-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

As you may know, perhaps from other things on this website, It used to be the case that there were two main positions held by philosophers with respect to determinism and freedom. One was that the two things are compatible or can exist together. The other position was that they are incompatible or cannot exist together. To those positions, I say with that self-esteem that comes so naturally to the philosophical personality, I added a third. Others have made other additions. What follows here is a good one. Read it, and ask if this is the right way to escape from what can seem to be the boring old past.

This paper presents, in outline, a novel position on the issue of free will and compares this position to other more familiar positions. The position I shall defend consists of two radical proposals, summarizing the main claims that I make in Free Will and Illusion (OUP 2000). The complexity of both the free will problem and my claims, and the fact that the latter appear at late stages of the complex train of arguments on the issue, mean that this brief essay is necessarily sketchy. 

Part 1 presents, in a way that should not be controversial, the three questions composing the issue of free will, and then briefly states why libertarian free will is impossible, hence why we need to be concerned with compatibilism and hard determinism. Part 2 sets out the first of the two radical proposals just mentioned, a Fundamental Dualism according to which we have to be both compatibilists and hard determinists. Part 3 presents the second proposal, Illusionism, which claims that illusion on free will is morally necessary. 

1. Preliminaries

 I believe that the best way to understand the problem of free will is as a conjunction of three questions: 

1. Is there libertarian free will? This can be called the libertarian Coherence or Existence Question. Libertarians of course think that there is libertarian free will, compatibilists (typically) and hard determinists disagree. This first question is metaphysical or ontological, or, perhaps, logical. 

2. If there is no libertarian free will, are we still in a reasonably good moral condition? This can be called the Compatibility Question, namely, are moral responsibility and related notions compatible with determinism (or with the absence of libertarian free will irrespective of determinism)? Compatibilism and hard determinism are opponents on the Compatibility Question. This question, in my opinion, is mostly ethical. The first proposal that I offer, Fundamental Dualism, relates to this second question, that of compatibility

3. I offer pessimistic answers to the first two questions. In response to question 1 I claim that there is no libertarian free will, and in response to question 2, that compatibilism is insufficient. This leads to a third question: what are the consequences of the undoing of both libertarianism and (in part) compatibilism? I call this the Consequences Question, and its nature turns out to be complex. My second proposal, Illusionism on free will, relates to this third question of consequences. 

Why Not Libertarian Free Will 

 The most ambitious conception of free will, commonly called libertarian free will, is the natural place to start exploring the issue of free will. For, as we have seen, if we have libertarian free will then the free will problem is in effect solved – the Compatibility Question and the Consequences Question become unimportant. However, I believe that libertarian free will is impossible. The case against libertarian free will has already been well stated, and I have nothing substantially original to say about it (see e.g. Galen Strawson Phil. Studies 1997; cf. Smilansky 2000: Chapter 4). 

The reason why I believe that libertarian free will is impossible, in a nutshell, is that the conditions required by an ethically satisfying sense of libertarian free will, which would give us anything beyond sophisticated formulations of compatibilism, are self-contradictory, and hence cannot be met. This is so irrespective of determinism or causality. Attributing moral worth to a person for her decision or action requires that it follow from what she is, morally. The decision or action cannot be produced by a random occurrence and count morally. We might think that two different decisions or actions can follow from a person, but which of them does, say, a decision to steal or not to steal, again cannot be random but needs to follow from what she is, morally.1 But what a person is, morally, cannot be under her control. We might think that such control is possible if she creates herself, but then it is the early self that creates a later self, leading to vicious infinite regress. The libertarian project was worthwhile attempting: it was supposed to allow a deep moral connection between a given act and the person, and yet not fall into being merely an unfolding of the arbitrarily given, whether determined or random. But it is not possible to find any way in which this can be done. 

Libertarians will not of course be satisfied with this cursory treatment. I am merely expressing here my conviction that these efforts to defend libertarianism cannot succeed and my reasons for this conviction. If Ted Honderich is right with respect to determinism, there is even less reason to believe in libertarian free will. We shall proceed on the assumption that the conviction is correct from this point onwards, and ask what the non-existence of libertarian free will means. 

