Why Deliberate?

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 67 min.

A pressing question for (my) free will skepticism is: Why deliberate?

I’ll abbreviate this worry as the “deliberative dilemma.” Here’s a more fleshed-out expression of it. If you really believe your decisions are fundamentally determined by factors outside your control, why bother deliberating? Deliberating is hard, and no matter what you decide, it will be what you were determined to decide—what you had no real choice but to decide. So why not go with the first thing that pops into your head or roll a die?

But this seems wrong-headed, because deliberation matters. A lot. Imagine I’m new to town and am about to vote in a local election involving several candidates running for several offices. Whom I choose to vote for will likely differ depending on how I choose—for example, if I read up on the candidates and deliberate versus rolling a die. Deliberation can—often does—make a difference in outcome.

In other words, while I am a free will skeptic, I don’t consider myself fated to vote for a certain candidate. Rather, I believe myself to have deliberative efficacy: if I choose to vote for Candidate A and the world doesn’t explode before I get to the polls, I’ll vote for candidate A. To be fated, on the other hand (in my use of the word), would mean that I’ll end up voting for the same candidates whether I roll a die or deliberate. It would mean that, even if I enter the booth intending to vote for Candidate A, something will happen—the voting machine malfunctions or I accidentally trip and land on the wrong button, etc.—to ensure that I end up voting for my fated choice (which may or may not be Candidate A). Fate, under this conception, implies something outside of—that transcends—the basic laws of nature (to put it crudely). If I believed in fate, I’d be even more worried about the deliberative dilemma.

Free will skepticism (as I understand it) need not rest it claims on fate nor on a strict notion of determinism (more about which shortly; for now, though I’m tempted to leave the term “determinism” open-ended, I’ll use it in its more or less usual sense: history plus the laws of nature determine what you’ll do next). Rather, it rests on the broad idea that humans lack the sort of control over their beliefs, sensitivity to reasons, intentions, and thus their behavior, that would make them morally responsible for those beliefs, sensitivity to reasons, intentions, and behavior. Explanations of this lack vary, but they all come down to a basic lack-of-control, or lack of self-determination, attitude that I’ll broadly sum up as “free will skepticism.”

What it means or takes to be morally responsible is an urgent question—in fact, the most urgent question in the free will debate, in my opinion. I use the term “morally responsible” synonymously with “morally blameworthy” and “deserving of punishment.” The high stakes of the free will debate are made particularly salient when it comes time to parse the term “deserving of punishment”—e.g., it’s often taken to mean that it’s morally virtuous, or even morally obligatory, to make wrongdoers suffer in doses proportional to their wrongdoing; the wrongdoer thus owes a debt of suffering to those harmed (which may include a single individual or society in general). As a free will skeptic, I do not believe that human agents are ever morally responsible for their choices.

I do insist, however, that humans are often responsible for their choices in the sense that those choices issue from their beliefs and intentions and deliberation and so on. I tend to refer to this as “legal” rather than “moral” responsibility, in recognition of the fact that if someone is a persistent (potential) source of harm, this may require separating that person from society. Suffering will likely result, but it does not follow that the agent deserves to suffer.

As I go along here, I’ll say more about why I think humans lack the sort of freedom that makes them morally responsible, but my aim today is not to convert anyone to free will skepticism, so I’ll say as little I as I can about it. A rough summary will do for now. When someone makes a choice according to her beliefs, desires, and so on, she is not morally blameworthy for her choice as she did not choose her beliefs, desires, and so on. Rather, these result from her genes, environment (going as far back as the womb), culture, upbringing, education, personal life experience and history, biochemical constitution, and so on. I’ll abbreviate this broad set of influences as “nature-nurture.”

I’m not committed to any particular view about how far back the set of influences goes. The further back we speculate, the less sure I get (the parents’ genes and education? the great-grandparents’? the Big Bang?). But I’m convinced that it at least starts in the womb, and I’m convinced that that’s enough to ground free will skepticism.

I’ll refer to the practical application of nature-nurture to decision making as “deliberative style.” So, while nature-nurture determines one’s deliberative style, it is one’s deliberative style that determines what one actually chooses to do (more on what I do and don’t mean by “determines” in a moment).1

This circles us back to the deliberative dilemma.

You might correctly remind me that I wouldn’t roll a die to choose among political candidates. It’s simply not in my character to risk choosing a candidate whose views I find abhorrent—it’s not in my deliberative style. But part of why I have the deliberative style I have is that I’m convinced that deliberation can at least sometimes make a difference—usually for the better—in what choice I make.

In short, I hold two seemingly opposed beliefs: I believe that, whatever I choose, it will always be the thing I was determined to choose; and I believe that deliberation often matters, in fact, it often matters morally.

My goal here is to resolve the tension. I sort of succeed. A superficial answer to the question is that deliberating keeps one from simply walking into traffic or knowingly inflicting unnecessary harm on others; in short, it helps with being legally responsible to some minimal degree. But this is superficial because, like most people, I don’t need to deliberate about whether to walk into traffic or harm a random person any more than whether to pull my hand from a hot stove. I’m more concerned here with choices that are sensitive or responsive to deliberation.

Another justification is is that deliberation contributes to a greater sense of authorship over one’s life. But this is a psychological concern that recommends fostering a practical—i.e., acting-as-though—belief in free will, even if one is skeptical in actuality. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny the importance such a feeling must carry for many, if not all, people. (I say “many, if not all” because I’ve heard some long-time meditators say that, in some moments, they lose their usual sense of authorship and they consider those moments—which amount to a kind of unveiling of what’s really behind their conscious choices—to have a positive influence on their lives in general.)

It seems, though, that a view so grounded in practical concerns threatens to bottom out for the thoughtful free will skeptic (especially if the skeptic is of the aforementioned meditator sort). For one thing, you know that fostering a sense of authorship is a blatant attempt at self-delusion, but one that is nonetheless psychologically comforting. Which leads us to even more practical justification: any mentally stable adult human couldn’t avoid deliberating even if she wanted to. I don’t find this entirely satisfying, however, at it has free will skepticism built right into it, at least vaguely, given that it essentially says that we are justified in entertaining the false notion of consciously, freely choosing as a direct result of believing that we are unable to consciously, freely choose.

Finally, the justification I find most appealing amounts to a maturer iteration of the above “saves you from walking into traffic” argument. Namely, deliberation leads, on average, to choices less likely to harm oneself or others. In short, it facilitates legal responsibility; e.g., it helps keep you out of the hospital and jail. Just as importantly, appearing to be the sort of person who deliberates signals to others that you are a (potential) source of good—or at least of informed and considered—decisions. This need not have anything to do with free will. I wouldn’t elect a political representative who makes choices by way of eeny, meeny, miny, moe* any more than I would want to share a home with someone prone to violent outbursts due to an inoperable, mind-hijacking brain tumor. It’s a tragedy that some innocent person might have such a tumor, or for that matter have a nuclear bomb sewn into their chest against their will or have all their neural states manipulated by evil neuroscientists. But it’s also true that they are potential sources of harm. I claim that a person who never deliberates would be, in similar a sense, a potential source of harm.


While I use the silly example of a politician who plays eeny, meeny, miny, moe to clearly illustrate my point, there are less farfetched, real-world variations on this theme. Consider the (real or feigned) fear by some Americans that led (catholic) John F. Kennedy to note in a 1960 presidential candidacy speech that he believed “in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope.” One person’s epistemic authority is another’s superstition—religious authority, astrologist, tarot reader, or even the bedside prayer in response to which one claims to hear the voice of God (“God speaks to me”).

Messages from such epistemic authorities are generally subject to a given interpreter’s personal moral sensibilities. This might help us worry less than we would were the authority in question strictly what we might call aleatoric (e.g., a coin toss). Still, I think would, and should be, worried to hear that the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding on the advice of a tea-reader.

And this worry doesn’t stop with organized religion and divination. Deference to presumed moral authorities (e.g., bioethicists and YouTube self-help gurus with PhDs in psychology) and even to scientific authority may be a source of concern for some—e.g., when some particular line of (rigorous) scientific research threatens one’s political views.

Of course, the general hope among proponents of rationalism, democracy (at least in most construals), and free thinking more broadly is that you deliberate—you take in all the relevant information you can (including, if you must, the advice of a tea reader), and then you think hard and decide for yourself. This opens a can of epistemic worms I don’t have have the space or time to corral here, like: one can’t read everything; which sources you consider worth paying attention isn’t strictly up to you; we’re all willfully ignorant in some way or another (another question I’ve recently been tumbling around in the back of my mind is what, precisely, one is being accused of when called “willfully ignorant”); there are some politicians I might rather see flip a coin: for them, the coin might be our best hope at even a slight increase in the chances of a good outcome; and so on.

(Interestingly, in his 2008 book Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework, David Estlund notes that flipping a coin would be the fairest way to make political decisions given that disputants would have an equal chance of winning. Our distaste at this observation is meant to force us to question whether our democratic sentiments are grounded in fairness. And maybe something important is revealed in that regard. It may also be that we’d reject such a procedure as it fails to live up to our longstanding ideals of getting at truth by way of rational and collaborative deliberation. I’ll focus on this question some other day.)

