Straw-man fallacies are interesting because they are almost always intentional, though sometimes they can be unintentional. I tend to think, when a compatibilist (a person who thinks free will is compatible with determinism) uses a straw-man fallacy, that most of the time they don’t do them intentionally – or at least I give the compatibilist the benefit of the doubt. Rather, I think it often comes from a profound misunderstanding or assumption of the free will skeptics position.
So what is a straw-man fallacy? Basically it’s a way of giving the impression that one is refuting another person’s position, all while actually refuting a point or argument that was never given by their opponent. The term “straw-man” most often points to building a person out of straw and easily knocking down or burning that “straw-man” as if it was knocking down or burning the real person. The analogy is that when a person takes down a point that was never made by their opponent but suggests or insinuates that they have taken such down, they are basically building a “straw-man” and knocking it down. They aren’t actually addressing an actual point made by their opponent, but they are pretending or giving the impression that they are.
Or perhaps, in the case of ignorance, they actually think they are making a point that they imagine the other person made, but in actuality such a point never was made. In other words, they actually think the straw-man they just built is not made out of straw, but is the actual man.
It’s this second type of straw-man, the unintentional kind, that I see frequently by some (not all) compatibilists. In this post I’d like to go over just 5 straw-man fallacies that I’ve come across (though there are many others).
STRAW MAN: The free will skeptic is suggesting that the compatibilists definition of free will doesn’t exist.
The first straw-man that I’ve noticed happens is not to address the free will skeptics definition of free will when they say “free will doesn’t exist”, and simply bypass such definition with a different definition that the free will skeptic isn’t using. They then show how their own definition of free will does indeed “exist” (or is possible) in order to disprove the free will skeptics claim that “free will does not exist”. And even when the free will skeptic clarifies their definition, points to things such as common intuitions about the free will ability most people “feel” they possess, and explains the reasons why such a semantic is important for so many other topics, the compatibilist simply ignores such and keep on with the use of their own semantic in order to “disprove” the free will skeptic.
It’s also important to note that such can happen in the reverse! A straw-man fallacy might be reading an article on some of the ways some compatibilists straw-man the free will skeptic, and assuming that the person who wrote the article is suggesting that straw-man fallacies cannot happen on both sides. We need to be careful about imagining things that were never argued for.
The free will skeptic, in fact, can often tell the compatibilist that they are wrong about “free will” existing, not by knocking down the compatibilists definition of free will, but their own – and assuming that’s sufficient to take out the compatibilists position. This is equally a straw-man.
Most free will skeptics, however, would agree that compatibilist semantics of free will such a Daniel Dennett’s actually do “exist”, they just disagree that such a semantic should be used. It’s better to have a semantic argument or discussion than to knock down a straw-man of their position and claim victory.
If the compatibilist agrees with the free will skeptic that their (incompatibilist) definition of free will doesn’t exist, and the free will skeptic agrees with the compatibilist that their (compatibilist) definition exists, the discussion then needs to move to the question about what definition is more appropriate – rather than talk past each other while burning straw-men.
And even if they never agree about the most appropriate definition, the discussion should then move to:
- What does it mean that we don’t have the free will skeptic’s definition of free will?
- What does it mean that we have the specific compatibilist definition of free will?
Both of these questions can be assessed, all without conflating the two or straw-manning each other’s position. Though I will indeed get pedantic with the compatibilist about the definition they use, if I cannot change their mind about such usage, the best thing that can be done is to try to explain to them why the ability that is displayed in the free will skeptics definition of “free will” is just so damn important (in regards to the majority of people understanding that they don’t have it and what it means) – regardless of the “free will” label. If you don’t know, I’ve written a book on why we don’t have such ability and about all of the implications of not having it: Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind.
