by Alfred R. Mele

- the Determinism and Freedom Philosophy website --

Professor Mele uses the term `autonomy' where other philosophers have spoken of `freedom', `free will' and the like. His well-worked-out paper, which is individual in more than its usage, is not committed to either of the tired doctrines that determinism is inconsistent with autonomy and that it is consistent with it. He is agnostic about which choice to make. Some proponents of the first doctrine, those who believe determinism, draw the conclusion that there is no autonomy. Some proponents of the second doctrine maintain also maintain that indeterminism would in fact deprive us of autonomy. Professor Mele, as he says, is confident that we are somehow autonomous. He develops two ideas of it, incompatibilist autonomy and compatibilist autonomy, but is convinced that more work is needed on all sides. His is not the kind of labour that I myself take to be needed, or anyway desirable. Is it is more respectful of the recent past of the problem than is now a good idea? Well, disrespect is sometimes a bad idea. But we agree that the problem of determinism and freedom, once announced by philosophical undertakers to be dead and buried, even undertakers not employed by either side, has outlived all its undertakers.


Autonomy, as I understand it, is associated with a family of freedom-concepts: free will, free choice, free action, and the like. In much of the philosophical literature that I discuss in this essay, issues are framed in terms of freedom rather than autonomy, but we are talking about (aspects of) the same thing. Libertarians argue that determinism precludes autonomy by, for example, precluding an agent’s being ultimately responsible for anything (Kane 1996). Some compatibilist believers in autonomy argue that libertarians rely on indeterminism in a way that deprives us of autonomy-level control over our decisions (Berofsky 1995). Theorists who contend that no human being is autonomous can benefit from arguments on both sides, alleging that libertarians decisively reveal the ordinary person’s notion of autonomy, an incompatibilist notion, and that compatibilist critics of libertarianism show that the notion is incoherent or unsatisfiable. Is there a way to use the resources both of libertarianism and of compatibilism in an argument for the following thesis: the claim that there are autonomous human beings is more credible than the claim that there are none?

   I believe that the answer is yes. I defended that answer in Mele 1995. My strategy, in part, was to develop an account of an ideally self-controlled agent (where self-control is understood as the contrary of akrasia [roughly, weakness of will]), to argue that even such an agent may fall short of autonomy, and to ask what may be added to ideal self-control to yield autonomy. I offered two answers, one for compatibilists and another for libertarians. I then argued that a certain disjunctive thesis involving both answers (identified in Sec. 4 below) is more credible than the thesis that there are no autonomous human beings.

1. A History-Sensitive Compatibilism

Control is a topic of much discussion in the literature on autonomy. Sometimes it is claimed that agents have no control at all if determinism is true. That claim is false. When I drive my car (under normal conditions), I am in control of the turns it makes, even if our world happens to be deterministic. I certainly am in control of my car’s movements in a way in which my passengers and others are not. A distinction can be drawn between compatibilist or “nonultimate” control and a species of control that might be available to agents in some indeterministic worlds – “ultimate” control.  I have the former kind of control over my car, and I might have the latter kind as well. Ultimate control might turn out to be remarkably similar to the control that many compatibilists have in mind; the key to its being ultimate control might be its indeterministic setting (Mele 1995, p. 213).

   Certain kinds of manipulation pose an apparent problem for compatibilists. Incompatibilists sometimes argue that compatibilists cannot find a difference relevant to autonomy between cases of manipulation (often featuring external intelligent controllers) in which an agent clearly acts nonautonomously and cases of causally determined action that involve no monkey business (Kane 1996, Pereboom 2001). They conclude, of course, that compatibilism is false.

