The New Compatibilists


Recall from a previous post that I have recently read a book called Free Will: A Contemporary Introduction by Robert Kane.  In that post, I introduced the Free Will Problem and explained the basic position of compatibilism.  To review, a compatibilist holds that free will and determinism are not at odds with one another; in other words, someone can be considered to have free will in a completely determined world.  The way that a classical compatibilist will defend this notion, is by arguing that if we understand free will as the ability to do that which one desires without physical constraint or coercion, there is no contradiction.  While our desires and urges may be determined by our genetics or environment, not to mention the natural laws of the closed physical system, as long as we are not prevented from acting on those desires, we are free.

The Consequence Argument

The incompatibilist will argue, however, that such a freedom is really only a freedom of action rather than a freedom of will.  What really matters, they say, is the freedom to shape one's desires  and create oneself in a sense.  But if our desires our determined by the physical universe, then this kind of freedom is not achievable.  This is because we do not really have the ability to do something other than what we are determined to do, and thus we are not morally responsible for our actions. This idea has been called the consequence argument, and is summarized by Peter van Inwagen as follows:
If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequnces of the laws of nature and events in the remote past.  But it is not up to us what went on before we were born; and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are.  Therefore the consequnces of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us.1

If determinism is true, and this argument holds, then we are not really responsible for our own actions.  For example, Saruman would not be responsible for betraying Middle Earth by aiding Sauron because he would have been determined to by his past and the physical laws of nature.  This means that the ents of Fangorn forest would have no reason to march on Isengard and destroy it (of course, they too, will have been determined to do so, and thus not responsible for their actions either).

Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities

Compatibilists such as Harry Frankfurt have keyed in on an interesting detail in the above ideas.  It appears that what we are really interested in is moral responsibility.  If the Consequence Argument is sound, then one cannot be held accountable for actions that could not have happened otherwise; therefore free will also requires the power to do otherwise, or alternative possibilities.  But according to Frankfurt, moral responsibility does not necessarily require alternative possibilities and so the Consequence Argument fails.  Consider this Frankfurt-type example, offered by Frankfurt himself:
Someone-- Black let us say-- wants Jones to perform a certain action.  Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily.  So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind... and he does nothing unless it is clear to him... that Jones is going to do something other than what he [Black] wants to do.  If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones... does what he wants.2

This example, he argues, shows that it is possible to maintain moral responsibility even when one's actions are determined.  But is that actually so?  An incompatibilist might respond that if the type of freedom he cares about, the libertarian kind, is what we're after, then this is not a successful counter-example.  This is because under a libertarian style freedom, an action must be undetermined up until the moment it occurs.  If so this was so, then Black would have no way of knowing for sure what decision Jones would make until it was too late to change it.  So, it seems that someone who already subscribes to compatibilism might see a Frankfurt-type example as additional warrant for their belief, but an incompatibilist would not be swayed.

Higher Order Selves

So if the new compatibilists argue that alternative possibilities are not required for freedom, and accept that the classical compatibilist account is lacking, what do they think is required for free will?  Frankfurt offers one alternative: being able to successfully act on what he calls "second order desires."  First order desires would be our base desires to act a certain way; for example, I could have a desire to eat a hamburger right now or kiss a pretty girl.  A second order desire is a desire about our first order desires.  Suppose I really do want to eat a hamburger, but am also cognizant of the fact that I have been steadily gaining weight and my cholesterol is high.  I therefore have a second order desire not to eat the hamburger for those reasons, even though my first order desire is to eat the hamburger.  Similarly, I may not be interested in pursuing a relationship with a certain pretty girl and therefore my not wanting to send her the wrong signals would produce a second order desire not to kiss her, even though I have a first order desire to kiss her because she is pretty.  Frankfurt asserts that we can be considered to be free when we are able to act on our second order desires.  A drug addict who knows he has a problem, and wishes to stop, is free if he can successfully act on his desire to not do drugs, but not free if he cannot prevent himself from succumbing to his base desire to use.

