JOSEPH KEIM CAMPBELL: COMPATIBILIST ALTERNATIVES
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If you were free in doing something and morally responsible for it, you could have done otherwise. That has seemed a pretty firm proposition among the old, new, clear, unclear and other propositions in the philosophical discussion of freedom and determinism. If you were free in what you did, there was an alternative. It is also at least natural to think that if determinism is true, you can never do otherwise than you do. G. E. Moore, that Cambridge reasoner in whose shadow Wittgenstein ought to be standing, considered the matter. He pointed out that even if determinism is true, there remains a sense in which you can still do otherwise than you do: you will do otherwise if you so choose. That, on reflection, is consistent with determinism. The doctrine of the compatibility of freedom and determinism is saved. Joseph Keim Campbell, strong philosopher at Washington State University, provides the latest thinking on this seemingly unavoidable dispute. You do not have to agree that either compatibilism or incompatibilism must be true in order to appreciate the carefulness of his reasoning in this piece of ongoing American philosophy. It requires and repays attention.
This is a defense of strong compatibilism. Roughly, strong compatibilism is the view that (a) free will is essential to moral responsibility, (b) free will requires alternatives, and (c) moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. The expression ‘free will’ is intended to designate the freedom-relevant condition necessary for moral responsibility, whatever that condition may be (cf. McKenna 2003).1 Thus, (a) is true by definition. Strong compatibilism is a version of the alternatives theory of free will. According to the alternatives theory, a person S performs an action a freely only if S has or had alternatives to a. Moreover, S has alternatives to a iff S can perform some contrary action a' instead of a, where one act is contrary to another provided that a person cannot simultaneously perform them both.
Strong compatibilism has long been challenged by incompatibilists who endorse (b) but reject (c). More recently, both semicompatibilists—who accept (c) but reject (b)—and free will nihilists—who hold that no person has or ever had free will—have offered criticisms of (b). This line of attack is motivated by well-known examples offered first by Harry Frankfurt (1969) and then by others. Here is a version of my own Frankfurt example, as re-told by Michael McKenna.
“Desperate for money, Eleanor and her father Roscoe plan to rob a bank. Roscoe fears that Eleanor might change her mind at an inopportune moment. To insure that Eleanor will proceed with the plans, Roscoe secretly implants a mechanism in Eleanor’s brain. Should Eleanor give any indication that she is unwilling to go along with the bank robbery, Roscoe will use the device to render Eleanor unable to do anything other than rob the bank. As it happens, despite a splitting headache, Eleanor willingly robs the bank with her father. The device is never activated.” (McKenna 1998, 259)
Eleanor is apparently morally responsible for her actions even though she could not have done otherwise. Thus, it seems that alternatives are not essential to moral responsibility.
In this essay, I provide a new theory of alternatives, inspired by the work of G.E. Moore (1912) and R. Jay Wallace (1994). I begin with a broad framework for grasping most versions of the alternatives theory: the relevant facts account (§2). The relevant facts account is helpful in understanding both compatibilist and incompatibilist theories but I am especially interested in using it to flesh out two varieties of strong compatibilism: the two-‘cans’ view—according to which ‘can’ is ambiguous like the word ‘odd’—and contextualism—according to which ‘can’ is context sensitive like ‘flat.’ Finally, I offer a version of the two-‘cans’ view and show how my view differs from those of Moore and Wallace (§ 3).
2. The Relevant Facts Account2
I begin by restating strong compatibilism in more precise terms, e.g., as the conjunction of the following three claims.
1. A person is morally responsible for an action only if he does it freely.
2. A person performs an action freely only if he has or had alternatives to the action.
3. That someone is morally responsible for some action is consistent with the thesis of determinism.
(1)–(3) correspond, roughly and respectively, to items (a)–(c) in the provisional definition of ‘strong compatibilism’ above.3
The principle of alternative possibilities, or PAP, is a consequence of (1) and (2). It is more succinctly stated as follows:
PAP: A person is morally responsible for an action only if he has or had alternatives to the action.
