Saturday, November 8, 2008

Agents and Powers

Which do you trust more, your gut feeling or a well though out conclusion? Deep down inside themselves, men feel that they have the ability to make decisions that direct the course of their life; and these decisions can be changed at any point without constraint exterior to themselves. Philosophers have attempted to reason through the idea of personal autonomy and their explanations are problematic either metaphysically or ethically. I will present the explanations of both John Locke and David Hume concerning freedom and liberty. I will criticize their explanations with the help of insights from Sarah Buss, Brian Garrett, and Nicholas Jolley. I will conclude with the idea that in the end we are still left with the choice between our gut feeling and rational explanations that fall short of our personal experience in the area of liberty.
Both Locke and Hume agree on the following definitions of will and freedom (for Locke) or liberty (for Hume):
· Will is the power to choose one course of action over another from the alternatives physically available to us (we cannot will to breathe water, or fly).
· Freedom / Liberty is the power to do or refrain from doing any particular action selected by the will
A free action for Locke is one in which “A subject S is free to do action x at time t just in case: (1) if S wills to do x at t (2) S is physically able to do x at t AND (3) if S wills not to do x at t, he is physically able not to do x. The ability not to act or the ability to do otherwise is a key point for Locke. He believes the power to choose not to act is connected to our personal moral responsibility. He holds to this idea because he believes that the idea of divine justice cannot be separated from human freedom – it is a necessary condition. In other words, if there is no human freedom there cannot be divine justice. God could not justly punish us for sins we could not avoid. Locke also claims that this type of freedom (a necessary component of moral responsibility) is consistent with the thesis of determinism because it does not require the power of willing in a causally determined fashion. Since Locke thinks that determinism and free will are compatible doctrines, he is classified as a compatibilist.
David Hume is a compatibilist also, but for an entirely different reason. Hume is insistent on the existence of a law-governed causal explanation for what happens in the natural world. He believes that there are also law-governed causes for human nature, and just as natural science explains the natural world, a science that explains human nature is possible. His ideas about necessity, like other ideas related to determinism, seem to be at odds with the concept of free will. If Hume is right, man is not free, and no better than animals. He attempts to reconcile the seemingly opposing ideas by differentiating between liberty of spontaneity and liberty of indifference. He claims that everyone except a prisoner in chains has liberty of spontaneity and if they choose to perform an action A, and they can, then A was done freely. The absence of hindrances to our volition is all that matters for Hume when it comes to free will. Liberty of indifference, claims Hume, is a freedom we think we have, but we do not have. He thinks that Locke’s “ability to do otherwise” would deny that all actions and events have causes, and he cannot abide contemplating such a heresy to his philosophy. Our liberty of indifference is mistaken and our liberty of spontaneity makes liberty compatible with determinism.
Separating things into the categories of agents and powers helps us in our discussion about freedom. According to the definitions agreed upon by Hume and Locke, freedom/liberty and will are both powers. These powers belong to or are attributed to some agent in order to be utilized. This separation into the “Agent team” and the “Power team” is the litmus test for coherence in an argument concerning free will. According to Locke
... whether the will has freedom, is to ask, whether one power has another power, one ability another ability; a question at first sight too grossly absurd to make a dispute, or need an answer. For who is it that sees not, that powers belong only to agents, and are attributes only of substances, and not of powers themselves? (E 2.21.16)

He believes the agent of the will is the mind, attacking the Scholastics who have sought to avoid predicating freedom to another power by elevating mental faculties, including the will, into agents within the agent of the mind. Hume, on the other hand, turns the whole thing upside down and puts the agent (the mind) in a subservient position to the power of the will, which is in turn subservient to the power of the passions. Hume emasculates the will by claiming “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” At this point, Locke seems to have failed the litmus test because his definition of freedom subjects it to the will, both of them powers. Hume fails too because he subjects the agent to a power.
Another criticism of Locke, according to Jolley, is his inconsistency in his definition of freedom in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding when Locke states:
“we have a power to suspend the prosecution of this or that desire, as everyone daily may experiment in himself. This seems to me the source of all liberty; in this seems to consist that, which is (as I think improperly) called free will” (E2.21.47)

This appears to be inconsistent with his earlier position that liberty concerns not the will; it pertains to overt acts of behavior. Others suggest that Lock is merely noting an exception to his previous position, as if responding to an objection he received while writing the Essay. The ability to control our desires or postpone the fulfillment of them seems to resonate with Locke as an area of the will that cannot be constrained or hindered.
Compatibilists like Locke and Hume maintain that free will does not exist when constraints (of various kinds) are present. For example, Hume’s definition of liberty of spontaneity – the only liberty non-imprisoned men have- is the absence of hindrances to acting and the absence of obstacles to the choice of the will. What constitutes a hindrance or obstacle? Locke uses the example of a sleeping man brought into a room with his friend. After being locked inside the room, the man awakens and upon seeing his friend, chooses to remain in the room for a visit. Locke maintains that his choice to remain was not free because the man was not able to leave the room, even though he did not know that leaving was impossible. Is it physical hindrances alone such as chains, and locked doors that keep us from acting? After determining what counts as an obstacle, then we must ask if the obstacle affects the agent, the action or the power. Locke argues that if we are not in chains we are free, our acts of volition (the actions of our will) may not be free and our will is not free. For him, freedom of the individual is undisputed; freedom of the will is semantically a nonsensical expression, and freedom of acts of volition need to be checked for hindrances and the ability to do otherwise in order to determine whether they are free. Ideas about constraints upon acts of volition bring us to question what is causing the constraint or what is causing the agent to choose.
The attempt to draw a distinction between determining causes (causes compatible with free will) and constraining causes (causes incompatible with free will) doesn’t seem to fortify the strength of Locke’s argument. Garrett aptly points out that the agent subject to either kind of cause could not have done otherwise, so why make the distinction between the two? It appears that our attempts to rationalize determinism keep taking us farther and farther from the issue of freedom. I think Locke saw this happening and decided to take the Empirical stance of sticking to what can be known. He comes to the conclusion that we cannot possible tell from observation and reason alone if we are metaphysically free; he assumes that we must be free in some sense because God has promised to judge us justly and cannot do so if we are not free. The knowledge that God will judge us justly cannot be known empirically, but that does not seem to be a problem for Locke. The other ideas he stirs up in the discussion on freedom are more interesting, so most just overlook that inconsistency.
I leave the discussions of necessity and causes with the question “Does the cause that necessitates choice really have any effect on the agent’s freedom to do what is willed? I am not convinced that it does, and I am beginning to question the idea of determinism. Since determinism is only a problem for free will if it is true, then I feel the need to explore it in more detail. Sarah Buss clarifies the dilemma we face when we try to properly order agents and forces.
The puzzle at the heart of these questions is a puzzle about the relationship between the agent’s power and the power of the forces that move her. And it is a puzzle about the relationship between the agent’s authority and the status of these motivating forces. What distinguishes motives whose power is attributable to the agent herself from motives whose power is external to the agent’s? What distinguishes motives on which the agent has conferred her authority from motives whose power has reduced her authorization to a mere formality? When the governing agent and the agent she governs are the very same self, we cannot answer either of these questions without answering the other, This is why it is so difficult to produce a satisfactory account of personal autonomy.

I don’t think either Locke or Hume is completely right on the issue of freedom. They begin with interesting ideas that make some sense, but when they are developed further, they seem to get further and further from the issue and neither confirm or deny what I feel about my own personal freedom. Their reasoned accounts do not consistently match my experiences concerning my freedom of self, action and will and so I rely on my gut, which is right where I began.
(Works Cited Available on Request)

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