   Here is a representative case of manipulation (from Mele 1995, p. 145). Ann is an autonomous agent and an exceptionally industrious philosopher. She puts in twelve solid hours a day, seven days a week; and she enjoys almost every minute of it. Beth, an equally talented colleague, values many things above philosophy, for reasons that she has refined and endorsed on the basis of careful critical reflection over many years. She identifies with and enjoys her own way of life – one which, she is confident, has a breadth, depth, and richness that long days in the office would destroy. Their dean (who will remain nameless) wants Beth to be like Ann. Normal modes of persuasion having failed, he decides to circumvent Beth’s agency. Without the knowledge of either philosopher, he hires a team of psychologists to determine what makes Ann tick and a team of new-wave brainwashers to make Beth like Ann. The psychologists decide that Ann’s peculiar hierarchy of values accounts for her productivity, and the brainwashers instill the same hierarchy in Beth while eradicating all competing values – via new-wave brainwashing, of course. Beth is now, in the relevant respect, a “psychological twin” of Ann. She is an industrious philosopher who thoroughly enjoys and highly values her philosophical work. Indeed, it turns out – largely as a result of Beth’s new hierarchy of values – that whatever upshot Ann’s critical reflection about her own values and priorities would have, the same is true of critical reflection by Beth. Her critical reflection, like Ann’s, fully supports her new style of life.

   Naturally, Beth is surprised by the change in her. What, she wonders, accounts for her remarkable zest for philosophy?  Why is her philosophical work now so much more enjoyable?  Why are her social activities now so much less satisfying and rewarding than her work?  Beth’s hypothesis is that she simply has grown tired of her previous mode of life, that her life had become stale without her recognizing it, and that she finally has come fully to appreciate the value of philosophical work. When she carefully reflects on her preferences and values, Beth finds that they fully support a life dedicated to philosophical work, and she wholeheartedly embraces such a life and the collection of values that supports it.

   Ann, by hypothesis, is autonomous; but what about Beth?  In important respects, she is a clone of Ann – and by design, not accident. Her own considered preferences and values were erased and replaced in the brainwashing process. Beth did not consent to the process. Nor was she even aware of it; she had no opportunity to resist. By instilling new values in Beth and eliminating old ones, the brainwashers gave her life a new direction, one that clashes with the considered principles and values she possessed prior to manipulation. Beth’s autonomy was violated, we naturally say.  And it is difficult not to see her now, in light of all this, as heteronomous to a significant extent. If that perception is correct, then given the psychological similarities between the two agents, the difference in their current status regarding autonomy would seem to lie in how they came to have certain psychological features that they have, hence in something external to their here-and-now psychological constitutions. That is, the crucial difference is historical; autonomy is in some way history-bound.

   In Mele 1995, I argued that this last sentence is true.  Thus, I faced an apparent problem. Some philosophers (Double 1991: 56-57) contend that once agents’ histories are allowed to have a relevance of the sort mentioned here to their autonomy, their having deterministic histories is relevant, as well, and relevant in a way that undermines compatibilism. It may be thought that if instances of manipulation of the sort present in the Ann/Beth story block psychological autonomy, they do so only if they causally determine crucial psychological events or states, and that determinism consequently is in danger of being identified as the real culprit.

   This worry is exaggerated. Even compatibilists who embrace determinism are in a position to distinguish among different causal routes to the collections of values (and “characters”) agents have at a time. They are also in a position to provide principled grounds for holding that distinct routes to two type-identical collections of values may be such that one and only one of those routes blocks autonomy regarding a life lived in accordance with those values. An analogue of the familiar compatibilist distinction between caused and compelled (or constrained) behavior may be used here.  Perhaps in engineering Beth’s values her brainwashers compelled her to have Ann-like pro-attitudes. Even so, a true and complete causal story about Ann’s having the values she has might involve no compulsion. If Beth was compelled to possess her Ann-like values whereas Ann was not, there are some apparent grounds, at least, for taking the latter alone to be responsible for the pertinent aspects of her character and for value-guided actions of the pertinent sort and to have performed those actions autonomously.

   In this connection, I argued in Mele 1995 (pp. 168-72, 183-84) for the relevance of a notion of agents’ (perhaps relatively modest) capacities for control over their mental lives being bypassed.  In ideally self-controlled agents, these capacities are considerable. Such agents are capable of modifying the strengths of their desires in the service of their normative judgments, of bringing their emotions into line with relevant judgments, and of mastering motivation that threatens (sometimes via the biasing of practical or theoretical reasoning) to produce or sustain beliefs in ways that would violate their principles for belief-acquisition and retention. They are capable, moreover, of rationally assessing and revising their values and principles, of identifying with values of theirs on the basis of informed, critical reflection, and of intentionally fostering new values and pro-attitudes in themselves in accordance with their considered evaluative judgments. Presumably, most readers of this essay have each of these capacities in some measure. All such capacities are bypassed in cases of pro-attitude engineering of the sort at issue. In such cases, new pro-attitudes are not generated via an exercise or an activation of agents’ capacities for control over their mental lives; rather, they are generated despite the agents’ capacities for this.

