book recommendation: Charles Taylor’s “Sources of the Self”

Here’s a review I offered up for J.P.Holding to use. Thought I’d post it here as well.


Thanks to the work of the Context Group (and for myself, to JPH for making their ideas accessible), we have been confronted with the fact that our Western experience of self-hood is not a given of human nature. Even the term ‘self-hood’ is one which should be used with qualification when applied to other cultures to avoid anachronism and ethnocentrism. This revelation (or retrieval) opens up a field of questions. How can human beings express and genuinely experience such radical differences in their sense of agency? What are the benefits or costs, psychologically, socially, or ethically, in these different modes of being? Is there an expression of self-hood which is really the true one? These questions also fuel those of more direct apologetic significance; is there a Biblically prescribed view of identity? If there is, is it accessible to us or have we gone beyond the possibility of taking it up?

This tome by Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, explores what makes a self, and particularly, what has made the modern self. It is a book of both history and philosophy, or perhaps it should be described as history read through a certain philosophically attuned lens. It is a philosophical anthropology, perhaps. This theoretical bent might suggest a certain flimsiness in the account and certainly Taylor’s reading of modernity’s roots is contestable, but it’s nonetheless cogent enough (down right persuasive I’d say) that no-one who touts a simplistic view of our cultural situation can justifiably do so while this narrative stands.

The first one hundred pages are dedicated to explicating the philosophical insights which serve as Taylor’s hermeneutic key to his historical interest. Within it he confronts the error of thinking that humans beings have “selves the way we have hearts and livers, as an interpretation-free given,” and the motives in contemporary thought that sustain it. Self-hood, Taylor argues, is fundamentally linked with notions of the Good, which modern moral philosophy, with its emphasis on merely defining the content of obligation, blinds us to. Indeed he argues that one cannot even be a self without having some orientation to a perceived Good; to lack a strong evaluative basis is to not know where one stands, to not know where one is coming from, to be lost – it is what constitutes an “identity crisis.” And indeed, as different ideas of the Good come into vogue so do different ideas of what human agents are (and vice versa); to see individual freedom as the Good is to see human beings as monads, to see rational self-control as the Good is to see human beings as agents concerned with maximising utility. In a myriad of ways Taylor spells out a link between identity and the Good.

With this legwork done he sifts through the writings of significant voices throughout Western history in a staggering display of learning, highlighting the Goods that captivated them and moulded new visions of human agency. From Descartes’ love of instrumental rationality construing a subject radically disengaged, to the Romantics’ notion of nature’s voice within, stirring our sentiments and fuelling our sense of inner depths, Taylor chronicles the fateful moves that have lead to where we are today. He is aware, of course, that too much is missed out for his account to be one of sufficient historical causation. Much of the sociological factors that would feature in a fuller story is omitted; his project centres on the articulators, the voices that sensed change in its infancy and gave it voice, which in turn empowered and propelled it.

Any decent account of origins will bring clarity to the thing explained and Taylor’s work certainly helps to bring modernity into focus, shedding light on its motives and struggles. The book should no doubt be sought for a deeper understanding of our times and of the issues that underlay the questions posed above. It will absolutely not, however, accommodate a quick and easy apologetic for the Bible, though Taylor is a committed Catholic himself (a fact I didn’t know approaching the book, and which is gently confessed but not made much of throughout it). The only views that this work swiftly rebuts are simplistic ones; he aligns himself neither with whole-hearted repudiations of modernity and its individualism, nor equally strong affirmations. Modernity is neither unambiguously good or bad, and there may be certain Goods that can’t be recovered without forfeiting those we already value. We exist in a field of dilemmas and tensions. It is material for the thoughtful reader to reflect on and build on; there are no easy answers here.

More straight-forwardly, it does provide powerful resources for challenging those skeptics (and Christians too) who are incredulous over the very idea of such disparity between ancients and moderns. Taylor’s narrative, by showing the progressive change, necessarily makes the gap more traversable. Additionally, by providing an analysis of the transcendental conditions of self-hood, he shows the human nature that unites us with the ancients, combating our instinct to recoil at how alien their world sounds. On a more basic point, the sympathy with which Taylor writes will help carry those open but overly cautious of the idea through its counter-intuitive barriers and on to the other side.

