-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

The opening paragraphs of Nagel's book The View from Nowhere (the first five paragraphs below) indicate the general distinction he proposes between an individual's subjective view of things or subjective standpoint as against an objective or external view of things that is nobody's in particular. 

Chapter 7 of the book (the rest of what follows below) tentatively considers freedom in terms of the general distinction between the subjective and the objective views. What is tentatively considered both subjectively and objectively, more particularly, is both one's own free will (autonomy) and the free will of others (spoken of in terms of responsibility). Both of these things are taken as a matter of attitudes.

Freedom of both kinds has a question raised about it when we take the objective view of things. This is in fact a view of things as subject to the order of nature -- whether or not nature is taken to be strictly deterministic. Determinism, if this is right, despite its coming onto the scene naturally in the course of our objective reflection, is actually beside the point with respect to freedom.

When we take the objective view, the autonomy that we seem to have when we take the subjective view is missing. This affronts us, and we are inclined, for good reason, to assert this autonomy. We do not give it up. But what we discover, sadly, is that this supposed freedom, whereby our actions are not necessitated in anything like the deterministic way, but seem to have explanations of quite another kind, is a freedom that is just incoherent or incomprehensible. What we go on wanting, and have reason to want, is in fact impossible.

There is a similar story with responsibility -- the freedom of others. And more is said of related matters. There is consideration of Peter Strawson's general distinction between reactive and objective attitudes, related to Nagel's general distinction. Three more sections on related matters follow.

None of it is easy reading. Those who suppose that reading good philosophy can be like drifting through a novel are again in for total disappointment. They have come to the wrong website.

Is all of what is said certain to be to the taste of philosophers keen on explicit clarity and perfect order? Probably not, but their taste needs thinking about. So does a reader's expectation to have a piece of philosophy go forward bumptiously and end confidently. This one, to its credit, does not.



This book is about a single problem: how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint included. It is a problem that faces every creature with the impulse and the capacity to transcend its particular point of view and to conceive of the world as a whole.

Though it is a single problem, it has many aspects. The difficulty of reconciling the two standpoints arises in the conduct of life as well as in thought. It is the most fundamental issue about morality, knowledge, freedom, the self, and the relation of mind to the physical world. Our response or lack of response to it will substantially determine our conception of the world and of ourselves, and our attitude toward our lives, our actions, and our relations with others. ...

Objectivity is a method of understanding. It is beliefs and attitudes that are objective in the primary sense. Only derivatively do we call objective the truths that can be arrived at in this way. To acquire a more objective understanding of some aspect of life or the world, we step back from our initial view of it and form a new conception which has that view and its relation to the world as its object. In other words, we place ourselves in the world that is to be understood. The old view then comes to be regarded as an appearance, more subjective than the new view, and correctable or confirmable by reference to it. The process can be repeated, yielding a still more objective conception.

It will not always yield a result, and sometimes it will be thought to yield a result when it really doesn’t: then, as Nietzsche warned, one will get a false objectification of an aspect of reality that cannot be better understood from a more objective standpoint. Although there is a connection between objectivity and reality—only the supposition that we and our appearances are parts of a larger reality makes it reasonable to seek understanding by stepping back from the appearances in this way— still not all reality is better understood the more objectively it is viewed. Appearance and perspective are essential parts of what there is, and in some respects they are best understood from a less detached standpoint. Realism underlies the claims of objectivity and detachment, but it supports them only up to a point.

Though I shall for convenience often speak of two standpoints, the subjective and the objective, and though the various places in which this opposition is found have much in common, the distinction between more subjective and more objective views is really a matter of degree, and it covers a wide spectrum. A view or form of thought is more objective than another if it relies less on the specifics of the individual’s makeup and position in the world, or on the character of the particular type of creature he is. The wider the range of subjective types to which a form of understanding is accessible—the less it depends on specific subjective capacities—the more objective it is. A standpoint that is objective by comparison with the personal view of one individual may be subjective by comparison with a theoretical standpoint still farther out. The standpoint of morality is more objective than that of private life, but less objective than the standpoint of physics. We may think of reality as a set of concentric spheres, progressively revealed as we detach gradually from the contingencies of the self. This will become clearer when we discuss the interpretation of objectivity in relation to specific areas of life and understanding. ...

1. Freedom: Two Problems

I the relation between objectivity and action. This will lead eventually to the subject of ethics, but I shall start by talking about freedom.

Something peculiar happens when we view action from an objective or external standpoint. Some of its most important features seem to vanish under the objective gaze. Actions seem no longer assignable to individual agents as sources, but become instead components of the flux of events in the world of which the agent is a part. The easiest way to produce this effect is to think of the possibility that all actions are causally determined, but it is not the only way. The essential source of the problem is a view of persons and their actions as part of the order of nature, causally determined or not. That conception, if pressed, leads to the feeling that we are not agents at all, that we are helpless and not responsible for what we do. Against this judgment the inner view of the agent rebels. The question is whether it can stand up to the debilitating effects of a naturalistic view.

Actually the objective standpoint generates three problems about action, only two of which I shall take up. Those two both have to do with freedom. The first problem, which I shall simply describe and put aside, is the general metaphysical problem of the nature of agency. It belongs to the philosophy of mind.

The question "What is action?" is much broader than the problem of free will, for it applies even to the activity of spiders and to the peripheral, unconscious or subintentional movements of human beings in the course of more deliberate activity (see Frankfurt). It applies to any movement that is not involuntary. The question is connected with our theme because my doing of an act—or the doing of an act by someone else—seems to disappear when we think of the world objectively. There seems no room for agency in a world of neural impulses, chemical reactions, and bone and muscle movements. Even if we add sensations, perceptions, and feelings we don’t get action, or doing—there is only what happens.

In line with what was said earlier about the philosophy of mind, I think the only solution is to regard action as a basic mental or more accurately psychophysical category—reducible neither to physical nor to other mental terms. I cannot improve on Brian O’Shaughnessy’s exhaustive defense of this position. Action has its own irreducibly internal aspect as do other psychological phenomena—there is a characteristic mental asymmetry between awareness of one’s own actions and awareness of the actions of others—but action isn’t anything else, alone or in combination with a physical movement: not a sensation, not a feeling, not a belief, not an intention or desire. If we restrict our palette to. such things plus physical events, agency will be omitted from our picture of the world.

But even if we add it as an irreducible feature, making subjects of experience also (and as O’Shaughnessy argues, inevitably) subjects of action, the problem of free action remains. We may act without being free, and we may doubt the freedom of others without doubting that they act. What undermines the sense of freedom doesn’t automatically undermine agency.1 I shall leave the general problem of agency aside in what follows, and simply assume that there is such a thing.

What I shall discuss are two aspects of the problem of free will, corresponding to the two ways in which objectivity threatens ordinary assumptions about human freedom. I call one the problem of autonomy and the other the problem of responsibility; the first presents itself initially as a problem about our own freedom and the second as a problem about the freedom of others.2 An objective view of actions as events in the natural order (determined or not) produces a sense of impotence and futility with respect to what we do ourselves. It also undermines certain basic attitudes toward all agents—those reactive attitudes (see Strawson) that are conditional on the attribution of responsibility. It is the second of these effects that is usually referred to as the problem of free will. But the threat to our conception of our own actions—the sense that we are being carried along by the universe like small pieces of flotsam—is equally important and equally deserving of the title. The two are connected. The same external view that poses a threat to my own autonomy also threatens my sense of the autonomy of others, and this in turn makes them come to seem inappropriate objects of admiration and contempt, resentment and gratitude, blame and praise.

