So, you seem to have stumbled upon my blog…
by Henry McQuale
…well, I might as well tell you a bit about it and about myself.
My name is Henry, I am a philosophy student and plan on writing about it (about philosophy, not about me being a philosophy student, which would be far less interesting). That doesn’t tell you much, I know, and it hardly justifies my usage of this blog space –why another mediocre philosophy blog?
My excuse -my excuse for using this blog space, not for being a mediocre philosopher- is that what I plan on writing about is a topic that needs to be brought to the attention of as many people as possible, philosophers or not. Why? Well, because it is not one of those philosophical topics that are so abstract and removed from the concrete world of persons and the things they value the most that no one could simply ignore it as the mere idle, pretentious, pseudo intellectual, quasi-masturbatory mind games of ivory tower-dwelling armchair-metaphysicians.
In fact, I think that if you care about justice and fairness, about responsibility and compassion, then you ought to be interested in what I plan on writing about. Some would even say it is your duty, philosopher or not, to know at least a bit about this.
I wouldn’t say that it is your “duty” to know about this… and now that I think about it, I shouldn’t have said that you “ought” to be anything… and now that I think about it, I shouldn’t have said that I “shouldn’t” have said anything…
Please bear with me, this will all make sense in a bit.
What I plan on writing (blogging? I hate the verb, so excuse my refusal to use it) about is the philosophy of action, and more precisely, about the old problem of free-will and its implications in ethics and particularly regarding our notion of moral responsibility. As you might know, some people think that our conception of the universe, about causality and about natural law -that is, our conception of the world as deterministic- is in conflict with our view of ourselves as radically (contra-causally) free and ultimately responsible agents, and thus deem the ordinary notion of free-will as problematic. I am one of those persons, and if you know enough about how the world works, you probably are one too.
Now, some philosophers never recognized the problem and we can ignore them. Some did see the problem but thought that the problem of free will could be solved by saving contra-causal free-will and ultimate moral responsibility by denying determinism. We call them libertarians. Others thought that we could solve the problem by thinking about free-will and ultimate moral responsibility as something that are not in conflict with physical determinism (not contra-causally), and some in fact claimed (and claim) that they actually require physical determinism to be true. We call them soft determinists or, more recently, compatibilists. Others, finally, think that the problem cannot be solved and that free-will and ultimate moral responsibility are not possible in a deterministic universe, that physical determinism is true, and that therefore they are an illusion at best. We call them hard determinists and I am one of them.
Well, I am actually what is now known as a hard incompatibilist, but I don’t want to drown anyone in jargon so early… I’ll have plenty of time for that later. For now it will suffice if I tell you that all the doctrines I wrote about in the paragraph above are quite crude simplifications and that each of them can be further divided and refined. Even the one that right now seems to you to be the silliest of the three (I leave that to you, of course) has been defended in different and increasingly plausible incarnations with great philosophical skill and considerable sophistication.
That being said, I can answer my (and maybe yours) initial question: Why is it important for me to write about this and why is it important for you to read this? Well, it is important because whatever our solution to the problem of free-will is, the implications regarding our conceptions about moral responsibility justice, punishment, praise, ethics, the meaning of our lives and actions are enormous. If we solve it by saving free-will -either libertarianistically or compatibillistically- we can save and justify the widely shared idea that persons are morally responsible for their actions and thus deserving of our blame or praise, depending on whether their actions were morally good or bad. But if we show that free-will is impossible, the consequences would be drastic and profound: it would be never correct to say that anyone is ever morally responsible for their actions, and it would never be fair or just to blame, punish or praise anyone for anything they do. And if indeed “ought” and “should” implies “can”, and since hard determinism denies that anyone could have done otherwise in the sense required, no one would ever be theoretically justified to demand anything in those terms, and that means our ethical intuitions and systems would have to be substantially revised, if not abandoned…
I don’t pretend to convince you right now that hard determinism is the right response to the problem of free-will. Right now I just want to convince you about the deep importance of the problem, about how great of a difference it can make in our lives, the lives of the people we love, the people we hate, and for many of the things we care about the most in the world.
We might be like leaves in the wind, carried by it whenever it wants to wherever it wants to take us even if we are so sure we want to go there and that we are the ones freely willing ourselves there. This might not sound very plausible to you right now -and I understand that-, but you cannot deny that it is possible and intelligible, and the consequences of it being true are enough justification for anyone to think about it, write about it, and care about it.
So welcome to my blog. I hope you are not made too uncomfortable by the ideas I want to share with you, but if you feel like leaving, it is fine.
I won’t blame you… and if I am correct, no one would ever be justified to blame you.