Freedom and (theoretical) reason


In a recent series of papers, Matthias Steup has defended doxastic voluntarism against longstanding objections. Many of his arguments center on the following conditional: if we accept a compatibilist notion of voluntary control, then, in most instances, belief-formation is voluntary and doxastic voluntarism the correct view. Steup defends two versions of this conditional. The first is universal, moving from compatibilism considered generally to doxastic voluntarism: if compatibilism is true, then doxastic voluntarism is true. The second is more particular, moving from the specific form of reasons-responsive compatibilism to doxastic voluntarism: if reasons-responsive compatibilism is true, then doxastic voluntarism is true. I argue that Steup’s arguments for both conditionals fail, in which case we lack reason to believe in either of them. In the final section of the paper, I argue that the impossibility of epistemic akrasia provides prima facie reason to think the latter conditional is false.

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  1. 1.

    Alston (1989, Chap. 5).

  2. 2.

    For a paradigmatic example of this see: Bennett (1990).

  3. 3.

    See: Steup (2012), Steup (2011), and Steup (2008).

  4. 4.

    Obviously, not all the free will literature gets into issues of moral responsibility and the reactive attitudes involved therein. But a large percentage does, revealing that much of our interest in freedom is tied up with our interest in personhood and moral responsibility. I will keep the issues closely aligned in this paper, but I recognize that some authors choose to separate them.

  5. 5.

    Strawson (1962). I model this setup after the one offered in the opening pages of Fischer and Ravizza (1998). People disagree about what attitudes are included in the class of so-called ‘reactive attitudes.’ Some people claim only negative attitudes associated with blame are included, while others claim that positive attitudes associated with praise are included. I overlook those debates here.

  6. 6.

    In keeping with much of the literature, I conceive of freedom and autonomy as the same, or at least closely aligned. However, for an argument to the contrary, see Fischer (2012). (Note: I do not use ‘autonomy’ in the Kantian sense, where this is taken to mean something like the ability to act in accord with objective morality and free of the influence of desire).

  7. 7.

    Steup uses these labels as well. But in certain places (e.g., on p. 545 of “Belief Voluntariness and Intentionality”) he defines ‘volitional control’ more narrowly as the ability to decide to \(\upphi \) and decide to refrain from \(\upphi \)-ing. This doesn’t affect the discussion, as Steup is happy to include choice (and thus volitional control, as I define it) as part of compatibilist conceptions of voluntary control. Of course, as I go on to say and Steup agrees, compatibilists differ from incompatibilists in their understanding of what qualifies as a proper choice (or what I term ‘volitional control’).

  8. 8.

    Steup (2011, p. 548).

  9. 9.

    This is a direct paraphrase of Steup’s paragraph-length summary of his argument; see: Steup (2011, p. 548).

  10. 10.

    Ibid., p. 548.

  11. 11.

    Fischer and Ravizza (1998). Fischer and Ravizza use the label ‘guidance control’ for what Steup and I call ‘voluntary control.’

  12. 12.

    Steup’s definition (2008 p. 379) reads as follows: S’s \(\phi \) -ing is free iff (i) S \(\phi \) ’s; (ii) S wants to \(\phi \); (iii) S’s \(\phi \) -ing is the causal outcome of a reasons responsive mental mechanism. I’m not sure why Steup includes these extra conditions, as his argument doesn’t require them. The definition provided above more accurately reflects both Fischer and Ravizza’s account of what they call ‘guidance control’ and what we here we call ‘voluntary control’ as well as the definition of voluntary control Steup relies on in arguing for RRCDV.

  13. 13.

    Steup (2011, p. 547). I have altered the wording slightly for ease of presentation.

  14. 14.

    Steup (2008, p. 381).

  15. 15.

    Anscombe (1957, §2–5).

  16. 16.