//End Aside]

I’ll be forced to refer back to these justifications—i.e., sense of authorship, psychological necessity, facilitates legal responsibility—as I go along here; but, again, I see them as only sort of resolving the deliberative dilemma, as they strike me as being grounded in practical, rather than theoretical, considerations. In other words, while I don’t find them theoretically satisfying, their practical weight wins out in the end. But that’s nothing special. I don’t see much need for defending deliberation’s practical value: I seriously doubt anyone would want a free will skeptic to stop deliberating for consistency’s sake; though someone might, on those grounds, urge the skeptic to adjust her theoretical models in favor of compatibilism or libertarianism. That in mind, my hope is to defend my free will skepticism against my inability to satisfyingly resolve the theoretical challenges posed by the deliberative dilemma. A more accurate way to put this might be that my hope is to help myself live guilt-free as a free will skeptic who feels the dilemma.2

Maybe I hope for too much. Perhaps this lingering feeling—this nagging voice—is robust enough that I should turn agnostic.3 Or maybe it means I really should bite the bullet and try to stop deliberating, or at least stop being indecisive, stop second- and triple- guessing myself—or should only deliberate with the sort of absurd angst I imagine a pure nihilist must experience at the prospect of doing anything at all. To shun deliberation wouldn’t mean rolling the dice on all possible options (I’m not considering eating my computer for dinner), but when it comes to the few options that are actually open to me—the ones that align with my character enough to make it into the set of viable deliberative targets—maybe deliberation really need not be viewed as anything more than a kind of signal that I’m a civilized actor rather than a loose cannon. But I readily admit, I could never pretend that this is why I deliberate (nor could I fake deliberating for the sake of signaling, while secretly never deliberating).

But there may be yet other practical reasons to live by a no-deliberation policy. Maybe when choosing among a viable set of options, it generally makes little difference to your future happiness which option you choose.4 Or maybe going with the first choice that pops into your head—especially once you’ve uncovered as many relevant facts as you can—gets you closer to who you “really are.” Or, on the other hand, maybe deliberation does. Similarly, maybe one of those will get you closer to, i.e., make you into, who you “really want to be” (whether or not you know who you “really want to be”). On the other hand, capriciousness and deliberateness are more likely qualities tied to “how one is wired,” and as such the capricious person who skips deliberation may be getting closer to who she “really is,” though perhaps she’d rather be more deliberate. In which case deliberation may get her closer to “who she (believes she) wants to be.” And similarly for the person “wired for” deliberation who’d like to be less inhibited. Though maybe who one is and who one wants to be are aligned for many of us. But let’s not forget that our desires in this regard are not desires we’ve chosen.

So maybe the above sort of detailed speculation about self-making vis-à-vis one’s capricious or careful deliberative style is doomed to produce a meaningless, confused mess whose winding intricacies would be better explored in fiction than in a writing like this one. What we may conclude, though, is the more general thought that the choices we make today are influenced by who we were yesterday and contribute to who we’ll be tomorrow, and our deliberative style plays an important role in which choices win out (see below discussion on existentialism for more on this more general point).5

Thankfully, my efforts at making sense of the deliberative dilemma serve a different—I’d say higher—goal than that of merely justifying deliberation. That is, I believe this conversation must be had in service of the free will debate’s most important question: Is punishment (i.e., suffering) ever deserved? I think the answer to this question is “no,” even if my struggles with the deliberative dilemma lead me to agnosticism or, more likely (as my skepticism is strong), exposes me as an “irrational” and confused skeptic. I don’t have to resolve the dilemma (though I’d love to do so); I just need to lock horns with it—i.e., to not ignore its challenge—without submitting to it completely.

For help with this, I turn to Derek Pereboom’s 2016 book, Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, the fifth chapter of which is called “Free Will Skepticism and Rational Deliberation.” Pereboom aims to resolve the dilemma, thereby defending (his) free will skepticism against formidable arguments found, for example, in Peter van Inwagen’s classic 1983 book An Essay on Free Will (more in a moment on that and other examples).

Pereboom emphasizes that he is not committed to determinism. He’s also a defender of Harry Frankfurt’s famous attack on the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, which is to say that Pereboom doesn’t ground his free will skepticism on the idea that an agent must have been able to do otherwise than she did in order to be morally blameworthy.6 Instead, Pereboom relies on an “actual causal sequence” picture:

I also reject the sort of incompatibilism for which the availability of alternative possibilities is crucial to explaining moral responsibility in the basic desert sense, and accept instead an incompatibilism that ascribes the more significant role to an action’s causal history, to the actual causal sequence that produces it. I contend that an agent’s basic desert-involving moral responsibility for an action would be explained primarily by the action’s having a causal history in which she is the source of her action in a specific way. My view is thus a source as opposed to a leeway incompatibilism. (p. 4)7

To be clear, “leeway” represents availability of possible alternative actions for an agent and “incompatibilism” summarizes the idea that “free will is incompatible with causal determination by factors beyond the agent’s control and also with the kind of indeterminacy in action that Hume had in mind, and that as a result, it is unlikely that we have the free will required for moral responsibility” (p. 1).

(I’ve recently written about the actual causal sequence view in this relatively short post: Causation and Free Will: Compatibilist vs. Incompatibilist Intuitions. I especially consider the intuition that the view is compatible with moral responsibility—especially as it is defended by Carolina Sartorio. This includes an exploration of intuitions about manipulation arguments, which I’ll touch on here shortly.)

More of Pereboom’s views about free will and moral responsibility will be filled in as I go along here. I share many of those views, but there are disagreements, too—e.g., I remain convinced by the “could have done otherwise” (i.e., leeway incompatibilist) picture of free will, despite what Frankfurt cases have to tell us about alternative possibilities (I summarize my reasons in the aforementioned post on Sartorio’s view; I explore Frankfurt cases in greater depth in a longer post: Frankfurt Cases & Moral v. Legal Responsibility).

I don’t view this disagreement as significant, however, as source incompatibilism also makes sense to me. In fact, I’d be happy to rest my free will skepticism on that, rather than the leeway, view if only because source incompatibilism is easier to defend against Frankfurt cases (at least at first blush; see again Sartorio’s book, in which she, as a believer in Frankfurt cases, attempts to dismantle source incompatibilism). I’m sympathetic to other incompatibilist views as well—e.g., the idea that (1) self-creation is required for moral responsibility; (2) it’s impossible to self-create; thus (3) moral responsibility is impossible.8 You might say my free will skepticism is overdetermined.

At any rate, comparisons between my and Pereboom’s views concerning the conditions for moral responsibility are ultimately unimportant here. What does matter is that we agree that agents cannot do otherwise than they do (where “can” is understood in the same sense we’d mean it when we say a Frankfurtered wrongdoer cannot do otherwise than she does).

A more significant disagreement has to do with the compatibility of deliberation and free will skepticism. Pereboom is more optimistic than I am, though I find his discussion of the topic instructive. Before getting into that, I’d like to hold up my worry about deliberation to another of Pereboom’s contributions to the free will debate: his four-case manipulation argument. I’m grateful for that argument as I consider it a neatly distilled expression of an intuition I’ve had for some time: there’s no morally significant difference between being manipulated by, say, a super advanced neuroscientist and by one’s own nature-nurture. The basic idea is that you’re first given a case in which an agent’s deliberative machinery is manipulated in a way that obviously removes any possibility of moral responsibility, followed by a similar case in which the manipulation is subtler. This goes on for four cases. Your task in reviewing the four cases is to point out “a relevant and principled difference between any two adjacent cases that would show why the agent might be morally responsible in the later example but not in the earlier one” (p. 6).

Not only do I find Pereboom’s four-case argument intuitively convincing, I’m also (so far) immune to clever attempts to reverse the intuition by reversing the order of the cases. In fact, I’m perplexed that the reversal works on anyone (for such an example, see yet again my aforementioned post on Sartorio’s view).

Frustratingly, though, it turns out that the manipulation argument further motivates the deliberation dilemma. Here’s the first case:

Case 1: A team of neuroscientists has the ability to manipulate Plum’s neural states at any time by radio-like technology. In this particular case, they do so by pressing a button just before he begins to reason about his situation, which they know will produce in him a neural state that realizes a strongly egoistic reasoning process, which the neuroscientists know will deterministically result in his decision to kill White. Plum would not have killed White had the neuroscientists not intervened, since his reasoning would then not have been sufficiently egoistic to produce this decision. But at the same time, Plum’s effective first-order desire to kill White conforms to his second-order desires. In addition, his process of deliberation from which the decision results is reasons-responsive; in particular, this type of process would have resulted in Plum’s refraining from deciding to kill White in certain situations in which his reasons were different. His reasoning is consistent with his character because it is frequently egoistic and sometimes strongly so. Still, it is not in general exclusively egoistic, because he sometimes successfully regulates his behavior by moral reasons, especially when the egoistic reasons are relatively weak. Plum is also not constrained to act as he does, for he does not act because of an irresistible desire—the neuroscientists do not induce a desire of this sort. (pp 76–77)

The example is so carefully articulated because it has been developed over time in response to critical feedback9 and, especially, because of Pereboom’s aim to provide an example of an agent who, intuitively, is not morally responsible even though “prominent compatibilist causal conditions on moral responsibility are satisfied” (p 74). This attention to detail makes the manipulation cases a useful back drop for thinking about deliberation.

That in mind, alter Case 1 as follows. First, rather than just manipulating Plum to kill White, the neuroscientists guide Plum’s mundane, day-to-day neural states. I’ll describe a more important alteration in a moment. First, some notes about Plum’s situation.

Every decision Plum makes is manipulated, though it feels to him that he is in control of his decisions (at least, that is, to the same degree that it does to a typical human). Furthermore, Plum has deliberative efficacy in the sense that whatever he decides to do, he will do (provided it’s actually possible for him to do so; e.g., as in, “I chose to buy the red guitar and then I bought the red guitar”) or at least will try to do (provided it’s possible for him to try to do; e.g., as in, “I told the gal at the counter that I’d like to buy the red guitar, but she said it had already been sold).10

Note also that, for the example to do what I’d like it to, the manipulation need not be as extreme as what I’ve just described. In fact, the neuroscientists might leave a lot of Plum’s brain-workings alone. They need not worry about whether he eats the Honeycrisp or the Granny Smith, the exact moments at which he blinks, the precise content of his dreams. They might only intervene on moral decisions and, even then, as in the unaltered Case 1, they might only intervene to the extent necessary to appropriately influence his deliberative style (they don’t care what Plum’s rationale is for killing White, so long as Plum kills White). In general, they might just monitor Plum’s deliberative style to ensure that, on average, he makes worse rather than better moral decisions. What I need here is not a kind of strict, all-encompassing determinism (more about which soon), but a kind of determinism that makes the next, and more crucial, alteration effective.

