Skip to main content Accessibility help

Ultimate Responsibility and Dumb Luck*

  • Alfred R. Mele (a1)


My topic lies on conceptual terrain that is quite familiar to philosophers. For others, a bit of background may be in order. In light of what has filtered down from quantum mechanics, few philosophers today believe that the universe is causally deterministic (or “deterministic,” for short). That is, to use Peter van Inwagen's succinct definition of “determinism,” few philosophers believe that “there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.” Even so, partly for obvious historical reasons, philosophers continue to argue about whether free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism. Compatibilists argue for compatibility, and incompatibilists argue against it. Some incompatibilists maintain that free will and moral responsibility are illusions. But most are libertarians, libertarianism being the conjunction of incompatibilism and the thesis that at least some human beings are possessed of free will and moral responsibility.



Hide All

1 van Inwagen, Peter, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 3.

2 See Kane, Robert, The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Kane, , Free Will and Values (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985); Klein, Martha, Determinism, Blameworthiness, and Deprivation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Strawson, Galen, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Studies 75, no. 1 (Summer 1994): 524.

3 This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the connection between moral respon sibility and free will (or freedom of choice and action). It suffices for my purposes to observe that it is typically held that only free agents possess moral responsibility. For clarification of this idea, see Mele, Alfred, Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 139–42.

4 For a discussion of why I am agnostic about the main metaphysical issue that separates compatibilists from incompatibilists, see ibid., chs. 8 and 13.

5 See Mele, Alfred, “Agency and Mental Action,” Philosophical Perspectives 11 (1997): 231–49.

6 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 136.

7 See Mele, , Autonomous Agents, 208–9.

8 Robert Kane, a libertarian, adopts this position in The Significance of Free Will, 7778. He endorsed a parallel position about moral responsibility for choices (but not about ultimate responsibility for choices) in his “Two Kinds of Incompatibilism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50, no. 2 (Winter 1989): 252.

9 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 141.

10 Ibid., 140–41.

11 Ibid., 141.

13 Van Inwagen discusses the significance of behavior's proceeding from a “natural part” of the brain in An Essay on Free Will, 134–42. On this, see my Autonomous Agents, 197203.

14 The objection advanced in this paragraph does not depend upon the probabilities that van Inwagen mentions. On this, see my Autonomous Agents, 202–3.

15 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 149–50.

16 In The Significance of Free Will (171–72 and 236–37 n. 1), Kane cites and responds to versions of the “luck” objection advanced in Waller, Bruce's “Free Will Gone Out of Control,” Behaviorism 16, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 149–67, and in Strawson's “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility.” For another useful formulation of the objection, see Nagel, Thomas, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 113–14.

17 Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 126.

18 Ibid., 127.

19 Ibid.; Kane's italics.

20 Ibid., 128.

22 Ibid., 171–72.

23 Ibid., 106; Kane's italics.

24 O'Connor, Timothy suggests that the agents are in “states having the same properties within the same value intervals; see O'Connor, , “Why Agent Causation?Philosophical Topics 24, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 156. However, Kane can reply that even if this is true, it is false that the agents try exactly as hard and intelligently, insofar as it is false that there is a precise degree of effort and a precise degree of intelligence that both attempts to resist temptation exemplify.

25 Notice that this does not imply, for example, that it is just a matter of luck that John2 decided to go to the meeting on time. After all, his effort to resist the temptation to go late might have significantly increased the probability that he would decide to go on time. What is just a matter of luck is a certain comparative fact — that John2's effort culminated in this decision whereas John's terminated in a decision to go to the meeting late. John simply had worse luck than John2 in this connection.

26 We are disinclined to deem people responsible for the immediate consequences of their bad luck, unless they are somehow responsible for being subject to a pertinent instance of such luck. However, one who holds that John is not responsible for succumbing to temp tation may nevertheless contend that John2is responsible for successfully resisting temptation. Consideration of the asymmetrical position on responsibility that this contention suggests — a position that Kane implicitly eschews (The Significance of Free Will, 179–80)— is beyond the scope of this essay.

27 Frankfurt, Harry, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy 66, no. 23 (12 1969): 829.

28 Ibid., 835–36. In reproducing this passage, I deleted a subscript after “Jones.”

29 In Autonomous Agents, I suggest that libertarians should prefer a historical condition of this kind to PAP (208–9). Kane recently advanced a view of this kind (The Significance of Free Will, 3943, 7778).

30 See Mele, Alfred, “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios,” Philosophical Topics 24, no. 2 (Fall 1996): 123–41. Cf. Fischer, John, The Metaphysics of Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 214; Mele, , Autonomous Agents, 141; Haji, Ishtiyaque, “Moral Responsibility and the Problem of Induced Pro-Attitudes,” Dialogue 35, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 707; and Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 4243, 143. A “counterfactual controller” is an agent who would have successfully intervened under certain conditions but did not intervene in the actual circumstances.