The book probably takes some background in philosophy to appreciate, though general readers should be encouraged that it is neither as technical as analytic philosophy, nor as impenetrable as continental philosophy. The space between conceptual clarity and beauty of prose is sought and exploited – Taylor is an excellent writer. My only reservations are that, by the end, it feels a little too drawn out. It’s also not entirely clear whether Taylor’s moral realism really is moral realism, and one also gets the sense that he is unjustifiably dismissive of natural theology. But those are asides, the main thrust of the work is not burdened by these minor gripes. Anyone concerned with seriously thinking through modernity and individualism owe this work a study.


how narratives ground human value

Most of us agree that human life has intrinsic value. But how are we to explain this fact? What is it about human beings that grant them greater worth than slugs, or rocks? And if this fact can be given a true explanation, would that explanation be able to fit with just any worldview?

Some people believe that naturalism has a hard time accounting for the intrinsic worth of human beings – that it lacks some important metaphysical resource for getting the job done. Indeed given that the ‘decline of religion’ is often cited as the cause of a widespread existential uncertainty in regards to one’s own value and purpose, it might be safe to say that this view of a dischord between naturalism and human value is intuitively felt on some level by many. But what is the lack in naturalism supposed to be?

Consider the following from William Lane Craig;

“If theism is false, why think that human beings have objective moral value? After all, on the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time (Reasonable Faith, third edition, page 173).”

I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I also think that naturalism cannot adequately account for the value of human beings, and that Craig has given the correct explanation as to why. That said, I’ve very sympathetic to the naturalist who is unconvinced that her worldview harbours such an unattractive failing. After all, Craig’s explanation is hardly a sustained and carefully laid out argument. There’s no clearly structured argument demonstrating this poverty within naturalism. Craig’s comments will ring true with those who share his intuitions on the matter, but he hasn’t given much to persuade anyone else. If we can more carefully explore the issue it will be good to do so.

As it happens I think that given the standard philosophical methodology, anyone who wants to subject claims like Craig’s above to caferul critical scrunity will find that it’s very hard to pin-point where the alleged problem with naturalism is supposed to be. Or at least, it’s hard to pin-point why the problem is uniquely a problem for the naturalist. This is something I myself found; although I had a strong intuition that there was a problem, when I set about analysing what it was, I struggled to make sense of it. Now, however, I think I understand why it seems so hard to explain the problem with naturalism. It’s because we have been trained to approach the problem ontologically.

What advantage is Christianity supposed to have over naturalism? Our instinctive response is to compare the different accounts of what human beings are in terms of their composing substance on these two worldviews. Traditionally Christian theists have viewed human persons as embodied souls, whereas on naturalism humans are purely physical entities, or at least emergent on physical entities. Is this supposed to be where the significant difference lay? Certainly it would be easy to read that kind of thinking into the sorts of things Christians might say on the matter. After all it’s common to hear people say that the problem with naturalism is that humans “are just a bunch of chemicals.” But I think that would be the wrong way to read those sentiments.

It’s incredibly hard to make sense of human worth as a matter of what sort of stuff humans are made of. How exactly is it supposed to make a difference in terms of worth whether human persons are immaterial beings or material beings? Would a jellotine being be of more value than a being made of rock? There doesn’t seem to be any sensible way of judging things in this manner. Of course, some might argue that unless human beings are immaterial souls, then we could not possess rationality or freedom of the will. But that would be to argue that human worth is down to human capacities, and not really the substance of our existence after all.

To view the issue in terms of capacities is another tempting move, one that again thinks fundamentally in terms of the features of what humans are, or have, as features of their being. But this too is problematic. If we think that human worth boils down to our rationality, then how do we avoid saying that the worth of a person is determined by their IQ, or something equivalent? Humans are not equal in terms of their mental ability, but they are surely equal in terms of worth. Additionally, why would rationality of all things give humans worth? The brain is surely impressive, but why favour that organ over any other? On what grounds? Freedom of the will is just as inexplicable as a foundation of worth. How does the proposition “humans have freedom of the will” entail “humans have instrinsic moral worth”? That logical jump there is inexplicable. Moreover the intuitive sense of the problem with naturalism doesn’t seem to focus on these aspects. No doubt there are many folk who think that naturalism also struggles to explain human rationality and free will, but these are surely distinct topics from the question of value. Certainly I don’t think these factors feature in my intuition on the matter.

