All the freedom you can want: The purported collapse of the problem of free will

St. John's Journal of Legal Commentary 22 (1):101-164 (2007)
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Abstract

Reflections on free choice and determinism constitute a recurring, if rarified, sphere of legal reasoning. Controversy, of course, swirls around the perennially vexing question of the propriety of punishing human persons for conduct that they are unable to avoid. Drawing upon conditions similar, if not identical, to those traditionally associated with attribution of moral fault, persons subject to such necessitating causal constraints generally are not considered responsible in the requisite sense for their conduct; and, thus, they are not held culpable for its consequences. The standard argument against free choice asserts that free choice cannot exist because determinism, as a property of laws governing the cosmos, excludes such a possibility. This contingent factual claim, however, has always proven problematic. Contemporary discussions - no doubt aware of this disputed factual premise - draw upon a more novel, and arguably more devastating critique: free will must be rejected because its very conception is incoherent. Rather than assuming the existence of determinism and attempting to show its incompatibility with free will, this argument begins with consideration of the idea of free choice and concludes that, if it is to have any sense at all, it must be compatible with determinism. Obviously, no single treatment of the free will problem could address all its nuances. This Article more modestly offers one possible approach to the question. Part I elaborates in more detail the view that the traditional conception of free choice is incoherent and, thus, inevitably undermines the very responsibility it is asserted to constitute; Part II considers the resulting effort to develop a model of human freedom compatible with determinism; and Part III, drawing upon the prior discussions, describes - in terms of classical action theory - a conception of free choice justifying personal moral and legal responsibility that avoids both the incoherence of "uncaused freedom" as well as the shortcomings of determinism.

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