Van Inwagen on Determinism
It is difficult to formulate "the problem of free will and determinism" in a way that will satisfy everyone. Once one
might have said that the problem of free will and determinism — in those days one would have said 'liberty and
necessity' — was the problem of discovering whether the human will is free or whether its productions are governed
by strict causal necessity. But no one today would be allowed to formulate "the problem of free will and determinism"
like that, for this formulation presupposes the truth of a certain thesis about the conceptual relation of free will to
determinism that many, perhaps most, present-day philosophers would reject: that free will and determinism are
incompatible. Indeed many philosophers hold not only that free will is compatible with determinism but that free
will entails determinism. I think it would be fair to say that almost all the philosophical writing on the problem of
free will and determinism since the time of Hobbes that is any good, that is of any enduring philosophical interest,
has been about this presupposition of the earlier debates about liberty and necessity. It is for this reason that
nowadays one must accept as a fait accompli that the problem of finding out whether free will and determinism are
compatible is a large part, perhaps the major part, of "the problem of free will and determinism".
Aristotle Voluntary Action
Because ethics is a practical rather than a theoretical science, Aristotle also gave careful consideration to the
aspects of human nature involved in acting and accepting moral responsibility. Moral evaluation of an
action presupposes the attribution of responsibility to a human agent. But in certain circumstances, this attribution
would not be appropriate. Responsible action must be undertaken voluntarily, on Aristotle's view, and human
actions are involuntary under two distinct conditions: (Nic. Ethics III 1 )
First, actions that are produced by some external force (or, perhaps, under an extreme duress from outside the
agent) are taken involuntarily, and the agent is not responsible for them. Thus, if someone grabs my arm and uses it
to strike a third person, I cannot reasonably be blamed (or praised) morally for what my arm has done.
Second, actions performed out of ignorance are also involuntary. Thus, if I swing my arm for exercise and strike
the third party who (unbeknownst to me) is standing nearby, then again I cannot be held responsible for having
struck that person. Notice that the sort of ignorance Aristotle is willing to regard as exculpatory is always of lack of
awareness of relevant particulars. Striking other people while claiming to be ignorant of the moral rule under which
it is wrong to do so would not provide any excuse on his view.
As we'll soon see, decisions to act voluntarily rely upon deliberation about the choice among alternative actions
that the individual could perform. During the deliberative process, individual actions are evaluated in light of the
good, and the best among them is then chosen for implementation. Under these conditions, Aristotle supposed, moral
actions are within our power to perform or avoid; hence, we can reasonably be held responsible for them and their
consequences. Just as with health of the body, virtue of the soul is a habit that can be acquired (at least in part) as
the result of our own choices.
Nagel on Moral Luck
Not only are the Control Principle and its corollary plausible in themselves, they also seem to find support in our
reactions to particular cases. For example, if we find out that a woman who has just stepped on your toes was simply
pushed, then our temptation to blame her is likely to evaporate. It seems that the reason for this is our
unwillingness to hold someone responsible for what is not in her control. Similarly, if two drivers have taken all
precautions, and are abiding by all the rules of the road, and in one case, a dog runs in front of the car and is killed,
and not in the other, then, given that the dog's running out was not something over which either driver had control,
it seems that we are reluctant to blame one driver more than the other. Although we might expect different reactions
from the two drivers, it does not seem that one is deserving of a worse moral assessment than the other.
At the same time, it seems that there are countless cases in which the objects of our moral assessments do depend
on factors beyond agents' control. Even though “moral luck” seems to be an oxymoron, everyday judgments suggest
that there is a phenomenon of moral luck after all. As Nagel defines it, “Where a significant aspect of what someone
does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral
judgment, it can be called moral luck.” (Nagel 1979, 59). To bring out the conflict with the Control Principle even
more starkly, we will understand moral luck as follows:
(ML) moral luck occurs when an agent can be correctly treated as an object of moral judgment, despite the fact that a
significant aspect of what he is assessed for depends on factors beyond his control.
We certainly seem to be committed to the existence of moral luck. For example, we seem to blame those who have
murdered more than we blame those who have merely attempted murder, even if the reason for the lack of success in
the second case is that the intended victim unexpectedly tripped and fell to the floor just as the bullet arrived at
head-height. Since whether the intended victim tripped or not is not something in control of either would-be
murderer, we appear to violate the Control Principle and its corollary.
It might be tempting to respond at this point that what people are really responsible for are their intentions or their
“willings,” and that we are thus wrong to offer different moral assessments in this pair of cases. Adam Smith
(1790/1976), for example, advocates this position, writing that
To the intention or affection of the heart, therefore, to the propriety and impropriety, to the beneficence or
hurtfulness of the design, all praise or blame, all approbation or disapprobation, of any kind, which can justly be
bestowed upon any action, must ultimately belong. (II.iii.intro.3.)
But this tempting response faces difficulties of its own. First, as we will see, the would-be murderers offer only one of
many cases in which our intuitive moral judgment appears to depend on “results” beyond one's intentions, as Smith
himself noted (II.iii.intro.5). And even more importantly, luck can affect even our “willings” and other internal states
(Feinberg 1970, 34-38). As Nagel develops the point, there are other types of luck that affect not only our actions but
also every intention we form and every exertion of our wills. Further, once these kinds of luck are recognized, we will
see that not one of the factors on which agents' actions depend is immune to luck.