   Tentatively assuming the truth of compatibilism, I also defended a compatibilist set of sufficient conditions for autonomous agency (1995, chs. 9-10). To being an ideally self-controlled and mentally healthy agent, I added the following: the agent has no compelled or coercively produced attitudes; the agent’s beliefs are conducive to informed deliberation about all matters that concern her; and the agent is a reliable deliberator.

2. A Problem About Luck for Libertarians

Libertarians have the option of endorsing either a stronger, nonhistorical requirement on autonomous action or a weaker, historical requirement (Mele 1995, pp. 207-9). They can hold that an agent autonomously A-ed at a time t only if, at t, he could have done otherwise than A then. Alternatively, they can maintain that an agent who could not have done otherwise at t than A then may nevertheless autonomously A at t, provided that he earlier performed some relevant autonomous action or actions at a time or times at which he could have done otherwise than perform those actions. Actions of the latter kind may be termed “basically autonomous actions.” Libertarians can hold that basically autonomous actions of an agent that are suitably related to his subsequent A-ing can confer autonomy on his A-ing and that he autonomously A-s even though he could not have done otherwise than A then. Some libertarians may hold that the only autonomous actions are what I am calling basically autonomous actions, and other libertarians may disagree. This issue may be sidestepped entirely for the purposes of this section by framing the discussion in terms of basically autonomous actions. That is what I will do. Exactly parallel options are open on morally responsible action. Framing discussion of moral responsibility in terms of basic moral responsibility will sidestep these issues. The simplest way to implement such framing is simply to say that henceforth in this section by ‘autonomous’ I mean ‘basically autonomous’ and by ‘morally responsible’ I mean ‘basically morally responsible.’

   Now for luck. Agents’ control is the yardstick by which the bearing of chance or luck on their autonomy and moral responsibility is measured. When luck (good or bad) is problematic, that is because it seems significantly to impede agents’ control over themselves (for recent versions of this worry, see Haji 1999; Mele 1995, 195-204; Mele 1999; Strawson 1994; and Waller 1988). It may seem that to the extent that it is causally undetermined whether, for example, an agent intends in accordance with a better judgment that he made, the agent lacks some control over what he intends, and it may be claimed that a positive deterministic connection here would be more conducive to autonomy. Weakness of will is bad enough; an indeterministic connection between better judgments and intentions that allows, in addition, for “random” failures to intend as one judges best seems problematic.

   I illustrate this worry with a fable. Suppose you are a libertarian demigod in an indeterministic world who wants to build rational autonomous human beings capable of being very efficient agents. You believe that proximal decisions – decisions to A straightaway – are causes of actions that execute them, and you see no benefit in designing agents in such a way that even given that an agent has decided to A straightaway, and even given the persistence of the intention to A formed in that act of deciding and the absence of any biological damage, there is a chance that he will not even try to A. Fortunately, the indeterministic fabric of your world allows you to build a deterministic connection between proximal decisions and attempts, and you do. Now, because you are a pretty typical libertarian, you believe that autonomous decisions cannot be deterministically caused – even by something that centrally involves a considered judgment that it would be best to A straightaway. However, you do think that agents can make autonomous decisions on the basis of such judgments. So you design your agents in such a way that, even given that they have just made such a judgment, and even given that the judgment persists in the absence of biological damage, they may decide contrary to it. You build an indeterministic connection between judgments of the kind at issue and proximal decision making.

   Given your brand of libertarianism, you believe that whenever agents perform an autonomous action of deciding to A, they could have autonomously performed some alternative intentional action (Kane 1996, pp. 109-14, 134-35, 143, 179-80, 191). You worry that the indeterministic connection that you built might not accommodate this. If the difference between the actual world, in which one of your agents judges it best to A straightaway and then decides accordingly, and any world with the same past and laws in which while the judgment persists he makes an alternative decision is just a matter of luck, you worry that he does not autonomously make that decision in that possible world, W. You suspect that his making that alternative decision rather than deciding in accordance with his best judgment – that is, that difference between W and the actual world – is just a matter of bad luck (or, more precisely, of worse luck in W for the agent than in the actual world). This leads you to suspect that, in W, the agent should not be blamed for making the decision he makes there.  And that he should not be blamed, you think, indicates that he did not autonomously make it.

