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Building Better BeingsA Theory of Moral Responsibility$

Manuel Vargas

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199697540

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199697540.001.0001

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(p.315) Appendix: Activity and Origination

(p.315) Appendix: Activity and Origination

Building Better Beings
Oxford University Press

1. Activity, origination, and freedom

The function of this Appendix is to consider a collection of issues that arise from considering ways in which free will and responsible agency might be thought to rely upon, or be interestingly integrated with a causal theory of action more generally. I start with the idea that sometimes free will is characterized as an active power.

On my account, free will can be had by possession of a capacity. One might object that this is entirely too passive to be an adequate account of free will. After all, the critic might say, we readily recognize free will as an active power, the sort of thing characteristic of activity and origination.

A commitment to free will as an active thing seems to be operative in the following passage by Peter van Inwagen:

The concept of a causal power or capacity would seem to be the concept of an invariable disposition to react to certain determinate changes in the environment in certain determinate ways, whereas the concept of an agent’s power to act would seem not to be the concept of a power that is dispositional or reactive, but rather the concept of a power to originate changes in the environment.1

One way to think about these remarks is as an expression of the sourcehood impulse I noted earlier. Perhaps that’s what van Inwagen is giving expression to in this passage. I take it that the core issue, though, is that we need some distinction between when an agent originates changes and when the agent is subject to or passive with respect to such a change. We can think of this as a concept of origination or activity.

To be sure, on some views, sourcehood and origination may come to the same thing. They need not. One might think that sourcehood can only be satisfied by an agent causal picture, for example, but still hold that there is a different notion of activity and origination that is compatible with forms of agency that do not invoke irreducible agent causation. I will bracket questions about the more demanding conception of sourcehood, and instead focus on the issues of whether, given the (p.316) present account, we can account for the ordinary idea of there being a difference between agency that actively originates behavior as opposed to being passive with respect to it. (Recall: however we think about sourcehood, if it is to have any claim on our prescriptive theorizing, it cannot commit us to an essentially impossible power.)

It is reasonable to think that, at least paradigmatically, free will involves a power of originating activity. This does not entail that there are no cases of free will that lack the characteristic structure, however. It simply means that whatever we say about free will, if it is to correspond to this aspect of our ordinary convictions, it will need to explain how activity can be ordinarily present in instances of free will.

Next, note that the present account is not just appealing to the presence of a disposition. There are plausibly dispositions involved in considerations-responsiveness, to be sure. But, at least in a case of original responsibility, the burden of accounting for the active element does not rest internal to a theory of free will so much as a broader theory of agency.

So, my proposal is that we grant the originating/non-originating distinction, allow that many paradigmatic instances of free will-exercising agency will be originating, but locate the source of this distinction in the operations of self-governed agency. As I noted in chapter 7, such agency could include higher-ordered desires, identity-fixing policies that govern practical reasoning, and so on.2 On this picture, the idea is that we account for the originating activity of agents, something above and beyond the trigger of dispositional properties, by appealing to various features of agents that are not particular to free will and moral responsibility but that arise more generally in sophisticated forms of self-directed agency.

Here is how an independently generated account of self-governance can address such questions in the context of free will. Start with Bratman’s idea that his planning theory of intention constitutes “a modest theory of the will.” The idea is that we can identify an agent’s will with his or her intentions, and we can understand the various rational constraints on willing in terms of the rational constraints on intending. In light of such an account, one might think it would be an elegant extension of both that account and the present revisionist, prescriptive (p.317) account of responsibility if there were a way to bridge the notion of the will-as-an-agent’s-intentions and free will-as-moral-considerations-responsiveness.

I think there is a way to do just that. It requires a bit of linguistic regimentation, but this is easy enough to provide. I have already said that one has free will when one has the capacities to recognize and respond to moral considerations in the appropriate ways. This is a picture on which one’s possessing free will occurs only under conditions in which there are moral considerations in play. We can say that one retains that capacity for free will even in circumstances where no such considerations are active. This is just to say that one has a capacity for having the distinctive responsibility-relevant capacities.