Note that PAP fails to distinguish between the time of action—the time that an agent performs an action—and the time of ability—the time that an agent had the ability to perform an alternative action (Taylor 1965 and Lehrer and Taylor 1965). Even if we agree that Eleanor could not do otherwise at the time that she robbed the bank there is little reason to suppose that she lacked alternatives to her actions prior to the implantation of the bank-robbing device. Perhaps we should rephrase PAP so that it implies that in order for a person to be morally responsible it is “necessary that one could have done otherwise for some acts in one’s lifetime” (Kane 2002, 697).
Unfortunately the above Frankfurt example can be altered to meet this new version of PAP. Suppose that some god-like creature—call him ‘Harry’—has a full life plan for Eleanor. He implants a device in Eleanor prior to her birth. If Eleanor were about to something that Harry did not intend for her to do, then the device would become activated. As it happens, she does everything that Harry wants her to do. Now it seems that there is nothing that Eleanor could have done otherwise. Similar comments may be made about other responses to the Frankfurt examples (cf. Pereboom 2000). For every new version of PAP, there is another Frankfurt example that apparently undermines it. In order to successfully defend PAP one needs to adopt a new strategy. What we need is not a different version of PAP but an altogether different understanding of alternatives.
The relevant facts account is well suited for grasping the standard incompatibilist view of alternatives. What does it mean to say that William James has a choice about which way to walk home after one of his lectures? Here is James’s response:
Note that the incompatibilist criterion is not an analysis since it only specifies a necessary condition for having alternatives. Nonetheless, it does identify a condition that is central to most versions of the argument for incompatibilism. As Peter van Inwagen writes: “it seems that our freedom can only be the freedom to add to the actual past; it seems that our freedom can only be the freedom to act in accordance with the laws of nature” (2000, 167; cf. Ginet 1990, 102-3). Hence, the incompatibilist claims that, given determinism, we lack the all-in ability to do otherwise. Of course, the incompatibilist believes that all-in ability is the only kind of ability, at least when considering the ‘can’ of free will.
“Lewis’s idea is that a statement attributing ability, like ‘Tim can kill Grandfather,’ is ambiguous. The statement means ‘Tim’s killing Grandfather is compossible with a certain set of facts,’ but the relevant set of facts may vary from one context of utterance to another. When we say that Tim can kill Grandfather because he has what it takes, we mean that his killing Grandfather is compossible with a certain set of facts that includes only relatively ‘local’ facts about the killing situation; when we say that Tim can’t kill Grandfather because Grandfather is Tim’s grandfather, we mean that Tim’s killing Grandfather isn’t compossible with a more inclusive set of facts that includes the fact that Grandfather survived his youth and helped produce Tim.” (1997, 143)
According to both Lewis and Sider, the truth conditions of ability sentences vary according to the context in which those sentences are uttered. Thus, an utterance of the sentence ‘Tim can kill Grandfather’ may be true in one context yet false in another.
In the above quotations, Lewis and Sider suggest that the variance in the truth conditions of ability sentences is due to a change in meaning. Lewis claims that “‘can’ is equivocal” (1976, 77) and Sider claims that “a statement attributing ability ¼ is ambiguous” (1997, 143). Both assertions are questionable and unnecessary. If contextualism is understood in terms of the relevant facts account, then it seems that ‘S can do a’ always means the same thing: that S’s doing a is compossible with the relevant facts. What varies from context to context—if contextualism is true—is the set of facts that is counted as relevant, not the meaning of ‘can.’ Contextualism is committed to a variation in the content of assertions of ability sentences—to the “proposition that embodies [their] truth-conditions”—but not to a variation in the meaning of such assertions—to “what is fixed by the conventions for the use of expressions that we learn when we learn a language” (Perry 1997).
