Notes on Pereboom’s “The Contours of Hard Incompatibilism”


In Living Without Free Will Derk Pereboom advances the view that the kind of free will that we would need in order to underwrite the existence of moral responsibility is impossible in both a deterministic universe and in an indeterministic universe.  Pereboom’s thesis is stronger than the traditional doctrine of Incompatibilism for the latter is thought to obtain only if determinism is true.   Hence Pereboom introduces:

The two theses of Hard Incompatibilism:

i)                    All of our actions lie on a “responsibility-undermining” continuum from alien-deterministic to truly random events


ii)                  An action is free in the sense required for moral responsibility iff it is not an alien-deterministic event, nor a truly random event, nor a partially random event. (pp.127-8 Living Without Free Will, Derek Pereboom)

Pereboom’s reasoning for (i) can be grasped if we take the following to be true:  all phenomena are natural phenomena thus our actions are natural phenomena and natural phenomena are either (a) determined by physical laws and micro-physical states (which combine to create causal forces that are “alien” to us as agents who want to be self-determining) or (b) determined by anomic processes that are equally beyond our agential control.

Similarly, Pereboom’s reasoning for (ii) can be understood if we assume that the following propositions obtain:   (c) there is no way to make sense of the concept of a capacity for moral-responsibility-conferring free will that is subject to either alien-deterministic or truly random events and (d) there is no way to make sense of a concept of moral responsibility outside the context of such a capacity for free will.

Propositions (a) and (b) can be subsumed under the broader heading of ‘Complete Physicalism’ (“complete” because it includes deterministic and indeterministic presuppositions) while propositions (c) and (d) can be recognized as standard, garden variety Incompatibilist assumptions.   Consequently, Hard Incompatibilism can be undermined by refuting Complete Physicalism, as is done by some Libertarians, for instance, by insisting on the existence of a non-physical (e.g. noumenal) “agent-causal power” – a Kantian-inspired view which Pereboom considers and rejects as implausible though not impossible – or by refuting Incompatibilism by demonstrating the plausibility of a view of moral responsibility and/or freedom that is compatible with either deterministic versions of Physicalism or indeterministic versions of Physicalism.


For his own part, Pereboom is concerned with defending a notion of morality that need not refute either thesis of Hard Incompatibilism for he is also concerned with sketching the contours of a moral theory that need not be tethered to a workable notion of moral responsibility in order to be intelligible.   In this respect, Pereboom offers a deflationary theory of morality as a competitor to Haji’s more robust conception of morality that ties the latter to the existence of deontic anchors such as obligatoriness, rightness, and wrongness.   For Pereboom, moral ascriptions such as right and wrong survive even if Hard Incompatibilism obtains and moral responsibility, with its attendant notions of praise- and blameworthiness, is dissolved.   In other words, morality for Pereboom is not anchored to a conception of free will that itself stands or falls with the principle of alternative possibilities as defined by Haji in his K and OW principles:

K:   S has a moral obligation to do A [not do A] iff it is within S’s power to (i.e. S can) do A [not do A]


OW:   S has a moral obligation to do A [not do A] iff it is morally wrong for S not to do A [do A] (ibid. pp. 143)

I will here paste over the details of Pereboom’s reductio ad absurdum argument against Haji – basically, Pereboom thinks we should defer to the least counterintuitive explanation, and that his is less counterintuitive than Haji’s – and say but briefly that the upshot of Pereboom’s refutation renders the following axioms false:

Ought implies can.

Right implies can.

Wrong implies can.

If by ‘can’ we mean something like Haji’s dual-control thesis which stipulates that ‘can’ includes both the ability to do otherwise and the opportunity to do otherwise. (Deontic Morality and Control, Ishtiyaque Haji, p. 27)

For Pereboom, these deontic anchors still might track what we might call “real properties” or real facts even if Hard Incompatibilism is true – (we won’t examine here why Pereboom is more sure about the latter two axioms than the first.  My hunch is that “ought” is deeply connected to an intuition that ‘ought’ implies opportunity whereas ‘right’, for reasons we will see shortly, is coherent even only in the context of ability).  In addition, Pereboom wants to leave open the precise definition of these deontic anchors, reserving judgment on whether or not his theory entails a Consequentialist (a la J.J.C. Smart), Nicomachean (a la Michael Slote) or a Kantian ethics.   To his mind, Hard Incompatibilism – and the consequent non-existence of free will – is compatible with a view of the Right as the maximization of utility, the nurturing of Eudaimonia , or the Categorical Imperative in either of Kant’s formulations.  

