1. Arminians appeal to intuition to justify their libertarian theory of the will. At the moment I’m not discussing sophisticated libertarian philosophers like Robert Kane. Instead, I’m discussing the poplar versions of that intuition which are commonly deployed against Calvinism. Indeed, a more nuanced formulation, such as you can find in Kane, is problematic for Arminian objections to Calvinism because Kane makes certain concessions which weaken the straightforward appeal to a libertarian intuition.
2. So what is the libertarian intuition? Popular versions take the form of “ought implies can” or “I’m not responsible for my actions unless I could have done otherwise.”
And, at first glance, the popular formulations enjoy a certain intuitive appeal. But that’s because they’re ambiguous. There are hidden qualifications or unspoken examples which we tend to read into these formulations that are not a part of the formulation itself.
Take the following bare-bones formulation:
i-a: I’m not responsible unless I could have done otherwise.
Do you find that plausible? If so, I suspect you find it plausible because you’re mentally adding a qualification that isn’t present in the actual formulation.
For example, suppose, if I were given the chance to do it all over again, with the freedom to do otherwise, I did exactly the same thing the second time around?
If every time I did it, I repeated the same choice, even though I had the freedom to do otherwise, then is it morally relevant whether or not I had the freedom to do otherwise?
Why do I need an option I never exercise? If I’m going to do the same thing in the same situation, even if I have the opportunity to do something different, then why do I need all of these unrealized alternatives at my disposal?
3. At that point I think the libertarian intuition loses its intuitive appeal. What makes it appealing is a more qualified formulation. Something like the following:
i-b: I’m not responsible unless I would have done otherwise.
If given the chance to do it all over again, I would have done otherwise, then it’s unfair to blame me when I didn’t have the freedom to do otherwise.
Does that sound more plausible? I think so.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is a reliable intuition, then to use it against Calvinism, the Arminian must show that the reprobate would have done otherwise had they been able to do so.
I have no idea how an Arminian would demonstrate that contention.
4. But there’s another wrinkle in the libertarian intuition. Although (i-b) may sound plausible as a general maxim, what happens when we plug specific examples into that formulation?
Here’s one: If the robber had known the teller would trip the silent alarm, the robber would not have tried to rob that bank.
Now, that’s a plausible scenario, is it not? Plausible in the sense of being realistic.
But is it exculpatory? Does it absolve the robber of blame?
Suppose the robber were to use the libertarian intuition to excuse his actions:
“If I had to do it all over again, knowing then what I know how, I would not have tried to rob that bank. But I was in no position to know the teller would trip the silent alarm. Therefore, you should drop the charges.”
Now, given the libertarian framework, there’s a certain logic to his plea. He was acting on insufficient information. Indeed, it poses a dilemma. The only way to find out was by doing it. He couldn’t know this in advance. He could only know the outcome after the fact—at which point it was too late to think better of his mistake.
However, I don’t think it’s intuitively plausible to say this excuses his action. Quite the contrary.
He’s admitting, in a roundabout way, that he would commit the crime if he thought he could get away with it. If he had to do it all over again, he would do otherwise because he got caught the first time around. So, forearmed with a knowledge of the unfortunate outcome, he would avoid that unfortunate outcome the second time around.
Yet this admission is just as self-incriminating in its own way. Yes, he would have done otherwise if he could have done otherwise (i.e. if he could have known otherwise). So why isn’t this morally sufficient to excuse his conduct?
Although, with the benefit of hindsight, he would avoid repeating the same wrong, the reason he would refrain from committing wrong is not a moral reason. Indeed, his reason is an immoral reason.
He does wrong as long as it’s in his self-interest to do wrong, and he avoids wrongdoing as long as it’s contrary to his self-interest to do wrong. So both his actions and inactions are guided by evil motives. Therefore, even if we apply the libertarian intuition to this case, it fails to absolve him of culpability.
5. Why did he rob the bank? Well, for one thing, he thought he had a right to someone else’s money.
What would enable him to do otherwise? By removing that necessary condition.
Yet that comes at a cost: a cost to personal identity. If you remove that condition, you’re no longer dealing with the same person.
But if libertarian freedom can’t preserve the personal identity of the free agent, then in what sense is the agent free? Who is the bearer of this libertarian property? The agent? But who is the agent? If his freedom can only come at the expense of his personal identity, then the same agent can never exercise that freedom.
If a robber didn’t think he was entitled to someone else’s money, he wouldn’t be a robber. But he wouldn’t be a robber because he’d be a different person—a person with a different moral outlook on life.
So libertarian freedom is freedom without a subject. To enable the subject to do otherwise, we must change his psychological makeup.
Typically, libertarians define libertarian freedom as the freedom to do something different under the same circumstances. But what this formulation leaves out of account is the self-identity of the agent.
The question is not merely if an agent can do something different under the same circumstances, but if the same agent can do something different under the same circumstances.
Libertarianism takes the self-identity of the agent for granted, but that’s a key issue. If I don’t rob a bank because I don’t think I have a right to someone else’s money, then I’m not the same person. I may be similar in many respects, but I’m not the very same individual.
To derail libertarian freedom, it isn’t essential that this factor (my moral outlook) be a sufficient condition to motivate my action. It’s adequate for this factor to be a merely necessary condition, since its presence or absence affects the personal identity of the agent. Without personal identity, it’s equivocal to predicate libertarian freedom.