The Underdetermination Argument for Freedom of the Will

I’ve been thinking lately about why it’s wrong to kill people–not because I’m tired of the constraint, but out of mere theoretical interest.  One of the views I’ve encountered in the literature holds that it’s wrong to kill people because they possess a special kind of dignity.  Patrick Lee and Robert George defend this view in a recent article (Ratio Juris, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2008, 173-193).  According to Lee and George, the special dignity we possess derives partly from our capacity for freedom of the will, a capacity which Lee and George presume to establish in the following paragraph:

…[S]uppose a student chooses to go to law school rather than to medical school.  When he deliberates, both options have a distinctive sort of goodness or attractiveness.  Each offers some benefit the other one does not offer.  So, since each alternative has some intelligible value in it (some goodness that is understood), then each alternative can be willed.  And, second, while each is good, to a certain extent, neither alternative (at least in many situations) is good, or better, in every respect.  Here the role of conceptual thought, or intellect, becomes clear.  The person deliberating is able to see, that is, to understand, that each alternative is good, but that none is best absolutely speaking, that is, according to every consideration, or in every respect.  And so, neither the content of the option nor the strength of one or another desire, determines the choice.  Hence there are acts of will in which one directs one’s will toward this or that option without one’s choosing being determined by antecedent events or causes.  Human persons, then, are fundamentally distinct from other animals in that they have a nature entailing the potentialities for conceptual thought and free choice (187).

This is a strange argument.  Given two options, X and Y, it does not follow from the fact that since X is not better than Y in every respect, X is not the best option “absolutely speaking.”  X may be better than Y is most respects, or in all the respects that matter, or in more of the respects that matter most, etc.  In short, X may be all-things-considered the best option, even if in some respects Y would be a better option than X.  This won’t support the conclusion about free choice, however, for here one could appeal, in a deterministic explanation of our behavior, to our standing desire to act in accordance with our all-things-considered practical judgments.  So Lee and George must mean to be imagining a case where there is no all-things-considered best option, but rather equally good options among which one is choosing (where options are not ‘equally good’ just because neither is better in all respects than the other, but rather because none of the options seem to the deliberator to be all-things-considered best).  I’ll call this the Underdetermination Argument for Freedom of the Will, since it infers our capacity for freedom of the will or ‘free choice’ from the fact that some acts of will are underdetermined by the options we choose from.  In such cases free choice is supposed to be like a necessary explanatory hypothesis–what we must appeal to in order to explain why David chose to go to law school rather than medical school, assuming this is in fact a choice among options David judges equally good.

Is the Underdetermination Argument at all persuasive?  One obvious problem is that it seems to delimit the sphere of genuinely free action to these rather unusual scenarios in which we must choose between options we judge equally good.  What about all those other practical contexts in which we choose the option we judge best–are these choices unfree, on this view, or just less conspicuously free?

Leaving that question aside, however, what should we make of the claim that since David judges law school and medical school to be equally good options, his choice to attend one or the other cannot have been determined by “antecedent events or causes”?  Let the refutation proceed.

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3 Responses to The Underdetermination Argument for Freedom of the Will

  1. Nate says:

    I agree that it’s a very strange argument. Perhaps they mean that the choices are not equally good, but, rather, incommensurable. That is, if the different kinds of goodness can’t be directly measured against each other, then one must simply choose one or the other.

    I like this way of reading the argument a little better, in that it might explain why they emphasize the role of intellect. Presumably it takes some conceptual sophistication to recognize incommensurability. By contrast, even Buridan’s ass could see that the two piles of hay were equally desirable, and, as we all know, he didn’t attain his freedom as a result.

  2. David says:

    The incommensurabilty reading does seem better, Nate. But you don’t say anything about what you think of the argument on that reading.

  3. Nate says:

    It’s really just a guess on my part, as the paragraph is very confusing. It’s hard to believe they would have found this convincing on its own.

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