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Carolina Sartorio
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A quick final comment before my month comes to an end (I don’t want to take any of Gunnar’s time). As I think I noted before, the symmetrical or temporally neutral definition of determinism is not strictly needed in order to argue for the demotion claim. It’s just easier to see the force of the demotion claim if one assumes that definition, but the demotion claim is plausible, in my view, regardless of which definition one picks. That’s what I think about the demotion claim, anyway. But it could still be the case, of course, that the different conceptions of determinism result in different sets of issues (such as different considerations for or against certain views about the problem of free will). And it’s even open for someone to argue that the different issues and problems that result call for different resolutions. That’s a cool, under-explored issue that it would certainly be worth exploring some more!
It’s good to hear from you, Joe. I don’t want to drag this too long, because Gunnar is coming up next, but I thought I’d say that I agree that it’s important to try to get clear on the terms of the discussion, and on the relevant definitions of the different theses and the premises of the different arguments. Sometimes, though, thinking about the arguments themselves can help clarify the theses that are being debated (or generate new debates about them, as in this case!). And this, in my view, only contributes to making the discussion more interesting. Think about the thesis of physicalism, for example. People are still discussing what it is, or how exactly we should understand it, and some of that discussion, I take it, is generated by thinking about the arguments for or against it, what they can show and what they cannot show. I guess it’s the nature of philosophical discussion itself, that so much of it can be constantly called into question and rescrutinized, which makes it all the more fun!
Yeah, I was thinking that a good motto for the source-incompatibilist could be “Time machines aren’t just cool, they can also set you free!” Having uncovered some hidden cool features of time machines (and apparently, also, having solved one of the deep problems in Kantian metaphysics), I can’t think of a better way to end this great, productive discussion. So, on that positive note, thanks, Derk, and thanks everyone else who has participated this month! It’s been a lot of fun talking with you all.
Hi Derk, Thanks for your response. So I take it, then, that the role determinism plays in your view is this. When factors beyond my causal reach determine my act, this precludes my freedom (my responsibility-relevant control) because, in particular, it rules out the possibility of me being the agent-cause of my act (which would have made my act free). Whereas, if those factors beyond my causal reach had only made my act 50% likely, say, this would have left room for agent-causation and thus freedom. In other words, whereas for the leeway-incompatibilist determinism rules out freedom because it precludes alternative possibilities, for you it (or determination by factors beyond the agent’s causal reach) rules out freedom because it precludes agent-causation. Is this right? All of this is consistent, on your view, with determinism not being the *only* thing that can rule out freedom. If nothing settles what I’ll do at a certain time, then this also precludes my freedom. Interestingly, though, given that you agree with me that Causal Reach is “baked into” incompatibilism, you also have to say that agent-causation is not the only possible way of *securing* freedom. If I could have causal access (ordinary, event-causal access) to all the deterministic causes of my acts (say, by being able to travel back in time and causally influence the past), this would be another way in which I could (at least in principle) have the relevant form of control. So the relevant causal requirement on control is not simply that control requires being the agent-cause of one’s acts; other forms of causal control over the sources of one’s acts are in principle sufficient. (I take it that this is what you meant by “agent-involving” causation: having control over the sources of one’s acts requires the relevant form of agent-involving causation, which can be either agent-causation or event-causation of the right kind.)
Jiajun, I can see how some leeway-incompatibilists (like you) might want to stick with the stronger form of incompatibilism. However, I don’t think that leeway-incompatibilists *need* to stick with it. I think they can easily embrace the demoted version of incompatibilism without that being ad hoc or odd in any way. Again, perhaps all that leeway-incompatibilism attempts to capture is the idea that determination by factors beyond our causal reach (thus, factors with respect to which we couldn’t have done otherwise) results in our being unable to do otherwise in general.