We may contrast contextualism with the two-‘cans’ view endorsed by Moore (1912). Moore distinguishes between the hypothetical sense and the categorical sense of ‘can.’ The latter is picked out by the concept of all-in ability noted above; the former is usually identified with the standard hypothetical analysis of ‘could have done otherwise’: if S had wanted (or tried, etc.) to do otherwise, then S would have done otherwise.6 Perhaps the standard hypothetical analysis is really a version of the relevant facts account. If it is, then Moore may be wrong in his claim that the word ‘can’ is ambiguous. Nonetheless, Moore holds that ability terms and sentences have two distinct meanings and in doing so he endorses the two-‘can’ view and distinguishes his position from the one held by the contextualist.7
The contextualist about ability terms adds to the relevant facts account the claim that the relevant facts vary with the context of utterance. There are many different ways that one might explain how and why this is so. According to a popular version of contextualism—call it ‘naïve contextualism’—these variations result due to differences in our sphere of attention. John Hawthorne writes:
“When ordinary speakers utter English claims of the form ‘S did x freely’ (and their synonyms), they frequently speak the truth. But when our sphere of attention is widened by philosophical inquiry, we are rarely in a position to truly utter the English words ‘S did x freely’. Accordingly, the English words ‘S did x freely’ (and ‘It is up to S whether or not he does x’ and ‘S did x of his own free will’ etc.) must have a meaning that somehow allows its truth conditions to vary according to the sphere of attention.” (2001, 68)
Naïve contextualism is a kind of compatibilism, for it claims that in ordinary contexts our standards for determining what facts are relevant are less restrictive since we attend to only “relatively ‘local’ facts.” Yet in philosophical contexts our attention is draw elsewhere—to facts about the neurological springs of our action, or to the entire set of facts about the broad past—and we subsequently deny that our actions are free.
section, I sketch out a compatibilist theory of alternatives that is a
variant of the two-‘cans’ view. My version of the alternatives theory
is opposed to naïve contextualism but my criticisms of naïve
contextualism leave room for other contextualist theories as well as
other non-contextualist theories. This is all to the good. I am not
certain whether ability sentences are genuinely ambiguous or whether
they suffer from some more complex linguistic malady. Since it is
relatively easy to talk in terms of different senses of ability
sentences, I make a provisional case for the claim that the two-‘cans’
view is correct. If it turns out that ‘can’ is more like ‘flat’ than it
is like ‘odd,’ or even that the relevant difference involves the
contents of assertions of ability sentences rather than the meanings of
those sentences (cf. Stainton forthcoming), then my comments may be
amended without much loss to the strong compatibilist position.
Often when we say ‘S can doing otherwise’ we mean that S’s doing otherwise is compossible with all of the facts about the broad past. It is our all-in ability that withers upon reflection, for in this sense any fact about the broad past is relevant to whether or not one has alternatives. As we discover and contemplate more information about the world, our all-in ability to do otherwise appears to correspondingly evaporate. All-in ability is exemplified in both the James thought experiment and the incompatibilist criterion, noted above.
Ability sentences may also express a more general sense. In order to understand the difference, consider first the following joke. (It is a philosophical joke, so it’s not very funny.) A man has a bird in a cage. A friend asks him, “Can your bird fly?” The man looks at the bird in the cage and responds, “No. Not at the moment.” Whereupon the friend retorts, “If it can’t fly, then why is it in a cage?” Peter Unger (1984, 55) offers a related example: “while riding in a train with a pianist friend, a person might ask the musician, ‘Can you play “One O’clock Jump”?’ The pianist may reply, ‘Yes, I can.’” Unger notes that “the lack of any piano on the train will not falsify the musician’s claims” but that “in the hotel two months later, matters of truth will be evaluated differently: The absence of piano might then falsify.”
Given the above examples, it is natural to conclude that ability sentences are ambiguous. A bird is in a cage and someone asks, ‘Can the bird fly?’ The answer is ‘Yes’ if we are talking about the bird’s general abilities. The bird would not be in a cage unless it had the general ability to fly. But the bird does not have the all-in ability to fly, for it cannot fly in the all-in sense given that it is in a cage. Similarly, a man might have the general ability to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ even if there is no piano available. When there is no piano available it is not this general ability that is lost, though indeed another ability may be absent. For there is certainly a sense in which one cannot play a song on a piano if there is no piano available to play the song.
My distinction between all-in and general abilities is influenced by the work of Moore (1912) and Wallace (1994) but it is not the same as either of their distinctions. All-in abilities correspond well with Moore’s categorical sense of ‘can’ but general abilities are quite different from the hypothetical sense of ‘can.’ With Wallace it is just the opposite. My notion of general abilities is adopted from Wallace’s own view. But all-in abilities are different from Wallace’s particular abilities. Wallace’s distinction between particular and general abilities is a lot like the difference between one’s general ability to play the piano—in my sense—versus one’s ability to play the piano at a particular moment of time, for instance, one’s ability to play the piano now. But when I say that a person has the general ability to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ I mean that there is a sense in which he can play ‘One O’clock Jump’ now, even if there is no piano available. At this very moment—regardless of the presence or absence of a piano—there are lots of folks who can play ‘One O’clock Jump’ in the general sense though I cannot. Nonetheless, I am willing to admit that there might be another, more restrictive sense in which one cannot play ‘One O’clock Jump’ if there is no piano available to play the song.
