Susan Wolf is a defender of compatibilism who argues that free will consists of acting in accordance with Reason, with full knowledge of the True and the Good. If this sounds Platonic, it is. Neo-Platonists, church philosophers, and such moderns as Immanuel Kant have all claimed that we are free when we do the right thing, and unfree - mere slaves to our desires and passions - when we do the wrong thing. This view apparently contradicts the standard church position on the Problem of Evil (theodicy). On that view, God gave man free will to absolve God of responsibility for evil. If we are unfree when doing evil, where does the responsibility then lie? Wolf finds something like this in her argument, which she calls the Asymmetry of the Reason View.
According to the Reason View, however, responsibility depends on the ability to act in accordance with the True and the Good. If one is psychologically determined to do the right thing for the right reasons, this is compatible with having the requisite ability. (Indeed, it would seem to be absolute proof that one has it.) But if one is psychologically determined to do the wrong thing, for whatever reason, this seems to constitute a denial of that ability. For if one has to do the wrong thing, then one cannot do the right, and so one lacks the ability to act in accordance with the True and the Good. The Reason View is thus committed to the curious claim that being psychologically determined to perform good actions is compatible with deserving praise for them, but that being psychologically determined to perform bad actions is not compatible with deserving blame.Because in many cases there will be only one of the alternative possibilities that will be the best choice, Wolf argues that we don't need alternative possibilities for freedom. So she is comfortable with Harry Frankfurt's attacks on his "principle of alternate possibilities," which is designed to defend compatibilism against the lack of such possibilities in a deterministic world. Wolf's view is similar to Gary Watson's, which goes back to the idea of "practical reason" from Plato to Kant. We are free agents when our choices correspond to our values, not our desires or passions. Kant would say we act out of a concern for our "duty." Robert Kane also mixes the question of values into the question of freedom in his model for free will. We can call this the "ethical fallacy." The basic question about freedom of the will from determinism must be independent of values, which are very likely culture dependent. For David Hume, to confound Reason about "matters of fact" and "relations of ideas" with the Passions would be to jump from "is" to "ought." Wolf follows Peter Strawson in arguing that whether or not determinism is true, humans exhibit moral behavior in their "reactive attitudes" toward the behavior others when they express blame and praise for their actions (or when they feel guilt and pride about their own actions). For Wolf, this is enough to establish the existence of moral responsibility.
To be accorded the status of a responsible being is to be regarded as an appropriate object of a certain range of attitudes and judgments and as a legitimate participant in a certain range of practices. The range of attitudes I have in mind includes pride and shame, gratitude and resentment, respect and contempt. The range of judgments includes the judgment that one is worthy of respect or contempt, that one ought to be proud or ashamed, and so on. And the range of practices includes praising and blaming, forgiving, excusing, rewarding, and punishing according to rules designed to make these practices expressions of the above sorts of attitudes and judgments. It is a deep and essential feature of life in modern Western society that normal human beings who have reached some level of maturity regard themselves and one another as responsible beings. That is, if people did not regard themselves and one another as responsible beings, life would be unrecognizably different from what it actually is. But the concept of responsibility is a mysterious one which tends, on examination, to become increasingly opaque and to threaten variously to be incoherent or impossible or universally inapplicable. Thus there is a philosophical problem of responsibility and, connected to it, a philosophical problem of free will, understanding free will to be that relation to one's will which is necessary in order for one's actions (as well as one's character and life insofar as they are governable by one's will) to be "up to oneself" in the way that is necessary for responsibility. We can express the problem of responsibility in the form of the question "How, if at all, is responsibility possible?" And we can express the problem of free will in the form of the question "What must our relation to our wills be," or better, perhaps, "What kind of beings must we be if we are ever to be responsible for the results of our wills?"
Wolf says the principal requirement for responsibility is ultimate control or Kantian "autonomy."
It seems, then, that in addition to the requirement that the agent have control over her behavior (that she have a potentially effective will) and the requirement that she have control along the right lines (a relevantly intelligent will), there is a requirement that the agent's control be ultimate — her will must be determined by her self, and her self must not, in turn, be determined by anything external to itself. This last condition I shall call, after Kant, the requirement of autonomy. (p.10)But Wolf is skeptical (as only philosophers can be) as to whether human beings have this autonomy.
