The Psychology of Freedom.

The Psychology of Freedom. – book reviews

Alfred Mele

By Thomas Pink. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. x + 284. 35.00 [pounds sterling].

Pink’s announced task is “to determine what states of mind we need if we are to be free to act otherwise than as we actually do” (p. 1). He defends a “Psychologising conception of freedom” according to which “our control over our actions depends on our having a capacity to control how we act through free decision-making” (p. 80). At the heart of the book is his detailed view of decision-making.

Significant theses defended in the book divide into two related groups: theses about decision that do not explicitly mention freedom; theses about freedom. The former group includes the following:

D1. Decisions are “second-order” actions. They are actions that generate other actions “by way of constituting the formation of an intervening action explanatory psychological state” (p. 3).

D2. “Decisions to act are means-end justifiable–justifiable in terms of desirable ends which they themselves are likely to further.” This is what “makes decisions … actions” (p. 8). Decisions, like associated first-order actions, are “governed by reason in its distinctively practical … form” (p. 271).

D3. Deciding to A “must be motivated by” a desire to A (p. 252).

D4. Decisions are “motivation-perpetuating”. “Decisions to do A simply ensure” that the ends that motivated the decisions–typically, “ends which from the outset [the agents] expect doing A to further”–“thereafter motivate the decision maker to A. Decisions cause their execution by perpetuating their own motivation” (p. 274).

D5. Decisions are “rationality-preserving”. “If a decision to act is taken rationally, then, in the absence of new information which warrants revising the assumptions on which the decision was based, the action which executes the decision will be rational too” (p. 93). By making decisions “we exercise future action control in a way that ensures our continuing rationality as agents” (pp. 6-7).

D6. Reason-Apply: “Any end E that justifies deciding to A must, supposing that decision is taken, also provide at least as much justification for doing A” (p. 153).

D7. Action: “Any justification at t for then deciding or intending to do A consists in the likelihood at t that so deciding or intending would further a desirable end E’ (p. 145). Given that decisions are actions, Action is implied by

Justify: “Any justification for doing A consists in the likelihood that doing A would further a desirable end E” (p. 139).

D8. “Deciding now, rather than later or not at all, to do A typically increases what an agent is likely to gain were he to do A–and to increase what the agent is likely to lose were he not to do A”, thereby increasing the “agent’s justification for doing A later” (p. 240).

D9. The function of decision-making “is to ensure that the actions which we perform at any given time arc those which are justified given the actions which we perform at other times” (p. 209).

In defending D2, Pink is careful to observe that it does not entail that the reasons for which agents decide to A are reasons specifically for so deciding. Indeed, the reasons for which we decide to A are often just reasons we have for A-ing (pp. 145-6). What justifies us in deciding to A can go significantly beyond the reasons for which we decide to A. I might decide today to visit London next summer, and the reasons for which I so decide might be limited to my London-recommending reasons. What justifies me in so deciding, Pink contends, must conform to Action (D7). My deciding well in advance to visit London next summer is likely to “increase the benefit I derive” from visiting London (by prompting me to make plans that will enhance the value of my visit, cf. D8 and pp. 130-1). This fact is a justification for deciding today to visit London, even though it plainly is not a reason for visiting London.

Theses D3 through D6 are threatened by cases in which there is a reward for deciding to A that is not contingent upon one’s A-ing. For example, in a version of Gregory Kavka’s “toxin puzzle”, an agent is promised a million dollars for deciding tonight to drink a certain non-lethal toxin tomorrow: the agent understands that he does not need to drink the toxin to gain the money (G. Kavka, “The Toxin Puzzle”, Analysis, 43, 1983, pp. 33-6). In this case, it seems, if the agent does manage to decide to drink the toxin, that decision was not motivated by a desire to drink the toxin, might not be motivation-perpetuating, and would not be rationality-preserving. Furthermore, an agent who decides to drink the toxin apparently has justification for deciding to drink it without having (as much) justification for drinking it.

Pink devotes considerable ink to the puzzle (indeed, much more than his index indicates: see pp. 147-59, 177-83, 192-200; cf. pp. 201-4). The bottom line regarding Reason-Apply (D6) is this: we have no justification for deciding to drink the toxin; rather, we have justification for taking steps to bring it about that we decide to drink it and for deciding to take such steps (pp. 1989). If that is right, the threat to Reason-Apply is dissolved. But one may still wonder about D3, for example. Elsewhere (A. Mele, “Intentions, Reasons, and Beliefs: Morals of the Toxin Puzzle”, Philosophical Studies, 68, 1992, pp. 171-94), I argued that a rather special agent can win the prize for deciding to drink the toxin under conditions that are even more stringent than those laid down by Kavka’s billionaire; and my agent had no desire to drink the toxin prior to deciding to drink it. However, I should think that relatively modest modifications in Pink’s account of deciding can accommodate the possibility of such an agent (assuming that it is a possibility): room can be made for special cases.

