Reading Derk Pereboom

In Living Without Free Will, Derk Pereboom offers a “hard incompatibilism” that makes both free will and moral responsibility incompatible with determinism. Although Pereboom claims to be agnostic about the truth of determinism, he argues that we should admit there is neither human freedom nor moral responsibility and that we should learn to live without free will.

He is close to a group of thinkers who share a view that William James called “hard determinism,” including Richard Double, Ted Honderich, Saul Smilansky,Galen Strawson, and the psychologistDaniel Wegner.

Some of them call for the recognition that “free will is an illusion.”

But note that Pereboom’s “hard incompatibilism” is not only the case ifdeterminism is true. It is equally the case if indeterminism is true. Pereboom argues that neither provides the control needed for moral responsibility. This is the standard argument against free will. As Pereboom states his view:

I argue for a position closely related to hard determinism. Yet the term “hard determinism” is not an adequate label for my view, since I do not claim that determinism is true. As I understand it, whether an indeterministic or a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics is true is currently an open question. I do contend, however, that not only is determinism incompatible with moral responsibility, but so is the sort of indeterminacy specified by the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, if that is the only sort of indeterminacy there is.
(Living Without Free Will, p.xviii)

I will grant, for purposes of argument, that event-causal libertarianism allows for as much responsibility-relevant control as compatibilism does. I shall argue that if decisions were indeterministic events of the sort specified by this theory, then agents would have no more control over their actions than they would if determinism were true, and such control is insufficient for responsibility.
(Living Without Free Will, p.46)

In his 1995 essay stating the case for “Hard Incompatibilism,” Pereboom notes…

The demographic profile of the free will debate reveals a majority of soft determinists, who claim that we possess the freedom required for moral responsibility, that determinism is true, and that these views are compatible. Libertarians, incompatibilist champions of the freedom required for moral responsibility, constitute a minority. Not only is this the distribution in the contemporary philosophical population, but in Western philosophy has always been the pattern. Seldom has hard determinism — the incompatibilist endorsement of determinism and rejection of the freedom required for moral responsibility — been defended.One would expect hard determinism to have few proponents, given its apparent renunciation of morality. I believe, however, that the argument for hard determinism is powerful, and furthermore, that the reasons against it are not as compelling as they might at first seem.

The categorization of the determinist position by ‘hard’ and ’soft’ masks some important distinctions, and thus one might devise a more fine-grained scheme. Actually, within the conceptual space of both hard and soft determinism there is a range of alternative views. The softest version of soft determinism maintains that we possess the freedom required for moral responsibility, that having this sort of freedom is compatible with determinism, that this freedom includes the ability to do otherwise than what one actually will do, and that even though determinism is true, one is yet deserving of blame upon having performed a wrongful act. The hardest version of hard determinism claims that since determinism is true, we lack the freedom required for moral responsibility, and hence, not only do we never deserve blame, but, moreover, no moral principles or values apply to us. But both hard and soft determinism encompass a number of less extreme positions. The view I wish to defend is somewhat softer than the hardest of the hard determinisms, and in this respect it is similar to some aspects of the position recently developed by Ted Honderich. In the view we will explore, since determinism is true, we lack the freedom required for moral responsibility. But although we therefore never deserve blame for having performed a wrongful act, most moral principles and values are not thereby undermined.
(Noûs 29, 1995, reprinted in Free Will, ed. D. Pereboom, 1997, p.242)

Pereboom concludes:

Given that free will of some sort is required for moral responsibility, then libertarianism, soft determinism, and hard determinism, as typically conceived, are jointly exhaustive positions (if we allow the “deterministic” positions the view that events may result from indeterministic processes of the sort described by quantum mechanics). Yet each has a consequence that is difficult to accept.If libertarianism were true, then we would expect events to occur that are incompatible with what our physical theories predict to be overwhelmingly likely.

If soft determinism were true, then agents would deserve blame for their wrongdoing even though their actions were produced by processes beyond their control.

If hard determinism were true, agents would not be morally responsible — agents would never deserve blame for even the most cold-blooded and calmly executed evil actions.

I have argued that hard determinism could be the easiest view to accept. Hard determinism need not be of the hardest sort. It need not subvert the commitment to doing what is right, and although it does undermine some of our reactive attitudes, secure analogues of these attitudes are all one requires for good interpersonal relationships.

