Saul Smilansky on Free Will

Saul Smilansky’s views on free will can be summarized by three points.

  1. Libertarian free will is impossible for two reasons.  The first is the randomness objections raised by various philosophers.  The second is Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument
  2. Traditionally, people have be monist in that you have to pick either incompatibilism or compatibilism.   Instead, we should embrace a Fundamental Dualism and hold that both sides get some things right.  Incompatibilism is incorrect because there can be some moral desert in the compatibilist sense.  For example, even on compatibilism, we should treat the kleptomaniac differently than the common thief, because the common thief does exhibit local control even though ultimately he cannot be self-caused. But compatibilism cannot give the sense of ultimate responsibility that the illusion of libertarian free will gives, so incompatibilism gets some things right.
  3. The illusion of libertarian free will is morally necessary.  It is not that we need to induce this illusion into the public or that we can live with illusory beliefs.  Rather, this illusion is already in place and it plays a positive role in society.

So I take it Smilansky’s basic idea is that neither libertarian free will nor determinism can grant us ultimate responsibility.  Most common folk believe in libertarian free will, but they are ignorant of its impossibility.  This illusion of libertarian free will is needed for them to act as fully moral beings.  These common folk also recognize that determinism undermines responsibility, since it is easy to recognize without much study.  We should leave these people to their libertarian illusion because, for the most part, it will lead to a better society, says Smilansky.

Whether this illusion of libertarian free will will lead to that better society is an empirical claim.   I’m skeptical of that.  Granted not everyone has the same idea of a better society, I think it’s at least helpful to assume our ideas of a better society is close enough for the purposes of furthering the discussion.    I’m sympathetic to Derk Pereboom’s view that we’re better off knowing that we do not have the type of free will necessary for ultimate moral responsibility.  Even without ultimate moral responsibility, we can have morality, meaning and value.

From what I’ve seen, at least in the free will literature, people that believe in libertarian free will are more likely to believe in retributive forms of moral responsibility, while compatibilists are more likely to believe in a moral responsibility based on consequentialist considerations.  Since I disagree with retributive forms of moral responsibility, I think revealing the illusion would be a good thing.  Retributive forms of moral responsibility hold that people deserve praise and blame irrespective of consequences.  Consequentialist forms of moral responsibility hold praise and blame are appropriate if it leads to good consequences.  As an example, a consequentialist about moral responsibility would consider jail more like quarantine than a place where people get what they deserve irrespective of rehabilitation considerations. When people with deadly viruses are quarantined, we’re not getting revenge on them, we’re quarantining them to avoid bad consequences.

Consider the case of a man who murdered innocent people.  Later we find out that this man had a brain tumor and have good evidence that his change in behavior was the caused by the tumor.  I think it would be better to remove the illusion that the murderer acted as a first cause or an uncaused cause.   Learning about this tumor will probably cause people to be less retributive and more consequentialist.

In any case, I think there are some things right about P.F. Strawson’s reactive attitudes approach.  No amount of philosophical theorizing is going to change some reactive attitudes. This is a biological feature that is unavoidable.  During emotional times, the desire for retribution can be hard to avoid, but, in a calm, reflective state, those desires can be restrained.

Kane, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will.

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One Response to Saul Smilansky on Free Will

  1. Pingback: Free Will, Psychology, and Disillusionism | Hugh Jidiette

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