Notes on Kane’s “Responsibility, Luck and Chance”

In “Responsibility, Luck and Chance” Robert Kane offers a penetrating, insightful critique of the Luck Principle (LP) which states that: if an action is undetermined at time t then its happening or not happening at t would be a matter of chance or luck and would therefore not be a free act or one that an agent could be responsible for.

Kane’s insight is that the rhetorical power of LP trades on an ambiguity regarding the source of the indeterminism involved in the execution of the action. Kane argues persuasively that if the agent herself (or more pointedly her own will) is the source of the indeterminism that precipitates her choosing to do A rather than not-A then it follows without a hitch that she acted freely and is responsible for so acting. This is brought out intuitively when we consider such a case of internal indeterminacy against a case wherein the indeterminacy is external to the agent’s will.

Where the indeterminism is internal, Kane asks us to ponder the businesswoman who notices an assault taking place on the street while she is on the way to a career-defining conference on which her professional success depends. She must deliberate, if only for a moment, what to do: to help or not to help the assault victim. Here, Kane speculates that the agent’s feeling of being torn between two conflicting choices expresses a conflict internal to her own will: as she deliberates what to do she is prevented from continuing on to the conference by the ‘noise’ and distortion clouding her judgment from the force of the compulsion she feels to help the victim and vice versa. She wants to help the victim but she cannot ignore her commitment to her career which, bearing its own significant moral and/or non-moral motivational weight, is something she also wants to do. If a brain scientist tells her after the fact that she chose to help the victim due to an indeterministic process in the brain and as such that she did not act freely, Kane insists that the businesswoman should balk at this suggestion since it is precisely an expression of her own character that her choice was indeterministically caused in this way.

Contrast this case with one in which the indeterminacy is external:

The husband means to smash his wife’s favourite glass table but fails to do so due to insufficient momentum in his fist when it impacts the tabletop. Assuming he otherwise has the strength required to break the table, his failure to do what he intends is due to indeterministic processes in the neural pathways controlling the force with which he hammers down his fist. Unlike the businesswoman, he is not in this case, torn between the disjunction: to smash or not to smash.

Nevertheless, Kane maintains that the husband is not off the hook here just because the table did not break. He is still responsible for attempting to smash the table and he still acted freely in doing so.

The essential difference between the two cases is not in the nature of their outcomes; it is not relevant what the consequences of either the businesswoman’s or the husband’s actions turn out to be. What is relevant is the fact that it is only in the businesswoman’s case that her action is a “self-forming action” or SFA (Kane, p. 230) while the husband’s is not. In an SFA, an agent’s failing to do A is not the result of accident or a lack of volition or mistake but rather a direct result of her succeeding in doing not-A. In an SFA, an agent expresses herself, not in spite of being internally torn, but precisely in virtue of this self-conflict.

Though the final decision may be caused by an indeterministic process akin to the rolling of the dice, the fact that the faces on the dice are a function of the agent’s own character makes the final decision itself a function of that same character. The freedom is represented in the fact that it was these dice that were rolled rather than some other. Thus, the businesswoman is free whether she helps the victim or hurries on to the meeting.

Both choices express her character which is itself a function of her previous SFAs.

The version of the Luck Principle (LP*) that would be corrosive to SFA-relative free will would have to stipulate that the indeterminism that causes, for example, the businesswoman to help the victim rather than to continue on her way to the conference has nothing (or next to nothing) to do with her reasoning at the same time in favour of going to the conference. That is, those who argue that chance and freedom cannot live in the same world must show that the faces on the ‘dice of action’ are largely shaped at random and do not reflect to any relevant degree the agent’s past choices, convictions, beliefs etc. But LP* cannot show this and neither does our best empirical science.

However, I would like to comment briefly on the above conclusion:

What if we devise a version of the Luck Principle, call it LP**, that stipulates:

if an agent’s original SFA is caused by a process that is more or less indeterministic (or beyond the agent’s proximal control) and as such is the result of luck or chance it follows that it cannot be a grounding source of free will.
Does this spell trouble for all of Kane’s work?

I think the answer has to be a cryptic “yes and no”.

“No”, because we’ve been working with an implicit definition of ‘freedom’ that views any act as free insofar as it stems from and expresses one’s past SFAs (in the husband’s case) or is itself a ‘live’ SFA (as in the businesswoman’s case) and something like an original SFA would seem to satisfy these criteria. A child, Jack, may decide to do his homework to please his mother instead of playing outside and either of these options would be free choices on Jack’s part even though it might be the case that he has these desires – to please his mother and to play – simply in virtue of being a socialized human being and not the result of any past deliberations of self-formation. That is to say, he need not have chosen these desires in order for them to be his own.
But it seems to me that LP** (the view that our choices are at bottom the result of luck and thus jeopardize our capacity for freedom and responsibility) might require an affirmative answer when an agent is born or thrown into the world with a nature or character – i.e. ‘faces of the dice’ – that expresses an inclination towards what we would want to call immorality or ‘evil’. Jack’s twin brother, Zack, may, it is conceivable, find himself torn between two different desires, neither of which developed out of previous SFAs. He may find himself, like his brother, deliberating about whether to do his homework or to play outside but may find that he chooses the latter because he takes pleasure in the knowledge that, by playing outside, he is causing his mother anguish. Zack’s counterfactual counterpart might instead decide, all things considered, that he should go inside and do his homework with Jack, but not because he wants to please his mother, but because he is afraid of punishment. We need not assume that Zack is a victim of abuse nor of poor parenthood to make sense of his reasoning. The child simply rolls the dice of action and expresses his own character in doing so and it seems he is responsible for his wickedness in the first instance and cowardice in the second even though it is not grounded in any previously decided SFA.

All this is to say the following: unless we are willing to live with an infinite regress of SFA’s built upon previous SFAs – which, given our human finitude, beggars comprehension – it seems we must bite the bullet and ground the chain of freedom in a ‘raw’ or original nature that an agent is responsible for but did not form self-consciously. Because the ingredients that go into the original SFA are an expression of contingent circumstances (e.g. genes, environment, blind chance) it would appear that Jack’s good will is clearly the result of good luck while Zack’s wickedness is clearly the result of bad luck. Even if we exonerate Zack in this case (given his young age) and instead hold his mother and his society culpable in forming his character, we cannot regress forever. At some point in human prehistory, when the first self-forming action was performed, it seems a matter of luck that a Jack resulted instead of a Zack. That nature itself produces circumstances congenial to the development of goodwilled persons may be an example – the example – of Kantian beauty. But this is a thought for another day.

One more thing I think is worth mentioning about Kane’s paper is that his account of free action is sophisticated enough to survive in both and indeterministic and deterministic universe.
This, in my opinion, is a sign of a moral philosopher who is on the right track…


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