Kane's Idea of Self-Forming Actions
Some libertarians such as Robert Kane do not believe that all of our actions must be physically and rationally undetermined in order to have libertarian free will. In other words, they believe that free will does not entail that all of our free actions require alternate possibilities. These libertarians believe that our character is what determines a certain course of action. As long as we had in the past, the possibility of developing a different character, then we have free will. Suppose my co-worker is honest by nature and he makes a mistake at work. He admits that he made a mistake to his supervisor. He told the truth to his manager because his character determined that course of action. Kane would say that as long as he had the ability to choose certain actions that helped him to develop the character that he has now, then he has free will. If he never had the possibility to develop a different character, then he would not have free will. Kane calls these undetermined character-setting actions 'self-forming actions' or SFAs for short. SFAs are the actions in our lives by which we form our character and motives. An SFA must be performed under conditions that allow for what Kane calls 'plural rationality', which means that a person must be able to do at least two things, each of which is supported by good reasons. Moreover, SFAs are performed voluntarily and intentionally.
Self-forming actions are made when we are torn between competing visions of what we should do or become. Suppose my co-worker is frequently tempted to lie to his manager. On the one hand, he desires to tell the truth, but on the other hand, he has some competing desires to lie. If he were to resist the temptation to lie over and over again, then this action would help him to develop an honest character. Once he firmly establishes his honest character, then his character will influence his actions in the future. In situations where he is tempted to lie, it will be more likely that he will tell the truth granted that his honest character has been firmly established.
In this paper, I will argue that Kane's idea of self-forming actions faces this dilemma: Either a person's action preceding an SFA guarantees the performance of an SFA or it does not. If it does, then the alternate possibility requirement of libertarian free will cannot be met. If it does not, then the person performing the SFA does not appear to be morally responsible. I will also argue that SFAs appear to be arbitrary and that the concept of a SFA cannot refute the Luck Principle. Lastly, I will argue that there appears to be no way to discern the difference between a genuine SFA from a pseudo-SFA.
Suppose a person is tempted to steal food in a grocery store. If he chooses not to steal, then this SFA would help him to develop an honest character. If something were to guarantee that he would perform that particular SFA, then the alternate possibility requirement of libertarian free will would not be met because Kane's version of libertarian free will teaches that a person's SFA must be undetermined. That person must have the ability to choose otherwise. He must have the ability to steal or not to steal; he must have the ability to choose between developing an honest character or a dishonest character.
Libertarians claim that a person's SFA is undetermined. However, if they are undetermined, then people do not appear to be morally responsible for their actions. Suppose my co-worker is on his way to work. He witnesses, on the way, a woman who has been the victim of a robbery. My co-worker has a strong motivation to stop and help the victim (action A). On the other hand, my co-worker knows for certain that stopping will cause him to miss a business meeting with clients and so he also has the desire to not stop (action B). My co-worker is torn between those two actions. Whether he will perform action A or not is indeterminate. Before my co-worker makes his choice, he has no control over which motivation will win out. Since he has no control over which motivation will win out, he is not morally responsible for performing action A or action B.
If he decided to choose action A, it is not because his effort disinclined him to choose action B, for that remained an option right up until the moment he made his decision. It appears that nothing made him decide to act morally. The question, then, is what is the connection between his effort and his choice that ensures that he is morally responsible for his actions? Many libertarians would say that his effort to do the right thing helped him to overcome the temptation to perform action B. However, that is hard to reconcile with him giving in to temptation being a possibility in spite of his effort. How can he be praiseworthy if he did not eliminate his desire to perform action B?
Kane argues that a person may be morally responsible for an undetermined act that he performs. In one of the examples he gives, an assassin's bullet that actually hit the prime minister of a country might have missed the prime minister had his arm twitched as he was firing his rifle due to undetermined events in his central nervous system. Even though the outcome of this event was undetermined, the assassin is still morally responsible for killing the intended victim because he was voluntarily carrying out his desire to murder the prime minister. However, there is a difference between Kane's example and the performance of an SFA. An SFA must remain undetermined right up until the moment of its performance. In contrast to an SFA, the assassination was not necessarily uncertain beyond the point at which the arm twitch failed to occur. The arm twitch that might have taken place would have been an obstacle to the intended goal. Since the arm twitch did not occur, it was the assassin's shooting skills that guaranteed the murder of the prime minister. Hence, the assassin is morally responsible for what he did. In contrast to Kane's example, the outcome of an SFA is not secured by the efforts of the person performing it, making it difficult to assign moral responsibility.
