Free Will and Reasonable Doubt
by Benjamin Vilhauer
The purpose of this paper is to raise what the author takes to be an old and widely shared worry about free will in a new way. (In this paper, "free will" is used to mean whatever satisfies the control condition of moral responsibility.) The worry has to do with the connection between free will and retributive justifications of harm. Retributive justifications of harm claim that someone deserves to be harmed because of how he has acted. No one can deserve to be harmed because of how he has acted unless he was morally responsible for that action, and no one can be morally responsible for an action unless he had free will with respect to that action, or with respect to some earlier action that determined the later action. But when one surveys the long history of unresolved conflict in the free will debate, one may wonder whether the grounds for believing that people have free will are strong enough to bear the weight of such justifications. What is new in this paper is the particular argument defended in it, which implies that this worry is very important. It is as follows:
(1) If it can be reasonably doubted that someone had free will with respect to some action, then it is a requirement of justice to refrain from doing serious retributive harm to him in response to that action.
(2) Anyone who believes the free will debate to be philosophically valuable must accept that it can be reasonably doubted that anyone ever has free will.
(3) Therefore, anyone who believes the free will debate to be philosophically valuable must accept that it is a requirement of justice to refrain from serious retributive harm.
The term "the free will debate" refers to the debate about whether anyone ever has free will. (There are, of course, other important debates about free will, but the term will be used to refer to this particular debate for the sake of conciseness.)