Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Compatibilism, trying and trying hard

Some compatibilists—e.g., Vihvelin and Fara—think that something that merely blocks the possibility of your trying to do A but doesn't block your disposition to do A when trying to do A does not take away your present power to do A. Two examples of such blocks are (a) Frankfurt cases where you'd be counterfactually prevented from doing A and (b) being determined not to do A.

But there is an interesting family of cases where you can only do something when you try hard enough. For instance, you can run distance D in time T when you try really hard, and you can only try that hard when you know a bear is chasing you. In a case like that, even though you are disposed to do A when you try hard enough, anything that blocks you from the possibility of trying hard enough also blocks you from being able to do A. Thus the absence of a bear, or even just ignorance of the presence of the bear, blocks you from being able to running D in T.

So where trying hard to do A is needed for you to do A, anything that blocks your possibility of trying hard blocks your ability to do A.

Now, anything that blocks you from the possibility of trying also blocks you from trying hard. So in cases where trying hard to do A is needed to do A, determinism and Frankfurt cases block you from being able to do A.

So in cases where success requires trying hard, blocks to trying remove the ability to succeed. But why should this only be true where success requires trying hard? So in cases where success requires trying, blocks to trying remove the ability to succeed, too.


Jeremy Pierce said...

I'm not sure this works against the kind of compatibilism found in David Lewis. He argues that whether something is possible depends on context-sensitive factors in a way that doesn't allow us to say simply that something is or isn't possible but that we have to say it's possible with respect to certain factors. So in the time travel case, Tim can kill his grandfather with respect to the factors around him that he's aware of and that would normally influence his decisions, even though he knows he won't, and it's not compatible with the future that he do so. So it's not possible with respect to his personal past, even if it's possible with respect to his physical surroundings. On Lewis' view, I think you could just say that the sense of possibility that is relevant for your examples might differ because of the context. If that's right, then your argument would have to be equivocating by using a univocal sense of possibility.

Heath White said...

Suppose we are hiking together in the woods and a bear begins to chase you. In fact it catches and mauls you. I need to run for help, fast, if you are to avoid death.

Suppose that the speed I need to run at is a speed I could achieve if the bear was chasing ME, but I can't bring myself to try that hard just because the bear is mauling YOU. So you get mauled to death by the bear.

Finally, suppose that your wife knows all this and confronts me at the funeral for failing to save her beloved husband. Can I plead that I am not responsible for your death, because without a bear chasing me I wasn't able to try hard enough to run fast enough? (Notice that if the answer is 'yes', then the scope of my responsibility shrinks as my moral callousness increases.)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Hmm. Maybe the criticism is of your character rather than of your action in this case?