Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2004
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A

Introduction to Philosophy

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

A Letter in Philosophy

Drawing on the reading and your own sound reasoning and good judgment, write a letter in which you make an argument for or against the following claims and/or conclusions about the choice (your choice) of pizza in what follows.

Please feel free to address the letter to anyone, a close relative, a friend, another philosopher, a mother, father sister or brother. So, too, please feel free to think of the letter as one that you need not send. In other words do not shade your opinions for someone else's sake.

Explain to whomever the letter is addressed why you believe what you do, why you think the way you do. Propose a possible objection or set of objections to your line of thought and explain how you would address that objection or set of objections. In writing about your choice of pizza, make it plain to the person to whom you are writing your letter which of the following three positions you find most appealing:

  • Hard -Determinism: Determinism is true, so we do not have free will
  • Libertarianism:We do have free will, so determinism is false
  • Compatibalism:Determinism and free will can be reconciled one with the other without contradiction, i.e., determinism and free will are compatible.
  • In making your case identify at least one of the readings from the Feinberg and Shafer-Landau Text that to your mind stands in opposition to your thesis and say, in your own words, how you think the author would criticize the claims and/or position that you take and offer your own best response.

    The letter will be graded pass/fail or credit/no credit, although it will be possible to receive a "high pass" and/or "credit plus." In order to receive a "high pass" or "credit plus" which could improve any one of your graded papers in the course by a third of a grade (thus, for examples, a "B-" would become a "B," a "B+" would become an "A-"; an "A-," an "A,"), give an overview. i.e., a cohesive summary of the main arguments and considerations put forward in two of the following three articles from the reading:

    (1) Robert Kane's "FreeWill: Ancient Dispute, New Themes," pp. 426-38
    (2)Thomas Nagel's "Moral Luck," pp. 449-57
    (3) Susan Wolf's "Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility," pp. 457-67

    Say briefly how you believe their reflections on free will and moral responsibility bolster and/or complicate your own view.

    The letter should total about four to five (4-5) pages if only for credit and about seven to eight (7-8) pages in length, if you elect to "shoot for" a "High Pass" or "Extra Credit." In either case you may write a longer letter without penalty, if you wish. Papers are due on Tuesday, November 9th, in class.

    Good luck!


    In RICHARD III Shakespeare has Richard declare at a crucial point in the play:

    RICHARD: "I am determined to prove a villain."

    His line has a marvelous ambiguity. It could mean that Richard was (in some sense) born to be a villain, that his being a villain is (as it were) written in the stars, that he ("poor Richard") has no control over his villainy, a trait which is determined (and/or caused) by forces outside and beyond his ("poor Richard's") control. On the other hand, it could mean that he is (as it were) dead set on becoming a villain, that he himself is determined to be villainous, and his villainy is a product, not so much of outside forces, but of an inner resolve, that he ("not-so-poor Richard") is all business and his villainy is his own doing, something for which he would like to take credit and for which he ought to be otherwise praised and/or blamed.

    The Question is: Does Richard or anyone for that matter have a choice in a situation such as this? Are we able to (as it were) determine our own actions, to be (as it were) self-determining? And what does this mean as opposed to our actions being determined in advance by forces outside and/or beyond our own determination? Take an example, closer to home and much more mundane. Forget for the moment the grand resolve of someone like Richard and the inflated concerns of his high-minded rhetoric:

    Suppose you're in USDAN going in the cafeteria section. You hesitate between having a low-fat yogurt and one or two slices of pizza. The pizza looks good ("puffy, hot") but you know it's chubby-making. You decide to have pizza and forget yogurt but after plowing through your pizza (you eat it with a gusto reminiscent of the heady days of Richard the Third), you have a slight twinge of regret. The next day you look in the mirror, get on the scale you have in your room from Target and you say to yourself "I wish I hadn't eaten that pizza. I could have had yogurt instead."

    "I could have had the yogurt instead."

    What does this mean, and is it even true?

    Well, yogurt was available when you were going through the cafeteria line: you had the opportunity ("Don't we live, in fact, in a land of opportunity"?) to buy the yogurt. But this (surely) is not all that you mean. You mean you could have taken yogurt instead of those enormous (blankety-blank) slices of pizza. You did not just have an opportunity. You could have done something other than what you actually did. Before you made up you mind and resolved to have pizza, it was still open to you to buy the yogurt.

    This still doesn't seem to be quite enough. When you say to yourself "I could have had yogurt instead," you don't mean only that if you had chosen yogurt, you would have had yugurt, you also mean you could have chosen yogurt - no "ifs" about it. That's why you're so angry with yourself now; and why you blame yourself for having taken and eaten those darn (blankety-blank) "enormous" slices of pizza. What you are saying to yourself is not, for instance, if only Frieda had been there: she eats like a sparrow and she would never eat pizza at any time of the day, and if she had been there, you would have chosen yogurt. What you are saying is that you could have chosen yogurt instead of pizza, just then, as things actually were.