Nagel identifies four kinds of luck in all: resultant, circumstantial, constitutive, and causal.
Resultant Luck. Resultant luck is luck in the way things turn out. Examples include the pair of would-be
murderers just mentioned as well as the pair of innocent drivers described above. In both cases, each member of the
pair has exactly the same intentions, has made the same plans, and so on, but things turn out very differently and
so both are subject to resultant luck. If in either case, we can correctly offer different moral assessments for each
member of the pair, then we have a case of resultant moral luck. Williams offers a case of “decision under
uncertainty”: a somewhat fictionalized Gauguin, who chooses a life of painting in Tahiti over a life with his family,
not knowing whether he will be a great painter. In one scenario, he goes on to become a great painter, and in
another, he fails. According to Williams, we will judge Gauguin differently depending on the outcome. Cases of
negligence provide another important kind of resultant luck. Imagine that two otherwise conscientious people have
forgotten to have their brakes checked recently and experience brake failure, but only one of whom finds a child in
the path of his car. If in any of these cases we correctly offer differential moral assessments, then again we have
cases of resultant moral luck.
Circumstantial luck. Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances in which one finds oneself. For example,
consider Nazi collaborators in 1930's Germany who are condemned for committing morally atrocious acts, even
though their very presence in Nazi Germany was due to factors beyond their control (Nagel 1979). Had those very
people been transferred by the companies for which they worked to Argentina in 1929, perhaps they would have led
exemplary lives. If we correctly morally assess the Nazi collaborators differently from their imaginary counterparts
in Argentina, then we have a case of circumstantial moral luck.
Constitutive luck. Constitutive luck is luck in who one is, or in the traits and dispositions that one has. Since our
genes, care-givers, peers, and other environmental influences all contribute to making us who we are (and since we
have no control over these) it seems that who we are is at least largely a matter of luck. Since how we act is partly a
function of who we are, the existence of constitutive luck entails that what actions we perform depends on luck, too.
For example, if we correctly blame someone for being cowardly or self-righteous or selfish, when his being so depends
on factors beyond his control, then we have a case of constitutive moral luck. Further, if a person acts on one of these
very character traits over which he lacks control by, say, running away instead of helping to save his child, and we
correctly blame him for so acting, then we also have a case of constitutive moral luck. Thus, since both actions and
agents are objects of moral assessment, constitutive moral luck undermines the Control Principle when it comes to
the assessment of both actions and agents.
Causal luck. Finally, there is causal luck, or luck in “how one is determined by antecedent circumstances” (Nagel
1979, 60). Nagel points out that the appearance of causal moral luck is essentially the classic problem of free will.
The problem of free will to which Nagel refers arises because it seems that our actions — and even the “stripped-
down acts of the will” — are consequences of what is not in our control. If this is so, then neither our actions nor our
willing are free. And since freedom is often thought to be necessary for moral responsibility, we cannot be morally
responsible even for our willings. Sometimes the problem is thought to arise only if determinism is true, but this is
not the case. Even if it turns out that determinism is false, but events are still caused by prior events according to
probabilistic laws, the way that one is caused to act by antecedent circumstances would seem to be equally outside of
one's control (e.g., Pereboom 2002, 41-54, Watson 1982, 9). Finally, it is worth noting that some have viewed the
inclusion of the category of causal luck as redundant, since what it covers is completely captured by the combination
of constitutive and circumstantial luck (Latus 2001).
Terms on Freewill
1.1 Free Will
It would be misleading to specify a strict definition of free will since in the philosophical work devoted to this notion
there is probably no single concept of it. For the most part, what philosophers working on this issue have been
hunting for, maybe not exclusively, but centrally, is a feature of agency that is necessary for persons to be morally
responsible for their conduct. Different attempts to articulate the conditions for moral responsibility will yield
different accounts of the sort of agency required to satisfy those conditions. What is needed, then, as a starting
point, is a gentle, malleable notion that focuses upon special features of persons as agents. Hence, as a theory-
neutral point of departure, free will can be defined as the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their
conduct in the fullest manner necessary for moral responsibility. Clearly, this definition is too lean when taken as
an endpoint; the hard philosophical work is about how best to develop this special kind of control. But however this
notion of control is developed, its uniqueness consists, at least in part, in being possessed only by persons.
1.2 Moral Responsibility
A person who is a morally responsible agent is not merely a person who is able to do moral right or wrong. Beyond
this, she is accountable for her morally significant conduct. Hence, she is, when fitting, an apt target of moral praise
or blame, as well as reward or punishment. Free will is understood as a necessary condition of moral responsibility
since it would seem unreasonable to say of a person that she deserves blame and punishment for her conduct if it
turned out that she was not at any point in time in control of it. (Similar things can be said about praise and
reward.) It is primarily, though not exclusively, because of the intimate connection between free will and moral
responsibility that the free will problem is seen as an important one.