   This is a typical worry for libertarians. It is a worry about whether, on typical libertarian views, according to which one autonomously A-ed only if one could have autonomously done otherwise at the time, one was able to A autonomously. All libertarians who hold that A’s being an autonomous action depends on its being the case that, at the time, the agent was able to do otherwise autonomously then should tell us what it could possibly be about an agent who autonomously A-ed at t in virtue of which it is true that, in another world with the same past and laws, he autonomously does something else at t. Of course, they can say that the answer is free will. But what they need to explain is how free will, as they understand it, can be a feature of agents – or, more fully, how this can be so where “free will,” on their account of it, really does answer the question. Some libertarians have tried to explain this. Although I have not been persuaded by their proposals, I would not infer from this that the worry cannot be laid to rest.

3. A Modest Libertarian Proposal

Suppose that Ann, on the basis of careful, rational deliberation, judges it best to A. And suppose that, on the basis of that judgment, she decides to A and then acts accordingly, intentionally A-ing. Suppose further that Ann has not been subjected to autonomy-thwarting mind control or relevant deception, that she is perfectly sane, and so on. To make a long story short, suppose that she satisfies an attractive set of sufficient conditions for compatibilist autonomy regarding her A-ing (see Mele 1995, ch. 10.5). Now add one more supposition to the set: while Ann was deliberating, it was not causally determined that she would come to the conclusion she did.

   In principle, an agent-internal indeterminism may provide for indeterministic agency while blocking or limiting our (nonultimate) control over what happens only at junctures at which we have no greater control on the hypothesis that our world is deterministic (Mele 1995, ch. 12; cf. Dennett 1978, pp. 294-99, Ekstrom 1999, pp. 103-29, and Kane 1985, pp. 101-10). Ordinary human beings have a wealth of beliefs, desires, hypotheses, and the like, the great majority of which are not salient in consciousness during any given process of deliberation. Plainly, in those cases in which we act on the basis of careful deliberation, what we do is influenced by at least some of the considerations that “come to mind” – that is, become salient in consciousness – during deliberation and by our assessments of considerations. Now, even if determinism is true, it is false that, with respect to every consideration – every belief, desire, hypothesis, and so on – that comes to mind during our deliberation, we are in control of its coming to mind; and some considerations that come to mind without our being in control of their so doing may influence the outcome of our deliberation. Furthermore, a kind of internal indeterminism is imaginable that limits our control only in a way that gives us no less nonultimate control than we would have on the assumption that determinism is true, while opening up alternative deliberative outcomes. (Although, in a deterministic world, it would never be a matter of genuine chance that a certain consideration came to mind during deliberation, it may still be a matter of luck relative to the agent’s sphere of control.) As I put it in Mele 1995 (p. 235), “Where compatibilists have no good reason to insist on determinism in the deliberative process as a requirement for autonomy, where internal indeterminism is, for all we know, a reality, and where such indeterminism would not diminish the nonultimate control that real agents exert over their deliberation even on the assumption that real agents are internally deterministic – that is, at the intersection of these three locations – libertarians may plump for ultimacy-promoting indeterminism.”

   A short essay precludes much elaboration, but I will point out that the modest indeterminism at issue allows agents ample control over their deliberation. Suppose a belief, hypothesis, or desire that is relevant to a deliberator’s present practical question comes to mind during deliberation, but was not causally determined to do so (perhaps unlike the great majority of considerations that come to mind during this process of deliberation).  Presumably, a normal agent would be able to assess this consideration. And upon reflection, she might rationally reject the belief as unwarranted, rationally judge that the hypothesis does not merit investigation, or rationally decide that the desire should be given little or no weight in her deliberation. Alternatively, reflection might rationally lead her to retain the belief, to pursue the hypothesis, or to give the desire significant weight. That a consideration comes to mind indeterministically does not entail that the agent has no control over how she responds to it.

