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Ultimate Responsibility and Dumb Luck*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2009

Alfred R. Mele
Philosophy, Davidson College


My topic lies on conceptual terrain that is quite familiar to philosophers. For others, a bit of background may be in order. In light of what has filtered down from quantum mechanics, few philosophers today believe that the universe is causally deterministic (or “deterministic,” for short). That is, to use Peter van Inwagen's succinct definition of “determinism,” few philosophers believe that “there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.” Even so, partly for obvious historical reasons, philosophers continue to argue about whether free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. Compatibilists argue for compatibility, and incompatibilists argue against it. Some incompatibilists maintain that free will and moral responsibility are illusions. But most are libertarians, libertarianism being the conjunction of incompatibilism and the thesis that at least some human beings are possessed of free will and moral responsibility.

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Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 1999

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1 van Inwagen, Peter, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 3.Google Scholar

2 See Kane, Robert, The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Kane, , Free Will and Values (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Klein, Martha, Determinism, Blameworthiness, and Deprivation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Strawson, Galen, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Studies 75, no. 1 (Summer 1994): 524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the connection between moral respon sibility and free will (or freedom of choice and action). It suffices for my purposes to observe that it is typically held that only free agents possess moral responsibility. For clarification of this idea, see Mele, Alfred, Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 139–42.Google Scholar

4 For a discussion of why I am agnostic about the main metaphysical issue that separates compatibilists from incompatibilists, see ibid., chs. 8 and 13.

5 See Mele, Alfred, “Agency and Mental Action,” Philosophical Perspectives 11 (1997): 231–49.Google Scholar

6 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 136.Google Scholar

7 See Mele, , Autonomous Agents, 208–9.Google Scholar

8 Robert Kane, a libertarian, adopts this position in The Significance of Free Will, 7778Google Scholar. He endorsed a parallel position about moral responsibility for choices (but not about ultimate responsibility for choices) in his “Two Kinds of Incompatibilism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 252.Google Scholar

9 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 141.Google Scholar

10 Ibid., 140–41.

11 Ibid., 141.

13 Van Inwagen discusses the significance of behavior's proceeding from a “natural part” of the brain in An Essay on Free Will, 134–42Google Scholar. On this, see my Autonomous Agents, 197203.Google Scholar

14 The objection advanced in this paragraph does not depend upon the probabilities that van Inwagen mentions. On this, see my Autonomous Agents, 202–3.Google Scholar

15 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 149–50.Google Scholar

16 In The Significance of Free Will (171–72 and 236–37 n. 1)Google Scholar, Kane cites and responds to versions of the “luck” objection advanced in Waller, Bruce's “Free Will Gone Out of Control,” Behaviorism 16, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 149–67Google Scholar, and in Strawson's “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” For another useful formulation of the objection, see Nagel, Thomas, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 113–14.Google Scholar

17 Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 126.Google Scholar

18 Ibid., 127.

19 Ibid.; Kane's italics.

20 Ibid., 128.

22 Ibid., 171–72.

23 Ibid., 106; Kane's italics.

24 O'Connor, Timothy suggests that the agents are in “states having the same properties within the same value intervalsGoogle Scholar; see O'Connor, , “Why Agent Causation?Philosophical Topics 24, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 156Google Scholar. However, Kane can reply that even if this is true, it is false that the agents try exactly as hard and intelligently, insofar as it is false that there is a precise degree of effort and a precise degree of intelligence that both attempts to resist temptation exemplify.

25 Notice that this does not imply, for example, that it is just a matter of luck that John2 decided to go to the meeting on time. After all, his effort to resist the temptation to go late might have significantly increased the probability that he would decide to go on time. What is just a matter of luck is a certain comparative fact — that John2's effort culminated in this decision whereas John's terminated in a decision to go to the meeting late. John simply had worse luck than John2 in this connection.

26 We are disinclined to deem people responsible for the immediate consequences of their bad luck, unless they are somehow responsible for being subject to a pertinent instance of such luck. However, one who holds that John is not responsible for succumbing to temp tation may nevertheless contend that John2is responsible for successfully resisting temptation. Consideration of the asymmetrical position on responsibility that this contention suggests — a position that Kane implicitly eschews (The Significance of Free Will, 179–80)Google Scholar— is beyond the scope of this essay.

27 Frankfurt, Harry, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy 66, no. 23 (12 1969): 829.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 Ibid., 835–36. In reproducing this passage, I deleted a subscript after “Jones.”

29 In Autonomous Agents, I suggest that libertarians should prefer a historical condition of this kind to PAP (208–9)Google Scholar. Kane recently advanced a view of this kind (The Significance of Free Will, 3943, 7778).Google Scholar

30 See Mele, Alfred, “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios,” Philosophical Topics 24, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 123–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Cf. Fischer, John, The Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 214Google Scholar; Mele, , Autonomous Agents, 141Google Scholar; Haji, Ishtiyaque, “Moral Responsibility and the Problem of Induced Pro-Attitudes,” Dialogue 35, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 707CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 4243, 143Google Scholar. A “counterfactual controller” is an agent who would have successfully intervened under certain conditions but did not intervene in the actual circumstances.

