Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Present Luck and Little Agents

(Conceptual Framework on Free Will)

This post is part of my ongoing series on free will and moral responsibility. It goes through a recent (and refreshingly succinct) paper entitled “Lucky agents, big and little: Should size really matter?” by David Blumenfeld. Blumenfeld’s paper challenges Alfred Mele’s alleged solution to something known as the problem of present luck. This is a problem that is said to confront libertarian theories of free will.

The structure of the post is as follows. First, I will introduce and outline the problem of present luck. Second, I will present Mele’s alleged solution to the problem (as it is stated in Blumenfeld’s paper). And third, I will outline Blumenfeld’s critique.

Before I get underway I just want to note that Blumenfeld’s is the only academic paper I have ever read that contains the term “Pussy Pleaser”. Something to think about.

1. The Problem of Present Luck
The claim is as follows: libertarian theories of free will lead to the unpalatable conclusion that whether an individual acts in a particular way (or not) is strictly a matter of luck. This is problematic because responsibility cannot be attached to things that are a matter of luck. So it follows that if libertarianism is true, there are no responsible agents.

We can make this argument more compelling by tracing out the reasoning in more detail. We begin with a definition of the libertarian position on free will. The libertarian position is essentially that the existence of a strong form of free will is necessary for the existence of moral responsibility. This strong form of free will depends on the possibility of basically free actions (BFAs), which are defined in the following manner:
BFA = A is a BFA for S at time t, iff the state of the universe prior to t, coupled with the laws of nature for that universe, are also consistent with S’s not A-ing at t. Or in other words, the prior state of the universe does not necessitate S’s performance of A at t, and is equally compatible with S’s not A-ing at t.
Using this as their foundational requirement, libertarians can adopt one of two positions on the nature of responsibility for individual actions. They can either say that: (i) every responsible action must, in itself, be a BFA or (ii) every responsible action must be capable of being traced back to a BFA.

The second possibility is intended to make allowances for the fact that people could freely decide to, for example, always give money to charity at Christmas at one point in their lives and then bind themselves to that decision at future moments in their lives. So even though their future charitable donations are not basically free, they are traceable back to a prior BFA.

Now we come to the problem of present luck. The problem is arrived at by simply drawing out the implications of the definition of a BFA. I would set it out formally as follows:

  • (1) Suppose there is an agent, call him Joe, who performs a BFA (call it “A”) at time t.
  • (2) From the definition of a BFA, the prior state of the universe and the laws of nature were consistent with ~A.
  • (3) In other words, there was another possible universe, which had the same prior universe-states and the same laws of nature, in which Joe did not perform A at time t.
  • (4) Joe’s personality, thoughts, desires, hopes, beliefs, character traits, dispositions etc. are part of the state of the universe prior to t.
  • (5) So in the two possible universes under consideration, there is nothing in Joe (i.e. in his personality or mind) that is different.
  • (6) This implies that nothing in Joe accounts for the difference between his performing A in one universe and not performing A in the other universe.
  • (7) Which is to say: whether A or ~A obtains is strictly a matter of present luck.

In my opinion, this is a rather neat, and highly persuasive piece of argumentation. Indeed, it ranks as, perhaps, the major reason I have for rejecting theories of responsibility that are reliant on libertarian free will.*

2. Mele’s Solution: Little Agents
Blumenfeld’s paper focuses on a proposed solution to the problem of luck that comes from the work of Alfred Mele. Mele is an unusual figure in the debate over free will. He is not committed to either libertarianism or compatibilism and so occasionally offers arguments supporting both sides of the debate. (He is, however, committed to the existence of freedom and responsibility).

In his 2006 book, Free Will and Luck, he takes up the libertarian cause and, after presenting a forceful version of the problem of present luck, he proceeds to offer a frankly bizarre solution to it. The solution is based on the difference between adults ("big agents") and children (“little agents”).

Mele’s basic contention is that libertarians should embrace present luck because its implied by the kind of free will they value. But they can do so unapologetically because responsibility can be built up from actions that are initially due to luck. How so? Well, we can all probably accept that decisions we make early in life can shape the probabilities that attach to our future decisions. That is to say, while our early decisions might be attributable entirely to luck, their consequences might increase the probability with which certain types of decisions are made in the future.

To show how responsibility can get a foothold in this world of lucky decisions, Mele draws our attention to some of the key features of the decisions made by little agents: (i) they are trivial; (ii) the agent has little appreciation for their consequences; (iii) and the agent lacks impulse control. Because of these features, Mele thinks it is okay for the little agent to be held a “bit” responsible for his actions, even though they are attributable to luck. And from this tiny morsel of responsibility for early decisions, can be built a more full-bodied form of responsibility for later decisions that are less attributable to luck (due to the change in probabilities).

3. Blumenfeld’s Riposte
As I said, I find Mele’s argument to be bizarre. I suspect others reading this will have had a similar reaction. Luckily (irony?), Blumenfeld spells out exactly why Mele’s argument is bizarre.

He begins by offering the following formalised version of Mele’s Little Agent Argument (LAA):

  • (1) If a little agent makes a BFA and (a) it is relatively trivial; (b) it is much harder for the agent to exercise impulse control over it than it would be for an older child or adult; and (c) the agent is far less able to appreciate its consequences than would be an older child or adult, then the agent has a small degree of moral responsibility for it even though it involves present luck.
  • (2) Little agents perform BFAs with the features (a) - (c).
  • (3) Hence, little agents can have a small degree of responsibility for their BFAs even though they involve present luck.