Hi Eddy! Thanks for your comment. Indeed, after noticing that determinism doesn’t do all the work by itself in generating the problem, the next tempting step (for us compatibilists) is to want to say that determinism doesn’t in fact do any work, or very little work (and to say that all or most of the work is done by, for example, as you suggest, some form of causation by factors beyond our causal reach). I’ve been toying with that idea for a while, but I’m not sure yet what to think. A leeway-incompatibilist, of course, is going to want to say that there is an important difference between scenarios where antecedent causes beyond our causal reach determine what we do and scenarios where they don’t; the difference is the existence of alternative possibilities, which can make us free in one case but not in the other. But how about source-incompatibilists? What could determination add for source-incompatibilists, given that they are not moved by alternative-possibilities considerations? Derk, for one, sometimes seems to be thinking along the lines of a transfer of lack of control principle: if I lack control over the actual events that cause my acts, *and* those causes make my acts inevitable, then I also lack control over my acts. On this interpretation of his view, the determination is necessary for the absence of control to be transferred. Now, as you suggest, one might wonder whether determinism is really doing any substantial work in this “transfer of no-control” idea. Imagine that antecedent events beyond my control only indeterministically cause my acts, and there is no agent causation or anything like that. Perhaps a source-incompatibilist should say that the absence of control then transfers to my acts, and for essentially the same reason. In that case the principle that captures the source-incompatibilist idea would be something like this: If I lack of control over the actual events that (deterministically or indeterministically) cause my acts [plus: no agent-causation or anything like that], I also lack control over my acts. Or perhaps it’s something even more general, something like the “ultimate sourcehood” idea: In order to be in control of my acts, I must be the ultimate source of my acts. Where several different things follow from this idea. In particular, if my acts are *deterministically* caused by antecedent events, I must be in control of those deterministic causes. In turn, if my acts are *indeterministically* caused by antecedent events, and I’m not an agent-cause, I, again, must be in control of those indeterministic causes. Perhaps I can still be in control of my acts if they are not caused by antecedent events (either deterministically or indeterministically) to the extent that I’m the agent-cause of them. It’s interesting that, on this second interpretation of the source-incompatibilism idea, determinism itself plays no important role. Derk sometimes suggests that this is his conception of the source-incompatibilist idea, when he says that it’s the “origination” idea (responsibility requires control over the production of our actions), and when he says that this same idea also entails that we can’t be responsible if our acts have no causes whatsoever (pages 4-5 of Living Without Free Will).
Justin, So you reject the metaphysical (not just physical) possibility of time-travel. Do you also reject the metaphysical possibility of eternal agents (eternal agents with certain capacities for freedom and responsibility)? Or do you only reject the metaphysical possibility of beings *like us* who are eternal? In that case I’d say you’re smuggling in the “causal reach” bit earlier, in inserting that qualification. Determinism is a problem *for us, or for beings like us*, given that for us, or for beings like us, the assumption of determinism carries an additional commitment to an insufficient causal reach. You say that, on your view, determinism (in itself) threatens freedom because it makes our choices inevitable. But, if our choices are only inevitable because they are the deterministic result of other events that are inevitable for us, then I’d say it’s not just determinism that makes them inevitable, even if determinism (inevitably!) results in determination by factors beyond our control (there is no metaphysically possible world where determinism and determination by factors beyond our control don’t occur together). Here’s a silly analogy: Imagine that I like triangles, but what I like about triangles is the three sides aspect of triangles, not the three angles aspect (I don’t care about angles). Although it’s true that I can’t have a triangle without having a figure with three angles, the angles don’t make me happy; the sides do. Determinism would be like the angles, and determination by factors beyond our causal reach would be the sides. (The analogy is far from perfect, but hopefully you see what I’m getting at!)
Jiajun, There is no difference between my earlier causal contribution and my current causal contribution, at least as far as determinism goes: in a deterministic world, they’re both equally determined. But the point is that an incompatibilist can’t appeal to the determination of current events by past events (events at T-), if those past events are in my causal reach. Even if those past events are themselves determined, by other events even farther back in the past (T--), the fact that they are in my causal reach suggests that I could in principle still have the relevant sort of control over them. The way I see it, to defend the idea that determinism “tout court” is a threat to our freedom, the incompatibilist would have to say that determinism can be a threat to my freedom at T even if we can’t identify a specific time T* such that it’s the determination by events at T* that threatens my freedom at T. On this view, it’s the more general fact that the state of the world at any time is determined by the state of the world at any other time that threatens my freedom. For example, in the case of the eternal agent, the advocate of incompatibilism tout court would say that what threatens his freedom at T is not the fact that his actions at T are determined by the antecedent state of the world at T-; rather, it’s the more general fact that he lives in a world where the state of the world at any time is determined by the state of the world at any other time. But I just don’t see how this is plausible. Again, how could this be a threat to his freedom, assuming the state of the world at any time can be in his causal reach? The demoted compatibilist, on the other hand, makes a claim that is at least much more initially plausible. I realize that I’m just repeating myself here, though!
