Free Will Skepticism and ‘Ought’ Judgments

Posted on January 3, 2015 by

You can find the link to my first post at Flickers here. It’s titled “Free Will Skepticism and ‘Ought’ Judgments”. For those of you who have been following APT for some time I posted on this topic here in late 2013. The posts are very different but are on the same topic. In this later post I begin to offer a response to the ‘ought’ of axiological recommendation that Pereboom supplies in his new book. The initial post from 2013 did not include a discussion of Pereboom’s new book or his use of the different senses of ‘ought’  given that it was not yet released. Anyway, feel free to comment over at Flickers or follow the discussion from afar.


Below is the post in it’s entirety for those who might be interested.

It appears that deontic judgments—judgments of moral obligation, moral right, and moral wrong—presuppose control; specifically, they presuppose one’s having free will. To see this consider an example:

Consider Leroy, a man paralyzed from the waist down, seemingly all alone, enjoying some sun at the edge of the lake in his wheelchair. He notices a young man drowning in the lake. Because of his condition it seems plausible to say that he is not obligated to jump in and save the drowning man. He is not obligated to do so because he cannot do so, he lacks the requisite control. If he had the ability and the opportunity to save him (he miraculously regained feeling in his legs minutes before the accident and he was in a position to save) we would say that he was obligated to save him. Therefore, it seems plausible to link obligations to abilities and opportunities[1]. Thus we can follow Ish Haji in adopting a central principle OIC, as our control principle for moral obligation:

OIC: S ought to do A only if S can do A.

In this post I’d like to discuss issues surrounding the incompatibility of determinism and ought judgments[2], particularly from the free will skeptic’s point of view. Free will skeptics claim that free will is incompatible with determinism. Many also conclude that moral responsibility, at least in the basic-desert sense, is incompatible with determinism because the control required to be morally responsible is imperiled by the truth of their skeptical position. But, one variety of skeptic (optimistic skeptics) claim that a robust sense of morality (among other things) remains intact. Thus, even a hard incompatibilist like Derk Pereboom becomes a compatibilist with regards to determinism (and indeterminism) and a robust moral system. Here’s a quote from Pereboom: “Morality, meaning, and value remain intact even if we are not morally responsible….” (2001) Thus, judgments like “S ought not to have done A” can be endorsed by the skeptic while consistently embracing their FW and MR skepticism. So I ask you all, are you buying this? Can such judgments be true in the wake of free will skepticism? I’m not convinced. Given that Pereboom has taken this question on (again) in his new book (2014 OUP) I thought I’d focus on his response. But first, to get the conversation going consider this claim derived from the ought-implies-can principle (OIC):

If  S ought not do have done A, then S could have refrained from doing A.

Pereboom himself gets the sense that free will skeptics will have a difficult time denying this claim (see here). As Pereboom points out, compatibilists like Ish Haji (1998; 2012) and Dana Nelkin (2011) seem to have a similar sense. Thus, given that determinism rules out the ability to do otherwise (for many at least) it also seems to threaten ‘ought’ judgments given that such judgments seem to entail an ability to do otherwise as well.

So, to save ‘ought’ judgments from determinism (and indeterminism) Pereboom (2014) follows C.D. Broad (1952) in separating different senses of ‘ought’. Pereboom focuses on a distinction between deliberative ‘ought’ claims which he calls the ‘ought’ of specific agent demand such as “Eduardo ought not hit his mother” on the one hand, and another sense of ‘ought’ which he dubs the ‘ought’ of axiological recommendation such as “Lebron ought to win the lottery” on the other. This latter sense of ‘ought’ is not at odds with determinism because according to Pereboom it does not imply ‘can’ whereas the former ‘ought’, the ‘ought’ of specific agent demand does imply can. Pereboom concludes that if we had to settle for the ‘ought’ of axiological recommendation our system of morality would still be robust, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. We could still endorse OIC if we understood the ‘ought’ invoked in OIC as the ‘ought’ of axiological recommendation. Do you agree? Would it be a big deal to lose the ‘ought’ of specific agent demand? Is it legitimate to understand the ‘ought’ in OIC as the ‘ought’ of axiological recommendation? I look forward to hearing what you all think. I have reservations about Pereboom’s attempt to save ‘ought’ claims, I’ll discuss a few.

First, it wouldn’t be fair to hold one to a standard of moral behavior that one could not satisfy; the ‘ought’ contained in the ‘ought’ of axiological recommendation then seems to be the variety of ‘ought’ that is more akin to a hope or suggestion. If this is true then we have moved from agent demands to agent suggestions. Suggestions are rarely forceful from a second-person standpoint and are much less motivational than moral obligations (‘oughts’ of specific agent demands) because they do not carry an emotionally laden expectation. Consider the axiological recommendation that you donate 5 dollars upon entering the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. If you give 4 dollars (or nothing at all) you do nothing morally wrong, though you do something against the axiological recommendation. Whereas if you are morally obligated, (if you had a specific agential demand), to pay an entrance fee there seems to be a requirement that you pay the fee. These requirements generate and sustain expectations that you pay the fee. Failure to do so causes cries of foul play, or unfairness, and these cries seem warranted. Thus, to think that the axiological recommendation is more closely aligned with the ‘ought’ of specific agent demand rather than a hope, wish, or suggestion that one act a particular way seems misguided and thus we are not “saving” ‘ought’ claims at all we are replacing them with something very different. Axiological recommendations seem to have much less motivational force than ‘oughts’ of specific agent demand because these moral ‘oughts’ carry the burden of agential expectations. Such expectations tend to motivate at least some agents and to lose this expectation such agents would be morally justified in acting any way they choose in much the same way the museum goers at the Van Gough museum are justified in giving nothing at all if that’s what they decide.

Anyway, I have much more to say about this but I’d like to hear from you all first. To reiterate some of the questions I asked: How bad would it be if we had to give up ‘oughts’ of specific agent demand? Would an ethical system grounded on axiological recommendations diminish one’s sense of morality? Can one be obligated (fairly) to perform an action if one cannot perform that very act? Likewise, can one be obligated to refrain from doing act A, if one cannot refrain from doing act A?

Disclaimer: I raise these questions in chapter 2 of my diss, which I have not looked at in some time. I blogged about them in 2013 prior to the release of Pereboom’s new book (see here). Admittedly, I moved pretty quickly (and a bit sloppy) in this post so if you need to ask clarificatory questions please do so.


[1] Ish Haji (2002) and Chris Franklin (2012) have suggested that the ‘can’ in the ‘ought’ implies can principle refers to one’s abilities and one’s opportunities. This seems right to me.

[2] See Ish Haji’s 2012 for a carefully reasoned argument for a requirement of alternative possibilities for central moral concepts.