2. The First Proposal: The Fundamental Dualism

2.1 The Assumption of Monism

It seems to me that a harmful Assumption of Monism has seriously impaired the debate about free will at this point, and this Assumption of Monism helps explain why an explicit dualism such as I am presenting has not been previously developed. The Assumption of Monism is the assumption that on the Compatibility Question (question #2 of the three I listed) one must affirm compatibilism or incompatibilism. In fact, there is no conceptual basis whatsoever for thinking that the Assumption of Monism is necessary. Compatibilism and incompatibilism are indeed logically inconsistent but it is possible to hold a mixed, intermediate position that is not fully consistent with either. The Compatibility Question might be answered in a Yes-and-No fashion, for there is no conceptual reason why it should not be the case that certain forms of moral responsibility require libertarian free will while other forms could be sustained without it. There is nothing to prevent incompatibilists and compatibilists from insisting that real moral responsibility does, or does not, require libertarian free will. But their case must be made in ethical terms, and it may well turn out that there is no single or exhaustive notion of moral responsibility.2

An Economy of Intuitions

Recognising and rejecting the Assumption of Monism allows us to stay close to the deepest intuitions on the free will issue. The intuitive attraction of the Assumption of Monism is great, but once we cross this ‘intuitive Rubicon’ we see that its parsimony is nothing but false economy. A true ‘economy of intuitions’ cannot afford to sacrifice the strength of either our compatibilist or incompatibilist instincts, on the Compatibility Question. The initially counter-intuitive step of rejecting the Assumption of Monism thus allows us to proceed along a new path that ultimately runs closer to the intuitive field than either of the conventional monisms.

2.2 Why Not Compatibilism?

 I will now say something about why I think that compatibilism, its partial validity notwithstanding, is grimly insufficient. First, compatibilism is a widely prevalent view, and hence it is necessary for me to show its inadequacy in order to defend my first proposal of Fundamental Dualism – the proposal that we should be, in a sense, both compatibilists and hard determinists. Second, I need to combat the complacency that compatibilism encourages if my second proposal of Illusionism is to be motivated. 

We can make sense of the notion of autonomy or self-determination on the compatibilist level but, if there is no libertarian free will, no one can be ultimately in control, ultimately responsible, for this self and its determinations. Everything that takes place on the compatibilist level becomes on the ultimate hard determinist level ‘what was merely there’, ultimately deriving from causes beyond the control of the participants. If people lack libertarian free will, their identity and actions flow from circumstances beyond their control. To a certain extent, people can change their character, but that which does or does not change remains itself a result of something. There is always a situation in which the self-creating person could not have created herself, but was just what she was, as it were, ‘given’. Being the sort of person one is and having the desires and beliefs one has, are ultimately something which one cannot control, which cannot be one's fault; it is one's luck. And one's life, and everything one does, is an unfolding of this. Let us call this the “ultimate perspective”, which connects to hard determinism, and contrast it with the “compatibilist perspective”, which takes the person as a ‘given’ and enquires about her various desires, choices and actions.

 Consider the following quotation from a compatibilist:

The incoherence of the libertarian conception of moral responsibility arises from the fact that it requires not only authorship of the action, but also, in a sense, authorship of one's self, or of one's character. As was shown, this requirement is unintelligible because it leads to an infinite regress. The way out of this regress is simply to drop the second-order authorship requirement, which is what has been done here (Vuoso 1987: 1681) (my emphasis).

The difficulty is that there is an ethical basis for the incompatibilist (“second-order authorship”) requirement, and, even if it cannot be fulfilled, the idea of ‘simply dropping it’ masks how problematic the result may be in terms of fairness and justice. The fact remains that if there is no libertarian free will, a person being punished for her compatibilist-free actions may suffer justly in compatibilist terms for what is ultimately her luck. For what follows from being what she is was ultimately beyond her control, a state which she had no real opportunity to alter, hence neither her responsibility nor her fault.3

A similar criticism applies to other moral and non-moral ways of perceiving and treating people. The compatibilist cannot maintain the libertarian-based view of moral worth or of the grounds for respect; what she has to offer is a shallower sort of meaning and justification for such notions. These two charges -- of shallowness, and of a complacent compliance with the injustice of not acknowledging lack of fairness and desert (and in particular ultimate-level victimisation) -- form the backbone of my case against compatibilism. (Compare Smilansky 2000: Chapters 3 and 6). 

