Thanks to everyone for comments on the last post on voluntarism. There were lots of threads suggested there that I’ve been trying to follow up. Some of these led me to a recent (2002: 3) issue of the Monist that had lots of relevant papers. A lot of what follows is suggested (obliquely) by John Cottingham’s paper on Descartes. I’ve also been reading (or rereading) some great papers by by Richard Holton work on weakness of will and self-control. (See this famous paper on weakness of will, and this unpublished paper with Stephen Shute on provocation.)
One of the things that Cottingham brings out is that the issues of doxastic freedom and doxastic voluntarism are different issues. Cottingham holds that Descartes thinks that we have doxastic freedom, but he’s an involuntarist. (I’m going to somewhat foolishly take on Cottingham on Descartes interpretation over this below.) So I started thinking about the difference between free actions and voluntary actions.
In many jurisdictions there is a clear difference between the two concepts. If someone is convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the action that constitutes the crime is a free action (else there would be no criminal liability), but not a voluntary one (else there would be a more serious liability, for voluntary manslaughter). This suggests the following principle: if movement M constitutes action A, but doing A was neither intended nor forseeable by the mover, although the actor did M as a result of an intention to do so, then the act A is free but involuntary.
Examples of voluntary but unfree actions are harder to come up with. But I have been struck while going over Frankfurt cases with undergraduates that even the libertarian students who are very unhappy about describing these as free actions are still happy to describe them as voluntary actions. Perhaps we can say that there are clear cases of voluntary actions then that are not clear cases of free action. Perhaps cases where we are coerced to do X, and we have a choice of methods by which we can do X, and we choose method Y, then we might think that doing Y was voluntary was unfree. Perhaps. But it would be nice to know of uncontroversial cases of voluntary but unfree action.
Neither of those cases are particularly relevant to belief. But the following kind of case is relevant. I’ll start with a simple, if painful, cricket example.
Justin Langer is facing Makhaya Ntini, and gets a ball off a decent length that rears up and hits him just above the elbow. It is quite a sharp, and due to the surprising bounce unexpected, strike, and Langer instinctively rubs the bruise. Immediately he is unhappy with himself, because he dislikes giving the bowler the impression that he has been hurt. Indeed, in many similar cases he would have fought off the instinct to rub his arm. But in this case his self-control failed, and for this he is quite unhappy. (Like all philosophical examples, this is perhaps a little fanciful, since the real Justin Langer wouldn’t lose control in this way!)
Despite the rubbing being instinctive, it seems to be a free action of Langer’s in a reasonably strong sense. That’s because he really could have done otherwise. In fact, Langer has two types of control over his action here. He has indirect control, because he can train himself to not show pain in these situations. That’s a kind of control that I have too, even though if I were in that position I wouldn’t be able to prevent showing that I was in pain. (Save perhaps by passing out, and ceasing to be in pain.) But Langer also has direct control over his reaction to the strike. He doesn’t exercise this direct control on this occasion, but he has it. And that explains the kind of self-admonition he will administer. A less well trained player may react to his rubbing and wincing by thinking that he should have worked harder on learning to hide his pain; that is, he will wish he’s exercised more indirect control. Langer will think that he shouldn’t have shown his pain on this very occasion; that is, he will wish that he had exercised more direct control.
(Note that this is a failure of self-control on Langer’s part, but not a display of weakness of will. Will has nothing to do with it, since by the time his will was involved, the regrettable action had been taken. If Langer had thought about how to react, decided that his principle that one shouldn’t show pain to the bowler was crazy, and then rubbed the sore arm, that would have been a failure of will power, and properly called weakness of will. But that’s not what happens here. The difference between the two things turns on two ways of interpreting the phrase ‘keeping one’s intentions’. In one sense, that means preserving, or holding on to, one’s intentions. In another sense, it means acting in accord with one’s intentions. I prefer to use ‘keeping one’s intentions’ in the first sense, so strength of will is about keeping one’s intentions, and self-control is a matter of keeping to one’s intentions. It is a failure of self-control rather than a loss of self-control because the pain from the strike overwhelms the self-control rather than undermines it. For more on this distinction, see the Holton and Shute paper.)
Here are four distinct questions we can ask about the Langer case.
- Is the action intentional in the sense that it was caused by an intention to rub the arm?
- Was the action voluntary?
- Was the action free?
- Was the action one for which he was responsible?
The answer to the first question is pretty clearly no. He doesn’t form an intention to rub his arm, even tacitly. He simply, and instinctively, rubs his arm.
The second question is hard. On the one hand, it is tempting to say that habitual actions, not due to intention on the part of the action, are involuntary. On the other hand, it is also tempting to say that given that Langer has direct control over this kind of action, the fact that he failed to exercise this control on this occasion doesn’t really seem sufficient grounds for saying his act was involuntary. I don’t know the answer to this one, so I’m going to table it.
The third and fourth questions are somewhat easier. In both cases the answer seems to be yes. Actions where we fail to take sufficient care to maintain our control are paradigmatic cases of responsible action, and I’d think free actions as well.
Now bring this all back to belief. Often times we form beliefs by ‘leaping to conclusions’. I’d say that every one of these beliefs is a failure of self-control. If failures of self-control are voluntary actions, then they are voluntary beliefs. If not, then voluntarism about beliefs might be false, but not in a way that threatens responsibility for belief, which is what I’m really interested here. Here are three of the kind of cases I have in mind. (All of these are pretty realistic cases, indeed I’ve either participated or known about people who’ve participated in them.)
