In this essay, I will outline Galen Strawson’s skeptical view of free will as presented in Robert Kane’s book A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. I will attempt to show Strawson’s reasoning behind his arguments, and how he believes that his argument holds fast regardless which side of the fence you fall on in the debate about the truth of determinism. I will define the concept of ultimate moral responsibility (UMR) and show how it plays a fundamental role in Strawson’s argument. Finally, I will offer my own criticism of Galen Strawson’s view of free will and UMR, and suggest a solution to the problem I bring up.
Galen Strawson is considered a modern skeptic regarding the question of free will. His view is a modified version of a hard determinist claim. Traditional hard determinism is defined by the three theses, “(1) free will is incompatible with determinism, (2) free will does not exist because (3) determinism is true. ” One main difference between Strawson’s thought and the traditional hard deterministic view is that Strawson does not necessarily believe that determinism is true. As a result, Strawson is unconcerned by the first thesis, and non-committal about the third thesis.
Unlike many other philosophers, Strawson does not view the question of the truth of determinism as the determining factor in the debate about free will. Hence, Strawson’s formulation that the fact that free will does not exist does not depend on the answer to the question of whether the universe is deterministic or not. Strawson’s argument regarding free will can be summarized in the following manner. In order to be morally responsible for an action, the fact that you have done that action must emanate from something that is apart of you ? in short, if you do an action, you did it because of who you are.
If it is hypothesized that an individual is responsible for her or his actions in this case, it must equally be hypothesized that an individual is responsible for the way they are. But here, one encounters a problem of regress; while an individual may be hypothesized to have been responsible for the way they were ten minutes ago or even a year ago, it is difficult for one to hypothesize that the individual was responsible for the way they were in their youngest years, at birth, or in the prenatal period, without positing the individual as a causa sui, a cause of itself.
Strawson’s views on free will can account for both deterministic and indeterministic accounts of the universe, for in either case, a condition of control over our choices and actions must be satisfied if we are to be morally responsible for those actions. However, what is not clear is what degree of control over our actions we need in order to have moral responsibility.
Here, it is necessary to consider the concept of ultimate moral responsibility (UMR) or deep moral responsibility in contrast to a less stringent idea of moral responsibility, which I will refer to as “limited responsibility” in this essay. To utilize the definition given by Kane, “To be ultimately responsible for an action, an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason, cause, or motive for the action’s occurring.
” For example, if I steal a potato from the grocery store, I would be held to be ultimately morally responsible for stealing that potato if I could also be held responsible for all the reasons and causes for my stealing that potato. If I am desperately poor and hungry, I must be held responsible for my hunger and poverty; if I am poor because of the circumstances I was born into or the government I am a citizen under, I must be responsible for those circumstances and that government, etc.
? As a result of this account of moral responsibility, one must examine and account for every possible order of desire, values, and psychological traits of the individual. The question as to what counts, or what should count, as a contributing reason or cause is an interesting question, however it is one that requires lengthy examination which would bring us outside the scope of this paper. In contrast, limited moral responsibility can be thought of as an immediate version of moral responsibility.
In the case of stealing the potato, I could be held morally responsible for stealing the potato simply because stealing is wrong, regardless of outside circumstances. Galen Strawson believes that it is this first, stronger account of moral responsibility, UMR, which is necessary to be able to truly place blame or praise on an individual. His choice in doing this may intuitively make more sense, given the way we as a culture seem to view moral responsibility, as evidenced by our justice system.
The determination of degree of punishment in a trial which involves a killing, for example, is largely based on the motivation or intent of the perpetrator. The punishment for accidental killing, or a manslaughter charge, is considerably less severe than the punishment for premeditated murder, or 1st degree murder, implying that the further “back” in the process of decision making we go and find that the criminal had full control of his action ? was acting as a result of something about him or herself rather than as a result of some contingency ?the more he or she is held accountable.
Additionally, our justice system makes exceptions for the criminally insane and otherwise mentally handicapped, exceptions which would not seem to have any place in a system of moral responsibility of the limited type. As such, a limited type of moral responsibility may seem not to satisfy our intuitions about morality and justice, and thus not be a suitable measure of morality to apply to the test of what it takes to have free will.
However, Strawson’s intuition that of moral responsibility must be defined as UMR may be viewed as problematic, especially since that definition serves as a lynchpin in proving the non existence of free will. He may be criticized as setting the bar of what degree of moral responsibility must be supposed in order to suppose free will a bit too high. In doing so, circularity in Strawson’s reasoning appears to be revealed. By stating that in order to have free will we must be ultimately morally responsible beings, Strawson is able to prove his argument through regression that we cannot have free will.
However, in his disproof of free will, a disproof of the theory of ultimate moral responsibility is necessarily entailed. Considered in this light, Strawson’s argument would be formulated in the following way: Free will should be measured in terms of ultimate responsibility because that is what our society seems to believe is the true account of ultimate responsibility. However, if individuals are to be ultimately responsible for their actions, they must be truly responsible for the way they are, and the way they are must determine their actions.
It is not possible for an individual to be truly responsible for the way they are in a regressive scenario unless they were to posit themselves as a causa sui, something which no human can credibly prove about him or her self. Therefore, since we cannot be ultimately morally responsible for our actions? Here is where Strawson seems to take one fork of a two pronged possibility. From this last statement, Strawson would continue by stating that because we cannot be ultimately morally responsible for our actions, we cannot have free will.
However, another, equally credible statement might be: because we cannot be ultimately morally responsible for our actions, we cannot utilize UMR as the most logical explanation as to which type of moral responsibility fits best in our account of morality. If one were to assume the latter conclusion, then free will could indeed be possible, given the limited scope of moral responsibility, or a different conception of moral responsibility all together. This circularity begs the question of whether Strawson’s disproof of freewill is simply a disproof of an arbitrarily assigned notion of moral responsibility based on cultural bias.
It could be the case that the degree of moral responsibility sufficient to satisfy the requirements for free will is culture specific; it may be entirely possible that a limited version of free will, or something between a limited version of free will and UMR would do given a different culture. This conclusion might highlight the importance of cultural influence in deciding questions regarding value judgments, and the differences in the conception of moral responsibility (as well as what the appropriate standard of moral responsibility ought be) which, when encountered from one culture to another and rightly understood, may be significant.
This problem is not solved by positing that “the experience of choice gives rise to a conviction of absolute responsibility that is untouched by philosophical argument”, because, presumably, if the experience of what degree of moral responsibility is necessary for free will could hypothetically be determined by enculturation, then the experience of what it is to choose could certainly be likewise determined.
However, it is possible that all of this speculation about cultural bias ultimately makes Strawson’s argument stronger; if it is the case that the amount of moral responsibility needed in order to justifiably speak of having “free will” is different from culture to culture, then the plurality of definitions for free will may end up making the concept so general as to be meaningless, effectively negating the concept of free will once more. And so, I conclude that Strawson’s argument for the non-existence of free will, when sufficiently developed, may be quite compelling.