Hi Justin! It’s an interesting question how exactly the two assumptions (of “plain old determinism,” as you called it, and determination by factors beyond our control) come apart, if at all. I’m inclined to say that the cases that are most likely to suggest that they can come apart in ways that matter are (1) the eternal agent scenario, and (2) a time-travel scenario: (1) In the eternal agent scenario, at every time the agent finds himself in certain states, including mental states, that play a role in the choices he makes; however, each of those states is the result of earlier events that he could (at least in principle) have some control over, given that he existed at those times and could have exerted his causal influence then. (2) In the time-travel scenario, we may imagine a very powerful time machine that could take you to any time and place and give you the power to causally influence a wide range of past events. This could give you (at least in principle) the relevant kind of control over those events to have the relevant kind of control over the causes of your current choices. (The case of the agent who comes into existence at the very first moment of time is interestingly different, I think. In that case, the choice he makes at T1—the first moment of time—is also not determined by antecedent factors beyond his causal reach, because there are no antecedent factors because there is no antecedent moment of time. However, it’s also not the case that his choice *is* determined by antecedent factors *within* his causal reach. And it could be that this threatens his freedom too. But, arguably, then it’s not determinism itself that threatens his freedom, but the fact that he lacks the right kind of causal history.) On the other hand, imagine that the scenarios described in (1) and (2) are not genuine metaphysical possibilities, or that for some reason they still can’t give you the relevant kind of control (not even in principle). Isn’t it plausible to say, even then, that the real threat to our free will is not determinism per se, but determination by events beyond our causal reach? After all, it seems like we’re still assuming that it’s only because the assumption of determinism *also* results in the assumption of determination by events beyond our causal reach that the problem arises.
Jiajun, You write: “The idea of living a life in which every detail is inevitable is horrible… It remains horrible even if I have lived forever.” But recall that the type of inevitability in question is inevitability at a certain time *given the state of the world at other times.” And if I can (in principle) have some control over the state of the world at those other times by existing and exerting my causal influence at those times, then the inevitability in question seems much less horrible, or not at all horrible. My life develops inevitably in a certain way, but I get to contribute to what that way is. On PAP: PAP says you’re responsible only if you could have done otherwise. But van Inwagen is clearly thinking that the incompatibilist can’t just assume that I couldn’t have done otherwise with respect to times that are not like the remote past (in that I exist at those times and can exert my causal influence), that’s why he picks the remote past to run his argument. So I think that even in van Inwagen we can find something that implicitly suggests that taking PAP seriously doesn’t involve committing ourselves to the idea that determinism itself threatens our freedom (or, in this case, the ability to do otherwise). Determinism by itself doesn’t rule out the ability to do otherwise; only determination *by factors with respect to which we couldn’t have done otherwise* does. At least, that's how I'm inclined to see this...
Jiajun, Indeed, incompatibilism (understood in the stronger sense, as the claim that determinism itself rules out free will) could, in principle, still be true even if the CA failed to establish it (but only established the “demoted” version of incompatibilism). But what I think is that it’s actually very natural to regard the demoted version of incompatibilism as the only one that’s really plausible, on reflection. Could the inevitability of my acts (given the past and the laws) *by itself* threaten my freedom? On reflection, it’s hard to see how that could be. If I could be in control of those events that make my acts inevitable, then, arguably, the inevitability of my acts given those events would not itself be an obstacle to my freedom. Intuitively, it’s only when I *lack* control of what makes my acts inevitable that the inevitability of my acts starts to look like a problem. This just strikes me as a very natural thing to say.