2.3 Why Not Hard Determinism?

 If there is no libertarian free will and compatibilism is insufficient, should we not then opt for hard determinism, which denies the reality of free will and moral responsibility in any sense? In previous writings (e.g. Smilansky 2000: Chapter 3) I have written favorably about certain hard determinist intuitions, along the lines of the previous section of this paper, but I do not think we can go all the way with hard determinism either. Important distinctions made in terms of compatibilist free will need to be retained as well if we are to do justice to morally required “forms of life”. These distinctions would be important even in a determined world, and they have crucial (non-consequentialist) ethical significance. For example, the kleptomaniac and the alcoholic differ from the common thief and common drinker in the deficiency of their capacity for local reflective control over their actions (see e.g. Glover 1970: 136; Fischer 1994). Here everyone should agree. But the point worth adding is that such differences are often morally significant. 

A central concept in the free will problem is that of desert, and doing justice to this concept is the greatest challenge facing the compatibilist. For it seems that if people are in the end ultimately just randomly ‘given’, and have no ultimate control over the sources of their behaviour, then they cannot truly deserve and e.g. merit no blame. This in any case is how a hard determinist would reason. But I think that this is too quick a judgment, and that we can defend a compatibilist-level sense even of desert. Consider the following: 

Case of the Lazy Waiter

Take the example of a waiter working in a cafe. He is young and healthy, his pay is reasonable, the hours not too long. There is also a shortage of waiters, so he may feel reasonably certain that he can keep the job as long as he wishes. In short, our waiter has an agreeable job. Part of his earnings depend on tips, and let us assume that the level of tips is directly related to how he serves his customers. This waiter, however, usually does the minimum, is slow and inattentive to the customers, and makes little effort to be helpful or pleasant. There is nothing extreme in his behaviour or in the motivation behind it, and he is quite capable of behaving differently, for example when his relatives come to the cafe or when a customer known to be particularly generous appears. But normally he is prepared to make no more than the very minimal effort required.

It seems to me that there is nothing wrong with a situation in which part of the waiter's pay depends on the tips of reasonable customers, and it is perfectly acceptable for those who have been badly served to make him ‘pay’ for exercising his freedom, by reducing his tip. We can see from his varying daily behaviour that it is within his control, and no deep moral concern is aroused if he receives part of his pay in accordance with his choices. He does not deserve the full tip. The intuitive strength of the compatibilist perspective in such a case does not seem to depend on actually seeing the waiter benefit from his laziness; it suffices that such behaviour in normal cases is up to the person in question in any compatibilist sense that seems relevant. Moreover, if another waiter is more attentive but it is stipulated that tips cannot vary, then we may want to say that the effort-making waiter is not getting what he deserves. 

This is not to deny that in many cases complex factors make it difficult to agree with compatibilist justice. Particularly with extremes of environmental deprivation, or when people's negative behaviour does not seem to serve any obvious purpose, the reasons why some people make an effort and others do not will cause us to mitigate our judgement of people. Cases such as the lazy waiter, however, show that there is a legitimate compatibilist basis for talk about desert and justice. In certain cases it is the compatibilist perspective that is morally salient: the ‘giveness’ of the initial motivation set is not so morally worrisome as long as the person can evaluate it and choose as he wishes. Respect for persons can be satisfied if people get the life they reflectively want in conditions of opportunity for the free exercise of compatibilist control.

We want to be members of a Community of Responsibility where our choices will determine the moral attitude we receive, with the accompanying possibility of being morally excused when our actions are not within our reflective control, e.g. when they result from a brain tumour. The exceptions and excuses commonly presented by compatibilism should continue to carry weight. For if people are to be respected, their nature as purposive agents capable and desirous of choice needs to be catered to. We have to enable people to live as responsible beings in the Community of Responsibility, to live lives based largely on their choices, to note and give them credit for their good actions, and to take account of situations in which they lacked the abilities, capacities, and opportunities to choose freely, and are therefore not responsible in the compatibilist sense. (For an elaboration of the case for compatibilism and against hard determinism, see Smilansky 2000: Chapter 5.)

2.4 The Joint Perspective

 The case for a Fundamental Dualism on the Compatibility Question follows from the partial validity of both compatibilism and hard determinism or, in what amounts to the same thing, from the partial inadequacy of both. 