In order for Wallace’s view to be of use to the strong compatibilist it must be amended and combined with the insights of Moore. Moore is correct: ‘can’ is ambiguous and, thus, so are ability sentences. However, Moore was wrong about the details of this ambiguity. Wallace’s concept of general ability is preferable to Moore’s hypothetical sense of ‘can.’ The new proposal combines the theories of Moore and Wallace: ability sentences are ambiguous between the all-in sense and the general sense.
Given my version of the two-‘cans’ view, how should the strong compatibilist respond to the Frankfurt example noted above? Recall that in this example Eleanor is supposed to be morally blameworthy for her action. Suppose that we slightly alter the example: Eleanor decides not to rob the bank and Roscoe simply flips a switch causing her to do so anyway. In this new case Eleanor is no longer morally blameworthy for robbing the bank. What is the difference between the two cases, the original case where the device is not activated and the new case where it is activated? One cannot describe the difference in terms of Eleanor’s all-in abilities since in both situations she lacks the all-in ability to do otherwise. The difference lies in the things that she cannot do in a more general sense. Though the Frankfurt examples show that all-in abilities are not essential to moral responsibility, it would be wrong to conclude from those examples that general abilities are not essential to moral responsibility.
General abilities are more fundamental than all-in abilities. If a bird lacks the general ability to fly, then it also lacks the all-in ability to fly. I cannot play the piano in a general sense, so I am not able to play it in the all-in sense. But as the above examples indicate, a bird may have a general ability to fly yet lack the all-in ability to do so. Similar comments apply to the pianist example. It is the fundamental nature of our general abilities that make them appropriate candidates for underlying the freedom-relevant condition necessary for moral responsibility. As the Frankfurt examples illustrate, one may be praiseworthy or blameworthy for his actions even if he lacks the all-in ability to do otherwise but few would say the same were one to lack general abilities like “the power to grasp and apply the principles that support the moral obligations we accept, and to control one’s behavior by the light of such principles” (Wallace 1994, 188). That Eleanor cannot do otherwise in the all-in sense is irrelevant to our judgment that she is morally blameworthy but if she could not do otherwise in a more general sense—as is the case when the bank-robbing device is activated, for instance—our judgment would rightfully be different.8
One might think that Unger’s pianist example is supportive of naïve contextualism but that is not so. There is a general sense in which any pianist can play the piano even if he is riding in a train and there is no piano available to play. This is why it is appropriate to call one a ‘pianist’ or a ‘musician’ whether or not there is an instrument available to play. A pianist’s general ability to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ has to do with his training and “his knowledge of the jazz repertoire” (Unger 1984, 55) not with incidental facts like the availability of a piano. Even if one believes that there is no piano available to play he might still say that he is able to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ in this general sense. In one and the same context he might admit both that he can play ‘One O’clock Jump,’ for he has what it takes, and that he cannot play the piece, since there is no piano available. This is why naïve contextualism is wrong.
Similar comments apply to the bird example. By merely asking ‘Can the bird in the cage fly?’ one automatically draws attention to the fact that the bird is in a cage. This would make this fact a relevant one if naïve contextualism were true. If naïve contextualism were true, it would be impossible to correctly answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Can the bird in the cage fly?,’ for the bird cannot fly in the all-in sense given that it is in a cage. Suppose that someone wants to take the bird out of the cage and hold it in his hands. He might ask, ‘Can the bird in the cage fly?’ before doing so. On some occasions the correct answer to this question is going to be ‘Yes.’ It is not clear how the naïve contextualist may admit this.
