Free Will and Compatibilism

7. Free Will and 'Could Have Done Otherwise'

7.1 Compulsive Acts

In the previous section, I tried to show that, contra libertarians, we do not have a feeling of contra-causal free will when we act freely. And contra the hard determinists, we also do not have the 'illusion' of contra-causal free will. Both of these approaches mistake what it feels like to act freely. I argued that our 'feeling' of acting freely is simply the recognition that we are not compelled to act the way we do.

Consider now the other side of the 'free'/'unfree' coin. When we commit an intentional act unfreely, we feel as if we were not able to choose otherwise. In common parlance, we sometimes hear someone complain that 'I had no choice' when forced to do something they did not want to do.

Book cover: Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzanig

One of two police officers threatened with beheading by a lone terrorist, Numan Haider, reported to a coronial inquest afterward that 'he did not believe the detectives had any other choice but to shoot Haider' [Dowling 2016]. The Officer added, 'He was going to slit my throat and cut my head off. I don't think we could've done anything else at all' [ninemsn 2016]. The Officer's feeling that he had no other choice and that he could not have done otherwise is not a reference to an unbroken chain of physical causes going on inside his brain, but a feeling of psychological compulsion. His feeling was not about the physical forces acting at the level of his neurons, but about the psychological force he felt in his mind.

As the hard determinists regularly and rightly point out, if a person talking about their unfree act (such as the Officer in the above disturbing scenario) is referring to the existence of sufficient physical causes of their action, then of course the person could not have done otherwise. Clearly, this cannot be to what the Officer in the above scenario is referring. Consider how the Officer values extremely highly his own life and the life of his threatened colleague. Given the choice between his and his colleague's lives and the welfare of a terrorist, his psychological makeup, coupled with the dire circumstances in which he finds himself, compels him to choose to save their own lives.

How then should we understand the truism that the Officer could not have acted otherwise than to shoot the terrorist? The modal past participle, 'could have', is a commonly used modal verb in the English language and all other major languages. In this case, a credible ordinary-language compatibilist understanding of this application of the modal verb is to deny the truth of the following conditional:

Given the Officer's character, the Officer would have done otherwise in this situation if certain external circumstances were different.

This analysis makes use of a common distinction between the intrinsic properties of an entity that give it its capability and the extrinsic conditions necessary for that capability to be actualized. We say, for example, that the electric fan in my study is capable of cooling when it has a working motor, fan blades, power cord, etc. These items constitute its intrinsic properties. We also say that the fan remains capable of cooling even when someone has switched it off or placed it inside a sealed box. In this case, the fan remains capable of cooling even when one or more of the extrinsic conditions are missing.

Linking this to the case at hand, the intrinsic properties of the Officer is the bundle of characteristics we call his 'character'. By 'character', I mean that combination of beliefs, desires and values that make up a person's psychological profile. I think this folk psychological understanding of 'character' is sufficient for our purposes here, along with all the imprecision that the concept brings with it.

The extrinsic conditions of the situation are those conditions necessary for the Officer to be able to physically shoot the terrorist. The 'external circumstances' of the situation range over features of the situation that are external to the agent's character, but not over the extrinsic conditions that enable the act. For this analysis, it is crucial that this step preserve the opportunity for the Officer to shoot the terrorist. Otherwise, there can be no question about whether his shooting of the terrorist was a free act or not. If his gun was not loaded, for example, the freeness of his act of shooting the terrorist no longer remains an open question. Asking what the Officer would have done in different circumstances, then, is to ask what he would have done under different external circumstances that leave intact his opportunity to shoot the terrorist.

So, given the situation that the Officer faced with his life and the life of his colleague under immediate threat, can we say that there existed factors external to his character that, had they been different, would have led him to do other than to shoot the terrorist? It appears not. If the terrorist had a different appearance or spoke a different language, or if the Officer was working overtime or nearing retirement, it is clear that none of these kinds of differences would have led the Officer to act in a way other than he did. His biologically-based survival instinct, coupled with the defensive skills inculcated through his police training, were decisive elements of his character that overrode any environmental contingencies. We can conclude that the Officer's unfree act in shooting the terrorist can be understood in terms of his not doing otherwise even if the external circumstances had been different. Drawing on the 'electric fan' analogy above, the Officer's inability to do otherwise is akin to my fan's inability to avoid cooling the room if it is permanently wired to the mains electricity with no off switch. In both cases, they could not do otherwise because of their intrinsic properties.

Copyright © 2016, 2018, 2021

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