Like other basic philosophical problems, the problem of free will is not in the first instance verbal. It is not a problem about what we are to say about action, responsibility, what someone could or could not have done, and so forth. It is rather a bafflement of our feelings and attitudes—a loss of confidence, conviction or equilibrium. Just as the basic problem of epistemology is not whether we can be said to know things, but lies rather in the loss of belief and the invasion of doubt, so the problem of free will lies in the erosion of interpersonal attitudes and of the sense of autonomy. Questions about what we are to say about action and responsibility merely attempt after the fact to express those feelings—feelings of impotence, of imbalance, and of affective detachment from other people.

These forms of unease are familiar once we have encountered the problem of free will through the hypothesis of determinism. We are undermined but at the same time ambivalent, because the unstrung attitudes don’t disappear: they keep forcing themselves into consciousness despite their loss of support. A philosophical treatment of the problem must deal with such disturbances of the spirit, and not just with their verbal expression.

I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.

The difficulty, as I shall try to explain, is that while we can easily evoke disturbing effects by taking up an external view of our own actions and the actions of others, it is impossible to give a coherent account of the internal view of action which is under threat. When we try to explain what we believe which seems to be undermined by a conception of actions as events in the world—determined or not—we end up with something that is either incomprehensible or clearly inadequate.

This naturally suggests that the threat is unreal, and that an account of freedom can be given which is compatible with the objective view, and perhaps even with determinism. But I believe this is not the case. All such accounts fail to allay the feeling that, looked at from far enough outside, agents are helpless and not responsible. Compatibilist accounts of freedom tend to be even less plausible than libertarian ones. Nor is it possible simply to dissolve our unanalyzed sense of autonomy and responsibility. It is something we can’t get rid of, either in relation to ourselves or in relation to others. We are apparently condemned to want something impossible.

2. Autonomy

The first problem is that of autonomy. How does it arise?

In acting we occupy the internal perspective, and we can occupy it sympathetically with regard to the actions of others. But when we move away from our individual point of view, and consider our own actions and those of others simply as part of the course of events in a world that contains us among other creatures and things, it begins to look as though we never really contribute anything.

From the inside, when we act, alternative possibilities seem to lie open before us: to turn right or left, to order this dish or that, to vote for one candidate or the other—and one of the possibilities is made actual by what we do. The same applies to our internal consideration of the actions of others. But from an external perspective, things look different. That perspective takes in not only the circumstances of action as they present themselves to the agent, but also the conditions and influences lying behind the action, including the complete nature of the agent himself. While we cannot fully occupy this perspective toward ourselves while acting, it seems possible that many of the alternatives that appear to lie open when viewed from an internal perspective would seem closed from this outer point of view, if we could take it up. And even if some of them are left open, given a complete specification of the condition of the agent and the circumstances of action, it is not clear how this would leave anything further for the agent to contribute to the outcome—anything that he could contribute as source, rather than merely as the scene of the outcome—the person whose act it is. If they are left open given everything about him, what does he have to do with the result?

From an external perspective, then, the agent and everything about him seems to be swallowed up by the circumstances of action; nothing of him is left to intervene in those circumstances. This happens whether or not the relation between action and its antecedent conditions is conceived as deterministic. In either case we cease to face the world and instead become parts of it; we and our lives are seen as products and manifestations of the world as a whole. Everything I do or that anyone else does is part of a larger course of events that no one "does," but that happens, with or without explanation. Everything I do is part of something I don’t do, because I am a part of the world. We may elaborate this external picture by reference to biological, psychological, and social factors in the formation of ourselves and other agents. But the picture doesn’t have to be complete in order to be threatening, it is enough to form the idea of the possibility of a picture of this kind. Even if we can’t attain it, an observer literally outside us might.

Why is this threatening, and what does it threaten? Why are we not content to regard the internal perspective of agency as a form of clouded subjective appearance, based as it inevitably must be on an incomplete view of the circumstances? The alternatives are alternatives only relative to what we know, and our choices result from influences of which we are only partly aware. The external perspective would then provide a more complete view, superior to the internal. We accept a parallel subordination of subjective appearance to objective reality in other areas.

The reason we cannot accept it here, at least not as a general solution, is that action is too ambitious. We aspire in some of our actions to a kind of autonomy that is not a mere subjective appearance—not merely ignorance of their sources—and we have the same view of others like us. The sense that we are the authors of our own actions is not just a feeling but a belief, and we can’t come to regard it as a pure appearance without giving it up altogether. But what belief is it?

I have already said that I suspect it is no intelligible belief at all; but that has to be shown. What I am about to say is highly controversial, but let me just describe what I take to be our ordinary conception of autonomy. It presents itself initially as the belief that antecedent circumstances, including the condition of the agent leave some of the things we will do undetermined: they are determined only by our choices, which are motivationally explicable but not themselves causally determined. Although many of the external and internal conditions of choice are inevitably fixed by the world and not under my control, some range of open possibilities is generally presented to me on an occasion of action—and when by acting I make one of those possibilities actual, the final explanation of this (once the background which defines the possibilities has been taken into account) is given by the intentional explanation of my action, which is comprehensible only through my point of view: My reason for doing it is the whole reason why it happened, and no further explanation is either necessary or possible. (My doing it for no particular reason is a limiting case of this kind of explanation.)

The objective view seems to wipe out such autonomy because it admits only one kind of explanation of why something happened—causal explanation—and equates its absence with the absence of any explanation at all. It may be able to admit causal explanations that are probabilistic, but the basic idea which it finds congenial is that the explanation of an occurrence must show how that occurrence, or a range of possibilities within which it falls, was necessitated by prior conditions and events. (I shall not say anything about the large question of how this notion of necessity is to be interpreted.) To the extent that no such necessity exists, the occurrence is unexplained. There is no room in an objective picture of the world for a type of explanation of action that is not causal. The defense of freedom requires the acknowledgment of a different kind of explanation essentially connected to the agent’s point of view.

Though it would be contested, I believe we have such an idea of autonomy. Many philosophers have defended some version of this position as the truth about freedom: for example Farrer, Anscombe, and Wiggins. (The metaphysical theories of agent-causation espoused by Chisholm and Taylor are different, because they try to force autonomy into the objective causal order—giving a name to a mystery.) But whatever version one picks, the trouble is that while it may give a correct surface description of our prereflective sense of our own autonomy, when we look at the idea closely, it collapses. The alternative form of explanation doesn’t really explain the action at all.

The intuitive idea of autonomy includes conflicting elements, which imply that it both is and is not a way of explaining why an action was done. A free action should not be determined by antecedent conditions, and should be fully explained only intentionally, in terms of justifying reasons and purposes. When someone makes an autonomous choice such as whether to accept a job, and there are reasons on both sides of the issue, we are supposed to be able to explain what he did by pointing to his reasons for accepting it. But we could equally have explained his refusing the job, if he had refused, by referring to the reasons on the other side—and he could have refused for those other reasons: that is the essential claim of autonomy. It applies even if one choice is significandy more reasonable than the other. Bad reasons are reasons too.

Intentional explanation, if there is such a thing, can explain either choice in terms of the appropriate reasons, since either choice would be intelligible. if it occurred. But for this very reason it cannot explain why the person accepted the job for the reasons in favor instead of refusing it for the reasons against. It cannot explain on grounds of intelligibility why one of two intelligible courses of action, both of which were possible, occurred. And even where it can account for this in terms of further reasons, there will be a point at which the explanation gives out. We say that someone’s character and values are revealed by the choices he makes in such circumstances, but if these are indeed independent conditions, they too must either have or lack an explanation.