Now the crucial change. The neuroscientists convince Plum of their manipulations. It seems initially implausible that Plum would then get along with his daily business rather than falling into despair, but we can easily build into the example that his manipulators see to it that he takes this news well. He might even go on deliberating when faced with big and small decisions. He might even be an indecisive guy. And why not? His effective first-order desires still conform to his second-order desires11, and deliberating still feels good to him, and he still feels and has deliberative efficacy. He really would rather eat the green apple and kill White—he wants to do those things and he wants to want to do those things.

In short, his deliberation would arguably positively satisfy whatever conditions we come up with for making deliberation preferable or rational or whatever in ordinary life. So why shouldn’t this work for him? He might even convince himself (without the help of the neuroscientists) that his controllers are making the same decisions he’d make without their manipulation (like the subject of a Frankfurt case!)—especially if he deliberates (“great minds think alike” and all that).

You get the idea. A kind of worry-free deliberation can be justified, maybe even correctly so, from Plum’s perspective. But from our (or at least my) perspective, this is tough to accept. We know he’s being manipulated and we know that he knows he’s being manipulated, or at least he can’t be certain that he’s not—even if he does tell himself that he’d come to the same conclusions with or without the neuroscientists’ intervention, it sure seems from the outside that that is wishful, delusional thinking. We figure that, somewhere beneath that coping mechanism to which the scientists have allowed him access (what if they hadn’t?), Plum must realize that it’s not only his choices that might not be his own, but his most basic drives and desires. Which is to say that, for any choice, the range of psychologically viable options from which he chooses is also up to the manipulators; a range that was narrow enough to begin with given that his psychologically viable options are a (usually small, proper) subset of his already narrow physically possible options at a given moment (as it is for all of us).

And then there’s the frustrating kicker of all this: we notice, and we figure Plum must have noticed, that the decisions he makes about whether to deliberate are themselves subject to the neuroscientists’ manipulations.

Plum isn’t worried about the neuroscientists, but it seems to me that he should be or would somehow be right to be.12

To contemplate this, imagine the neuroscientists granted Plum a momentary recess from their control, so that he can decide for himself whether to go on deliberating once back under their control. Assume that he hasn’t been entirely conditioned by the neuroscientists’ interventions, so that there is a “true Plum” that emerges here (as would happen, say, had the neuroscientists only taken control of him in recent weeks; fill in the details as you see fit). What would be the point in his choosing to deliberate, rather than, say, doing the first thing that pops into his head or always rolling a die once their control resumed? Indeed, a die-rolling policy—provided the neuroscientists honor it—would take his decisions out of the neuroscientists’ hands. A small victory, perhaps, even though the available choices being settled by the die would still be up to the neuroscientist (unless Plum wants the viable options to include things like eating his computer for dinner and deciding whether to walk into traffic), potentially affording what is sometimes called “Hobson’s choice” or “a Hobson’s choice.”13 Still, we might think Plum has genuinely extended his raw—i.e., non-manipulated—deliberative power with the die so that he does now enjoy a kind of meta deliberative efficacy that carries over while under the neuroscientists’ control, thus transcending it. (I’m thinking here of something like the mind extension afforded Otto by his notebook, as described by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their influential 1998 paper, “The Extended Mind.”14)

But at what cost? Would this be enough to achieve a sense of self-authorship and some semblance of control? As much as could be gained by simply keeping the neuroscientists in control? Maybe the real Hobson’s choice happens at the recess. At this point, with or without the recess, it seems Plum has no real choices. Dismayingly, this carries on to the next stage of the four-case story:

Case 2: Plum is just like an ordinary human being, except that a team of neuroscientists programmed him at the beginning of his life so that his reasoning is often but not always egoistic (as in Case 1), and at times strongly so, with the intended consequence that in his current circumstances he is causally determined to engage in the egoistic reasons-responsive process of deliberation and to have the set of first and second-order desires that result in his decision to kill White. Plum has the general ability to regulate his actions by moral reasons, but in his circumstances, due to the strongly egoistic nature of his deliberative reasoning, he is causally determined to make his decision to kill. Yet he does not decide as he does because of an irresistible desire. The neural realization of his reasoning process and of his decision is exactly the same as it is in Case 1 (although their causal histories are different). (p. 77)

Now alter Case 2 much as we did Case 1 keeping in mind that, this time, Plum was programmed at birth to reason in a certain way, to have certain likes and dislikes, a certain sensitivity to reasons, and so on. It may seem at first blush that this yields more freedom to Plum than in Case 1, but it doesn’t. He is, rather, “causally determined to make his decision to kill,” and indeed, in accordance with our alteration, causally determined in general. I’ve already noted that this not be a strict sort of determinism. But a bit more explanation is in order.

Again, free will skepticism does not entail a belief in fate. Rather, it is (commonly understood as) a position related to whether an agent is morally responsible for her actions (including mental ones, like deciding and intending).15 I avoided using the word “determinism” in that account. In fact, I’m opting out of an extensive discussion about what determinism is, and instead am doing my best to rely on the relatively simple idea that, according to a free will skeptic such as myself, an agent’s actions are not, strictly speaking, determined by that agent, but rather by the agent’s “nature-nurture,” which is the term I use for broadly referring to the set of influences—beliefs, desires, biology, education, environment…—that result in an agent’s actions. The essential idea is that we don’t blame an agent for those critical influences, and so we shouldn’t blame the agent for the intentions and behaviors resulting from those influences. Again, I’m not committed to any particular picture of how far reaching the causal chain that accounts for those influences is, nor of how exhaustive (e.g., whether every detail of every saccade and sneeze was drawn by the Big Bang).

That said, here’s Pereboom’s understanding of “causally determined”:

An action will be causally determined in this way if causally relevant factors occurring or active prior to the agent’s coming to be, and thus beyond her control, together with facts about the laws of nature, also beyond her control, ensure the occurrence of the action by a causal process that begins with those preceding causal factors and ends in the occurrence of the action. An action will also be causally determined by factors beyond the agent’s control if its occurrence is ensured by a causal process that originates in God’s timeless willing and ends in the occurrence of the action. (p. 1)

It’s also worth noting that Pereboom describes himself as “agnostic about the truth of causal determinism” (p. 3), but that this does not in itself threaten his free will skepticism given that “we would also lack moral responsibility if the causal history of our actions were indeterministic and the causes of our actions were exclusively states or events… For such indeterministic causal histories would also preclude the control in action required for moral responsibility” (p. 3). This in mind, it’s not hard to imagine working indeterminism into the four-case argument, but that additional complication isn’t necessary to get the point across.

Given the variety of ways we can be denied the sort of freedom required for moral responsibility, and (on Pereboom’s view) the strength of certain compatibilist intuitions (e.g., Frankfurt cases), Pereboom refers to his free will skepticism with the unspecific term, “hard incompatibilism” (p. 4).

I share Pereboom’s conception of what it means for an agent to be causally determined, and agree that the truth of determinism or indeterminism (or some mixture thereof) would be enough to block moral freedom. But I’m only speaking for myself with the following thoughts on how this conception relates to the manipulation cases and deliberation.

Without a rigorous understanding of determinism, it’s tricky to characterize the extent to which Plum is causally determined. While, again, I’m avoiding a deep discussion of determinism, I do think some explanation is owed by the free will skeptic who maintains that Plum is “causally determined” while declining to commit to determinism.

The crucial feature of this state of affairs is that Plum lacks the degree of self-control required for being held morally accountable for his decisions and behaviors. It does not necessarily mean that, at the time of the Big Bang, it was determined that Plum’s left eye would blink in precisely the way and at precisely the speed and time it did. And the same goes for whatever movements occur with every other large or small part of Plum’s body (arms, vocal cords, brain’s cells, molecules, atoms, etc.). If we could convincingly show that this were the case, then it would be even harder to make a case for deliberation.

But this sort of strict or hard determinism is not required for the deliberative dilemma. All we need is that Plum lacks the relevant sort of control over his decisions and behavior—more precisely, over the form his deliberative style takes.

I propose here an analogy which might be off the mark. But it strikes me as potentially helpful. Like most people, I have little to no control over the content of my dreams. At the same time, it doesn’t occur to me while dreaming that I’m just along for the ride. I might even feel a vague sense of deliberative efficacy as I knock on the door or drive the bus or play with the half-human puppies; at least, I don’t question whether what I’m doing is a result of my decision to do them. When my dream self tries to run and fails, I don’t question that it is my decision to try. No theory of hard determinism stretching back to the Big Bang is required for me to accept that I don’t have control of what happens in my dreams, both in terms of what my dream self does and the content overall (which, of course, is a matter of stuff my brain is doing). There is, of course, a kind of logic to dreams: it’s no surprise when I dream of my sibling or, for the 127th time, of being lost in a school-mall, and I’ll never dream of a genuine square-circle.

It’s under a similar light that my free will skepticism views my waking decisions, even those made under deliberation. There are obvious differences (though, I maintain, not in a sense relevant to moral blameworthiness), but the point is that hard determinism isn’t required for a pervasive, though unfelt, lack of control to be conceivable, even to a libertarian.

That said, there are free will skeptics who claim commitment to a kind of hard determinism that views the human individual as so many billiard balls being knocked around by the laws of physics. A good account of deliberation should fit into such a strict view.16 In other words, I doubt we’ve taken head-on the full thrust of the dilemma’s challenge until we’ve resolved it for the hard determinist.

Appeasing the hard determinist and hard incompatibilist shouldn’t require separate accounts of deliberation. Maybe this is too easy for me to say, as I lean hard incompatibilist, and maybe not for reasons that many other free will skeptics would endorse. So I’ll say just a little more about my views here.