Perhaps this sounds strange to you. It should not. In ordinary discourse we regularly acknowledge the capacity to have other capacities. I am capable of being proficient at sewing freehand, although I am not currently proficient in that way. You are capable of becoming able to distill bourbon, even though (I imagine) you currently lack that capacity. Our general capacity to acquire more particular capacities is expansive.

At least in ordinary language, there are relatively loose constraints on whether and when we treat the capacity to develop a capacity as constituting the possession of the latter capacity. Indeed, I am suspicious about there being more than conventional or pragmatic considerations at work here. I find it hard to see how there could be a sharp metaphysical distinction about whether, for example, I am able to buy a luxury sedan in the general “now,” if it is the case that in order to buy a luxury sedan I would first need to secure a loan from the bank. If we are confident that I could secure that loan, it doesn’t seem odd to me to insist that I can now buy a luxury sedan.

Of course, we could sharpen up matters with a bit of time-indexing. So: I can’t now buy that luxury sedan, but I can now get the loan so that post-loan, in the car dealership, I will be able to buy the car. Still, it doesn’t seem to get rid of the basic problem. After all, when does it become true that I can buy the car—when I walk into the dealership? When I first broach the subject with a salesperson? When I am presented with the paperwork? When I’ve had an opportunity to put the pen to paper? When my final signature on the documents is nearly complete?

We could try to finesse the metaphysics in various ways. I suspect we are better off thinking about matters differently. Instead, I prefer to think that the propriety of whether and how we narrow or expand the time-indexing for capacity-talk is primarily a function of our practical interests and our local conventions. That is, the interesting truths about agent-involving capacities and abilities are less a matter of carving the mind-independent world at its joints than it is of carving our practical interests at their joints. But you don’t have to agree with me about all of this (p.318) (except, of course, in the aforementioned, normatively structured case of the responsibility-relevant capacities!). The point here is that it is not especially unusual to talk about higher-order capacities.

Now consider the following picture of what it is to have a capacity for one’s will to be free. We characterize this capacity in terms of the twin capacities to recognize and appropriately respond to relevant moral considerations in the given context. This capacity must be taken to include the forming of intentions to act, in its “appropriately respond” condition. One’s willing is free—in the sense of manifesting a responsibility-centric conception of free will—when one’s intentions are produced via those considerations-responsive capacities. One acts from free will when one’s actions proceed from a will that is free in the sense just specified.

On this picture, we can further distinguish between the possession and exercise of free will. In saying that one possesses a free will, what is properly expressed is the thought that one has the occurrent capacity to recognize and respond to moral considerations. As I have already noted, this is a capacity that might, in a given situation, go unexercised. If I am sitting in my chair, dozing off, but not quite asleep, I plausibly retain a suitably robust ability to recognize and respond to a range of moral considerations in light of whatever morally salient activities are occurring in the room.

So, for example, I may be alive to the fact that one of my daughters is ravaging the puzzle that was recently assembled by her sister. In just sitting there, I am not obviously exercising my capacity to self-governance in light of various concerns about the ruthless destruction of the puzzle’s arrangement by the transgressing sister. I am mostly passive to the world. Still, I retain my free will.

However, I might exercise those capacities that constitute free will. In exercising the relevant capacities and producing an intention (or intentions) that operate through or function at least partly through those responsibility-relevant capacities, I can be said to exercise my free will.

In chapter 3, I noted that one defeasible aspiration for an account of free will is that it capture the idea that our freedom is not mere arbitrariness, nor something that bypasses agency, but that is instead a kind of freedom where we are contributors, contributors whose input in the causal process reflects agent-level control.

We might again borrow resources from contemporary philosophy of action to give us a way to satisfy that desideratum. Consider an important challenge for contemporary accounts of agency, especially those that aim to roughly reduce agency to the functioning of various mental states. The challenge is this: why do some mental states or their arrangements, and not others, count as having “agential authority”? After all some of my mental states can be said to “speak for me” but others we regard as wayward impulses, desires we dismiss as contrary to our values, (p.319) or thoughts we regard as outlaw or from which we are alienated. In trying to articulate a privileged set of structures or elements in our psychic economy, these accounts can be understood as articulating various possible structures of interest to us, but among them is the thought that some or perhaps many of these structures can count as constituting the agent’s standpoint.

Return to the Bratmanian model. Simplifying a bit, we can say that what gives particular plan-like structures the authority to “speak for the agent” is their role in constituting the agent’s identity over time.3 In turn, these structures filter various plans of action. They support the recognition and implementation of some considerations while suppressing the recognition and implementation of others. Accordingly, self-governing policies (standing plans about what is to be given how much weight in one’s deliberation) can structure what reasons there are for an agent. If there are external reasons, such policies filter what reasons the agent recognizes and/or embraces as his or her own. The involved policies and plan-like structures do this by, among other things, ruling out some considerations and treating others as reasons-giving in practical deliberation.

In such a picture, where considerations-sensitive structures are coupled with a rich account of the operations of sophisticated self-directed agency, we have a natural way to account for the thought that freedom (of the responsibility-relevant sort) is indeed partly a function of the agent. What difference-making our agency provides, even embedded in the ebb and flow of psychological phenomena, is to be found in the operations of those privileged features of the agent that constitute the agent’s own standpoint. It will not provide a complete stopping point for the causal nexus, some point that does not extend past the agent. I’ve already rejected that demand for a variety of reasons (see chapter 3). What a Bratman-like picture does provide, however, is a principled reason for attributing at least some actions to the agent in a non-arbitrary way.

Where free will and origination come together, then, are in those cases where policies interact with, and indeed structure, our capacities for recognizing moral considerations and acting upon them. When those capacity-structuring policies stand in the right relationship to the agent’s identity and other aspects of the agent’s psychic economy, the actions that flow from intentions thus formed are both free (in the responsibility-relevant sense) and originating in the agent in a non-arbitrary sense. The grounds for the freedom claim derives from the role those capacities play in, among other things, supporting and licensing a system of moralized praising and blaming. The grounds for the origination claim derive (p.320) from the role those privileged elements of the psyche play in constituting the agent’s identity and standpoint.

This picture gives us resources to make sense of several familiar ideas. For example, we have the resources to explain how, in some sense, we (at least sometimes) give ourselves a kind of freedom with agent-level control. We give that freedom to ourselves, by adopting policies that support the recognition of moral considerations and action that derives from or reflects the recognition of those considerations. Such policies can contribute to making us agents of a particular kind—responsible agents, i.e., moral considerations-responsive agents. We are the ones giving it to ourselves inasmuch as the doing so is grounded in identity- and standpoint-constituting features.4

It is in virtue of being responsible agents (agents capable of recognizing and responding to moral considerations, and capable of embedding such concern in a privileged network of identity-constituing plans and policies) that larger social networks of practices and judgments interlock with the agent-level control-constituting aspects of responsibility. That is, (partly) in virtue of instituting policies of appropriately responding to moral considerations we come to be moral considerations-responsive agents. Structure of agency and structures of norm-governed social practices are mutually supporting.

2. Willpower

Recently, Richard Holton has drawn on work in experimental psychology to argue that a plausible picture of agency will need to include the notion of willpower.5 As he understands it, willpower is a faculty, a power distinct from various mental states such as desires, beliefs, and intentions. It can be strengthened through exercise, and its strength plays an important role in successful self-regulation. Its principal significance for Holton is that it contributes to efficacy of resolutions, or intentions to X that are accompanied by the intention not to be deflected from doing X.

These ideas can give some texture to the present account. Someone might act of their own free will—intending to X, and choosing so on the basis of the operation of responsibility-relevant capacities. The stability of the agent’s intention to X—his or her strength of will, in Holton’s terms—depends on a number of things, (p.321) including whether the action is habitual and whether it is implemented and sustained in the context of temptations to not X. In these latter cases, an agent’s willpower will plausibly have some role to play in whether the agent can carry through on his or her will to X.

This suggests that willpower ordinarily has a special significance for freely willed action. An agent might form an intention to X in a moral considerations-responsive fashion. However, if that agent is subject to constant temptation, or finds him- or herself deficient in willpower, that agent is less likely to retain the capacity for self-governance in light of moral considerations. Of course, where that threshold is set may vary across contexts and classes of considerations. And, the presence of the capacity does not guarantee its exercise. However,other things equal, greater willpower provides greater capacity for self-governance precisely by amplifying the capacity to sustain those intentions formed in response to the content of moral considerations.

One upshot of this picture is that there may be irresolute agents who nevertheless retain freedom of the will across vacillations of resolutions. Consider an agent who is terrible about resisting temptation, but only in circumstances where there are moral considerations that favor alternate but distinct courses of action. Perhaps some cases of vacillation between competing courses of actions favoring incommensurable moral goods are like this. If so, the agent may act from free will in one way, and then act from free will in the contrary instance of intending.

Recall the example from Sartre of a son that is deciding between caring for his sick mother and joining the Resistance. This son might act from free will in first deciding to join the Resistance and acting accordingly (for example, packing up, saying his goodbyes, apologizing to his mother, and so on). However, after walking out the front door, should the son decide (let us suppose) to overturn the involved resolution (recall: both the intention to join the Resistance and the intention to not reconsider that intention), this new course of action could be freely willed. All that is required is that the new will be formed in a fashion responsive to the relevant moral considerations in that context, and that the agent has the relevant capacity to self-govern in light of that intention. Is this possible?

I think so. What is crucial is that the agent be sufficiently capable of self-governance in light of either course of action, without that standard of self-governance being so high as to rule out failures of self-governance. We’ve already seen that the self-governance condition plausibly allows that one may be capable of self-governance in light of a consideration without one actually exercising that capacity. All that the present case requires is that the agent is capable of self-guidance on either option. And, at least prima facie, I don’t see any reason to think this cannot happen, even if in fact the agent vacillates back and forth.

(p.322) The example may be made more plausible if we assume that the relevant psychological trigger for revising the resolution is relatively specific. Suppose the son will not revise the resolution to join the Resistance so long as when he walks out the door, his mother does not begin to wail. Quiet sobbing won’t do the trick—it must be full-blown wailing. And, suppose too that were the son to resolve to stay with mom, the only condition under which he would revisit that temptation is if in the first ten minutes of doing so he hears gunfire.6 In such a case it seems to me that both as a matter of our current intuitions and the regimentation provided by the present account, we can conclude that the agent possesses the capacity for self-governance in either direction, regardless of whether he happens to be in a world where the relevant triggers are present or not.

So, I think we should allow that it is possible for an agent to vacillate between distinct wills and to be free and responsible in so acting under each then-controlling intention.

In allowing for this possibility, I do not think we need to take a stand on the difficult issue of the conditions under which it is rational to revise an intention. For present purposes, it is enough to allow that one might form a future-directed intention, and form it in a moral considerations-responsive way. Such an intention would constitute a free will, so long as it was action guiding. Were the agent to abandon that intention and form a new intention, the new intention would also be free, so long as it was produced in the right way, and appropriately governed action. So, an agent might irrationally abandon a will to X that is free, but settle on a new will to X that is free, and that doing so might itself be free. That production of a replacement intention is responsive to moral considerations does not guarantee that revision of the original intention was not irrational, or even, that the new will itself is not irrational with respect to non-moral considerations.

In sum, whether willpower-dependent deficits of self-governance render an agent non-responsible depends on the effect of the deficit on the agent and the precise standard for self-governance for agents in that type of circumstance. Nevertheless, the basic picture here is one on which the various properties can, at least in principle, operate independently of one another. So, an agent might will freely but might also have a relatively low-powered will. This might occur when an agent’s moral-considerations-responsively formed will governs, and succeeds in doing so (p.323) despite low willpower because of the absence of relevant temptations. In other cases, an agent might lack free will in some context (e.g., in non-moral circumstances, or in cases of coercion) but be possessed of considerable reserves of willpower (but, perhaps, willpower insufficient to resist the coercion). Alternately, an agent might have both considerable willpower and have free will, but simply not will (as in the case of indecision about what to do). This diversity of arrangements between the will, free will, and willpower seems consonant with the complexity of agency as we find it and experience it in the world.

These thoughts point to some reasons why efforts of will, or exercises of willpower, have a special significance for responsibility. First, the exercise of willpower can make self-governance effective when it would not otherwise be. Second, even when the exercise of willpower is not effective, if willpower can be strengthened through exercise, whether it was exercised or not is significant for the development of moral considerations-responsive agency. In light of this, judgments of blameworthiness (recall: assessments of quality of will) have reason to be sensitive to both aspects of willpower’s significance. Mitigation follows from earnest but failing efforts to bring willpower to bear, whereas failures to bring willpower to bear usually intensify blame. The systemic effects of judgments and practices that are responsive to these willpower-assessing norms plausibly contribute to the ends of the responsibility system.

3. Activity and passivity

Let us return to the issue that motivated these reflections: origination and activity in the exercise of free will. As I noted at the outset, the present approach deflects questions of origination and action-initiation about free will to accounts of self-directed agency and their pictures of action attribution and action initiation. In this section, I aim to pull together several of the threads developed in the preceding discussion.

The present prescriptive, responsibility-centric conception of free will cross-cuts the active/passive distinction. Responsiveness to moral considerations might sometimes work through an active self and other times not. An agent might be active in making a decision—and that decision might reflect a suitable ability to recognize and respond to reasons—or she might not.7 In a given instance, then, action (p.324) flowing from moral considerations-sensitive capacities might not operate through whatever features of agency prove to be origination-producing.

I have already implicitly pointed to one way in which conditions of origination separate from free will: origination is to be given by an independent account of agency whereas free will is given by the considerations-responsive mechanisms identified by this account. Free will satisfies conditions of origination only when both conditions are simultaneously satisfied. There is some reason to think that this will happen in mature forms of agency whenever agents settle on policies to treat particular moral considerations as action-determining.

Let’s return to the question of activity, however. In the case where an agent is active with respect to some choice, perhaps launching some effort of will to consider what considerations are alive in the circumstances of practical reasoning (or perhaps struggling to bring one’s intentions in line with the relevant considerations), we have reason to hope that the relevant capacities to recognize and respond to moral considerations are “alive” or present in the agent. But it is not a matter of necessity that such capacities are live.

For example, one’s active, conscious deliberations might be in the grip of an ideology or self-conception that filters reasons worse than they would have been if one’s mechanisms for judgment-making were never engaged. In other cases, one might (perhaps through habituation or native endowment) recognize and respond to moral considerations in ways that seem to bypass any engagement of active, conscious agency. So, I think it is not only possible but also sometimes desirable to think of the control-constituting capacities of responsibility as not always involving the activity of conscious deliberative agency.

We might then wonder whether there is any role whatsoever for the active exercise of specifically conscious agency. The role of consciousness in general is a notoriously difficult thing to pin down, but at least here there is a plausible enough role for it, supposing conscious agency is causally efficacious. Suppose that we accept that some of our reasons-detecting processes are conscious and others are not, and that some move from conscious to unconscious (or in the opposite direction) through sufficient attention or practice. The outputs of these varied mechanisms will sometimes converge, and other times conflict. Conscious activity might have some role to play as manager or arbiter of these conflicts, and as a monitoring system for when psychic conflict is pending or occurring.

That’s the general picture. However, let’s start with the thought that much of the time it is obvious what the agent should do, and what counts as a satisfactory way of doing it. Amongst adults it may frequently be the case that conscious deliberation only injects itself into the psychological tide when there is a special reason to do so. Such economy of intervention reflects different features of (p.325) conscious mental processes. Conscious deliberation is slow and demanding of neurochemical resources. Like all mechanisms, it is capable of error. Even so, to the extent to which it effectively resolves conflicts and sets in motion constraints on deliberation and action through planning and related mechanisms of psychological disciplining, it has an important role to play.

Plausible as it may be, this picture has been attacked by skeptics about the causal efficacy of conscious exercises of will-setting. Willusionists—Eddy Nahmias’ helpful term for those who reject that conscious, deliberative willing is in any way effective in the causal production of action—deny that our conscious, deliberative self can play any such active role.8 I think there are compelling reasons to reject willusionism on both conceptual and empirical grounds, so I am not much concerned.9

Even if we allow that willusionism is an open possibility, it seems to be an unduly narrow conception of the role of conscious, active agency that it only adjudicate between occurrent or pending psychic conflicts. Minimally, our conscious ability to form plan-like intentions functions as a way of extending our conscious, reasoning agency into the future. It does so by committing ourselves to one course of action rather than another in the chronological downstream.10

I am agnostic about what it would mean if it could somehow be shown that consciousness has no role to play in the setting of plans. Here, however, I will suppose that consciousness is implicated in at least the settling on courses of action, the forming of policies, the filtering of considerations, and in tapping the resources of willpower. If that is right, then we have a plausible role for conscious, active agency.

