an assessment of philosopher robert kanes free will libertarianism

                An Assessment of Philosopher Robert Kane’s Free-Will Libertarianism

     The originality of Robert Kane’s particular brand of libertarianism seems to lie in his exposition of “self-forming actions” (SFA’s) and their bearing on “ultimate responsibility” (UR).  These pivotal concepts in his work depend, rather obviously, on a particular understanding of motivation and its relation to the self.  According to Kane’s argument there are indeterminate moments in life in which we are confronted with “alternative possibilities” (AP’s).  Though much of what occurs in life is in fact determinate as to motivation, crucial junctures, indeterminate moments—in which AP’s present themselves—do emerge at times, necessitating the exercise of choices (SFA’s) that will prove determinative for all our later actions.

     Clearly then, Kane is willing to acknowledge that much—or even, apparently, most—of what eventuates in human experience is unwilled, determined by factors of choiceless motivation and action.  Conceding a major point to determinist thought, he recognizes the existence of compulsion, coercion, political oppression, etc. as a factor limiting the scope of free will’s possibilities.  His is a qualified, though still incompatabilist libertarianism then, closely argued, with a view to accomplishing more than just a salvage operation for the good old cause defended by Samuel Johnson in the 18th Century with the assertion that “ we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t” (Feinberg and Schafer-Landau, 430).  Fortunately for the persuasiveness of his argument, Kane avoids such crude appeals to an imaginary “intuition” of “how things are.”  Nevertheless, his appeal to a motivational vector originating in the microbiology of neurons could be likened to Johnson’s “intuitive” claim in respect of its contestability on grounds of a speculative, or wish-fulfilling, assertion regarding the metaphysics of the self.  Both seem to depend upon what could be called the character model of personality.  Johnson was a royalist and a visceral Christian.  He was concerned with responsibility as an inviolable factor of the Christian and royalist establishment of his day, which he took to be absolute.  For the individual to have responsibility (to God and King), she must also have free will.  A person’s character being the intensity and consistency of her commitment to responsibility so understood, free will must be absolutely the case in human life—or else the status quo is all nonsense (which of course it could not be, since Johnson does not want it to be).

     Naturally one does not wish to overstress the analogy with Johnson (who was not, in any event, a professional philosopher), especially considering Kane’s repudiation of “extra factor” strategies (e.g. Kant’s “noumenal self”).  But the concept of SFA’s does, as in Johnson’s irritable claim of an intuitive knowing, quietly posit a notion of the self as a type of moral agent corresponding to the traditional model of “character”—which “character” must be perforce, for the sake of its self-substantiality as a concept, the product, at least at some point, of choices freely made by the self.

     How then can the meaningfulness of character be shown and affirmed in the absence of either a valid claim of intuitive certainty, or an argument for a noumenal component in the self?  Kane, in his essay “Reflections on Free Will, Determinism and Indeterminism,” tries to ground his vision in the example of a businesswoman who is torn by the necessity of deciding between a moral action (helping a victim of assault), or the unchecked pursuit of her ambitious goals (timely arrival at a business meeting).  Before witnessing the assault she is not confronted with any choices, any AP’s—her ambitious drive has totally determined her course of action.

After witnessing the assault, she is, as it were, offered the opportunity to individuate, to self-make as a moral agent.  Kane does not say so, but it seems that the businesswoman is in a position at this crucial point to create her own meaning.  She will be altruistic, or she will be selfish—this is the specific form of the choice she must make.  She will have a sterling character henceforth, or a fairly rotten one, even though we are told she is prepared to “endorse” whichever decision she makes.  Anyone reading Kane’s account must feel this.  It is not unlike Sartre’s classic example, in his discussion of Choice, of the hiker who lies down to rest on the trail, causing his group to be benighted before reaching camp (Sartre, 255-260).  Kane’s example is described less portentously (“man is condemned to freedom,” etc.) than in Sartre’s typical prose, but the moral implications of the two are parallel.  The businesswoman’s choice will be an SFA.  She is being forced by the (ethical) realities of life to become a carrier of meaning—and not only, since there is a victim of a crime to be considered, for herself.  The victim may live or die as a result of her SFA.  There is a further parallel in the New Testament parable of the Good Samaritan: a businessman on the road discovers the victim of a crime and decides to concern himself.  There is a noumenal glow to Kane’s example, which obtains even in the absence of a specifically noumenal background.

