Tom Nagel, Free Will


1.      Free will

         a.      When you chose to act one way rather than another, you were free to have acted differently

         b.      You could have done otherwise

         c.      Determinism must be false (as we have free will)

                   i.       The two are incompatible

2.      Determinism

         a.      Your actions (as with everything else in the universe) is determined by antecedent causes sufficient to bring about the effect and so you are not free to have acted differently

         b.      You could not have done otherwise

         c.      We do not have free will (as determinism is true)

                   i.       The two are incompatible

3.      Compatibilism

         a.      Free will and determinism are compatible

         b.      You can be free and determined at the same time

                   i.       Free will requires a kind of determinism

                   ii.      You are free when certain psychological states determined the action

         c.      Although your action was totally determined, you acted freely because if you had wanted to act differently, you could have

         d.      You could have done otherwise if you had wanted to (though you could not have wanted to do otherwise)


         e.      It was determined in advance that you would choose the cake

         f.       But it is still true that nothing would have prevented you from having a peach if you had chosen it instead of cake (and thus you were free)


4.      Moral responsibility on the three views?

         a.      Which view allows for moral responsibility and of what type?


5.      Free will

         a.      You take a piece of cake rather than a peach

         b.      Before you made up your mind, it was open whether you would take the fruit or cake

         c.      It was only your choice that decided which it would be

         d.      You could have chosen a peach even if everything else had been exactly the same as it was up to that point when you in fact chose the cake

         e.      Nothing would have had to be different for you to have chosen the peach (except your choice)

         f.       It’s an open possibility that you will choose a peach until the moment when your actually choose the cake

         g.      Not determined in advance


         h.      Some things are determined in advance

                   i.       That sun will rise tomorrow at certain hour

                   ii.      Not an open possibility that it won’t

         i.       Your choice of cake, unlike the sun rising tomorrow, was not inevitable or determined in advance


6.      Determinism

         a.      Not possible for us to do anything different from what we actually do

         b.      Of course, what we do depends on our choices, decision, wants etc (unlike what the sun does)

         c.      But circumstances that exist before we act determine our acts; our choices, decisions, and wants determined

         d.      The sum total of person’s experiences, desires, knowledge, heredity, social circumstances and nature of choice facing her, all combine to make a particular action in that circumstance inevitable


         e.      There are laws of nature (like those that govern the movement of the planets) which govern everything that happens in the world, including our actions

         f.       So given the laws of nature and the circumstances before the action, that action was guaranteed to occur (no other possibility)


         g.      Even though you thought you could choose the peach, you could not have: Your process of decision was just the working out in your mind of the determined result


         h.      It was determined before you were born that you would choose the cake

                   i.       Your choice was determined by the situation before you chose and that situation was determined by the situation before it and so on as far back as you care to go.


         i.       Determinism does not claim we know all laws of the universe and can predict what will happen, only that there are such laws.


7.      Determinism and Moral Responsibility

         a.      Determinism (it seems) undermines moral responsibility

         b.      How can you hold yourself or someone else responsible for what you/they did if you/they couldn’t have done otherwise than what they did?

         c.      Praise and blame seem inappropriate if what they did was determined in advance, was inevitable, given the circumstances


         d.      Someone steals all you CDs

                   i.       His nature and the situation determined he’d do it

                   ii.      Everything he does, including his earlier actions that contributed to the formation of his character, was determined in advance by earlier circumstances

                   iii.     Seems strange to hold him responsible for his actions

                   iv.     Better to treat him like some kind of natural disaster that destroyed your CDs

         e.      Makes no more sense to praise or blame him that praise or blame the rain

         f.       It is true that he behaved badly and chose to do so

                   i.       But he was determined to so choose

         g.      Punishing someone in this case is more like trying to influence his behavior (reason we punish a dog for chewing on the rug) than holding him responsible for what he did

         h.      Nagel: “It does not make sense to blame someone for doing what it was impossible for him not to do”


8.      Free Will and Moral Responsibility

         a.      Belief in free will, that people could have done otherwise, would seem to justify holding people morally responsible

         b.      But when we try to understand what it means to have free will, this is not so clear

         c.      If a free act is in-determinism (=has no cause), this also undermines moral responsibility

         d.      If the act wasn’t determined in advance by your beliefs, desires and personality, then it seems that it just happened w/o any explanation

                   i.       So it wasn’t your doing

         e.      If what you did was not determined by anything, if it just happened, then you aren’t responsible for it


         f.       Perhaps free will is the person determining what she would do by doing it

                   i.       But how can we say that I determine my choices if nothing about me determines them?


9.      Compatibilism and Moral Responsibility

         a.      Responsibility for actions requires that our acts be determined (by us), rather than requiring that they not be determined

         b.      If an act is something you have done (and are responsible for) then it has to be produced by certain kinds of causes in you

         c.      You choose the cake, because you wanted the cake more than you wanted the peach

                   i.       Your appetite for cake was stronger that your desire to avoid gaining weight

         d.      So what you did was determined in advance after all (by the strength of your desires/wants)

         e.      If it wasn’t determined in advance, then it was an unexplained event, something that just happened out of the blue rather than something you did


         f.       Causal determination does not threaten freedom (and responsibility) only certain kind of causes do that

                   i.       If you grabbed the cake because someone else pushed you into it, then it would not be a free choice

                   ii.      Free action does not require no determining cause, rather just that the cause was of the “familiar psychological type”–e.g., you wanted to do it

                   iii.     You are free so long as the casual chain of determining events flows through you (in the right sort of way–through your desires and wants)


10.    Nagel rejects compatibilism

         a.      If I thought that everything I did was determined by my circumstances and my psychological condition, I would feel trapped

         b.      I and others would be like puppets

         c.      No more responsible for our actions than an elevator is responsible


Tom Nagel, Free Will

1.         Explain the similarities and differences between the Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism positions. What are each of their views on whether or not a person (1) has free will (2) is determined, and (3) could have done otherwise that what she did?

2.         What position on moral responsibility does each position take? Why might determinism undermine moral responsibility? In what sense can a determinist believe we should punish people? Why does the compatibilist think moral responsibility is not undermined by determinism?

3.         Does compatibilism accept the idea that we are determined? What kind of cause of our action does the compatibilist think is compatible with our free will and what kind not?

4.         Why might someone argue that free will requires determinism, rather than indeterminism?