Pink’s theses about freedom include the following:

F1. Dependence: “Our freedom of [first-order] action depends on a prior control over which actions we decide to perform” (p. 65). More concisely, “freedom of [first-order) action depends on freedom of will” (p. 5). “Our freedom to act otherwise depends upon a corresponding freedom to decide otherwise” (p. 87). “It is our capacity for free decision-making … which makes us free at all” (p. 100).

F2. Survival: “Where we have had control of whether or not” we decided to A, “deciding to A cannot of itself remove our continuing freedom to change our minds, and not do A” (p. 81).

F3. Free decision-making does not require a higher-order decision: a decision to decide to A. This requirement would lead to a vicious regress (Ch. 7).

F4. “The will … is what our belief in our freedom requires it to be–a faculty for action-generating action, which serves to apply reason as it governs the actions generated” (p. 275). The exercise of the will is decision-making (pp. 135-6, 268), and “decisions are actions by which we freely determine our subsequent actions” (p. 90). “Taking a decision constitutes a distinctively rational form of self-determination” (p. 93), and freedom is precisely “a capacity for rational self-determination” (p. 12). “Our paradigm of a free agent is an agent who manages to determine how he will act by his own free decisionmaking” (p. 86).

Early in the book Pink writes: “For many actions A, we are both free to do A and free not to do A. This freedom to act otherwise … is what I mean when I write of our freedom of action” (p. 15). Since a story about the freedom to act otherwise is at best a partial story about free action, some readers will wish that Pink had cast his net more broadly. Moreover, as I will explain, a successful defense of a robust account of the freedom to act otherwise would seem to require a metaphysical excursion that Pink eschews.

I start with the point about breadth. Doing A while being free to do otherwise, I believe, is neither necessary nor sufficient for doing A freely. That it is not necessary is an apparent moral of familiar Frankfurt-style cases (see Harry Frankfurt, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”, Journal of Philosophy, 66, 1969, pp. 829-39). If these cases are coherent (and this, I grant, is controversial), an agent may freely decide to A and freely A even though she is not free to do otherwise than decide to A and A: there is a powerful demon on the scene who would have made the agent decide to A and do A, if she had not decided on her own to A.

That the condition in question is not sufficient for A-ing freely also is plausible. Even an agent who unfreely does A may have been free at the time to do something other than A. Suppose that, via brainwashing, Mary (a relatively ordinary person) is given an irresistible desire to assassinate a leader of an English-speaking nation. The implanted desire leaves open, among other things, the specific victim and the mode of assassination. Mary deliberates carefully and rationally with a view to the achievement of this end, decides to shoot leader X at an upcoming public news conference at place P, and later executes this decision. Suppose that Mary was free to decide and act otherwise: for example, she was free to decide to assassinate Y instead, free to decide on some other way of assassinating X, and free to act accordingly. And suppose, as well, that given her irresistible desire, it was inevitable that Mary would decide to assassinate some relevant leader and attempt to execute her decision. Intuitively, I submit, Mary’s decision to shoot X at P was not freely made, nor was the shooting a free action. As evidence for this proposition, I offer another intuition: knowing what we do about Mary, we would not hold her morally responsible for the assassination nor for the decision.

All this is debatable, of course. But Pink steers clear of this debate and some related traditional debates about freedom. He steadfastly refuses to take up issues about moral responsibility traditionally associated with freedom (see p. 12), and he honestly reports that “this book will not tell you” whether freedom is compatible with determinism (p. 11). I have no objection to this in principle. However, I think that traditional concerns specifically about the circumscribed species of freedom that Pink addresses–the freedom to act (including decide) otherwise–do require attention. Pink attacks the implausible libertarian view that deciding to do A renders one unfree to do other than A (pp. 81-121). But a libertarian need not be committed to this implausible view in order to hold that, in a deterministic world, no one is free to act (including decide) otherwise than she does. Some libertarians have argued that determinism precludes free action and free will precisely because, in a deterministic world, no one could ever have done otherwise than she did. It is plausible that an agent who could not have done otherwise than A at t was not free to do otherwise than A at t. The construction of an account of “could have done otherwise”—a traditional task in the literature on freedom—certainly seems to be in order, given Pink’s aim of illuminating the freedom to do otherwise. Here, I believe, an excursion into the metaphysics of free will is called for as a way of making Pink’s account of the freedom to do otherwise more substantial.

Pink’s account of decision-making is detailed and instructive. To the extent that he has clarified the nature of decision-making, he has clarified free decision-making: we cannot know what deciding freely is unless we know what deciding is. I suspect, however, that a proper account of free decision-making–and even just of the freedom to decide and act otherwise–will run significantly deeper than a full-blown account of decision-making itself. Pink expresses the hope that his “idea of freedom … can be made acceptable to Incompatibilists and Compatibilists alike” (p. 79). But even when the idea is taken for what it is explicitly said to be–an idea specifically of the freedom to act otherwise–it is not developed in sufficient detail to be regarded as a gift by either side. That said, Pink’s position on decision-making is a real contribution to the literature.


Department of Philosophy

Davidson College

Davidson, NC 28036


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