   Considerations that indeterministically come to mind (like considerations that deterministically come to mind) are nothing more than input to deliberation. Their coming to mind has at most an indirect effect on what the agent decides, an effect that is mediated by the agent’s own assessment of them. They do not settle matters. Moreover, not only do agents have the opportunity to assess these considerations, they also have the opportunity to search for additional relevant considerations before they decide, thereby increasing the probability that other relevant considerations will indeterministically come to mind. They have the opportunity to cancel or attenuate the effects of bad luck (e.g., the undetermined coming to mind of a misleading consideration or an undetermined failure to notice a relevant consideration). And given a suitable indeterminism regarding what comes to mind in an assessment process, it is not causally determined what assessment the agent will reach.

   Compatibilists who hold that we act autonomously even when we are not in control of what happens at certain specific junctures in the process leading to action are in no position to hold that an indeterministic agent’s lacking control at the same junctures precludes autonomous action. And, again, real human beings are not in control of the coming to mind of everything that comes to mind during typical processes of deliberation. If this lack of perfect nonultimate control does not preclude its being the case that autonomous actions sometimes issue from typical deliberation on the assumption that we are deterministic agents, it also does not preclude this on the assumption that we are indeterministic agents.

   Is a modest indeterminism of the kind I have sketched useful to libertarians?  Elsewhere, I have suggested that what at least some libertarians might prize that compatibilist autonomy does not offer them is a species of agency that gives them a kind of independence and an associated kind of explanatory bearing on their conduct that they would lack in any deterministic world (Mele 1996, 1999). The combination of the satisfaction of an attractive set of sufficient conditions for compatibilist autonomy, including all the nonultimate control that involves, and a modest agent-internal indeterminism of the sort I have described would give them that. Agents of the imagined sort would make choices and perform actions that lack deterministic causes in the distant past. They would have no less control over these choices and actions than we do over ours, on the assumption that we are deterministic agents. And given that they have at least robust compatibilist responsibility for certain of these choices and actions, they would also have ultimate responsibility for them. These choices and actions have, in Robert Kane’s words,  “their ultimate sources in” the agents, in the sense that the collection of agent-internal states and events that explains these choices and actions does not itself admit of a deterministic explanation that stretches back beyond the agent (1996, p. 98).

   Now, even if garden-variety compatibilists can be led to see that the problem of luck is surmountable by a libertarian, how are theorists of other kinds likely to respond to the libertarian position that I have been sketching?  There are, of course, philosophers who contend that moral responsibility and autonomy are illusions and that we lack these properties whether our world is deterministic or indeterministic (see, e.g., Double 1991 and Strawson 1986).  Elsewhere, I have argued that the impossible demands this position places on moral responsibility and autonomy are unwarranted demands (1995, chs. 12-13).

   Modest libertarians can also anticipate trouble from traditional libertarians, who want more than the modest indeterminism that I have described can offer. Randolph Clarke, a libertarian, criticizes modest libertarianism on the grounds that it adds no “positive” power of control to compatibilist nonultimate control but simply places compatibilist control in an indeterministic setting (2000, p. 35; cf. Pereboom 2001, p. 39). However, traditional libertarians need to show that what they want is coherent. That requires showing that what they want does not entail or presuppose a kind of luck that would itself undermine moral responsibility.  The traditional libertarian wants both indeterminism and significant control at the moment of decision. That is the desire that prompts a serious version of the worry about luck I sketched earlier. In the absence of a plausible resolution of that worry, it is epistemically open that a modest libertarian proposal of the sort I sketched is the best a libertarian can do. Of course, even if that is the best libertarian option, it does not follow that all believers in free and morally responsible action should gravitate toward it – as long as compatibilism is still in the running.

4. How to Argue for Agnostic Autonomism

Must one choose between compatibilism and incompatibilism about autonomy?  No. One can be agnostic about the issue. Moreover, consistently with agnosticism, one can make a case for the existence of autonomy. In Mele 1995, I defended what I dubbed “agnostic autonomism,” the conjunction of the agnosticism just identified with the belief that there are autonomous human beings. This position can draw upon the resources both of compatibilism and of libertarianism. It can offer both a robust, satisfiable set of sufficient conditions for compatibilist autonomy and a coherent set of conditions for incompatibilist autonomy that, for all we know, is satisfied by real human beings. It has the resources to resolve alleged, determinism-neutral problems for compatibilist accounts of autonomy, to conquer (along lines sketched earlier in this essay) the problem about “luck” or control that libertarianism traditionally faces, and to show that if compatibilism is true, belief in the existence of human autonomy is warranted. Further, agnostics have the advantage of not having certain disadvantages. Agnostics do not insist that autonomy is compatible with determinism; nor need they insist that we are internally indeterministic in a way useful to libertarians. But if it were discovered that we are not suitably indeterministic, they would have compatibilism to fall back on.

