Fahim Khan Second Essay Assignment The Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) poses a difficult problem for free

will discussions, though philosophers such as Harry Frankfurt have proposed solutions where alternative possibilities are not required in order to have free will. There is, however, a deeper problem in the issue of ultimate responsibility (UR), and this issue underlies PAP so that any theories for or against PAP have to take UR into account if free will in all the ways worth wanting is to be viable. Various philosophers have said that UR is a requisite for free will. The notion of UR is troublesome, and perhaps even incoherent, as it entails that a person must self-determine their actions in order to be “really, truly, and ultimately” responsible for their actions.1 Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument2 outlines the problem of UR. We accept three premises: 1) our actions are dependent upon our nature/character, 2) responsibility for our actions requires then responsibility for our nature/character, and 3) responsibility for our nature/character requires responsibility for an action that formed our nature/character. Premises 2 and 3 create an unending recursive loop, where the truth of 2 relies on the truth of 3, which relies on 2, which relies on 3, and so on. However, we ourselves, due to our finitude, cannot infinitely attribute 2 to 3, 3 to 2, etc. so there is either some point at which an action or nature/character of which we don’t have responsibility over must exist, or we have an instance of self-determination – a causa sui in which we determined without previous cause both our action and our character/nature. The act of selfdetermination seems impossible, analogous to the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s own hair or bootstraps. Indeed, the aim of Strawson’s argument is not to prove that we must

have self-determined ourselves at some point, but to say that ultimate responsibility is an absurdity.3 However, ultimate responsibility seems to be equivalent to moral responsibility. To be blamed or praised for an action, it must have been caused by us. Bernstein argues that due to the problem of UR moral responsibility is not possible in both deterministic and indeterministic worlds. Bernstein conjures up the characters Dora and Linda to illustrate his argument.4 Dora, who resides in a deterministic world and has been accused of the crime of theft, should only be punished if she is responsible – but, if something like a serum given by someone else caused her to have a nature/character that causes her to steal, then she is not responsible but the other person… unless she decided to take the serum herself, and this action was also caused by her own nature/character, not one engendered by a serum or what-not. In a deterministic world, a serum that forces one to want to steal (or want to want to steal, or want to want to want to…) is not especially different from any other cause, and so it doesn’t really matter whether Dora wanted to steal or not. Something ultimately caused her to perform the act, and if that something isn’t paradoxically Dora herself, she is not morally responsible for the act (if we want to leave natural acts, not attributable to a person, out of the equation in order to have someone to morally attribute to the act, then we should let go of this want, since if the serum was instead a bodily chemical produced due to some genetic mutation, then we certainly wouldn’t want to blame anyone). Compatibilist ideas of robust free will do not seem to hold here in the absence of ultimate responsibility. In the case of Linda, who lives in an indeterministic world, her situation is the same as Dora, serums and all. The dilemma of whether to blame and punish the criminal remains as well. In Linda’s case,

she might not have been determined by a cause to do what she does, but she didn’t determine her action either – the only reason she stole or didn’t is that this is how the world turned out. In an indeterministic world both outcomes should be possible (PAP), regardless of what one wants. Bernstein compares to the case of a gambler who either lands on the number she wanted or doesn’t – the absurdity of morally attributing the outcome to anyone is made very clear. UR does seem to be necessary for moral responsibility. Free will (of the kind traditionally worth wanting) implies that persons having the property are capable of moral responsibility. So, if UR doesn’t exist, then neither does moral responsibility and free will. We may now have to examine the coherency of self-determination. However, before undertaking such a seemingly impossible task, perhaps it would be easier and more fruitful to reexamine the necessity of UR for free will. Bernstein argued UR denies free will by denying moral responsibility in both deterministic and indeterministic worlds. But, John Fischer states that UR is equivalent to Total Control, which is an unreasonably high standard for control and responsibility.5 Both compatibilists and libertarians, at least implicitly, always knew that people aren’t responsible for everything that causes them to be the way they are or act the way they act. For example (in a deterministic setting), if I threw someone off a building, the fact that gravity was a cause for the action (by allowing such a scenario to even be feasible) does not absolve me of the act. For moral attribution, there might need to be a distinction between which causes count and which do not.6 Gravity is a both a necessary and perhaps sufficient cause—it in a sense dictated how I wanted to kill the person—but I didn’t throw the person off just because he’d fall – I also wanted him to fall, and this desire is a cause that matters

morally. [It could be argued that, if gravity could think, it also would “want” the man to fall, as that is just what it caused the man to do – I don’t mean to argue that the distinction between morally relevant and irrelevant causes is entirely based on endorsement (I have difficulty reconciling free will with the “public” nature of endorsement, as it seems to require a sign that others have to understand), but I don’t have any other argument either.] In an indeterministic situation we may apply the same reasoning as we did before: say, I have the desire to throw someone onto train tracks, and also that trains run on these tracks in a completely unpredictable manner (to exaggerate the sort of indeterminacy in this world). The person might or might not be hit by a train. This indeterminacy is out of my control,7 but should I still not be prosecuted, despite the action not being completely under my control? To use Bernstein’s gambler example, it’s as if the casino decided to not pay the gambler for landing on a winning number, since she easily could have landed somewhere else. We may say that desert (moral or monetary) is independent of UR. These examples are weak, but they only exist to point out the importance and necessity of a distinction between relevant and irrelevant causes in free will debate, and for this cause they are strong enough. If Strawson’s Basic Argument is modified so that UR is defined as relevant ultimate responsibility8 (here, “ultimate” specifically signifies the end of the moral attribution regress), does it still pose a problem for free will? Well, first we would have to define relevancy, which hasn’t really been done systematically. We can instead use our intuitive understanding of moral responsibility as an indicator of relevant causes. With Bernstein’s examples of Dora and Linda, we could see that the two are only morally responsible if they intended to do what they did. We also note that they can only be

