Thursday, July 19, 2012

Acting otherwise and choosing otherwise

The traditional Humean compatibilist position, prior to Frankfurt's examples, is that a deterministic agent who is free could still have acted otherwise because

  1. had she wanted to, she would have acted otherwise.

But the question relevant for determination of responsibility isn't whether one could have acted otherwise (uncontroversial Frankfurt cases, where Black acts only after the choice has been made, show that), but whether one could have chosen otherwise.

I wonder if a similar conditional-type of story can be told about the ability to choose otherwise? The obvious analogue to (1) is to say that

  1. had she wanted to, she would have chosen otherwise.
But actually this condition is often false despite the agent being free. For it often, perhaps even always, happens in the situation of a free choice that the agent both wants to choose A and wants to choose B, but because she cannot go for both, she must choose between them. Suppose the agent chooses A. It is surely false that had she wanted to, she would have chosen B. For she did want to choose B, and did not—what better refutation is there of the subjunctive conditional than that the antecedent is true but the consequent is false?

But presumably in this case the agent didn't on balance want to choose B. So perhaps our compatibilist-friendly alternate possibilities condition is:

  1. had she on balance wanted to, she would have chosen otherwise.
That may be true, but it is obviously a very weak condition. Perhaps even a trivial one. Indeed, we might reasonably say that what is constitutive of the agent's on balance wanting to choose A is precisely that she is such that given the choice she will choose A. If so, then (3) is trivially true in every case. And even if it's not trivially true in every case, it's going to be true in too many cases of freedom-canceling brainwashing to capture the alternate possibilities intuition.

It may be wiser, then, for the compatibilist to simply retreat from affirming any kind of alternate possibilities condition on freedom. But there is a cost to that.

(I am omitting consideration of the usual finkish objections (of which Frankfurt cases are one of the earliest examples) to conditional analyses. Maybe there is some way around those.)


Dan Johnson said...


I suspect that the whole "had she wanted to, she could've done it" strategy for the compatibilist is actually a somewhat inchoate way of expressing an idea that is more precisely expressed in a different way.

Here's my best try at the alternative way. "Ability" is context-dependent; the context determines which causal chains preventing my doing something are counted for the purpose of determining whether I am able to do it. Suppose my contract allows me the right to speak before the faculty senate, but I inevitably come down with a major case of the nerves that prevents me from speaking whenever I address official groups of adults. In a context that is just talking about my rights as a faculty member, it is true to say that I am able to address the senate (nobody is preventing me from doing so and it is my contractual right); a context that includes my powers other than those bestowed on me by my job would rule me unable to speak to the senate. The context directs us as to which causal chains to ignore and which to count.

The compatibilist view is something like this: the context for "ability" that is relevant for determining moral responsibility directs us to ignore causal chains running through my motivations and desires (with qualifications to handle brainwashing cases). So I am able to act or choose otherwise (in the sense relevant for moral responsibility) only if the only causal chains preventing my acting or choosing otherwise run solely (or mainly? something like that) through my motivations (again, this needs tweaking for brainwashing cases).

I suspect that all the talk of "if you wanted to, you would/could have chosen otherwise" is just an inchoate way of expressing this idea. You are right to point out the limitations of this way. (There are probably other limitations too.) I think that my more precise way solves the problems, though. Does that sound right?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I like this way of moving forward.

Here's a critical thought, though. What kinds of causal chains are, on the compatibilist view, ruled out by being able to choose otherwise? It's not chains that go (in the right way) through motivations. I am guessing it's chains like this: you have some brain defect such that whenever you are sufficiently motivated to choose B, you find yourself paralyzed.

But I think chains like this don't actually take away freedom! They are relevantly like the neurologist-induced chains in Frankfurt examples, where my beginning to choose B is immediately followed by the neurologist forcing me to choose A. Such causal chains no more matter to my freedom than finkish cases matter for dispositions (and the connection is non-coincidental, but I can't make more of it than that right now).

