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Reconsidering Ayer's "Freedom and Necessity"



A conflict between two assumptions gives rise to the problem of the freedom of the will. One assumption is that man is capable of acting freely and the other assumption is that human behavior is governed by causal laws. By acting freely, it is understood that one could have acted otherwise, but it is not clear how any action could have been avoided or how one could have acted otherwise if causal laws govern human behavior. What is of equal importance in this debate is the notion of moral responsibility in the case that causal laws govern human behavior. If causal laws govern human behavior, then persons cannot be held morally responsible for their actions. On the other hand, if persons act freely, then they can be held morally responsible for their actions. The twin problem of freedom and moral responsibility occupies Ayer’s attention.


After examining arguments for and against determinism and inquiring into the conditions of moral responsibility, Ayer concludes, “It seems that if we are to retain this idea of moral responsibility, we must either show that men can be held responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or else find some way of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will” (Ayer, p. 483). The aim of Ayer’s essay is to reconcile determinism with the freedom of the will, without forfeiting moral responsibility.


According to Ayer, all human actions are caused. Causes simply are, “when an event of one type occurs, an event of another type occurs also, in a certain temporal or spatio-temporal relation to the first” (Ayer [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, p. 486). Causes effective in producing and directing human actions do not make an action unfree. The only type of cause that makes human action unfree is one where the agent is constrained or coerced into performing some action. Freedom should be contrasted with constraint, not causality simpliciter. “From the fact that my action is causally determined it does not necessarily follow that I am constrained to do it: and this is equivalent to saying that it does not necessarily follow that I am not free” (Ayer [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, p. 484). Since constraints are only one type of cause, Ayer believes it unwarranted to conclude that all human actions are unfree simply because causal laws govern human behavior. This is the essence of Ayer’s compatibilist argument on reconciling human freedom with determinism.


Some problems seem to arise in Ayer’s notion of causality. To restate Ayer’s understanding of causality, he asserts, “All that is needed for one even to be the cause of another is that, in the given circumstances, the even which is said to be the effect would not have occurred if it had not been for the occurrence of the event which is said to be the cause, or vice versa, according as causes are interpreted as necessary, or sufficient, conditions” (Ayer [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, p. 485). When some event, A, is a necessary condition for some other event, B, this implies that B does not occur unless A occurs. A actually occurring does not guarantee the occurrence of B. That a certain condition is necessary does not guarantee sufficiency. A as a sufficient condition of B implies only that, given the occurrence of A, the occurrence of B follows. In cases of sufficiency, the converse is not guaranteed. What Ayer affords us now seems problematic in the sense that the causes of one’s actions need to be both necessary and sufficient conditions for some action to occur. Ayer’s account, though, seems only to say that causes need only be either necessary or sufficient conditions for an action to occur. If a cause is a necessary condition, then it may also be a sufficient condition but need not be. So, the sufficiency of the cause is not guaranteed by the fact that the cause is a necessary condition, and vice versa.


A derivative problem of Ayer’s notion of causality seems to be whether Ayer is consistent in his views of determinism. Does he seem to waiver on ‘determinism’ enough to say that some of his views are actually indeterministic? At times, Ayer seems to be a traditional determinist. For instance, Ayer says that one’s “action must be causally determined for it to be possible for him to be acting freely” (Ayer [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, p. 483). Accordingly, the events in the world are like a vast machine, with no loose parts. At other times, Ayer does not seem to offer such a strong view of determinism, such as in the case of the psycho-analyst. Ayer writes, “it may be said that my childhood experience, together with certain other events, necessitates my behaving as I do. But all that this involves is that it is found to be true in general that when people have had certain experiences as children, they subsequently behave in certain specifiable ways” (Ayer [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, p. 485). In this example, Ayer no longer holds a strict deterministic view; rather, he seems to point in terms of probability when he says “in general,” not universality as his original notion of causality seems to show.


Finally, ‘freedom’ and ‘responsibility’ seem to run together at times. In the beginning of the essay, Ayer seems to point out that either responsibility presupposes freedom or freedom entails responsibility (Ayer [in Feinberg and Shafer-Landau] 2002, p. 481). What this seems to imply is that both ‘responsibility’ and ‘freedom’ are of logically similar types. Responsibility is, however, rarely used in the same vein as freedom. For example, to say that someone is responsible means to ascribe some sort of inherent value to that person, but to say that someone is free (possesses freedom) means to describe a person’s environment. Therefore, it seems very inappropriate to dissolve these two concepts into one as Ayer seems to have done near the beginning of the essay.


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