So then, what is the answer?


The advantage Christianity has over naturalism is that Christianity provides a narrative which gives human beings an important role. On Christian theism the world is created and given to humans to rule over, the creator takes a special interest in their affairs and even steps into their history to rescue them from their sin. On Christian theism creation is to a certain extent about human beings. The significance of being made in the image of God for human value is not in its signifying that humans have particular capacities, or are made from certain materials, but that humans have an important role in the great cosmic drama that God has penned. Caparably, on naturalism humans have no such special role. The universe isn’t about human beings in any sense. If anything, humans are a sort of after-thought of an unintentional process. Go back and read’s Craig’s quote again in these terms and see if it doesn’t make more sense.

This, then, is the first problem of human value for naturalists: naturalism cannot provide a plausible narrative which gives human beings any prominence. This I think correctly drives the intuition that naturalism is at odds with human value.

But there is also a second problem for the naturalist. Obviously, the fact that we can tell a narrative about human beings does not entail that such a narrative is true. And the second problem for the naturalist is that no naturalistic cosmic-narrative could ever be true, simply because on naturalism there is no cosmic story-teller. Sure, it’s possible that naturalism as a mere metaphysical doctrie could be true: it could be true that there are no supernatural beings or anything of the like. But it’s impossible for a naturalistic narrative of the universe to be true. Stories are about things, but a naturalistic universe cannot be about anything because there is no intentional narrator behind it.

Naturalism, then, doubly fails to account for human value. Human value requires a true cosmic narrative that is to a great degree about human beings, but naturalism cannot have any true cosmic narratives, and even the false ones we could make fail to give human beings any prominence.

one role of valuing in reasoning

Recently I have become very interested in “the objectivity thesis.” Although there are likely a lot of ways this thesis can be construed, the basic idea is that rational enquiry ideally requires maximal objectivity, or neutrality. According to this view, we should suspend our emotions and the particular values associated with our ideological position, in order to take a sort of God’s eye view on a matter. The Christian, then, ought to examine, say, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, without any particular emotional disposition involved in that assessment. One should calmly follow the evidence where it leads and then form emotions or values in response to the best supported position after that process.

I confess, I’ve come to be a little suspicious of this absolute rejection of the role of emotion and value in reasoning. My suspicions are fuelled by a few factors. One, I’m convinced by Charles Taylor’s argument in his incredible book Sources of the Self that this view is one perculiar to modernity. He identifies this move to the ‘disengaged subject’ as one on the path away from the collectivism of pre-modernity, to the individualism of modernity. Of course, the cultural uniqueness of the objectivity thesis isn’t an argument that it’s wrong, but it ought to make us realise that it might not be necessarily true – it hasn’t been obviously the right way to other cultures, and perhaps there are alternate positions to take. Additionally, I unashamedly take into account the teachings of the Christian faith, which seem to indicate that one’s attitudinal disposition toward God has a drastic effect on one cognitive assessment of Christianity. Paul teaches in Romans that sinful desires suppress or draw attention away from, the evidence of God’s existence. But it isn’t just that negative attitudes prevent arriving at the truth, rather, positively, one needs the correct attitudinal dispositions. Indifference doesn’t draw one to God, rather a heartfelt yearning for God does. Additionally, I am not afraid to say that I find such absolute neutrality practically impossible. I am emotionally involved in my view of the world. I think I am an honest thinker, but I know I’m not a neutral one. I’m also sure that I’m not alone in this, and I wonder whether, rather than being just a let-down of human nature, there might be legitimate need for this sort of “bias” in reasoning.

