Free Will and Compatibilism

7. Free Will and 'Could Have Done Otherwise'

7.3 Difficult Cases

Book cover: Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel C. Dennett

There are circumstances in which the Officer described in the scenario in §7.1 above does not freely select coffee with his breakfast that morning. He may have developed a strong addiction to caffeine, which then compels him to drink coffee exclusively. The 4C compatibilist theory of what makes an act freely chosen needs to account in a principled way for why this act is not free. Recall that on this theory, there are four requirements for an act to be freely chosen: (1) the act must not feel compelled; (2) the act must not be controlled by a third party; (3) the act results from the agent's character; and (4) the agent is cognitively capable of reasoning about the act. (See §4 above, where I introduce the 4C theory.)

If the Officer's addiction to caffeine is sufficiently strong, his choosing coffee fails requirements (1) and (3) at the least and so cannot be considered an act of free choice. His complaint that he 'had no choice' in choosing coffee is apt and we can interpret his failure in not being able to choose otherwise using the same modal analysis as before. That is, given the Officer's character (liking both tea and coffee), the Officer would not have done otherwise in this situation (addiction plus canteen breakfast), even if the external circumstances were different. In this case of addiction, the Officer feels psychologically compelled to select coffee and thereby violates requirement (1) for a free act.

There are situations in which the Officer may have felt no compulsion to choose coffee and yet the act is considered by most people as unfree. I want now to turn our attention to these kinds of cases. Consider a situation in which the Officer instead underwent an unusual operation the night before. Unbeknownst to the Officer, a neurosurgeon implanted a microchip with remote communication capabilities in his brain that allowed the neurosurgeon to control the Officer's desires from a remote location. Moments prior to choosing his beverage the next morning to enjoy with his breakfast, the neurosurgeon remotely fixes the neuronal firings in the Officer's brain so that he desires and chooses coffee.

The Officer feels no compulsion to choose coffee, so requirement (1) for a free act is satisfied. He may even be able to adduce reasons for his choosing coffee, so requirement (4) may be satisfied. If the neurosurgeon's tinkering is not too dramatic, we may even be able to say that the Officer's choice is consonant with and a consequence of his character. So, requirement (3) may be satisfied. However, as the Officer's intention to choose coffee is directly controlled by the neurosurgeon from afar, his selecting coffee fails requirement (2).

In this case, then, it is apt to say that the Officer could not have done otherwise. The modal analysis of his inability to do other than he did is this: given the Officer's character (liking both tea and coffee), the Officer would not have done otherwise in this situation (remote control plus canteen breakfast) even if the external circumstances were different. It is also reasonable to say that the Officer 'had no choice' in this circumstance even though to the uninformed observer it seems he did have a choice. In this case, the agent doing the choosing is the neurosurgeon, with the unsuspecting Officer simply acting as his proxy.

Consider one final situation in which the Officer does not freely select coffee with his breakfast that morning. Imagine that the Officer has a family history of mental illness. While waiting in the canteen queue that morning, he experienced, for the first time, a mild psychotic episode in which he believed that God was commanding him to select coffee in order to fulfil some divine purpose. As he feels psychologically compelled to obey this divine stricture, requirement (1) is not satisfied. Requirement (3) is also not satisfied, as his actions are out of keeping with his character. Individuals experiencing a psychotic episode are unable to reason clearly about their actions, so requirement (4) also fails. The modal analysis of the fact that he could not have done other than to select coffee follows the same schemata as per the previous examples.

In this section, I considered how we can make sense of an agent acting freely within a deterministic system by employing an ordinary-language modal analysis of 'could have done otherwise'. I then subjected this analysis and the 4C compatibilist theory to difficult cases in which people act unfreely and which severely test our notions of free will and human agency. If the modal analysis given here and the 4C theory are to be vindicated, they need to be able to account in a principled, consistent and coherent way for how the agents of these acts could not have acted otherwise.

Although I think this task has been achieved, I am not claiming an easy victory. Many of these cases involving mental illness, addiction, brain microchips and genetic manipulation generate much discussion and disagreement among philosophers, ethicists, judges and clinicians. However, I think the analytical tools advanced in this essay provide a framework for rational discussion about cases located within these grey areas. Perhaps to their credit, the ideas encapsulated in the 4C theory are not new. They have served as the backbone in the theory and practice of jurisprudence for well on a century.

Copyright © 2016, 2018, 2021

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