June 20, 2008

Choice and Necessary Implicaton: or How to Beat a Torture Rap

Yesterday Trenton Merricks gave a great talk on Truth and Freedom. He argued that a class of fatalist arguments of the form below are question begging and that their first premise is false.

1. It was true a thousand years ago that Jones sits at time t (where t is a few moments from now), and Jones has no choice about that fact.

2. Necessarily, if it was true a thousand years ago that Jones sits at t, then Jones sits at t.

Therefore,

3. Jones has no choice about his sitting at t.

He demonstrated his point by replacing all occurrences of 'was true a thousand years ago' with 'will be true a thousand years from now'.

My own reaction is that both arguments are invalid. They fallaciously rest on the principle that failing to have a choice (regarding the truth of a proposition) is closed under necessary implication. Let NC be the factive operator 'has no choice that', so that 'sNC(p)' says 'it is true that p, but person s has no choice about it'. Then the above argument has the following form:
1*. sNC(p)

2*. Necessarily, p implies q.

Therefore,

3*. sNC(q)


We see that this is an instance of the closure principle. But counterexamples to the principle are not hard to find. Let p be the true proposition that person A at time t has tortured some detainees at Gitmo. B clearly has no choice about p (because B doesn't know about A's activities). But our proposition (that p) necessarily implies that somebody at some time tortured some detainees at Gitmo. It would follow by the above argument that B had no choice about whether somebody at some time was tortured at Gitmo. However, B himself tortured some detainees there, and so did in fact have a choice about whether some detainees were tortured.

A defense of the Merricks analysis over the one favored here might include the following objection. Even though B had a choice about torturing detainees he did in fact torture, he didn't have a choice about whether some detainees were tortured. After all, he had no choice about what others would do without his knowledge, and those others happened to torture some people. The problem with this objection is that it entails that neither A nor B had a choice about whether some detainees were tortured (even though, we may suppose, A and B were the only ones willfully torturing). More generally, nobody ever has a choice about any existential proposition that more than one person makes true! In sum, if we supposed NO-Choice is closed under necessary implication, we've already conceded too much to the fatalist.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If what you mean by S"no choice"p is "p" is true and no action S can perform would suffice for ~P then the objection you give yourself in the final paragraph wins. And what you say is a "problem" is not a problem for it. A can't act sufficient for "no detainee was tortured" and neither can B.

There are other readings of "no choice" that play a more important role in the freedom literature.
These issues, including the one you're touching on here, are pretty well worked out in that literature. You might look at, eg, Erik Carlson's paper from NOUS several years ago.