First, agential activity grounded in conscious monitoring of one’s actions and reasons provides a degree of control in light of considerations one endorses, even if those considerations do not have a strong grip on one’s non-conscious dispositions. After all, left to non-conscious processes, I might not self-govern in light of otherwise motivationally weak commitments. So consciousness may provide reinforcement by explicitly settling courses of action and by triggering exertions of resolution-armoring willpower. Second, active exercise of conscious willing can resolve conflicts in ways that track commitments that I espouse, even when such commitments wouldn’t govern if I were not attending to them.

So, if we accept that free will can operate in conditions where agents are both active and passive, we can still leave room for the thought that there may be special work for conscious mental life. Our conscious selves may sometimes turn the (p.326) psychic tide, by consciously rejecting what we would unreflectively do, if left to our own devices. And such tide-turning is plausibly a function of the faculty of willpower. However, conscious deliberation also has forward-looking virtues, setting up plans or weighing values that structure downstream operation. So, we can hold that the operation of free will may cross-cut the activity/passivity distinction in agency, but in doing so it does not entail that there is no benefit to be had from the engagement of agency in its active, conscious, deliberative mode.

In sum, one might exercise one’s free will in a way that provides for a variety of origination; however, one’s blameworthiness may sometimes fail to track that sense of origination. And, one might exercise free will and be either active with respect to that exercise (when one settles on a course of action) or passive to it (when, in acting, one merely continues to adhere to a policy of, say, disregarding avaricious impulses). What intuitions there are that free will requires origination and active, conscious agency are only partly preserved on the present prescriptive account. Still, there is some place for these thoughts, for origination and activity will frequently be important elements in the constitution of self-governance, and thus, in the constitution of free will. So, origination and activity are, in the ordinary course of things, plausibly important for and frequently compresent with free will. For all that, they are not essential to it.


(1) Van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will, p. 11.

(2) Accounts of what I am here characterizing as “self-governed agency” can be found in: John Bishop, Natural Agency: An Essay on the Causal Theory of Action (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Bratman, Structures of Agency: Essays; Harry G. Frankfurt, Necessity, Volition, and Love (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); J. David Velleman, Practical Reflection (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989). Note that such accounts are not always centrally concerned with the phenomenology of activity, although I take it that they are intended to be compatible with such phenomenology. Rather, what is central is the thought that a plausible account of, roughly, the metaphysics of agency will have the resources for drawing a distinction between the active and the passive, that which originates from the agent and that which originates without, and so on.

(3) See Bratman, Structures of Agency: Essays.

(4) It is also something we give to ourselves in another sense. Our control involves capacities we indirectly foster and develop in light of our participation in and perpetuation of the responsibility system.

(5) Richard Holton, Willing, Wanting, Waiting (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009): 125–35.

(6) If you like, you can even imagine that nothing about the bare fact of the agent reconsidering in those circumstances guarantees that the reconsideration will result in the alternate resolution. This can be imagined to occur in any of a variety of ways. We could suppose that the process is indeterministic in the agent, but we need not. It might be that the timing of the triggering event matters for the outcome of reconsideration, and that might be a fully deterministic matter. Here, my account’s moderately coarse-grained way of individuating circumstances permits us to treat such variation as variation in the same set of circumstances, even though a finer-grained way of individuating circumstances would preclude it.

(7) Richard Holton has argued that choice is an act that can occur in the absence of a judgment about the quality of the options. See his Richard Holton, “The Act of Choice,” Philosopher’s Imprint 6, no. 3 (2006): 1–15.

(8) The best-known proponent of this view is Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will.

(9) Alfred R. Mele, Effective Intentions: The Power of the Conscious Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

(10) This is a point Mele also emphasizes in Effective Intentions: The Power of the Conscious Will.