Friday, February 29, 2008

More Hasker on free will: Hasker's refutation of compatibilism

This is a redated post also.

Hasker provides a definition of compatibilism or soft determinism

There is no logical inconsistency between free will and determinism, and that it is possible that human beings are free and responsible for their actions even though these actions are causally determined.

Of course, for it to be soft determinism, as opposed to compatibilism, it must be the case that determinism is true.

One thing a lot of people get confused about that they typically suppose that soft determinism as opposed to hard determinism is a different type of determinism—that our actions are determined in a different way depending on which type of determinism it is. That’s false. Soft determinism and hard determinism do not differ with respect to how the actions are determined. The difference is that hard determinists bite the “hard” bullet and accept the idea that moral responsibility is an illusion, while soft determinists do not.

The soft determinist position is an initially appealing one, and the textbook author (Thiroux) defends it. However, Hasker presents what I think is a powerful attack against it.

To get soft determinism off the ground, you need a concept of what it is to act freely which doesn’t conflict with determinism. According to compatibilism a free action has three characteristics:

1) It is not caused by compulsion or by states of affairs external to the agent. A compelled action would, for example, be an act performed at gunpoint. The robber says “Your money or your life!” and most people (Jack Benny excepted, who in the famous comedy sketch had to think it over), even though they desire to keep their money, give it to the robber to protect their own lives.
2) Instead the immediate cause of the action is a psychological state of affairs internal to the agent—a wish, desire, intention or something of that sort.
3) The situation is one in which it was in the agent’s power to have acted differently, if he had wanted to.

Hasker presents a refutation of compatibilism or soft determinism which to my mind is very forceful. He uses as his example the case of Max, a 17-year-old high school dropout, who was caught stealing hubcaps. He wasn’t forced to steal them, he stole them because he wanted new ones to replace his old hubcaps, which were scratched and rusty. There is, according to soft determinism a sufficient condition of his taking them—such that, given those events and circumstances, it is impossible that he should not steal the hubcaps. He calls these set of events and circumstances the proximate cause. In this case the proximate cause is his desire for new hubcaps and the belief that he could get them only by stealing them. Since these are internal states of Max, according to the compatibilist, this makes his action free and responsible.

But, Hasker says, this is an illusion. Soft determinism earns a appearance of legitimacy so long as we pay attention to the proximate cause and ignore what he calls the prior cause. The prior cause is the set of events a circumstances which together constitute a sufficient condition for the occurrence of the proximate cause, and if determinism is true, then there is a set of circumstances sufficient for the occurrence of the proximate cause all of which occurred before Max was conceived or born.

The problem if this: Max is clearly not responsible for two facts, which jointly entail that Max will steal the hubcaps.

1) The prior cause, which occurred at a time when Max did not exist.
2) The fact that if the prior cause occurs, Max will steal the hubcaps.

1) existed before Max did, and 2) is a necessary consequence of the laws of nature (or the eternal decrees of God, if God exists).

“The act of stealing is causally necessitated by the events and circumstances of the prior cause, to which Max contributed nothing at all. And given that the prior cause did occur, Max could not more prevent its inevitable outcome—the stealing of the hubcaps—than he could stay the planets in their courses or stop the crustal plates of the earth in their relentless march across the ocean floor. So determinism and moral responsibility just are incompatible, and that is that."


Anonymous said...

I think Hasker should read 'Elbow Room' by Daniel Denett.

How can Max prevent what does happen?

Perhaps Hasker can tell us what events have happened which have been prevented.

Just one will do.

Anonymous said...

How did Hasker refute compatibilism, even assuming his conclusion is true ' So determinism and moral responsibility just are incompatible, and that is that."

Perhaps Hasker thinks he can refute the existence of cancer by pointing out that cancer has awful consequences.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, Anonymous,

By definition an event which has been prevented hasn't happened.

And other anonymous,

Hasker's idea is not that we shouldn't believe determinism because it would have disastrous consequences for moral responsibility. He actually thinks that we do have such responsibility, and that this is sufficient to defeat the thesis of determinism.

As far as I can tell, the argument goes something like this:

1)Determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible; if one is the case the other is not the case.
2)Moral responsibility is the case.
3)Therefore, determinism is not the case.

It has nothing to do with the 'appeal to dangerous consequences' which Hume so rightly criticized.

Anonymous said...

So Hasker proves that Max cannot prevent events which actually happen.

Walters points out that , by defintion, no events which actually happen ever are prevented by libertarian agents - otherwise they are not events which actually happen.

So what is the problem? Not even a libertarian free agent can prevent an event which happens.

Hasker should prove that Max is unable to prevent events which *don't* happen, if he wants to proceed with his argument.

But Hasker can't do that, as determinism means that Max is quite able to do things which stop certain events from otherwise happening.