morally responsible if they have moral agency. The serum seems to be different from other causes because it has a moral character: an evil scientist (or, alternately, Dora/Linda herself) used the serum immorally. I stated earlier that if the serum was not given by someone, but occurred naturally in Dora/Linda, then Dora/Linda would still not have moral responsibility. This assertion needs to be clarified: the serum is not responsible in place of Dora/Linda, it’s just that the serum takes away Dora’s/Linda’s moral agency. The situation would be much like how the sun burning out would take away everyone’s moral responsibility – the sun doesn’t however assume responsibility itself. Fischer’s argument is that moral responsibility is not equivalent to traditionally understood ultimate responsibility (which requires total causal control on the part of the agent). Moral responsibility is also a matter of luck, as not everything can have it – moral agency is also required. There’s a sense of hoodwinking here; just what is moral agency, and why can only morally conscientious human intelligences have it? It may be argued that things that we don’t even consider as thinking beings can exercise moral agency, if we slip-shoddily accept the notion of moral agency. Per Strawson’s claim, no one has moral responsibility, which implies that moral agency doesn’t exist either. Under his argument, since the idea of “moral responsibility” is held only by convention and intuition, we can imagine that if rocks could talk (by imagining meanings in their “actions”), they could also have an idea of moral responsibility. The same can be said for moral agency. After all, the rocks could endorse their actions, and even have alternate possibilities (in an indeterministic world). The fact that we can’t hear them is not the reason that rocks can’t talk or exercise moral agency – they don’t do these things because they don’t have a brain! Robert Kane offers a very clever solution that

provides us with the relevant kind of moral responsibility. Kane’s theory9 models a world very much in tune with current scientific thinking – it is a largely deterministic world, with the exception of the domains of quantum mechanics. Kane speculates that quantum indeterminacy is somehow magnified to work at the spatial resolution of neurons through chaotic interaction of ions – one doesn’t have to buy this “explanation,” but any problem in it is a scientific matter, not an obviously philosophical one. The example of Betty the Businesswoman showcases Kane’s theory. Say that Betty is going to an important meeting when she sees someone who requires help. She has two competing desires—to go to work or to help the person—and the choice that she makes is a moral one. In her brain, she has two neural networks describing her two thought processes. At some point right before her action, the two networks interfere with each other and the outcome is indeterminate due to the aforementioned quantum behavior of the neurons. What Betty decides to do is a selfforming action (SFA), uncaused by anything (making the SFA an ultimate moral cause) and also something that she endorses, and she has plural voluntary control over her choices thusly.10 Endorsement is here a distinctly physical as well as mental phenomenon, unlike for the rocks example where there is no equivalent physical correlate for endorsement. There seems to be real moral agency and responsibility, despite Bernstein’s objection that the theory is still subject to Strawson’s criticism of ultimate responsibility. 11 Betty chooses from her choices, but the choices themselves were not caused by her, so she’s “only,” as Fischer says, playing the cards given to her, but Fischer has argued that this is enough, though I think that with the objection made about moral agency, Kane’s theory is the one that truly offers enough.

I do think that there are some possible problems with Kane’s theory that are not related to the noted objections of ultimate responsibility. In Kane’s theory there is a consistent isomorphism between physical and mental processes – a distinct sign (neural circuit) has a distinct meaning. I find this strange – how does indeterminacy in the physical processes not lead to indeterminacy in meaning? Perhaps the indeterminacy in meaning is not so much, but we could say that as Betty neurologically chooses her action she also chooses a meaning to describe it. There is a question of arbitrariness in Betty’s actions. Kane addresses this, though his arbitrariness comes from the fact that SFAs have insufficient antecedent causes. He states that moral actions are like value experiments – they are not done with the certainty that the action is correct, but it is done on faith that it is correct due to the current understanding of it, and it is done with the agent claiming responsibility over the consequences. The uncertainty and arbitrariness is an important component of free will, as it allows the continuous formation of personal identity.12 I think, the same can be said for the fluidity of meaning in Betty’s action – it also is a value experiment, tested in the use of language. Moral responsibility and agency seems to be a distinctly human endeavor, due to this property of Kane’s theory.


Bernstein, 1. Kane, 71-2. Fischer, 111. Bernstein, 1-4. Fischer, 125-126. Fischer, 126-127.







Fischer, 127. Fischer, 120. Kane, 132-139. Kane, 138.





Bernstein, 7-9. Kane, 145.


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