    At certain points Steup acknowledges that there are different kinds of reasons (he notes the following categories as examples: good and bad; moral and prudential; practical and epistemic) and, as a result, the reasons-responsive compatibilist must specify which kinds of reasons one must be responsive to in order to be considered appropriately reasons-responsive. Later he considers Bennet’s suggestion (1990, p. 90) that it’s responsiveness to practical reasons specifically that matters. He takes this to imply the following ‘chauvinistic’ thesis: Whereas responsiveness to practical reasons grounds freedom, responsiveness to epistemic reasons does not. Then he notes that the defenders of doxastic voluntarism endorse the opposing ‘egalitarian’ thesis: Responsiveness to practical reasons and responsiveness to epistemic reasons equally ground freedom. Steup claims (rightly so I think) that, until further argument is made, the ‘chauvinistic’ thesis should be rejected on the grounds that it’s ad hoc. But then he goes on to suggest the fact that we speak of beliefs as responses to (epistemic) reasons like we speak of actions as responses to (practical) reasons, provides a “strong prima facie case” for thinking there is voluntary control in the epistemic case; for, he reasons, “there is reasons-responsivess in [both] case[s].” See Steup (2008, pp. 379–380; 387–388). But this reasoning is flawed. First of all, in relying on our mere use of the word ‘reason’ in connection with beliefs and actions to argue there’s a “strong prima facie case” for thinking there is voluntary control in the epistemic case, Steup’s reasoning conflicts with his initial claim that the reasons-responsive compatibilist must specify which kinds of reasons reasons-responsiveness involves and in turn have a specific kind, or specific kinds, of reason(s) in mind when speaking of ‘reasons-responsiveness.’ Second of all, as I’ve tried to argue, given that we speak of reasons in connection not only with actions and beliefs but also with causal regularities, such reasoning would lead us to say that there is reasons-responsiveness and thus voluntary control in cases of things like volcano eruptions and digestion.

  17. 17.

    I thank an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  18. 18.

    Scanlon (1998) asserts that reasons in the so-called “standard normative sense” apply to a wide range of attitudes, including intentions, beliefs, fears, desires and hopes. But this subtlety can be overlooked for the purposes of this paper.

  19. 19.

    (1957, § 5).

  20. 20.

    See Hieronymi (2006, 2008), and Moran (2001).

  21. 21.

    Angela Smith makes a similar suggestion. See Smith (2005).

  22. 22.

    Anscombe (1957).

  23. 23.

    Moran (2001, p. 127), emphasis added.

  24. 24.

    Moran (2001, p. 125).

  25. 25.

    Hieronymi (2008, p. 359).

  26. 26.

    Anscombe, Moran and Hieronymi all claim it’s possible to act for no reason. If this is the case, then it’s not clear how knowing the reasons for one’s action can be essential to acting. I’ll leave aside this puzzle for the purposes of this paper.

  27. 27.

    See Vogler (2002, Chap. 6) and Thompson (2008) for extended discussion of this.

  28. 28.

    Hieronymi (2008, p. 359).

  29. 29.

    (Moran, p. 113).

  30. 30.

    That it’s under my control in some sense is why my neighbor can rightly hold me responsible.

  31. 31.

    My argument against the possibility of epistemic akrasia is similar to what Neil Levy calls the ‘subsumption view.’ This view has been advanced by a number of philosophers, most explicitly by Jonathan Adler, David Owens, and Susan Hurley. See: Levy (2004), Adler (2002), Owens (2002), and Hurley (1989).

  32. 32.

    Moran (2001, pp. 76–77).

  33. 33.

    This preliminary evaluation amounts to something like a seeming.

  34. 34.

    Hurley(1989, pp. 131–132).

  35. 35.

    For example, many would say that God cannot act akratically. But this would be due to God’s perfect character not the nature of action itself.


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This paper has been helped by many. I want to especially thank the following people for providing very instructive comments: Jeff Speaks, Tim Perrine, Will Reckner, Zac Bachmann, and Philip Swenson. Thank you also to attendees of the 2014 UCLA/USC graduate student conference and the SCP session at the 2014 ACPA meeting.

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Correspondence to Margaret Schmitt.

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Schmitt, M. Freedom and (theoretical) reason. Synthese 192, 25–41 (2015).

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  • Doxastic voluntarism
  • Free will
  • Compatibilism
  • Epistemic reasons