Consequently, of the three positions, hard determinism might well be the most attractive, and it is surely worthy of more serious consideration than it has been accorded. (p.272)

Pereboom distinguishes two libertarian positions, agent causal and event causal. While his agent-causal positions involve metaphysical freedom if not immaterial substance, his event-causal views assume that indeterminism isthe direct or indirect cause of the action. He then traces decisions determined by character back to early character-forming events. Since they are always in turn either themselves determined, or at best indetermined, we can not be responsible for our characters either.

According to the libertarian, we can choose to act without being causally determined by factors beyond our control, and we can therefore be morally responsible for our actions. Arguably, this is the common-sense position. Libertarian views can be divided into two categories.In agent causal libertarianism, free will is explained by the existence of agents who can cause actions not by virtue of any state they are in, such as a belief or a desire, but just by themselves — as substances. Such agents are capable of causing actions in this way without being causally determined to do so. In an attractive version of agent-causal theory, when such an agent acts freely, she can be inclined but not causally determined to act by factors such as her desires and beliefs. But such factors will not exhaust the causal account of the action. The agent herself, independently of these factors, provides a fundamental element. Agent-causal libertarianism has been advocated by Thomas Reid, Roderick Chisholm, Richard Taylor,Randolph Clarke, and Timothy O’Connor. Perhaps the views of William of Ockham and Immanuel Kant also count as agent-causal libertarianism.

In the second category, which I call event-causal libertarianism, only causation involving states or events is permitted. Required for moral responsibility is not agent causation, but production of actions that crucially involves indeterministic causal relations between events. The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius provides a rudimentary version of such a position when he claims that free actions are accounted for by uncaused swerves in the downward paths of atoms. Sophisticated variants of this type of libertarianism have been developed by Robert Kane and Carl Ginet.
(Living Without Free Will, p.xv)

On Ginet’s and Kane’s conceptions, are free choices indeed partially random events (or perhaps even totally random events on Ginet’s account) for which agents cannot be morally responsible? At this point, one might suggest that there is an additional resource available to bolster Ginet’s and Kane’s account of morally responsible decision. For convenience, let us focus on Kane’s view (I suspect that Ginet’s position will not differ significantly from Kane’s on this issue). One might argue that in Kane’s conception, the character and motives that explain an effort of will need not be factors beyond the agent’s control, since they could be produced partly as a result of the agent’s free choices. Consequently, it need not be that the effort, and thus the choice, is produced solely by factors beyond the agent’s control and no further contribution of the agent. But this move is unconvincing. To simplify, suppose that it is character alone, and not motives in addition, that explains the effort of will. Imagine first that the character that explains the effort is not a product of the agent’s free choices, but rather that there are factors beyond his control that determine this character, or nothing produces it, or factors beyond his control contribute to the production of the character without determining it and nothing supplements their contribution to produce it. Then, by incompatibilist standards, the agent cannot be responsible for his character. But in addition, neither can he be responsible for the effort that is explained by the character, whether this explanation is deterministic or indeterministic. If the explanation is deterministic, then there will be factors beyond the agent’s control that determine the effort, and the agent will thereby lack moral responsibility for the effort. If the explanation is indeterministic, given that the agent’s free choice plays no role in producing the character, and nothing besides the character explains the effort, there will be factors beyond the agent’s control that make a causal contribution to the production of this effort without determining it, while nothing supplements the contribution of these factors to produce the effort. Here, again, the agent cannot be morally responsible for the effort.

However, prospects for moral responsibility for the effort of will not improved if the agent’s character is partly a result of his free choices. For consider the first free choice an agent ever makes. By the above argument, he cannot be responsible for it. But then he cannot be responsible for the second choice either, whether or not the first choice was character-forming. If the first choice was not character-forming, then the character that explains the effort of will for the second choice is not produced by his free choice, and then by the above argument, he cannot be morally responsible for it. Suppose, alternatively, that the first choice was character-forming. Because the agent cannot be responsible for the first choice, he also cannot be responsible for the resulting character formation. But then, by the above argument, he cannot be responsible for the second choice either. Since this type of reasoning can be repeated for all subsequent choices, Kane’s agent can never be morally responsible for effort of will.

Given that such an agent can never be morally responsible for his efforts of will, neither can he be responsible for his choices. For in Kane’s picture, there is nothing that supplements the contribution of the effort of will to produce the choice. Indeed, all free choices will ultimately be partially random events, for in the final analysis there will be factors beyond the agent’s control, such as his initial character, that partly produce the choice, while there will be nothing that supplements their contribution in the production of the choice, and by the most attractive incompatibilist standard, agents cannot be responsible for such partially random events.
(Living Without Free Will, p.48-50)

See Derk Pereboom on I-Phi