Robert Kane gives a talk at the Catholic University of America on the problem of free will. The problem has to do with the fact that free will seems to be incompatible with both determinism AND indeterminism. If free will is ruled out by the truth and the falsity of determinism, it looks like the very concept of free will is incoherent. On the one hand, if determinism is true, then all our actions are uniquely necessitated by past states of the universe in conjunction with the laws of nature. But we do not have control or power over what went on in the past or the laws of nature. As such, we cannot ever do otherwise than what we do given the past conditions of the universe. So it looks like determinism rules out genuine free will. On the other hand, if determinism is false, and our actions are not uniquely determined by past states of the universe, it looks like our actions are then due to mere randomness or chance. But of course, mere randomness or chance isn’t “free”. So it looks like indeterminism rules out genuine free will as well.
“Among the grandest of philosophical puzzles is a riddle about moral responsibility. Almost all of us believe that each one of us is, has been, or will be responsible for at least some of our behavior. But how can this be so if determinism is true and all our thoughts, decisions, choices, and actions are simply droplets in a river of deterministic events that began its flow long, long before we were ever born? The specter of determinism, as it were, devours agents, for if determinism is true, then arguably we never initiate or control our actions; there is no driver in the driver’s seat; we are simply one transitional link in an extended deterministic chain originating long before our time. The puzzle is tantalizingly gripping and ever so perplexing — because even if determinism is false, responsibility seems impossible: how can we be morally accountable for behavior that issues from an “actional pathway” in which there is an indeterministic break? Such a break might free us from domination or regulation by the past, but how can it possibly help to ensure that the reins of control are now in our hands?”
The view of values and ethics developed in the preceding sections may be described as a “moral sphere theory” of the right (or right action) supported by a “dimensional theory” of the good (or value). Since a convenient name is needed for the entire view, we might refer to it as the “moral sphere theory” of the good and the right (or MST). The view may be summarized in a formula that requires fleshing out, but captures its spirit:
(The MST Formula) “Strive to lead a good life that is objectively worthy of being lived and strive thereby to realize goods by virtue of the living of such a life that are objectively worthy of being realized.”
1. Inclusion and Overriding: The Four Dimensions Revisited
The ethical principles and rights at which the retreatants arrived by the reasoning of the previous part were meant to apply universally to all persons at all times. These principles and rights would therefore be examples of fourth-dimensional values. But it is important to note that the fourth dimension of value would contain much more than these abstract principles and rights. To see why, we must recall something that was further said about fourth-dimensional value: The fourth dimension of value includes aspects of all three other dimensions of value while transcending them, just as the other dimensions of value may include, yet transcend, dimensions of value below them..
The challenge posed at the end of the preceding discussion of fourth-dimensional value was this: How, if at all, might we access the fourth dimension of value from the limited points of view and forms of life of the first three dimensions of value in which we necessarily find ourselves as finite beings?
As it turns out, this was the problem faced by the retreatants in the section on Ethics— that is, those who stayed behind at the retreat to search for objective values after others had left. These retreatants were frustrated by the failure of those at the retreat to reach agreement about which ways of life were objectively good and right because they were arguing from different points of view and could not agree. But unlike those who left the retreat because they did not believe there was any objective good or right to be seeking, these retreatants had not given up the belief that there was an objective good and right to be seeking and they stayed in order to continue the search for it.
(The following is adapted from a short piece I was asked to write a number of years ago for an alumni magazine of my university—The University of Texas at Austin—one of the largest and most diverse public universities in the USA. The piece expresses in a more personal way many of the themes about values, ethics and education described earlier in this website.)
1. Teaching Values in the Academy: A Personal Odyssey
How do you teach values in the modern secular university? That question has haunted me for years. I don’t mean merely teaching what individuals or cultures or societies or religions have said or believed about what is good or evil, right or wrong. We do that all the time in our universities; it is one of the on-going tasks of the liberal arts, the humanities and the social sciences.
1. Education in a Democratic Society and the Public Morality Principle
In the earlier section on Democracy and Politics, I noted that commitment to the ideal of treating all persons as ends, as the Ends Principle (EP) requires, implies a commitment to “doing what one can do to maintain [and hence to sustain and preserve] a moral sphere in which all persons can be treated with openness respect by all others.” And I argued that this commitment has important implications for politics in free and democratic societies because it implies a further principle of social ethics that I called the
Public Morality Principle: Society has a legitimate interest in protecting and encouraging attitudes, practices, institutions and social conditions that tend to sustain the moral sphere, and in discouraging attitudes, practices, institutions and conditions that would lead to its breakdown.
Many religious thinkers of very different persuasions, such as Huston Smith and Hans Kung, have noted that one of the greatest challenges for religious believers in the 20th and 21st centuries is coming to grips with the diversity of the world’s religions, whose presence in the global community can no longer be ignored or lightly dismissed. Smith, Kung and others also cite a second major modern challenge to religious belief, the growing “secularization” of life, an indifference to the sacred, brought on by the forces that characterize modern civilizations—science, technology, commercialization, modern media, mass society, and others.
The preceding discussions of Ethics, Values and Free Will also have implications for political philosophy, law and social ethics in modern free and democratic societies, implications we now explore. How should free and democratic governments deal with pluralism? What is the grounding for human rights? What should be the limits of free action and freedom of choice? To what degree can morality be enforced by law? To what degree can democratic governments remain neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good? Can we reconcile the demands of justice and care in democratic societies?
The preceding discussions have implications for all of these questions and many others regarding politics, law and democracy. We begin with an issue much discussed in contemporary political philosophy about what has come to be called “state neutrality.”
Influential political and legal philosophers, such as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, Charles Larmore, D. A. Lloyd-Thomas and others, have argued in different ways that states or governments in modern free and pluralist societies should remain neutral with respect to (in Rawls’ terms) different “comprehensive conceptions of the good,” not favoring or establishing one such conception over others.
The general argument for such neutrality is that, in a pluralist state, where citizens have differing conceptions of the good and competing ways of life, if the state favors one conception of the good (say, one religion, for example, or ideology or particular morality) over others, it cannot legitimately claim the full assent of all citizens whose religious or moral views differ from the favored one.
1. Non-ideal Theory With and Without Guilty Parties
Non-ideal theory concerns how we should proceed when the moral sphere breaks down. Its general goals are to maintain the moral sphere to the degree possible, restoring it when it has broken down and preserving it to the degree possible from future breakdown. What specific rules or principles would these general goals imply?
One such principle has already emerged in the arguments thus far. When the moral sphere breaks down, one should “restrain or stop the guilty parties (those whose plans of action are moral sphere-breaking), not the innocent”—where “restraining or stopping the guilty” would mean interfering with or thwarting to the degree that one reasonably can those who would break the moral sphere in the pursuit of their plans of action and ways of life.
Is it always clear when, or whether, the moral sphere has broken down and who is the guilty party when it does? These questions were not fully addressed in parts 2 and 3, where the examples of moral sphere breakdown were simple ones in which the guilty parties were easily identified (assailants, pirates, persecuting neighbors). Starting with simple cases before moving on to more complex ones is a common practice in ethical discussion.