Blumenfeld could have added to this the further argumentation to the effect that full responsibility can be arrived at once the small degree of responsibility is compounded into the agent’s maturation process. But since his concern is with this first portion of the argument, I can see why he doesn’t do this.

Anyway, Blumenfeld expresses two main concerns about the LAA. Of lesser significance is his observation that little agents can perform BFAs for which conditions (a) - (c) do not hold and that Mele is silent on the question of their moral responsibility. Of greater significance is Blumenfeld’s observation that there’s no reason to think that features (a) - (c) actually block the problem of present luck.

Blumenfeld makes his point by arguing that if conditions (a) - (c) don’t block the problem of present luck in the adult case, there’s no reason to think they block the problem in the childhood case either.

To see this, go back for a moment to our hypothetical (and adult) agent Joe who had to decide whether to perform A or ~A and, in the end, chose to perform A. As we saw when discussing this example, the libertarian position is that there is nothing in Joe that could account for the difference between his performance of A or ~A.

This implies that no responsibility could be attached to Joe for his performance of A (since responsibility is a feature of the relationship between an agent and his act). This is true for all decisions that are not trivial, whose consequences are known to Joe, and for which Joe does not lack impulse control.

Now ask yourself: if responsibility doesn’t attach to Joe in the situation just described, how could it possibly attach when Joe’s decision has the features (a) - (c)? Note that conditions (b) and (c) are usually factors that reduce or excuse agents from responsibility and so they don’t seem to help make any sort of case for the idea of a small degree of responsibility. Triviality, or condition (a), might be thought to help, but if the decision is still attributable entirely to luck, its hard to see why even this is the case. After all, there’s nothing about Joe that is responsible for even the trivial act.

So, in the end, it seems that premise (1) of the argument is false and with its falsity Mele’s solution to the problem of present luck must be abandoned.

* Proponents of agent causation, like Timothy O’Connor, might have a way of answering the problem of present luck. Agent causation relies on the idea that agents can cause events in a manner that is entirely distinct from ordinary event-event causation. O’Connor’s argument, if I understand him, would be that there is in fact something that accounts for the difference between the two possible universes discussed in the argument outlined above. That something is the “agent”. The plausibility of this argument depends on whether one accepts the conception of an agent (as something distinct from psychological events and processes) employed by agent causationists. I find this conception to be implausible, so I find O’Connor’s response to the problem of luck to be uncompelling. However, I will admit that I have more work to do before I fully understand what the agent causationists are really arguing.


  1. Even if agents aren't concatenations of events and processes, Blumenfeld's argument would still seem to apply; there's a possible world where the agent chose differently. I've never been sure what agent causation is meant to accomplish.

  2. Somebody going by the name of postrationalist.com left the following comment here (it didn't appear for some reason, perhaps having to do with the links included):

    This comment is bound to be annoying, as it's long and vague and doesn't have much background knowledge. Here goes nothing.

    It seems to me that this dance on a conceptual pinhead is a result of the fact that it is impossible explain human freedom. For an explanation to work, doesn't it require things to be fixed in a sense that freedom could not be?

    It seems obvious to me that if humans are self-determining, then they would not be visible to explanatory thought that is searching only for law abiding behaviour. Trying to fit self-determining behaviour into a conceptual model that assumes, from the very start, a pre-determined universe, seems futile.

    Attempts to resolve this paradox (for the sake of humanity as it were) only result in the silly position you outline so well, in regards to causal time, luck, etc. They're not really theories, more like flares to distract attention.

    But if human can't be explained, and thus only described, you wouldn't have any of these problems. Human freedom would not rest on some minute indefinable moment of action, but freedom would be what it obviously is - we are able to imagine courses of action, think about what we want to do, try and do what we think best. Time at T=1 and T=2 wouldn't be an issue, because freedom would be impossible to understand outside of the context of the culture and history in time as we experience it.

    Trying to resolve a conceptual paradox by fine tuning the concepts that cause it isn't going to work here. It is the idea that we can explain self-determining behavior that leads to the paradox. Without trying to explain it, you can quite happily say that humans are free, in the way they are free - ie they are only free if they have the human abilities you obviously need to learn in order to act, make decisions, imagine the future and try. Humans do not break the laws of physics, but they are not pre-determined by them either.

    What framing the conceptual debate within the context of explanation is cause this endless oscillation between the concepts of physical science, and those of abstract ideas. What this does is to to prevent people from trying to understand how they actually are free, and figuring out how to make them more so.

    I'm free. Aren't you?

    The relevant website is: Postrationalist

  3. In response to the above:

    The argument you make is somewhat similar to that made by Peter van Inwagen in his paper:

    Free Will Remains a Mystery (sorry can't find an online version).

    From what I recall, he doesn't frame it in quite the same way but he does seem to conclude that (a) free will exists and (b) we have no way to account for its existence (all current theories fail).

  4. Thanks John D! Really kind to dig out the comment and reply too. I'll try and find the full article, although...

    I wasn't really saying (b). Van inwagen seems to be saying "it's a mystery". We do have a way to account for the existence of human freedom, in that we talk about it very easily all the time and we can clearly see a way of accounting for it in the cultural history of freedom and selfhood and choice and all the rest.

    What we can't do is explain self-determining behaviour because the possibility of this is excluded by the terms of the explanatory investigation. If an explanation is to work then x must follow y, and that is exaclty what is not the case for self-determining humans.

    The free will question is litterally saying "tell me what freedom is in a conceptual framework that excludes the possibility of freedom".

    That something cannot be explained but only described is not the same as saying it is a mystery. It is specifically not a mystery, it is just self-determined behaviour.