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Can We Be Free-Willing Robots?

On the Possibility of Free Will in a Deterministic World

10. Four Necessary Conditions for Free Will

Book cover: Free Will by Sam Harris

So far, I've crystallized the four types of situational impediments to the exercise of free will: 1. coercion, 2. manipulation, 3. addiction and 4. mental illness. What is it about these situations that minimize a person's capacity to act freely? In the examples I discussed, four requirements for 'free will' seemed to recur throughout. For brevity, I've called this compatibilist account of the requirements for free will the '4C theory'. These 4Cs are:

  1. Compulsion
  2. Control
  3. Character
  4. Cognition

I want now to describe briefly each of these requirements.

  1. This first requirement, Compulsion, is that the act not feel compelled by the agent's situation. The feeling of compulsion I am referring to here is an introspective psychological experience. Here, the agent feels that they will sacrifice something of great value to them if they do not act in a particular way. The agent feels that they had no choice but to act as they did.
  2. The second requirement, Control, is that the act not be controlled by a third party. Unlike in the case of compulsion, the agent does not feel as if they are being compelled by circumstance. However, with their actions being manipulated either directly or indirectly by a third party, they have lost their autonomy. This requirement goes to the heart of what it is to be a moral agent with responsibility for one's actions. When control of a person's behaviour is surrendered to another moral agent, the locus of responsibility moves along that line of control to the third-party agent in control of the human puppet's behaviour.
  3. The third requirement, Character, is that the action is consonant with and a consequence of the agent's character. When the agent's behaviour is out of character, the person is not a bona fide agent of their own actions. This requirement often acts in tandem with the second requirement, lack of third-party control, as a marker of personhood.
  4. The fourth requirement, Cognition, is that the agent has the cognitive capability to offer reasons for their action and to deliberate about alternative courses of action. Without rational agency, the person is not exercising autonomy and is better described as a passive repository of impulses.

Each of these four requirements is necessary for a choice to be considered free. Even if one of them is missing, the agent has lost their capacity for free action. What ties all four requirements together is the fundamental axiom I expressed early on in this talk; that a free will is an unencumbered will. With the advent of scientific knowledge and modern technology, this basic understanding of encumbrance as compulsion has been supplemented with these additional requirements for moral and rational autonomy.

What seems clear is that philosophical and legal thought over the last century or so has largely coalesced around the view—and this is really the crux of the '4C theory'—that freedom of the will is a characteristic of an autonomous, conscious agent who can reason and deliberate about alternative courses of action. The thinking here is that such a person is constituted by their character and that within the bounds of this character, the agent faces a range of options on how to act in a given situation. When this range is encumbered or restricted by either subverting the person's character or compromising their capacity for rational deliberation and action, the person's freedom is diminished.

Copyright © 2018

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