Sunday, July 17, 2011

The randomness argument against compatibilism

The randomness argument insists that if our actions are not determined by our character, then they are a matter of chance and hence not free. This is the most powerful argument against libertarianism. I want to think about whether the argument presents a challenge to the compatibilism. (Compatibilists think freedom is compatible with determinism; libertarians think that (a) freedom is incompatible with determinism, and (b) there is freedom. I shall assume that freedom and responsibility go together, though a more careful examination will require dropping the assumption.)

The compatibilist had better have something to say about how on her preferred view of action the actions do not come out as "a matter of chance". As a warmup, observe that for the purposes of evaluating whether something is "a matter of chance" in our ordinary intuitive sense—which is presumably the sense at play in the argument—the question isn't whether the event is determined or not. We think of coin flips as a matter of chance, and we would think this even if it turned out that the outcomes of coin flips are determined by the precise values of the initial conditions, so a slightly different angle or velocity would produce a different outcome, and we do not have precise enough control over the angle or velocity. If our actions came from a deterministic coin flip in the head, they would be no less objectionably random than if they came from an indeterministic coin flip.

Now, add this observation. People sometimes make seriously responsible decisions where their desires are very close in strength. For instance, no one would get off on a murder charge just because her desire to do the right thing was almost as strong as her desire to inherit the money from her uncle. But when desires are sufficiently close in strength, then which desire is the stronger is "a matter of chance" in exactly the same sense in which a deterministic coin flip is "a matter of chance". What sense is that? It's the sense that when something depends on very fine differences in conditions, too fine for us to discern or control, it's "a matter of chance." Whether one is seriously responsible for murder or not responsible for murder at all shouldn't depend on such tiny differences in desires: if it depends on the fact that one's desire to commit the murder has strength 27.4837 while one's desire not to commit the murder has strength 27.4836, that's just as chance as a truly indeterministic choice would be.

I think three families of answers are available to the compatibilist.

Answer 1: Insist that as the strengths of desires get closer and closer, the degree of freedom and responsibility decreases to zero.

Objection: It doesn't! While perhaps we want to especially criticize the character of the person whose desire for murder was by far the stronger desire, the person for whom the desires were closely balanced, and who agonized over the decision is still seriously responsible, and not merely vanishingly responsible.

Answer 2: Go for Markosian's agent causal compatibilism.

Objection: I have some problems with Markosian's story, but once one goes for agent causation to respond here, one should allow the libertarian the courtesy of relying on agent causation to respond to the randomness argument as well. But if one does that, one loses the strongest argument against libertarianism.

Answer 3: The person whose desire for murder has strength 27.4837 and whose desire not to commit the murder has strength 27.4838 is still a pretty bad person, even if she does not commit murder. Thus, our moral evaluation of the character of the person who in fact commits the murder because her desire strengths are 27.4837 and 27.4836 for and against respectively and the person who does not commit the murder because her desire strengths are 27.4837 and 27.4838 should be very similar, all other things being equal. The latter person does not commit the murder, but that's just her luck, and it is not a very different kind of luck from the luck of a person who does not murder her uncle because he happens to die before she gets around to trying to kill him. In all of these cases, ordinarily, we are dealing with persons with a corrupt moral character, persons who can be appropriately criticized for that character. Largely for pragmatic reasons, however, we do not punish the person who does not commit the murder, whether because her uncle dies on his own or because her desire for murder is slightly the weaker.

Objection: I do not think this fits with how we ordinarily think about the situations. We think there is something significantly praiseworthy when someone with very closely balanced desires for good and evil does the right thing. Yet the difference between the significantly praiseworthy and the significantly blameworthy action shouldn't be "a matter of chance".

Here, the compatibilist pressing Answer 3 might bite the bullet and say that while for pragmatic reasons we praise the person with such closely balanced desires, perhaps in the hope that the balance is shifting in a good direction and our praise will push it further there, she is a really bad person. But I still doubt this: Is she morally really about as blameworthy as an actual murderer? It still seems that the blameworthiness in the action is objectionably a matter of chance, unless one takes Answer 2 as the way out.

In any case, let's explore this compatibilist answer some more. Even if the bullet has been bitten, it's only going to have any hope of working in cases where the person is responsible for her character. For if her character is not something she's responsible for, it might as well be a matter of chance (and indeed may be a matter of chance circumstances and genetics). In particular, it won't work for the first responsible choices a person makes. The story has to be a story of bootstrapping: one has a very low level of responsibility in the initial choices, but then as one's choices build up a character in concert with them, the level of responsibility rises.

I doubt this this bootstrapping. If the choice itself does not inject any new responsibility, as I think on a deterministic story it does not since it is simply an outcome of earlier character, then one is no more responsible for the up-built character than for the initial character. But that is a different and independent objection to compatibilism, I think.

In sum, I think the randomness argument isn't so much an argument against libertarianism as an argument against the possibility of freedom: it affects compatibilists and libertarians alike. Oh, and I think it doesn't work, either because of agent causation or because it fails to notice how well indeterministic explanation can be made to work.


