Compatibilism, Capacities and Mechanisms

The interwebs failed today. Miserably. On four separate occasions, from four different email accounts, hosted by different institutions, I tried to send the abstract shown below (originally entitled Compatibilism with mechanisms sans capacities) to @ranilillanjum for her awesome conference “The Metaphysics of Free Will”, but the interwebs just ate my emails before she could read them, leaving not a trace!

So, in retribution, here it is again, this time on my blog. Take that interwebs! Now who’s laughing, huh?!

Compatibilism, Capacities and Mechanisms
Dr Nicole Vincent, Philosophy Departments at Macquarie University (AU) and TU Delft (NL)

John Fischer and Mark Ravizza’s compatibilist theory predicates responsibility not on metaphysial freedom but on mental capacities which (roughly-speaking) they embody in so-called “moderately reasons-responsive mechanisms”. On their account, we are responsible for those actions that issue from our own moderately reasons-responsive mechanisms, or when we are responsible for the fact that those mechanisms are not moderately reasons-responsive.

However, for the same reason why incompatibilists are unlikely to buy the idea that responsibility hinges on mental capacities – namely, because the only sense in which a deterministic universe seems to accommodate capacities is the “unfolding” sense in which the future is yet to unfold – so too they are unlikely to buy the idea that mechanisms can be moderately reasons-responsive. After all, in a deterministic setting in any given situation a given mechanism either will or will not recognize and respond to sufficient reasons that were present, and this leaves little room for moderateness.

On my account, the core problem with Fischer and Ravizza’s story is their synchronic analysis of “moderateness” in terms of what happens – in this case, to reasons-responsive mechanisms – in this time slice in other possible worlds. This analysis is problematic in my view because it makes it sound as if in addition to certain kinds of mechanisms, at the time of acting responsible agents also need something like a power to choose whether to engage those mechanisms, and that when someone is blamed it is precisely because they failed to engage those mechanisms when they could have engaged them at that very moment in time.

In a deterministic universe a given mechanism does whatever it does, and in my view it is highly counter-productive and confusing to talk about what capacities, powers, abilities, potentialities (or whatever else) a given mechanism has or had. Such talk just re-introduces the very same kind of modal language which compatibilists who are serious about tackling the threat of determinism head-on should avoid. I am guilty of peddling such confusion in my own previous work, and to make amends in this paper I propose an alternative account of what it means for a mechanism to be moderately reasons responsive, or, if we must use modal language, for it to have a given capacity. In a nut shell, while Fischer and Ravizza test for moderate reasons responsiveness by checking how a mechanism behaves in a given time slice across a range of possible worlds, on my account we should ask how that mechanism behaves in this world over a span of time — specifically, whether it responds to reasons on a sufficient number of occasions, where what qualifies as sufficient is a thoroughly normative issue. My diachronic account of moderateness in regards to reasons responsiveness – or, employing yet again the shunned terminology, my account of capacity – is intended as a drop-in replacement for Fischer and Ravizza’s synchronic account.

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