Hi Robert, I didn’t mean to suggest that, according to some incompatibilists, “only determinism rules out free will” in the sense that there is no explanation for why determinism rules out free will. Presumably, there’ll be some explanation of this, and that explanation will take the form of certain principles about the conditions for freedom. But those principles will be necessary metaphysical principles. The claim is only that, besides the assumption of determinism, other *contingent* assumptions (about us, or about our world) are needed for those necessary principles to “kick in” and thus for determinism to be a threat to our free will. In other words, if incompatibilism were the claim that there is no possible world where determinism and free will coexist, then, assuming it is a contingent truth about us that we have a past beyond our causal reach, determinism and free will could still coexist in worlds where those contingent assumptions are not true (worlds in which agents don’t have a past beyond their causal reach). The thought is that this itself is not a reason to embrace compatibilism. Rather, it’s a reason to understand incompatibilism slightly differently, as the claim that there is no possible world where free will and determination *by events beyond the causal reach of agents* coexist.
Jiajun, I’m not sure I follow everything you said, but at least some of your comments suggested to me that only incompatibilists who are also fatalists would want to argue in the way you argue. Imagine that we embrace a view of time according to which it is true now that certain events will take place tomorrow (in that sense the future is “fixed” now). Does that threaten our freedom? Only fatalists will think so; non-fatalists would say that the mere fact that it’s true now that certain events will take place tomorrow doesn’t threaten our freedom with respect to those events, precisely because we can still help to bring those events about, or make them happen.
Hi Jiajun, Thanks for your comments and questions. By the claim that “determinism per se” is what threatens our freedom I meant the thought that what threatens our freedom is *just* the assumption that we live in a deterministic world; no other assumption is needed. But note that there’s some room for embracing this view while rejecting the idea that future-determination is a threat to our freedom. (It could be that the assumption of determinism always results in both past-determination and future-determination, but, even then, only past-determination is threatening. In my view, this is what a reasonable incompatibilist should say.) Imagine that I make a certain important decision at T, say, I decide to kill a person in cold blood. As a result, the rest of my life goes a certain way (I’m sent to jail, I’m unhappy, etc.). If determinism (in its neutral formulation) is true, my decision at T is determined by the state of the world before I was born and the laws, but it’s also determined by the state of the world at that later time when I’m sent to jail (T+). Is my freedom at T threatened by the fact that my decision is determined by the state of the world and the laws at T+? Arguably not. The state of the world at that time includes certain important events (such as my being thrown in jail) that I brought about *by* making that decision at T. In most cases, those events wouldn’t even have taken place if I hadn’t made that decision. So the fact that they (together with other events and the laws) determine my decision doesn’t seem to be a good reason to think that I’m not free at T. So now imagine, in line with your example, that our world was indeterministic up until time T and that at that time God turns it into a deterministic world. In that case my decision at T is not determined by any prior events, but only by future events. This is a good case to motivate the demotion claim, I think (assuming we can make sense of all the required assumptions of the case, of course). For, in this world too, there seems to be no good reason to think that the existence of future-determination is a threat to my freedom. Given that there is only future-determination (no past-determination) at time T, determinism doesn’t seem to be a threat to my freedom at T. This suggests that the threat to our freedom, when it exists, is not just determinism. One of Campbell’s cases was interestingly similar to this. He imagined an agent who is born, as an adult, fully rational being, at the very beginning of time, and who makes a certain decision at that time. So his decision isn’t determined by prior events, only by future events. Again, I’d argue that the existence of future-determination is not a threat to his free will. But then, how can determinism be a threat to his free will, if the only form determinism takes at that time is as future-determination? (Another case in the literature involves an agent who has existed forever, as an adult and fully rational being, in an eternal world. In that case there is past-determination at every time but, since he has existed forever and thus has exerted his causal influence at every time, determinism doesn’t seem to be a threat to his free will either.) Hope these comments help motivate the demotion claim a bit more!
Yes, Chandra, that's *exactly* what I want to say :)
Chandra: Sorry, I just realized I said something misleading. The demoted conclusion of the CA is not really incompatibilism, as I’m understanding incompatibilism (in terms of a broader conception of freedom, possibly different from the ability to do otherwise). But hopefully you can still see what I meant.