31 See Lamb, James, “Evaluative Compatibilism and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities,” Journal of Philosophy 90, no. 10 (10 1993): 517–27; Widerker, David, “Libertarianism and Frankfurt's Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Philosophical Review 104, no. 2 (Spring 1995): 247–61; Widerker, , “Libertarian Freedom and the Avoidability of Decisions,” Faith and Philosophy 12, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 113–18; and Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 142–43, 191–92.

32 See Mele, Alfred and Robb, David, “Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases,” Philosophical Review 107, no. 1 (01 1998): 97–11. For other replies to recent objections to Frankfurtstyle cases, see Fischer, John and Hoffman, Paul, “Alternative Possibilities: A Reply to Lamb,” Journal of Philosophy 91, no. 6 (06 1994): 321–26; Fischer, John, “Libertarianism and Avoid ability: A Reply to Widerker,” Faith and Philosophy 12, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 119–25; and Stump, Eleonore, “Libertarian Freedom and the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” in Faith, , Freedom, and Rationality, ed. Jordan, Jeff and Howard-Snyder, Daniel (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 7388.

33 Depending on how refraining is to be understood, “intentional refraining” may be redundant.

34 Mele, , “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios,” 126–27.

35 Cf. Fischer, John, “Responsibility and Control,” Journal of Philosophy 79, no. 1 (01 1982): 2440; Heinaman, Robert, “Incompatibilism without the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 64, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 266–76; Klein, , Determinism, Blameworthiness, and Deprivation, ch. 3; and Pereboom, Derk, “Determinism al Dente,” Noûs 29, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 2145.

36 Van Inwagen, , An Essay on Free Will, 16. For detailed versions, see ibid., ch. 3; and Ginet, Carl, On Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), ch. 5.

37 In The Metaphysics of Free Will, Fischer argues that such theorists must resort to some thing akin to alchemy (ch. 7; see p. 141 for the alchemy analogy). For a reply, see my “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios.”

38 Cf. Kane, , Free Will and Values, 178: “[W]hat determinism takes away is a certain sense of the importance of oneself as an individual. If I am ultimately responsible for certain occurrences in the universe, … then my choices and my life take on an importance that is missing if I do not have such responsibility.”

39 Mele, , “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios.” In this paragraph, I borrow from p. 123 of that paper.

40 In The Significance of Free Will, Kane contends that “the desire to be independent sources of activity in the world, which is connected … to the sense we have of our uniqueness and importance as individuals,” is an “elemental” libertarian desire (98). Here I am following his lead.

41 On life-hopes, see Honderich, Ted, A Theory of Determinism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

42 See Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 98.

43 The connection between control and “moral luck” is a major theme in Nagel, Thomas's “Moral Luck,” in his Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 2438.

44 Cf. my Autonomous Agents, 213.

45 Cf. ibid., 203. Wilma and I regard weakness of will as compatible with determinism (see ibid., 132–33).

46 I develop sufficient conditions for compatibilist freedom in Autonomous Agents, chs. 9 and 10.

47 See my Autonomous Agents, ch. 12; cf. Dennett, Daniel, Brainstorms (Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books, 1978), 294–99, and Kane, , Free Will and Values, 101–10.

48 Mele, , Autonomous Agents, 235. On the relative theoretical utility of internal versus external indeterminism, see ibid., 195–96.

49 Regarding the parenthetical clause, bear in mind that not all causally determined events need be part of a deterministic chain that stretches back even for several moments, much less to the Big Bang.

50 Around the middle of the present century, the claim that determinism is required for these properties was relatively popular among compatibilists. See Ayer, A. J., “Freedom and Necessity,” in Ayer, , Philosophical Essays (London: Macmillan, 1954); Hobart, R. E., “Free Will as Involving Determinism and as Inconceivable without It,” Mind 43, no. 169 (01 1934): 127; Nowell-Smith, P. H., “Free Will and Moral Responsibility,” Mind 57, no. 225 (01 1948): 4561; and Smart, J. J. C., “Free-Will, Praise, and Blame,” Mind 70, no. 279 (07 1961): 291306.

51 Compatibilists who grant that soft libertarianism is a coherent position may have to abandon certain of their arguments against hard libertarianism (see my “Soft Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Scenarios,” 136–39), but other arguments are still in the running.

52 Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 98.

53 See, e.g., Double, Richard, The Non-Reality of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Strawson, Galen, Freedom and Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

54 Mele, , Autonomous Agents, chs. 12 and 13.

55 Just as I distinguished between ultimate and nonultimate control, one may distinguish between ultimate and nonultimate luck. Suppose that millions of years ago, in a determin istic universe, conditions were such that today Teresa would be an exceptionally kind person whereas Tammy would be a ruthless killer. Here we have ultimate luck — good and bad. Libertarians have been much more impressed by it than by nonultimate luck.

56 Kane, , The Significance of Free Will, 127. This does not preclude the agent's later recon sidering the matter and coming to a different decision, in the case of decisions for the non-immediate future.

* For written comments on a draft of this essay, I am grateful to Randy Clarke, Ish Haji, Bob Kane, Dave Robb, and the editors of this volume. I am indebted as well to audiences at Wayne State University and Uppsala University.


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed