Monthly Archives: October 2011

Article Summary: “Freedom Within Reason” by Susan Wolf


Wolf argues for a compatibilist vision of free will – the Reason View – which holds that one is free merely when one’s values are determined by reason. Wolf develops her account by attempting to avoid the problems of libertarianism, but also the problems of a typical compatibilist account of free will. In doing so Wolf also hopes to clarify the role of responsibility in being free.

Wolf begins by outlining the typical libertarian view of free will, which she here calls the ’Autonomy View.’ On this view, a person is free only when their actions are not caused by external events – when the person, autonomous from external causes, herself causes actions. To Wolf, such a view is problematic for two reasons: one, even if our actions are caused by a self, it is surely the case that that self is governed by external causes. So it seems that our actions are still determined on such a view. Secondly, an uncaused self does not seem to grant us freedom: in what sense can we responsible for the actions of an indeterminate self? These objections are sufficient for Wolf to reject the Autonomy View.

Wolf then considers a compatibilist vision of free will which holds that a person is free just in case their actions are caused by their will, and their will is governed by their desires. But this view, while it avoids the Autonomy View’s problems by rejecting autonomy as a prerequisite for freedom, faces unique problems of its own. In particular, it seems to be unable to handle cases where a person is not in control of their own desires. A heroine addict, for example,
desires very much to do heroine, but in many cases does not want to desire to do heroine. So the typical compatibilist story cannot capture the essence of freedom.

Wolf next considers a revised compatibilist story – the ’Real Person View’ – which holds that a set of a person’s desires constitute that persons “values.” Such values can be thought of as fundamental desires; so while the addict might desire heroine, their fundamental desire is to not be a drug addict. A person is then free when they can fulfill their fundamental desires – their values. Wolf sees this view as an improvement over the default compatibilist account of freedom,
albeit an inadequate one. This is because one’s values can be determined by external causes just like any other desire one might have. There does not seem to be a principled reason for supposing that the realization of one determined desire (a value) over another (a desire which is not a value) leads us to be free – both desires are determined!

So while agreeing that values are desires which reside deep within a person, Wolf thinks no adequate account of free will has been given in the above story. This leads her to develop her own account: the Reason View. The view hinges on a crucial observation: When we see that a person whose values are vile and vicious (such as a Nazi) had those values forcibly inculcated in them, we absolve them of blame. That is to say, since the person could not have developed any other set of values, we do not hold them responsible. But in the case of a person
who does good, and who had their values determined for them, we nonetheless still allot them their share of praise. There is an asymmetry in our evaluation of the two persons which needs explaining.

For Wolf, the asymmetry results because the good person had her values
determined by the power of reason: reason forced her to adopt a value which was inherently good. But our vile Nazi never had an opportunity to deploy reason and acquire proper values, and is therefore not responsible for his acts. On this view, a person is responsible when she can can use reason to determine her values. If she uses reason to understand what is good and bad, and nonetheless chooses the bad, she is responsible (and blameworthy); likewise, when she uses reason to properly select good values, then she is responsible (and praiseworthy). A person who never has the chance to do either of these
things, however, is not responsible for her values or her actions. Additionally, a person who has the right values but not because she acquired them through reason is not praiseworthy; nor is a person who happens to do the right thing. All depends upon how a value is acquired (i.e., whether reason fixed the value in the person or not).

Wolf concludes by mentioning an important consequence of her view: freedom can be acquired. It is not a metaphysical property, but simply emerges through the proper use of reason. So a person who enhances one’s ability to reason, to perceive and understand the world around them, is on the path to freedom. After one’s values are fixed by reason, all that is required to be free is the ability to govern our actions by these values.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: The Reason View of Free Will

1. Our actions are governed by our desires.
2. There is a set of our desires called ’values’ which reside in our true self.
3. Being ’free’ is merely having one’s values determined by exercising reason.
4. Therefore, an act is free just in case it is governed by a value which it
itself determined by reason.


