Paul Russell on Free Will Pessimism

Yesterday Paul Russell from the Gothenburg Responsibility Project gave a lecture on free will pessimism to the Philosophical Society in Gothenburg. Below is the abstract from the presentation.

In this paper I explain and describe the metaphysical stance or outlook of free will pessimism. Free will pessimism has its source in the observation that the possession and exercise of our abilities and powers as free and responsible agents is, nevertheless, infused and permeated by conditions of fate and luck. It is this inescapable feature of human life that licences a metaphysical attitude of pessimism. This general outlook is to be contrasted with free will scepticism, the view that our vulnerability to conditions of fate and luck serve to discredit our view of ourselves as free and responsible agents. Free will pessimism rejects free will scepticism, since the basis of its pessimism rests with the assumption that we are free and responsible agents (who are, nevertheless, subject to fate and luck in this aspect of our lives). According to free will pessimism, all the major parties and positions in the free will debate, including that of scepticism, are modes of evasion and distortion regarding our human predicament in respect of agency and moral life.

The argument of this paper falls into three parts. In the first part it is argued that any plausible form of compatibilism must embrace and endorse free will pessimism. Compatibilism of this kind may be described as “critical compatibilism”, in order to contrast and distinguish it from the more orthodox forms of (optimistic and complacent) compatibilism. In the second part of the paper I offer an explanation of why it is that compatibilism has been so reluctant to embrace or accept critical compatibilism and the free will pessimism that it involves. The explanation provided turns largely on the role of what Bernard Williams has described as “the morality system”, and its peculiar assumptions and aspirations. Finally, in the third and last part, I consider the general significance of these reflections and observations about free will pessimism and critical compatibilism and their implications for the free will problem itself. The conclusion I reach is that free will pessimism should not be understood as a solution to the free will problem but rather as a basis for rejecting the assumptions and aspirations that lie behind it – assumptions and aspirations that have been shared by all the major parties involved in this debate. What we have, according to the stance of free will pessimism, is not a (sceptical) problem waiting to be solved but a (troubling) human predicament that needs to be recognized and acknowledged.

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