If autonomy requires that the central element of choice be explained in a way that does not take us outside the point of view of the agent (leaving aside the explanation of what faces him with the choice), then intentional explanations must simply come to an end when all available reasons have been given, and nothing else can take over where they leave off. But this seems to mean that an autonomous intentional explanation cannot explain precisely what it is supposed to explain, namely why I did what I did rather than the alternative that was causally open to me. It says I did it for certain reasons, but does not explain why I didn’t decide not to do it for other reasons. It may render the action subjectively intelligible, but it does not explain why this rather than another equally possible and comparably intelligible action was done. That seems to be something for which there is no explanation, either intentional or causal.

Of course there is a trivial intentional explanation: my reasons for doing it are also my reasons against not doing it for other reasons. But since the same could be said if I had done the opposite, this amounts to explaining what happened by saying it happened. It does not stave off the question why these reasons rather than the others were the ones that motivated me. At some point this question will either have no answer or it will have an answer that takes us outside of the domain of subjective normative reasons and into the domain of formative causes of my character or personality.4

So I am at a loss to account for what we believe in believing that we are autonomous—what intelligible belief is undermined by the external view. That is, I cannot say what would, if it were true, support our sense that our free actions originate with us. Yet the sense of an internal explanation persists—an explanation insulated from the external view which is complete in itself and renders illegitimate all further requests for explanation of my action as an event in the world,

As a last resort the libertarian might claim that anyone who does not accept an account of what I was up to as a basic explanation of action is the victim of a very limited conception of what an explanation is—a conception locked into the objective standpoint which therefore begs the question against the concept of autonomy. But he needs a better reply than this. Why aren’t these autonomous subjective explanations really just descriptions of how it seemed to the agern—before, during, and after—to do what he did; why are they something more than impressions? Of course they are at least impressions, but we take them to be impressions of something, something whose reality is not guaranteed by the impression. Not being able to say what that something is, and at the same time finding the possibility of its absence very disturbing, I am at a dead end.

I have to conclude that what we want is something impossible, and that the desire for it is evoked precisely by the objective view of ourselves that reveals it to be impossible. At the moment when we see ourselves from outside as bits of the world, two things happen: we are no longer satisfied in action with anything less than intervention in the world from outside; and we see clearly that this makes no sense. The very capacity that is the source of the trouble—our capacity to view ourselves from outside— encourages our aspirations of autonomy by giving us the sense that we ought to be able to encompass ourselves completely, and thus become the absolute source of what we do. At any rate we become dissatisfied with anything less.

When we act we are not cut off from the knowledge of ourselves that is revealed from the external standpoint, so far as we can occupy it. It is, after all, our standpoint as much as the internal one is, and if we take it up, we can’t help trying to include anything it reveals to us in a new, expanded basis of action. We act, if possible, on the basis of the most complete view of the circumstances of action that we can attain, and this includes as complete a view as we can attain of ourselves. Not that we want to be paralyzed by self-consciousness. But we can’t regard ourselves, in action, as subordinate to an external view of ourselves, because we automatically subordinate the external view to the purposes of our actions. We feel that in acting we ought to be able to determine not only our choices but the inner conditions of those choices, provided we step far enough outside ourselves.

So the external standpoint at once holds out the hope of genuine autonomy, and snatches it away. By increasing our objectivity and self-awareness, we seem to acquire increased control over what will influence our actions, and thus to take our lives into our own hands. Yet the logical goal of these ambitions is incoherent, for to be really free we would have to act from a standpoint completely outside ourselves, choosing everything about ourselves, including all our principles of choice—creating ourselves from nothing, so to speak.

This is self-contradictory: in order to do anything we must already be something. However much material we incorporate from the external view into the grounds of action and choice, this same external view assures us that we remain parts of the world and products, determined or not, of its history. Here as elsewhere the objective standpoint creates an appetite which it shows to be insatiable.

The problem of freedom and the problem of epistemological skepticism are alike in this respect. In belief, as in action, rational beings aspire to autonomy. They wish to form their beliefs on the basis of principles and methods of reasoning and confirmation that they themselves can judge to be correct, rather than on the basis of influences that they do not understand, of whkh they are unaware, or which they cannot assess. That is the aim of knowledge. But taken to its logical limit, the aim is incoherent. We cannot assess and revise or confirm our entire system of thought and judgment from outside, for we would have nothing to do it with. We remain, as pursuers of knowledge, creatures inside the world who have not created ourselves, and some of whose processes of thought have simply been given to us.

In the formation of belief, as in action, we belong to a world we have not created and of which we are the products; it is the external view which both reveals this and makes us wish for more. However objective a standpoint we succeed in making part of the basis of our actions and beliefs, we continue to be threatened by the idea of a still more external and comprehensive view of ourselves that we cannot incorporate, but that would reveal the unchosen sources of our most autonomous efforts. The objectivity that seems to offer greater control also reveals the ultimate givenness of the self.

Can we proceed part way along the inviting path of objectivity without ending up in the abyss, where the pursuit of objectivity undermines itelf and everything else? In practice, outside of philosophy we find certain natural stopping places along the route, and do not worry about how things would look if we went further. In this respect too the situation resembles that in epistemology, where justification and criticism come falrly peacefully to an end in everyday life. The trouble is that our complacency seems unwarranted as soon as we reflect on what would be revealed to a still more external view, and it is not clear how we can reestablish these natural stopping places on a new footing Once they are put in doubt.

It would require some alternative to the literally unintelligible ambition of intervening in the world from outside (an ambition expressed by Kant in the unintelligible idea of the noumenal self which is outside time and causality). This ambition arises by a natural extension or continuation of the pursuit of freedom in everyday life. I wish to act not only in light of the external circumstances facing me and the possibilities that they leave open, but in light of the internal circumstances as well: my desires, beliefs, feelings, and impulses. I wish to be able to subject my motives, principles, and habits to critical examination, so that nothing moves me to action without my agreeing to it. In this way, the setting against which I act is gradually enlarged and extended inward, till it includes more and more of myself, considered as one of the contents of the world.

In its earlier stages the process does genuinely seem to increase freedom, by making self-knowledge and objectivity part of the basis of action. But the danger is obvious. The more completely the self is swallowed up in the circumstances of action, the less I have to act with. I canntit get completely outside myself. The process that starts as a means to the enlargement of freedom seems to lead to its destruction. When I contemplate the world as a whole I see my actions, even at their empirically most "free," as part of the course of nature, and this is not my doing or anyone else’s. The objective self is not in a position to pull the strings of my life from outside any more than TN is.

At the end of the path that seems to lead to freedom and knowledge lie skepticism and helplessness. We can act only from inside the world, but when we see ourselves from outside, the autonomy we experience from inside appears as an illusion, and we who are looking from outside cannot act at all.

3. Responsibility

It seems to me that the problem of responsibility is insoluble, or at least unsolved, for similar reasons. We hold ourselves and others morally responsible for at least some actions when we view them from the inside; but we cannot give an account of what would have to be true to justify such judgments. Once people are seen as parts of the world, determined or not, there seems no way to assign responsibility to them for what they do. Everything about them, including finally their actions themselves, seems to blend in with the surroundings over which they have no control. And when we then go back to consider actions from the internal point of view, we cannot on close scrutiny make sense of the idea that what people do depends ultimately on them. Yet we continue to compare what they do with the alternatives they reject, and to praise or condemn them for it. (My examples will generally involve negative judgments, but everything I say is meant to apply to praise as well as to condemnation.)