So those are some of the reasons why I’m not totally sold on the objectivity thesis. But that said, I recognise that an alternative which just opened the door to an emotional merry-go-round would not be satisfying either. I think a position with more nuance than cold objectivity, or raw emotionalism needs to be sought. I don’t have such an account yet, but I do have some ideas as to why values and desires are an integral part of rationality. Today I’d like to share one:

Why is it that I spend so much time reading and thinking about religion and philosophy, and not so much time doing the same for Albanian Politics, or Jurassic plant life, or ancient Egyptian farming? Because I enjoy religion & philosophy and not so much those things? Well yes, I do, but is that a full answer? I think, plausibly, the answer (or a large part of it) is that I think religion and philosophy are more important topics than those. I don’t think it’s the only important topic, (Albanian politics certainly isn’t a matter of indifference to those directly effected by it), but I do think that philosophy and religion are more ultimately important. Of course, someone else might not agree with me. Someone else might think that questions about the existence of God, and what morals are, and what human beings are, are pretty trivial and uninteresting. Instead such a person might think that what really matters is, say, what mating habits flatworms have. Perhaps this persons reads endless journals on flatworms and partakes in flatworm forums and discussion boards. Clearly this person would have invested far more effort into learning about flatworms than myself.

Should I have done the same level of thinking about flatworms? Should I be investing more time in researching them? Is my opinion on flatworms unjustifiably ill-informed? Have I forsaken my intellectual duty in not giving this topic more attention? But that isn’t the only question we could ask. It isn’t just flatworms I haven’t thought very deeply about. There’s A TON of topics I just haven’t got much clue about. Should I think more deeply about the properties of glue? Should I take more of a keen interest in submarine engineering? Ought I be more involved in computing developments from the 70s-80s?

It seems to me that without reference to some sort of value system, my preference for philosophy and religion would be purely arbitrary. If every matter is of equal importance (or if every matter is equally without worth), then no topic deserves more attention than any other. But I don’t have infinite cognitive resources! I can’t treat every single subject with the same level of care and depth. I simply must prioritise, otherwise I couldn’t make any sense out of my intellectual life. Imagine what it would be like if we truly couldn’t let our values interact with our intellect…

You pass a newspaper on the floor. “Ah I’m in a rush, it’s contents are unimportant! Oh wait, hang on, I can’t rank things like that. I need to treat this newspaper with the same level of intrigue I ought to treat everything else. No impartiality! And I’m a deep thinker so I ought to study it carefully.” You read through it and inside hundreds of truth claims are made, ranging from claims about local history, to claims about politics. “Ah, politics! I don’t know much about politics but it’s really interesting. This guy is claiming that conservative ideals are the best for running a country. I might have to get some books on these topics and look into all the different views! Ah… right, yeah I forgot, I can’t prioritise politics. Guess I need to equally research the history of that bridge behind the post office. And the police reports from the stabbing in ’79. And then after lunch, every other truth claim made. And then tomorrow, I need to look into all the claims today’s research will have brought up! Better call the boss and tell him I’m quitting.”

How absurd! Unless you have some values already in place, you cannot sensibly discern where to focus your cognitive gaze. Moreover, you cannot first be value-less and neutral in a rational quest to find the right values, because that quest would itself be similarly unmanageable. This mean, then, that we have to approach our intellectual life with some values in place already. It would be horrible if we didn’t! Values thus have a crucially important role to play in reasoning. We cannot come from a completely neutral position.

argument against materialism from moral accountability (revised)

Imagine that ‘Sally’ (S) robs a bank (call this event R) in 1975 (t1) and is caught. However, due to various complications with the prosecution, she is not put on trial until 2011 (t2). During this time, via natural processes, various atoms that compose her body have been replaced with other ones. Now for the argument.

Let’s say that x “strictly survives” some occurrence if x exists before that occurrence and x exists after that occurrence.

1. A person can be morally accountable for an event iff they are numerically identical to an object that causally contributed to that event.
2. S at t1 is the only object that causally contributed to R which S at t2 could be numerically identical to.
3. From (1) and (2), S can be morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2, iff S at t2 is numerically identical to S at t1.
4. If S is a material object, S lost some composing parts between t1 and t2.
5. From (3) and (4), if S is a material object, S can be morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2, iff S strictly survives the loss of some of her parts.
6. S can be morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2.
7. From (5) and (6), either S is an immaterial object, or S is a material object that strictly survives the loss of some of her parts.

