The Limits of Free Will: Replies to Bennett, Smith and Wallace

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  1. 1.

    Dennett 1994; and also Dennett 2003.

  2. 2.

    Skinner 1971.

  3. 3.

    Dennett 1994, Chaps. 4 and 5.

  4. 4.

    Dennett 1994, Chap. 1

  5. 5.

    Russell, Limits, Chaps. 10,11,12.

  6. 6.

    Strawson 1992

  7. 7.

    Williams 1985, Chap. 10.

  8. 8.

    This is, of course, a central theme of Bernard Williams’s critique of “the morality system”. For an extended discussion of this see Russell, “Free Will and the Tragic Predicament”. The classic defence of the view that conditions of fate and luck cannot coexist with the sort of control required for moral responsibility is presented in Nagel, “Moral Luck”.

  9. 9.

    See, for example, Wallace 1994: esp. 39–40, 64–6.

  10. 10.

    For a full description of the elements of “basic desert” accounts of moral responsibility see, e.g., Pereboom 2007, 2–3, 127–30; and also Pereboom, “Hard Incompatibilism”: 86–87

  11. 11.

    For a related discussion and defence of scepticism see Galen Strawson, “The Impossibility of Ultimate Moral Responsibility”.

  12. 12.

    Galen Strawson, “The Impossibility of Ultimate Moral Responsibility”.

  13. 13.

    Pereboom 2007, 131, 134,136, 171–4.

  14. 14.

    It is worth emphasizing that while critical compatibilists are sceptical about basic desert, it remains committed to a desert-based view of responsibility, where desert is still interpreted in terms of its neo-Strawsonian elements and affective and motivational propensities associated with that. For relevant discussions of various complexities and difficulties relating to responsibility and the concept of desert see McKenna 2012, Chap. 6; and also Shoemaker 2015, 220–25.

  15. 15.

    Although the “hard incompatibilist” might accept the luck claim (contrary to Dennett), accepting the pessimism claim cannot be squared with any unqualified or one-sided optimism. The hard incompatibilist might accept a truncated version of the pessimism claim, that allows that free and responsible agents (i.e. in non-basic desert terms) are subject to fate and luck but denies that this has any disturbing or troubling implications. Both these options, however, serve to show that hard incompatibilism and critical compatibilism diverge over significant issues. Moreover, to the extent that they converge, they articulate their respective positions in the very different terms. For a more extended discussion of these issues see Russell, “Moral Responsibility and Existential Attitudes”.

  16. 16.

    Russell 1995, Chap. 6: “The Content and Objects of Moral Sentiment”.

  17. 17.

    Russell 1995, 92.

  18. 18.

    Russell 1995, 115. See also “Hume’s Anatomy of Virtue”.

  19. 19.

    Russell 1995, 118; and see also my remarks about natural abilities at 126–7.

  20. 20.

    The point that I am concerned to make here is not that Smith’s stronger interpretation of what is involved in “answerability” is inconsistent with critical compatibilism – it is not – but only that it is not required for it.

  21. 21.

    See also Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment”, 21: “Indignation, disapprobation, like resentment, tend to inhibit or at least limit our goodwill towards the objects of these attitudes, ...”

  22. 22.

    Russell 1995, see especially Chap 10 [“Retributive Feeling and the Utility of Punishment”].

  23. 23.

    Strawson 1962, 22: “The making of this demand...”

  24. 24.

    Russell 1995, 144–50, where I provide a more extended discussion of this.

  25. 25.

    Russell 1995, 145.

  26. 26.

    Russell 1995, 140: “The moral sentiments, it is claimed, provide us with a framework within which it may be determined who deserves to be punished and who does not...” The suggestion being made here is that moral sentiments do not tell us when we should punish but only when we should not punish. Desert, on this view, is a matter of liability to punishment or sanction.

  27. 27.

    For related observations on this issue see Shoemaker 2015, 220–23.

  28. 28.

    Hart 1968, 4–6.

  29. 29.