So his argument doesn't even get off the ground.

And, of course, moral determinism does not depend upon considerations of what A can and cannot do in a certain situation.

If Walters was offered 1 dollar to rape a woman, is he more morally responsible if he said 'I won't do that know, but ask me again in 5 minutes and I might possibly do that'.

Or would he be a more morally responsible person if he said that there are no conceivable circumstances in which he would rape a woman for a fee of 1 dollar?

Under Hasker's position, Max is morally responsible for stealing hubcaps even if he was drugged and hynotised into stealing them, as well as suffering from a psychological compulsion to steal hubcaps.

For libertarianism is the doctrine that at time t, an agent has perfect free will to decide between doing A and not-A.

At time t, when Max has a choice of 4 hubcaps to steal, he has perfect free will to decide between stealing the hubcaps on the left and not stealing the hubcaps on the left (ie stealing the hubcaps on the right)

This is all that is needed for Hasker's claim that at a certain exact time, there is nothing to compel Max to steal the left front hubcap.

Therefore, Hasker would hold Max morally responsible for choosing to steal the left front hubcap when he had the choice of not stealing the front left hubcap at that exact time (by stealing the front rear hubcap instead for example)

So Hasker's free will theory leads to ludicrous conclusions about moral responsibility, because he can never get rid of libertarian free will.

People are *always* morally responsible in his theory.

Anonymous said...

Hasker can , of course, say that Max is not morally responsible if he claims that Max is forced by circumstances outside his control to choose between a number of acts, each reprehensible, and so Max should not be blamed when all his choices are bad.

But the claim that forces outside an agent's control still leave the agent with a choice between a number of acts would also destroy Hasker's claim that determinism removes all choice.

How could impersonal forces, with no knowledge of good and evil, somehow manage to cleave an agent's choices into two sets - evil actions and good actions - and constrain an agent's choices to be limited to one of those two sets?

Hasker would be on dangerous grounds if he tried to claim that Max should be excused moral responsibility because such forces really did exist.

That is very nearly compatibilism!

Anonymous said...

Of course you have free will but your freely chosen actions are also determined. That is the simple concept that baffles people. It's just physics. The confusion comes because we became aware of the physics -- an awareness that was also determined; you see? this is why it is confusing. You can read about it, humorously, here:

Anonymous said...

Does Hasker feel that if it was know for a fact, even before Hasker was born, exactly what Hasker would choose to do on 1st July 2007, in every single detail and particular, and that this could be written down, even before Hasker was born, and it would come to pass that Hasker would do exactly what was written on that piece of paper, then he could not be held morally responsible for his actions?

Bye-bye omniscient God , infallibly knows all that will come to pass, even before the people are born who will make the free will actions God knew would *inevitably* happen.

James Alan Gibson said...

I am not convinced by this argument. Is it because of Max's inability to do otherwise that he is not responsible? If so, enter the Frankfurt debate. Is it because of Max's not being responsible for some prior fact which entails he will steal the hubcaps? If so, then more needs to be said (i.e. the invoking of a transfer principle like PvI's beta principle, or some alternative), otherwise, this is argument will be unconvincing - rightfully so - to anyone not already committed to the incompatibility of moral responsibility (and perhaps freedom) and determinism. All of this is just restating what John Fischer has said in the literature.

Layman said...

Perhaps a better example would be whether Douglas Adam's Dish of the Day truly had free will?

Discussed, here.

Anonymous said...

Layman's question is easily answered.

Douglas Adam's dish of the day was an animal and so had no free will.

w said...

Why would he conclude that determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible?

No, Max could not have done otherwise, but that Max steals speaks to the kind of character he possesses, no matter how the character was formed.

Take two diamonds: one almost perfect, the other with a large coal deposit inside. We praise one, discard the other.

So, too, we look at the character of a person and praise it if it is not the type that steals and restrain it if it is the type that steals.

This is why, though, retribution and vengeance is wrong and reformation is preferable.

So, maybe determinism is a problem for people wanting to justify vengeful punishment (e.g. eternal punishment), but not a problem for others.

Layman said...


Easy to evade, perhaps.

Blue Devil Knight said...

W makes an interesting point.

I have yet to find a good treatment of this from the naturalistic perspective (or its critics). Dennett's book, hitting par, has some good sound bites and clever thought experiments and puzzles, but no compelling positive story.

w said...


Try Lectures 23 and 24 of Elliot Sober's Core Questions in Philosophy. It is definitely simplistic, but it seems reasonable to me.

MICKY said...

Our moral freedom, like other mental powers, is strengthened by exercise. The practice of yielding to impulse results in enfeebling self-control. The faculty of inhibiting pressing desires, of concentrating attention on more remote goods, of reinforcing the higher but less urgent motives, undergoes a kind of atrophy by disuse.