SFAs appear to be chosen arbitrarily as well. Here is Kane's response to the charge that SFAs are arbitrary:
A residual arbitrariness seems to remain in all self-forming choices since the agents cannot in principle have sufficient or conclusive prior reasons for making one option and one set of reasons prevail over the other. There is some truth to this objection also, but again I think it is a truth that tells us something important about free will. It tells us that every undetermined self-forming free choice is the initiation of what might be called a value experiment whose justification lies in the future and is not fully explained by past reasons.
Kane goes on to say that people can have good reasons for choosing what they choose and that they are responsible for their choices. The reasons for their choices are not
conclusive because they are not fully formed persons. Like the author of a novel, people are in the process of writing an unfinished story and forming an unfinished character.
My response to Kane is that if our SFAs are arbitrary, then the ethical dilemmas we face are not resolved in a rational way. Let me give an example of this. Suppose you are a bank teller and have developed a close friendship with another bank teller. Your co-worker tells you that his son is extremely ill and that he must have an operation in order to live. Moreover, he has no insurance and the operation will cost $9,000. A couple of months later, you ask him how his son is doing and he says that his son is doing well. He tells you that he took $9,000 from an inactive account at the bank to pay for the operation. He also tells you that he started to pay the money back and will continue to do so until all of it has been returned. Suppose you believe that there are good reasons for not doing anything about what your co-worker did. You also believe that there are good reasons for telling his supervisor and some other manager about this situation. You are torn between your options. If there are no conclusive reasons for resolving this ethical dilemma and you choose one option arbitrarily, then you have not resolved the dilemma in a rational way. You have not given reasons why one option is better than the other one.
The next criticism that I will raise against Kane's concept of an SFA is that it does not refute the Luck Objection, which says that if an action is undetermined at a particular time,then its occurrence rather than its non-occurrence is a matter ofchance or luck. Hence, the action would not be free and responsible. Kane believes that our behavior can be described in terms of neural paths, electrochemical impulses, and quantum indeterminacies. Kane believes that the electrochemical impulses that come before the performance of an SFA leave it undetermined. Hence, Kane thinks that there is indeterminacy in the human brain. If Kane's naturalistic account of human indeterminacy is true, then there does not appear to be a decision maker in the brain that can resolve conflicting desires or quantum fluctuations in the brain. The resolution of our conflicting desires would be due to chance.
The last criticism that I will raise against the idea of an SFA is that there appears to be no way to discern the difference between a genuine SFA from a pseudo-SFA. Daniel Dennett says that they would feel the same from the inside and look the same from the outside, no matter how sophisticated our observational equipment. For example, when one looks at the life of Martin Luther, we do not know whether he had any genuine SFAs in his life. We do know that there were episodes of conflict and soul-searching in his life. He had to make some decisions that involved conflicting desires, but we do not know if his mind had the benefit of genuinely random sources of variability. Dennett says that the price that libertarians must pay for sequestering their pivotal moments in the transactions in some privileged place in the mind is that they render these all-important pivots undetectable by everyone. One might think that the difference between Luther when he was in prison and subjected to brainwashing and Luther when he was growing up would have a bearing on whether there were SFAs prior to the decisions he made later on in life, but there are no evidence for them. Luther's differing environments influenced how he made choices, but this does not mean that there were SFAs in his life. If Luther did not perform any SFAs in his life, then he did not have free will according to Kane.
Kane believes that a person must have performed at least one SFA at some point in his life in order to have free will. A person's SFA or SFAs would shape his character and his character would influence his future actions. Kane believes that a person's action preceding an SFA does not guarantee the performance of an SFA. I argued that the downside to this is that the person performing the SFA would not appear to be morally responsible for his action. I argued that SFAs appear to be arbitrary and that the concept of a SFA cannot refute the Luck Principle. If our SFAs are arbitrary, then the ethical dilemmas we face are not resolved in a rational way. Lastly, I argued that there appears to be no way to discern the difference between a genuine SFA from a pseudo-SFA. If a person does not perform any SFAs during his lifetime, then he does not have free will according to Kane.
1. Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford University Press 2005, p.130.
2. Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford University Press 2005, p.129.
3. Robert Kane, 'Responsibility, Luck, and Chance: Reflections on Free will and Indeterminism,' The Journal of Philosophy XCVI (1999) p. 227.
4. John Martin Fisher, Robert Kane, Derek Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas, Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 41
5. John Martin Fisher, Robert Kane, Derek Pereboom, and Manuel Vargas, Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, p. 42
6. Robert Kane, 'Responsibility, Luck, and Chance: Reflections on Free will and Indeterminism,' The Journal of Philosophy XCVI (1999) pp. 129-130; 225-226.
7. Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 127.
8. Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 127.
9. Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 129.