It seems to me that there is a lot of issues that many compatibilists look to avoid by bypassing the free will skeptic’s definition. As long as they don’t do this evasion I can look past the fact that their semantic doesn’t align with the special ability that the majority of people actually do feel they possess:
- Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)
- Free Will Intuitions: Fred and Barney Case Study – InfoGraphic
… and I can even look past all of the reasons not to redefine such words unnecessarily:
It’s when the evasions and straw-man fallacies happen that I refuse to look past these other indiscretions. 😉
STRAW MAN: The free will skeptic is knocking down “blame” and “responsibility” in the non-desert sense.
The words “blame” and “responsibility” are ambiguous words. They can be used in a number of different ways. For example, I can say that a hurricane is “to blame” or is “responsible” for tearing the roof off of the house. This type of “blame” and “responsibility” is not the type that the free will skeptic is knocking down. Rather, whenever the free will skeptic uses a term such as “blame” or “responsibility”, they mean so in the “desert” sense.
Or, to use an analogy with a conscious person (so we don’t become susceptible to the #4 straw-man), we can say that the insane person is “to blame” or “responsible” for some harmful act they do, but they are not “blameworthy” or “responsible” in the “desert” sense. Likewise, the free will skeptic would suggest neither is the sane person responsible in this sense.
So what is this “desert” sense that the free will skeptic is referring. Basically, it refers to a person’s worthiness or entitlement to punishment, etc. This gets into how we might prevent someone from doing a harm: deterrence, rehabilitation, incarceration, and so on. The free will skeptic doesn’t necessarily reject actions that deter, or incarceration that prevents, or rehabilitation that fixes, by rejecting “blame” or “responsibility” in the desert sense.
Rather, the free will skeptic almost always agrees with the compatibilist that there are good reasons to enact procedures that prevent a dangerous person from being a harm to others. They only reject the idea that the harmful person actually “deserves” such. Rather, any notion of desert is thrown out of the window, and utility takes hold. This is no different from, for example, quarantining a person with a harmful contagious disease. Sure, if the person inadvertently spreads the disease to another, we can say they are “to blame” or “responsible” in the type of “non-desert” sense that we would give to a rabid dog, but they obviously aren’t “blameworthy” or “responsible” in the notion that they actually deserve to be quarantined against their wishes. The quarantine is simply done for the sake of utility, that being not spreading the horrible disease to everyone else.
Likewise, to enact a deterrence such as a monetary fine, loss of a privilege, or even incarceration, might be something that will cause people to behave a certain way. For example, fining people, loss of license, jail-time, or other “punishments” might work to deter someone from driving while intoxicated. This doesn’t mean that the person actually deserves such if they drive drunk, only that the cost of not inflicting those punishments don’t out-weigh the costs of doing so.
This prevents us from using any excessive punishments beyond an appropriate amount of deterrence, and leans us more to rehabilitation over punishment when possible. It also takes away any forms of retributive justice.
For more information on why the words “blame” and “responsibility” are ambiguous read here:
To help understand why we’d still enact preventative measures even without blame or responsibility in the “desert” sense, read here:
When talking about “blame” and “responsibility”, keep in mind the sense that such words are being used in by the free will skeptic, otherwise you’ll find you have built yourself a nice straw-man to knock down. A straw-man built upon the ambiguity of language.
STRAW MAN: The free will skeptic suggest that the lack of “free will” implies the lack of freedom in any other sense.
Many compatibilists assume that the free will skeptic is asserting that the word” freedom” cannot be used in various other ways. For example, they will insist that people have “freedom” of speech, or that the person who doesn’t have a gun to his head is “free” to decide without coercion of another person, and so on. Most free will skeptics are not rejecting the distinctions used here. They are only suggesting that “freedom of the will” is different from social, political, or rights granted freedoms, as well as freedom from certain types of human coercion. Rather, the free will skeptic is saying the “will” isn’t free from the variables that produce it, and that those variables ultimately stem to variables that are outside of the willer’s control (they are not “free” either). The compatibilist, however, will often just ignore the type of freedom being referred to in light of their own usage, and do so as if they are knocking down the position of the free will skeptic (when in fact they aren’t addressing it at all).