We are left with a view of morality that is supposedly coherent without relying on a belief in free will (understood as the freedom to do otherwise).  About his view, Pereboom makes the following interesting observations:

Morality is more like aesthetics than is typically thought and,

The Hard Incompatibilist position implies that human immoral behavior is much more similar to earthquakes and epidemics than it would be if we were morally responsible.  (Pereboom, pp. 154)

The thought is this: The transformation of ethics into a branch of aesthetics would be justified because aesthetics is the only other domain of thought that employs a concept of rightness or goodness in its evaluation and appraisal of objects that does not tie these concepts to freedom but rather to happiness and beauty.  Aesthetics is a fascinating island for morality to find itself shipped wrecked on and Pereboom may be correct to insist that his theory is preferable to Haji’s insofar as it is his view which salvages some ground for our moral intuitions whereas Haji’s leaves them floating at sea.   But before we explore this island in further detail let’s take stock of what we’ve established so far:

Pereboom offers a sharp objection to traditional views that tether morality to freedom and moral responsibility because:  if Hard Incompatibilism is true, no agent can live up to any kind of freedom (understood as a power to be autonomously determined) because he has no originary control over his actions or over his power to act for reasons (even if these actions flow from his faculty of responsiveness to reasons) and thus it is out of his power whether or not he will be able to for example, act according to his rational capacity to distinguish the Good/Right from the Evil/Wrong in any particular scenario that calls for moral judgment.   Just as we do not blame those who are born handicapped for their rational and physical disabilities, we cannot coherently blame agents who are born “morally handicapped”, so to speak.  Thus even if we attenuate the demands of freedom to include a mandate for only those duties which an agent can be said to ‘have the power or capacity’ to dispatch successfully, the formation of such a ‘power’ is subject to the same alien-deterministic causes that everything else in the universe is (given Complete Physicalism).  Thus it is a factor of chance or luck that determines not only what happens to us but also any powers through which we might mitigate or negate those determinations, i.e. what we are.   This holds if we understand ‘chance’ as either stemming from a deterministic causal chain that we did not initiate, or if we understand it as stemming from an indeterministic process of partial or true randomness.   On either definition, ‘chance’ simply means that what we are and what we do are the products of an external power, an external necessity that we do not have a say in creating or negating.

I will say for now that I think Pereboom’s conclusions are sound but only if we do not peek too closely at his first thesis of Hard Incompatibilism, which was, if we recall that:

(i)                  All of our actions lie on a “responsibility-undermining” continuum from alien-deterministic to truly random events

The part of the proposition that seems dubious to me, and worthy of inspection is the concept of ‘alien-determination’.  Alienation, otherness, externality; all of these only make sense in relation to opponent concepts of, for example, selfhood, identity, and internality.  But it seems to me an open question – if we grant Hard Incompatibilism – whether or not we can understand these notions without connecting them to a concept of freedom.   In other words, where , if not over one’s free will, do we draw the line that is to non-dogmatically individuate agents from the rest of the causal (either nomic or anomic) whole of which they are a part?  If we are not truly individuals but are rather pieces of a process stretching back through time to the beginning s of the universe, then it makes no sense to say that we are determined by an alien or external power, since we are part of whatever power exists, unless of course we can show somehow that we are in some non-trivial sense free from it.

But if it is no longer true that we are determined by an alien-causal power, since we are in no causally efficacious and objective way individuated from the entire cosmos then Spinozism seems to win the day, and all we get is nature naturing itself.  But what if, in fact, Hegel is the real victor on this account since he showed that the concepts Spinoza relies on to build up his system only make sense from a transcendental perspective that includes both practical reason (as Kant maintained) but also theoretical reason?  What if, in other words, Hegel shows that the two-standpoints view that allowed Kant to make sense of first personal practical reason applies equally to theoretical reason about ‘objective’ facts?

More on this to follow


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