    This is an idea of "can" or "could" which we attribute to most people (and perhaps some animals). When you say "My car can climb to the top of Mt. Washington," you mean, I presume, that your car has enough power to reach the top of Mt. Washington without conking out on the way up. You don't mean that, on occasion, your car just takes off for the top of mountains rather than sitting in the driveway. Something else has to happen first. You have to get into your car and start the engine, etc., etc.. But when it comes to people, we seem to believe that they can do various things that they actually don't do or haven't done, just like that, without anything else happening differently first. What does this mean?

    Part of what it means may be something like the following: Nothing up to the point at which you choose (remember the yogurt and the pizza) determines irrevocably what your choice will be. It remains a real, live possibility that you will choose yogurt right up to the moment when you choose the pizza. Your choice of pizza wasn't determined in advance. There were no processes or forces at work before you made up your mind to have pizza that made it inevitable that you would choose pizza. If it was really determined in advance that you would choose pizza, it could not be true that you could have chosen yogurt instead. Why you are so upset with yourself, so angry, why you now blame yourself for having taken pizza instead of yogurt is because you (you yourself) closed off the possibility of having yogurt when you chose the slices of pizza. You did it!

    Now some people (they shall remain nameless) believe that it is never possible for us to do anything other than what we in fact do. The sum total of a person's experiences, desires and knowledge, his or her genetic make-up, the social circumstances and the nature of the choice facing the person, together with other factors that we may not be able - right off the bat - to identify, all add up to make a given action in a given set of circumstances inevitable. Given your constitution and history and psychological profile at that very moment, you had to choose pizza. There are laws of nature (we may not know all of them just yet) which govern everything that happens in the world, which govern our actions and choices as well as the planets and the temperature at which water comes to a boil, that combine with a set of circumstances and conditions that determine whether a given action will occur or a particular action will be taken, no "ifs," "ands" or "ors" about it, and these circumstances and conditions in keeping with the laws of nature rule out any other possibility.

    Now if this were true, then even while you were making up your mind whether to choose low-fat yogurt or pizza, it was being determined by the factors at work that you would choose pizza. You could not have chosen yogurt at that moment in that place. And since you could not, you should stop blaming yourself for having acted as you did.

    Now some scientists believe that for certain very tiny particles such as photons it is not determined in advance where one or another of these very tiny particles will be. What if, human actions, at least some of them, are not determined in advance? Just as it is (as it were) an open possibility where a a given photon might be at any given moment, it is an open possibility what you will or will not choose. But is this enough to make sense of and to leave room for free will? Is this all you mean when you say "I could have chosen yogurt instead?" No, you believe something more. You believe you determined what you would do, by doing it. It wasn't determined in advance, but it didn't just happen either. You determined it. But if it wasn't determined in advance by your desires, and beliefs and personality, among other things, it seems to be something that just happened without any explanation. And this is odd, very odd. Things don't just happen. How can you (or Richard the Third, for that matter) determine what you do, if nothing determines it?

    One way out of this apparent puzzle is to argue that antecedent causal determination does not threaten freedom of choice - only a certain kind of cause does that. Indeed one might claim that for an action to be your doing, it has to be produced by certain kinds of causes in you. So when you chose pizza instead of yogurt, what you did, did not just happen; you wanted pizza more than you wanted yogurt. Your appetite for pizza was greater than your appetite for yogurt and stronger than your desire - at that moment - to avoid foods that are chubby-making. In other cases the psychological explanation for your choice will be more complex, but there will always be one - otherwise that action wouldn't be yours. For an action to be your doing doesn't require that there be no antecedent determining cause at all: it just means that the cause has to be of the right, familiar psychological sort.

    But this does not seem to get us anywhere. If you think that your choice of the pizza was determined by your circumstances and your psychological condition, you would feel trapped. And if you thought the same of everyone else, albeit they would be acting under different circumstances and different psychological conditions, you would view them as puppets. People aren't puppets. And if they were, it wouldn't make sense to hold them responsible for their actions any more than it makes sense to hold your car responsible for refusing to start in the morning.

    On the other hand, it makes little sense to hold a person responsible for anything that he or she does unless we believe the person determined his or her action. What does it mean to say that you determine your actions, if nothing about you determines the action? Perhaps to say that you could have had yogurt instead is a philosophical illusion. The Question then becomes: "What would you and the world have to be like for it to be true that you could have had yogurt instead of pizza?"

            - adapted from Thomas Nagel's What Does It All Mean?









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