8. Material objects cannot strictly survive the loss of any of their parts.
9. From (7) and (8), S is an immaterial object.

Premise 8 is the most contentious one, and below is an argument to support it. The argument does not originate with me, a friend posted it on a theologyweb thread (and apparently it is well-known in the literature anyway).

“Consider your body. Name it “Body”. Consider the part of Body that consists of all of Body except your left pinky. Call that part “Body-minus”. At time t0, let’s say, Body is intact; it includes your left pinky as a part. Suppose that at t1, however, your left pinky is annihilated. Call the pinkyless, human-body-shaped, material object that remains in your vicinity after this unfortunate event “Deformed”. Note that the following argument appears to be sound:

(1) At t1, Body-minus still exists (because nothing happened to Body-minus except that something external to it was detached from it).
(2) At t1, if Body still exists, Body is identical to Deformed [What else could Body be at that time?].
(3) At t1, if Body-minus still exists, Body-minus is identical to Deformed [What else could Body-minus be then?].
(4) At t1, Body-minus is identical to Deformed [This follows from 1 and 3].
(5) At t1, if Body still exists, Body is identical to Body-minus [This follows from 2, 4 and the fact that identity is an equivalence relation].
(6) At t1, it is not the case that Body is identical to Body-minus [Note, for example, that at t1 if Body and Body-minus both exist, they have different historical properties – Body-minus used to be a proper part of Body, for example, but Body was never a proper part of Body].
(7) Therefore, at t1 it is not the case that Body still exists [5,6].”

A parallel argument could be given with respect to any material body that is said to have survived the loss of a part, so it seems that premise 8 in the first argument is true.

Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God

For a while now I’ve been dissatisfied with William Lane Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God. Or more to the point, (seeing as I suspect that the argument is actually sound), I’m dissatisfied with how he normally defends the argument. I want to use this space to explain what I see as his method’s shortcomings. However, a caveat I give is that I’ll be critiquing Craig’s defence as I’ve come across it in his debates and online material. Craig is no fool and charity requires acknowledging the possibility that he does things differently in his scholarly published works, or that I’ve simply misunderstood the argument. At any rate, for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

The form of the argument he typically gives is this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

The first premise is the one I want to concentrate on. As a material conditional, it is false if and only if the antecedent is true and the consequent is false. That is, the premise is false if God does not exist and moral values and duties do exist.

Presumably there are a number of atheists who think that is precisely how things are. They think that atheism is true and that this fact does not affect the existence of moral duties and values whatsoever. Not every atheist is a “subjectivist” about moral values and duties. So how does Craig aim to convince these atheists, or other folk who think this atheist position is not absurd?

From what I’ve seen, Craig defends the first premise by examining various naturalistic accounts of ethics (naturalistic as in non-supernatural, not naturalistic in the more technical sense used in metaethics) showing that they fail to account for, or “ground”, objective moral values and duties. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Craig’s critiques of these accounts are on the money. We’ll ignore any problems we might have with his criticisms or any quibbles we might have with his understanding of “objective” etc. If we’ve successfully put such worries aside then, we’ll be willing to explore the thought that, as Craig claims, there are no plausible naturalistic accounts of how it is that objective moral values and duties can exist.

The question that springs to my mind at this moment is “so what?” Perhaps there is no successful naturalistic account of these important ethical features to hand. Are we to think that a plausible naturalistic account could never be formulated? What stops the atheist from saying, “that’s right I don’t have a plausible naturalistic metaethical account, but I know intuitively that there are objective moral values and duties. I don’t need to explain how something is so to know that it is so. Perhaps we will know how it all fits together in the future.” As far as I can tell an atheist would be perfectly within their rights to say that. Showing that there is no adequate naturalistic account of values and duties available is not the same as showing that objective values and duties can’t exist given naturalism.

As such it seems to me that Craig either needs to do more to defend the first premise, or argue for a weaker conclusion, such as “theism is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.” To adequately defend the first premise he needs to, by my understanding, give an analysis of the necessary conditions for the existence of objective moral values and duties, and demonstrate that, necessarily, atheism cannot meet those conditions.

argument against materialism from moral accountability

[Rough sketch]

Imagine that Sally (S) robs a bank (call this event R) in 1975 (t1) and is caught. However, due to various complications with the prosecution, she is not put on trial until 2011 (t2). During this time, via natural processes the atoms that compose her body have been completely replaced with other ones. Now for the argument.