Case One. Parent is interested in whether Child is still doing homework, or has gone to sleep. They walk near enough to Child’s room to see that the light is on, and come to believe that Child is still working. In fact, Child has gone to sleep with the lights on. Parent could have withheld belief until they got more evidence, but in fact they leapt to a conclusion.
Case Two. It’s a Sunday in Fall. The Seattle Seahawks football team are playing the Detroit Lions. And the Seattle Mariners baseball team are playing the Baltimore Orioles. I’m interesting in whether the Seahawks have won, but I’ve forgotten who they are playing. I hear a radio announcer say that Seattle beat Baltimore and infer, by coincidence correctly enough, that the Seahawks won.
Case Three. This one is a little more controversial. In February 2003, Colin Powell went to the UN and presented evidence that Iraq had chemical weapons in severe breach of UN resolution. A lot of people believed him, even though the evidence was far from convincing, and in fact Iraq had little or no weaponry that was unaccounted for.
I think every one of these cases is a case where the believers could have exercised more doxastic self-control and withheld belief. Whether the beliefs are voluntary or not is a tricky question, turning I think on whether or not unintentional, habitual but avoidable actions, like Justin Langer’s action in the above, are voluntary. I’ll leave that question to one side, and just note that the actions are free, and actions to which responsibility attaches.
These kinds of cases are why I disagree with Neil Levy’s objection to doxastic responsibility. Neil suggests (something like) the following argument. (This might be an uncharitable reading, but I think it’s an OK summary.)
- Responsibility requires dual control, where this is the power to bring about two distinct outcomes through our willpower.
- We do not have the power to believe at will.
- So we are not responsible for beliefs.
I have two minor quibbles with the first premise, but what I really want to object to is the validity of the argument. The first quibble is that responsibility doesn’t seem to require the power to bring about two distinct outcomes – just the power to bring about an outcome different to the actual outcome. If the only outcome we had the power to bring about was one other than what actually happened, that doesn’t seem to relieve us of responsibility. The second quibble is that I think if we have this power due to our capacity for self-control rather than our willpower, that’s sufficient for responsibility.
But the big problem is that the conclusion doesn’t seem to follow from the premises. If we actually believe that p, the alternative that must be available for responsibility to apply is not believing something else, it is withholding belief. And that is something we can arguably do at will (it is what Descartes is encouraging us to do in Meditation One) and certainly do using self-control. In short, we’re not responsible for believing p because we could have believed q instead, but because we simply could have not reached the stage where we believe that p.
Finally, I want to bring all of this back to Descartes. (Here is where I risk disagreeing with Cottingham.) Cottingham has said that Descartes is an involuntarist about belief. I want to disagree with that on two counts.
First, Cottingham focusses on cases like a belief that two plus two equals four, where there is no serious possibility of not holding the belief when we consider the proposition. In those cases we don’t have any possibility of alternative action – we have to believe. But this doesn’t show the belief is involuntary – as the Frankfurt cases show unavoidable action may be voluntary. Since the belief is formed for a reason, arguably this is also a case of voluntary (but unavoidable) belief.
Second, we should also think about Descartes’ views about false belief. These are all cases where our free will outruns our intellect. That is to say, they are all cases where we fail to exercise sufficient self-control. And some of those cases are, plausibly enough, cases of voluntary action. If we have a false belief because we haven’t trained our intellect sufficiently, if we haven’t exercised sufficient indirect control over time, then our actions are perhaps best thought of as involuntary habitual actions. But if we have gone some way towards training our minds, so we have some control over her minds, but we fail to exercise this control, I’d say that is voluntary belief. And it seems, to my amateur eyes, that Descartes would think so too.
Maybe this is all a red herring. Cottingham on page 354 refers to Descartes’ doxastic involuntarism, then on page 355 refers to the truth of involuntarism about clearly perceived beliefs. The latter claim is not threatned by any worry about what Descartes thinks about false beliefs, and maybe that is all that Cottingham is endorsing.
Postscript: My examples of responsible but not intended actions are obviously similar to the examples from Matthias Steup’s paper that I linked to yesterday. But I think my examples are a little stronger. I think we do form (fleeting, subconscious) intentions to, e.g. put the keys in the ignition, or unscrew the cap from the toothpaste. My reason for thinking this (due to Ishani) is that when someone later asks “Did you mean to do that?”, we’ll naturally say “Yes.” In the cases I have in mind, the natural reaction to such a question is “No.” Moreover, there is a reason to say that Langer didn’t have an intention to rub his arm. If he did have, then he would have had inconsistent intentions, since he had a standing intention to not rub his arm in those circumstances. Such an argument won’t apply in Steup’s cases.
Extra Postscript: If I’m right about what’s going on in the cricket case, then one of the results that Holton and Shute note suggests some implications for cricketing practice. They cite empirical evidence that self-control is like a muscle that gets tired with excess use. If Langer has to exercise self-control to not rub his arm, or otherwise display pain, then he’ll be less able to exercise self-control immediately afterwards. So if next ball he gets a ball on an attractive line outside off-stump, perhaps just a little short of ideal driving length, he should (assuming normal match circumstances) exercise self-control and leave it alone rather than play at it and risk hitting a catch to cover or second slip. If he’s ‘used up’ his self-control, then it is more likely he’ll play at the ball. This suggests he shouldn’t have used up his self-control on a display of machismo, rather than on being a good batsman. There is a ring of plausibility to this prediction. Batsmen seem to often play loose shots after getting hit. I always thought that was because the pain over-rode the decision making capacity, but it might also be due to a direct diminution of self-control. So, despite failing to exercise self-control, Langer did the right thing in my story!