    Hart 1968, 22–3, 46–9, 180–83. Hart comments on the relevance of understanding “legal threats” in terms of a “choosing system” and liberal politics. On this point, see also Williams 1993, 65–7.

  30. 30.

    For reasons already explained, various forms of “harsh treatment” or “sanction”, as associated with the expression of our reactive attitudes, are not unique or peculiar to our responses to voluntary conduct. An illuminating discussion of the difference between the harms involved in expressing our (negative) reactive attitudes and punishment, properly understood, is provided in McKenna 2012, esp. Chap.6 (esp. 141–6).

  31. 31.

    This claim is, however, consistent, with recognizing that the particular form these emotions take can vary greatly from one society or culture to another. The norms that structure and inform these emotional responses can also change and evolve within any particular society or culture over time – even though the basic emotions remain a constant of our human nature. Our reactive attitudes are a notable example of this.

  32. 32.

    I would agree with Bennett that some proponents of “moderate naturalism” appear to accept PRFOF. See, e.g., Smith 1759/1976, Part II; and Mackie, “Morality and the Retributive Emotions”, who argue that there is no justificatory gap between resentment and retributive action. Hume, however, rejects this view, as I explain in Freedom and Moral Sentiment, Chap. 10.

  33. 33.

    There are two especially important sources of this on Hume’s account: variations in our sympathies (from one person to another) and variations in how we may stand in relation to an object or situation (which can vary over time). One point that Hume is especially concerned to make in respect of these matters is that “so little are men govern’d by reason in their sentiments and opinions that they always judge more of objects by comparison than from their intrinsic worth and value” (Treatise, Hume is no less clear, however, that reason can correct and adjust for these biases and conflicts.

  34. 34.

    Hume 1739/2000, 3.3.1; and Enquiry of Morals, 5.41–3.

  35. 35.

    Consider also the importance that Hume attaches to reason in respect of “the standard of taste”, where reason and sentiment also operate together and influence each other (Essays, 226–49). It is worth noting, in this regard, that just as reason can influence emotion, so too emotion can influence reason (e.g. by making some considerations salient and significant in our reflections). I have argued that this two-way relationship is relevant to understanding the nature of moral competence and the conditions of moral responsibility [“Responsibility and the Condition of Moral Sense”; Limits, Essay #4].

  36. 36.

    Hume’s own views on this subject, as Bernard Williams points out, were more complex than his critics sometimes suggest. [Williams, “Internal and external reasons”, 102.]

  37. 37.

    Williams, “Internal and external reasons”, 105.

  38. 38.

    An illuminating discussion of “deep evaluation”, understood in terms of the “re-evaluation of our most basic evaluations”, is presented in Taylor, “Responsibility for Self”.

  39. 39.

    There are, obviously, other mental states that have content of some kind (beliefs, memories, etc.) but are, nevertheless, motivationally inert (i.e. do not satisfy any “internalist” requirement). In respect of practical reasons that serve to satisfy some pre-exiting desire, we have some sort of theory about how they differ from these other mental states and why they satisfy the internalist requirement. In the case of pure practical reasons we lack any such theory – and it is this that concerns the motivational sceptic.

  40. 40.

    This analogy is presented and discussed in Limits, 129–31.

  41. 41.

    A particularly influential Humean response to this claim, arguing that reasons can be causes, is provided by Donald Davidson in his Essays on Actions and Events.

  42. 42.

    This was a problem that Kant recognized but failed to solve in any convincing way (on this see my remarks in Limits, 129n9). Put in Kantian terms, the puzzle is how the causality of pure reason relates to the world of phenomena, which is governed by law-like regularities?

  43. 43.

    See, for example, Wallace 1994, 12–3,86,157,159-66,219–22. Wallace describes his view as a “broadly Kantian approach”. For another account, that relies on a similar distinction, see Fischer & Ravizza 1998, 41–6.

  44. 44.

    I am grateful to Ezio Di Nucci and Andras Szigeti for their helpful comments and suggestions on this paper.


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Russell, P. The Limits of Free Will: Replies to Bennett, Smith and Wallace. Ethic Theory Moral Prac (2021).

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