1. S is morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2.
2. Substances are the only things that can cause events.
3. Only the thing that caused an event can be morally accountable for that event.
4. If materialism is true then S at t1 is not an identical substance to S at t2.
5. From (2), (3) and (4), if materialism is true then Sally is not morally accountable for R at t2.
6. From (1) and (5), materialism is false.

the free will debate – a broad outline of positions

I recently did some research on free will and so thought I’d outline the (very) broad, basic positions held in the debate. I will make little comment on the strengths and criticisms of each view in this post.

Much of the fuss over free will is because of the concept’s importance for our traditional understanding of our own influence in the universe, and, more commonly focussed upon, its apparent undergirding of our belief that people can (and should) be held morally accountable for their actions. It seems arbitrary to hold people morally accountable for the events they cause, and not dogs, or hurricanes, if people aren’t free, or responsible, in a more robust sense than those other things.

Although free will is an important concept, there are challenges to believing in its reality. One such challenge comes from understanding how free will relates to determinism.

Determinism is the belief that all events are casually determined by antecedent conditions, typically, prior events (which were themselves caused). If determinism is true it seems hard, at least on first glance, to see how agents could be self-determining, or free, or responsible in any robust sense. Therein lies the challenge for free will from determinism.

Although the above understanding of determinism implies an infinite regress, this is not usually considered an important observation in the free will debate. One could conceive of a deterministic reality as causally infinite, but one could also conceive of a deterministic universe that comes to exist non-deterministically (the rationality of believing such a view is not at issue here). What matters is the assertion that things are deterministic at least local to human affairs.

Note that determinism is not exclusively (or, arguably, even necessarily) tied to materialism. One could believe that there are more than physical entities, and still believe in determinism. Indeed, one of the reasons why the problem of determinism looms over the free will debate is because determinism seems like the consequence of taking metaphysical intuitions about causality seriously. Surely, we think, the laws of causality apply, no matter what kind of substances are involved.

It is tempting to think that the micro-world of quantum mechanics, with its inherent uncertainties, might shatter the scientific plausibility of determinism, but things aren’t that simple. First, quantum physics is still open to interpretation, and one might think that the uncertainties involved are purely epistemic, not actual. Secondly, even granting that there is real uncertainty at the quantum level, it is questionable how much difference that makes at the macro level, let alone whether the difference can account for any robust exercise of free will. Besides the uncertainties are within certain ranges – they are not completely boundless. As such, quantum events still happen “mechanistically”, even if not with absolute precision.

So is determinism the massive problem for free will that it seems to be?

Naturally there are those that think it is. This view is called incompatibilism. Proponents of this view believe that there are necessary conditions for the existence of free will which cannot obtain on determinism. The proposed conditions typically centre on the principles of alternative possibility and ultimate responsibility.

The principle of ultimate responsibility is the view that for an agent to be responsible for an action, that action must have had its ultimate causal origin in the agent.

The principle of alternative possibility (often shortened to PAP) is the view that for an agent do be responsible for an action, an agent must have been able to do otherwise than what she did.

PAP is the condition most focussed upon in the literature, but not all incompatibilists think it is the most important condition, or even a necessary condition, of free will. While an incompatibilist thinks that there is at least one condition that is incompatible with determinism, he/she might think others are compatible with determinism, or think that other proposed conditions are not actually truly necessary conditions for free will at all.

Note also that an incompatibilist need not think that free will actually exists. An incompatibilist qua incompatibilist is committed to the claim that free will is incompatible with determinism, not to the truth or falsehood of determinism itself. As such an incompatibilist can be a determinist, thinking that free will does not exist. This position is called hard determinism.

Another approach to the relation between determinism and free will is the belief that the two are in harmony. This position is called compatibilism. Proponents of this view argue (obviously) that free will is compatible with determinism, or at least, that the kind of free will that is compatible with determinism is robust enough to allow for the moral responsibility of agents, or anything else that we generally consider valuable about free will.

