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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Free of Free Will

Interview with Galen Strawson, by Tamler Sommers

Tamler: There’s a famous saying of Schopenhaur’s that goes like this: “A man can surely do what he wants to do. But he cannot determine what he wants.” Is this idea at the core of your argument against moral responsibility?

Galen: Yes — and it’s an old thought. It’s in Hobbes somewhere, and it’s in Book Two of Locke’s Essay, and I bet some ancient Greek said it, since they said almost everything. Actually, though, there’s a way in which it’s not quite true. If you want to acquire some want or preference you haven’t got, you can sometimes do so. You can cultivate it. Perhaps you’re lazy and unfit and you want to acquire a love of exercise. Well, you can force yourself to do it every day and hope you come to like it. And you just might; you might even get addicted. Maybe you can do the same if you dislike olives.

Tamler: But then where did that desire come from—the desire to acquire the love of exercise…or olives?

Galen: Right — now the deeper point cuts in. For suppose you do want to acquire a want you haven’t got. The question is, where did the first want — the want for a want — come from? It seems it was just there, just a given, not something you chose or engineered — it was just there, like most of your preferences in food, music, footwear, sex, interior lighting, and so on.

I suppose it’s possible that you might have acquired the first want, that’s the want for a want, because you wanted to! It’s theoretically possible that you had a want to have a want to have a want. But this is very hard to imagine, and the question just rearises: where did that want come from? You certainly can’t go on like this forever. At some point your wants must be just given. They will be products of your genetic inheritance and upbringing that you had no say in. In other words, there’s a fundamental sense in which you did not and cannot make yourself the way you are. And this, as you say, is the key step in the basic argument against ultimate moral responsibility, which goes like this: (1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself — because of the way you are. (2 ) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain mental respects. (3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are (for the reasons just given). (4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Tamler: I suppose it’s the third step that people have the most trouble accepting.

Galen: Yes, although the step seems fairly clear when you look at it the right way. Sometimes people explain why number (3) is true by saying that you can’t be causa sui—you can’t be the cause of yourself, you can’t be truly or ultimately self-made in any way. As Nietzsche puts it, in his usual, tactful way:

"The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic. But the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Baron Münchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness."

There’s lots more to say about this basic argument, and there are lots of ways in which people have tried to get around the conclusion. But none of them work.

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