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McCall on Theological Determinism & Compatibilism part 2b

(This is part 2b in a series on Tom McCall’s arguments against determinism and compatibilism in his recent book, An Invitation to Christian Analytic Theology (IVP 2015). Part one is here and part 2a is here.)

Last time, I looked at McCall’s objections to classical compatibilism. In this post I am going to interact with McCall’s criticisms of Frankfurt-style compatibilism. I was going to look at his evaluation of semi-compatibilism in this post, but this one became too long. In the previous posts I have described the nature and goal of McCall’s project in his book, readers may consult those posts for the relevant background. I also presented McCall’s two arguments for incompatibilism—what I called “the standard arguments”—in the previous post (2a), and I won’t repeat it again in this post, though readers are encouraged to go back and reread it.

Compatibilisms and the Standard Arguments: Frankfurt-Style Compatibilism

We saw last time that classical compatibilists tend to respond to the standard arguments by rejecting premises which state that if determinism is true, agents cannot do otherwise. Other compatibilists, notes McCall, object to other premises. McCall notes that these other compatibilists typically reject premises (1) and (5) of the standard arguments. I restate them now:

(1) Free will requires the ability to do otherwise, and
(5) one is not responsible for anything that one has no control over;

Formal Worries for McCall’s second argument and the Transfer of Nonresponsibility

I will first make some remarks about (5). First, it’s not clear to me what role (5) plays in McCall’s argument. (5) is talking about moral responsibility. McCall uses (5), conjoined with (6), to get (7), as so:

(6) one has no control over anything that is entailed by what one has no control over, and
(7) one is not responsible for anything that is entailed by what one has no control over (from 5&6);

But after this, all talk of responsibility drops out of the argument. (5)-(7) appear superfluous. One might think that McCall needs (7), along with (10), to get (11), since he cites them as justifications for (11), as so:

(10) you have no control over TUDdino & L (from 8-10);
(11) you have no control over what TUDdino & L entails (from 7, 10);

But (11) doesn’t follow from (7) and (10). It appears McCall meant that (11) follows from (6) and (10). But in that case, McCall didn’t need (5) or (7) at all. Since (6) is just an assumption of the argument, he could have included it and, with (10), got (11) without the need for (5), which was used to get (7), which he doesn’t need since it doesn’t, with (10), entail (11).

Second, why think (5) is true? It’s notoriously difficult to get (5) via indirect argument. If one were to use an indirect argument to get (5) it would probably look a lot like the consequence-style argument that (5) makes its illustrious appearance in! The most plausible way of getting (5), it seems to me, is the direct argument.

Here’s how we might get (5). The idea is that if determinism is true, then no one is responsible for anything. The direct argument (or at least one version of it) says:

(i) S is not responsible for p
(ii) S is not responsible for the fact that p entails q
(iii) S is not responsible for q.

Let p = the remote past and the laws of nature. Given (standard) determinism, p entails all future facts. Let q be the future fact that S punches Smith at t. We assume that S is not responsible for the remote past (before any human existed) and the laws of nature. But those entail that S punches Smith at t. Therefore, S is not responsible for punching Smith at t. Since S is arbitrary, this argument generalizes that no one is responsible for anything given determinism.

But we have a counterexample to the above. I steal this objection from Justin Capes’ paper, “Incompatibilism and the Transfer of Nonresponsibility.

Double Dose: At time t Demi poisons Silas with a substance that will kill him at t3. At t2, Silas accidentally ingests a substance that, given the laws of nature and relevant background conditions, ensures his death at t3. We now have:

(i*) No one is even partly responsible for the fact that Silas ingests substance XX at t2 (this was a pure accident!).
(ii*) No one is even partly responsible for the fact that the laws of nature and other relevant background conditions conjoined with Silas’ ingesting XX at t2, entails that Silas will die at t3.
(iii*) Therefore, no one is even partly responsible for the fact that Silas dies at t3.

But surely (iii*) is false, for surely Demi is partly responsible for the fact that Silas dies at t3. It would be appropriate to blame Demi for Silas’ death.

For these reasons, I’m not really sure what role (5) is doing in McCall’s argument. I think it would have been better for him to forgo premises about non-responsibility in his argument. But I’ll now put this to the side and move on to McCall’s evaluation of compatibilists who reject (1)—Free will requires the ability to do otherwise—on the basis of Frankfurt counterexamples.

Frankfurt-style Compatibilism

McCall notes that some compatibilists have appealed to so-called “Frankfurt-Style Counterexamples” (FSCs) to deny premise (1), i.e., free will requires the ability to do otherwise. These compatibilists are called Frankfurt-Style Compatibilists. I’ll call these compatibilists, Frankfurters. FSCs have generated a ton of literature, as McCall notes, so I can’t engage with FSCs in any extended way. Rather, I’ll make some brief remarks on the anti-FSC points McCall raises against Frankfurters.

For our purposes, all we need to know is that FSCs are thought-experiments which purport to be counterexamples to the claim that moral responsibility requires the ability to do otherwise. They achieve this through cases which attempt to get rid of all alternatives (or all morally significant ones) and yet we intuitively believe the person in the case is morally responsible. McCall raises three brief objections and then makes a closing argument (pp. 68-69). I’ll deal with these in turn.

a. First, closer inspection shows that there really are alternative possibilities in such stories: perhaps there is only one possible outcome, but there are various means to that end and various possible versions of the story.