Many of the practices of a community based on compatibilist distinctions, a Community of Responsibility, would be in one way unjust, owing to the absence of libertarian free will which implies that our actions are on the ultimate level not up to us. To hold us responsible for them is, therefore, in one deep sense morally arbitrary. Proper respect for persons requires that this be acknowledged. Nevertheless, working according to compatibilist distinctions might be just in another way, because they correspond to a sense of being up to us, which exist in many normal situations, but not in cases such as kleptomania or addiction. It would be unjust to treat these different cases in the same way. To fail to create a Community of Responsibility is also in one sense to fail to create a feasable non-arbitrary moral order, hence to fail in showing the proper respect for persons. There is thus a basis for working with compatibilist notions of fault and moral responsibility, based on local compatibilist-level control, even though we lack the sort of deep grounding in the ‘ultimately guilty self’ that libertarian free will was thought to provide. Moreover, we are morally required to work in this way. But doing so has often a ‘hard determinist’ moral price in terms of unfairness and injustice. We must recognise both the frequent need to be compatibilists and the need to confront that price.

The immediate reaction of both compatibilists and hard determinists to such a dualistic account is likely to involve an attempt to discredit the other side. ‘Ultimate’ hard determinist injustice does not matter, the compatibilist might say. After all you yourself tend to admit that we can distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, and meet common intuitions about the way to treat various situations. Why care about ‘ultimate fantasies’ when, if we only remain on the compatibilist level, we can see that people can have control of their lives, reform and even partly create themselves, and behave responsibly? The hard determinist is likely to attack my position from the other side, saying that all talk about moral distinctions and about desert is groundless. Do I not myself admit that everyone is not ultimately responsible for being whoever he or she happens to be and for the actions that result from this? What sort of control is it that is merely an unfolding of pre-set factors?

Both sets of arguments have a certain strength, which is why I think that any ‘monistic’ position is inadequate. However, once we make a conscious attempt to rid our minds of the Assumption of Monism, we begin to see that there are aspects of the compatibilist case that the hard determinist cannot plausibly deny; similarly, with the hard determinist case for the compatibilist. Since persons tend to be immediately inclined in one way or the other, and to be overly-impressed with the side they are on, they will have to work on themselves in order to see the side they are blind to. One has to try to conquer one’s blind side.

However deeply we might feel that all people are ultimately innocent, it is unconvincing to deny the difference between the control possessed by the common thief and that of the kleptomaniac, and to ignore the moral inadequacy of social institutions that would fail to take account of this difference. We have an intimate experience of control (or its lack). If a man believes that he is Napoleon then he is deluded, and his belief is false. But a woman's belief that her decision to see a movie and not a play is up to her is, even in a deterministic world, well founded on the compatibilist level. True, she did not ultimately create the sources of her motivation, and this hard determinist insight is sometimes important. But her sense of local control is not illusory, although it is only part of the truth about her state. Irrespective of the absence of libertarian free will, the kleptomaniac is simply not in a condition for membership in a Community of Responsibility in which most people, having the required control, can be, and would want to be members. The eradication of free will-related distinctions does not make the hard determinist more humane and compassionate, but rather morally blind and a danger to the conditions for a civilised, sensitive moral environment. We must take account of such distinctions and maintain the Community of Responsibility, in order to respect persons. That hard determinists are indifferent to such distinctions and ethical imperatives is morally outrageous. 

Similarly, once we grant the compatibilist that his distinctions have some foundation and are partly morally required, there is no further reason to go the whole way with him. There is no reason to claim that the absence of libertarian free will is of no great moral significance and moreover to deny the fact that without libertarian free will even a vicious and compatibilistically-free criminal who is being punished is in some important sense a victim of his circumstances. If we reflect upon the fact that many people are made to undergo acute misery while the fact that they have developed into criminals is ultimately beyond their control, it is hard to dismiss this matter in the way that compatibilists are wont to do. Similarly, any favorable compatibilist appreciation of persons is necessarily shallow for, in the end, it rests upon factors not under the person’s control. Any factor for which one is appreciated, praised, or even loved is ultimately one’s luck. That compatibilists are indifferent to such ultimate arbitrariness, shallowness and injustice is morally outrageous. 