I’m skeptical of hard determinism not only—nor even principally—because of the possibility of randomness, but because I don’t think the contemporary free will discussion has adequately addressed the serious problem of mental causation (at least not in my readings, which are admittedly still in progress). Declaring that “the mind just is the brain” strikes me (and plenty of other self-described physicalists) as far too simple.17

No doubt some will accuse me of the crime of dualism for considering mental causation significant, or at least a believable account of mental causation important; though I don’t consider myself a dualist (nor, by the way, would I consider dualism a threat to free will skepticism). At any rate, it is due to this and, to a lesser though still significant extent, randomness that I hesitate to extend causal chains (or networks) much further back than the womb in my conception of a causally determined human. Hard determinists generally accept the possibility of randomness, by the way, but tend to account for that by pointing out—in my view quite rightly—that truly random18 events, e.g., those at the quantum level, seem too small to affect us humans, as we operate at a higher order in the tiers of physical phenomena—i.e., at the emergent, Newtonian, classical physics, etc. level. But this strikes me as entirely academic, as I now echo the lyric that comes up every time the song of free will skepticism is sung: even if we humans are affected by randomness, this does no favors for the anti-skeptic.

This returns me to the assertion that a rigorous theory of determinism is not needed in order to be a skeptic. All that’s needed is what I’ve summarized here as “nature-nurture,” and even that need not be so all-encompassing. I’m confident that we skeptics can rally at this intersection of agreement, however small it may be, to confront the deliberative dilemma.

This agreement should, I think, survive the loosening on the extent to which the neuroscientists’ intervention can influence Plum’s day-to-day decisions, and not only because the nature-nurture that’s been lurking in the background comes to the fore as the neuroscientists recede (which, after all, is what the manipulation argument is meant to do). But because what matters are the moral dimensions of Plum’s deliberative style. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that they could program him to choose the sweet Honeycrisp over the sour Granny Smith on some particular day decades after he’s born, or even on average. They could program him to prefer sweet over sour, but not so sweet so that he’s choosing between an apple tart and a Honeycrisp. But that’s not enough. They’d also need to install a deliberative style that takes competing desires into account. For example, Plum might choose the Granny Smith because he believes that green foods are healthier for men. It’s easier, though, to imagine that the neuroscientists install a deliberative style such that Plum is primarily motivated by immediate hedonic pleasures, is impulsive, and so on.

And for my purposes, that’s enough. In fact, it’s enough that Plum is convinced of their manipulation, even if there are no neuroscientists!

At any rate, the external grip on Plum’s will is of course further loosened over the next two cases. This makes it easy to indulge the intuition that deliberation is justified or rational. But why should it, if we hold onto the idea that, at least when it comes to the most important questions, Plum is no more in control in Case 4 than he was in Case 1?

That said, here are Cases 3 and 4.

Case 3: Plum is an ordinary human being, except that the training practices of his community causally determined the nature of his deliberative reasoning processes so that they are frequently but not exclusively rationally egoistic (the resulting nature of his deliberative reasoning processes are exactly as they are in Cases 1 and 2). This training was completed before he developed the ability to prevent or alter these practices. Due to the aspect of his character produced by this training, in his present circumstances he is causally determined to engage in the strongly egoistic reasons-responsive process of deliberation and to have the first and second-order desires that issue in his decision to kill White. While Plum does have the general ability to regulate his behavior by moral reasons, in virtue of this aspect of his character and his circumstances he is causally determined to make his immoral decision, although he does not decide as he does due to an irresistible desire. The neural realization of his deliberative reasoning process and of the decision is just as it is in Cases 1 and 2. (p. 78)

Again, imagine Plum becomes convinced that “he is causally determined,” just in the way described. I’ve already said all I have to say about deliberation in the context of these examples. It doesn’t change (for me) here. And for the same reasons, I suppose, that my intuition about Plum’s moral blameworthiness doesn’t change, just as Pereboom intends. The same goes for Case 4:

Case 4: Everything that happens in our universe is causally determined by virtue of its past states together with the laws of nature. Plum is an ordinary human being, raised in normal circumstances, and again his reasoning processes are frequently but not exclusively egoistic, and sometimes strongly so (as in Cases 1–3). His decision to kill White issues from his strongly egoistic but reasons-responsive process of deliberation, and he has the specified first and second-order desires. The neural realization of Plum’s reasoning process and decision is exactly as it is in Cases 1–3; he has the general ability to grasp, apply, and regulate his actions by moral reasons, and it is not because of an irresistible desire that he decides to kill. (p. 79)

Here we have the “ordinary deterministic case” (p. 79), with the usual alteration that Plum believes he’s causally determined. In the context of the four cases and the vividness with which they imbue Plum’s lack of self-determination, his deliberation here seems pointless—seems at best a perfunctory effort at self-authorship and at worst a desperate and transparent existentialist self-delusion. Made all the more absurd by the lack of neuroscientists and community, as the forces in play offer no possibility of recess: they are ceaseless, mindless, and saturate every inch of existence. Deliberation is like addressing a tsunami with a cocktail umbrella.

This wasn’t the intended takeaway of the four-case manipulation, given that Pereboom soon after goes on to argue that deliberation is rational. In other words, Pereboom intends for the reader of the cases to develop the intuition that Plum is not morally responsible for his choices, i.e., for the outcome of his deliberations, on the grounds of being causally determined, but not that this should give the impression that deliberation is pointless in general (notwithstanding the thought that White might prefer that Plum had not deliberated).

Of course, these effects on me of the four-case argument won’t deter me from deliberating. Thus the dilemma.

That in mind, it’s time to venture into the book’s fifth chapter, “Free Will Skepticism and Rational Deliberation,” where Pereboom poses a broader formulation of my concern: “[Free will skepticism’s] main worry is a practical one: Can we live with the belief that it is true?” (p. 104). And then, more specifically: “skeptical views about free will threaten to undercut our self-conception as deliberative and rational agents” (p. 104). In other words, “the belief that our actions are causally determined [in such a way that precludes moral responsibility] does threaten to conflict with the presuppositions of rational deliberation” (p. 104).

Pereboom aims to eliminate (or ease) the threat by developing a set of conditions for rational deliberation that are compatible with a belief in determinism. Call this “d-compatibilism” (where “d” is for “deliberation”). The goal is to justify deliberation as rational, where “rational” roughly means one’s beliefs are mutually compatible.19

Pereboom’s first move is to make the interesting point that, even though what you end up doing isn’t really up to you, you don’t know what you’ll end up doing, so there is no problem with believing that you could do one thing or some other thing:

When I am deliberating whether to do A, supposing I correctly believe determinism is true, I would not know whether I will in fact do A since I lack the knowledge of the antecedent conditions and laws that would be required to make the prediction based on these factors, not to mention the time and wherewithal. So even if I believe that it is causally determined that I will not do A, I might without inconsistency believe that it is in a sense epistemically possible that I do A, and that I could do A in this epistemic sense. (p. 107)

In short, deliberation is rational due to its being “epistemically possible” for me that I could, or could not, do A. It’s true that I generally don’t know what I’m going to do when deliberating, but at the same time, (as a free will skeptic) I believe that whatever I do will be what I was in fact causally determined to do. Given this, it seems that epistemic possibility would not justify deliberation, so much as a kind of process of self-discovery about what I’m most likely to do, given what I do know about antecedent conditions and laws. This could amount to a kind of internal probability assessment for the still-undecided: “There’s a 72% chance I’ll choose to do A.” Or maybe the self-discovery would be more about uncovering reasons or explanations for whatever I end up doing.

This is clearly not what we’re up to when we deliberate. (Though sometimes we should think probabilistically: if I don’t tie myself to the mast, I’m very likely to follow the sirens.) Besides, we can figure out what we’ll do rather easily: just do something, anything. And then we’ll know. And that would also be the best vantage point from which to assess why we did what we did.

Which is to say that, on its face, I find the rationale of epistemic possibility unsatisfying. But there’s more to unpack. Pereboom refines his argument by identifying two relevant epistemic states (emphasis mine):

One of these specifies an epistemic notion of openness for what to do, and the other is an epistemic condition on the efficacy of deliberation. (p. 107)

Where “epistemic notion of openness” means believing that one has “more than one distinct option for what to do” (p. 105). Pereboom goes on to develop this two-pronged proposal as a strengthened variation on accounts earlier proposed by, especially, Tomis Kapitan 20 and others. After reviewing some of those accounts and various objections, Pereboom lands on the following conditions, atop which I reiterate the dilemma, but in Pereboom’s words:

An agent who rationally deliberates about an action A would then believe that there exist no conditions that render either her doing A or not-A inevitable. But if she also believed in determinism and its evident consequences, she would believe that there do exist conditions that render either A or not-A inevitable. She would then have inconsistent beliefs. (p. 106)

Pereboom reasonably characterizes “deliberation” as:

(D) S deliberates just in case S is engaged in an active mental process whose aim is to figure out what to do from among a number of distinct, i.e., mutually incompatible, alternatives, a process understood as one that can (but need not) include the weighing and evaluating of reasons for the options for what to do. (p. 110)

Two carefully developed conditions for d-compatibilism follow. First, a condition for epistemic openness:

(S) In order to deliberate rationally among distinct actions A1 … An, for each Ai, S cannot be certain of the proposition that she will do Ai, nor of the proposition that she will not do Ai; and either (a) the proposition that she will do Ai is consistent with every proposition that, in the present context, is settled for her, or (b) if it is inconsistent with some such proposition, she cannot believe that it is. (p. 113)21

Which is to be taken together with an explanation of “settled”:

(Settled) A proposition is settled for an agent just in case she believes it and disregards any uncertainty she has that it is true, e.g., for the purpose of deliberation. (p. 113)

Second, a condition for belief in deliberative efficacy (where “on the basis of” is understood causally):

(DE) In order to rationally deliberate about whether to do A1 or A2, where A1 and A2 are distinct actions, an agent must believe that if as a result of her deliberating about whether to do A1 or A2 she were to judge that it would be best to do A1, then, under normal conditions, she would also, on the basis of this deliberation, do A1; and similarly for A2. (pp. 118–110)