Compatibilists might deny that PAP and other such principles are truly necessary conditions for a robust notion of free will, or might argue that the intuitions driving these principles are still satisfied even given determinism. Accounts of how this is so differ among compatibilists, but often (at least in regard to PAP), centre around counterfactual considerations.

As with incompatibilism, compatibilism itself is neutral as regards to whether determinism is true or not. One could be a compatibilist and think that determinism is false, or be agnostic toward it. As it happens, most compatibilists think that determinism is true, and thus hold the position of soft determinism.

If one thinks that determinism is false and is an incompatibilist, one probably thinks that agents possess libertarian free will (LFW for short). LFW can be understood as any conception of free will that is not compatible with determinism. There are generally two strands: event-causal libertarianism and agent-causal libertarianism.

Event-causal libertarians believe that agents are free when events pertaining to the actions and relevant mental states of the agent, occur indeterministically. Agent-causal libertarians believe that agents are free when they cause their actions and relevant mental states fundamentally as a substance. They propose that agent-causation is a different type of causation to event-causation. That is, agents qua agents possess some property or power to directly cause events in a controlled manner, and this property is defended as being more than just the explanatorily useless property of having ‘whatever it takes to satisfy free will’. If this is hard to grasp it is because this position (at least as typically offered) is hard to outline, and has been subject to the criticism of metaphysical obscurity and conceptual emptiness – that it is unintelligible.

In addition to these views, another is that free will is incompatible with indeterminism (or more clumsily, incompatible with incompatibilism). Indeed, the compatibility of free will with indeterminism is just as much an issue as the compatibility of free will and determinism. Such ‘double incompatibilists’ think that if indeterminism is true then an agent’s actions boil down to luck, and as such, are not within the agent’s free control. Or, a proponent of this view might argue in some other way that LFW is logically incoherent. Peter Van Inwagen, a prominent defender of LFW agrees that it is just as hard to see how LFW fits with indeterminism as determinism, and that proponents of LFW have a hard time (as an understatement) making a positive case for LFW, rather than merely arguing for the insufficiency of soft and hard determinism.

And there you have it, a very broad outline, with much subtlety missed. To show my hand, I am (currently) an agent-causation libertarian.

clarifying end-relative meta-ethics

One meta-ethical theory (or cluster of theories) claims that “ought-conditions” are fundamentally related to ends, or goals. I think these approaches are on to something, however there is a need for clarity. While I think the truth values of normative propositions might be conditional on end-relative facts, I don’t think that normative propositions necessarily refer to ends as part of their semantic content.

If normative propositions necessarily referred to ends as part of their semantic content, then all normative propositions would look like the following:

“In order to get to the other side of town, one ought to take the tube.”
“In order to cherish life, one ought to not destroy it.”
“In order to respect the elderly, one ought to give up their seat on the bus for them.”

Or to make it agent-specific,

“In order for Sally to get to the other side of town, she ought to take the tube.”

If all normative propositions necessarily look like this, there are no coherent normative propositions that are simply:

“One ought to X.”
“Sally ought to X.”

There are two problems with this. For one, these propositions sure look coherent. There might be mystery surrounding why any propositions of this kind are true, but that’s not a semantic issue. You’d know, at least roughly, what I meant if I said it. We talk in this manner all the time. Plainly, these propositions are coherent.

The second problem is that the first kind of normative propositions given above do not actually tell us what we ought to do. Imagine approaching a wise moral teacher to ask what you ought do to with your life, and receiving a response like “well, in order to X this, you must Y, and in order to S, you must T. And in order to do…” You’d reply “well yes, there are lots of goals I could pursue. But what should I actually do?” These kinds of propositions just aren’t that instructive morally. A moral theory limited to only those propositions will be rather inadequate.

Therefore while normative propositions might have truth-values that hinge on certain end-relative facts, normative propositions do not refer to such facts out of semantic necessity.

moral accountability argument (extended and reworked)

1. X is any instance of an agent (A) being animated that is morally relevant.*
2. X is either caused or uncaused.
3. If X is uncaused then A didn’t cause X.
4. If A didn’t cause X then A is not responsible for X.
5. If A is not responsible for X then A is not morally accountable for X.
6. From (3), (4) and (5), if X is uncaused then A is not morally accountable for X.

