Libertarianism, Compatibilism and Moral Responsiblity: A Philosophical Introduction to Available Models. Part 2

Note: This set of posts attempts to take our readers to the next level in their understanding of compatibilist human freedom and divine sovereignty. It, therefore, assumes that the reader has read the two earlier posts on ‘Compatibilism and Evil’ as well as the introduction to divine sovereignty and human freedom or it assumes that they are already to some degree philosophically and theologically adept–which is, I think, a fair assumption to make of our readers.


Part Two: Varieties of Libertarianism


The Metaphysics of Fee Will: Three Kinds of Incompatibilism


Timothy O’Connor, in his book Persons and Causes, distinguishes three kinds of incompatibilism: simple incompatibilism, causal incompatibilism, and agent-causation[1] Simple incompatibilism, according to O’Connor, is a version of libertarianism which sees a simple mental act—one which lacks internal causal structure—at the core of each causally complex action.[2] At the center of our free actions are uncaused volitions. Alternatively, causal incompatibilists recognize the role of rational causal factors in the deliberative process of the libertarian agent. “The agent controls her actions through her prior reasons. The agent’s having such reasons might cause, yet not necessitate, the action.”[3] O’Connor concludes that both of these accounts of incompatibilist freedom are inadequate and proposes in their place a third, agent-causal theory in the tradition of Thomas Reid,[4] Roderick Chisholm,[5] and Richard Taylor. [6] “According to the Agency Theory, at the core of every free action is an ontologically irreducible causal relation between a person and some appropriate internal event that triggers later elements [7] Central to the agent-causation thesis is the idea that humans are fundamentally causal agents, unmoved movers whose agency is (sometimes, i.e. when they act freely) the primary (or first) actualizer of potentialities in the world. The person himself is a substance and as an agent (sometimes) occupies a first term relation to causal sequences in the world (i.e. he is the agent-cause) while his acts (i.e. the effects) occupy the second term relation. In what follows I offer a brief outline of each position. First, I deal with the major metaphysical underpinnings of each account. Then I indicate the line of reasoning used by that account to respond to a famous objection—the reasons as explanations objection. [8] This will afford me the opportunity to sketch out how each form of incompatibilism interacts with the role of reasons in the actual deliberative process.


4.1 Simple Incompatibilism


Before we explore the simple incompatibilist model, I think a distinction made by Mark Bernstein, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Double [9] will be helpful in clarifying the exact point at issue. They distinguish between Valerian and Nonvalerian libertarian theories—so-called after Dennett’s citing of Paul Valery’s statement that invention is the selection of choices that occur to one randomly. Valerian theories locate the indeterminacy in the psychological states prior to the deliberation so that (say) the thought is indeterministically conceived but then becomes part of a deterministic deliberating process and is eventually translated into the equation that issues in the decision. Nonvalerian theories, on the other hand, locate the indeterminacy at the moment of deliberation so that the decision is thoroughly indeterministic. So while Valerian theories posit no causal history whatsoever for a free action, Nonvalerian theories allow for a partial causal history in so far as an indeterministic mechanism is said to contribute to an otherwise deterministic deliberative process.Peter van Inwagen is perhaps the most significant advocate of simple (Nonvalerian) incompatibilism.[10]


In his often-sited “thief” example, van Inwagen imagines a scenario in which a thief, confronted with a decision whether or whether not to rob the poor-box, has two sets of desire-belief complexes (DB). On the one set, the thief has a desire (D) to keep a promise he made to his dieing grandmother to live an honest life coupled with the belief (B) that refraining from robbing the poor-box (R) is the best way to keep that promise. On the other set, he has a desire (D) for money coupled with the belief (B) that robbing the poor-box is the best way to obtain money.[11] According to van Inwagen, in the thief’s decision to R, DB has an indeterministic influence upon the thief’s decision only at the moment of deliberation so that the actual decision is roughly 50% predictable. He writes:


We may suppose that God has thousands of times caused the world to revert to precisely its state at the moment just before the thief decided not to steal, and has each time allowed things to proceed without interference for a few minutes, and that DB caused R on about half of these occasions. On the other occasions, we may suppose, DB did not cause R; instead the thief’s desire for money coupled with his belief that the best way to get money was to rob the poor-box, caused him to rob the poor-box.[12]


So although the decision to R or not R is caused (though not sufficiently) by DB, the mechanism (e.g. the volition) that chooses which DB to act on at the moment of deliberation is wholly indeterminate. Van Inwagen, therefore, responds to the extremely significant rationality objection against libertarianism by suggesting that though, for example, the thief’s decision to R or not R did not have a sufficient cause, it none the less had a reason—namely, DB.