I would emphasise that one need not follow my particular sort of dualism zealously: other varieties can be imagined, varieties that defend the compatibilist and hard determinist perspectives in somewhat different ways than mine. My main aim has been to illustrate the possibility of working within a dualistic framework, and even of looking at the same act or the same agent in dualistic ways. In fact, since the compatibilist and hard determinist cases have been well made before, the point I would most like to stress is that we need to try out ways of combining them. We must overcome the temptation to say that there are two contrasting ways of looking at the Compatibility Question, and that is that. It is not as though we are missing something in order to appreciate that either the compatibilist or the hard determinist perspective is, in the end, the true one. Rather, to be entirely blind to the virtues of either of these two perspectives is to fail to see the case on free will. (For an elaboration of this joint “dualistic” position on the Compatibility Question, see Smilansky 2000 sections 6.1 and 6.4.)

3. Second Proposal: Illusionism

The Fundamental Dualism, according to which we must be both compatibilists and hard determinists, was my first proposal. Now let us move on to the second. Illusion, I claim, is the vital but neglected key to the free will problem. I am not saying that we need to induce illusory beliefs concerning free will, or can live with beliefs that we fully realise are illusory. Both of these positions would be highly implausible. Rather, I maintain that illusory beliefs are in place, and that the role they play is largely positive. 

3.1 The Problem: Examples

In order to see how illusion is crucial, we must deepen our understanding of the difficulties that (would) prevail without it. Why is there an urgent problem requiring illusion? I will give a number of illustrations.

The Question of Innocence

The danger concerning respect for moral innocence is serious. Even in a world without libertarian free will, the idea that only those who deserve to be punished in light of their free actions may be punished, is a condition for any civilised moral order (cf. Hart 1970). ‘Punishment’ of those who did not perform the act for which they are ‘punished’, or did so act but lacked control over their action in any sense, is the paradigm of injustice. Yet while the justification for these values does not require libertarian free will, in practice they might be at risk were the lack of libertarian free will internalised. Consider Anscombe's passionate remark that “[I]f someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration - I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind” (Anscombe 1981: 40). Surely, if a moral system that seeks to preserve and guard vigilantly the common conception of innocence is to function well, such a sentiment should be prevalent, almost instinctive. But if this is to be so, the worst thing one could do would be to point out that, ultimately, none of this makes sense -- because the ‘guilty’ are, ultimately, no more guilty than others. 

The Ultimate Conclusion as a Practical Threat to the Taking of Responsibility

 We cannot tell people that they must behave in a certain way, that it is morally crucial that they do so, but then, if they do not, turn and say that this is (in every case) excusable, given whatever hereditary and environmental influences have operated in their formation. Psychologically, the attribution of responsibility to people so that they may be said to justly deserve gain or loss for their actions requires (even after the act) the absence of the notion that the act is an unavoidable outcome of the way things were –that it is ultimately beyond anyone's control. Morality has a crucial interest in confronting what can be called the Present Danger of the Future Retrospective Excuse, and in restricting the influence of the ultimate hard determinist level. To put it bluntly: people as a rule ought not to be fully aware of the ultimate inevitability of what they have done, for this will affect the way in which they hold themselves responsible. The knowledge that such an escape from responsibility, based on retrospective ultimate judgement, will be available in the future is likely to affect the present view, and hence cannot be fully admitted even in its retrospective form. We often want a person to blame himself, feel guilty, and even see that he deserves to be punished. Such a person is not likely to do all this if he internalises the ultimate hard determinist perspective, according to which in the actual world nothing else could in fact have occurred -- he could not strictly have done anything else except what he did do.

A Sense of Value

 From the ultimate hard determinist perspective, all people -- whatever their efforts and sacrifices -- are morally equal: i.e. there cannot be any means of generating a ‘real’ moral value. There is a sense in which our notion of moral self-respect, which is intimately connected with our view of our choices, actions and achievements, withers when we accept the ultimate perspective. From the latter any sense of moral achievement disappears, as even the actions of the ‘moral hero’ are simply an unfolding of what he happens to be. No matter how devoted he has been, how much effort he has put in, how many tears he has shed, how many sacrifices he has willingly suffered. True appreciation, deeply attributing matters to someone in a sense that will make him worthy, is impossible if we regard him and his efforts as merely determined products. All that the compatibilist can offer us in terms of value, although important in itself, is meagre protection from the cold wind that attacks us when we come close to reaching the luck-imbued ultimate level. There is an obvious practical danger here to our moral motivation, which can be named the Danger of Worthlessness. But the concern is not only to get people to function adequately as moral agents; it also has to do with the very meaning we can find in our lives. (Cf. Smilansky 2000 sections 6.4, 7.3, 7.4, and Chapters 8 and 9.) 