   I claimed then, and still believe, that agnostic autonomism is more credible than the view that no human being is autonomous (nonautonomism). Consider the following propositions:

a. Some human beings are autonomous and determinism is compatible with autonomy (compatibilist belief in autonomy).

b. Some human beings are autonomous and determinism is incompatible with autonomy (libertarianism).

c. Either a or b (agnostic autonomism).

d. No human beings are autonomous (nonautonomism).

Imagine that each proposition has a probability between 0 and 1. Then c has a higher probability than a and a higher probability than b, since c is the disjunction of a and b.  So what about d?  I argued that nonautonomism, at best, fares no better than a and no better than b (1995, ch. 13). If that is right, then since c has a higher probability than each of  a and b, c has a higher probability than d: agnostic autonomism beats nonautonomism!  The nature of the claimed victory is such as to call for further work on all sides.


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-------- 1994. The Metaphysics of Free Will. Oxford: Blackwell.

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  Cf. Fischer’s distinction between “guidance” and “regulative” control (1994, pp. 132-35).

2  This use of ‘autonomy’ is adequately captured by Joel Feinberg’s gloss on it: “the sovereign authority to govern oneself” (1986, p. 28).

3  For another compatibilist view of moral responsibility that is explicitly history-sensitive, see Fischer 1987.  (Fischer does not there endorse the compatibility of determinism with freedom to do otherwise, but compatibilists about determinism and free action need not be compatibilists about determinism and freedom to do otherwise.) Fischer’s historicism about moral responsibility is developed further in Fischer and Ravizza 1994 and 1998.

4  Roughly this idea is a theme in various “mind-control” arguments against compatibilism, as Blumenfeld 1988 observes.

5  See, e.g., Audi 1993, chs. 7, 10; Ayer 1954; Grünbaum 1971; Mill 1979, ch. 26, esp. pp. 464-67; and Schlick 1962, ch. 7.  Also see Hume’s remarks on the liberty of spontaneity versus the liberty of indifference (1739, bk. II, pt. III, sec. 2).

6  An opponent might claim that agents are autonomous with respect to their possession of a pro-attitude if and only if they are able (at least in a compatibilist sense of ‘able’) to shed the attitude. In Mele 1995, I argued that agents can autonomously possess attitudes that they are “practically unable” to shed, and that “psychological twins,” owing to different histories, may be such that although one of them is autonomous regarding a practically unsheddable attitude, the other is not (pp. 149-173). The issue is complicated; owing to space constraints, I cannot explore it here.

7  For a useful discussion of bypassing, see Blumenfeld 1988, pp. 222-23.

8  You toy with the thought that the agent may be blamed for the decision if past autonomous decisions of his had the result, by way of their effect on his character, that there was a significant chance that he would decide contrary to his best judgment.  But it occurs to you that the same worry arises about past autonomous decisions the agent made.

9  On the relative theoretical utility of internal versus external indeterminism, see Mele 1995, pp. 195-96.

10  Regarding the parenthetical clause, bear in mind that not all causally determined events need be part of a deterministic chain that stretches back even for several moments, much less to near the Big Bang.

11  For a more recent defense of this view, see Pereboom 2001.  And see my review (n.d.).

12  Just as I distinguished between ultimate and nonultimate control, one may distinguish between ultimate and nonultimate luck.  Perhaps millions of years ago, in a deterministic universe, conditions were such that today Karl would be an exceptionally kind person whereas Carl would be a ruthless killer.  Here we have ultimate luck – good and bad.  Libertarians have been much more impressed by it than by nonultimate luck.

13  This is not to say that every disjunction of propositions with probabilities between 0 and 1 has a higher probability than each of the disjuncts.  Consider the disjunction “p or p.” My claim is about the propositions at issue here.

14  Parts of this essay derive from Mele 1995 and 2002.


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