Free Will and Moral Responsibility: The Trap, the Appreciation of Agency, and the Bubble

Abstract

In Part I, I reflect in some detail upon the free will problem and about the way its understanding has radically changed. First I outline the four questions that go into making the free will problem. Second, I consider four paradigmatic shifts that have occurred in our understanding of this problem. Then I go on to reflect upon this complex and multi-level situation. In Part II of this essay, I explore the major alternative positions, and defend my views, in new ways. Instead of trying to spread over many issues, I present one new argument against compatibilism, which I call “The Trap”. This tries to explicate the main problem that I find with this position. Then I present an exposition of what we nevertheless need to follow, which I call “the Appreciation of Agency”. This supports a measure of compatibilism in a more modest form, and opposes hard determinism. On this basis, we can confront the philosophical and practical questions, as to what we ought to believe and how we ought to live, with respect to free will and moral responsibility. This leads to what I call “The Bubble,” which addresses the way in which we deal with the tension between the absence of libertarian free will and The Trap, and the crucial need for the Appreciation of Agency. I conclude by reflecting upon three attributes of the free will problem that I consider central, but that have been neglected in the debate: complexity, risk and tragedy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    There are of course many options open to the compatibilists to revise their position, and I cannot discuss all of them (a good exploration of revisionism is Vargas 2005). Paul Russell’s attempt to combine a form of “fatalism” with compatibilism (see Russell 2000; Cuypers, forthcoming) is a step in the right direction, but does not, in my opinion, go far enough. My suggestion is that compatibilists see compatibilism as only one element within a broader, compatibility-dualist, picture, which combines the insights of both compatibilism and hard determinism. Since the Assumption of Monism on the compatibility question is false, affirming compatibilism need not entail a complete denial of hard determinism.

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Acknowledgments

I am grateful for the invitation to participate in this special issue of The Journal of Ethics. I am also grateful to Zohar Geva, Iddo Landau, and Daniel Statman, for helpful comments on drafts of the paper.

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Correspondence to Saul Smilansky.

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Smilansky, S. Free Will and Moral Responsibility: The Trap, the Appreciation of Agency, and the Bubble. J Ethics 16, 211–239 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-012-9126-6

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Keywords

  • Compatibilism
  • Free will
  • Hard determinism
  • Illusion
  • Illusionism
  • Moral responsibility
  • Punishment
  • Tragedy