The above, along with uncontroversial necessary conditions (e.g., a certain degree of cognitive capacity), are meant to be sufficient and, ideally, necessary (though Pereboom doesn’t consider that crucial) for rational skeptical deliberation, thus withstanding “objections that have been raised against other compatibilist proposals for the beliefs required for deliberation,” and providing “reason to think that a deliberation-incompatibilism, for example, a version that incorporates condition (I), can be successfully resisted” (p. 126).22

Note that the “(I)” to which Pereboom refers is Dana Nelkin’s formulation of d-incompatibilism:

(I) Rational deliberators who deliberate about an action A must believe, in virtue of their nature as rational deliberators, that there exist no conditions that render either [her doing] A or not-A inevitable. (p. 106)23

Before commenting, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not principally concerned with the question of whether it’s rational for the free will skeptic to deliberate. My concern is whether there is any point to deliberating at all, even if it does turn out to be rational (according to whatever conception of “rational”). The spirit I have in mind comes across in expressions of the following sort:

From Galen Strawson, who doesn’t invoke the deliberative dilemma, but hits on its motivation:

In the end, whatever we do, we do it either as a result of random influences for which we are not responsible, or as a result of non-random influences for which we are not responsible, or as a result of influences for which we are proximally responsible but not ultimately responsible. … whatever one does, one will do what one does because of the way one’s CPM [i.e., character or personality or motivational structure] is, and since one neither is nor can be ultimately responsible for the way one’s CPM is, one cannot be ultimately responsible for what one does.24

And, more simply, from Peter van Inwagen:

…anyone who denies the existence of free will must, inevitably, contradict himself with monotonous regularity.25

A large part of my mission in thinking deeply about free will is to avoid contradicting myself as van Inwagen bluntly describes. Maybe addressing concerns about rationality—in the sense of not simultaneously holding or, worse, acting on opposing beliefs—gets us close enough to the deliberative dilemma to dismantle it—i.e., to correct my (hopefully) misguided intuition that deliberation is either pointless or belies the sincerity of my self-proclaimed skepticism. Or maybe it will help me to correct my skepticism about free will, e.g., steering me closer to agnosticism. That in mind, some comments now on Pereboom’s d-compatibilism.

The only aspect of Pereboom’s account that gives me pause is the openness requirement, (S). It seems to me that the central d-incompatibilist worry—and indeed my worry—is that a necessary (if not sufficient) condition for deliberation to be rational is the belief that one has at least two options available. As a free will skeptic, I believe that there really is only one option available to me; namely, whatever I actually end up doing. This is a broad, or general, concern.

A more specific concern is about whether I’ll do A. Of course, Pereboom is correct that I don’t know whether I’ll do A. This leaves it epistemically open as a possibility for what I might do. It is this specific concern that Pereboom addresses with (S). But I fear that (S) does not handle the broad or general concern that I believe there to be only one option available to me.

Another way to express the general and specific distinction is to look again at Pereboom’s expression of the dilemma. The first sentence states that “An agent who rationally deliberates about an action A would then believe that there exist no conditions that render either her doing A or not-A inevitable” (p. 106). A specific interpretation would be that she has no explicit belief that her doing A is inevitable, and she has no explicit belief that her doing not-A is inevitable. It is possible for her to not have any such beliefs while believing, broadly, that it is inevitable that she will either do A or not-A. This broad interpretation is, in fact, the one in play in the next sentence: “But if she also believed in determinism and its evident consequences, she would believe that there do exist conditions that render either A or not-A inevitable. She would then have inconsistent beliefs” (p. 106).

But (S) seems to zero in on a specific interpretation, without addressing the general. My worry presumes, of course, that it is possible to satisfy the specific case (in which there’s no single option you believe to be inevitable) while leaving untouched the general case (in which you believe there is one thing it’s inevitable you’ll do); in other terms, that satisfying the specific case doesn’t entail—isn’t sufficient for—satisfying the general. I believe the presumption correct.

To see this, consider again Plum’s dilemma in our alteration of Case 1. Plum does not know whether he’ll kill White, and so it is epistemically open to Plum that he doesn’t kill White. It is also the case that he has deliberative efficacy, in the sense that, if his deliberation leads to the choice to kill White, he will kill White (circumstances willing). One might say that there’s no problem here, that it is rational for Plum to deliberate provided (S) is satisfied. Maybe it is rational. That’s not very comforting, however, as the general worry—i.e., the worry grounding the deliberative dilemma—overwhelms whatever comfort is afforded by satisfying (S).

One might counter that some condition or another is not satisfied here: Plum believes he’s being manipulated; he believes his deliberative efficacy has been usurped by evil neuroscientists; the uncontroversial necessary conditions aren’t satisfied. My response to all of these is that if these points matter to deliberation—or at least to the rationality of deliberation—in Case 1, then they should similarly matter in Case 4 (for anyone, at least, whose intuitions about free will skepticism survive from Case 1 to Case 4). To quote again Case 1: “[Plum’s] process of deliberation from which the decision [to kill White] results is reasons-responsive; in particular, this type of process would have resulted in Plum’s refraining from deciding to kill White in certain situations in which his reasons were different” (p. 76) and then Case 4: “The neural realization of Plum’s reasoning process and decision is exactly as it is in Cases 1–3.” (p. 79).

My worry here is that we who live in Case-4–type worlds are in no better a position to justify deliberation than Plum is in Case 1, and that Pereboom’s conditions aren’t helping due to the the aforementioned general-specific distinction, which again is: Plum will, at some point in time, correctly believe that the neuroscientists have already decided whether or not he will kill White, and at that same point in time, Plum will not have formed a specific belief about which of those two options they have already decided for him (in other words, it will still be epistemically open for Plum that he kill or not kill White).

Perhaps, though, this isn’t a worry for Pereboom, given that he does make reference to the general-specific distinction (though he doesn’t call it that) while pointing to the care he has taken to accommodate a clever challenge posed by Peter van Inwagen:

…imagine that [an agent] is in a room with two doors and that he believes one of the doors to be unlocked and the other door to be locked and impassable, though he has no idea which is which; let him then attempt to imagine himself deliberating about which door to leave by. (p. 116)26

Peremboom’s deliberative efficacy condition (DE) accounts for this “two-door” challenge. According to (DE), so long as Plum doesn’t know which thing he’ll do, and he believes that he will be able to do (or at least try to do) what he decides he’ll do, then it’s rational for him to deliberate. The two-door situation fails in this respect. From Pereboom:

Now notice that (DE) is not met by the agent in the two-door situation, but it is satisfied by someone in an ordinary deliberative situation in which she believes that determinism is true and that she therefore has only one possibility for decision and action—but she doesn’t know which. If she believes that one of either

(i) doing A1 on the basis of deliberation


(ii) doing A2 on the basis of deliberation

is such that she cannot do it because determinism is true, but she doesn’t know which, she can still meet condition (DE). For she might still believe that if she were to judge doing A1 best, she would do A on the basis of deliberation, and similarly for A2 and believe all of this rationally. (p. 119)

Plum is not in a two-door situation. If he were, he would believe that there is only one physical possibility for him, no matter what he chooses. Instead, he believes that if he chooses to kill White, he will kill White, and if he chooses not to kill White, he will not kill White. And his belief is correct, even if his choice is made as a result of neuroscientists assembling his deliberative style (as in Case 1), or is made as a result of his nature-nurture assembling his deliberative style (as in Case 4). (Actually, given that “nurture” is meant to capture a broad category of environmental influence on an agent’s development, we might say that Plum’s nature-nurture has assembled his deliberative style in all four cases; which is to say that the neuroscientists’ intervention might count as an extreme sort of environmental intervention [e.g., a kind of direct brainwashing].)

This keeps Plum rational in the sense required by (DE). But it doesn’t deal with my worry about the general interpretation of Plum’s situation that doesn’t require one of the doors to be locked, as it were. That is, the general worry would persist were the agent to believe: that both doors are unlocked; that he is capable of leaving by either door (i.e., physically capable of turning the doorknob, pulling the door open, walking through the threshold, etc.); that whichever door he chooses to leave by he will leave by; that whichever door he chooses, he was causally determined to choose that door, so that there truly is only one causal path available to him.

Maybe this is the spirit in which van Inwagen’s challenge is most bravely interpreted: i.e., that it is as if the ordinary-world free will skeptic deliberates while believing one of the doors is locked, which is to say with the belief that one of the doors—i.e., one of two causal paths—is simply unavailable (though there’s no strong belief about which path is closed until after the choice is made).

I conclude from all this that if satisfying Pereboom’s d-compatibility conditions is a good indication of the free will skeptic’s deliberation rational, I don’t see rationality as being enough to resolve the deliberative dilemma. And if Pereboom’s conditions are necessary yet still miss some additional necessary condition in order to make deliberation rational—well, then I surely don’t see a resolution. So, I think we must look elsewhere for justification (and, as mentioned in an earlier footnote, a question I won’t get into is whether we want to call any convincing justification de facto “rational,” even if that admits of tension between explicitly held beliefs). For example, indulging the feeling of authorship and self-guided deliberative efficacy, even if knowingly delusional, might provide a psychological salve (indeed, this may be precisely how the neuroscientists build into Plum’s nature-nurture a resilience to the knowledge of their intervention—which, to the extreme, he may then be able to rationalize as harmonious collaboration rather than evil machination). And then there’s the psychological fact that he simply can’t not deliberate.

These practical responses to the dilemma are fine, maybe undeniable. But, while the capacity for guiltless deliberation may thankfully keep Case-1 Plum from being pitched into abysmal despair on learning of his predicament27, this does not make any more acceptable the response that it simply feels to Plum like deliberation is consistent with his lack of free will. This may ground his belief that it is so consistent. But the question is not whether it feels a certain way to Plum, but whether it is a certain way. That is, from the, from the perspective of an outsider, Case 1 Plum’s situation is abysmal and horrifying, and deliberation is just an absurd, maybe even pathetic, exercise.