What is going on here? Let me begin with a prephilosophical account of what a judgment of responsibility is. It always involves two parties, whom I shall call the judge and the defendant. These may be the same person, as when someone holds himself responsible for doing or having done something. But it will be easier to examine the complexities of the phenomenon if we concentrate first on the interpersonal case, and how it ultimately breaks down.

The defendant is an agent, and in a judgment of responsibility the judge doesn’t just decide that what has been done is a good or a bad thing, but tries to enter into the defendant’s point of view as an agent. He is not, however, concerned merely pith how it felt: rather, he tries to assess the action in light of the alternatives presenting themselves to the defendant—among which he chose or failed to choose, and in light of the considerations and temptations bearing on the choice—which he considered or failed to consider. To praise or blame is not to judge merely that what has happened is a good or a bad thing, but to judge the person for having done it, in view of the circumstances under which it was done. The difficulty is to explain how this is possible—how we can do more than welcome or regret the event, or perhaps the psychology of the agent.

The main thing we do is to compare the act or motivation with alternatives, better or worse, which were deliberately or implicitly rejected though their acceptance In the circumstances would have been motivationally comprehensible. That is the setting into which one projects both an internal understanding of the action and a judgment of what should have been done. It is the sense of the act in contrast with alternatives not taken, together with a normative assessment of those alternatives— also projected into the point of view of the defendant—that yields an internal judgment of responsibility. What was done is seen as a selection by the defendant from the array of possibilities with which he was faced, and is defined by contrast with those possibilities.

When we hold the defendant responsible, the result is not merely a description of his character, but a vicarious occupation of his point of view and evaluation of his action from within it. While this process need not be accompanied by strong feelings, it often is, and their character will depend on the makeup of the judge. Condemnatory judgments, for example, may be accompanied by impulses of retribution and punishment. These are most likely to appear in their full ferocity when the psychic configuration of the judge subjects him to strong conflicts with respect to the defendant’s situation of choice. A judgment of responsibility involves a double projection: into the actual choice and into the possible alternatives, better or worse. If the judge identifies strongly with the bad act done or avoided, his contempt or admiration will be correspondingly strong. It is a familiar fact that we hate most the sins that tempt us most, and admire most the virtues we find most difficult.

The kinds of things we judge others for vary. We condemn a rattlesnake for nothing, and a cat for nothing or practically nothing. Our understanding of their actions and even of their point of view puts us too far outside them to permit any judgments about what they should have done. All we can do is to understand why they have done what they did, and to be happy or unhappy about it. With regard to small children the possibilities of moral judgment are somewhat greater, but we still cannot project ourselves fully into their point of view in order to think about what they should do, as opposed to what would be required of an adult in corresponding circumstances. Similar limits apply to judgments of other people’s intelligence or stupidity. Someone has not made a stupid mistake if he completely lacks the capacity of thought needed to draw the correct conclusion from the evidence available to him. The larger his intellectual capacities, the greater his opportunities for stupidity, as well as for intelligence. It is the same with good and evil. A five-year-old can be blamed for throwing the cat out the window, but not for a gross failure of tact.

Two kinds of thing may undermine a judgment of responsibility, and familiar excusing conditions fall into one or other of these classes. First, it may emerge that the character of the choice or the circumstances of action facing the defendant are different from what they at first appeared to be. He may not have full knowledge of the consequences of what he is doing; he may be acting under severe coercion or duress; certain alternatives which seemed available may not be, or he may be unaware of them. Such discoveries alter the character of the action to be assessed, but do not blpck a judgment of responsibility altogether.

Second, something may prevent the judge from projecting his standards into the point of view of the defendant—the initial move needed for any judgment of responsibility. Certain discoveries render the judge’s projection into the defendant’s perspective irrelevant to the assessment of what the defendant has done, because he is quite different from the defendant in crucial ways. For example, the defendant may have been acting under hypnotic suggestion, or under the influence of a powerful drug, or even, in the vein of science fiction, under the direct control of a mad scientist manipulating his brain. Or he may turn out not to be a rational being at all. In these cases the judge will not regard the vantage point of the defendant as the correct one to take up for purposes of assessment. He will not project himself into the defendant’s point of view, but will stay outside him—so that the contemplation of alternative possibilities will not support praise or blame but only relief or regret.

The philosophical disappearance of all responsibility is an extension of this second type of disengagement. The essence of a judgment of responsibility is an internal comparison with alternatives—choices the agent did not make which we contrast with what he did, for better or for worse. In ordinary judgments of responsibility an objective view of the agent may lead us to alter our assumption about which alternatives are eligible for such comparison. Even alternatives that seemed to the agent to be available at the time may seem to us out of the running, once our external view of him becomes more complete.

The radically external standpoint that produces the philosophical problem of responsibility seems to make every alternative ineligible. We see the agent as a phenomenon generated by the world of which he is a part. One aspect of the phenomenon is his sense of choosing among alternatives, for good or bad reasons. But this makes no difference. Whether we think of his practical reasoning and his choices as causally determined or not, we cannot project ourselves into his point of view for the purpose of comparing alternatives once we have ascended to that extreme objective standpoint which sees him merely as a bit of the world. The alternatives that he may think of as available to him are from this point of view just alternative courses that the world might have taken. The fact that what didn’t happen would have been better or worse than what did doesn’t support an internal judgment of responsibility about a human being any more than it does about a rattlesnake.

Furthermore, as is true with respect to autonomy, there is nothing we can imagine being true of the agent, even taking into account his own point of view, which would support such a judgment. Once we are in this external position, nothing about the intentional explanation of action will help. Either something other than the agent’s reasons explains why he acted for the reasons he did, or nothing does. In either case the external standpoint sees the alternatives not as alternatives for the agent, but as alternatives for the world, which involve the agent. And the world, of course, is not an agent and cannot be held responsible.

The real problem is the external vantage point. In ordinary judgments of responsibility we do not go that far outside, but stay inside our natural human point of view and project it into that of other, similar beings, stopping only where it will not fit. But judgments so based are vulnerable to the more external view, which can take in both the defendant and the judge. Then the whole complex—the defendant’s choice and the judge’s projection into it and resulting judgment—is seen as a phenomenon also. The judge’s sense of the defendant’s alternatives is revealed as an illusion which derives from the judge’s projection of his own illusory— indeed unintelligible—sense of autonomy into the defendant.

I can no more help holding myself and others responsible in ordinary life than I can help feeling that my actions originate with me. But this is just another way in which, from some distance outside, I seem to myself to be trapped.

As usual, a radically external view presents me with an unfulfillable demand. It gives me the idea that to be truly autonomous I would have to be able to act in light of everything about myself—from outside myself and indeed from outside the world. And it makes any projection into the point of view of an ordinary agent seem unreal. What he sees as alternatives among which he can decide are really, from this point of view, alternative courses the world might take, within which his actions fall. While I can compare the course of events which includes his actual conduct with an alternative which indudes his doing something else, my evaluation of these alternatives will not yield a judgment of his action from within. Alternatives for the world are not alternatives for him just because they include him. In a sense, the radically external standpoint is not a standpoint of choice at all. It is only when I forget about it and return to my status as fellow creature that I can project myself into the point of view of another agent in the way required for a judgment of responsibility. Only then can I evaluate the alternatives facing him, and thereby judge him fos what he did.

