Sunday, December 12, 2010

Choice and incommensurability

Right now, I am making all sorts of choices. For instance, I just chose to write the preceding sentence. When I made that choice, it was a choice between writing that sentence and writing some other sentence. But it was not a choice between writing that sentence and jumping up an down three times. Let A be the writing of the sentence that I wrote; let B be the writing of some alternate sentence; let C be jumping up and down three times. Then, I chose between A and B, but not between A and C. What makes that be the case?

Here is one suggestion. I was capable of A and of B, but I was not capable of C. If this is the right suggestion, compatibilism is false. For on standard compatibilist analyses of "is capable of", I am just as capable of C as of A and B. I was fully physically capable of doing C. Had I wanted to do C, I would have done C. So if the capability of action suggestion is the only plausible one, we have a neat argument against compatibilism. However, there is a decisive objection to the suggestion: I can choose options I am incapable of executing. (I may choose to lift the sofa, without realizing it's too heavy.)

To get around the last objection, maybe we should talk of capability of choosing A and capability of choosing B. Again, it does not seem that the compatibilist can go for this option. For if determinism holds, then in one sense neither choosing B nor choosing C are available to me—either choice would require a violation of the laws of nature or a different past. And it seems plausible that in that compatibilist sense in which choosing B is available to me—maybe the lack of brainwashing or other psychological compulsion away from B—choosing C is also available to me. Again, if this capability-of-choosing suggestion turns out to be the right one, compatibilism is in trouble.

Here is another suggestion, one friendly to compatibilism. When I wrote the first sentence in this post, I didn't even think of jumping up and down three times. But I did, let us suppose, think of some alternate formulations. So the difference between B and C is that I thought about B but did not think about C. However, this suggestion is unsatisfactory. Not all thinking about action has anything to do with choosing. I can think about each of A, B and C without making a choice. And we are capable of some limited parallel processing—and more is certainly imaginable—and so I could be choosing between D and E while still thinking, "purely theoretically" as we say, about A, B and C. There is a difference between "choosing between" and "theorizing about", but both involving "thinking about".

It seems that the crucial thing to do is to distinguish between the ways that the action-types one is choosing between and those action-types that one is merely theorizing about enter into one's thoughts. A tempting suggestion is that in the choice case, the actions enter one's mind under the description "doable". But that's mistaken, because I can idly theorize about a doable without at all thinking about whether to do it. (Kierkegaard is really good at describing these sorts of cases.) The difference is not in the description under which the action-types enter into the mind, as that would still be a difference within theoretical thought.

I think the beginning of the right thing to say is that those action-types one is choosing between are in one's mind with reasons-for-choosing behind them. And these reasons-for-choosing are reasons that one is impressed by—that actively inform one's deliberation. They are internalist reasons.

But now consider this case. Suppose I could save someone's life by having a kidney removed from me, or I could keep my kidneys and let the person die. While thinking about what to do, it occurs to me that I could also save the other person's life by having both kidneys removed. (Suppose that the other person's life wouldn't be any better for getting both kidneys. Maybe only one of my kidneys is capable of being implanted in her.) So, now, consider three options: have no kidneys removed (K0), have one kidney removed (K1), and have two kidneys removed (K2). If I am sane, I only deliberate between K0 and K1. But there is, in a sense, a reason for K2, namely that K2 will also save the other's life, and it is the kind of reason that I do take seriously, given that it is the kind of reason that I have for K1. But, nonetheless, in normal cases I do not choose between K0, K1 and K2. The reasons for K2 do not count to make K2 be among the options. Why? They do not count because I have no reason to commit suicide (if I had a [subjective] reason to commit suicide, K2 would presumably be among the options if I thought of K2), and hence the reasons for K2 are completely dominated by the reasons for K1.

If this is right, then a consequence of the reasons-for-choice view of what one chooses between is that one never has domination between the reasons for the alternatives. This supports (but does not prove, since there is also the equal-reason option to rule out) the view that choice is always between incommensurables.

A corollary of the lack-of-domination consequence is that each of the options one is choosing between is subjectively minimally rational, and hence that it would be minimally rational to choose any one of them. I think this is in tension with the compatibilist idea that we act on the strongest (subjective) reasons. For then if we choose between A and B, and opt for A because the reasons for A were the strongest, it does not appear that B would have been even minimally rational.