The incompatibilist will again enter the scene at this point and object to the arbitrariness of basing free will on second order desires.  Why should second order desires be the determining factor for free will?  Why not third order desires or fourth order desires?  What if I have a desire about a desire about a desire about a specific action which is at odds with my desire about my desire of said action?  Frankfurt responded to this criticism by slightly changing his initial position.  Our stopping point need not be arbitrary, he says, if we are whole-hearted when we stop.  Persons are whole-hearted when there are no conflicts in their will and they are not ambivalent at any level of their desires.  But an incompatibilist could give the further charge that such a person has no way to freely become whole-hearted: they would already have had to be whole-hearted in order for their desire to align their other desires to be free.

Similarly, Gary Watson argues that a person can be considered free when their desires and values are aligned.  This is similar to an ancient idea first proposed by Plato.  Plato held that human beings are like chariots being pulled by two horses-- a white horse and a black horse.  The black horse represents our reason while the white horse represents our desires.  A man is only free when his reason and desires are aligned, for if the horses try to pull in different directions, the chariot's path will be thrown into turmoil.  These theories, however, fall prey to the same objections as Frankfurt's hierarchic desire theory.

Much more can be said on the New Compatibilists and their theories, but this post has already extended much further than it was intended.  The reader should check out Kane's book and then follow the references for further reading if interested.  The next post in this series will cover the position of the incompatibilist, who is not off the hook either.  While it may be easy to criticize the views of the compatibilist, a positive argument must be presented for the coherence of libertarian free will.


1. An Essay on Free Will, van Inwagen , 1983
2. Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibilities, Frankfurt, 2003
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  1. This was terrific, thanks for posting this.

    Leaning towards incompatiblism initially, I find myself persuaded by this "first" and "second" order account of desire and the entailing freedom- it seems to me "that we can be considered to be free when we are able to act on our second order desires," as Frankfurt argues. I don't think this necessarily moves me from incompatibilism though, does it?
    To borrow the drug addict illustration, I feel like I am free to desire not to do drugs when my base- first order- desire, is to do them. I feel like I can choose “not A,” here, though I might not necessarily be able act upon the second order desire. There might be a number of factors at work that make my first order desire an insurmountable obstacle for my second order desire to overcome such to enable action. Nevertheless, I can still make that choice to not want to be doing drugs any longer. Maybe this is what it means to be “whole-hearted” (as I didn’t quite understand that point fully)? When both orders are aligned?

  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your kind words. I don't think you agreeing with Frankfurt about Second-Order desires necessarily moves you from incompatibilism. Especially if you think the Consequence Argument is successful. The difference is probably that while Frankfurt thinks being able to act on Second Order desires is both a necessary and sufficient condition for being free, you may agree with me that it is necessary but some other factors are required as well.

    I think the concept of Whole-heartedness gets at what you are saying, but there is a little more to it. I wanted to to explain a little better, but it's always a struggle trying to decide how long to make a post. I'll try to explain a little better here. Consider the following:

    Adam has a desire to eat a brownie because it is tasty.

    But Adam is on a diet because he is self-conscious about his weight and therefore has a second-order desire to not desire to eat the brownie.

    However, it actually annoys Adam that he is so self-conscious about his weight. It causes him stress and does not allow him to just relax and enjoy things like brownies without worrying about gaining weight. He therefore has a third-order desire that he would not be self-conscious about his weight and so not desire to not want to desire to eat the brownie.

    In this case, Adam has first and third-order desires that line up, but a second-order desire that contradicts them both. Adam is not whole-hearted or free in this sense, because he has conflicting levels of desires. Adam can only be whole-hearted when any two of those desires in a row line up, and he is able to act on them. For instance, if his first and second-order desires were both to eat a brownie, then his decision to eat the brownie could be considered a free one. Or perhaps if his first-order desire is to eat the brownie, but his second and third-order desires are to refrain from eating the brownie, then his decision to abstain from eating brownies would be a free one. So essentially whole-hearted means we are able to align a lower-order desire with the one directly above it.

    Obviously this idea has some problems as mentioned above. Namely, if our desires are determined, then we have no way to freely change a desire to align with the one above or below it.

    Hope that helps. I will be posting the third (and perhaps final, depending on the length) post in this series on Monday, so be sure to read it-- focusing on incompatibilism and libertarian free will.