The bafflement of moral judgments by objective detachment is unstable. We may be able temporarily to view William Calley, for example, as a phenomenon—a repulsive and dangerous bit of the zoosphere—without condemning him on the basis of a projection into his standpoint of our own sense of genuine alternatives in action. But it is next to impossible to remain in the attitude of inability to condemn Lieutenant Calley for the murders at My Lai: our feelings return before the ink of the argument is dry. That is because we don’t stay in the rarefied objective atmosphere but drop back into our point of view as agents, which then allows us to see Calley’s point of view, as he entered the village to encounter only peasants eating breakfast, and no resistance, as the point of view within which evaluation must proceed.5 We cannot stay outside Lieutenant Calley because we cannot stay outside ourselves. Nevertheless, the external standpoint is always there as a possibility, and once having occupied it we can no longer regard our internal judgments of responsibility in the same way. From a point of view that is available to us, they can suddenly seem to depend on an illusion—a forgetting of the fact that we are just parts of the world and our lives just parts of its history.

4. Strawson on Freedom

Let me contrast my view of the problem, specifically of its genuineness, with Strawson’s. In his classic essay "Freedom and Resentment" he argues that though we can on occasion adopt the objective attitude toward other persons, it is not possible for the reactive attitudes to be philosophically undermined in general by any belief about the universe or human action, including the belief in determinism. The essence of his view, expressed toward the end of the essay, is this:

'Inside the general structure or web of human attitudes and feelings of which I have been speaking, there is endless room for modification, redirection, criticism, and justification. But questions ofjustiflcation are internal to it. The existence of the general framework of attitudes itself is something we are given with the fact of human society. As a whole, it neither calls for, nor permits, an external ‘rational’ justification.' (Strawson, p.23)

His view here is the same as his view about knowledge (and in a footnote to the passage, he draws an explicit parallel with the problem of induction). Justification and criticism make sense only within the system: justification of the system from outside is unnecessary, and therefore criticism from outside is impossible.

I believe this position is incorrect because there is no way of preventing the slide from internal to external criticism once we are capable of an external view. It needs nothing more than the ordinary idea of responsibility. The problem of free will, like the problem of skepticism, does not arise because of a philosophically imposed demand for external justification of the entire system of ordinary judgments and attitudes. It arises because there is a continuity between familiar "internal" criticism of the reactive attitudes on the basis of specific facts, and philosophical criticisms on the basis of supposed general facts. When we first consider the possibility that all human actions may be determined by heredity and environment, it threatens to defuse otir reactive attitudes as effectively as does the information that a particular action was caused by the effects of a drug—despite all the differences between the two suppositions. It blocks the projection. into the point of view of the agent on which the reactive attitudes depend. The same is true when we expand the point to cover every way in which our lives can be seen as part of the course of nature, whether determined or not. No new standards come into it; in fact no demand for justification comes into it, since the challenge depends only on generalizing familiar standards of criticism. We cease to resent what someone has done if we cease to see the alternatives as alternatives for him.

The parallel with skepticism in epistemology is again clear. The extremely general possibilities of error that the skeptic imagines, undermine confidence in all our beliefs in just the way that a more mundane particular possibility of error undermines confidence in a particular belief. The possibility of complete erosion by skeptical possibilities is built into our ordinary beliefs from the start: it is not created by the philosophical imposition of new standards of justification or certainty. On the contrary, new justifications seem to be required only in response to the threat of erosion from ordinary criticisms, sufficiently generalized.

Similarly with action. Some of the externally imposed limitations and constraints on our actions are evident to us. When we discover others, internal and less evident, our reactive attitudes toward the affected action tend to be defused, for it seems no longer attributable in the required way to the person who must be the target of those attitudes. The philosophical challenges to free will are nothing but radical extensions of this encroachment. As the unchosen conditions of action are extended into the agent’s makeup and psychological state by an expanded objectivity, they seem to engulf everything, and the area of freedom left to him shrinks to zero. Since this seems to happen whether determinism is true or not, we are threatened with the conclusion that the idea of free agency with which we began is really unintelligible. It only seemed to mean something when we located it in the space left open by those familiar limits on action imposed by the external world—and only because we did not think enough about what would have to occupy that blank space. Nothing, it seems, could.

This is a genuine challenge to our freedom and the attitudes that presuppose it, and it cannot be met by the claim that only internal criticisms are legitimate, unless that claim is established on independent grounds. The push to objectivity is after all a part of the framework of human life. It could only be stopped from leading to these skeptical results if the radically external view of human life could be shown to be illegitimate— so that our questions had to stop before we got there.6

5 The Blind Spot

I am now going to change the subject. I have said this problem has no available solution and will not contradict myself by proposing one. But I want to do something else, and that is to describe a kind of recoticiliation between the objective standpoint and the inner perspective of agency which reduces the radical detachment produced by initial contemplation of ourselves as creatures in the world. This does not meet the central problem of free will. But it does reduce the degree to which the objective self must think of itself as an impotent spectator, and to that extent it confers a kind of freedom. It is a bit like the relation between the ordinary pursuit of objective knowledge and philosophical skepticism—to explain the obscure by the equally obscure: a limited harmony between external and internal, in the shadow of an even more external view.

We cannot act from outside ourselves, nor create ourselves ex nihilo. But the impulse to this logically impossible goal also pushes us toward something else, which is not logically impossible and which may assuage the original impulse somewhat to the extent that we can attain it. We want to bring the external view of ourselves back into connection with our actions, as far as we can. We must learn to act from an objective standpoint as well as to view ourselves from an objective standpoint.

The problem here is continuous with the prephilosophical problem of seeking freedom from inner bondage in ordinary life. We all want external freedom, of course: the absence of obstacles to doing what we want. We don’t want to be locked or tied up, or closed off from opportunities, or too poor or weak to do what we would like. But reflective human beings want something more. They want to be be able to stand back from the motives and reasons and values that influence their choices, and submit to them only if they are acceptable. Since we can't act in the light of everything about ourselves, the best we can do is live in a way that wouldn’t have to be revised in light of anything more that could be known about us. This is a practical analogue of the epistemological hope for harmony with the world.

Let me repeat that this is not autonomy, not a solution to the problem of free will, but a substitute—one which falls aspiration to act from outside ourselves, but which nevertheless has value in its own right. I want to discuss some of the ways in which we can reduce the detachment from our own actions that initially results from taking up the objective standpoint, by coming to act from that standpoint.

We might try, first, to develop as complete ai selves as we can, and include it in the basis of our actions, wherever it is relevant. This would mean consistently looking over our own shoulders at what we are doing and why (though often it will be a mere formality). But this objective self-surveillance will inevitably be incomplete, since some knowr must remain behind the lens if anything is to be known. Moreover, each of us knows this—knows that some of the sources of his actions are not objects of his attention and choice. The objective view of ourselves includes both what we know and can use, and what we know that we do not know, and therefore know that we cannot use.

Let me call this the essentially incomplete objective view, or incomplete view for short. The incomplete view of ourselves in the world includes a large blind spot, behind our eyes, so to speak, that hides something we cannot take into account in acting, because it is what acts. Yet this blind spot is part of our objective picture of the world, and to act from as far out as possible we must to some extent include a recognition of it in the basis of our actions.

We may discover our freedom to be limited if the objective view turns up an irrational impulse or fear whose influence on our conduct we can't prevent, but which we know to be irrational and cannot accept as justified. But we can also reflect that our actions may be constrained by an influence we know nothing about. This might be either something we could successfully resist if we did know about it, or something we wouldn’t be able to resist even then, but which we also couldn’t accept as a legitimate ground for action.

The incomplete view faces us with the possibility that we are constrained in one of these ways without knowing it, by factors operating in the blind spot. It also faces us with the certainty that however much we expand our objective view of ourselves, something will remain beyond the possibility of explicit acceptance or rejection, because we cannot get entirely outside ourselves, even though we know that there is an outside.