For these reasons, I am inclined to believe that naïve contextualism is false: the content of ability sentences does not change simply because of a change in our sphere of attention. This alone, though, does not entail either that contextualism is false or that the two-‘cans’ view is true. But it does suggest that merely attending to a fact does not in and of itself make the fact a relevant one. As I indicated above, we should separate the semantic issues—what to say about the precise meaning and content of ability sentences—from the compatibility issue. I think that I have given reason to believe that (a) on at least some occasions there are truthful utterances of ability sentences, (b) often the truthfulness of those utterances is essential to the moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of an individual’s action, and (c) all of this is independent of the truth or falsity of determinism. This is enough to motivate strong compatibilism even though it is consistent with the two-‘can’ view, contextualism, and a few other theories about the semantics of ability sentences (cf. Stainton forthcoming).
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* Versions of this paper were presented at the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference as well as the Western Canadian Philosophical Association Conference. I thank my commentators—David Sosa and Peter Murphy, respectively—as well as other members of the audience—especially Hud Hudson and David Zimmerman—for helpful criticisms and feed-back. I also thank John Martin Fischer, Michael O’Rourke, and an anonymous referee from the Canadian Journal of Philosophy for written comments on an earlier draft. Lastly, I thank David Shier and Harry Silverstein for useful discussions on issues related to this paper.
1. Following Peter van Inwagen (1983, 8), I use the term ‘free will’ out of respect for tradition. By saying that one has free will I do not mean to imply that the person has some faculty, e.g., the will, that has the property of being free. Perhaps the expression ‘moral freedom’ (cf. Markosian 1999, 258) is preferable to ‘free will,’ for it is common to identify having free will with having alternatives, and it is equally common to believe that alternatives are not necessary for moral responsibility and, hence, neither is free will. But philosophers who think along these lines—for instance, semicompatibilists (Fischer 1994)—generally accept that there is a freedom-relevant condition that is necessary for moral responsibility. Thus, when they claim that free will is not essential to moral responsibility they are using the term ‘free will’ in a way that is different than the way that I am using it here.
2. The structure of this section is borrowed from Keith DeRose (1999).
3. Determinism is the conjunction of the following two theses: “For every instant of time, there is a proposition that expresses the state of the world at that instant” and “If p and q are any propositions that express the state of the world at some instants, then the conjunction of p with the laws of nature entails q” (van Inwagen 1983, 65). For other definitions of the key terms of the free will debate, see van Inwagen (1983) and Campbell, O’Rourke, and Shier (2004b).
For the purposes of this essay, (3) expresses the thesis of compatibilism whereas incompatibilism is the denial of (3). Some philosophers use the term ‘compatibilism’ to designate the view that the free will thesis—the claim that some persons have free will—is compatible with determinism (van Inwagen 1983). But since free will just is the freedom relevant condition necessary for moral responsibility, this usage is not significantly different from my own.
4. Contextualist theories of ability terms are developed by Lewis (1976 and 1979) and Sider (1997). A contextualist theory of ‘free action’ is presented by John Hawthorne (2001). Both kinds of theories are discussed by Peter Unger (1984, 54-8). Richard Feldman (2004) offers several compelling criticisms of contextualism. In this section, I’m presenting broad strong compatibilist strategies, so many of the important details of contextualism are left out. For a more complete understanding of contextualist theories of freedom, see Feldman (2004).
5. For a general introduction to the grandfather paradox, and other paradoxes of time travel, see Campbell (forthcoming).
6. Moore’s own analysis of the hypothetical sense of ‘could have done otherwise’ is more elaborate and more interesting. According to Moore, we could have done otherwise—in the hypothetical sense—iff three conditions hold: “(1) that we ... should have acted differently, if we had chosen to; (2) that similarly we ... should have chosen differently, if we had chosen so to choose; and (3) that it was ... possible that we should have chosen differently, in the sense that no man could know for certain that we should not so choose” (Moore 1912, 94). (1) is equivalent to the standard hypothetical analysis, so Moore’s analysis is clearly more detailed than the standard one.
7. Unger (1983) suggests that the distinction between contextualism and invariantism maps on neatly, and respectively, to the distinction between compatibilism and incompatibilism. But the two-‘cans’ view shows that this is not so. The two-‘cans’ view is a kind of invariantism, for invariantism is just the denial of contextualism and the two-‘cans’ view is not a kind of contextualism. What we need is a distinction that lines up contextualism and the two-‘cans’ view on the same side and incompatibilist versions of the alternatives theory on the other.