4.2 Causal Incompatibilism


Causal incompatibilism, which represents a Valerian type of libertarianism, is held by a number of free will theorists, not the least of which is Robert Kane. [13] Many philosophers, in fact, consider his newest work The Significance of Free Will [14] to be the most detailed and provocative account of the libertarian motivation in print. [15] In a more recent article, Kane sums up his position as follows:


When we act from a will already formed (as we frequently do), it is “our own free will” by virtue of the fact that we formed it (at least in part) by earlier choices or actions which were not determined and for which we could have done otherwise voluntarily, not merely as a fluke or accident. I call these undetermined actions self-forming actions or SFAs. Undetermined SFAs are a subset of all of the actions done of our own free wills (many of which may be determined by our earlier formed character and motives). But if there were no such undetermined SFAs in our lifetimes, there would have been nothing we could have ever voluntarily done to make ourselves different than we are—a condition that I think is inconsistent with our having the kind of responsibility for being what we are which genuine free will requires.[16]


Clearly Kane locates the indeterminacy at some moment prior to the deliberation (at least, it seems, in most cases) where the indeterministic mechanism is a shaping factor of “our own free will.” Kane does not dismiss the idea that some of the actions performed by our own free wills are “determined by our earlier formed character and motives.” Instead, he insists that indeterminism occurs “at times in life when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. Perhaps we are torn between doing the moral thing or acting from self-interest, or between present desires and long-term goals, or we are faced with difficult tasks for which we have aversions.”[17] He suggests that these “tensions” act as indeterministic “distractions” or “hindrances” to our otherwise deterministic psychological states “diminishing rather than enhancing the agents’ voluntary control.”[18]To illustrate this Kane asks us to imagine a businesswoman who experiences a conflict of interests which on the one hand involves a decision to stop her car on the way to an important business meeting in order to get help for a woman who is being assaulted in an alley; and on the other, an ambition for success in her career which she believes will be benefited by her being on time to this important meeting.[19] “The indeterminism,” Kane claims, “that is admittedly diminishing her ability to overcome selfish temptation, and is indeed a hindrance to her doing so, is coming from her own will—from her desire and effort to do the opposite—since she also simultaneously wants and is trying to realize two conflicting purposes at once. Similarly, her ability to overcome moral qualms is diminished by the fact that she also simultaneously wants and is trying to act on moral reasons.” Kane argues that though the businesswoman has diminished control over both options considered separately, due to her conflict of interests, she nevertheless does have what he calls plural voluntary control over the options when considered as a set. [21] “Having plural voluntary control over a set of options means being able to bring about whichever of the options you will or most want, when you will to do so, for the reasons you will to do so, without being coerced or compelled in doing so.”[22] In this principle we see the deterministic element in Kane’s theory at work. In particular, we see the internal (i.e. uncoerced) desire-determined deliberative process informed by indeterministic conflicts of interest. Kane contends that this account of libertarianism can answer the rationality objection (see note 20) because “you can chose responsibly for prior reasons that were not conclusive or decisive prior to your choosing for them.”[23]


4.3 Agent-Causation


Agent causal theories are extremely prominent in the contemporary literature on free will. Such noted philosophers as Randolph Clarke, [24] Richard Swinburne, [25] William Rowe, [26] Roderick Chisholm, [27] Richard Taylor, [28] and Timothy O’Connor [29] endorse some version of agency theory. I will focus my attention here on O’Connor’s version—which in my estimation is the most cogent account of agent-causation currently available. O’Connor’s agency theory depends heavily upon a wide array of ontological assumptions which are both critical to his theory and highly contestable [30] none of which need enumeration here.The central thesis of O’Connor’s agent-causation theory is that “The decision I make is no mere vector sum of internal and external forces acting upon me during the process of deliberation (if, indeed, I deliberate at all). Rather, I bring it about—directly, you might say—in response to the various considerations: I am the source of my own activity, not merely in a relative sense as the most proximate and salient locus of an unbroken chain of causal transactions leading up to this event, but fundamentally, in a way not prefigured by what has gone before.” [31] To ground this leading intuition in reality O’Connor assumes a certain view of agency where it is required that “they [agents] include things that endure through time, wholly existing at each moment of an extended temporal interval, as opposed to things that ‘perdure’ by having temporal parts that exist at each moment of the thing’s existence.” [32] Roderick Chisholm has suggested along these lines that agents should be conceived of as an “unmoved moverers” who affect causes in the world while remaining themselves unaffected. O’Connor, however, prefers to describe this impassible feature of the agent by the phrase ‘not-wholly-moved-mover;’[33] the central idea being that some aspect of the agent must remain constant through change. Perhaps this notion can be clarified as a metaphysical problem. If the agent is a medium through which causal sequences flow, how is it that personhood can be persevered? It seems as though the answer to this quandary, according to agent-causalists, is that there must be an aspect of the agent which remains constant through change. The agency theorist proposes that the agent himself is what is constant and that he acts in the world, therefore, as (in some respects) an unchanging actualizer of potentialities (very similar to scholastic/Thomistic conception of God). This assumes a more traditional view of causation locating the causal powers of agents in their properties rather than by virtue of simple “functions moving from circumstances to effects.” [34] To answer the rationality objection, O’Connor draws on his notion of agent as cause. According to O’Connor, the agent freely exercises his causal capacities on reasons in the act of deliberation. Thus, reasons count as explanations for actions but are not causally sufficient for their production. Agent causation “allows us to claim that reason had an influence on the production of the decision, while not causing it.” [35] On the agent-causation model, then, the agent, who is himself the causal nexus of his own decisions, examines the conditions before him (reasons, etc.) and freely responds, acting on them as the direct initiator, you might say, of causal sequences in the world.