We hope we aren’t under influences that we would see grounds for resisting if we became aware of them—various forms of prejudice, irrationality, and narrow-mindedness. This is a fairly ordinary limitation on freedom, which we can take measures to avoid. Some of these measures involve widening the range of our self-awareness, and some require rather an attunement to the selective need for seeking it. The real difficulty, though, is to say what it is reasonable to hope for with respect to the core of the self that lies at the center of the blind spot.

It is clear that we can’t decisively and irrevocably endorse our actipns, any more than we can endorse our beliefs, from the most objective standpoint we can take toward ourselves, since what we see from that standpoint is the incomplete view. All we can do to avoid the disengagement of that standpoint from action is to try to satisfy a negative condition: the absence of positive reasons to detach. The best we can hope for is to act in a way that permits some confidence that it would not prove unacceptable no matter how much more completely we developed the objective view—no matter how many more steps we took outside ourselves, even beyond all real possibility.

This involves the idea of an unlimited hypothetical development on the path of self-knowledge and self-criticism, only a small part of which we will actually traverse. We assume that our own advances in objectivity are steps along a path that extends beyond them and beyond all our capacities. But even allowing unlimited time, or an unlimited number of generations, to take as many successive steps as we like, the process of enlarging objectivity can never be completed, short of omniscience. First, every objective view will contain a blind spot, and cannot comprehend everything about the viewer himself. But second, there will not even be a limiting point beyond which it is impossible to go. This is because each step to a new objective vantage point, while it brings more. of the self under observation, also adds to the dimensions of the observer something further which is not itself immediately observed. And this becomes possible material for observation and assessment from a still later objective standpoint. The mind’s work is never done.

So the creation of an objective will is not a completable task. What is wanted is some way of making the most objective standpoint the basis of action: subordinating it to my agency instead of allowing it, and therefore me, to stay outside of my actions as a helpless observer. Given that I cannot do this by acting from outside the world, on the basis of a complete objective view of myself and it, the next best thing is to act from within the world on the basis of the most objective view of which I am capable—the incomplete view—in such a way as to guard against rejection by its successors in the objective sequence, both those that I can achieve and those that I can’t. The attempt to achieve immunity from later objective revision (independently of whether I will actually reach the later objective stages) is the only way to make the incomplete objective view a continuing part of the basis of my actions. That is the closest I can come to acting on the world from outside myself while being part of it.

This form of integration between the standpoints must be distinguished from the position of a creature that doesn’t suffer from the sense of helplessness because it can’t take up the external view toward itself. When a cat stalks a bird, no element of the cat’s self can remain outside as a detached observer of the scene, so there is no sense in which the cat can feel that he is not doing it. But because there is more to me than there is to a cat, I am threatened by the feeling that I do not really act when I act only on the basis of that internal view which suffices for a cat.

The cat’s immunity to the problem of autonomy does not mean that it is free. We can consider the cat from outside and it may be that we will see it as trapped, in certain respects, by ignorance, fear, or instinct. Its nature is given and cannot be subjected by the cat to endorsement, criticism, or revision. It cannot increase its own rationality.

We would not be in much better shape than the cat if, though we remained engaged in our actions however objective a standpoint we achieved, nevertheless there was a standpoint more objective than any open to us, from which we would appear to an outside observer as the cat appears to us. But in fact, unlike the cat, we can form the idea of views of ourselves more objective than any we can reach, and can make our own detachment or engagement parasitic on what we suppose those views would reveal. We wish to believe that the possibility of engagement is not limited to the maximum level that we can actually attain, and we would like to be able to regard this level as a link to unlimited objectivity—so that there is no view of us, no matter how external, that permits complete detachment. This is to extend the ambition of rationalism to practical reason.

Descartes tried to recapture knowledge by imagining his relation to the world from the point of view of God. Finding one’s feet within the world in a way that will withstand criticism from more objective standpoints than one can take up is a Cartesian enterprise, and like Descartes’ it can hope at best for only partial success. But with this qualification, there are several strategies for increasing objective engagement with one’s actions—or at least decreasing objective disengagement from them.

6. Objective Engagement

The most ambitious strategy would be to seek positive grounds for choice that commanded the assent of the objective will no matter how far removed it was from my particular perspective. This, if it were possible, would amount to acting sub specie aeternitatis. It would be analogous to the epistemological strategy of grounding belief in a priori certainties: mathematical or logical truths or methods of reasoning of whose falsehood one cannot conceive-of which one can’t even conceive that a far wiser being might see that they were false, though it was beyond one’s own powers.

Since such absolute objective grounds are even harder to come by in practical than in theoretical reason, a less ambitious strategy seems called for. One such strategy—a strategy of objective tolerance as opposed to objective affirmation—is to find grounds for acting within my personal perspective that will not be rejected from a larger point of view: grounds which the objective self can tolerate because of their limited pretensions to objectivity. Such latitude would be acceptable within the constraints imposed by any more positive results of the objective view.

The epistemological analogies would be the identification of certain beliefs as limited in the objectivity of their claims. These would be about the world of appearance, and an objective view could admit them as such. The danger with this strategy is that it can be misused as a general escape from skepticism by reducing all apparently objective judgments to subjective claims about the appearances. But if we avoid this kind of escapist reductionism, there certainly remain some beliefs which are just about the appearances. Beliefs about the subjective character of my sensory experiences, for example, are not threatened by the prospect that they might be overthrown from a much more objective standpoint.

With respect to decision and action, the strategy of objective tolerance is appropriate in areas where I do not aspire to the highest degree of self-command. When !~ choose from a menu I am interested only in opening myself to the play of inclinations and appetites, in order to see what I most feel like having (providing it’s a cheap restaurant and I’m not on a diet). I am content here to be guided by my strongest appetite, without fear that from a more detached perspective it might appear that one of the weaker ones should really be preferred.

In fact I don’t know what it would mean to wonder whether, sub specie aeternitatis, wanting a chicken salad sandwich was perhaps really preferable as a ground for action to wanting a salami sandwich. Nothing happens when I put myself outside of these desires and contemplate the choice: it can be made only from an internal perspective, for the preferences are neither undermined nor endorsed from an external one. Perhaps there could be some objective endorsement of the satisfaction of the preferences without endorsement of the preferences themselves. But even this principle of prima facie hedonism seems superfluous until I am faced with the problem of weighing these preferences against other motives and values.

In these kinds of cases, then, I do not feel trapped or impotent when I consider my situation objectively, because I do not aspire to more control than I have if my choice is dictated by my immediate inclinations. I am content with the freedom of a cat choosing which armchair to curl up in. External assessment can add nothing to this, nor does it detract.

The strategy of finding areas for objective tolerance rather than objective endorsement may have application at higher levels than that of choosing from a menu. It may be that from a standpoint sufficiently external to that of ordinary human life, not only chicken salad and salami but much of what is important to human beings—their hopes, projects, ambitions, and very survival—cannot be seen positively to matter. Insofar as I can regard that standpoint as part of my own, I may be able to endorse objectively almost nothing that I do. Whether this makes me the helpless victim of most of the motives and values that govern my life depends on whether from this most objective standpoint such values would be rejected as erroneous, or whether, like a taste for pecan pie, they could be tolerated as limited in their objective pretensions, and therefore subjectively legitimate as grounds for action. If in the sequence of more and more external perspectives they would be endorsed up to a certain point and thereafter tolerated, then I need not fear radical objective separation from acts that depend on them— though there will be a certain detachment.

