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DETERMINISM AND MEANINGFULNESS IN LIVES






Trevor John Trifonio Pisciotta























Submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements of

the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

March 2013

Department of Philosophy

The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies

The University of Melbourne

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position, it will be useful to briefly examine Wolf’s critiques of the real-self and autonomy

views of freedom respectively.

Instead of framing her discussion in terms of the compatibility and incompatibility of

determinism with freedom, Wolf presents readers with what she refers to as the ‘dilemma

of autonomy’. We generally take ourselves and creatures (actual or potential) relevantly like

us to be responsible beings. We think that we have certain salient features by virtue of

which we are responsible while, say, a dog is not. Moreover, we think that our ascriptions

of responsibility supervene on certain facts – call them conditions of responsibility – in

virtue of which we are justified in holding individuals responsible in some cases, and not in

others. The problem, Wolf suggests, emerges when we try to specify just what the

conditions of responsibility consist in. When we examine our ascriptions of responsibility,

we realise that the conditions that underpin such ascriptions are very stringent indeed.

When we examine our intuitions regarding various cases, we may be inclined to conclude

that among the other conditions of responsibility is the requirements that an agent’s ‘will

must be determined by her self, and her self must not, in turn, be determined by anything

external to itself’.3 Wolf labels this condition, the ‘requirement of autonomy’.

The problem with the requirement of autonomy, Wolf points out, is that it appears

impossible to meet. When we examine our actions and desires, we realise that though they

may not be the result of such perverse histories as manipulation, implanting and

brainwashing, they are nonetheless products of forces external to ourselves:

My desire for a pastry is clearly the result of the smells wafting from the bakery
as I walk past; my desire for a new sweater can be traced to a magazine
advertisement that caught my eye… Zero-degree weather makes one turn up the
heat; an empty refrigerator makes one go to the store. An upcoming tenure
decision makes an assistant professor write articles for publication; a child’s
illness makes a father leave work early to take his daughter to the doctor.4

‘These observations’ concludes Wolf, ‘suggest a picture of ourselves as creatures whose

desires are the result of some combination of our hereditary and environment… they come

from something external to ourselves’.5 Moreover, Wolf points out that the situation is not

helped by assuming that an agent’s will is not solely determined by forces external to one’s


3 Wolf, Freedom within Reason, p. 10.
4 Ibid., p. 11
5 Ibid., p. 12.

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self. The alternative option appears to be that an agent’s will is, at least in part, a result of

random events, and this hardly makes the will anymore an agent’s own than when it was

the result of external forces.6 The condition of autonomy, therefore, appears ultimately

impossible: ‘The idea of an autonomous agent appears to be the idea of a prime mover

unmoved whose self can endlessly account for itself and for the behaviour that it

intentionally exhibits or allows. But this idea seems incoherent or, at any rate, logically

impossible’.7 The dilemma of autonomy, therefore, lies in the fact that autonomy appears at

once impossible and necessary for responsibility. A solution to this problem will lie in

either showing how autonomy is not, in fact, impossible, or else in showing why autonomy

is not, in fact, required for responsibility.

Real-self accounts of freedom are clearly an attempt to argue that freedom and

responsibility do not require autonomy, as Wolf has defined it. Real-self theorists, such as

Frankfurt and Watson, contend that an agent is relevantly free when their actions issue

from their real self, where their real self is identified with a particular aspect or structure

within their motivational economy. Following Hume, real-self theorists contend that the

difference between unfree and free action is surely not that the one class of actions is

caused while the other is uncaused. Rather, the difference lies in the fact that some actions

are the result of force, constraint, compulsion, etc., while other actions are simply caused

by our beliefs and desires in the ‘right way’. Real-self theorists flesh out this distinction, and

in particular what counts as the ‘right way’ for an action to be caused, in terms of certain

features of agents’ motivational economies. An action is free, according to real-self

theorists, when it issues from an agent’s ‘real-self’, where such a real-self is explained in

terms of either certain structural features of the agents set of desires (Frankfurt’s

hierarchical model) or else a certain privileged subset of those desires (Watson’s evaluative

model). The virtue of real-self theories is that they appear to provide an explanation of the

distinction between cases of free action and cases with more perverse causal histories (e.g.

cases of hypnoses, compulsion etc.). In these later cases, though the behaviour in question

issued, in some sense, from the agent, it did not issue from the agent’s real-self and

therefore is not properly attributable to the agent.8


6 Ibid., p. 13.
7 Ibid., p. 14.
8 For Wolf’s exposition of real-self views see ibid., pp. 26–35. For further discussion of real-self
views see my Chapter 1 § IV, and Chapter 3 § V, VI and VII.

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Williams, Bernard. “Moral Luck.” In Moral Luck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1981.

Wolf, Susan. “Asymmetrical Freedom.” The Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980): 151–66.

———. Freedom within Reason. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

———. “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life.” Social Philosophy and
Policy 14, no. 1 (1997): 207–25.

———. “The Importance of Free Will.” Mind 90 (1981): 386-405.

———. Meaning in Lives and Why It Matters. Princeton, New Jersey: Princton University
Press, 2010.

———. “Meaningful Lives in a Meaningless World.” In Quaestiones Infinitae: publication of
the Department of Philosophy, Utrecht University, 1997.

———. “The Meanings of Lives.” In unpublished manuscript. http://www1.law.nyu.edu/
clppt/program2003/readings/wolf.pdf.

———. “The True, the Good and the Lovable: Frankfurt's Avoidance of Objectivity.” In
The Contours of Agency, edited by Sarah Buss and Lee Overton. Cambridge, Mass:
MIT, 2002.

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Minerva Access is the Institutional Repository of The University of Melbourne





Author/s:

Pisciotta, Trevor John Trifonio



Title:

Determinism and meaningfulness in lives



Date:

2013



Citation:

Pisciotta, T. J. T. (2013). Determinism and meaningfulness in lives. PhD thesis, The School

of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, The

University of Melbourne.



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http://hdl.handle.net/11343/38249



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Determinism and meaningfulness in lives



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