The natural world shows us the connection of cause and effect. We say that thunder is caused by lightning and therefore expect thunder after seeing lightning. Given our relationship with causation, it is logical to accept determinism: the concept that every event has a cause. However, this creates some uncomfortable questions about free will: if all of our actions are caused, how can we say that we make any truly free actions? Ayer presents compatibilism as a way to reconcile feelings of free will with determinism. In this paper I will present Ayer’s theory on compatibilism by showing that the way we think about determinism is incorrect, and can in fact coexist with personal free will. I will then offer my thoughts on his concept of constraints.
Some degree of predictability is important for a functional society. Ayer explains that if a person acts completely unpredictably we don’t think of them as free, but as a lunatic (Ayer, 477). It is important that our actions do have some sort of logical explanation and are not simply due to chance. In the form of natural laws, determinism solves this. It explains that once a cause happens, the effect must occur. When water is heated, the molecules move faster and what follows is the water boiling. Therefore, for water to boil, we can say that it is necessary for it to be heated, because that is the only way that it can boil. We can apply these natural laws to human psychology as well and predict how people how people will behave in certain circumstances (Ayer, 476). A hard determinist would argue that if we know more about the person and circumstance that we would be able to predict exactly how a person would react. This is the approach that most people unconsciously take, believing that since we don’t know of any limits to what science can explain, we assume that if we keep researching, we will find the causal explanations for everything (Ayer, 476). However, given what we are able to know about people through natural laws, there is still a degree of specificity that we cannot achieve. For instance, how people can predict that a certain person will be upset in a specific circumstance, but they can’t predict what they will say or at what volume (Ayer, 476).
The main issue however, is that if we accept determinism to mean that all behaviour can be predicted, then we have no room for free will, as all of our actions are already determined by our genetic makeup. Instead, Ayer argues that “not all causes necessitate” (479). If we accept that all causes necessitate then we must believe that everything in the past, present, and future is already determined, and that we are just a part of it playing itself out. This removes free will, which compatibilism needs to include. Instead, Ayer believes that the role determinism plays in compatibilism is that all actions can be explained and follow a series of logical events, but not in the sense that we are fated to do anything (Ayer, 479). Therefore, we are still morally responsible for our actions as long as they are not constrained (Ayer, 478). To not be constrained is to say that you could have acted otherwise in a situation and that your action was voluntary and not compelled (Ayer, 478). In the case of a person with a compulsion to steal, Ayer argues that if they are morally opposed to stealing but their compulsion causes them to act in contrast with their morals, their action is constrained and they cannot be held morally responsible (Ayer, 478).
An issue with compatibilism is how to determine a constraint. A person with a compulsion to steal is said to be constrained because their attitudes toward stealing had no effect on the outcome. Rationally, we would have to extend this to any mental state that affected a person’s actions. However, Ayer presents an interesting thought experiment that seems to dispute his own point. He starts by saying that it is commonly accepted that a person’s childhood experiences inform their personality, and if it were found that a lesion on your brain you got as a child was responsible for an aspect of your personality, he argues that this is not an example of constraint (Ayer, 479). If that lesion were to make me more likely to lose my temper or affected how I interacted with people in any way, it would be a factor that I did not choose and since it happened in my formative years, I would not have been able to choose to interact with people in any other way beforehand, therefore I believe that it should be considered a constraint. This leads me to consider other aspects of personality, such as a child who is brought up thinking that it is normal to be verbally abusive to others. To what degree can we hold that person responsible for how their past informs their current actions? We would need some sort of framework to determine what a constraint would be, and to a degree this has been implemented in justice systems, meaning that if a person were coerced into committing a crime, they are held less responsible than the person who planned and implemented the crime. From a moral standpoint, this is the outcome that makes the most sense, and the only way it could be improved is with some sort of way to determine if a person’s attitudes were a result of their own thoughts and beliefs or if there are somewhat smaller constraints such as our upbringing that are important factors.
In conclusion, I believe that compatibilism does a good job of combining both determinism and free will but does leave some grey area in terms of what can be considered a constraint. If we understand determinism as the natural laws instead of a fated existence, then we are still able to reconcile our feeling that we have free will. The use of determinism in a retrospective sense is appealing because it gives us the ability to reflect on what choices we have made and how they have formed who we are now, while letting us set intentions for what we would like to become. Ayer believes that we are not helpless prisoners of fate (480) but instead are architects of our future.