7. If X is caused then X is preceded by a causal chain.**
8. All causal chains are either infinite, finite, or circular.
9. From (7) and (8), if X is caused then X is preceded by either an infinite, finite, or circular causal chain.

10. If X was preceded by an infinite causal chain then the causal chain either occurred entirely within A’s agency, or extends outside of it.
11. It is impossible for there to be an infinite causal chain within A’s agency.
12. From (10) and (11), if X was preceded by an infinite causal chain then it extends outside A’s agency.
13. If X was ultimately caused by things outside of A’s agency then A is not ultimately responsible for X.
14. If A is not ultimately responsible for X then A is not morally accountable for X.
15. From (12), (13) and (14), if X was preceded by an infinite causal chain, then A is not morally accountable for X.

16. If X was preceded by a circular causal chain then X is ultimately the cause of itself.
17. It is impossible for X to be the cause of itself.
18. From (16) and (17), it is impossible for X to be preceded by a circular causal chain.

19. If X is preceded by a finite causal chain then the causal chain had a beginning.
20. All causal chains that have a beginning have a first cause.
21. From (19) and (20), if X’s preceding causal chain is finite it has a first cause.
22. If X’s preceding causal chain has a first cause, that cause is either A or not A.
23. If the first cause in X’s preceding causal chain is not A then A is not ultimately responsible for X.
24. From (14) and (23), if A is not the first cause of X then A is not morally accountable for X.
25. From (2), (6), (9), (15), (18), (21) and (24), if A is not the first cause in a causal chain preceding X, then A cannot be morally accountable for X.

26. Necessarily, the first cause in a causal chain cannot itself have a cause.
27. All contingent causes are themselves caused.
28. From (26) and (27), if A contingently causes X then A is not the first cause in the causal chain preceding X.
29. From (25) and (28), if A is not necessarily the first cause in a causal chain preceding X then A cannot be morally accountable for X.

*The language of being “animated” in “morally relevant” ways is used to refer to an agent’s action without using language that already presupposes that the agent is the responsible party. Look at the difference in language, say, between “an agent moving his hand” and “an agent’s hand moving”. The first implies that the agent is responsible, the latter leaves that open. In the same way being animated in morally relevant ways refers to an occurrence that is morally significant (say murder, or rape), without suggesting an a priori commitment to what the responsible party is, i.e. it could be an alien tapping into the agent’s brain, or indeed the agent herself.

**To some people “causal chain” might suggest that there is definitely more than one preceding cause. I don’t take that phrase to have any quantitative input in this argument (there could just be one preceding cause – it would still quality as a causal chain here).

we are morally accountable for our choices so long as we necessarily make them.

1. X is any way an agent (A) can be animated that is morally relevant.
2. A is morally accountable for X iff A is responsible for X.
3. A is responsible for X iff A is the ultimate cause of X.
4. From (3) and (4), A is morally accountable for X iff A is the ultimate cause of X.
5. A cannot be an ultimate cause of X unless A causes X.
6. From (4) and (5), if A does not cause X then A is not morally accountable for X.

7. If A causes X then A does so either necessarily or contingently.
8. Of metaphysical necessity, any contingent occurrence has itself got a causal explanation.
9. If an occurrence has itself got a causal explanation then that occurrence cannot be the first cause in a causal sequence.
10. If an occurrence is not the first cause in a causal sequence then it is not the ultimate cause of the causal sequence.
11. From (4), (8), (9) and (10), if A causes X contingently then A is not morally accountable for X.

12. From (6), (7) and (11), A can be morally accountable for X iff A causes X necessarily.

(Note: The language of being “animated” in “morally relevant” ways is used to refer to an agent’s action without using language that already presupposes that the agent is the responsible party. Look at the difference in language, say, between “an agent moving his hand” and “an agent’s hand moving”. The first implies that the agent is responsible, the latter leaves that open. In the same way being animated in morally relevant ways refers to an action that is morally significant (say murder, or rape), without suggesting an a priori commitment to the responsible party.)