Home > Determinism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind > “Determinism al dente” Review Part I: Intuition-Based Theorizing

“Determinism al dente” Review Part I: Intuition-Based Theorizing

Published in 1995, Derk Pereboom’s article “Determinism al Dente” has had a great impact on my view of determinism and moral responsibility. In it, Pereboom affirms the truth of determinism, a lack of moral responsibility, and the inapplicability of praise or blame judgments to human action. What he does support is the view that what is traditionally called ‘hard’ determinism can be modified to coherently include moral principles and values that remain undamaged despite a lack of metaphysical moral responsibility. Because this article was so crucial in shaping not only my understanding of contemporary theories in philosophy of mind, as well as assisting me in considering and adopting a determinist world view, I thought it appropriate to give a brief summary and my reflection on what I consider to be an important piece of the current dialogue surrounding discussions of freedom of the will.

Perhaps the most salient feature of Pereboom’s article is that he draws attention to the rather vague and simple dichotomy that exists in philosophy of mind literature between hard and soft determinist viewpoints, a lack of distinction that hides a wealth of diversity in theory of mind. Pereboom highlights three incompatibilist theories in particular: traditional Humean conceptions of freedom of action, i.e. uncoerced action that stems from the genuine desires of the agent, Frankfurtian freedom of the will based on second-order desires becoming effective, and the ‘ability to will’ elucidated by Bernard Gert, Timothy Duggan, and John Fischer,  that argues deliberation and a rational thought process ought to do the heavy lifting in terms of defining how free human action can be. Pereboom then poses a simple thought experiment regarding a murder that is freely committed in all three senses and asks if this is truly compatible with determinism:

Let us consider a situation involving an action that is free in all of the three senses we have just discussed. Mr. Green kills Ms. Peacock for the sake of some personal advantage. His act of murder is caused by desires that are genuinely his, and his desire to kill Ms. Peacock conforms to his second-order desires. Mr. Green’s desires are modified, and some of them arise, by his rational consideration of the relevant reasons, and his process of deliberation is reasons-responsive…Given that determinism is true, is it plausible that Mr. Green is responsible for his actions?

Pereboom’s reply to this question invokes the distinction between proximal and distal causes, though he does not use these terms himself. In Frankfurtian and Fischerian senses of compatibilism Mr. Green would have acted freely because the proximal cause of his actions was either his second-order desires becoming effective or the deliberative process, respectively.  However, the distal cause ultimately lies outside of the control of the agent, as the causes of the desires or the deliberation process extend into the past prior to the existence of the agent, even. In this sense, incompatibilism states that a person cannot be held morally responsible or free if the ultimate cause of her actions lies outside of her control. Contrary to this, compatibilists argue that, because the first and second order desires and deliberative process were all consistent with, and stem from, the agent’s biology, then it matters little whether the causal chain extends past the agent’s control.

To demonstrate the falsity of such claims, Pereboom constructs a parallel thought experiment wherein neuroscientists fulfill all of the criteria required for compatibilists to say Mr. Green has acted freely and yet our intuition is that, because the neuroscientists have affected Mr. Green in the ways they have, he cannot be considered morally responsible for his actions. Elsewhere Fischer argues that reasons-responsiveness cannot be constructed by neuroscientists, but Pereboom rightly points out that in a physicalist worldview it must necessarily be possible to induce such behavior or results. Pereboom unfurls a thorough, if not tedious, list of four rejoinders and counter-replies which essentially demonstrate the invalidity of positing moral responsibility in a deterministic worldview. An interesting point Pereboom makes, and one to which I shall return to in my reflection at the end of this summary, is the invalidity of common sense intuitions surrounding moral responsibility and freedom of the will. In order to fully represent it, the following is Pereboom’s thought experiment (case #4):

Case 4: Physicalist determinism is true. Mr. Green is a rationally egoistic but (otherwise) ordinary human being, raised in normal circumstances. Mr. Green’s killing of Ms. Peacock comes about as a result of his undertaking the reasons-responsive process of deliberation, and he has the specified organization of first and second-order desires.