No free will skeptic is saying that the word “free” can’t be used to describe someone who is not in prison, someone who is free from a gun being pointed at their head, someone who is free from drug addiction, and the numerous other ways that the word “free” can be used. Rather, for “free will” the word “free” is used to qualify “will”. When someone argues that people are “free” in some other sense, and think they are combating the “free” that the free will skeptic uses for the term “free will”, they have built a straw-man to beat upon.
STRAW MAN: The free will skeptic suggests that consciousness is not part of the causal process (unconscious robots).
The unconscious robot or billiard ball straw-man is a common one. An assumption made by some people is that the free will skeptic is suggesting that consciousness is not part of the causal process. That asserting the lack of free will is like saying that we are no different that billiard balls bouncing around. This will often be claimed without any such argument ever being made by the free will skeptic.
And though it could be the case that some free will skeptics think that consciousness doesn’t really play a causal role (mental causation), I think the vast majority of free will skeptics probably don’t. When such is assumed, it’s the building of a straw-man fallacy.
I, for one, think consciousness is an important causal factor.
Sometimes this straw-man stems from the incorrect notion that free will is required for consciousness. Of course I don’t believe that nor do most free will skeptics:
In regards to my own position as a free will skeptic, I think all evidence points to consciousness being an output of brain states, none of which require “free will”:
Regardless, combating the claim that the free will skeptic is suggesting that consciousness does not exist or that, if it does, it is not a part of the causal process, is a straw-man unless the free will skeptic has actually asserted such.
STRAW MAN: The free will skeptic supports fatalism and defeatism.
A very common straw-man is when compatibilists battle fatalist or defeatist notion of lacking free will that most philosophical free will skeptics don’t adhere to. This, I’m fairly sure of, is a straw-man that is based on confusions between “determinism” and “fatalism”, usually not differentiating the two.
To understand the difference between determinism and fatalism, check out this infographic I made:
Also read here:
Hard determinists and hard incompatibilists are, most of the time, not fatalists. In fact many, such as myself, think fatalism is not only a poorly thought out assessment, but also a harmful one that does indeed lead to defeatist attitudes (e.g. why bother doing anything at all – or care about anything at all).
Combating fatalism or fatalist notions is not combating most free will skeptical positions, and hence, a straw-man fallacy if you think it is.
There are so many other straw-man fallacies that I’ve come upon in discussions. Some of these fallacies constitute ideas about inevitability, morality, nihilism, knowledge, reductionism, and so on. All of ’em stem from (incorrect) assumptions about the “no free will” position of the free will skeptic. And you all know what they say about assumptions, aye?
Straw-man fallacies don’t always come from compatibilists either. For example, free will proponents that site indeterminism as their free will saviour (called “libertarians”) quite often make the assumption that the position of the free will skeptic is necessarily that of hard determinism rather than hard incompatibilism (which addresses indeterminism as well). However, most modern free will skeptics, even if personally they may side with determinism or call themselves “determinists”, will address how indeterminism doesn’t help grant free will as well.
Also, this article is not saying or suggesting that some compatibilists don’t actually attempt to combat the actual case that the free will skeptic is making. Some actually do make such attempts, which tends to lead more into a discussion over semantics – the definitions that people should be using. These types of discussions are perfectly reasonable. It’s when, however, a compatibilist suggests that a free will skeptic is mistaken, by simply changing semantics around or making assumptions about positions that the free will skeptic isn’t actually taking, that all of the straw-men get built.
This is a cautionary tale. If you are unsure of a position your opponent is actually taking, don’t just make assumptions and knock down those assumptions. Your assumptions are probably wrong, and you’d be wasting much time burning down straw-men. Instead: please quote in context, ask for clarifications, and address actual points made. And though this article is exposing a few particular straw-man fallacies I’ve seen some compatibilists make with me, it applies to anyone with any position at all.
One last thing. Nothing is worse than when someone claims that another is using a straw-man fallacy without actually pointing to what was said that was the straw-man. The word “straw-man” sometimes gets thrown around willy-nilly, so quoting in context here is important before the claim of such a fallacy is made to another.
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