In other words, my worry about this strategy is that the causal chains it will rule out are precisely, or largely, the ones that don't need to be ruled out.

Of course, this is just based on my speculation of how the story would probably go, and that speculation may well be flawed.

As I've said on an earlier occasion, I think Frankfurt problems present problems to compatibilist and libertarian alike. Both need to have some notion of "can do otherwise"--that is pretty clearly essential to our concept of freedom. But Frankfurt make it challenging to find a defensible notion, and no less challenging for the compatibilist--in fact, I think, more so (for the incompatibilist can undercut Frankfurt cases by denying the possibility of someone determining me to choose A).

Dan Johnson said...


I think an answer to your question would require an actual compatibilist theory of free will/moral responsibility, a theory I don't have. Here's how the story would have to go: take whatever causal chains that the best compatibilist view of free will says are compatible with free will/moral responsibility. Then the compatibilist can simply add the claim that the context of determining moral responsibility directs us to ignore just those causal chains when determining whether the agent is "able" to act otherwise.

The stuff I said about "causal chains going through your motivations" was just supposed to be shorthand for whatever causal chains the best compatibilist account of free will says are compatible with moral responsibility. I don't know what those are, because I don't know how to handle brainwashing cases. :)

The point is that a compatibilist can easily tack an account of the "ability to act otherwise" onto their account of free will/moral responsibility, whatever that is. So whatever problems there are have to speak directly to the account of free will, not to the extra issue of what compatibilists say about the ability to act otherwise.

Dan Johnson said...

Oh, and I agree with your point about the Frankfurt cases. I think that the compatibilist has to draw the same moral from the Frankfurt cases that the anti-PAP libertarians (Stump, Hunt) do: they show that the "ability to act otherwise" is only a normal consequence of morally significant freedom, not a necessary one. I think that Stump and Hunt are right that the Frankfurt cases don't really cause trouble for the libertarian. The libertarian can still insist that free will is incompatible with determinism -- that definition makes no reference to "the ability to act otherwise," and we can argue about whether the ability to act otherwise follows.

Heath White said...

Here is my take on Dan’s idea (maybe it is just a different idea). I think the older compatibilist conditional analysis was an attempt to capture a distinction between the sorts of causal situations that determine your actions via affecting your motivational structure, versus those situations which determine your actions in some other way. The compatibilist instinct is that the first sort of situation is not an impediment to freedom or responsibility, while the second sort is. So ideally, the compatibilist should not concentrate on what it would have taken to act otherwise, but on why one acted as one did. (This is what Frankfurt brings out, among other things.) That is, claims like

S acted as she did because she chose to, or
S chose as she did because she wanted to

are the sorts of things compatibilists are looking for. The compatibilist then faces counterexamples like brainwashing, and thus may want to put further restrictions on what it takes to be free/responsible: second-order desires, values, acting on reasons, or whatever. This is where compatibilism gets tricky. But the main point to emphasize is that there is a distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” ways of acting or deciding, where “abnormal” can’t include the entire history of an ordinary competent adult.

“Could not have done otherwise”, according to the compatibilist, sounds like an excuse only because there is an implicature associated with it: “would have done otherwise if I could.” Thus if Smith kills Jones uninfluenced by Black, it is no excuse to claim (truly) that he could not have done otherwise. What we really care about is not what else Smith could have done, but about why Smith did what he did.

Another example. If you complain, “Why didn’t you pick me up, as you promised?” and I answer, “Well, I couldn’t….” it makes a great deal of difference whether I continue “…because my car wouldn’t start” versus “….because I was too lazy.” Either answer might be literally true, but one of them reflects on my character while the other one does not. You don’t fundamentally care whether I could have done otherwise, but about why I did what I did.

A simple way to put the idea is that the compatibilist idea of freedom should be something like

S is free with respect to doing A iff whether S does A is subject to her competent will

where “competent” is doing a lot of hand-waving magic. What else one could have done is not actually part of the analysis.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"I think the older compatibilist conditional analysis was an attempt to capture a distinction between the sorts of causal situations that determine your actions via affecting your motivational structure, versus those situations which determine your actions in some other way."