Chandra, Thanks for your comment. Yes, I think that’s *pretty much* what I want to say. The arguments fail *in the context where they are typically offered*, a context where the incompatibilist is trying to offer reasons in favor of incompatibilism (reasons that could potentially move a reflective agnostic toward incompatibilism, say). I’m certainly not arguing that the premises are false or anything like that. Let me add just a few clarifications, because I don’t think we agree about all the details. When I said “the threat to our freedom is not determination per se, but determination plus something else” [this is the claim you called “Causal Reach”] I of course didn’t intend to be suggesting that this was a real threat (since I’m a compatibilist), but only a potential threat (the kind of thing that should make someone think that there is a problem to be discussed). So in that sense Causal Reach wouldn’t be the conclusion of the demoted CA. (Also, the CA is an argument about freedom understood as the ability to do otherwise, but I had in mind a broader conception of freedom: freedom as the metaphysical component of responsibility, whatever that is.) Finally, I don’t just think that the lesson we should draw from Joe’s objection to the CA is that we should take the conclusion of that argument to be weaker but, more generally, that the problem of determinism and free will is slightly different from what we took it to be (and thus compatibilism and incompatibilism themselves are also different theses from what we have taken them to be). So I guess I wouldn’t say that the problem with the ultimacy and direct arguments is that they’re “borrowing on” the demoted conclusion of the CA and thus are not independent arguments. The demoted conclusion is just incompatibilism, and the problem with those arguments is just that they’re assuming incompatibilism or something close to that. But, in general terms, I think that we agree about what conclusions I should be drawing from my arguments. (Do we?)
Hi Alan, Thanks, yes, I was thinking that there are at least some standard definitions of determinism that are “neutral” in that respect—they entail that the future determines the past as much as the past determines the future (van Inwagen has a definition like that; Lewis has another). Actually, one thing I was wondering about is, how common is it to use one definition instead of the other? Have people thought that there could be different problems involving determinism and free will depending on which definition we pick (and, perhaps, that the different problems have different answers)? At any rate, I used the case of the future because, assuming one of those definitions of determinism, it’s very easy to see that determination itself cannot be the culprit. But this is not really essential for my main argument to work. Imagine you define determinism in a way that the past determines the future but the future doesn’t determine the past. Still, there are good reasons to think that determination by itself doesn’t create a threat to our freedom. For imagine that we had causal access to the past (imagine, for example, that we could travel back in time and causally influence the events in the past). Then we could have (at least in principle) control over the past (in the same way we now have some control over the future), and thus the fact that the past determines the present wouldn’t be enough to threaten our freedom. On your comments on the two arguments. First, on the direct argument: Are there any good reasons to think that the transfer principle doesn’t contrapose? It’s typically presented as something like an inference rule. On the ultimacy argument: I’m not sure I follow what you say about the “equivocation” in the argument, and that equivocation supporting the petitio claim. My thought was this: If we assume the demotion claim, and we understand the ultimacy requirement along the lines of Ultimacy (Causal Access) (or something stronger), then the first premise becomes trivial. It basically says: If our acts are determined by (some) factors beyond our causal reach, then we don’t have causal access to all of the actual sufficient sources of our acts. This is trivial, because the determining factors beyond our causal reach can only be certain causes of our acts, and their being “beyond our causal reach” means that we don’t have causal access to them. And then the second premise carries all the weight, which is why the argument ends up being question-begging. The second premise now says: We cannot be free unless we have causal access to all the actual sufficient sources of our acts. But this is just begging the question, for it simply states incompatibilism (as I think we should understand the thesis of incompatibilism)… Last-minute thoughts (that I had after I wrote all this): Perhaps I see what you mean by the equivocation now. Assuming a neutral formulation of determinism (one that doesn’t presuppose that determiners are causes), there are two possible ways of understanding incompatibilism, in accordance with the demotion claim: 1. Determination by factors (ANY factors) beyond our causal reach is incompatible with freedom. 2. Determination by CAUSES beyond our causal reach is incompatible with freedom. The second premise in the argument is just incompatibilism only if we understand incompatibilism as claim 2. Does the argument still beg the question if incompatibilism is understood in the stronger sense, as claim 1? Arguably, yes, because it is hard to see how anyone who doesn’t already believe in 1’s truth would be tempted to believe in premise 2. But I'm not totally sure, it's an interesting question.
