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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 self-

determination 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


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 self-

forming 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.