Abilities to do otherwise


In this paper I argue that there are different ways that an agent may be able to do otherwise and that therefore, when free will is understood as requiring that an agent be able to do otherwise, we face the following question: which way of being able to do otherwise is most relevant to free will? I answer this question by first discussing the nature of intrinsic dispositions and abilities, arguing that for each action type there is a spectrum of intrinsic abilities. I suggest that recognising this allows us to articulate two ways in which an intrinsic ability is general. And I argue that the abilities most relevant to free will need to be nongeneral in both of the ways identified. Along the way I show why these points threaten to undermine Vihvelin’s (Causes, laws, and free will: why determinism doesn’t matter, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013) dispositionalist account of free will.

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  1. 1.

    The picture is in fact more complicated than this, for there is good reason to think that dispositional properties also vary along another dimension, namely, the strength of connection between the stimulus and the manifestation (sometimes called modal force or strength). I will return to this issue in Sect. 4.

  2. 2.

    This characterisation of the ability is not complete in itself. If we understand this characterisation to implicitly include all the detail from the action-realisation conditions for walking, then it might be complete. But whether it is or not depends, I suggest, in part on what Ann intends to ask about. (Which is not to say, of course, that Julian’s possession of that ability depends on what Ann’s intends to ask about.)

  3. 3.

    Perhaps the idea of opportunity is wider than this, and includes my being in circumstances where I could easily get into a position to exercise an ability. Whether or not this is so, and how exactly such a qualification could be spelled out, is a non-trivial matter, but it does not affect the substance of the point being made.

  4. 4.

    In their discussions of the role which circumstances play in dispositional properties, both Cross (2005: 324) and Choi (2011) have suggested that recognising the above point will produce a solution to the problem of finks (Choi also thinks it solves the problem of masks). But it is important to note that the central point—that abilities are defined in part by a set of circumstances, something which leads us to recognise a spectrum of such properties—is independent of those claims. Moreover, and to reiterate, the action type and the ability’s definitional circumstances, which together define the ability property, imply nothing whatsoever about the agent’s actual circumstances—they imply nothing about the opportunities the agent possesses, nor about the presence of finks and masks.

  5. 5.

    Vihvelin rightly thinks that free will concerns what she calls wide abilities: narrow (i.e. intrinsic) abilities and opportunities. But as having the wide ability requires having the narrow ability, the current discussion—which is limited to narrow abilities—is not missing the point.

  6. 6.

    There will be serious problems for those who want to combine such an approach with a conditional analysis that doesn’t permit exceptions; they will have to provide a mask safe characterisation of the dispositional property to be analysed. But Vihvelin’s account does not fall prey to this problem because she permits exceptions.

  7. 7.

    This follows as long as one thinks that the modal truths entailed by a true ascription of an ability can at least be approximately expressed using the current orthodox semantics for ‘can’ (i.e. Kratzer’s 1977, 1981), even if one thinks that this current orthodoxy cannot fully capture all the details of such modal truths.

  8. 8.

    A similar point has been ably made by Whittle (2010: 3), but her scheme differs from that presented here as her global/local distinction cuts across the intrinsic/extrinsic distinction.

  9. 9.

    That is, the account presented in Causes, laws and free will (2013). Vihvelin’s (2004) account did not permit exceptions in the way outlined.

  10. 10.

    In Vihvelin’s account, this is encoded as the demand that the agent A in a “suitable proportion” of the test-cases, where “suitable proportion” is determined by the action type.

  11. 11.

    I would like to thank Eric Olson and Jess Leech for much valuable discussion on these topics, as well as an anonymous referee who provided helpful comments.


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Kittle, S. Abilities to do otherwise. Philos Stud 172, 3017–3035 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0455-8

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  • Free will
  • Determinism
  • The ability to do otherwise