Free Will Obligation Responsibility and Related Concepts

The concept of free will is inextricably bound up with many related but elusive concepts such as duty or obligation, responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness.

THE FREE WILL POSITION. Defenders of free will insist that freedom in the most inclusive and desirable sense is something more than mere external freedom of action; it is a fundamental type of positive internal freedom. Free will involves more than a mere internal capacity for making choices, for choices may be either free or unfree. Free choices are informed and intentional as well as creative, originative, or "contracausal." Choices are not free if they are completely determined by ignorance or by preexisting desires, habits, beliefs, or by other psychological, physiological, genetic, social, or environmental conditions. When choices are so determined, we lack the power to choose otherwise and are inevitably destined to make exactly the choices we make and do exactly the things that we do. Representative defenders of free will include the fourteenth-century English philosopher William of Ockham, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid, and such contemporary figures as C. A. Campbell, Roderick Chisholm, Rem B. Edwards, and Robert Kane.

Defenders regard free will as essential to human worth and dignity, partly because of its inherent value and partly because it is interwoven inextricably with other indispensable moral and legal concepts and practices such as obligation, responsibility, blameworthiness, and praiseworthiness.

Being obligated—having duties, whether moral, prudential, or whatever—is possible only if we have free will, genuinely open alternatives, and the ability to choose and act otherwise, defenders claim. Obligation presupposes being able to choose freely and act dutifully. Ought implies can, and cannot implies not obligated. In a deterministic universe devoid of free will, those who choose to do their duty can and must do so; oddly, those who do not cannot, and thus never have or had any duties at all. Actually, because neither ever encounters open alternatives or could ever choose or act otherwise, no one ever has any duties of any kind, for all persons are rigidly determined to choose and act exactly as they do.

Similarly, being responsible for our choices and the actions that issue from them just means that we understand the genuinely open alternatives before us, that we desire or intend some of them, and that our final decisions originate with us, rather than being programmed into us by heredity, our physical or social environment, fate, God, or any kind of external causes, however near or remote. These things may influence us, but they cannot completely determine us if we are to be responsible for what we decide and do.

The free will position also insists that blame and punishment as well as praise and reward are inextricably linked to being responsible. When we do wrong and are blameworthy, we may be justly blamed or punished only if we are responsible for our decision to do wrong, and only if we do it knowingly and intentionally, it originates with us, and it could have been otherwise—that is, only if it is informed, intentional, and free. And when we do what is right and are praiseworthy, we may be justly praised and rewarded only if we responsibly, knowingly, intentionally, creatively, and freely decide to do so. Blameworthiness cannot be defined simply as susceptibility to blame or punishment; nor can praiseworthiness be defined simply as susceptibility to praise or reward. The susceptibility must be just or appropriate, free will advocates insist; and this condition is satisfied only when we choose responsibly, that is, originatively or freely, knowingly, and intentionally and have the power to choose otherwise from genuinely open alternatives. If our choices do not originate with us, if they are programmed into us and we are predetermined to make only and exactly the choices that we make, then our programmers, but not we ourselves, are responsible for our decisions, and we cannot justly be held responsible or subjected to blame, punishment, praise, or reward.

Free will champions usually affirm indirect as well as the direct responsibility. We are indirectly responsible for our choices and actions, even when they are completely determined by our present character and strongest inclinations, as long as that character and those inclinations were significantly shaped by choices and efforts that we made earlier in life. Advocates of free will and self-creative responsibility typically do not hold that all our responsible choices are directly free or originative. Determinists are right that most of our present choices are completely determined by our existing dispositions and interests; but if we actively participated in forming them by earlier self-creative choices and efforts of will, then we are indirectly responsible for the choices and actions that issue from our self-established character.

HARD AND SOFT DETERMINISM. In his influential 1884 article, "The Dilemma of Determinism," the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) distinguished between hard and soft determinism. Hard determinists usually accept every feature of the free will position except causal indefiniteness. They agree that a free will would be an originative or self-creative will, and that being obligated and responsible just means knowingly, intentionally, and originatively making right or wrong choices that could have been otherwise. Social practices involving obligation, blame/punishment, and praise/reward are just and justified only if we are free and responsible. Nevertheless, determinism is true and all our choices are caused or determined by antecedent conditions; none could be otherwise. Because we are not free and responsible, we are never justified in holding anyone obligated or responsible for anything. We can never justly blame or punish wrongdoers or praise and reward those who do right. Representative hard determinists include Spinoza; the English clergyman and chemist Joseph Priestley; the young Benjamin Franklin; the eighteenth-century American statesman and philosopher, who later recanted this position; and Paul Edwards.

Some hard determinists acknowledge that our established practices of being morally obligated as well as blaming, punishing, praising, and rewarding are so valuable morally and socially, so indispensable for the very existence of a livable community, that the illusion of free will should be sustained in order to perpetuate them (Smilansky, 2000). Others insist that hard determinists may legitimately abandon blame and punishment but retain obligation, praise, and reward. Without deluding anyone, hard determinists can approve, commend, encourage, praise, and reward right actions, even if they are not strictly obligatory. Such activities become integral parts of causal processes calculated to bring about decent social orders (Wolf, 1980, 1990; Pereboom, 1995, 2001).

Soft determinists do not embrace these drastic conclusions. They hold that causal determinism is perfectly compatible with human obligation and responsibility and the moral and social practices normally associated with them. Representative soft determinists include the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the eighteenth-century American clergyman and theologian Jonathan Edwards, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, the nineteenth-century English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill, and more recent figures such as Harry G. Frankfurt, Daniel Dennett, and Kai Nielsen.

COMPATIBILISM. Soft determinists are compatibilists who attack almost every element of the free will position and reject the free will view that causal determinism is incompatible with human freedom, obligation, responsibility, and just susceptibility to blame/punishment or praise/reward.

Compatibilists hold that freedom of action combined with inner conditions that do not presuppose causal indeterminism are quite sufficient for human obligation and responsibility—that free will is not needed in the first place. If we are free to do what we knowingly and intentionally most want to do, then we are responsible for doing it, and we can have moral and other kinds of obligation. Compatibilists attack the free will meaning of the term responsible and redefine the concept.

For the free will position, being responsible for making choices and the actions that flow from them means:

(1) Recognizing and understanding the alternatives, which are genuinely open metaphysically.

(2) Intending to or being motivated or predisposed to choose one or more of these alternatives without their being completely predetermined by our desire(s), dispositions, or anything else.

(3) Deliberating about the alternatives.

(4) Knowing that some alternatives are good or right, some bad or wrong, and perhaps some indifferent.

(5) Originating the choices and efforts that we make.

(6) Having the power to choose otherwise.

Compatibilistic soft determinists omit the self-originative features of this definition. For them, being responsible just means:

(1) Recognizing and understanding the alternatives, which need not be metaphysically open.

(2) Intending or being more strongly motivated or predisposed to choose one alternative over the others, especially when these belong to our deep rational selves.

(3) Deliberating about the alternatives.

(4) Knowing that some alternatives are good or right, some bad or wrong, and perhaps some indifferent.

Origination, open alternatives, and the ability to choose otherwise are irrelevant; so, free will is irrelevant. Determinism is compatible with holding people under obligation and regarding them as responsible for what they choose and do. But is this compatibilistic redefinition of the term responsible acceptable? Can we really escape the deep-rooted intuition that we are not responsible for any choices and efforts that are programmed into us from beyond?

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