This is curious; it seems to suggest that moral responsibility is compatible with fatalism (a perennial worry for classical incompatibilism) . It seems strange to suggest that determinism rules out moral responsibility because on determinism Smith can only take one road to Jones’ house in order to murder Jones; but on indeterminism, Smith can’t avoid murdering Jones but he can take two different roads to Jones’ house, so Smith is responsible in the second but not the first case. Now, the objection here is really trying to point out that FSCs don’t give us cases where all alternative possibilities are removed, so they purportedly fail to do what they set out to do, viz., show the moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. As I’ll point out later, this objection depends, in part, on how we view FSCs. Are they modal or non-modal thought-experiments?

b. Second, such scenarios say nothing about determinism—even if it turns out that there are no alternative possibilities.

True, but FSCs are meant to show that if determinism rules out moral responsibilities, as incompatibilists say, then it’s not because of the lack of alternative possibilities, so what is it in virtue of?

c. It isn’t at all clear that freedom and moral responsibility are all that closely linked in such scenarios.

McCall picks up on this point when he addresses semi-compatibilism, so I’ll wait until I get to that section to address this.

Elaborating on (a), McCall says that if FSCs “assume determinism” then they “beg the question,” but if they assume “indeterminism,” then they are “no threat to the libertarian” (p. 69). By way of reply, I grant that if the Frankfurter assumes determinism, and assumes that determinism rules out alternative possibilities, then the Frankfurter begs the question against the incompatibilist. But, a Frankfurter can assume the former without assuming the latter, as Fischer, McKenna, and Haji have shown (see Fischer, “Frankfurt Counterexamples: The Moral of the Stories” (Phil Review 2010) ). That is, one can remain agnostic about whether determinism rules out alternative possibilities and thus avoid begging the question.

Second, I think it’s too quick to say that if FSCs assume indeterminism, then they pose no threat to the libertarian. First, there are so-called “buffer zone” FSCs (see e.g., Pereboom, Living without Free Will (pp. 18–28); and David Hunt, “Moral Responsibility and Unavoidable Action,” Philosophical Studies 97, 2000). Briefly, such “buffer zone” strategies envision cases where there is some necessary condition for the agent to choose to do otherwise. For example, it may be a necessary condition for Jones to do action A that he have a certain thought some time prior to A-ing. This thought is necessary but insufficient to have the relevant thought. It seems that merely having this thought is not morally significant and not sufficient to secure Jones’ moral responsibility for performing the action. We can then say that the Frankfurt controller will override Jones’ behavior and make him do A if he sees that Jones doesn’t have this thought by time t, thus he can prevent Jones’s access to robust alternative possibilities.

Another reason not to think that assuming indeterminism renders FSCs of no consequence to libertarianism is that McCall’s response here seems to treat FSCs as modal thought-experiments. But it is plausible to see FSCs as non-modal thought-experiments. For the details, see Leon and Tognazzini’s “Why Frankfurt-Examples Don’t Need to Succeed to Succeed” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 80(3), 2010). The upshot here is that non-modal thought-experiments can show that even if alternative possibilities are companions to every case of moral responsible actions in all possible worlds, that wouldn’t entail that alternative possibilities are essential to moral responsibility. In other words, a property can be necessarily coextensive with a thing’s essential properties without itself being essential to the thing. This may strike those who learned at Plantinga’s knee that Φ is an essential property of S’s just in case S has Φ in all worlds at which S exists as odd. But Kit Fine, for example, has offered a counterexample to Plantinga’s modal analysis of essential properties. Consider the singleton set whose only member is Socrates, call this set {S}. There are no possible worlds at which Socrates exists and yet lacks the property of being a member of {S}. Yet, we don’t seem to want to say that {S} is essential to Socrates. As Fine puts it: “There is nothing in the nature of a person…which demands that he belongs to this or that set or which even demands that there be any sets” (“Essence and Modality”, Philosophical Perspectives 8, 1994). The upshot of Leon and Tognazzini’s argument for the incompatibilist is that if non-modal FSCs succeed, then it renders mysterious the alleged truth of the modal status of the principle of alternative possibilities (i.e., necessarily moral responsibility requires alternative possibilities).

Finally, McCall does allow that FSCs might show that it is false that alternative possibilities are necessary for moral responsibility for actions “narrowly construed.” But he finds that if there are “no morally significant alternative possibilities at some point, then it is hard to see just how the agent is responsible for what he does or for who he has become” (p.69). But this response can be met by something else Alvin Plantinga has taught us—this time rightly!—from “it’s hard to see how p” one should not conclude that “therefore, p is not possible.” For example, one might not be very imaginative! To be fair, I do not think that McCall was assuming this sort of inference. Perhaps we can say something further on his behalf.

One way to motivate McCall’s ‘noseeum’ claim is by appealing to what has been called “the W-defense,” after David Widerker. The strategy of the W-defense is that when someone S says that an agent is (directly) morally responsible for action A, we can always ask S, “What should the agent have done instead?” The idea is, of course, that the determinist cannot reply, “He should have done not-A instead.” Now, this objection rests on the “ought-implies-can” maxim. Addressing this maxim is far beyond the scope of this entry, so I let it go without remark. Instead, I’ll cite a reply to the W-defense inspired by Michael McKenna, the M-reply. Citing the M-reply will provide a nice segue to my next post on semi-compatibilism. The M-reply replies to the question asked by the W-defense this way: “Look at what he did!” The reply gets us to the distinction between those who think the actual sequence is what matters for responsibility as opposed to the alternate sequence. Semi-compatibilists care about the actual sequence. We turn to semi-compatibilism next time. Stay tuned.


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