This form of "reentry" leaves us in a different position with respect to our impulses from the one we are in prereflectively. The belief that they do not make strongly objective daims, and therefore are not liable to being overthrown or discredited from a more objective standpoint, is now in the background of our motives. As with sensory impressions, they have a different status in our picture of the world once we have distinguished between appearance and reality. When we act on such impulses we need not feel objectively dissociated, because if we consider the possibility that they would be rejected from a higher standpoint, we can conclude that because of their limited pretensions they would not.

But while many choices have this uncomplicated character, more difficult questions arise in connection with the characteristically human capacity to move to a higher vantage point and a higher order of desires—particularly where there is conflict among different types of first-order desires. Then practical judgment originates with the objective standpoint, and we look for some assurance that it will not be overthrown by a still more objective or detached view.

An important method of objective integration is ordinary practical rationality, which is roughly analogous to the process of forming a coherent set of beliefs out of one’s prereflective personal impressions. This involves not mere tolerance, but actual endorsement of some motives, suppression or revision of others, and adoption of still others, from a standpoint outside that within which primary impulses, appetites, and aversions arise. When these conflict we can step outside and choose among them. Although such rationality can be exercised purely with respect to present desires, it is naturally extended to prudential rationality, which is exerdsed from an objective standpoint detached from the present, and decides on the weight to be accorded to all one’s interests, present and future.

Prudence may.itself conflict with other motives, and then it becomes itself subject to assessment from outside, But if it is just one’s own present and future desires that are in question, prudence consists in taking up a standpoint outside the present—and perhaps refusing to permit one’s chokes to be dictated by the strongest present desire. Most simply, preference may be given to the satisfaction of stronger or longer-term expected desires; but other interests may also count.

The conflict between prudence and impulse is not like the conflict between chicken salad and salami, for it is a conflict between levels: the immediate perspective of the present moment and the (partly) transcendent perspective of temporal neutrality among the foreseeable moments of one's life. It is an example of the pursuit of freedom because through prudence we try to stand back from the impulses that press on us immediately, and to act in a temporal sense from outside of ourselves. If we could not do this, we would as agents be trapped in the present moment, with temporal neutrality reduced to a vantage point of observation,7 And we would be even more trapped if we couldn’t exercise practical ratiorialiry by harmonizing our desires even in the present: we would just have to watch ourselves being pushed around by them.

Prudence itself does not hold comparable dangers unless it is viewed from a larger perspective in competition with motives of a quite different kind. One must be careful here: prudence itself can be a kind of slavery, if carried too far. The dominance of a timeless view of one’s life may be objectively unwise. And compulsiveness or neurotic avoidance based on repressed desires can easily be disguised as rational self-control. But in its normal form, prudence increases one’s freedom by increasing one’s control over the operation of first-order motives, through a kind of objective will.

The objective stance here is not merely permissive, but active. The prudential motives do not exist prior to the adoption of an objective standpoint, but are produced by it. Even the direct motivation of present desires is replaced by the objective weigh they are given in a timeless prudential assessment, when they are thrown into a class with future ones. (I shall not try to discuss the difficult problems that arise about past desires in relation to the analysis of prudence—problems vividly exposed and thoroughly explored in Parfit, Ch. 8.)

Although prudence is only the first stage in the development of an objective will, it is selective in its endorsement of more immediate motives and preferences. From outside of the present moment, not all the impulses and goals of each present moment can be equally endorsed, especially if they conflict with one another. Certain basic and persistent desires and needs will be natural candidates for prudential endorsement but passing whims won’t be, as such—although the general capacities and liberties that enable one to indulge such whims may be objectively valued. (Parfit has suggested to me that this same division may also show up in ethics, for the desires that provide the material for prudence may be the ones we have to consider in according objective weight to the interests of other people.) This does not mean that motives which cannot be endorsed from a timeless standpoint must be crushed completely. Their immediate operation is objectively tolerable, but they do have to compete with prudential reasons in whose formation they do not have a significant voice, so to speak.

Even when I choose not to submit entirely to prudential considerations as against present impulse, this depends on squaring my acts with the objective view. For I must objectively tolerate those impulses and their success, even if I do not endorse them with their full weight. Otherwise it is not freedom that I display but weakness of will.

The timeless standpoint may to some extent take a hands-off attitude toward the motives of the present moment. This restrained manifestation of objectivity is an example of something more general and very important in the relation between subjective and objective: there are limits to the degree to which the objective standpoint can simply take over and replace the original perspectives which it transcends.

Nevertheless, we are led outside the standpoint of the present, to a position from which we can at least subject our immediate impulses to objective scrutiny. And this first step into objective time is taken with the hope that its results would not be overthrown by more advanced steps not yet taken, or perhaps not even takable by us. The essential activity of the objective will, in assessing, endorsing, rejecting, and tolerating immediate impulses, is to recognize or form values, as opposed to mere preferences.8

7. Morality as Freedom

More external than the standpoint of temporal neutrality is the standpoint from which one sees oneself as just an individual among others, viewing one’s interests and concerns entirely from outside. In some respects, the appropriate attitude from this standpoint may be tolerance rather than endorsement. But we are not in general content to regard our lives in this way once we have taken up an external view, nor are we content to act without a more positive endorsement from the objective self.

Moreover, tolerance runs into difficulty when the interests of different individuals conflict. I can’t continue to regard my impulses and desires as making no objcctive claims if I wish to pursue them in opposition to the desires of others—unless I am prepared to regard the outcome of all such conflicts with objective indifference, like the choice between chicken salad and salami, But if I’m going to take a dim view, from an external standpoint, of the situation in which I don’t get any lunch at all because a greedy fellow picnicker has eaten all the sandwiches, then I must move beyond objective tolerance to objective endorsement.

This is a different connection between the objective standpoint and action: engagement not just from outside the present moment, but from outside one’s life.9 Thus in a sense I come to act on the world from outside my particular personal place in it—to control the behavior of TN from a standpoint that is not mine qua TN. The objective self for whom the prob!em of free will arises is co-opted into agency.

All this manifests itself in the formation of impersonal values, and the modification of conduct and motivation in accordance with them, it imposes serious constraints. Values are judgments from a standpoint external to ourselves about how to be and how to live. Because they are accepted from an impersonal standpoint, they apply not only to the point of view of the particular person I happen to be, but generally. They tell me how I should live because they tell me how anyone should live.

A proper discussion of this form of inner-outer integration belongs to ethics, and I shall undertake it later. In a sense, I am agreeing with Kant’s view that there is an internal connection between ethics and freedom: subjection to morality expresses the hope of autonomy, even though it is a hope that cannot be realized in its original form. We cannot act on the world from outside, but we can in a sense act from both inside and outside our particular position in it. Ethics increases the range of what it is about ourselves that we can will—extending it from our actions to the motives and character traits and dispositions from which they arise. We want to be able to will the sources of our actions down to the very bottom, reducing the gap between explanation and justification. To put it another way, we want to reduce the size of the range of determinants of our actions that are not willable but merely observable—that from outside we can only watch.

Naturally there are many determinants of action to which the will cannot extend. Ethics cannot make us omnipotent: if we wished to close the gap between explanation and justification completely, it would mean willing the entire history of the world that produced us and faced us with the circumstances in which we must live, act, and choose. Such amorfati is beyond the aspiration of most of us.

There is a way of extending the will beyond ourselves to the circumstances of action, but it is through the extension of ethics into politics. Objective engagement is increased not only if we can will the sources of our actions relative to the circumstances, but also if the circumstances of life are such that we can will from an objective standpoint that the conditions in which we must act should be as they are. Then in a sense the harmony between observation and will, or between explanation and justification, is extended into the world. (The epistemological analogue would be objective endorsement of the intellectual environment and process of education that led to the formation of one’s capacity for reasoning, assessing evidence, and forming beliefs.)