     It is a little difficult to assess the validity of Kane’s reliance on molecular chemistry and quantum physics as a substitute for noumenal agency.  By falling back on chaos theory, etc., he seems tacitly to acknowledge that a philosophy of free will, in order to be valid, must ground itself in some invisible agency or reality.  How else to explain the risky move (of resorting to speculative science), which does not seem to be absolutely necessitated by the argument for ultimate responsibility?  Would it not be enough to say that there is a clash of impulses in the businesswoman’s mind, which must be resolved by her in one way or another?  It seems that the concept of free will must avail itself of an invisible prop, even in the case of an argument that has specifically renounced metaphysical grounding.  Kane writes:

Imagine that two crossing (recurrent) neural networks are involved, each influencing the other, and representing her conflicting motivations.  (These are complex networks of interconnected neurons in the brain circulating impulses in feedback loops that are generally involved in higher-level cognitive processing.)  The input of one of these networks consists in the woman’s reasons for acting morally and stopping to help the victim; the input of the other, her ambitious motives for going to her meeting. (8)

In the absence of rhetoric, of literary devices and resonance, of Sartrean portentousness—and attempting to honor his own self-imposed caveat against “extra factor strategies”—Kane has sought to anchor his libertarian moral vision in yet another form of mystagogy: interpreting, for his own polemical purposes, the inner workings of the brain.

      Part of the reason for Kane’s gravitating toward scientific theory is presumably his hope of circumventing the problem of “infinite regress” in tracing the path of motivation and action.  But how successful is he?  The theories he relies on are unverified.  Moreover, experience seems to suggest that motivations are seldom, if ever, so unmixed as they appear in an example such as that of the businesswoman.  What if, for instance, the businesswoman is truly ambitious in a general way, but happens to dread the sort meeting toward which she is hurrying?  Would not then the plight of the victim of assault represent a welcome opportunity to avoid it?  Where is UR in such ambiguous circumstances?  Of course we are to consider as SFA’s only such situations as the one Kane describes.  Yet can it be convincingly shown that anyone anywhere, outside of an illustrative fiction, has ever been confronted with such a clear-cut set of choices?  This is open to doubt principally, as suggested, from a lucid examination of one’s own daily experience of mind and motivation.  Surely a philosophical argument must be persuasive on grounds other than mere technical virtuosity in the professional deployment of terms and logical structures.

     In the context of this doubt regarding the verisimilitude of Kane’s argument-from-example, it is worth noting that he resorts, later in his essay, to the analogy of authorship—as if one’s life were a novel, a work-in-progress over which one could freely exercise “judgments of the will (arbitria voluntatis)” (14).  He writes:

…every undetermined self-forming free choice is the initiation of what I have elsewhere called a “value experiment” whose justification lies in the future and is not fully explained by past reasons.  In making such a choice we say, in effect, “Let’s try this.  It is not required by my past, but it is consistent with my past and is one branching pathway my life can now meaningfully take.  Whether it is the right choice only time will tell.  Meanwhile I am willing to take responsibility for it one way or the other.” (14)

The artificiality and glibness of this formulation would seem to speak for themselves.  One is tempted to remark that a life lived as a “value experiment” hardly seems worth living.  Even the life of a saint or bodhisattva surely must evince some texture of vitality, some drama of uncertainty, hope, desire and risk that outstrips and renders ludicrous the meagerness of “let’s try this.”  It is as if Kane were addressing a roomful of small children in need of reassurance that life really will not hurt that much—it is all just a nifty experiment, a fictional exercise from which one can easily stand back at a safe distance, blandly issuing declarations as to its moral authenticity.

     With regard to the issue of “infinite regress”: bad as it seems to Kane, it at least acknowledges the possibility of the infinite.  What exactly is wrong with that?  The infinite is, like other frightening prospects, most frightening when one tries to avoid it.  Consider the account Kane offers regarding the mental event of the businesswoman’s choice.  What proof is there that her decision is not finally arbitrary, or the pure result of sensitive dependence on initial conditions.  If we are to consider such matters a brain functioning, concerning which so little is certainly known, who can say what “butterfly effects” might not come into play.  Why, she might be sleep-deprived, have drunk too much coffee that morning, fought with her husband the night before, just gotten news that her mother has had a stroke.  There are so many many contingencies that can and do affect the way we make decisions.  Life is not passed in a bell jar.  We might be cowards one time, heroes the next.  Character itself is no more than a theory—or, worse, an opinion regarding a mystery, itself wrapped in an enigma, whose solution might really be the dimension of the infinite: what lies beyond argumentation.

