Obama on free will and desert.

I often moan about the amount of bad philosophy that is penned by journalists. Normally the problem is religiously-inclined commentators attacking atheism by insisting it’s synonymous with nihilism. That issue – of the relationship between God and morality – comes up a lot. But now some comments by Obama have paved the way for another issue dripping with philosophical problems to be discussed. If you haven’t already, first watch the clip:

So Obama attacks the popular American idea that it is sheer hard work and talent, without an ounce of luck from external conditions, which shines through in economic achievements. In doing so, he offers an opportunity for arguing that people do not deserve all the fruits that follow from their labour. And the problem is that, as Charles Murray notes, it’s seemingly un-American to even question for a second that if someone has made millions, they’re worthy of deep praise. Sullivan is sickened by this suggestion, but from my perception of America across the Atlantic, I think Murray is right. I don’t think it counts against Obama, though. I think it just speaks volumes about the extent to which the American identity is wrapped up in this fantasy about free will.

Now, want to see some philosophy in the media done well? Look no further than Dylan Matthews, writing at Wonkblog, who does an excellent job of mapping out the various avenues philosophers have gone down on this topic. It’s an excellent whirlwind tour of the reasons that people who think about these questions tend to side with Obama and be skeptical of free will, and where thoughts like that often lead.

One comment, though. Matthews cites an underlooked article by Sam Scheffler from the early 90s, which I’m very fond of (my undergraduate thesis was initially going to say almost exactly what Scheffler says there, until I discovered he had already written it). Matthews summarises the article as follows:

[Scheffler] has expressed concern that the unpopularity of desert among liberals in political philosophy disconnects the discipline from real political debates about welfare, crime and other issues, where responsibility and desert matter a great deal.

Correct – it goes without saying that people assume in public discourse that people have free will and are responsible for their actions, and thereby any politicians which say criminals deserve punishment, and rich people deserve their money, are going to resonate with most people better than they will with liberal philosophers.

But I think another point Scheffler makes in that piece is even more important, and that’s concerning compatibilist theories, which Matthews neglects. Compatibilists believe that even if Obama is right in saying nobody genuinely carves out their success through sheer force of will, both due to help from society and because of deeper forces like DNA, it may nevertheless be the case that we are entirely justified in blaming and praising people and so on. Our ‘reactive attitudes’ just aren’t conditional on such factors.

I’ve tried to explain this argument before. I’ve also written about why I can see my only personal history as being precisely of the kind Obama describes – lucky. And I don’t ultimately buy the argument that we can continue to see people as deserving things once we point out the arbitrary factors that contribute to their success. But I must acknowledge that hugely intelligent people – people more intelligent than myself – beg to differ. Most famously, Peter Strawson would probably be with Romney on this.

Or at least, he’d probably be with the Romney that is pouncing on that quote as proof that Obama doesn’t play due credit to the genius of American businesspeople. As PM Carpenter highlights, Romney 1.0, speaking in the context of the Olympics, was more than happy to point out how we never do anything alone.

[Edit: I should have noted a hat tip to Zack Beauchamp for the Matthews piece.]


2 thoughts on “Obama on free will and desert.

  1. I don’t think that free will vs. determinism is the right frame for the debate, but i do think that Obama invokes a number of interesting philosophical ideas like left libertarianism and reciprocity

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