[1] Timothy O’Connor, Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 24-30.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Ibid., 25

[4] For a good development of his account see William Rowe, Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[5] e.g. Roderick Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self,” in Free Will, 1st ed. edited by Gary Watson, ORP (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 25-35; cf. his “Agents, Causes, and Events: The Problem of Free Will,” in ACE, 95-100.

[6] Richard Taylor, Action and Purpose (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1966).

[7] O’Connor, Persons and Causes, 43.

[8] The main thrust of the argument is that we give ordinarily give reasons as explanations of our actions. Galen Strawson frames a version of this argument as follows:

(1) Interested in free action, we are particularly interested in rational actions (i.e. action performed for reason as opposed to reflex actions or mindless habitual states), and wish to show that such actions can be free.

(2) How one acts when one acts rationally (i.e. for a reason) is, necessarily, a function of, or determined by, how one is, mentally speaking…

(3) If, therefore, one is to be truly responsible for how one acts, one must be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking—in certain respects, at least.

(4) But to be truly responsible for how one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects, one must have chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain respects…

(5) But one cannot really be said to choose in a conscious, reasoned, fashion, to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in ay respect at all, unless one already exists, mentally speaking, already equipped with some principles of choice ‘P1’—with preferences, values, pro-attitudes, ideals, whatever—in light of which one chooses how to be.

(6) But then to be truly responsible on account of having chosen to be the way one is, mentally speaking, in certain resects, one must be truly responsible for one’s having these principles of choice P1. (7) But for this to be so one must have chosen them, in a reasoned, conscious fashion.

(8) But for this—i.e. (7)—to be so, one must already have had some principles of choice, P2, in the light of which one chose P1.

(9) And so on. True self-determination is logically impossible because it requires the actual completion of infinite regress of choices of principles of choice. Galen Strawson, Freedom and Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); reprinted as “Libertarianism, Action, and Self-Determination,” in ACE, 15-16.

[9] See for example, Richard Double, The Non-Reality of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 193.

[10] Carl Ginet would be another example of this kind of incompatibilism. See his On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[11] Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 140-45.

[12] Ibid., 141.

[13] Another significant example of this kind of incompatibilism is Robert Nozick. See his Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981), 291-397.

[14] Robert Kane, The Significance of Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[15] See for example, John Martin Fischer, “Frankfurt-style Compatibilism,” in Contours of Agency: Themes from Harry Frankfurt, edited by Sarah Buss and Lee Overton (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002), 1-26. Reprinted in Free Will, 2nd ed. edited by Gary Watson, ORP (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 199 (Henceforth FW).

[16] Robert Kane, “Responsibility, Luke, and Chance: Reflections on Free Will and Indeterminism,” JP 96/5 (1999); Reprinted in FW, 305-06.

[17] FW, 306.

[18] FW, 316.

[19] FW, 307

[20] FW, 318.

[21] FW, 319.

[22] Ibid.

[23] FW, 321.

[24] Randolph Clarke, “Toward a Credible Agent-Causal Account of Free Will,” Nous 27 (1993): 43-64. Reprinted in ACE, 201-15.

[25] Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement.

[26] Rowe, Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality.

[27] Chisholm, “Agents, Causes, and Events;” cf. also his “Human Freedom and the Self,” in FW, 25-37.

[28] Taylor, Action and Purpose.

[29] Timothy O’Connor, “Agent Causation,” in ACE, 173-200; Reprinted in FW, 257-84; O’Connor, Persons and Causes. These are the two works I lean on for my understanding of O’Connor’s agency theory as outlined above.

[30] He says, “All these commitments are highly contentious.” O’Connor, Persons and Causes, 73.

[31] O’Connor, “Agent Causation,” 173; FW, 257.

[32] O’Connor, Persons and Causes, 73.

[33] Ibid., 43.

[34] O’Connor, “Agent Causation,” 177; FW,

[35] Ibid., 191; FW,

To be continued……


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  1. Famous Inventors

    Famous Inventors

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