Why does it matter whether we have free will? Common sense and tradition say that it matters because free will is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of having the kinds of choices that we care about.
We value free will because we value being in a position where we have a chance to make a difference -- a difference to our own lives, a difference to the lives of those we care about, and to the world more generally. Insofar as we are reflective creatures, we value our ability to choose and act on the basis of reasons and reasoning because we want our choices and actions to make a difference, for better rather than worse, to our own lives and the lives of others. Since 'better' need not mean 'morally better', our interest in free will is not limited to our interest in moral responsibility. But insofar as we are moral creatures, we care about free will because we care about being in a position to make choices that make a moral difference - choices between good and evil, between doing our duty and doing what's in our own best interest, and the more complicated choices we make in cases where our prima facie duties are in conflict. In making these kinds of choices, we also assume -- at least typically -- that we are morally responsible agents, accountable to others for our actions, and praiseworthy or blameworthy for our choices. And we assume that we would not be morally responsible agents if we did not have free will. That is, we assume that free will is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of being morally responsible for our choices and actions.
There are differences, corresponding to differences in temperament and outlook in life, in how we think about the relationship between choice, and the kind of control that accompanies choice, and moral responsibility. Some people are more comfortable than others with the existence of what has come to be known as "moral luck", that is, with the idea that the extent to which we succeed in leading a morally admirable life is, to a significant degree, not in our control. On one extreme is the idea that there are moral dilemmas; that is, that it is possible to find yourself in circumstances in which, due to no present or earlier fault of yours, you are unable to avoid doing something wrong. (You have a choice, and you are able to do otherwise, but no matter what you choose, you will do something morally wrong.) At the other extreme is the Kantian idea that, regardless of the degree to which we are otherwise at the mercy of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" we are not at the mercy of luck so far as our moral virtue is concerned. (We are always able to avoid being blameworthy, and it is in our control how blameworthy or praiseworthy we are, not just for the particular choices we make and the actions we perform, but also with respect to our lifetime moral record.)
But setting aside these differences, common sense and tradition sees the link between moral responsibility, free will, choice, and ability to do otherwise in something like the following way: We are morally responsible only if we have free will, and we have free will only if we are choice-makers who are at least sometimes in circumstances in which we really have a choice about what to do, and we really have a choice about what to do only if we are able to do otherwise. Being able to do otherwise isn't sufficient for responsibility - young children are sometimes able to do otherwise but are not (yet) morally responsible for anything - but it is necessary and this explains why we believe that only human beings and not, for instance, rocks, earthworms, or machines, are morally responsible.
If something like this is even roughly right, then common sense and tradition endorse the following claim:
At Least Some Alternatives: A person is morally responsible only if she is at least sometimes able to do otherwise.
This claim is equivalent to:
Never Any Alternatives: If a person is never able to do otherwise, she is never morally responsible.
Never Any Alternatives entails:
Moral Premise: If no one is ever able to do otherwise, then no one is ever morally responsible.
But now we have a problem. If we accept the Moral Premise, there is a simple deductively valid argument for the conclusion that if determinism is true, we are never morally responsible.
- If determinism is true, then no one is ever able to do otherwise.
- If no one is ever able to do otherwise, then no one is ever morally responsible.
- Therefore if determinism is true, then no one is ever morally responsible.
Call this the No Alternatives argument.
The second premise of this argument is the Moral Premise. If common sense and tradition endorse the Moral Premise, as they appear to, then we must either accept the unattractive conclusion that determinism rules out moral responsibility or reject the intuitively plausible first premise - the Metaphysical Premise, as I call it.
My view is that we should reject the first premise -- the Metaphysical Premise. The intuitions that make it appear so compelling are not trustworthy and should be rejected. I believe that our commonsense view of ourselves as agents with free will, who make choices and who are at least sometimes able to choose and to act otherwise, is compatible with determinism.
But most contemporary defenders of compatibilism (about moral responsibility) do not agree with me. They either accept, or do not contest, the Metaphysical Premise. Instead, they reject the Moral Premise and argue that, if we take a close and careful look, we will see that it doesn't really conflict with common sense after all (or, if it does conflict, that the conflict is something we can live with, or learn to live with).
But this isn't easy to do, because the Moral Premise, like other parts of commonsense, is vague and leaves many things open. The Moral Premise says that if no one is ever able to do otherwise, then no one is ever morally responsible for anything. This is neutral with respect to the relata of moral responsibility; it's neutral with respect to accounts of responsibility which say that we are responsible only for our acts of will, choices, or intentions, accounts which say that we are responsible only or also for our 'overt' actions (the things we do by moving our bodies), accounts which say that we are only or also responsible for the outcomes of our actions, states of character, beliefs, emotions, and so on. The Moral Premise also leaves open the time during which it must be true that we were able to do otherwise. It doesn't say that we are morally responsible for our actions only if we had, at the time we acted (or shortly before we acted) the ability to do something else instead. Perhaps, as some people believe, our values or characters impose limits on the actions we are able to perform. The truth of the Moral Premise doesn't rule out our responsibility for those actions provided that our values and character were caused, in the appropriate way, by earlier choices that we made in circumstances in which we were able to do otherwise.
Someone who wants to defend the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism by rejecting the Moral Premise must argue that we may be morally responsible even if we never, at any point in our lives, have any kind of choice about anything, even if we are never able to do otherwise, even if we never have any alternatives.
There are different ways of rejecting the Moral Premise. The most common way is by defending an account of moral responsibility (or of our practice of holding each other responsible) in which a person's inability to do otherwise doesn't function either as an excuse or an exemption.
There is a different, bolder way of denying the Moral Premise -- Frankfurt's famous argument against a claim he called 'the Principle of Alternate Possibilities' (PAP): A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. Frankfurt told a story that, he claimed, shows that PAP is false without appealing either to an account of moral responsibility or an account or analysis of "could have done otherwise". In the next few blog posts, I will ague that Frankfurt's argument against PAP (and thus also the Moral Premise of the No Alternatives argument) fails, so he does not succeed in undermining the traditional debate. I will also argue that even if you disagree with me about this, you should agree that Frankfurt's argument is a bad strategy for defending the claim that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. I will conclude by arguing that there are valuable lessons to be learned from the failure of the Frankfurt strategy, and that the insights gained provide the starting point for a better way of defending compatibilism, about free will as well as about moral responsibility.