What we hope for is not only to do what we want given the circumstances, but also to be as we want to be, to as deep a level as possible, and to find ourselves faced with the choices we want to be faced with, in a world that we can want to live in. If we were interested only in eliminating the external barriers to freedom, we would not be led into ethics, but only into the attempt to increase control over our environment. This would involve politics too, but only a politics based on our interests, like that of Hobbes, not an ethical politics. It is the attack on inner barriers that leads to the development of ethics, for it means that we hope to be able to will that our character and motives should be as they are, and not feel simply stuck with them when viewing ourselves objectively.

Values express the objective will. Ethical values in particular result from the combination of many lives and sets of interests in a single set ofjudgments. The demands of balancing, coordination, and integration that this imposes have consequences for what can be objectively willed for each individual, and therefore for oneself. Ethics is one route to objective engagement because it supplies an alternative to pure observation of ourselves from outside. It permits the will to expand at least some of the way along the path of transcendence possible for the understanding. How far we can travel on this path is partly a matter of luck. We may be so constituted that our objectivejudgments cannot keep pace with our capacity for doubt. And of course we can always raise the purely abstract doubt that even the strongest sense of harmony between internal and external views might be an illusion, identifiable as such only from a superior vantage point that we cannot reach.

None of this, as I have said, solves the traditional problem of free will. However much harmony with an objective view we may achieve in action, we can always undermine the sense of our own autonomy by reflecting that the chain of explanation or absence of explanation for this harmony can be pursued till it leads outside our lives.

When it comes to moral responsibility and the internal comparison of iction with the alternatives, nothing is changed by the possibilities of objective engagement I have discussed. If there is such a thing as responsibility, it would have to be found in bad actions as well as good ones—that is, in actions which one could not endorse trom an objective standpoint. This means that any attempt to locate freedom in the development of rational and moral self-command will run into the problem Sidgwick posed as an objection to Kant. The problem is that if freedom can be pursued and approached only through the achievement of objective and ultimately ethical values of some kind, then it is not clear how someone can be both free and bad, hence not clear how someone can be morally responsible for doing wrong, if freedom is a condition of responsibility.10

In practice we project ourselves for purposes of judgement into the standpoint of anyone whose actions we can interpret subjectively as a manifestation of his values.11 This is perfectly natural, but it cannot defuse the problem of responsibility, which can always be raised again, both about us and about the people we feel able to understand and evaluate from inside.

I can see no way to bring judgments of responsibility with the external view—no way to reengage it with such judgements as it can be partially reengaged with action. Judgments of responsibility depend on a kind of projection into the standpoint of the defendant which we cannot carry out unless we forget the external view to a certain extent. I can’t simultaneously think of Lieutenant Calley as a natural phenomenon from outside and assess his actions from inside by contrasting them with the alternatives that appeared subjectively available at the time. Nothing analogous to partial objective engagement is available here. Unless there is a way to block the ascent to the we cannot find a place to stand inside the world which will permit us to make such judgments without the threat that they will seem senseless from farther out. But we seem locked into a practice of projection in which we take the sense of our own autonomy, intelligible or not, as our measure for the judgment of others.

As I have said, it seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has yet been said on this subject.


Anscombe, G. E. M., 'The Causation of Action', in C. Ginet and S. Shoemaker (eds), Knowledge and Mind, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Bennett, J., Kant's Dialectic, Cambridge University Press, 1974

Chisholm, R., Person and Object, La Salle, Ill, Open Court, 1976

Farrer, A. The Freedom of the Will, London, Adam & Charles Black, 1958.

Hampshire, S., 'Spinoza and the Idea of Freedom', Proceedings of the Bitish Academy, 1960.

Hirsch, S. M., My Lai 4, New York, Random House, 1970

Kant, I., Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, 1974

Lucas, J. R., The Freedom of the Will, Oxford University Press, 1970

Nagel, T., The Possibility of Altruism, Oxford University Press, 1970

O'Shaughnessy, B., The Will, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Sidgwick, H., The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed., 1907

Strawson, P. F., 'Freedom and Resentment', in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, London, Methuen, 1970.

Stroud, B., The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism, Oxford University Press, 1984.

Taylor, R., Action and Purpose, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1966. 

Watson, G. 'Free Agency', Journal of Philosophy, 1975.

Wiggins, D., 'Freedom, Knowledge, Belief and Necessity', in Knowledge and Necessity, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, vol. III, London, Macmillan, 1970.

Wolf, S., 'Assymetrical Freedom', Journal of Philosophy, 1980.


1. Here I agree with Taylor, p. 140.

2. Jonathan Bennett makes this distinction, calling them the problems of agency and accountability, respectively (Bennett, Ch. 10).

3. Some would hold that we have all the autonomy we should want if our choice is determined by compelling reasons. Hampshire, for example, attributes to Spinoza the position that "a man is most free, . . . and also feels himself to be most free, when he cannot help drawing a certain conclusion, and cannot help embarking on a certain count of action In view of the evidently compelling reasons in favor of it.. The issue is decided for him when the arguments in support of a theoretical conclusion are conclusive arguments" (Hampshire, p. 198). And Wolf proposes as the condition of freedom that the agent "could have done otherwise if there had been good and sufficient reason" (Wolf, p. 159)—which means that if there wasn’t a good reason to act differently, the free agent needn’t have been able to act differently.

Something like this has more plausibility with respect to thought, I believe, than it has with respect to action. In forming beliefs we may hope for nothing more than to be determined by the truth (see Wiggins, pp. 145—8; see also Wefald, Ch. 15), but in action our initial assumption is different. Even when we feel rationally compelled to act, this does not mean we are causally determined. When Luther says he can do nothing else, he is referring to the normative irrestistibility of his reasons, not to their causal power, and I believe that even in such a case causal determination is not compatible with autonomy.

4. Lucas notices this but is not, I think, sufficiently discouraged by it: "There remains a tension between the programme of complete explicability and the requirements of freedom. If men have free will, then no complete explanation of their actions can be given, except by reference to themselves. We can give their reasons. But we cannot explain why their reasons were reasons for them.. . . Asked why I acted, I give my reasons: asked why I chose to accept them as reasons, I can only say ‘I just did" (Lucas, pp. 171—2).

5. See Hirsch for the details.

6. See Stroud, Ch. 7, for the analagous point that skepticism is unavoidable unless we can somehow show the demand for an 'external' account of knowledge to be illegitimate. Once the question has been raised, it can't be answered. This makes it tempting to look for a way of showing that it can't be raised -- but I am sceptical about the prospects of such a strategy.

7. I’ve said more about this in Nagel ci:

8. See Watson for a discussion of the relation between freedom and values. The present discussion of objective will is an attempt to say more about what values are and how they provide an alternative to the autonomy we cannot have.

9. See Parfit, Ch. 7, for an argument that if one accepts the first, one has to accept the second. Prudence, he argues, cannot be identified with practical rationality, because it is unreasonable to hold that reasons cannot be relative to time but must be relative to persons.

10. Sidgwick, Bk. 1, Sec. 1. Kant grapples with this problem in Kant, Bk. 1, which deals explicitly with responsibility for evil.

11. This includes actions which go against the values he holds explicitly -- as when someone out of fear fails to decide what to do what he thinks he should, or fails to do what he has decided to do. The failure to act on one's values shows something about their strength, as well as about the strenghth of one's will.

The canonical version of the above work, against which references to it and any quotations should certainly be checked, is to be found in Thomas Nagel's book, The View From Nowhere, Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 1986.

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