THE CASE FOR “FREE WILL” OR MORAL RESPONSIBILITY

[by gerald harrison, excerpted from a book – just the arguments – by Michael Bruce and Steven barbone]
Some philosophers think that our decisions are free only if uncaused, others that causation is needed to prevent our decisions being uncontrolled; some think that the causation needs to be indeterministic, others that it needs to be deterministic, and others that it does not matter either way.

Nevertheless, there is near unanimous agreement that free will is needed to ground moral responsibility. That is to say, free will is required if we are to deserve praise, blame, reward, or punishment for our deeds, and if a host of so-called “reactive attitudes” such as resentment, guilt, and forgiveness are appropriate.

This common ground among disputants provides the basis for a positive argument for free will. Versions of this argument (which has no specific name) have been presented by Thomas Reid, Randolph Clarke, Peter van lnwagen (Essay), and Peter Strawson, among others.

Just as it is widely agreed that moral responsibility requires free will, it is also widely agreed that we are morally responsible for at least some of what we do some of the time. For Reid, it was a first principle “that some aspects of human conduct deserve praise, others blame” (361). According to Peter Strawson, our commitment to moral responsibility is so deeply rooted that it is simply inconceivable that we could give it up, and thus the reality of moral responsibility sets a boundary condition for where rational argument can lead.

If our moral responsibility is beyond reasonable doubt, then it must he beyond reasonable doubt that we possess free will, as the former presupposes the latter. Thus, we get our positive argument for free will.

Not everyone accepts this argument. A significant minority of philosophers deny that we are morally responsible. There are, after all, powerful arguments both for thinking that free will is incompatible with determinism and for thinking that it is incompatible with indeterminism. Such arguments can be used to raise doubts about whether we have free will, and so to raise doubts about moral responsibility.

For most, however, the belief that we are morally responsible has greater initial plausibility than any of the premises of an argument leading to the denial of free will. Moral responsibility therefore provides the best positive argument for thinking that we do have free will.

There are, moreover, seemingly unanswerable arguments that, if they are correct, demonstrate that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will, and, therefore, if free will does not exist, moral responsibility does not exist either. It is, however, evident that moral responsibility does exist: if there were no such thing as moral responsibility nothing would be anyone’s fault, and it is evident that there are states of affairs to which one can point and say, correctly, to certain people: That’s your fault. (van Inwagen, “How to Think”)

P1. If we are morally responsible then we have free will.

P2. We are morally responsible.

Cl. We have free will (modus ponens, PI, P2). Page 120

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