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Taking Hobart Seriously


Hobart’s classic 1934 paper “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It” has been widely cited (and taught in many undergraduate courses) as an example of an argument for the view that free will requires the truth of determinism. In this paper, I argue that this reading of Hobart’s paper is mistaken and that we should instead read Hobart as arguing that an agent exercises their free will only if the proximate causes of the agent’s action deterministically cause their action. After arguing that Hobart’s view, rightly understood, escapes the problems typically raised for Hobart’s compatibilism, I also argue that Hobart’s view is problematic for different reasons. Nevertheless, I argue that there is a crucial insight (concerning the relation between indeterminacy and free will) to be gleaned from Hobart’s paper—one that provides compatibilists with a new recipe for challenging libertarian accounts of free will.

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  1. Free will (in the sense at issue in this paper) is the freedom necessary for moral responsibility.

  2. Libertarianism (in the sense at issue in this paper) is the view that the following conjunction is true: (at least some) human beings have free will, and compatibilism is false.

  3. This is what is sometimes called the “ensurance formulation” of the problem of luck. See, for example, Haji’s (2001) formulation. For criticisms of this formulation, as well as criticisms of several other formulations of the problem of luck, see Franklin (2011a). As we will see, the problem is sometimes put in terms of chance rather than luck. In any case, the locus of the problem of luck is at the moment of non-derivatively free action, which most philosophers working on free will take to be the moment of choice (or decision).

  4. R. E. Hobart was the pseudonym of Dickinson S. Miller, who was a student and friend of William James.

  5. To say that an action is non-derivatively free is to say that the action’s freedom does not depend entirely on some other of the agent’s actions being free.

  6. I am not first to suggest the possibility of such a view—see, for example, Mele (2015)—but, though I take Hobart to have espoused this view, it has not had many proponents (if any others at all).

  7. For discussion of the problem of enhanced control, see Clarke (1997, 2003, chapter 6), Watson (1999), and Pereboom (2001, chapter 2).

  8. The reason that we can set aside such problems is that we are only interested in what Hobart’s view would look like qua compatibilist account, an account which may be true even if we in fact lack free will. Most compatibilists believe that their accounts are satisfied by typical human agents and thus believe that we in fact have free will, but we can (and I will here) separate compatibility questions from questions about whether we in fact have free will.

  9. For more on how to conceive of determinism, see van Inwagen (1983: 2-8).

  10. The “pre-ordination” or “necessity” associated with determinism is the necessity of certain events (including human actions) given a certain past state of the world and certain laws of nature (well, Hobart focuses on the past and ignores the laws, but we can set that aside). It is worth mentioning two important dissimilarities between Hobart’s and van Inwagen’s characterizations of determinism. Hobart refers to causation, which van Inwagen avoids by defining determinism in terms of entailment, as I articulated it above. And the entailment conception of determinism is typically taken to be bidirectional, whereas Hobart’s is only unidirectional (past determines future, not vice versa). Despite these dissimilarities, though, the important common ground is that both aim to provide global theses of determinism. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to mention these differences.

  11. As I explain below, one complication is that Hobart equated causal determination with causation itself, thereby assuming the impossibility of indeterministic causation, but I will set this aside here.

  12. I will return to this this view, which I call “old-school compatibilism,” at the end of Section 3.

  13. As far as I can tell, Nowell-Smith (1948) is the first to cite Hobart’s paper incorrectly. To be fair to him and to the subsequent philosophers who have made the same mistake, Hobart apparently uses the terms interchangeably, as I have just suggested in the text, though he must not mean global determinism, as do most people who use the term nowadays.

  14. Given his focus on an agent’s freedom in acting, I take Hobart to be interested in the sequence issuing in action, not in the sequences of events prior to, say, an agent’s birth. And since the problem of luck concerns the time of action, requiring that an agent’s actions be deterministically caused by is proximate cause addresses the problem directly. More on this in the next section.

