Article Summary: “Freedom Within Reason” by Susan Wolf

Summary

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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