Maybe, though, the compatibilist can insist on two orderings of reasons. One ordering is domination. And there the compatibilist can grant that the dominated option is not among the alternatives chosen between. But there is another ordering, which is denoted in the literature with phrases like "on balance better" or "on balance more (subjectively) reasonable". And something that is on balance worse can still be among the alternatives chosen between, as long as it isn't dominated by some other alternative.

But what is it for an option to be on balance better? One obvious sense the phrase can have is that an action is on balance better if and only if it is subjectively morally better. But the view then contradicts the fact that I routinely make choices of what is by my own lights morally worse (may God have mercy on my soul). Another sense is that an action is on balance better if and only if it is prudentially better. But just as there can be moral akrasia, there can be prudential akrasia.

Here is another possibility. Maybe the compatibilist can say that reasons have two kinds of strength. One kind of strength is on the side of their content. Thus, the strength of reason that I have to save someone's life is greater than the strength of reason that I have to protect my own property. Call this "content strength". The other kind of strength is, basically, how impressed I am with the reason, how much I am moved by it. If I am greedy, I am more impressed with the reasons for the protection of my property than with the reasons for saving others' lives. Call this "motivational strength". We can rank reasons in terms of the content strength, and then we run into the domination and incommensurability stuff. But we can also rank reasons in terms of motivational strength. And the compatibilist now says that I always choose on the basis of the motivationally strongest reasons.

This is problematic. First, it suggests a picture that just does not seem to be that of freedom—we are at the mercy of the non-rational strengths of reasons. For it is the content strength rather than the the motivational strength of a reason that is a rational strength. Thus, the choices we make are only accidentally rational. The causes of the choices are reasons, but what determines which of the reasons we act on is something that is not rational. Rationality only determines which of the options we choose between, and then the choice itself is made on the non-rational strengths. This is in fact recognizable as a version of the randomness objection to libertarian views of free will. I actually think it is worse than the randomness objection. (1) Agent-causation is a more appealing solution for incompatibilists than for compatibilists, though Markosian has recently been trying to change that. (2) The compatibilist story really looks like a story on which we are in bondage to the motivational strengths of reasons. (3) The content strength and content of the outweighed reasons ends up being explanatorily irrelevant to the choice. And (4) the specific content of the reasons that carried the day is also explanatorily irrelevant—all that matters is (a) what action-type they are reasons for and (b) what their motivational strength is.

In light of the above, I think the compatibilist should consider giving up on the language of choice, or at least on taking choice, as a selection between alternatives, seriously. Instead, she should think that there is only the figuring out of what is to be done, and hold with Socrates that there is no akrasia in cases where we genuinely act—whenever we genuinely act (as opposed to being subject to, say, a tic) we do what we on balance think should be done. I think this view would give us an epistemic-kind of responsibility for our actions, but not a moral kind. Punishment would not be seen in retributivist terms, then.


Ross said...


The compatibilistic model that you have come up with, where we act on the option that has the greatest motivational strength, sounds like what Hume had to say about practical rationality. ("Reason is, and ought to be, slave to the passions.") It also sounds like something Jonathan Edwards would be fine with.

I'm curious about your claim that this model faces the "randomness objection." I understand the randomness objection to be that a choice that was not determined by one's motive states (whether rational or non-rational) would not be under one's control. On this compatibilist model, the choice is determined by the non-rational rather than the rational. But if the choice is determined by which option has the strongest motivational strength, and motivational strengths are determined by one's psychological makeup, then the choice doesn't seem random.

There does, however, clearly seem to be a lack of control problem for this view.

I think your last comment about retributivist punishment is right. It made me wonder about something, though. I'm curious if some folks who argue for compatibilism (of moral responsibility & determinism) are OK with giving up on retributive punishment and the robust type of moral responsibility upon which retributivism is based. Perhaps instead these compatibilists argue that we have another kind of moral responsibility where we can be praised or blamed for our actions, but punishment is to be construed in remedial and consequentialist terms.

This option, however, doesn't seem to be open to the Calvinist, at least Calvinists who want to affirm that God is just for the retributive punishment of hell.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Granted, the motivational strength of reasons is a function of one's character. But it is not a function of one's rationality.

Here's one way to make the randomness point. Imagine an agent who in an objectionably random way "chooses" between A and B. Now, modify the world by adding a new law of nature that says that under precisely these conditions, the agent "chooses" A. Now "choosing" A is determined. There is no randomness. But the agent is no more free for that law of nature being added and no more in control.