  15. There are some libertarians who require that free actions be uncaused, such as Ginet (1990) and McCann (1998), but this is a minority view, even among libertarians.

  16. Anscombe argues (persuasively, to my mind) for the possibility of indeterministic causation, the possibility of which has since been taken for granted in the free will debate. It follows from this possibility that thesis of determinism should not be identified with the thesis that every event has a cause. See van Inwagen (1983: 3-5), who calls this latter thesis the “Principle of Universal Causation,” for a discussion of this point.

  17. It is a tricky matter to give an account of causal determination in indeterministic worlds, and I will not do so here, but its possibility is taken for granted in the literature, as the passage from van Inwagen (1983) cited below indicates.

  18. CDR requires causal determination between agents’ actions and the proximate causes of those actions, but, if one preferred (perhaps because one took luck at earlier points in the sequence to threaten freedom), the causal determination required could be a longer sequence; for example, one could require that all causation that is internal to agents (or between the initiations of deliberations to the performance of actions, or…) be deterministic causation. Nothing crucial hangs on any particular formulation of CDR, though I formulate it as it is because, as I mentioned in note 3, the locus of the problem of luck is at the moment of choice.

  19. It should be noted that CDR is compatible with incompatibilist accounts of freedom, though Hobart himself would not have accepted such a view. See note 20 for examples of such a view.

  20. One might wonder what differences there are between Hobart-compatibilism and a view sometimes called “modest libertarianism” (or “deliberative libertarianism,” among other names) discussed by Dennett (1978, chapter 15), Mele (1995: 211-221; 2006: 9-14), and Clarke (2003, chapter 4). According to modest libertarianism, an agent’s having free will requires that there be indeterminacy internal to the agent, but the proximate causes of free actions must deterministically cause those actions (and thus the indeterminacy that modest libertarianism requires is typically located within the agent’s deliberative process, e.g., in what comes to mind during this process). While this libertarian account shares with Hobart-compatibilism something like CDR, the former also requires indeterminacy (of a very specific kind) in order for there to be free will; it is, after all, an incompatibilist account. Hobart-compatibilism does not require any indeterminacy whatsoever in order for there to be free will.

  21. Of course, if one objects to this way of laying out the pertinent psychological states, the example may be redescribed to fit one’s own picture. And, importantly, Hobart-compatibilists are only committed (qua Hobart-compatibilists) to there being deterministic connections between agents’ actions and the proximate causes of those actions; it is left open whether those connections are the ones mentioned in (A), (B), or (C).

  22. See, for example, Ayer (1946) and Nowell-Smith (1948). Smart (1961) develops a similar line as the others against libertarian accounts of free will without endorsing old-school compatibilism. Hobart (1934) is typically taken to be in this camp, but I take this to be a mistake, for the reasons given in the previous section.

  23. This is later granted by van Inwagen (1983: 148).

  24. For a thorough discussion of the problem of luck, see Mele (2006). The ensurance formulation that I mentioned above is one way of putting the problem, but there is a different formulation that uses similar language, namely Pereboom’s “disappearing agent objection” (2014a), that targets event-causal libertarianism in particular. See Mele (2017, chapter 8) for a reply. Other formulations of the problem of luck, such as the formulation Mele (2006) develops, use language of “present luck” and “cross-world luck.” These formulations are importantly different from an older statement of the problem in terms of “chance,” which is basis for the Mind argument as well as for van Inwagen’s “rollback argument” (2000). For a super-compatibilist response to the problem of luck (which is friendly to libertarianism), see Fischer (2012, chapter 6). Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to distinguish between the various formulations of the problem of luck.

  25. It might be the case, however, that Hobart-compatibilism faces a different problem of luck, namely, the problem of “constitutive” luck—see Nagel (1979: 28) for the introduction of this term—but, since this problem (if it is a problem) is shared by all compatibilist views, and so we need not consider it in more detail here.