As Pereboom points out, many soft determinists intuitively believe Mr. Green to be morally responsible in this example for the reasons stated above (he possesses first and second-order desires pertaining to and effective for his action, which are rooted in a rational, reason-responsive process of deliberation, thereby fulfilling the required components of some compatibilist theories). Following traditional physicalist and reductionist lines, because the distal cause of Mr. Green’s behavior lies outside of his control, we must concede that he is not morally responsible. Pereboom does this by claiming the transitivity of replacing agent causation with event causation. As a side note, I do not believe this is necessarily a straight trade, as there is definitely a much more rich ontology to be had from holding that, though still determined, the agent causation is not reducible necessarily to event causation. Be that as it may, the ultimate conclusion ought to be that distal causes, no matter their nature, render agents incapable of being held morally responsible (assuming a PAP model of moral responsibility. See here for a discussion on this model).

Pereboom then argues that the intuitions soft determinists employ to argue Mr. Green is morally responsible in case #4 are mistaken because those alleging such intuitions have not internalized the implications of a deterministic worldview: “In making moral judgments in everyday life, we do not assume that agents’ choices and actions result from deterministic causal processes that trace back to factors beyond their control. Our ordinary intuitions do not presuppose that determinism is true, and they may even presuppose that it is false…If we did assume determinism and internalize its implications, our intuitions might well be different.” Now, this point gave me great pause while reading Pereboom’s piece, since intuitions often form the backbone of our evaluation of thought experiments in all fields, not just philosophy of mind. A few reflections on this point:


(1) Upholding the faultiness of these moral intuitions commits us to re-evaluating the use of moral intuitions in all manner of philosophical inquiry. Take Foot’s famed Trolley Problem – do we presume the intuitions most have regarding the appropriate action to be faulty because of presumed agency and ability to do otherwise? What about thought experiments surrounding the classification of a painting as art or not-art based on whether it has ever been viewed? Or whether it was intentionally created? While accepting Pereboom’s stance on this point might not upend the whole of intuition-based responses, it certainly would seem to create more problems than it solves.


(2) This move is especially helpful in evaluating arguments for agency, like Richard Taylor’s, which rely upon intuitive, ‘common sense’ pieces of datum which are, if Pereboom is right, rooted heavily in the position they are intending to verify, making such an argument circular. While this is beneficial to determinists of many flavors, arguments of Taylor’s style are few and far between now and appear to be in their twilight, if any exist at all who still adhere to such theories of agency.


Off the top of my head there appear to be two alternate possibilities to (1) that can be considered, though I am sure there are many more than just the two. The differences are partially related to the controversy surrounding intuitive responses as having either true content (3.a) or apparent content (3.b).


(3.a) Pereboom is clearly correct, though I believe he paints a picture in too broad of strokes. I say this because, unless we are prepared to commit ourselves to the problems outlined in (1), we must draw a distinction between feeling or emotion-based intuitions and reasoned intuitions. In case #4, we are told that determinism is true. We begin from a position wherein we must factor in determinative laws, causal transitivity, etc.  This is a reason-based intuition because it requires the application of premises which may or may not run counter to reality or counter to the nature of reality. For example, if we are asked to assume the perspective of another gender, another race, etc. or to presume the existence of non-real entities, e.g. “So, if unicorns were real, would it be unethical to raise and slaughter unicorn foals for delicious unicorn veal?” All of these premises require that the responder do more than simply reply based on an emotional response, and more so than in a thought experiment that is more in accordance with reality. I do, however, understand that thought experiments are by nature artificial and often require many caveats that are odd, if not unrealistic.


(3.b) The soft determinists who intuitively respond to case #4 that Mr. Green is morally responsible given the conditions either fail to appropriately apply the premise that physicalist determinism is true, or misunderstand the content of said premise. This is because, operating under the PAP’s model of moral responsibility, one must have the ability to do otherwise to be held morally responsible for one’s actions. Assuming we all agree on the transitive nature of distal and proximal causes, all human behavior in a deterministic world occurs due to factors outside of the control of the humans who inhabit it. This obviates (1) and (3.a) in that we need not posit that intuitions are faulty due to the nature of human perception itself, but rather a mistaken understanding or application of a premise of the thought experiment. A sticking point for this alternative would be an agreement between soft and hard determinists regarding the nature of universal causal determinism, the relationship between distal and proximal causes, etc. which may in itself a tall order.

The possibility also exists that (3.a) and (3.b) are two sides of the same coin. This would be because a failure to accurately or fully consider a premise of the thought experiment would constitute a non-rational intuitive response rather than a rational one. I am curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

That wraps up Part I of this review. In the next installment, I’ll discuss Pereboom’s attempt to find a middle ground between soft and hard determinism that upholds moral values but legitimately affirms a consistent determinist worldview.

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