12 April 2012

The Significance of Free Will: Exegesis IV

Last week we had reached the point of Kane's argument at which he had decided that the issue of the presence of alternative possibilities (AP) is not sufficient in explaining incompatibilism. He needed to invoke another intuition: that of ultimate responsibility (UR).

In what sense, if any, is the willer of an act the one ultimately responsible for that act?

As to moral responsibility, a classical statement of what amounts to a compatibilist position comes from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, and Kane plays against Frankfurt through much of Kane's chapter 5. Frankfurt, in a 1971 essay, observed that compulsive behavior is a threat to some accounts of free will. If I am addicted to nicotine it certainly doesn't seem to me that my reaching for a cigarette is a free act.

Such reflections led Frankfurt to distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. My first-order desire is to get a quick smoke, to satisfy my immediate need for a fix. Beyond that, I may reflect about such compulsions, and I may be either content with my first-order desires or in rebellion against them. An addict who is unhappy about the situation doesn't "have the will he wants to have."

From this, we get a certain conception of freedom. A person will be said to "act freely" in the sense pertinent to moral responsibility, when that person's second-order volitions -- and third or fourth oreder if you like -- are all in accord with the first-order desires and the actual actions based thereon.

Kane's words here: "Though Frankfurt is reluctant to call himself a compatibilist or incompatibilist, it is clear that one of his motives was to offer a demystified account of freedom of will that would not commit one to the excesses of traditional libertarian views....As a consequence, theories of hierarchical motivation like his have been developed by ... others to defend compatibilist views of freedom and autonomy."

Yet Kane finds such arguments for compatibilism unsatisfactory. There is plenty of room, he says, for covert non-constraining controls (CNC) that would leave the objects of control in the full confidence that their whole hierarchy of wills or volitions was lined up properly -- yet which would leave ultimate responsibility in the hands of the controller, like a cult leader, or the psychologists in charge of Walden Two.

"At the very highest level of sophistication one might imagine God doing the controlling, since the problems posed by [subtle] control have their theological counterparts in problems of devine predestnation or foreordination."

We have ultimate responsibility for our own actions, he concludes, if and only if we have, at least now and then, self-creating or self-forming actions.

So, are we at the top of incompatibilist mountain yet, and can we start downward, worrying about how this self-formation actually happens, if it does? No ... there is one more point to cover before we get to the summit. I'll hold this off until tomorrow.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.