Here’s a summary of where things seem to stand. Plum, in all four cases, arguably satisfies both (S)28 along with (Settled)29, and (DE)30, but the deliberative dilemma persists. Plum’s deliberation has causal efficacy, but what’s really responsible for his choices—and even for the range of viable options from which he chooses31—is his deterministic situation, nature-nurture, deliberative style. This is why the free will skeptic says Plum, or anyone else, is not morally blameworthy for his actions.

A crude analogy. While the density and such of a particular rock and pane of glass play an important causal role in the rock’s breaking the window, we don’t put blame on—i.e., pin our causal narrative on—the rock’s density and such for the broken window, but rather on the person who threw the rock; unless, that is, we’re window makers interested in testing the strength of our glass against rocks. Meanwhile, the non-researcher rock-thrower’s narrative might be, “Eric told me he’d stop stealing my cousin’s lunch money if I threw the rock at Eric’s dad’s office window.” And so on. Causal explanations and models depend on the level of analysis one is interested in; for the free will skeptic, there’s no room in the causal sequence for moral blame precisely due to this fact—i.e., it seems arbitrary to choose a particular stage of analysis and say, “this is where the real or most important causal action is happening, and so the wrongdoer deserves to suffer.”

This translates to an inability to really choose, at least in some sense fundamental enough to ground moral freedom. And here emerges the deliberative dilemma: if you can’t really choose, how is deliberation not the sort of contradiction van Inwagen has pointed to? I’d like to highlight just how strong this intuition is for van Inwagen (at least at the time of writing An Essay on Free Will; bold emphasis is mine):

In my view, if someone deliberates about whether to do A or to do B, it follows that his behaviour manifests a belief that it is possible for him to do A—that he can do A, that he has it within his power to do A—and a belief that it is possible for him to do B. Someone’s trying to decide which of two books to buy manifests a belief with respect to each of these books that it is possible for him to buy it just as surely as would his holding it aloft and crying, “I can buy this book.” (van Inwagen 1983, p. 155)

We all, therefore, believe that people are sometimes morally responsible for what they do. We all believe that responsibility exists. And, I think, if we examine our convictions honestly and seriously and carefully, we shall discover that we cannot believe that this assent is merely something forced upon us by our nature and the nature of human social life, as our behavioural manifestations of assent to the proposition that we have free will are forced upon us by the sheer impossibility of life without deliberation. … in my view, the proposition that often we are morally responsible for what we have done is something that we all know to be true. (van Inwagen 1983, p. 209)

Here’s a more recent expression. “A Promising Argument” (Essay 11) from his 2017 collection, Thinking about Free Will, is included among earlier essays van Inwagen considered “worthy of being reprinted” (p. viii of the Kindle edition)32, and features this passage:

It is a firm conviction of mine that if one is at a certain moment deliberating about whether to do A or to do B, it follows that one believes at that moment that one is then able to do A and then able to do B… It follows from my “firm conviction” that philosophers who believe that the free-will thesis is false have contradictory beliefs whenever they engage in deliberation. (van Inwagen 2017, p. 176, fn 13)

I reproduce van Inwagen’s thoughts because I believe them to issue from the long-sustained, sincere reflection of a fine contemporary philosophical mind; as such they should be taken very seriously.33 I can’t imagine any reason to disagree with him other than that my intuition, today, simply does not align with his. Instead, while I share van Inwagen’s worry about deliberation, my overall feelings about free will align with Pereboom’s. This, despite, I think, having examined my convictions “honestly and seriously and carefully,” as 1983 van Inwagen prescribed (though I shy from the word “conviction” in favor of the term “existing belief”). I also get the sense that the older van Inwagen sees the debate as having come to an intuitional impasse, as introspective free will skeptics do seem to be unembarrassed by deliberation).

I, of course, continue to worry about deliberation, but my intuition that the free-will thesis is false overcomes that worry. I don’t say this lightly. Nor do I explore these thoughts as merely some fun bit of philosophical distraction. I take my free will skepticism and my concurrent belief in the contradiction of deliberation to be more robust, say, than the student’s claim, in the only philosophy class he’ll ever see, that he is indeed skeptical about having two hands or not being a brain in a vat or not living in a computer simulation or the existence of other minds, only to exit the classroom and behave, that day and all days that follow, with no such skepticism in sight. I count myself among the serious free will skeptics who believe our criminal justice system must be remade and who really do remind themselves that they should not be taken over by resentment at wrongdoers—just as the caretaker might do when treated harshly by a person suffering dementia—and should and can strive to replace resentment with compassion while still respecting the person qua person. 35

I believe free will and its surrounding questions matter. I believe, at the very least, that if theoretical concerns prove too strong an obstacle to an intainted free will skepticism, that at least a temporary agnosticism about free will and, especially, moral responsibility is warranted as the stakes of the debate are about as high as stakes can get. This is why most of my contemplation and discussion of free will center on the urgent questions of blame and punishment; that is, I think free will agnosticism is enough for us to not punish retributively. Pereboom seems to agree: “And even if these arguments are not forceful enough to confirm free will skepticism decisively, they might well be sufficiently powerful to show that the moral and epistemic standards for justifying harmful behavior [e.g., criminal punishment] have not been met” (p. 178).

Where this leaves me as I go about the daily business of making choices, I’m not sure. I’m not sure whether the acknowledged contradiction makes me irrational. I’m not sure rationality is the gold standard. I do believe that, broadly speaking, some of my beliefs are wrong, but I don’t know which. And so I act according to my beliefs as best I can—the stronger and, in my view, nobler ones especially. I believe that I believe deliberation to be important, and I believe that I have a set of beliefs such that it’s appropriate to name myself a free will skeptic. Confusing, but there it is.

Pereboom’s fifth chapter helps with the confusion despite failing to resolve the dilemma (for me). I may not be the ultimate cause of my deliberative style, but I am, to borrow Strawson’s language, the proximal cause of my decisions. This need not make me morally responsible, but it is important for other reasons. Namely, what I choose to do matters, which is to say that deliberation matters as an act of causal efficacy of which my choices are a function (even if my deliberative machinery is itself a function of my nature-nurture, and so on). My choices may be determined, but they aren’t fated. If my deliberative machinery is in working order, it, among other things, helps me to be less of a danger to myself and others—that is, it keeps me legally responsible. And it signals as much. When it doesn’t work properly, this matters as well and must be dealt with appropriately (I think you by now know more or less what I mean by “appropriately”).

Despite this, I need not dig much deeper to again encounter the idea that, whatever I do, it will have been the only thing I could do. For many choices, the mere fact of deliberative efficacy doesn’t move me at all. These may range from small to large: what to order from the menu, whether to apply to PhD programs. Whatever I choose is what I was determined to choose, whether or not I deliberate. In some ways, I might view deliberating as a way of uncovering the reasons that move me more generally, which may help me better understand or come in handy otherwise (e.g., when attempting to reveal my inner self to intimates). More cynically, it’s an attempt to develop a story so I can satisfy my own need for a self-narrative, and to be able to justify to myself and others why I’ve done what I’ve done: “Here are my pros-and-cons lists and decision tables etc.”

In my most indecisive moments, though, when no answer seems any better than any other, maybe flipping a coin, provided I can truly submit to it, really is the best option—the least bothersome, less stressful, and equally as insightful option into the best future for me.

I’m reminded here of a story shared by Jean-Paul Sartre, whose thoughts might be useful for engaging the dilemma more deeply, due to, rather than despite, his dedication to the idea that…

…man is condemned to be free… because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does. … Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.36

Elsewhere, Sartre recounts in vivid detail the story of a student’s agonizing deliberation between two loyalties: leave to fight the in the war or stay home with his mother who needed him. The student sought Sartre’s guidance:

[I]n coming to see me he knew the answer I was going to give him, and I had only one answer to give: “You’re free, choose, that is, invent.” No general ethics can show you what is to be done; there are no omens in the world. The Catholics will reply, “But there are.” Granted—but, in any case, I myself choose the meaning they have. (Sartre 1957, p. 28)37

There is an interesting kinship between my and Sartre’s views. His message seems to be that, whatever the student chooses, it will confirm itself as the right choice in the story the student then tells himself; indeed, his story, along with the consequences of his choice, will make him into who he becomes. But the choice cannot be decided on the basis of any system of ethics or on the student’s feelings for his mother:

I may say “I love my mother well enough to remain with her” if I have remained with her. The only way to determine the value of this affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and defines it. But, since I require this affection to justify my act, I find myself caught in a vicious circle. (Sartre 1957, p. 27)

I once heard a scholar on a panel—I’ve forgotten who and where—characterize Sartre’s advice as, “flip a coin.” Maybe that would work, provided the student’s psychological constitution is such that he can find meaning in such a small omen, and can genuinely submit to “aleatoric authority”—can let the universe decide for him. Maybe this aligns with the existentialist injunction: what matters is the meaning the student chooses to inject into the coin flip. Or maybe it violates the injunction, as handing off the decision to a coin may constitute bad faith in the sense of the student disavowing—attempting to escape the condemnation of—his freedom.

Whatever the case, I can get on board with the student’s deliberative efficacy, as described by Sartre, and with the idea that he will find meaning in—inject meaning into—the results of his choice, and that this being such a major choice, it will likely significantly alter who he is. It will contribute to his nurture, as I call it, and thus to the forms his deliberative style will take as he continues through life.

Our views diverge, of course, given that I take the meaning the student injects to be a function of his nature-nurture, while Sartre famously would not allow for one’s upbringing, environment, socio-political context, or genes to be an excuse for what one chooses: “every man who takes refuge behind the excuse of his passions, every man who sets up a determinism, is a dishonest man” (Sartre 1957, p. 45).

