Arguments for Compatibilism

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This is the forty-third post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I gave some reasons why many contemporary philosophers resist libertarian views of free will. In this post, I move on to compatibilist views of freedom.

We've now seen some accounts of freedom in an indeterministic universe. Compatibilists seek to give a very different account of freedom. According to the compatibilist, freedom is compatible with being predetermined (whether determinism as an overall thesis is true or not). So if it turns out that determinism is true, or even if only certain of our actions are predetermined, that does not in itself mean that our actions and choices are unfree.

One reason compatibilists give in support of their view is that libertarian requirements for freedom seem to go against why we really do things. A determinist would insist that we do things because we have certain beliefs and desires, because of some inner state that we are in. If I believe I have two options and that the second one will accomplish what I want, then I will take the second option, unless some other reason within me leads me not to (e.g. maybe I believe it would be wrong to choose option 2).

If I had different desires or beliefs, I might have chosen differently. However, I didn't have different desires and beliefs, and perhaps I wouldn't have without the whole history of the world being different. The point here is that events in me - my having certain beliefs and desires - are what determine my actions. Are these things totally under my control? As we saw, an incompatibilist raises the objection that determinism means everything we do is caused by things ultimately outside our control. A compatibilist points out that the very things we often consider to be the explanation of why we do things are also the kind of thing that can ultimately be caused by things outside our control. If my free choices are just the ones that we seem to do for no reason, then how can it even be said to be me who is choosing it? On the other hand, if my character traits, beliefs, desires, attitudes, and so on are the explanation for my choice, then it seems much more connected to who I am. It is for this reason that compatibilists insist that we are unfree if our actions aren't caused by certain kinds of events within us. It is for this reason that as diverse figures as Jonathan Edwards and David Hume have infamously claimed that we aren't free unless we're predetermined.

So compatibilists resist libertarianism and but still want to avoid saying that we're not free, so they try to come up with an account of freedom that's consistent with determinism but that fits with our ordinary sense of freedom. The primary strategy is to assume determinism is true and then still be able to distinguish between cases when we're clearly not free on any view but other cases where we still seem to have a kind of freedom (though not one that will satisfy libertarians) even if determinism is true. Some compatibilists think this debate is merely a verbal dispute; it's purely about the meaning of words. If we mean one thing by the word 'freedom', then we don't have it, but if we mean another thing by that word then we are free. The trick then is to figure out which meaning is closer to how we use the word in English. Compatibilists will then argue that libertarians have begun with an incorrect meaning of the term and then derived the conclusion that determinism and free will are incompatible.

If you go without food for a week because you were lost in the desert, you weren't free. If you did it to protest for some cause, then it was free. If you stole bread under threat of being beaten, you weren't free, but if you did it out of hunger then you were free. Now philosophers convinced of incompatibilism might say that you're not free one way or the other because of determinism, but won't most people think you don't understand the issue at hand? There is a moral difference between such cases. In one case we shouldn't hold someone as responsible as we should in the other case. Insisting that in both cases the person is equally determined seems to miss the point. There's compulsion in one case when there isn't in the other. There's choice in one case, but there's no choice in the other. One acts in the way one wants in one case but not in the other. One is compelled by external factors in one case but not in the other. Compatibilists will then point out that these two kinds of cases seem very different in a way that seems independent of determinism. Doesn't that suggest that free will isn't about whether we are determined but is about other things entirely?

Here's another consideration. We know of cases where people have overwhelming conditioning, whether biological, social, or most commonly some combination, to do things that most of us consider wrong. Serial killers are pathological. Something has gone wrong in their neurology to allow for them to do the terrible things they do. There are clear causes of their condition. Does this mean we don't hold them responsible? Moral responsibility seems perfectly consistent with being caused to be very likely to do something. Also, on one theory of punishment, the right reason to punish someone is to change their behavior, which assumes that behavior is caused by something that can be changed. (This does assume that punishment is not simply because it's deserved but is only to change behavior, a controversial assumption but one that is becoming more popular in recent decades.)

In the end the basic argument for compatibilism is much like the argument against knowledge requiring certainty (see post #10 in this series). The word 'flat' in ordinary language doesn't always mean absolutely flat. You might think of absolute flatness and then define the word that way, but people refer to tables as flat, and tables aren't absolutely flat. You might think of knowledge as absolute certainty, but we don't have such a thing, and we do talk about what we do have as knowledge. We do it all the time. So the word 'knowledge' in ordinary language just doesn't always mean absolute certainty, just as the word 'flat' in ordinary language doesn't always mean perfect flatness.

So too with freedom. We might define it as absolute freedom in the sense of having the absolute ability to do otherwise, i.e. not being determined, but that's not how the word 'free' gets used in ordinary language. People say we're free in those cases above where we aren't constrained against our inner nature, desires, etc. They say we're not free when we are so constrained. This is going to be true regardless of whether determinism is true. So even if determinism is true, we should look at the cases when we do say we're free to figure out what the word 'free' actually means, and whatever it means will turn out to be true of whatever happens in such cases. So it doesn't matter whether determinism is true. All that matters is that what's true of us is the same thing that's true in those cases when we say we're free.

So that's the reasoning in favor of compatibilism. Compatibilists still need to offer an account of what free will is that will be consistent with determinism but still fit with our ordinary sense of freedom, so simply arguing that some sort of compatibilist view is correct doesn't quite answer what the nature of freedom is in such a way that we have it even if determinism is true. But it does provide compatibilists reasons to go forward with the project of coming up with an account of compatibilist freedom. I'll turn to how the compatibilist explains what freedom is in my next post in this series.


But what about a case like someone being conditioned to do something that doesn't have any moral implication. Like say someone is brainwashed to only eat white rice and then they go happily on their way through life until they come to my house where I offer them the choice of yellow rice or white rice. They'll happily choose white rice and enjoy it but was it really free? I mean, they didn't have the ability to do otherwise: they were already conditioned to only choose white rice so their later choosing of it wasn't really free.

Then if we flip flop it and say "well they could've been conditioned to want brown rice" then it still doesn't hold: they had no real option B so how is it freedom?

Sorry if I asked this months later but I've been rereading the whole 43 posts and trying to get it but my brain is mushy.

I would say that what makes such cases unfree is not that they don't have the ability to do otherwise. It's because what leads them to do it is some artificial interference in their normal process of coming to have beliefs and desires. If they had come to prefer only white rice through processes that involved their own choices, then that would be freedom even if those choices were predetermined by genetic structure, prior conditions, and so on. So compatibilists don't have a problem explaining how that sort of case isn't free.

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