     Kane says nothing about compassion.  Is it not possible the businesswoman might choose to help the victim out of empathy, spontaneously-arising fellow feeling, rather than moral rectitude and the sudden urge to “make” herself as a moral person?  If someone is being violently assaulted, what difference does “my” character, or “my” self-creation make?  An issue more relevant for me than that of my “character” might be how in the world I am going to learn to love, how I am to base my life on love and compassion, how I am going to get rid of my ambition and become not moral, but deeply happy—capable of living independently of stereotyped valuations.

     Is it insanity or a violation of the ends of philosophy to ask myself such questions?  If I can find answers to these, I think I can learn to live with my “butterfly effects” and the glitches in my brain functioning.  I might even learn self-forgiveness—that is, the businesswoman might learn it.  But I am the businesswoman, am I not?  That is why her example has the potential to be meaningful for me.  What others are, I am.  Therefore what I am, others might learn to be.  So what self am I creating when I create myself?  Surely it is better to create a possibility for the world rather than just a personal character.  Must I always inhabit no more than a circumscribed center, relentlessly defined by such social categories as ambitiousness or moral correctness?  If the businesswoman is truly to know freedom, might she not choose to step out of her socially-defined sphere altogether and find a new way of living?  What exactly is to prevent her doing so?  It does not seem perverse to ask such questions given that I, unlike Kane’s imaginary businesswoman, but like all the unimaginary persons—my similars—inhabiting the world, am actually in life and very far from having tried every intelligent and philosophically compelling possibility of freedom, or even of free will.  As a human being, as well as a thinker, it concerns me very much to discover what can be accomplished in this field.

     In Kane’s argument for UR, he represents SFA’s as more-or-less isolated incidents.  As stated above, a given SFA is held to be determinative for later actions.  Why should this be so?  It is as if we were automata at all other moments, but are held to have free will by virtue of the fact that at certain rare and privileged junctures we have been enabled—presumably by chance—to re-program ourselves as a certain “new” kind of automaton.  Henceforth we will be this type of automaton rather than any other.  It is certain that one functions much like an automaton much of the time.  But surely this is appalling.  If I am conscious of AP as a phase of the self’s fundamental reality, how am I to bear the apparently ineluctable truth that I must live without AP—that is, as an automaton—throughout the balance of my time on earth when not engaged in an SFA?  It seems absurd to thought that I would be willing to stop at one single access of genuine AP simply because that is all that my philosophy allows for.  What is to prevent any given SFA from blossoming into a full-scale epiphany, a world-revelation—the opening of a vista whose possibility I had not suspected before, and which is certain to alter not only my character, but my entire perception of reality and of “my” possibilities as a participant in it?

     Of course Kane’s is a descriptive, not a prescriptive philosophy.  The prescriptions are what I must arrive at on my own.  Either my free will allows for this, or it does not.  I respond to Kane’s views and arguments as the human being that I am—as my previous SFA’s presumably have determined.  (He would surely allow me this.)  It may be that I am not content simply to be able to paraphrase Kane’s reasoning as a text on a page, or to locate it as a type of philosophy among others.  This I can do of course.  What I really want to do, however, is to test it as a truth for myself.  If free will is not an actuality I can discover through living it, it can be nothing for me except a barren claim with no vitalizing impact.  It is open to question whether or not the businesswoman in Kane’s example ever actually knows that her decision is an SFA.  Kane states that she is willing to endorse her decision, regardless of its consequences—that this is part of its being an SFA.  But who is the authority regarding whether or not it actually is a genuine SFA?  In the case of a novel that is being written, it is of course the author who decides whether or not the character in question is “making” herself by a certain decision.  Such incidents occur  routinely in novels.  But art is not life.  It seems, again, absurd to thought that an SFA could ever occur as such a discrete instant of decision-making with no authority to designate it as such.  In the un-novel-like conditions of actual life, there is no such authority except the real self in question—the one who is making the decision and whose awareness and circumstances have made the decision necessary in the first place.  That self could never be so placed as to be able to say “Aha, now I am going to make a self-forming decision”—not without the event’s also constituting a revelation of the essential metaphysical disposition of “my” reality itself.  For my free will—if it exists—must surely represent an indispensable component of any character I could be said to “have.”  Stated somewhat dramatically: to the extent that I have free will, I also am free will.  And having once made this discovery—if I ever make it—I doubt that life will ever be, or seem, the same as before.


                                                           Works Cited

Feinberg, Joel and Russ Shafer-Landau. Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999.

Kane, Robert. “Reflections on Free Will, Determinism and Indeterminism.” Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website. <>

Sartre, Jean Paul. The Philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. Ed. Robert Denoon Cumming. New York: Random House, 1965.


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