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Soft determinism

Hospers and Taylor agree that soft determinism is not a good theory: if our inner states
cause our actions, and our inner states are caused by things external to us, then our
actions are ultimately caused by things external to us…so, they can’t be free.

Holmstrom tries to answer this objection to soft determinism.

One possibility: we could distinguish between a “free action” and “free will” and say that
an action caused by our inner states is free, but the will that lead to that action is not. But
Holmstrom says that this won’t work because if the will is not free, then the act can’t be
free, either.

[A] Soft determinism and control

Homstrom: most soft determinists think of freedom in terms of what is required for the
agent to be the source of his/her actions
Instead, what we need to ask is what is required for the agent to have control over the
source of his/her actions, i.e. over his/her beliefs and desires. This means that:
1) the agent is part of the causal process
2) control can occur to a greater or less extent, which also means that:
3) there is a continuum between free and unfree

“What I want to argue in this paper is that people can have differing amounts of control
over what they desire and what they believe.” “The key question, then, is whether this
idea of having control over one’s beliefs and desires makes any sense and whether we do
in fact have such control” (p. 324).

[B] Beliefs, desires and freedom

Some actions can be caused by our beliefs and desires but still not be free (e.g. a heroin
addict stealing money to buy heroin)
-in this case, there is a conflict among the addict’s beliefs and desires
-second-order volitions (Frankfurt)

But consistency with second-order volitions is not enough for an action to be free (e.g.
brainwashing) – so, where our second-order volitions come from is important.
-coercion
-ignorance

In some cases, beliefs and desires that were deliberately instilled in us by others can still
be freely held (Bach example)
-exposure vs. conditioning
-consciousness of motives and causes also matters: “People are less free to the
extent that they operate on unconscious motives” (p. 329)
-but conditioning doesn’t necessarily result in beliefs that are not freely
held: “It is where knowledge about the causes [of our beliefs or desires]
would have made a difference that ignorance makes the causes coercive”
(p. 329).

[C] Freedom and the self

“What we have come up with is what we started with – and that is, to the extent that the
causes of one’s actions are themselves caused by things over which people have no
control (even with knowledge of them), to that extent that one’s actions are unfree. What
I have tried to do is to make sense of the idea of having control over one’s desires. In
order to say that one has control over one’s desires it is necessary that what we identify as
the self determines what one desires and what desires one acts on” (p. 330).

Taylor: the agent/self causes actions


Holmstrom: the agent/self chooses beliefs/desires to act on. Because of this, for
Holmstrom, a person “is most free when there is an integrated set [of beliefs and desires]
which is in accordance with his/her second order volitions. Then we can say that this is a
self-determining person” (p. 330).

But what is the self? “Dimensionless point” vs. “narrative self”

[D] Objections to Holmstrom’s views

1) In order to have control over our beliefs and desires, we need to have control over their
causes, as well. (Hospers)
2) Holmstrom’s argument can easily lead to an infinite regress of beliefs/desires.

Replies:
1) All we need is to have (a) control over our beliefs and desires (which we can have
because we have second order volitions) and (b) control over our second order volitions
2) An infinite regress of beliefs and desires is possible in theory, but in practice all we
really need is a strong enough second order volition/

[E] Freedom and society

How free someone is depends in part on the society they live in [and also on how they
were raised]
Greater knowledge  greater control. But there may well be limits to control, so there’s
no “absolute” freedom.
Study Questions

1. Why does Holmstrom say that it makes no sense to say that our actions are free but
our will is not?
2. Explain what Holmstrom shows about free will with her example of the heroin addict
who steals money to buy drugs.
3. What is a second order volition?
4. Explain the difference between exposure and conditioning and how this difference is
relevant to free will.
5. When can a belief or desire that arises through conditioning still be free?
6. Explain the difference between the kind of freedom had by Taylor’s “agent/self” and
by Holmstrom’s “self.”
7. Explain the difference between (a) the self as a dimensionless point and (b) the
narrative self.
8. What would Hospers say in objection to Holmstrom’s view? How does Holmstrom
reply to this objection?