At first glance, the condition of autonomy may seem no more problematic than the other conditions of responsibility. That is, it may seem to be a condition that, like the others, we satisfy most of the time. If we speak occasionally of finding ourselves with desires that are not our own, desires that move us but with which we do not or cannot identify, we do so, presumably, by contrast to a more normal state of affairs in which the desires that provide the basis for our actions are wholly and comfortably our own. And if we sometimes describe situations in which, although we act intentionally, we have no choice but to perform the actions we do, we contrast this with more typical situations in which, it seems, we do have a choice. That is, most of the time, we seem free to act in whatever way we please. We choose to do some things rather than others, and nothing makes us choose. A closer look at ourselves and our actions, however, may make us doubt our own apparent autonomy and may suggest that the expressions that look like claims of autonomous agency are really just figures of speech. For although few of our desires are implanted in us in as obvious and unnatural a way as that in which a hypnotist implants a desire in her subject, neither do they arise out of nothing external to ourselves. My desire for a pastry is clearly a result of the smells wafting from the bakery as I walk past; my desire for a new Sweater can be traced to a magazine advertisement that caught my eye. A passionate speech makes me want to write my congressman; a letter from a friend makes me want to give her a call. It seems natural that I should have these desires in these situations—they cohere with my other desires and with my general character in ways in which desires that are implanted by hypnotists may not. But the source of these desires is no less external than the source of the desires I might be hypnotized to have, and if I identify with the former but not with the latter desires, it is not because the former desires are up to me. Similarly, it seems that, although situations are rarely imposed on us in so artificial and manipulative a way as that in which an armed criminal may coerce his victim, situations that arise in less objectionable ways push us no less firmly to act one way rather than another. Zero-degree weather makes me turn up the heat; an empty refrigerator makes me go to the store. An upcoming tenure decision makes an assistant professor write articles for publication; a child's illness makes a father leave work early to take his daughter to the doctor. These observations suggest a picture of ourselves as creatures whose desires are a result of some combination of our heredity and environment, who try to satisfy our desires as well as we can by acting as our situations demand. But if our desires are a result of heredity and environment, they come from something external to ourselves. And if, in conjunction with our desires, the situations in which we find ourselves dictate which actions we will ultimately decide to perform, then our behavior is completely explained by forces that originate outside of ourselves. This picture seems incompatible with the satisfaction of the condition of autonomy. This condition, which we were led to accept in our effort to explain why the agents in a few exceptional cases were not responsible for their actions, now threatens to exclude all human agents in all situations from responsibility. The cases of hypnosis and coercion now seem exceptional only in being cases in which the agents' lack of autonomy is dramatically evident. But if a lack of autonomy that is dramatically evident excludes agents from responsibility, a lack of autonomy that is less easily perceived will exclude agents as well. In light of the apparently drastic implications the conclusion that we are not autonomous beings would have, it would be foolish to accept this conclusion too easily. The remarks made above suggest that the claim that we are autonomous beings is not so obviously or so generally true as it might formerly have seemed. But they do not imply that autonomy is impossible. Perhaps the examples of "ordinary desires" and "ordinary situations" were taken from an insufficiently wide range of experiences. If we are not responsible for as large a portion of our behavior and personality as we ordinarily think, this does not imply that we are responsible for none of our actions or character at all. Or, perhaps, the description of ordinary human action above is simplistic in insidious ways, omitting some elements that are crucial to a realization of autonomy. Unfortunately, attempts to construct an alternative picture of human action, or to revise the picture presented above in a way that will justify our apparent assumption that we typically act as autonomous agents, are likely to make the condition of autonomy seem even more puzzling than before. For if the agent's control of her actions seems superficial when we add, in accordance with the picture above, that what control she exhibits is itself controlled by forces external to the agent herself, her control seems no less superficial if we remove these external forces and imagine that the agent's control is controlled by nothing at all.According to the problematic picture above, the agent's will is not wholly or deeply her own because the content of her will is completely determined by forces, people, and events external to herself. But if the content of the agent's will is not so determined — if her having the will she does is instead, in part, a result of random events, or if it is a matter of brute, inexplicable fact — this hardly seems to make her will more wholly or deeply her own. Indeed, recalling the case of the kleptomaniac, it may seem irrelevant whether the agent's will is controlled by something else or by nothing at all. Autonomy, then, requires that the content of an agent's will (which, we may assume, determines the agent's behavior) be up to the agent herself, and this is opposed not only to its being up to anything else, but also to its not being up to anything at all. But now the concept of an autonomous agent may seem to be an Impossible one. For it seems that about any agent and any act whatsoever we can ask for an explanation of why that agent performs that act. And though we may begin to answer this question in terms of features internal to the agent, we can always press beyond these beginnings and ask why the agent possesses these features. If this question in turn is answered by reference to still other features internal to the agent, we can press further and ask why the agent possesses these additional features. Eventually, we will reach a set of features that must be explained by facts external to the agent, or our explanation will simply come to an end, with the understanding that the agent's possessing these features is either a random occurrence or a brute, inexplicable fact. An agent, for example, performs some action because she wants to perform it, and she wants to perform it because she wants something else to which the action in question is perceived as a means. But why does she want that something else? Perhaps because the pursuit of that goal offers the best chance of satisfactorily realizing her complex system of values. But then we may ask why she has that particular system of values If, on the one hand, we can answer this question by describing the agent's heredity, her upbringing, her most significant recent experiences, and so on, then the agent seems to fit the problematic model of the nonautonomous agent. The agent acts in accordance with her values, but her values are a result of forces external to herself. If, on the other hand, we have no answer of this sort, it seems that the response to the question "Why does the agent have this system of values?" is simply "She just does have it" or "This is just what she is like." But the agent seems equally "stuck with" her set of values on this picture as on the former one; she is thrown into the world, as it were, complete with an identity she did not choose. In order for an agent to be autonomous, it seems, not only must the agent's behavior be governable by her self, her self must in turn be governable by her self — her deeper self, if you like — and this must in turn be governable by her (still deeper?) self, ad infinitum. If there are forces behind the agent, so to speak, making the agent what she is, then her control of her behavior is only intermediate, and therefore superficial. But if there are no forces behind the agent making the agent what she is, then her identity seems to be arbitrary. The ability to act in accordance with a nature or a character — or, for that matter, with an uncharacteristic motive — that one simply finds in oneself as an arbitrary given, seems equally to constitute a merely superficial species of control. But this would seem to exhaust not just the empirical but the logically possible alternatives: Either something is behind the agent, making the agent what she is, or nothing is. The idea of an autonomous agent appears to be the idea of a prime mover unmoved whose self can endlessly account for itself and for the behavior that it intentionally exhibits or allows. But this idea seems incoherent or, at any rate, logically impossible. The dilemma that was earlier sketched only schematically can now be given a more concrete form: The condition of autonomy seems at once impossible and necessary for responsibility. If there is to be any hope for a positive solution to the problem of responsibility, we must find a way to resist the conclusion that the condition is as it seems. Either this apparently necessary condition must be shown not to be a necessary condition of responsibility after all, or this apparently impossible condition must be shown to be one that, despite appearances, it is possible, and even plausible, to think we regularly satisfy.