Robert Kane’s Self-Forming Actions and Ultimate Responsibility

Since his earliest book, Free Will and Values (1985), Kane has focused on free choices that have moral or prudential significance, as as well as those with merely practical significance. He accepts two-stage models of free will as relevant to practical choices, but thinks “something more” is needed for moral choices, which are the grounds for his character-developing “Self-Forming Willings” or “Self-Forming Actions.”

Like most philosophers, Kane does not separate free will from moral responsibility. Indeed , he conflates these two, which he describes as “the traditional definition of free will.” He describes what he calls “ultimate responsibility” as his basis for free will.

But whether or not we are predetermined by the laws of nature can not be shown by any verbal definition. Freedom of the will is a question for science.

Kane follows ideas that he traces back through Daniel DennettKarl PopperArthur Holly Compton, and David Wiggins. (They can be traced even earlier to Bertrand RussellArthur Stanley Eddington, all the way to Epicurus, whom Kane mentions briefly.)

Kane’s most original contribution to the free-will debates may be his account of decisions that involves some indeterminism, but for which the agent can properly claim responsibilityCompatibilists believe that any chance involved in the cause of an action compromises agent control and therefore responsibility. But in the case of what Kane calls a “torn decision” or “self-forming action” (SFA) the agent may have excellent reasons for choosing “either way.” In such a case, indeterminism may be involved (Kane defends the possibility of irreducible quantum indeterminism), yet the agent may properly take responsibility for either option, as long as the final choice is a result of the agent’s “efforts.” Kane calls this “plural (or dual) rational control.”

Kane’s most careful articulation of his position was given in response to the Luck Objection, raised by several critics of Kane’s inclusion of indeterminism in his Self-Forming Actions. Kane’s critics who found indeterminism unhelpful in all cases included Galen StrawsonAlfred MeleBernard BerofskyRichard Double, and Ishtiyaque Haji. Earlier works on Moral Luck by Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams had similar implications.