Free will and the sense of self
Suppose one comes to believe that no one is ever ultimately morally responsible for what they do in such a way as to truly deserve praise or blame, punishment or reward. One realizes that ultimate self-determination (USD) is impossible; one endorses skepticism about ‘strong free will’ (SFW) of the sort that could ground USD. One accepts that many of what P.F. Strawson (1962) calls one’s ‘personal-reactive’ attitudes to others (gratitude, resentment, anger, admiration, etc.) are in some fundamental respect inappropriate or unjustified, inasmuch as they seem to presuppose SFW. What then? It depends on what kind of person one is. To think that certain of one’s feelings and attitudes presuppose SFW, and to come to believe that SFW is impossible, may possibly cause one to cease to have these feelings. It seems clear, however, that most people are incapable of giving up the personal-reactive attitudes to others, even when convinced of the impossibility of SFW. Our deep commitment to belief in SFW is not so much irrational as non-rational, as P.F. Strawson observes (Strawson 1962). On his view, the true ground of our commitment to belief in SFW lies in our deep susceptibility to the emotional reactions that seem to depend on SFW for their appropriateness. Instead of being supported, they support. Still, suppose that coming to believe in the impossibility of SFW does cause a change in one’s personal-reactive attitudes. Suppose one comes to adopt what P.F. Strawson calls the ‘objective attitude’ to all human actions (Strawson 1962). If so, this will be something that simply happens to one, and there seems to be a further question about what one should actively do. One can hardly decide to take no notice of what one now believes-that people, including oneself, are never ultimately responsible for their actions. But if forming this belief hasn’t caused one’s reactive attitudes to change, isn’t one then bound to try to stop treating people as proper objects of gratitude and resentment, praise and blame? Say one doesn’t want to. Isn’t that a sufficient reason not to? It’s not clear that it is; or rather, it’s not clear that these questions really arise. Suppose one believes there are okapi in San Diego zoo, but hasn’t been to check. There’s no
reason why one should check if one doesn’t want to. But the present case is different. One has formed a belief, and nothing remains to be checked. To say that one needn’t try to take into account the fact that people aren’t really proper objects of reactive attitudes if one doesn’t want to seems like saying that one needn’t believe something one believes if one doesn’t want to. But one doesn’t have such a choice; belief isn’t subject to the will in this way. True-and yet people who reach the theoretical conclusion that SFW is impossible rarely seem much perturbed. Their lives continue more or less as normal. Is this acceptable? Shouldn’t they do something about it? Can facts about our natural non-rational commitment to believe in SFW somehow justify, as well as explain, their imperturbability, or somehow pre-empt the need for any such justification? The question is pressing because the argument against SFW seems watertight (see, e.g., Strawson 1994). There’s an immovable sense in which we neither are nor can be ultimately responsible for what we do. But we go on thinking of ourselves as if we are. The argument against SFW doesn’t depend on the view that determinism is true; it shows that SFW is equally impossible even if determinism is false. But for simplicity I’ll consider the case in which one thinks (rightly) that SFW is incompatible with determinism, and then comes to believe that determinism is true. What should one do? What might one do? What might happen? It’s no good saying to oneself ‘I’m determined to go on believing in SFW, and in having these SFW presupposing feelings and attitudes.’ To think that this dissolves the problem is to make the mistake of fatalism-the mistake of thinking that nothing one can do can change what will happen. One may be so determined that one does make this mistake, but it’s still a mistake, and people who think clearly won’t make it. It looks as if such people can’t avoid the problem of what now to think, what now to do.