Now, one might say that the law of nature is external, while motivational strength is internal, so by adding the new law, we haven't changed the motivational strengths. But that's mistaken. For while content strength is unchanged by adding the new law, the motivational strength is surely just functionally defined in terms of its action-producing tendencies. (At least, I see no hope for any other account of the motivational strength of a reason.) And the law changes the action-producing tendencies.

If, on the other hand, it is the content strength of reasons that drives deliberation, then the law of nature objection doesn't work. But then there is no akrasia.

It would be an interesting result if the only kind of compatibilism were incompatible with Calvinism. I actually think Calvinists perhaps should not be compatibilists in the ordinary sense. They should say with Aquinas that freedom is compatible with determination by God but not with determination by any finite beings. And there are Calvinists who say this, but many are Jonathan Edwards style compatibilists.

Heath White said...

I can at least play a compatibilist on the internet. Let me start with your final paragraph. I do think action is basically about figuring out what should be done. It’s just that if there genuinely are no choices to be made, this is not very hard. I do not believe it follows that there is no akrasia, but leave that aside as it’s somewhat involved. I can see why you would say this gives us epistemic responsibility, but coming from the guy who says all reasons are moral reasons, I do not see why you would say this does not give us moral responsibility. I also think retributive punishment is not an end in itself but a (constitutive, defeasible) means to some other end (the right ordering of a community, roughly); and the view that it is an end in itself is not well supported by either scripture, tradition, or reason. I also hypothesize that whether one has the intuition that retributive punishment is/is not an end in itself is a significant sociological divide among philosophers and others.

The bulk of the post appears to be an attempt to understand the phenomenon of “choosing between” from the point of view of the compatibilist. I do not think anything about capabilities is even tempting. It’s something about mental states, and it is not the proposition, but the attitude, that makes it the case one is entertaining an option, for reasons you come up with. I became convinced long ago that all appeals to subjective strength of reasons, or motivational strengths, to explain why we choose what we choose, are circular reasoning.

It seems, in the body, as if you want to saddle the compatibilist with a view that would be friendly to some form of psychological determinism: choices must be explained by strength of reasons, or strength of motivation, or something along that line. But that seems to me to be an unpromising view and not one to which compatibilists ought to be committed. There can be just as much slippage between the reasons one perceives, etc. and the actions one takes, on either compatibilist or incompatibilist views.

Heath White said...

About domination and choice: I am inclined to think of deliberation as, roughly, a matter of figuring out what to do, and dominated options can be eliminated very quickly. I agree that the options we spend time deliberating between are typically not dominated, at least so far as we can tell. (If we could tell, we’d eliminate the choice.) I also think there are a lot of goods which are incommensurable in the sense that there is no obvious choiceworthiness mapping between, say, units of pleasure and units of good repute. Nevertheless I do think token alternatives are often “on balance better” than others and I would have a hard time understanding any moral realist who thought otherwise. I do not think anything follows about how people choose, on either a compatibilist or an incompatibilist view, other than what would be entailed by sanity.

You may have the view (I’m not sure) that this incommensurability among choices, or absence of domination among alternatives, is a condition of free action or free will. I don’t think so and it seems to me to have bad consequences. Growth in virtue is often a matter of coming to clarity about choices that previously were muddy. For example, once one adopts the policy “do not do evil that good may come” along with a list of intrinsically evil actions, that narrows down the options one faces considerably. It may result in only one viable option in cases of choice that would leave less virtuous (but still good-willed) people with many un-dominated options. (Something similar could happen when one decides that personal integrity is worth more than any amount of money. Etc.) Views on which an increase in virtue leads to a decrease in freedom strike me as wrongheaded.

Final thought: what is the correct incompatibilist view of choice? :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

As for the question of how to solve the problem on an incompatibilist view, I think the following is extensionally correct: A is among the options that X is deciding between in an act C of choice if and only if it is possible that C results in X's having chosen A.

In what sense of "possible"? Because of the kinds of essentiality of origins theses I find plausible, I think metaphysical possibility will do the job. Failing that, make it be causal possibility.

While this view is, I think, extensionally correct, it isn't ideal. People will want to fink it by using Frankfurt cases. One can do a bit better by saying that C is disposed to produce a choice of A, as well as being disposed to produce one or more other choices. I still think this isn't quite right.

Maybe, though, both the compatibilist and incompatibilist can say that there is a sui generis relation between an act of choice and its options?