I am inclined to disagree. Nuel Belnap once said (at the end of a job talk which was giving arguments for and against compatibilism) that the whole debate about freedom and determinism is very simply settled: "To have a choice, you must have choices." I think he thought it settled it in favor of incompatibilism, but I think the older compatibilists were in part trying to do justice to the common intuition that there must be options, plural, for there to be free choice.

Heath White said...

I think the older compatibilists were in part trying to do justice to the common intuition that there must be options, plural, for there to be free choice.

This is quite right. At the same time, they are all determinists. So they need a distinction between “taking away options through ‘normal’ means” like imprisonment, versus “taking away options through ‘abnormal’ means” like causal determinism.

So I should revise my previous comment. The older compatibilists needed the normal/abnormal causation distinction. But you are right they focused on using this to find a normal/abnormal sense of having (or lacking) alternatives. It is a post-Frankfurt development to suggest that this is the wrong way to proceed, and the real question is how a decision came about, not what the alternatives were. For this latter question the compatibilist still needs the normal/abnormal causation distinction.

That is a useful way to think about it, so thanks for pushing back.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But there is also an important sense in which Belnap is obviously right, and hence more is needed than just the normal/abnormal causation distinction. Choice (and here I mean specifically choice, not responsibility in general--it's not clear whether responsibility always requires choice) really does require choice between alternatives (one of which may be non-action), and there is some plausibility in thinking that for it to be a "real" choice, these have to be somehow "real" alternatives, rather than sham ones.

Here's an example of a sham alternative. A fellow committee member in all seriousness makes an inane suggestion. Jen muses that such inanity could be answered in kind, say by going over to the buffet table and throwing a pie at the committee member. She dismisses the option and respectfully argues out loud that the suggestion doesn't work. I think that there is a way of elaborating this story on which Jen really wasn't choosing between a serious responses and throwing a pie. She was, rather, choosing only between several serious response, while amusing herself with the pie thought.

So in addition to the normal/abnormal causation distinction we also want a distinction between real and sham options: choice requires more than one real option.

Heath White said...

But there is also an important sense in which Belnap is obviously right, and hence more is needed than just the normal/abnormal causation distinction.

Here I want to resist. I guess we can define “choice” however we want to, but if we focus on “free” instead, the contrast to being free is being enslaved. A slave has no options because they have been taken away from him in the “abnormal” way: he is forced, coerced, constrained, and so on. The late 20th-c debate between in/compatibilists is in many ways a history of compatibilists conceding more and more ways you can be enslaved: to addictions (that you don’t desire to desire), to impulses (that you don’t value), to various kinds of unreason or uncritical reason, maybe even to sin (you can read Wolf that way). But the compatibilist has to draw the line at normally functioning, morally competent adults-—they are not enslaved, they are free.

Incidentally, I can highly recommend a posthumous set of lectures by Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought. This helped me get a historical grip on the problem.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

I had a flight instructor once who told me that I suffered from the "should have" disease. I still suffer from the "should have" disease and the best remedy for it is regular confession.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

Sorry I am getting into this thread on the late side. I've had to take my crossbow out to get it restrung before deer archery starts and I decided to unplug myself from the web for a 24 hour period. Plus, I've been working late.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

"that a deterministic agent who is free could still have acted otherwise because had she wanted to, she would have acted otherwise." I have this to say on this idea. Once I decided to accept absolute responsibility for those instances where I could have done the right thing, but chose out of my own free will and a disordered will not to do so and did the wrong thing. Once I chose to take absolute responsibility for that, no ifs, ands, or buts, but absolute responsibility, that was when the chains binding me to past sins were suddenly smashed and gone. Not easy for me to post this. It is however necessary to share this with anyone who might still be bound in spiritual chains. This is how I gained my freedom.