Hi John, Yes, it seems like we agree about this too. In fact, if you and I are both right about the direct argument in particular (or its one-path version) then there may be more than one reason why the argument is question-begging. You claim it’s question-begging because of considerations having to do with the move from two-path overdetermination cases to one-path cases being unmotivated or wrong-headed; I, on the other hand, claim it’s question-begging because, once one of the conditions or circumstances that need to obtain for the problem of determinism and free will to arise is revealed, we see that the principle simply assumes that we can’t be free in those circumstances. So perhaps there is more than one reason why the argument is question-begging, I’m not sure. In principle, I’m inclined to say: the more the merrier!
This is going to be my last post. I want to thank everyone for this terrific opportunity and for the helpful comments I got. I really appreciate your having taken the time to think through these (in some cases, quite underdeveloped) ideas with me. Thanks to Thomas, especially, for the... Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2013 at Flickers of Freedom
Chandra, Thanks for your comment! I can totally see how it would make sense, from the perspective of a deep-self theorist who regards reasons-sensitivity as evidence of deep-self attitudes, to be flexible about ranges of reasons. So I’m glad to see that this discussion can be of interest to deep-self theorists like you too! Of course, we disagree about what’s ultimately explanatorily relevant. You would say that a certain range of reasons-sensitivity (whatever range is appropriate for the relevant act-type) is only evidence of some other feature of the agent in virtue of which he’s free with respect to the relevant act, whereas an RS theorist would say that it’s what makes him free. An RS theorist (one who is not also a deep-self theorist) could in turn say that there is some notion of “deep self” that is relevant to freedom, but is only a derivative one (one that can be extracted from the patterns of responsiveness to reasons exhibited by the agent), so it’s not a truly deep deep-self feature, after all. I guess there’s also logical room for a third view, a hybrid view that takes both types of conditions to be equally basic in grounding freedom (the kind of view that I think Michael McKenna posted about some time ago, when he was a featured author).
Hi Derk! Those cases are interesting because they’re of a certain kind such that one could “just as easily” be praiseworthy or blameworthy for them, depending heavily on the specific circumstances. Ordering a military intervention is something you could be praiseworthy or blameworthy for, depending on the circumstances. In that respect they’re different from, say, telling the truth, which tends to be right, or my example of ingesting poison, which tends to be irrational, with a few exceptions. As a result, it’s quite tricky to find the right way of expressing what I want to express. In a certain sense, the difference between Truman and Johnson *is* a difference in the number of relevant reasons to refrain because the relevant reasons are supposed to be *sufficient* reasons to refrain, and assuming that Truman did the right thing and is praiseworthy, the cost of military intervention was *not* a sufficient reason to refrain in his case, whereas it was in Johnson’s case. So there is a difference between the two cases with respect to, at least, the actual reasons to refrain. Do you see what I mean? Hmm… How about something like this: Flexibility tells us that the *type of act* is relevant in determining the required range of relevant reasons the agent needs to be sensitive to. In some cases, the type of act in question is such that there are many more right-making circumstances than wrong-making circumstances (with the limiting case being acts for which there are only right-making circumstances). Thus, in those cases, Flexibility motivates the idea that the range of reasons to refrain that one needs to be sensitive to in order to be praiseworthy is considerably narrower. But then there are other types of acts for which there’s roughly an equal number of right-making circumstances and of wrong-making circumstances. In those cases the range of reasons required to be praiseworthy will still be narrower, since there will be a difference in at least the actual reasons, but perhaps there won’t be a significant difference beyond that. All of these results are motivated by Flexibility (and the focus on act-types) and perhaps this is the whole extent of the asymmetry between praise and blame, everything there is to be captured. How does this sound?
