An Occasion of Monumental Importance at the Healy Home This Morning; or, What My Free Will Paper Is About

This morning, having dutifully fed Sofie breakfast, having fixed my lunch and a pot of coffee, having showered, and having already spent time working on my paper, I had approximately forty-five minutes before I needed to leave for work. This entire scenario was set in motion by previous choices, motives and efforts on my part, though the scenario was not absolutely determined by those choices, motives and efforts.

That is to say, in very brief summary, I chose, among other options, to marry. It is not clear to me what sort of options I had in choosing to marry Anna, for though I suppose I could have chosen to marry any of a number of young women I dated in college, I cannot say that such an option was realistically among any set of reasons or motives relative to my choices with regard to these relationships. I could, however, have chosen not to marry Anna. Among the many choices I have made since marrying Anna, two of them bear out on my current scenario: I choose to pursue a PhD in philosophy, and among the results of my efforts, motives and choices, am doing so in Chicago at Loyola University; and I chose, with Anna, to procreate. This is not to say that all of the results of all these choices were absolutely up to me: Loyola might not have accepted my application, Anna might have turned down my offer of marriage, and we might not have successfully conceived Sofie. But that my choices brought about through my actions further results, even if I wasn’t completely in control of directing all those results, I am as much responsible for this morning’s situation as if the outcome were entirely up to me.

All of which is shorthand to say: in the forty-five minutes I had prior to leaving for work I was faced with a moral and a prudential choice: did I work on my free will paper or did I acquiesce to my daughter’s pleadings for attention? All the accretions of my past decisions, choices, motives and efforts–along with events and occurrences not within my control–were ingredients in the mix of the branching paths presented to me.

The reasons and motives for either option were very strong. On the one hand, completing my free will paper was (and is) very important to me. There are many excellent reasons for so doing. I have obligated myself in a freely-willed duty to complete the paper. Completing the paper will ensure further progress in a degree program I desire to finish and the rights and responsibilities granted to me upon completion of said program are imminently desirable. This sort of activity utilizes traits and abilities that I derive pleasure from using and doing. Economically, the sooner I can complete my program, the less debt I will incur and the less financial burden and stress I will place on my family. I gave my word to my wife that I would complete these papers prior to our coming baby’s birth.

On the other hand, attending to my daughters’ wants and needs is very important to me, and there are very many excellent reasons for so doing. I have freely taken on the possibility and obligation of parenthood, specifically of being Sofie’s father. As part of those duties is the obligation to ensure my daughter’s emotional well-being, and this entails frequent embraces, kisses, assurances of love as well as shared time and attention in play without any external structures or constraints (here I’m thinking of the constraint of writing my paper). Sofie clearly wanted my attention, embraces and co-playing activity. Indeed, she demanded it with some tears. Furthermore, I greatly enjoy the pleasure of attending to my daughter’s various needs and of spending large amounts of unstructured and unconstrained time with her. We frequently have Saturday morning daddy-daughter dates which I look forward to all week. And even were her tears absent, and her demands less insistent, the pull to spend such time attending to my daughter would have been no less strong.

Now, according to libertarian concepts, I was faced with competing sets of motives and reasons, each very strong. This struggle of my free will between the competing sets of attractions could only be indeterminately brought to a resolution by my so willing a resolution. It was not simply that I willed to do one or another, but that I willed to resolve my indecision so as to do one thing and not another. And in bringing that struggle to a resolution, I am ultimately responsible for whichever choice I make. But which choice I make is indeterminate up to the moment of choosing.

Furthermore, being moral and prudential choices, they are teleological in nature, that is to say, oriented toward an object of my will that “goes beyond” as it were, the mere choice itself. Whichever choice I make, I will be making a teleological one, but in either case, I will resolve the indecision brought about by the competing motives and reasons (which themselves were brought about in part by my own past choices, efforts and actions) toward some end related to that choice.

So, what did I do?

I read a book to Sofie, and spent some time holding her in my lap.

And I also wrote on my paper.

If the competing motives and reasons were limited to a simple binary relation of opposition, I’m not sure whether I actually resolved my indecision or not. On the other hand, in that I resolved my indecision with a different choice than the seemingly all-encompassing options apparently present to me, one could say that this is a prime example of free will indeterminism. Up until the moment of decision I did not know whether or not I would resolve my internal struggle with one or another of the options presented to me. In the end, I combined the options in a third choice.

This is not to say that the third choice was not present to my will to so voluntarily resolve the impasse. But one might argue that it’s motives and reasons were not such as to draw my will in its direction; that is to say, the other options were stronger in motive force. But I chose against them for a third option with less distinct reasons and less compelling motives. Indeed, it is not, strictly speaking, an instance even of akratic, or weak, willing. For it is not as though I turned against long-term interest and duty for self-interest and immediate gratification. My third choice instantiated an aquiescence to both long-term interest and duty, but did so in a way that aligned the competing motives and reasons, even if in temporal sequence, rather than rejecting one or another of them.

Now the question is: did the production of this choice arise from my undetermined free will, or is there a property unique to myself as an agent that produced the choice by way of that property? At this point–and I am nearing the end of my paper–I cannot see any way to legitimately claim a unique property that produced the choice. I’m not exactly sure what is added to the explanation of my resolving the choice by affirming (with due argumentation to support the capacity itself) that I have an inherent capacity so to produce such choices and resolutions. If I can simply appeal to the actions I take as an agent, what more is added by asserting an extra-event causal property? I do understand that the premise is this inherent capacity seems to answer the questions with regard to agent control over choices, but if one does not demand absolute control and only ultimate control (i. e., indeterminate responsibility), then positing an extra-event causal capacity is wholly unnecessary.

Of course a compatibilist would simply say that I was determined akratically to refuse to choose between the competing options, and willed that which my akratic nature desired most strongly. This was not an instance of libertarian free will, but of soft determinism.

But then a soft determinist would have to say something like that.