Remorse and Integrity

 If a person takes the ultimate hard determinist perspective, it is not only others who seem to disappear as moral agents - but in some way the person herself is reduced. In retrospect, her life, her decisions, that which is most truly her own, appear to be accidental phenomena of which she is the mere vehicle, and to feel moral remorse for any of it, by way of truly owning up to it, seems in some deep sense to be misguided. Feelings of remorse are inherently tied to the person's self-perception as a morally responsible agent (see Taylor 1985: 107).

It sharpens our focus not to dwell upon those happy to escape accountability, but rather upon those who have good will. Here we confront a third ‘danger’, which can be termed the Danger of Retrospective Dissociation. This is the difficulty of feeling truly responsible after action. One can surrender the right to make use of the ‘ultimate level excuse’ for normative reasons, and yet perhaps not be able to hold oneself truly responsible (e.g. to engage in remorse), if one has no grain of belief in something like libertarian free will. One can, after all, accept responsibility for matters that were not up to one in any sense, such as for the actions of others, for normative reasons. But here we are dealing with a different matter: not with the acceptance of responsibility in the sense of ‘willingness to pay’, but rather with feeling compunction. Compunction seems conceptually problematic and psychologically dubious when it concerns matters that, it is understood, ultimately one could not in fact help doing. But such genuine feelings of responsibility (and not mere acceptance of it) are crucial for being responsible selves! We see here the intimacy of the connection between moral and personal integrity and illusion about free will; hence the danger of realising the truth also looms large. (For an elaboration of the problem requiring illusion, see Smilansky 2000: Chapters 7-9.) 

3.2 Illusion as a Solution

What Is Illusionism?

 Illusionism is the position that illusion often has a large and positive role to play in the issue of free will. In arguing for the importance of illusion I claim that we can see why it is useful, that it is a reality, and why by and large it ought to continue to be so. Illusory beliefs are in place concerning free will and moral responsibility, and the role they play is largely positive. Humanity is fortunately deceived on the free will issue, and this seems to be a condition of civilised morality and personal value.

The sense of “illusion” that I am using combines the falsity of a belief with some motivated role in forming and maintaining that belief -- as in standard cases of wishful thinking or self-deception. However, it suffices that the beliefs are false and that this conclusion would be resisted were a challenge to arise. It is not necessary for us to determine the current level of illusion concerning free will.

The importance of illusion flows from the basic structure of the free will problem. It flows in two ways: first, indirectly, from the Fundamental Dualism on the Compatibility Question - the partial and varying validity of both compatibilism and hard determinism.4 Second, illusion flows directly and more deeply from the meaning of the very absence of the grounding that libertarian free will was thought to provide.5 We cannot live adequately with the dissonance of the two valid sides of the Fundamental Dualism, nor with a complete awareness of the deep significance of the absence of libertarian free will. We have to face the fact that there are basic beliefs that morally ought not to be abandoned, although they might destroy each other, or are even partly based on incoherent conceptions. At least for most people, these beliefs are potentially in need of motivated mediation and defence by illusion, ranging from wishful thinking to self-deception. 

Why Is there a Need For Illusion?

 Our previous results supply the resources for an answer to this question. Let us concentrate, for the sake of simplicity, on the concerns of a strictly ‘practical’ point of view: if the basic ethical concern for free will is taken seriously, and the absence of libertarian free will is to some extent realised, then the ultimate level (i.e. hard determinist) conclusion might tend to dominate in practice. This might very well pose a danger -- especially because of the human tendency to over-simplify -- to the ‘common form of life’ and to the strict observance of the corresponding moral order. Many people would find it hard to think that the partial compatibilist truth matters, as in fact it ethically does, if they realised the sense in which both the compatibilistically free and unfree were merely performing according to their mold. And this might lead them to succumb to ‘pragmatic’ consequentialist temptations, or unprincipled nihilism. The ultimate hard determinist perspective does not leave sufficient moral and psychological ‘space’ for compatibilistically-defensible reactive attitudes and moral order. The fragile compatibilist-level plants need to be defended from the chill of the ultimate perspective in the hothouse of illusion. Only if we do not see people from the ultimate perspective can we live in a way which compatibilism affirms -- blaming, selectively excusing, respecting, being grateful, and the like.6