Mark, The reason I formulated the RS claim as an “only if” principle is that there might be other necessary conditions for freedom and this is a possibility I want to leave open. However, I do want the claim to capture the whole extent to which freedom is grounded in sensitivity to reasons. So I think you’re right to worry about this, and that’s why I said earlier that this is an important and underappreciated issue concerning RS views. Consider the case of the addict. RS theorists want to say that he’s not free when he takes the drug because he’s not sensitive to reasons. But imagine that we took the following to be one of the relevant reasons to refrain from taking the drug: R: The drug won’t make you feel high If the addict were to come to believe that the substance he’s about to take won’t make him feel high, then he wouldn’t take it. Does this mean that he’s sensitive to reasons? We don’t want to say he is. We want to say that this is *not* one of the relevant reasons we should consider. Why? I take it, because we’re interested in the reasons-sensitivity of the agent with respect to his act of taking a drug of the kind that makes you feel high (or of his act of taking the drug, as it falls under that description). (I say “we” because I believe that this applies to all RS views, not just mine.) On your case of the button and the snake: I take it you’re imagining a scenario where there are no potential reasons to refrain from pushing the button (the button would prevent the torture of your infant child) but you fail to push it because there’s a snake present and you have a paralyzing fear of snakes. In that case an RS theorist would want to say that you are not responsible because you’re not sensitive to reasons. In this case, however, I don’t think that RS theorists would want to say that the presence of the snake is included in the identification of the act itself, though, but in the circumstances that one is holding fixed when examining the reasons-sensitivity of the agent. The thought is that, given your paralyzing fear of snakes, and given the snake’s presence, no sufficient reason to push the button is such that you would have been able to respond to it. By the way, perhaps my own RS view has a slight advantage here over other views because I would put it just in terms of what actually caused the agent to fail to push the button. And it seems quite clear that no sufficient reason to push the button is such that its absence is among the *actual causes* of the agent’s failure to push the button in that case (given the presence of the snake and the agent’s fear of snakes).
Mark, My thought was simply that in order to identify the relevant type of act one would have to do this by using the relevant degree of specificity, where, arguably, it’s not going to be too general and also not too specific, but somewhere in between. For example, in the case of the addict and non-addict, it’s going to be something like taking “this type of drug”: a drug with certain salient properties (not just taking something, or taking any drug, which is too general, and also not taking the drug in a very specific way, or in a way that includes all the properties of the drug and the agent, which would be too specific). And I was thinking that we could then think of the addict and non-addict as performing the same act, in scenarios where certain reasons to refrain are absent and also in scenarios where they are present. (I realize now that when I used the example “the substance that (you predict) will kill you” this might have been misleading. There I wasn’t referring to the scenario where the addict takes the drug, perhaps predicting that it’ll kill him, but to the example of drinking poison.) I was assuming (perhaps naively?) that there is some natural way of identifying the relevant type in each case. But these issues are always tricky, aren’t they? Do people have any thoughts on this?
Hi Mark, and thanks for your comment! I was thinking that, in the same way that two countable sets can be such that one is properly included in the other, one countable set of reasons could be properly included in another countable set of reasons, and in that case the proper inclusion criterion would naturally lead us to think that the more inclusive set is a “larger” range of reasons than the other. As an example, compare a non-addict who is sensitive to financial counterincentives of $1,000 or higher with one for whom the “magic number” is much lower, say, $10. There is a natural sense in which, I think, we’d say that the latter is sensitive to a larger range of reasons. (Right?) On your question about what “act types” are the relevant ones: This is an important question. In fact, I tend to think that this is another underappreciated issue that arises for RS views. How about this as a rough answer? When we’re trying to determine whether an agent is sensitive to reasons in acting in a certain way, we must identify acts in a manner that preserves their significant normative features. Consider, again, the act of pushing a button that you know will prevent the torture of your infant child (one of those cases for which I said it’s at least plausible to believe that no sufficient reasons to refrain from performing them exist). What would happen if one were to describe the relevant act as simply “pushing a button”? Or “moving your hand (in a certain way)”? (The list can go on and on.) There are lots of potential sufficient reasons to refrain from performing those acts, when described in those ways. So should one say that the button pusher is sensitive to reasons because, when his act is described in those ways, there are many reasons whose absence he’s being sensitive to? This doesn’t seem right, because those are reasons to refrain from pushing some button, but not that particular button that one knows to have important properties, or reasons not to move your arm in some way, but not in that particular way that is especially significant in this context. (As a limiting case, as you point out, all acts can be described as “doing something”. That’s clearly not the type that RS-theorists want, otherwise an agent would be equally sensitive to reasons in performing what seem like different acts.) So I guess the answer I’m tempted to give is that one must at least include in the description of the relevant “types” those features that seem normatively significant in the context (the button that (you suspect) will do good, the substance that (you predict) will kill you, etc.). But I’m thinking out loud here, I hope this makes sense!