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2009-03-17
Compatibilists and incompatibilists who disagree only verbally?
I am writing up my paper on terminological disputes.  One of the central cases in the paper involves cases in which certain compatibilists and certain incompatibilists about free will disagree only verbally.  For example, perhaps C and IC agree that determinism is compatible with degree D of moral responsibility but no higher (excluding desert, for example), but C uses "free will" so it requires more than degree D of moral responsibility, while IC uses "free will" so that it requires degree D or less.  Or perhaps C and IC agree that determinism is compatible with full-blown moral responsibility and agree that it is incompatible with the ability to do otherwise, but IC uses "free will" to require the ability to do otherwise while C does not.  In a third case, C and IC might agree that determinism is compatible with certain sorts of ability but not others and agree about which of these abilities is relevant to moral responsibility, but IC uses "free will" (and perhaps "ability to do otherwise") so that it requires one sort of ability, while C uses it to require another.  There are various other possible permutations.

In any case, my question is: can anyone give examples of real-life pairs of compatibilists and incompatibilists who disagree only in this way?  I'm no expert in the area, but my hunch is that an incompatibilist like Derk Pereboom is a promising member for the first sort of pair, and someone like John Fischer (in incompatibilist mode) is promising for the second sort of pair.  But maybe there are others, and in any case I'm not certain which compatibilists to pair them with.  Of course no two philosophers agree on everything.  But the hope is to get pairs who agree on as much as possible in the vicinity that doesn't involve the term "free will": e.g. regarding moral responsibility and its sources, abilities to do otherwise, and so on.


2009-03-17
Compatibilists and incompatibilists who disagree only verbally?
Hi David, interesting issue, one that has been coming up a lot at the Garden of Forking Paths.  The clearest example to me is J.J.C. Smart and Derk Pereboom.  Smart labels himself a compatibilist (and is generally presented as one), but he explicitly says he's analyzing free will in terms of our capacities to be responsive to forward-looking praise, blame, punishment, and reward and that when we express praise and blame we are "grading" people's actions in the sort of way we grade things' aesthetic properties.  Like most compatibilists, Smart does not think we have anything like agent-causal powers and also that such powers are not necessary for free will or moral responsibility.  But many compatibilists, unlike Smart, think that the sorts of free will that are compatible with determinism also get you more than the forward-looking praise, blame, etc. and more than mere grading.

Most incompatibilists, of course, are happy to say we have these sorts of capacities and that this sort of grading is justified and useful, but they don't think the capacities (do or should) count as "free will" and that the grading is not all there is to attributions of moral responsibility or "true desert."  Pereboom basically has the exact same substantive views as Smart, including the idea that it would be a good thing if we got rid of our belief in the sort of responsibility tied to moral outrage and retributive punishment.  But Pereboom calls himself a "hard incompatibilist" (a skeptic about free will).

So, one way to see the debate between Smart and Pereboom is as a terminological dispute about the concept of "free will."  And, for similar reasons, I think it's not always clear how to distinguish other compatibilists (perhaps Dennett) from hard determinists or skeptics.

2009-03-17
Compatibilists and incompatibilists who disagree only verbally?
My sense is that the issue that has historically divided compatibilists and incompatibilists is whether our having free will, understood as the control condition on moral responsibility, is compatible with determinism (and also with certain varieties of indeterminism).  Disagreement between a compatibilist and an incompatibilist might well be merely verbal if these parties are working with different notions of moral responsibility.  I think that the sense of moral responsibility historically at issue in the debate is something like this: for an agent to be morally responsible for an action is for it to belong to her in such a way that she would deserve blame if she understood that it was morally wrong, and he would deserve credit or perhaps praise if she understood that it was morally exemplary, supposing that this desert is basic in the sense that the agent would deserve the blame or credit just because she has performed the action, given an understanding its moral status, and not, for example, merely by virtue of consequentialist or contractualist considerations.

The debate between Fischer and me might well be merely verbal if the notion of moral responsibility he has in mind is a different one.  But in the Four Views on Free Will book (2007) he says that someone who endorses his compatibilist position |need not etiolate or reconfigure the widespread and natural idea that individuals morally deserve to be treated harshly in certain circumstances, and kindly in others.  We need not in any way damp down our revulsion at heinous deeds, or our admiration for human goodness and even heroism.|  So it seems that the issue between Fischer and me is not merely verbal.

What about Smart?  As Eddy points out, he endorses those forward-looking attitudes and the grading idea, but he I think he nowhere explicitly tells us whether he thinks basic desert is compatible with determinism.  At a conference in Melbourne in 2005 at which he presented a paper on free will, I was hoping to find out whether our differences were merely verbal.  So I asked him whether he thought that basic-desert-entailing retributive attitudes would be rationally challenged or undermined by the truth of determinism. He did not commit either way.  That leaves it unclear to me whether our disagreement is merely verbal.

It could be that the difference between many contemporary free-will deniers and compatibilists such as Tim Scanlon is merely verbal.  One problem for deciding the issue in certain cases is that some philosophers in this area have other reasons for denying basic desert, and then don't consider whether it is compatible with the truth of determinism.  Sometimes when people call themselves compatibilists they mean only that determinism is compatible with something like the legitimacy of confronting wrongdoers with a demand to either provide a moral justification for their actions or else commit to avoiding similar actions in the future.  But whether moral responsibility understood in this way is compatible with determinism has seldom been a concern for incompatibilists, and it has not been at issue for most contemporary free-will deniers.

2009-03-31
Compatibilists and incompatibilists who disagree only verbally?
Almost certainly too late to be of use, but are you starting with Hume's claim, in the first Enquiry, that the question of liberty and necessity is merely verbal? This must be one of the earlier examples of such a claim, though of course Locke claimed that the dispute about whether a bat was a bird was mainly verbal.

2009-04-06
Compatibilists and incompatibilists who disagree only verbally?
It’s interesting that Hume’s hypothesis in Section 8 of the first Enquiry (1748) is that the free will debate is merely verbal, and it’s clear that this hypothesis is taken seriously by Reid in his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788).  However, the key element of Hume’s “reconciling project” is a definition of liberty: “By liberty, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may.”  Such conditional definitions have been criticized by incompatibilists ever since then as not adequately expressing the ordinary meaning of liberty or free will -- by, for example, Reid, Chisholm, van Inwagen.  Also, at the end of that section Hume suggests the Strawsonian position that in our own time makes it much harder for disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists to be merely verbal.  About a Stoic sort of divine determinism Hume writes: “Are such remote and uncertain speculations able to counterbalance the sentiments, which arise from the natural and immediate view of the objects?  A man who is robbed of a considerable sum; does he find his vexation for the loss any wise diminished by these sublime reflections?  Why then should his moral resentment against the crime be supposed incompatible with them?”  It’s my sense that since the late 1980’s P. F. Strawson’s link between moral responsibility and the appropriateness of reactive attitudes such as moral resentment and indignation has permeated much of the free will debate.  Incompatibilists with this slant maintain that rational belief that causal determinism is true would in some way undermine the appropriateness of these reactive attitudes, while their compatibilist counterparts deny this.  Here it’s still possible for a disagreement to be merely verbal: while the incompatibilist might have basic desert in mind, the compatibilist may not.  But if it’s claimed, as Fischer does, that the compatibilist need not etiolate or reconfigure ordinary assumptions about what people deserve, then I’d say that the line of division is clearly non-verbal.