Luck and History-Sensitive Compatibilism
Levy (Neil)
Source: Philosophical Quarterly, April 2009 ; 59(235): 237–251
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Abstract

  1. Libertarianism seems vulnerable to a serious problem concerning present luck, because it requires indeterminism somewhere in the causal chain leading to directly free action. Compatibilism, in contrast, is thought to be free of this problem, as not requiring indeterminism in the causal chain. I argue that this view is false: compatibilism is subject to a problem of present luck. This is less of a problem for compatibilism than for libertarianism. However, its effects are just as devastating for one kind of compatibilism, the kind of compatibilism which is history-sensitive, and therefore must take the problem of constitutive luck seriously. The problem of present luck confronting compatibilism is sufficient to undermine the history-sensitive compatibilist’s response to remote – constitutive – luck.
  2. There are widely recognized to be two luck problems facing those who aim to develop an adequate account of free will, respectively dubbed the problems of remote and of present luck by Mele.
    1. The problem of remote luck is, as Mele says, the problem generally felt to face compatibilists. It is the problem of explaining how agents can be free and morally responsible, given that their actions are the determined consequences of, roughly, their genes and their environment, although they are not responsible for either, and both are matters of luck for them.
    2. The problem of present luck is the problem generally felt to confront libertarians. It is the problem of explaining how a decision or action can be free, given the libertarian demand for indeterminacy immediately prior to directly free action: the indeterminacy appears to make the action unacceptably chancy, in a way which is apparently freedom-undermining.
  3. What has not been given due recognition, however, is that compatibilists also face a serious problem of present luck. The problem of present luck, I shall argue, is an obstacle confronting all accounts of free will. I do not suggest that the compatibilist problem of present luck is just as significant as the problem that confronts libertarianism; taken by itself there are reasons to think that it is less significant. However, the problem of present luck is significant enough to undermine solutions to the problem of remote – constitutive – luck which are offered by history-sensitive compatibilists. Not all compatibilists are history-sensitive; some deny that free will or moral responsibility are historical concepts. These kinds of compatibilists will be able to live with the problem of present luck, but history-sensitive compatibilists cannot. The success of this argument would constitute a powerful reason to abandon a historical account of moral responsibility in favour of a non-historical one, of which there are several on the market today.


See Levy - Luck and History-Sensitive Compatibilism.

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