  26. This is not to say that free will is compatible with any type of scenario whatsoever—a point to which I will return below.

  27. Moreover, it may very well be that the resiliency intuition about the deliverances of the physicists and cosmologists is stronger than one that concerns neuroscience and the proximate causes of our actions.

  28. On Fischer’s account, a mechanism’s being reasons-responsive requires that it be both receptive to reasons (recognizing reasons in an appropriately patterned way) and reactive to them (acting in accordance with some sufficient reason to do otherwise is some possible world with the same laws). See Fischer and Ravizza (1998, chapter 3) for more on reasons-responsiveness.

  29. A related point is that super-compatibilists and Hobart-compatibilists alike want their theories to be resilient given the appropriate constraints on their theories. If a constraint that blocks the problem of luck is one such appropriate constraint, then it is not a strike against Hobart-compatibilism that this constraint leaves the theory less resilient.

  30. As I mentioned in note 24, Fischer (2012, chapter 6) recognizes this need and attempts to provide an answer.

  31. For a similar line of thought, see Kane (1999) and Mele (2017, chapter 8).

  32. As I mentioned in note 1, I am taking free will to be the control necessary for moral responsibility. Given this, if there is no relevant difference in the level of control two agent possess (in performing a certain action), then either both possess free will (in performing that action) or neither does.

  33. Note that this is consistent with the position that additional indeterminacy always mitigates control—a position that is the structural reversal of Capes’s (2013) “mitigating soft compatibilism” and that has been suggested by Cogley (2015)—such that there is a difference in levels of control between the two probabilities mentioned. All that I am arguing is that the difference between 100% and 99.9% cannot be so robust that such indeterminacy precludes the control necessary for moral responsibility.

  34. Perhaps Haji’s formulation of the problem of luck (which appeals to “ensurance”) is a way of accounting for the difference, but why think that the difference between ensurance and very-close-to-(and-nearly-indistinguishable-from)-ensurance is relevant to control? It seems to me that while there may be a relevant difference between non-adjacent points on the control spectrum, such as between ensurance-level control and coin-flip-level control, there is no relevant difference between these adjacent points on that spectrum (between ensurance-level control and nearly-indistinguishable-from-ensurance-level control).

  35. This insight is the heart of the problem of enhanced control, to which we will return below, and so has not been entirely neglected in the contemporary literature—see, e.g., Watson (1987: 169) and more recent discussions in Franklin (2018, chapter 6) and Mele (2017, chapter 7)—though Hobart’s statement of it and his distinctive version of the problem has. More on this below.

  36. NHP does not, of course, offer a complete compatibilist account of free will. As Hobart-compatibilism does with CDR, neo-Hobartian compatibilism takes one’s favorite compatibilist set of sufficient conditions on free will and adds to it a certain principle about undetermined action (in this case NHP).

  37. In his approach to the luck problem (on behalf of libertarians), Fischer (2012, chapter 6, 2014) argues that merely adding indeterminacy into the causal sequence leading to an agent’s action does not undermine that agent’s freedom. This is consistent with but not as strong a claim as NHP, since NHP says not only that indeterminacy does not preclude freedom but also that it is no gain to freedom. But it is worth emphasizing that Neo-Hobartian compatibilists will need to accept something like Fischer’s solution to the problem of luck, since skeptics like Pereboom may admit that there’s there is no difference in control between a deterministic relation and a 99% probability relation between proximate causes and action, but there may be a difference in the case of a 50% relation, or a 75% relation, since here is look less plausible that the agent “settles” what they do. See Pereboom’s (2018) review of Mele (2017) for discussion. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for mentioning this point.

  38. Moreover, both neo-Hobartian compatibilism and Fischer’s super-compatibilism (which Is motivated by considerations of resiliency, are on a par with respect to resiliency (since, unlike Hobart-compatibilism, neither claims that indeterminacy would preclude freedom).

