Saturday, November 27, 2010

Compatibilism is Nonsense: W.T. Stace's distinction between free acts and unfree acts is like picking between aspects of a Necker Cube

The compatibilist philosopher W.T. Stace defines free will as follows: "[Free acts] are all caused by desires, or motives, or by some sort of internal psychological states of the agent's mind. The unfree acts, on the other hand, are all caused by physical forces or physical conditions; outside the agent." Free will for Stace becomes a dualism of inward states and outward conditions.

Stace brings up one example of a borderline case (a case that could be free or unfree) as being a thug who threatens to shoot you unless you give him your wallet. In giving your wallet, did you act freely? You did if you apply the definition, Stace says, because your action was caused by your fear of death. However, Stace futher says that most people would say that you acted under compulsion because the gun "at your forehead [was] so nearly approximated to actual force that we tend to say the case was one of compulsion. It is a borderline case." After this example, Stace strangely drops his examination of borderline cases altogether.

It is not that there are boarderline cases that is or would be a problem for Stace's definition. The problem is when every supposed paradigm case, such as going hungry in the desert or signing a waiver by police force, is taken to be a paradigm case (of being unfree in the examples I just gave) because it is not examined with the same scrutiny Stace uses for his one example of a boardeline case. Because an action has been shown to be compatibilist free does not mean that it has been shown not to be compatibilist unfree. I take that same scrutiny Stace uses in the borderline case to show that there are no paradigm cases to be found, only borderline cases.

If I am at Carl's Jr. and I have only fifty cents, I can only get one cookie, and not a hamburger I want. I get the cookie. For Stace's definition, this is clearly an action caused by outward conditions. A free action must be caused by inward states. I am at Carl's Jr. I am hungry. I have only fifty cents. Something bigger and meater would be better, like that hamburger, but I will get the cookie and see if that satisfies some of the hunger. I could keep my fifty cents, but I'm hungry. I get the cookie. For Stace's definition, this is clearly an action caused by inward states. And so, which apect, the inner or the outer, caused this action? Stace might argue that this is another borderline case. Yet, which action could be said to be apart from both inward states and outward conditions, where one and the other could not be made an explicit part of that action like aspects of a necker cube?

Perhaps Stace had in mind another concept for what makes an action free or unfree that is not contained in the definition that he provided. Perhaps the distinction shouldn't be the inward vs. outward, but my desires vs. my undesires.

In this case, I do not desire to type up this paper. However, I desire a good grade. Why do I desire a good grade, isn't it just a letter and a number? On second thought, I don't desire a good grade per se, but recognition, and this grade might help me get that. Not likely, a lot of people get good grades, what's so recognizable about that? That's true, getting a good grade is not that recognizable, and could even make one miss out on other life-enriching.Yet, I see that I don't desire a good grade so much as I despise a bad grade. And so, I don't desire a bad grade and I don't desire typing this paper at the same time that I desire typing this paper and I desire getting a good grade. I don't mean to appear as if I'm merely playing a language game here; However, it should be clear that any action now has aspects of both desires and undesires. I desire to type this paper because I desire a good grade, I desire to learn, I desire to get work done, etc. At the same time, I don't desire to type this paper because it is difficult, it is late, I am tired, etc. A distinction between desires and undeasires is crucial for my alternate conception of Stace's definition here because acts done when the person does not desire them are unfree and ones done when the person wants to do them are free. A person starving in the desert does not desire to go without food and is therefore acting unfreely. A robber with plenty of food goes to rob a bank because he doesn't desire living a less-than-luxurious lifestyle, and is therefore acting unfreely. Stace says that determinists still a have moral responsibility to put robbers in prison because Stace does not desire being robbed, and is therefore acting unfreely. If every action can be seen as a product of both a desire with an accompanying undesire then Stace's distinction about free an unfree acts is meaningless, as both are an aspect of every action like aspects of a necker cube.

Let's look at one more distinction between free and unfree acts that Stace might have meant when he made his definition. An action is free when it is caused by an agents beliefs and desires and an action is unfree when it is caused by another's beliefs and desires.

Let's examine a robbery. A cashier is held at gunpoint and told to hand over the money in his register. For the cashier's part, nothing about his desires or beliefs caused the gun to be pointed at him. The gun is there due to desires outside of the cashier, namely those of the robber. The cashier desires that he live. The cashier opens his register and hands over the money.

The way that you tell that the cashier is not acting on his own desires is that, without the robber and his desires that point his gun at the cashier, the action of the cashier handing over the money would never have occured. The action of the cashier is unfree. The action of the cashier would have been different if it were not for the robber's desires. However, at the same time, the The way that you tell that the cashier is acting on his own desires is that, without desiring to live (such as if the cashier were suicidal), the action of the cashier handing over the money would never have occured. The action of the cashier is free. The action of the cashier would have been different if it were not for the cashier's desires.

An example need not be so drastic as this. The cashier had desired a job and so had applied to become a cashier, and so his action to do so would have been different had he desired instead to remain unemployed. However, his action to apply for this job also would have been different were it not for the desires of the founder of the business to open up shop. And so, was the cashier's action to apply at this particular job free or unfree? This distinction suffers the same problems as the other two, namely that both aspects are a part of every action like aspects of a necker cube. The problem with this last distinction, in particular, becomes clear when we take another's desire over an agent as causing an action as being something apart from what that agent also desires, namely to follow (or even not to follow) what the other person desires.

One further example may show glimpses of the problem with distinguishing betwen free and unfree acts. Let's look at the robber again with any of the previously mentioned distinctions that one cares to use. The robber desires more money and so robs the cashier. Clearly, this is a free act, as the robber's actions are caused by his motivations for more money. However, the robber is compelled to use a gun because of the cashier's desire to keep his job and not just freely give money to strangers. Clearly, had it not been for the cashier's desire to keep his job, the robber would not have acted with a gun. The robber's action is unfree. This may sound morally reprehensible, but that is not the subject of this argument. What's so strange is that Stace mentions as his borderline case such a robbery, then admits that it is one example of a borderline case, that the definition is still sound for most other actions, and then drops the subject altogether, not caring to take an ordinary example or another of his previous examples in oder to see if they would hold up to such distinction.

Every action has both aspects of inward states, or desires, coupled with outward conditions, undesires, or another's inward states. Therefore, every action is both free and unfree, and Stace's distinction is meaningless.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very funny but also very logical post because it shows the problem of defining acts as free or unfree. Nobody can really make this distinction without it sounding really strange.