Within these parameters, there is a prima facie case for a large measure of motivated obscurity regarding the objections to libertarian free will: if libertarian assumptions carry on their back the compatibilist distinctions, which would not be adhered to sufficiently without them, an illusion which defends these libertarian assumptions seems to be just what we need. The ethical importance of the paradigm of free will and responsibility as a basis for desert should be taken very seriously. But the ultimate perspective threatens to present it as a farce, a mere game without foundation. Likewise with the crucial idea of a personal sense of value and appreciation that can be gained through our free actions: this is unlikely to be adequately maintained by individuals in their self-estimates, nor warmly and consistently projected by society. A broad loss of moral and personal confidence can be expected. The idea of action-based desert, true internal acceptance of responsibility, respect for effort and achievement, deep ethical appreciation, excusing the innocent - all these and more are threatened by the ‘levelling’ or homogenising view arising from the ultimate perspective. Illusion is crucial in pragmatically safeguarding the compatibilistically-defensible elements of the ‘common form of life’. Illusion is, by and large, a condition for the actual creation and maintenance of adequate moral reality. (For an elaboration of illusion as ‘a solution’, see Smilansky 2000: Section 7.4 and Chapter 8.) 

How Does Illusion Function?

 When illusion plays a role, things can, in practice, work out. Two schematic answers can be given: first, it may be suggested that significant realisation of the absence of libertarian free will, and concern about ultimate level injustice, for example, can remain more or less limited to part of the population, say, those more concerned with policy-making (the ‘elitist solution’). This maintains the widespread intuition that, for instance, punishing the innocent is an abomination whereas criminals deserve ‘to pay’, while permitting the amelioration of treatment, resulting from the recognition by some that ultimately things are not morally that simple. Complex patterns of self-and-other deception emerge with elitist solutions. But, in addition to all the general practical and moral difficulties with elitist solutions, which we cannot consider here, elitism can in any case be only a partial solution concerning free will. For, in the light of the reasons that we have already seen, people not under illusion would have great difficulty in functioning.

The major solution will be one where, since two beliefs are vaguely but simultaneously held, yet commonly not set side by side (often, I claim, due to the presence of a motivated element), their contrary nature is not fully noticed. When acting in the light of compatibilist insights we suspend the insights of the ultimate hard determinist perspective (which we in any case are likely to be only dimly aware of). We keep ourselves on the level of compatibilist distinctions about local control and do not ask ourselves about the deeper question of the ‘giveness’ of our choosing self; resisting threats to our vague, tacit libertarian assumptions. As Bernard William put it: “To the extent that the institution of blame works coherently, it does so because it attempts less than morality would like it to do ... [it] takes the agent together with his character, and does not raise questions about his freedom to have chosen some other character” (Williams 1985: 194). The result is not philosophically neat, but that, after all, is its merit: the original reality was that we face practical dangers if we try to make our (incoherent or contradictory) conceptions too clear, but that we ought not to give any of them up entirely. Illusion, in short, allows us to have ‘workable beliefs’.

Moreover, even those elements of our self-understanding that are solely illusory (and not compatibilistically-grounded reality that is merely assisted by illusion) may nevertheless be very important in themselves. Illusion not only helps to sustain independent reality, but also is in itself a sort of ‘reality’, simply by virtue of its existence. The falseness of beliefs does not negate the fact that they exist for the believer. This is the way in which the illusory libertarian beliefs exist. In addition to supporting the compatibilist non-illusory basis, illusion also creates a mental reality, such as a particular sense of worth, appreciation and moral depth associated with belief in libertarian free will, which would not exist without it. The effects of this illusory ‘reality’ are sometimes positive. In a number of ways, then, illusion serves a crucial creative function, which is a basis for social morality and personal self-appreciation, in support of the compatibilist forms and beyond them. 

4. Conclusion

 There is no libertarian free will: people can have limited forms of local control over their actions, but not the deep form of libertarian free will. Whether determinism is completely true or not, we cannot make sense of the sort of constitutive self-transcendence which would provide grounding for the deep sense of moral responsibility that libertarian free will was thought to supply. Our common libertarian assumptions cannot be sustained. All our actions, however an internalized and complex a form they my take, are the result of what we are, ultimately beyond our control. 