  39. See Fischer (2012, chapter 6, 2014) for this type of response.

  40. See also Franklin (2018, chapter 6). Franklin believes that the problem of enhanced control is particularly (and perhaps uniquely) problematic for event-causal libertarianism, a libertarian view that analyzes free actions in terms of agent-involving events (rather than, say, some basic notion of an agent-causal power). For statements of the worry that indeterminacy does not enhance control by itself but would in conjunction with agent-causation, see Clarke (2003), Griffith (2010), O’Connor (2000), and Pereboom (2001).

  41. Perhaps “source incompatibilists” would demur, since their worry about determinism is that precludes our being the appropriate sources of our actions and thus preclude freedom (e.g., Pereboom 2001, 2014b). Now, it may be that source incompatibilists think that sourcehood is necessary for control (or for freedom, which many take to be synonymous with control), and I take it that Kane, a prominent source libertarian would accept this understanding of his view. If this is the right way to understand source incompatibilism, though, then what I say here will apply to the source libertarianism as well. If sourcehood is necessary for freedom but not for control, it seems that we are owed an explanation of the connection (or lack thereof) between freedom and control such that sourcehood concerns the former but not the latter.

  42. It is worth contrasting my approach with that of Cogley (2015), which attempts to show that libertarianism is not undermined by the problem of luck while at the same time conceding that indeterminacy always mitigates control. Cogley also claims that the degree to which an agent has control over an action depends upon the probability that that action will result from a certain set of mental states. I am not relying on this claim here (nor the claim that indeterminacy always mitigates control); rather, I am claiming only that no additional control (or higher degree of control) is secured by adding indeterminacy into the picture.

  43. I refer to Kane’s libertarian account both because it is widely known and because it allows for a simple presentation of my take on the luck problem, but it should be noted that the problem generalizes to any libertarian account that requires indeterminacy at the time of non-derivatively free actions.

  44. For a statement of this worry, see Mele (2006: 53).

  45. As an anonymous reviewer points out, one might deny that this possibility of failing to hurry on to the meeting enhances the agent’s control in the carrying out of the effort of will to hurry on to the meeting, and yet, one might think, this possibility may still be relevant to the agent’s freedom insofar as this possibility allows for control over which choice is made out of a plurality of options. As I will go on to argue in the next paragraph, however, this plurality of options does not by itself contribute anything to the agent’s control (whether construed as control in choosing as the agent does or construed as control over what choice is made).

  46. Of course, this is only a sketch of the project of combining the problems of luck and enhanced control, but the aim of this paper is not to complete such a project (or even to forestall objections to it) but rather to showcase the importance of a correct interpretation of Hoabrt’s view. Further development of this project will require looking at responses to versions of the problem of enhanced control found in Franklin (2018, chapter 6) and Mele (2017, chapter 7), among others.


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Thanks to Matt Flummer, Chris Franklin, Adam Harmer, Andrew Law, Jonah Nagashima, Dana Nelkin, Michael Nelson, Derk Pereboom, Eric Schwitzgebel, Philip Swenson, and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to the members of the UCR Agency Workshop, Zac Bachman, Dave Beglin, Patrick London, Meredith McFadden, Debbie Nelson, Jeremy Pober, and Jared Smith, and to audiences at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress; the 2015 Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Agency Conference at Florida State University; and the 2015 SoCal Philosophy Conference; especially to Stephen Bero, Gunnar Björnsson, Zac Cogley, Al Mele, and Jason Schukraft. Extra special thanks to Mirja Pérez de Calleja for her commentary at the FSU conference and to John Fischer for helpful feedback and encouragement throughout every stage of this project.

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Cyr, T.W. Taking Hobart Seriously. Philosophia 49, 1407–1426 (2021).

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  • Compatibilism
  • R. E. Hobart
  • Libertarianism
  • Problem of luck
  • Resiliency