Still, I see useful insight here for the free will skeptic. I hesitate to attempt nuanced observations of Sartre’s thought given my lack of intimacy with his writings and the dustiness of what familiarity I do have. But maybe it’s not so subtle a point to suggest that Sartre acknowledges, indeed relies on, a paradox inherent in the relation between facticity (his word for everything that is a fact about oneself, either as a result of environment, choices, or behavior) and freedom—a paradox he condenses into bite-sized assertions about condemnation to freedom and even, “in a certain sense, I choose being born.”38

It is this “certain sense” that brings my and Sartre’s views together: choosing freely in the sense that my deliberation—more precisely, my belief—matters, it contributes to my current and future experience, to who I am and will become, even though I didn’t choose to be born in the literal sense. Maybe, then, this isn’t so paradoxical. No more so, perhaps, than being causally determined and having deliberative efficacy. And contradictions be damned—there is something to the fact that thoughtfully participating in what one becomes is a preferable experience to that of not so participating.

There’s more to wonder about here. I’m unclear, for instance, on what Sartre’s picture of ontological freedom might mean for moral responsibility, given that he seems to view those concepts as incommensurable, and instead speaks of bad faith errors amounting to a disavowal of one’s freedom (something also seen, for example, in what I understand to be his attempts to revise Marxism by replacing determinism with human freedom); following up Sartre’s aforementioned comment about the dishonest man:

The objection may be raised, “But why mayn’t he choose himself dishonestly?” I reply that I am not obliged to pass moral judgment on him, but that I do define his dishonesty as an error. One can not help considering the truth of the matter. Dishonesty is obviously a falsehood because it belies the complete freedom of involvement. (Sartre 1957, p. 45)

The point I’m chiefly interested in, however, is that some story will follow a given choice, and that story will likely confirm itself.39 Such a choice very well might come down to a coin flip, something for which there is room even in Pereboom’s account:

Or when an agent judges doing A1 and A2 to be equally good, with no other options under consideration, the immediate result of deliberation can feature the outcome of a tie-breaking procedure, like the flip of a coin. (DE) could be made more precise to allow for such alternative immediate results. (p. 119)

The case for skipping deliberation given equally appealing options can be made on the reasonable theoretical grounds of neither choice being better than the other (as Pereboom does, and maybe Sartre does as well with his advice to the student); but I doubt this would really be seen as morally acceptable in practice, especially when it comes to moral decisions (suppose Sartre’s student tells his mother, “I flipped a coin; you won”). Were Case-4 Plum to flip a coin, not only would we hold him responsible for doing what the coin says, we would be struck by the fact that he is deliberating at all about whether to kill White. In a more ordinary moral scenario—say, in which a politician decides which welfare program to eliminate due to imposed budget cuts—I imagine a leaked video of the politician flipping a coin going viral (and not in a good way).

So how does this help me?

Maybe I contradict myself “with monotonous regularity.” But I can’t shake my skepticism, and never deliberating about anything—leaving every conscious decision I could possibly make to chance or a kind of convulsive, bodily spontaneity—strikes me as a mental disorder, as something worse than having my prefrontal lobes removed, as bad for my existential health. (Though I admit a part of me would like to try it for a while.)

I rest, then, on the thought that my deliberation is efficacious, so there is a certain sense in which I have the power to thoughtfully participate in the authoring of my past and future self. That gives me a thoughtful, if not knock-down, justification for the act in itself. There are still, too, the practical reasons. If I managed to skip deliberating altogether, it would drive me to mental instability. Deliberation also results in better decisions and signals to others that I’m not a loose cannon, that I have that thing we call “character” and that it can be tracked and catalogued, relied on for predictions about my future behavior, etc. This may result in some species of self-contradiction—a low, sustained buzz of cognitive dissonance—that is progressively easier to work around as, across Pereboom’s four cases, it shrinks further into the background and is increasingly masked by louder, more important noises.

This is made easier by the fact that the deliberative dilemma is a naturally weaker aspect of my (if not your) attitudes about free will than is my skepticism, whose presence is more strongly sustained against the flow of the four cases. If my skepticism is the fundamental of a pitch, the deliberative dilemma is some nearby, vaguely dissonant, overtone; the flatted seventh or even the flatted fifth. Dissonance, when skillfully handled (e.g., in interplay with consonance), enriches musical and sonic experience. I suspect this is where the metaphor breaks down, given the significance with which the dissonance is viewed by smart philosophers, and given that the attempts I’ve seen at resolution strike me as failing. Whatever the case, I’m stuck by that dissonance today. Though its pushing and pulling at the logical integrity of my skepticism is easy to ignore—indeed to see as integral to its surroundings—when I’m hearing the composition as a whole. Dissonance is its own kind of glue.

The dilemma blends so easily and naturally into the background that I’ve seen no problem, no fatal irony, in writing several pages amounting to a sustained, convoluted deliberation over whether I should deliberate.

I wrap up with a story meant to remind that, however outweighed or drowned out the dilemma may be by more salient concerns and intuitions, it persists.

Ben commits to being alcohol-free for six months. He does so with his girlfriend Mollie’s enthusiastic support and because he thinks it in his (and the world’s) best interest. A month or two into this project, Mollie goes out of town for a week. Ben had promised her he wouldn’t break his commitment, but it quickly occurs to him that he could easily have one or two or really more like 10 beers and no one would ever know but him.

After a few days of successfully keeping that thought at bay, Ben finds himself deliberating over whether to drink. He worries in particular about breaking his promise to Mollie. As for drinking in itself, he doesn’t feel a one-night break from abstinence would be terrible—it’d be a blip that even he might one day forget. Or maybe he’ll confess twenty years on, when, after decades of responsible living, the event will appear insignificant.

Ben’s deliberation ends with a drink. He first had to buy the beer, open it, lift it towards his face, take the first sip—each hesitant step requiring its own deliberative work, its own complicated rationale. While enjoying the first drink, which he very much did enjoy, he confirms to himself a thought he’s had all along: if he drinks, then drinking is exactly what he was causally determined to do; he couldn’t have done otherwise. He’s a sincere free will skeptic, so there’s no reason to doubt his honesty or logic here, even though he claims to believe in deliberative efficacy, and can explain why he does.

Equally important, other free will skeptics are committed to agreeing that Ben couldn’t have done otherwise. Those skeptics might have different ways of arriving at that conclusion—e.g., by way of hard determinism or “hard incompatibilism” [Pereboom, p. 4])—but in the end, they must agree that things could not have gone otherwise given precisely those conditions in which Ben deliberated just before buying the beer, opening it, lifting it to his face, taking the first sip.

Maybe had something been different about the world—had he happened to have had a different dream the night before, heard a certain song, put a little less honey on his morning toast, noticed last year’s anniversary card from Mollie (he was this close to noticing it), boarded a different train car (so he wasn’t jammed between backpacking tourists), walked a different route home (one that didn’t feature such a clever liquor store sandwich board sign)—had there been some small difference in his environment, maybe he would have held out one more night, and that would have been enough. That was the only night that week that he had no place to be the next morning (except in bed, hungover and regretful).

Somehow, Mollie finds out Ben drank. She’s bothered. She’s also a confirmed free will skeptic, but is right to be bothered, to trust him less, to say, “I don’t really care that you drank, but I’m bothered that you tried to hide it.” There’s nothing inconsistent in Mollie’s diminished trust in Ben’s future promises and her belief that he could only have done just what he did.

And what of the deliberative dilemma? Maybe were Ben not a free will skeptic, he wouldn’t have drunk. Among his reasons for drinking—not just his flimsy rationales (of which there were some), but his reasons, as he saw them—was that he is causally determined. The free will skeptic might say, “that’s a misunderstanding, or even an abuse, of the concept; whatever your reasons for drinking or, perhaps more importantly, for breaking your promise to Mollie, they do not include that you were causally determined: the fact that if you do it then you were meant to do it is not a reason to do it, even if only due its being perfectly counterbalanced by the equally true ‘reason’ that if you don’t do it then you were meant not to do it. Furthermore, by acting on those grounds, you hand your deliberative powers over to your free will skepticism and thus fail to fulfill your deliberative duties as a sincere and concerned moral agent.” Maybe the skeptic is right to say so. And, right or wrong, maybe that thought would help Ben make better choices in the future.

At the same time, the skeptic must acknowledge that Ben was right: the reason he drank, expressed in shorthand, is that he could not have done otherwise given the precise conditions that converged at the moment he committed to drinking.

