the pleasure (and subtract the pain) that results from my taking the money, and sum up the pleasure (and subtract the pain) that results from my leaving the money in the bank. ”

    OK, let’s suppose you do this. You have embarked on an empirical study and attributed weightings to each case. And you come to some conclusion. Great. But…

    “And I find that it is immoral to steal the money because it leads to less pleasure than leaving it in the bank.”

    What? Where did morality sneak into your empirical study? It didn’t. You just injected it as a presupposition. You are already presupposing moral value to your various measures. Now this *is* a classic example of question begging. You are injecting a presupposition about moral value in order to show the moral value of your example. This is no better that religious claims about God and the Bible: God inspired the Bible through revelation; the Bible is evidence for God – they have to presuppose God, use him to create the Bible, and then offer that as evidence for God.

    “The principle is Mill’s “Greatest Happiness Principle”: ”

    No it isn’t. This is just another claim. This is no better than referring to the Bible. Where does Mill get his evidence from? If he gets it from his observations of human behaviour then he is making the case that morals come from human behaviour and are therefore human constructs. If he is plucking it out the air then it is just one more Rationalist opinion. Simply referring to Mill isn’t enough. Try giving your own reasoning, your own evidence, for thinking morals are out there to be discovered.

    “So, *it is an objective moral truth* that if there were intelligent beings on the moon…”

    Can’t you see you are presupposing that it is a moral fact? You are not offering evidence for that fact. You are not supporting your claim with evidence, or even a more detailed argument.

    “it is an objective physical fact that if the moon were completely composed of uranium-235 it would explode”

    But this is an objective physical fact based on our shared selection of empiricism…science. And here you are equivocating on the use of ‘objective’. In this physical case ‘objective’ means objectively derived from other science (our understanding of nuclear physics). Your early use of ‘objective’ is a claim that moral facts are out there. These are two different uses of the word ‘objective’. You are presuming that your ‘feeling’ that moral codes are out there is ‘objective’ in the observational sense, but it is not; it is merely a Rationalist claim. You have not observed moral facts out there. Or if you have, please provide the evidence.

    “I think there are objective moral rules because I think I can make sense of morality.”

    Within a particular framework we can make sense of morality. We can make sense of morality as given from God, within a religious framework. It is the framework we reject because there is no evidence to support it. What is the framework in which your moral codes exist out there, and what is the evidence for it? I accept that if moral codes do exist in the universe we should be able to discover them. We haven’t discovered them. Therefore there is no more reason to suppose they exist than God exists. It’s just one more unsupported claim.

    “This isn’t all that different from the reason that I accept mathematical, or physical, or biological facts.”

    Biological facts come from our scientific understanding, which is based on our metaphysics and our empiricisms. They have that foundation.

    Physical facts come from our empiricism too. But we have to accept modern empiricism to see that facts of physics are discovered, observed, through our senses and then reasoned about.

    Mathematics comes from a combination too. Most pure maths comes from the Rationalist activity of coming up with novel ideas, but it also allows only those ideas that fit the defined axioms. The axioms themselves evolved out of an empirical past where maths developed as a reasoning tool to control the world. All early mathematics seems to have been based on accounting in commerce. Only with the Greeks do we have evidence that the pure rationalist mathematics started to develop.

    The tricky bit with mathematics is that by simply counting stars, the very act of observing and counting, seems to suggest to some that mathematics is the language of the universe. But this is controversial. Many also see mathematics as a human invention applied to, mapped on to, the universe and that there need be no underlying mathematical reality. You are on shaky ground here. certainly too shaky a principle upoen which to base moral codes.

    “I think I can make sense of rationality in a physicalist deterministic universe, and this gives me one form of normativity.”

    Where does that normativity come from? Are you sure you’re not equivocating again, on the use of normativity this time. The word ‘normative’ can be used is several contexts: “of or pertaining to a norm, especially an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behaviour, speech, writing, etc.” Clearly not all these are relating to morality. The norms of physical reality, the laws of nature we discover (or invent – again the vagueness of the words), have nothing moral written in them. You are putting morality there. Your mind is thinking moral codes are out there, and you seem to be accepting that as a given. Where’s the evidence?

    “I see no reason to suppose that there couldn’t be other forms of normativity…”

    And I see no reason to suppose there could not be a God. I simply see no evidence. Is that fact that your claim has no specific refutation or counter evidence really the basis for your views on morality? This seems a bit slim, a bit theological.

    “And I think I can make sense of how people end up with a lot of false moral beliefs, so the diversity of moral commitments doesn’t trouble me any more than the diversity of non-normative beliefs.”

    I can’t tell now if you are arguing from the standpoint of my earlier (1), (2a) or (2b) because this statement could apply to all three. Just because you can spot moral reasoning you think is false is no explanation as to why your belief in (2b) is true. I can make sense of your errors with regard to moral thinking, based on my epistemology, metaphysics, reasoning, science – in a contingent yet consistent and useful framework.

    “And I think that hard-core empiricism is deeply confused…”

    This is a broad brush. I’m sure some empiricists are confused, particularly when they desperately try to match their empirical understanding of the universe with a deep desire to maintain many of their deepl held Rationalist views. But I don’t think I am. I’ve given many reasons about how I come to my point of view. I’m still waiting for an explanation for your belief in (2b) that isn’t merely a restatement of the simple claim or a reference to old philosophers without explanation.

    “And I think I have a pretty good grip on how seemingly non-physical properties emerge in a purely physical world, and I see no clear reason that moral properties couldn’t also be emergent physical properties.”

    I see no clear reason that a deity couldn’t have created the universe, controlled evolution to produce man, prescribed moral rules for him. I just see no evidence for any of it. I see no evidence for your claims either. Again, I think simply failing to find refutations or counter evidence isn’t sufficient reason to hold a view.

    Me: “What does that even mean in the context of being alone?”
    You: “It means maximize pleasure and minimize pain.”

    But this is simply about preference. It’s a natural observation that humans generally prefer pleasure to pain (though I did give you examples of where this isn’t true always). Where are the morals? You are injecting them after presupposing them. This is not evidence for your case but simply another restatement of it.

    I’m actually surprised you hold this view anyway. Physicalism is the view that the human brain, like everything else, is based on physical laws and there is nothing that is not physical – viewed either as matter (mass) or energy. What laws of the universe do moral codes come under? Where are they written? I see them being invented by rational humans, based on the biology and sociology of the human species, and are equally as common and varied.

  24. P.S. Jerry Coyne has another respondent who thinks that determinists who think free-will is an illusion are moral nihilists.

    http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/09/04/i-get-email-an-insane-response-to-my-views-on-free-will/

  25. Pingback: Misunderstanding Compatibilists | Physicalism

  26. Kant? If Jerry liked vanilla ice cream and Hitler liked ice cream would you wonder if that would make Jerry uncomfortable? That Jerry and Kant might coincide on some matter, why does that make you wonder such?

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