In the post titled “Extending a Hand to Philosophical Compatibilists (by a Free Will Skeptic)” I addressed the point that free will compatibilists and free will skeptics often talk past each other and actually quite often agree with each other in some fundamental ways. I point out that the debate between them is, much of the time, mostly if not entirely semantic, that they each define free will differently.
Today I want to address the philosophical traditional view of free will and why the free will skeptic such as myself thinks that many compatibilist definitions of free will, though those definitions are indeed “compatible with determinism” (and that definition of “free will” exists), more often than not neglect the traditional view. I also want to address why that traditional view is important today and why it should not be neglected.
The traditional view of free will, in philosophy, addresses what it means if an agent could not have acted differently (given determinism) at the time they had acted – and, if the agent could not have acted differently, if they would have the sort of freedom required for “moral responsibility”. When the term “moral responsibility” is addressed in the philosophy of “free will” it always points to a strong “just desert” sense (e.g. deserving credit or blame), and not a weaker “utilitarian” sense (e.g. deterrence, incarceration, rehabilitation, or incentive for the sake of utility ONLY).
See here for the distinction:
This traditional view has historically been a staple in the philosophy of free will. The notions of “could have done otherwise”, “alternate possibilities”, and how they all tie into the “moral responsibility” of concern… have played a very large part in the “problem of free will” since at least the 1600’s and these ideas have been around since before the Greek stoics. More recently a large focus is also on how an indeterministic event can help with moral responsibility if it is out on determinism (with both free will skeptics and compatibilists usually agreeing that it is not a help – and perhaps even a hinderance).
The free will skeptic of today says that if determinism is true or even if indeterminism is true (as many are hard incompatibilists rather than just hard determinists), the sort of free will that can grant the type of “moral responsibility” of concern has to be thrown out. If this is true, the implications are great for a number of topics and attitudes.
When a compatibilist uses a more non-traditional or revisionary definition of the term “free will” that is compatible with determinism, and addresses a different “type” of freedom such as freedom from coercion or physical restraint, or the freedom to do what one intends or desires, these abilities are often recognized by the free will skeptic as abilities we have, but at the same time they also neglect the traditional view and the importance of it by sort of brushing it to the side or minimizing it to an assumed irrelevancy.
The free will skeptic, however, says that we can teach the abilities we do have all without neglecting the fact that there are also other abilities that most people intuitively experience or feel that we have that we actually do not have – and the fact that we do not is of great importance for the “moral responsibility” topic and how we should deal with it in either our moral/ethical or our pragmatic underpinnings.
It’s also important to note that this has little to do with what is or is not traditional (even if it is a key traditional view of the “problem of free will”), but rather that this traditional view still relates to the abilities that most people intuitively feel they and others have today. It isn’t some archaic remnant of the past, but rather something deeply embedded in today’s layperson psychology. So even if the compatibilist were to revise the term free will the way they do to simply mean the very basic ability to do what one wants or intends (or some other compatibilist idea) without any of the metaphysical baggage that the term currently holds as well …and they magically move people to the new definition, most people would still believe they also have the more problematic abilities that is tied to the baggage (they just wouldn’t also tie it to the term “free will” as they do today). But I don’t see that happening. Rather, people would still tie the incoherent baggage to the term itself.
For the free will skeptic it’s often important that people recognize that those other more incoherent abilities do not exist: that they couldn’t have done otherwise in a deterministic universe and that any indeterministic otherwise or “alternate possibility” (or initial condition difference “otherwise”) could never be, in any sufficient way, “up to them” in a way that grant the “moral responsibility” of importance. It is important because without this type of “responsibility” conception – other really bad ideas and psychologies would often adjust (to relieve the discomfort of cognitive dissonance), lending itself to less retribution, less inequality justification, and potentially a far more compassionate world!
This is what I and many other free will skeptics don’t want to neglect via a semantic shift that causes confusions and moves people from one important problem to a different idea that does not address the first problem (but rather conceals it or obfuscates it). Now a compatibilist might reject that this is being done, or simply not realize it – but it is a very real concern for the free will skeptic / hard incompatibilist.
It is why the semantic discussion / disagreement between the free will skeptic and the compatibilist will continue to happen. But we can, as always, recognize that it is a disagreement over the way words should be defined, and why, not a disagreement over if we were to accept a compatibilist definition that such a version of free will doesn’t exist.
Both probably agree it would, and both probably agree that a “could have done, of one’s own accord, otherwise” definition of free will does not. So let’s not neglect the latter when so many people believe they and others “could have done otherwise” (at the time of the action) even given an entirely deterministic scenario and same conditions and with the “could have done otherwise” placed in an unmistakable context (I’ll address the context “could have” in a future post). Equally as problematic is the fact that they also, given different questions, hold to poor ideas that indeterminism or randomness can help with free will (libertarian notions that both the free will skeptic and compatibilist agree are incoherent).
So if you are a compatibilist and insist on trying to change the meaning of free will in the minds of the public, please do not neglect what it means that we don’t have the traditional view of free will in light of your compatibilist semantic shift. Please tell people that they do not have the traditional view explained above and enlighten them on the very important implications of that. Then, if you insist, you can move on to your compatibilist definitions of free will. But if you sidestep the traditional view and it’s implications by leaping right to a compatibilist definition, that is where the free will skeptic such as myself will probably think a dishonest deception or charade is taking place.
By the way, don’t forget that the end of this month (August 31st) is Semantic Shift Day! Now that is the day to use a compatibilist definition of free will, and define every other non-existent thing into existence for the day!
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