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Article Summary: “Psychology as Philosophy” by Donald Davidson


Davidson argues that there can be no law-like explanations of psychological events (beliefs, desire, and the like), since the concepts deployed by psychologists necessarily elude the sort of law-like generalizations possible in physical theories. Davidson thinks this is so because psychological concepts used to explain behavior are external impositions upon events; they are not natural features of the events in question. Davidson fits this thesis into his larger theory about mentality – the theory of ’anomalous monism’ – which holds that psychological events are physical events and yet reside in an autonomous domain of explanation. The majority of the paper, however, is dedicated to defending the claim that psychological concepts are not amenable to law-like generalizations.

In the first place, Davidson thinks it is impossible to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for persons acting on reasons in every case. If it were possible to predict behavior on the basis of beliefs and desires, two psychological concepts, we would need to be able to account for the totality of a person’s beliefs and desires (since they are all causally related to one another). But such an endeavor is impossible; so, explanations involving the psychological concepts of belief and desire shall always elude law like generalization.

Further, when we attempt to explain behavior using directly observable
events, such as punishment and reward, spoken commands, and deprivations, such as behaviorism uses (a once influential paradigm in psychology) the theory cannot predict behavior unless patterns of belief, desire, and emotion are inferred from the actions of the agent. So a purely external route to law-like generalization is barred.

Davidson then considers a theory which uses actions of agents to predict behavior, construing beliefs and desires as mere theoretical constructs in a theory of behavior. Such is Frank Ramsey’s theory of decision making, which computes the subjective probabilities and beliefs towards various propositions by weighting the decisions of persons when choosing between alternatives. The particulars of the theory are complex – and not particularly relevant. The point is that such a theory, despite being scientific in many respects, fails to predict behavior because it cannot account for the influence of a previous decision (between alternatives) on a subject’s current decision. So such a theory does not yield accurate predictions. If it cannot even yield accurate predictions, then it is certainly not law-like.

So it seems the necessary concepts of psychology – rationality, consistency, coherence, belief, desire, and all the rest – do not properly fit into any theory of law-like generalizations about human behavior. Yet, such concepts are indispensible to psychology. So it seems that psychology can never predict behavior like physics can, despite the fact that psychological events necessarily are physical events. When we resort to psychological explanation of behavior, we use a unique set of concepts and operate in an autonomous realm of explanation – one separate and distinct from the one used to explain the physical events which undergird all behavior.

Logical Outline

Primary Argument: Anomalous Monism and the independence of psychological explanation. (This is an outline of Davidson’s famous Anomolous Monism, though this article merely argues for premise 4. But it is helpful to see where the article’s argument fits into Davidson’s wider scheme).

1. Psychological events cause, and are caused by, physical events.
2. Events which enter into cause/effect relations with one another can fit into a deterministic set of laws when appropriately described.
3. Therefore, psychological and physical events can fit into a deterministic
set of laws with one another, when appropriately described. [1,2]
4. There are no psychophysical laws.

S1. In order to explain psychological events, we necessarily rely upon
concepts like rationality, coherence, and consistency.
S2. For there to be a law-like account of psychological events, we
would need to dispense with such concepts, since they are external impositions upon the events.
S3. We cannot dispense with such concepts when we describe psychological events.
S4. Therefore, there are no psychophysical laws.

5. Therefore, psychological events necessarily fit into a set of physical, deterministic laws (i.e., they are physical events). [3,4]
6. Psychological events, when described in the vocabulary of psychology,
cannot be reduced to physical explanations.

S1. For psychological events described in the vocabulary of psychol-
ogy to be reduced to physical explanations, there would have to be physical equivalents to terms such as ’rationality.’
S2. There are no physical equivalents of such terms.
S3. Therefore, psychological events described in psychological terms
cannot be reduced to physical explanations. [S1,S2]

7. So, psychological events are physical events which, when described in the vocabulary of psychology, cannot be reduced to physical explanations. [5,6]
(Or, psychological events reside in an autonomous level of explanation when described in psychological terms) [6,7]

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