31 See Lamb, James, “Evaluative Compatibilism and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities,” Journal of Philosophy 90, no. 10 (10 1993): 517–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Widerker, David, “Libertarianism and Frankfurt's Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Philosophical Review 104, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 247–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Widerker, , “Libertarian Freedom and the Avoidability of Decisions,” Faith and Philosophy 12, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 113–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 142–43, 191–92.Google Scholar

32 See Mele, Alfred and Robb, David, “Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases,” Philosophical Review 107, no. 1 (01 1998): 97–11CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For other replies to recent objections to Frankfurtstyle cases, see Fischer, John and Hoffman, Paul, “Alternative Possibilities: A Reply to Lamb,” Journal of Philosophy 91, no. 6 (06 1994): 321–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fischer, John, “Libertarianism and Avoid ability: A Reply to Widerker,” Faith and Philosophy 12, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 119–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Stump, Eleonore, “Libertarian Freedom and the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,”Google Scholar in Faith, , Freedom, and Rationality, ed. Jordan, Jeff and Howard-Snyder, Daniel (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 7388.Google Scholar

33 Depending on how refraining is to be understood, “intentional refraining” may be redundant.

34 Mele, , “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios,” 126–27.Google Scholar

35 Cf. Fischer, John, “Responsibility and Control,” Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 1 (01 1982): 2440Google Scholar; Heinaman, Robert, “Incompatibilism without the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 64, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 266–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Klein, , Determinism, Blameworthiness, and Deprivation, ch. 3Google Scholar; and Pereboom, Derk, “Determinism al Dente,” Noûs 29, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 2145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 16Google Scholar. For detailed versions, see ibid., ch. 3; and Ginet, Carl, On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), ch. 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 In The Metaphysics of Free Will, Fischer argues that such theorists must resort to some thing akin to alchemy (ch. 7; see p. 141 for the alchemy analogy). For a reply, see my “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios.”

38 Cf. Kane, , Free Will and Values, 178Google Scholar: “[W]hat determinism takes away is a certain sense of the importance of oneself as an individual. If I am ultimately responsible for certain occurrences in the universe, … then my choices and my life take on an importance that is missing if I do not have such responsibility.”

39 Mele, , “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios.”Google Scholar In this paragraph, I borrow from p. 123 of that paper.

40 In The Significance of Free Will, Kane contends that “the desire to be independent sources of activity in the world, which is connected … to the sense we have of our uniqueness and importance as individuals,” is an “elemental” libertarian desire (98). Here I am following his lead.

41 On life-hopes, see Honderich, Ted, A Theory of Determinism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).Google Scholar

42 See Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 98.Google Scholar

43 The connection between control and “moral luck” is a major theme in Nagel, Thomas's “Moral Luck,” in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 2438.Google Scholar

44 Cf. my Autonomous Agents, 213.Google Scholar

45 Cf. ibid., 203. Wilma and I regard weakness of will as compatible with determinism (see ibid., 132–33).

46 I develop sufficient conditions for compatibilist freedom in Autonomous Agents, chs. 9 and 10.

47 See my Autonomous Agents, ch. 12; cf. Dennett, Daniel, Brainstorms (Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books, 1978), 294–99Google Scholar, and Kane, , Free Will and Values, 101–10.Google Scholar

48 Mele, , Autonomous Agents, 235Google Scholar. On the relative theoretical utility of internal versus external indeterminism, see ibid., 195–96.

49 Regarding the parenthetical clause, bear in mind that not all causally determined events need be part of a deterministic chain that stretches back even for several moments, much less to the Big Bang.

50 Around the middle of the present century, the claim that determinism is required for these properties was relatively popular among compatibilists. See Ayer, A. J., “Freedom and Necessity,”Google Scholar in Ayer, , Philosophical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1954)Google Scholar; Hobart, R. E., “Free Will as Involving Determinism and as Inconceivable without It,” Mind 43, no. 169 (01 1934): 127CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nowell-Smith, P. H., “Free Will and Moral Responsibility,” Mind 57, no. 225 (01 1948): 4561CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Smart, J. J. C., “Free-Will, Praise, and Blame,” Mind 70, no. 279 (07 1961): 291306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

51 Compatibilists who grant that soft libertarianism is a coherent position may have to abandon certain of their arguments against hard libertarianism (see my “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios,” 136–39)Google Scholar, but other arguments are still in the running.

52 Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 98.Google Scholar

53 See, e.g., Double, Richard, The Non-Reality of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar; and Strawson, Galen, Freedom and Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).Google Scholar

54 Mele, , Autonomous Agents, chs. 12 and 13.Google Scholar

55 Just as I distinguished between ultimate and nonultimate control, one may distinguish between ultimate and nonultimate luck. Suppose that millions of years ago, in a determin istic universe, conditions were such that today Teresa would be an exceptionally kind person whereas Tammy would be a ruthless killer. Here we have ultimate luck — good and bad. Libertarians have been much more impressed by it than by nonultimate luck.

56 Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 127Google Scholar. This does not preclude the agent's later recon sidering the matter and coming to a different decision, in the case of decisions for the non-immediate future.

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