I defend a reasons-responsive theory of free will. As a compatibilist, I am committed to showing that an adequate account of such freedom can be advanced without at any point requiring the falsity of determinism. Roughly, reasons-responsive theories account for free will in terms of an agent’s responsiveness to an adequate spectrum of reasons. In my estimation, reasons-responsive theories have several advantages over what are known as mesh theories, theories that are also often offered in the service of defending compatibilism. Again, speaking only roughly, mesh theories account for free will in terms of a harmoniously functioning mesh of psychic subsystems collectively generating action.
As I see it, one striking advantage of reasons-responsive theories over mesh theories, such as Harry Frankfurt’s, is that the former are not plagued by a difficulty that seems endemic to the latter. The problem is just that mesh theorists characterize acting freely in terms of action flowing from a harmonious mesh. On Frankfurt’s view, for instance, it is when one’s will (one’s effective first-order desire) is aligned with what, at a higher-order of desires, one, by way of identification, wants one’s will to be. The mesh here is a meshing of higher-order desires working in harmony with lower-order desires. The problem, however, for views with a mesh structure is that they seem handicapped in their ability to distinguish between acting unfreely because of acting from an unharmonious mesh as opposed to freely acting from an unharmonious mesh. To use a case of Frankfurt’s as an example, recall the unwilling addict, who does not act freely and is not responsible, and now consider instead a weak-willed non-addict, who freely takes the drug and is responsible for doing so despite instead judging it best that she not take the drug, and despite identifying with her desire not to do so. Frankfurt, it seems, cannot readily explain the difference between these agents. The problem is not unique to Frankfurt’s mesh theory, so far as I can tell. Other mesh theorists like Gary Watson and Michael Bratman also face a similar problem. (For my money, Bratman has the most promising mesh theory, but that is the subject for another post.)
The reason that I describe the above problem for mesh theorists as a striking advantage for reasons-responsive theorists is because, where mesh theorists have a hard time accounting for these sorts of problems, for reasons-responsive theorists, this is a cake walk: The weak-willed non addict is responsive to a richer spectrum of reasons for not taking the drug, and takes it from causal sources that are suitably sensitive to that richer spectrum of reasons. The unwilling adduct is not responsive to as rich a spectrum of reasons and takes the drug from causal sources that are not suitably sensitive to that spectrum.
Not long ago, John Martin Fischer posted on our Flickers site and developed this criticism for mesh theories. Now it might well be that mesh theorists can overcome this criticism, and showing why I think they cannot requires far more space than I have available here. But what I am interested in at present is, so to speak, the flip side of this criticism. Mesh theorists might put to reasons-responsive theorists the criticism that there is a lacuna in their reasons-responsive accounts, a serious short-coming that ought to force them to take on at least some of the features of a mesh theory so as to avoid the charge that they simply fail to capture an important dimension of free and responsible agency. The lacuna in their account, the mesh theorists might argue, is precisely that reasons-responsive theories do nothing to capture the internal features of our agency, and that this is not merely one further element that ought to be explained among others in a theory of freedom, but concerns the most fundamental features of our nature as (free) persons.
To develop this criticism of reasons-responsive theories, consider again Frankfurt’s famous 1971 paper “Freedom and the Will and the Concept of a Person.” On his view, only a person is able to adopt attitudes about her own motivational states as they bear upon her agency in the world. Being so structured, only a person, Frankfurt essayed, is in a position to face a certain problem about her own will in that it might not be as she herself wants it to be. Now Frankfurt executed this view in a particular way (by, among other things, reference to an ability to form volitions). And I have ignored these details here. I am more interested in the general structural features of mesh theories that seem to me to get at something quite deep about our agency as free persons. We could instead theorize, as Watson does, in terms of the relation between one’s motivational and her evaluative systems and the way that a person might adopt certain evaluative attitudes towards the “forces” moving her to action. Alternatively, ala Bratman, we might do this by way of higher-order planning policies that structure for us our commitments and guide our preferences but yet can be foiled by haywire forces that gum up he works and lead to defects of agency.
In general, I believe that these mesh theories capture something right, something deep and important about our free agency as persons and candidates for moral responsibility. And from what I can tell, we reasons-responsive theorists have just not built into our theories features of agency that pay adequate attention to the internal psychic structures that give rise to these problems. Mesh theorists might quip back, then, at the likes of Fischer, Haji, me and numerous other reasons-responsive theorists (I would include in our camp Dana Nelkin, David Brink, Carolina Sartorio, Michael Smith, Kadri Vihvelin, Susan Wolf, and numerous others), that with no more than the resources of responsiveness to reasons, we cannot showcase the special place of the unique internal structure of a person’s will (as Frankfurt would put it), since all we have are sets of reasons to which an agent must be responsive. Of course, reasons-responsive theorists could simply contend that the spectrum of reasons to which a free agent must be responsive must include reasons she has presented by her own internal psychology. (This is how I have always imagined that I could solve this problem.) But in fairness to the mesh theorists, this just seems inadequate. My relation to my own internal states and the problems of agency posed by my complex nature as a person is not like my relation to the reasons afforded to me by the world as I find it. I have some ideas here, but I’ll not show my hand, at least not now. I’m curious as to what all of you think.
Oh, one more thing: I’d like to plug this as a problem for anyone who wants to advance a positive account of free will, which includes libertarianism. Why? You libertarians out there should also be interested in the nature of freedom, aside from the compatibility issue. It is open to you, as Carl Ginet has proposed in assessing Fischer and Ravizza’s view, to embrace the best compatibilist proposal of freedom and then just tack on a requirement of indeterminism (suitably located, of course).
Sorry for the long post. It took a bit of effort to lay this one out. Hope you find it interesting!