JSA said...

With respect to Answer 3, Mark Balaguer's attempt to define libertarian free will in terms of "torn decisions" depends on his argument that torn decisions are "wholly yours" and "wholly undetermined". By "wholly yours", he argues that the torn decision is really yours, because you had good reasons for doing it.

I think this matches how we think about these situations, and I don't think your objection holds.

For example, we have experimental evidence (Woolfolk, Doris, and Darley) showing that people will happily punish a perpetrator who was compelled to commit a crime. The key factor in whether or not people hold a perpetrator culpable seems to not be in how "free" the decision was, but in how closely the act was personally associated with the perpetrator.

Likewise, I'm not convinced that we find "closely balanced desires" to be significantly praiseworthy. If I go to the strip club every day and never get a lap dance, does that mean I love my wife more than the guy who never goes to the strip club? If I fantasize for hours each day about killing my neighbor, but never pull the trigger, am I more praiseworthy than the guy who doesn't hate my neighbor? But I might be misunderstanding the point you are making.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"I think this matches how we think about these situations, and I don't think your objection holds."

Could well be, but I thought the Balaguer story was about the libertarian case, while I am interested in the randomness objection as against compatibilism.

By the way, the closely balanced desires aren't praiseworthy. It is the good actions coming from them that are. However, I don't think my argument requires me to say that all actions coming from closely balanced desires are significantly praiseworthy. All I need is that some actions coming from closely balanced desires are significantly praiseworthy, I think.

In the strip club and fantasy examples, intuitions will be clouded by the fact the good action--refraining from the lap dance and not committing murder--is closely associated with a plethora of wrong actions--going to the strip club and fantasizing about murder.

Another complication is that we don't usually significantly praise people for refraining from murder. I think we would, however, praise someone for refraining from a murder if the person had a habit of murdering in such situations.

Chris Tweedt said...

Here's another compatibilist response. An event is a matter of chance only if the following is true: if the event occurs through an agent, then the agent through whom the event occurs doesn't voluntarily carry out the event. Given this, a coin flip may be a matter of chance*, but a murder (or some other seriously responsible decision) isn't. So, the randomness objection doesn't apply to seriously responsible decisions if compatibilism is true.

(This isn't Markosian's view; in my response, there's only event causation.)

*We don't regard all coin flips as a matter of chance- imagine a magician who tells us he can guarantee the next 10 flips are heads, and he ends up being right. Because (presumably) he carried out their turning up heads, the coin flips weren't random.

JSA said...

Oh, I see your point. Regardless of where he stands on any absolute moral scale, we're more likely to praise someone who is moving in a positive direction rather than someone who is just coasting along doing what is in accordance with his normal habits and nature.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But isn't this a question-begging response, since what is at issue is precisely whether this was truly voluntary or whether this was random?

Chris Tweedt said...

A couple responses to the begging-the-question charge:

1. I take controlled (rather than voluntary) to be the opposite of random, and (arguably) something can be voluntary without being controlled. So to say an action is voluntary doesn't assume the action isn't random. The compatibilist would have to argue for the nested conditional I proposed in my prior response.

2. But suppose an action's being voluntary entails that that action isn't random and that this is obvious to you, so the response is begging the question. That's not always so bad. The compatibilist could argue that we shouldn't ignore facts in order to consider whether those facts are true. And it's (obviously) a fact that murders and other seriously responsible decisions are voluntary. To the compatibilist arguing this line, the randomness objection applied to compatibilism is a nonstarter.

Heath White said...

We think there is something significantly praiseworthy when someone with very closely balanced desires for good and evil does the right thing.

I think, with JS Allen #1, that this is a mistake. C.S. Lewis said, "If you're struggling to be virtuous, you're not virtuous, you're struggling," and I think that captures it well.

The "close call" nature of desires can be analogized to other forms of close call over which the agent lacks control. Let's say a would-be assassin attempts to shoot the president, but misses because he is not a good enough shot. He is not a murderer, but nearly as bad. Obviously he is morally more corrupt than the person who never decided to pull the trigger (but just barely). But he may not be *much* more corrupt.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think this may confuse the assessment of the person's character with the assessment of the person's "moral balance sheet" or guilt/merit. The two can and do come apart. Brainwashing can perhaps directly give me a rotten character (depending on issues about dualism, what evils God permits, etc.) but will not directly affect my "moral balance sheet".

For a different case from yours, take someone who has been working as an enforcer for the mob for many years. Lately, she's been feeling worse and worse about her actions, though not badly enough to stop. We will praise the increase in concern about justice. Suppose now she is very conflicted about whether to beat up a guy who didn't pay his protection money. After conflict, she chooses not to. Will we not embrace her as having chosen the path of righteousness, at least on this regard? Has not something really significant happened precisely when she chose not to kill?

Here's another case of closely balanced desires.

The following is plausibly true of ordinary people, at least when we bracket supernatural effects of grace: At low levels of torture, the desire not to kill is the stronger. As the level of threatened torture increases, the strength of desire to avoid the torture increases, until it eventually matches and then exceeds the strength of the desire not to kill the innocent.