 The implications of the absence of libertarian free will are complex, and the standard assumption of the debate, the Assumption of Monism according to which we must be either compatibilists or hard determinists, is false. We saw why ‘forms of life’ based on the compatibilist distinctions about control are possible and morally required, but are also superficial and deeply problematic in ethical and personal terms. I claimed that the most plausible approach to the Compatibility Question is a complex compromise, which I called Fundamental Dualism. The idea that either compatibilism or hard determinism can be adequate on its own is untenable. 

There is then partial non-illusory grounding for many of our central free will-related beliefs, reactions, and practices, even in a world without libertarian free will. But in various complex ways, we require illusion in order to bring forth and maintain them. Illusion is seen to flow from the basic structure of the free will issue, the absence of libertarian free will and the Fundamental Dualism concerning the implications. Revealing the large and mostly positive role of illusion concerning free will not only teaches us a great deal about the free will issue itself, but also posits illusion as a pivotal factor in human life.7 


1. For example, in Robert Kane’s sophisticated form of libertarianism (Kane 1996), the agent's character stimulates effort resulting in a choice. However - crucially – whether this effort bears fruit in a given direction (goes one way or another) is in fact arbitrary and not under the agent’s control. 

2. There are, of course, other possibilities. For example, Richard Double presents a meta-ethical skepticism in the free will context, which would preclude moral responsibility altogether (see Double 1991). A less extreme position, which would also preclude the need for the dualism proposed here, is Ted Honderich’s ‘attitudinal-emotionalism’ whereby the free will issue is not a matter of true or false belief but of emotional attitudes. On a different level, one could opt for utilitarianism and forsake inherent concern with free will as, for example, a condition for praise or blame, but rather praise and blame for the sake of the consequences. These positions do not seem plausible to me, but this cannot be taken up here (on Honderich, see Smilansky 2000: 25-7; on utilitarianism in the free will context see Smilansky 2000: 27-33). 

3. Compatibilists may argue at this point that if libertarian free will is incoherent then it is not  ‘worth wanting’ in the first place, and we need not make such a fuss about the absence of the impossible (e.g. Dennett 1984; Wolf 1987: 59-60; Frankfurt 1988: 22-23). This, however, is a red herring. The various things that free will could make possible, if it could exist, such as deep senses of desert, worth, and justification are worth wanting. They remain worth wanting even if something that would be necessary in order to have them is not worth wanting because it cannot be coherently conceived. It is just this, the impossibility of the conditions for things that are so deeply worth wanting, which makes the realisation of the absence of libertarian free will so significant. (Cf. Smilansky 2000: 48-50.) There are of course many compatibilist positions that would try to resist my criticism, but I cannot refer to the immense literature here. 

4. The partial validity of compatibilism does not reduce the need for illusion so much as it complicates it and adds to it, because of the need to guard the compatibilist concerns and distinctions, and the contrast and dissonance with the ultimate hard determinist perspective. 

5. This means that the Fundamental Dualism leads to Illusionism, but Illusionism does not depend on the dualism. 

6. There are a number of distinct alternative positions that conflict with my claim for the positive necessity of illusion. Honderich (1988), Waller (1990), and Pereboom (1995) explored some of the less pessimistic implications of hard determinism. Bok (1998) made a similar sort of contribution, although she would not agree to being characterized as a hard determinist. I claim that the possibility of living without belief in the actual existence of free will and moral responsibility has been shown to be unreal and, due to the partial viability of compatibilism, it is also unnecessary. There is no substitute for the paradigmatic ethical requirement for control and responsibility as the central basis for moral life, a civilized social order, and self-respect. There is still room for revision of the sort that ‘optimistic’ hard determinists propose, but this, I claim, would be only on the margins of our lives, and hence would not seriously affect my claims. More problematic for me is the sort of ‘no need to worry’ position proposed by P. F. Strawson in the seminal paper “Freedom and Resentment” (1981, originally 1962). Strawson thinks that our natural “reactive attitudes” guarantee the status quo; there would thus be no need for illusion. For all the importance of our natural proneness to free-will-assuming reactions, I think that there would be considerable room for worry if people became aware of the absence of libertarian free will, which they may do. I discuss Strawson’s position in detail in Smilansky (2000: ch.9) and Smilansky (2001).  There are many good discussions of P. F. Strawson’s position. 

7. I am very grateful to Iddo Landau, Robert Kane, and Tomis Kapitan, for helpful comments on drafts of this paper.


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