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Further Reading


  1. Maybe I should attempt a more rigorous account of the moving parts making up “nature-nurture” and “deliberative style.” For example, you might ask: Are beliefs a result of nature-nurture and thus fall squarely under the “deliberative style” category, or do they simply come under “nurture”? Do motivations fall under “nature” or “nurture” or “deliberative style” or all three? Is deliberative style determined by, or constituted by, nature-nurture? In other words, is deliberative style entirely separate from, intersecting with, or a subset of, nature-nurture? I’ll skip all this and just stick to a rough sketch, which I think is plenty intuitive.
  2. I fear I’m failing to clarify the fine distinctions in play here—namely, what I mean by “practical” versus “theoretical” concerns. Maybe I don’t really know what I mean. This is the best I can do today.
  3. But am I trying to figure out if I’m agnostic about the claim that (a) “humans have free will” or (b) “I am a free will skeptic”? Quest (a) amounts to figuring out what I believe about free will. Quest (b) amounts to surveying my beliefs and assessing whether they make me an agnostic or skeptic about free will. If a skeptic, then the beliefs need to intermingle—or cohere—in a way that doesn’t make me feel ridiculous. I suppose I’m undertaking both quests here, perhaps with an emphasis on (b), but I’m not careful about distinguishing them. My intuition is that I don’t need to be.
  4. I suspect this is often true, though the only research I’m aware of on predicting how happy a given choice will make you—i.e., “affective forecasting”—so far strikes me as unconvincing, particularly as a guide for individual behavior. Though I’m honestly not that familiar with it. E.g., see Daniel Gilbert’s 2005 book, Stumbling on Happiness, which I haven’t read, but whose key ideas I have heard Gilbert and other credible sources talk about, including in the more elaborate context of a classroom discussion.
  5. Which is not to deny the importance important of looking closely at the different sorts of decisions that may come out of (and the psychological mechanisms that underlie) fast versus slow decision making—to put it in the terms Daniel Kahneman uses in his 2011 book, Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he explores precisely that comparison.
  6. Frankfurt, Harry (1969) “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.” Journal of Philosophy. 66. 23, pp. 829–39. This 2016 volume features that paper along with collected responses: Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities: Essays on the Importance of Alternative Possibilities.
  7. All citations are from the Kindle edition of Pereboom’s book, unless otherwise indicated.
  8. For elaboration, see: Strawson, Galen (1994) “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” Philosophical Studies. 75, pp. 1–2, 5–24. Available at JSTOR.
  9. “The version of [Case 1] I present here is a revision occasioned by a type of objection to one reading of the earlier version raised by John Fischer, Al Mele, Lynne Baker, and Kristin Demetriou.” (p. 75)
  10. What trying means for free will is a fascinating question that I won’t explore here. I touch on it in my post, “Free Will Paradox?“, where I primarily consider how to evaluate evidence—and how to determine what even counts as evidence— for or against free will.
  11. Briefly, a first-order desire is anything you desire that isn’t itself a desire (this will make more sense in a moment). An effective first-order desire is the the thing you desire to do that you actually (at least try to) do—e.g., part of you might want to stay out late at the bar while another part of you wants to go home; if you stay out late, then staying out late is your effective first-order desire. Second-order desires are desires about desires—e.g., you have a strong desire to stay out late, but you wish you didn’t have that desire. The distinction was first published in these terms, I believe, in Harry Frankfurt’s 1/14/1971 paper “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy, 68: 5–20; available here and at JSTOR.
  12. I’m now imagining a future business enterprise in which clients willingly and entirely relinquish their deliberative style to expert manipulation. Clients might pay to rent a style, or might be paid to host one. The seeds of a complicated thought. Come to think of it, this kinda already exists—right?
  13. The former refers to having no choice at all while the latter refers to having two or more equally bad choices. For an instructive discussion of these uses, see Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th Edition, 2016), in which the book’s author, Bryan Garner, also points out that, “Amazingly, some writers have confused the obscure Thomas Hobson [1549– 1631] with his famous contemporary, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). The resulting malapropism, while increasingly common since the early 1980s, is still beautifully grotesque: [examples follow]” (p. 466).
  14. Clark, Andy & Chalmers, David. Analysis 58:10-23, 1998. Reprinted in (P. Grim, ed) The Philosopher’s Annual, vol XXI, 1998.
  15. I acknowledge that the distinction I make between “fate” and “strict/hard determinism” is a subtle one. Particularly when what is fated is a choice (e.g., to vote for Candidate A). But the distinction holds for choosing (and other mental acts) as well. Being so fated implies that forces—generally of some (at least vaguely) sentient ilk—have conspired to ensure that, for example, I don’t see a particular news article that would sway me to vote instead for Candidate B, even if this means my computer must be made to shut down just before the article would have appeared on my computer screen.
  16. I owe an example or two of such a view, but hesitate to mention names in passing at the risk of straw-manning. Instead, I’ll consider examples in a separate writing that will be called something like, “The Mind Is Not a Rube Goldberg Machine (And Neither Is the Brain).”
  17. This oversimplifies, but that sort of slogan is not at all uncommon among serious thinkers these days, especially those who rely in particular on the promise of neuroscience to rule out free will. This, too, I will say more about in the aforementioned “The Mind Is Not a Rube Goldberg Machine (And Neither Is the Brain).” For some cursory thoughts, see my post: “The Magic of Meaning—(Words, Mental Causation, Experience, Mind-Brain, Behavior).” I’m working refining those thoughts for the free will context, but must first dive deeper into the generous well of recent philosophical literature on mental causation. And good timing, as I see that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry, “Mental Causation,” was updated just a couple of weeks ago.
  18. By “truly” random I mean that they aren’t just epistemically random, which is to say that they aren’t considered random strictly due to facts about them being too numerous and complex for us to track, collect, and compute. It’d say it’s a safe bet that coin flips are epistemically random. My understanding is that many theorists claim quantum events to be truly random (i.e., to involve “ontic” or an extreme “aleatory” randomness), which is to say that even God can’t know the outcome until it happens (even, perhaps, if it’s God’s whim that determines what happens). As for events in between those strata, I don’t know.
  19. The word “rational” is often met with raised eyebrows. As you’ll notice, I’m not committed to the idea that deliberation needs to be rational in order to be justified. Though this may depend on what’s meant by “rational” and on context. The competing conceptions of “rational” in the present context seem to be “doing what one ultimately believes to be in one’s best interest” and “one’s beliefs being consistent.” Maybe one can be rational despite tension resulting from failing to satisfy both conceptions, or maybe the rational ideal is—or arguably should be—to resolve any such tension, for example by conforming local interests (e.g., making a few extra bucks) to a global goal (e.g., earning an ongoing living by keeping clients’ trust, which may involve foregoing a local opportunity to make a few extra bucks). I suspect I need better examples. But I’ll avoid that difficult discussion here, noting only that if the “ultimate best” conception is what we’re after, I think deliberation will prove rational; if it’s the “consistent beliefs” conception, I’m not so sure. It seems to be especially the latter that Pereboom is after. (Maybe I’ll return to the topic once I’ve read more on it, including all 2,393 pages of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s 2015 book Rationality: From AI to Zombies, which begins, in a section called “What Do I Mean by ‘Rationality’?,” with: “I mean: Epistemic rationality: systematically improving the accuracy of your beliefs. Instrumental rationality: systematically achieving your values.” [Kindle Locations 546–549].)
  20. Kapitan, Tomis. (1986). “Deliberation and the Presumption of Open Alternatives,” Philosophical Quarterly 36, pp. 230–51. Available at JSTOR.
  21. I removed a typo; the original said: “…be certain be of the proposition…”
  22. To be clear, by “compatibilism” in this context, he means “d-compatibilism,” i.e., the compatibility of free will skepticism and rational deliberation.
  23. Appears in Nelkin, Dana. (2004). “Deliberative Alternatives,” Philosophical Topics 32, pp. 215–40 (see page 217); available at JSTOR. And in Nelkin, Dana. (2011). Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press (see page 121).
  24. Strawson, Galen. “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the AnalyticTradition, Vol. 75, No. 1/2, Free Will, Determinism, and Moral Responsibility (Aug., 1994), pp.5–24. Available here and at JSTOR.
  25. van Inwagen, Peter. (1983). An Essay on Free Will. (p. 160). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  26. Originally appears in an Inwagen, Peter. (1983). An Essay on Free Will. (p. 154). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  27. Much, I suppose, as evolution has built into us the same resilience in the face of free will skepticism; though I doubt any free will skeptic would be ok with neuroscientist’s taking over their deliberative style. Well, smart, beneficent neuroscientists, maybe. In fact, I again notice: such treatments are kinda already on the market—right?
  28. (S) In order to deliberate rationally among distinct actions A1 … An, for each Ai, S cannot be certain of the proposition that she will do Ai, nor of the proposition that she will not do Ai; and either (a) the proposition that she will do Ai is consistent with every proposition that, in the present context, is settled for her, or (b) if it is inconsistent with some such proposition, she cannot believe that it is. (p. 113)
  29. (Settled) A proposition is settled for an agent just in case she believes it and disregards any uncertainty she has that it is true, e.g., for the purpose of deliberation. (p. 113)
  30. (DE) In order to rationally deliberate about whether to do A1 or A2, where A1 and A2 are distinct actions, an agent must believe that if as a result of her deliberating about whether to do A1 or A2 she were to judge that it would be best to do A1, then, under normal conditions, she would also, on the basis of this deliberation, do A1; and similarly for A2. (pp. 118–110)
  31. Most of us don’t walk around facing the choice of whether or not to kill someone. You don’t choose to not do all the things you don’t do, of which there are too many to count during any moment of your waking hours.
  32. I believe the essay first appeared in the 2011 collection, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2nd Edition.
  33. For a defense of van Inwagen and others making similar arguments, aspects of which Pereboom responds to, see: Coffman, E. J., and Warfield, Ted. (2005). “Deliberation and Metaphysical Freedom,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 29, pp. 25–44. (Available at Wiley Online Library.
  34. I’m here referring to the reactive attitudes described by P.F. Strawson in his influential 1962 paper, “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1–25./note] 34I’m not suggesting that social decorum isn’t useful or healthy, nor that we should ignore or repress our emotional responses to the world, which may indeed have something important to tell us. These things are complicated. If, despite being very careful, I slipped on some ice while walking on a sidewalk and this somehow resulted in a fatal car accident, I’d feel terrible guilt and would sincerely apologize, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault; I’d in fact expect the aggrieved, if they are decent and rational, to say, “Thank you, but of course it wasn’t your fault,” thus relieving me of my sincerely felt guilt. Anything else would amount to a kind of exploitation of an innocent person in order to have someone to blame. Notice that the same goes for behaviors issuing from Case 1 Plum’s body. Should the neuroscientists release him after he’s killed White, he’d likely feel guilty and his victims would feel resentment.
  35. Existentialism Is a Humanism,” 1946 Lecture by Jean-Paul Sartre. Available in this 1975 volume, edited by Walter Kaufmann: Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Revised and Expanded Edition.
  36. From Sartre’s 1957 essay collection, Existentialism and Human Emotion (I cite the 1985 Philosophical Library paperback edition). The full text is also available at the Internet Library.
  37. Page 710 of the usual Washington Square Press 1992 paperback printing of Sartre’s 1943 book Being and Nothingess.
  38. Does regret complicate this? I’ll leave that question for another time.

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