Suppose that Sally's switch-over level of torture is L: if the torture is above level L, her desire to avoid torture exceeds her desire not to kill; if the torture is below, it goes the other way around. (If determinism is true, then if the torture is above L she will kill, and if it's below L she won't; if determinism is false, then if the torture is above L she is more likely to kill than not, and if it's below L she is less likely to kill than not.)

Now, suppose that for Sally, as may be the case for most ordinary people, L is significantly above the level having your little finger cut off.

Scenario 1: Sally's wicked captors threaten to cut off her little finger if she doesn't kill. She doesn't kill.

Clearly, Sally is praiseworthy for her action. Now, suppose that Sally's switch-over level is losing two whole arms.

Scenario 1.9: Sally is threatened with losing one whole arm and a hand. This is fairly close to her switch-over level, but below it. She agonizes and chooses to refrain from killing at the cost of losing an arm and a hand.

Clearly, in Scenario 1.9, Sally is no less praiseworthy for her action than in Scenario 1. But in Scenario 1.9, her desires are much closer to being balanced than in Scenario 1. Now, imagine a scenario just the tiniest bit short of her switch-over level, call it Scenario 1.99 (maybe she loses an arm, and a hand, but this is done in an even more painful way). Surely she is more praiseworthy than in Scenario 1.9. Yet her action is "a matter of chance" on a compatibilist scenario.

Objection: The level of praiseworthiness, p, is approximately equal to rv, where r is the level of responsibility and v is the value of the action. As the scenario reaches the switch-over level of torture, r approaches zero, but v approaches infinity, and the approach is such that the product rv moderately increases.

Response: I doubt that the value of the action approaches infinity as one approaches the switch-over level of torture. Imagine someone whose switch-over level is fairly low. Do we really want to say that their withstanding torture close to their fairly low level approaches infinity?

Heath White said...

take someone who has been working as an enforcer for the mob…Has not something really significant happened precisely when she chose not to [batter]?

The opening scenes of _Rocky_ have this exact situation, FWIW. My reply is, “Maybe.” Maybe the person is genuinely on a path of moral transformation and the action is *not* an accident. Maybe they’re just being capricious and it is. Ordinarily, it’s impossible to know. But it makes a difference in how we think of the person.

I tend to think of it like this. A “good racecar” is one which can drive fast, and the faster the better. In certain circumstances, it may be a little iffy whether it can attain, say, 220 mph. The actually achieved speed is an expression or instance of the underlying virtue of the racecar, but not a perfect expression. Now suppose you are driving fast and you manage to hit 220. At one level this is non-accidental, in that you don’t get that kind of speed out of just any car. At another level it may very well be an accident, in that you just got lucky with some kind of ideal circumstances for hitting peak performance. Without some theory of the underlying abilities of the car, you cannot draw the non/accidental distinction for any given speed.

Now apply this to Sally. Maybe at L=1.99, it is accidental whether she cracks or not. But it is not accidental that her breaking point is somewhere around 1.99, rather than somewhere around 0.99. She gets as much credit as anyone else in the ~2 range, and more than anyone around the ~1 range.

A further example: suppose I narrowly avoid a very strong temptation. I think it is a mistake to be too proud of myself—maybe I just got lucky.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It still seems to me that you're evaluating character rather than action, and that makes it hard to explain why Sally is to be blamed (though only mildly) when she is subjected to three units of torture (and hence cracks), but (greatly) praised for holding up when she is subjected to one unit of torture (and hence holds up), even though in both cases she has exactly the same character, and her action simply flows from it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe some of my worries just come to a claim that compatibilists have a particularly large problem of moral luck?

Heath White said...

It seems to me that there are two kinds of luck. (1) If the past universe had been different in certain ways, LeBron James would not have been such a fantastic ballplayer, but that is irrelevant for how admirable he is on the court. (2) Yet even LeBron James cannot reliably hit a shot from half court, so if he does hit one, it is mere luck and not particularly admirable. Luck-1 is not responsibility-undermining, Luck-2 is.

I want to say something similar about character and its expression in action. The luck involved in you having the character you have (and insofar as character determines action, the Luck-1 of action) is irrelevant to moral evaluation; you’re good or bad, period. The luck involved in expressing a character, either by just barely choosing the right/wrong action or just barely missing an assassination attempt, is not irrelevant. It is a responsibility-undermining kind of luck.

The key here is two kinds of luck, not the details of the character/action distinction.

I think libertarians would resist this because a major motivation for them is that moral evaluation is supposed to be a luck-free zone. It is in some sense “not fair” that we can’t all play like LeBron, but that kind of unfairness is not supposed to exist in the moral sphere. But I’m increasingly coming to question that assumption. Why believe it?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Why believe it? Maybe because it seems to fit best with a picture of divine judgment for everyone?

Heath White said...

I take it that divine judgment fits well with luck-freeness because divine judgment tracks responsibility and responsibility tracks luck-freeness. But if responsibility does not track (all kinds of) luck-freeness then divine judgment need not require luck-freeness.