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Did Dworkin's 'Equality of Resources' almost dissolve the problem of free will (and nobody noticed)?


12 April 2016

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JSI Seminar Series: D
id Dworkin’s ‘Equality of Resources’ almost dissolve the problem of free will (and nobody noticed)?

Speaker: Dr Nikolas Kirby, Blavatnik School of Government

In his paper ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, Jerry Cohen initially compliments Ronald Dworkin on being the first philosopher to incorporate the responsibility intuition of the right into the egalitarian theory of the left. He then critiques Dworkin’s theory on the basis of expensive tastes, arguing that this implies thatwe should drop Dworkin’s resourcist version of responsibility-sensitive egalitarianism in favour of his own heterodox welfarist conception. And only then, does Cohen make his famous remark with respect to being ‘up to our necks in the free will problem,’ that is, in order to decide which choices individuals should be held consequentially responsible for, we must first determine which choices reflect a genuine metaphysically determined ‘free will.’

What has not been the object of much reflection, however, is that if Dworkin can respond to the expensive tastes problem (admittedly, inter alia other problems), then not merely would there be no need to drop his resourcist theory for Cohen’s welfarism, but also no solution to the freewill problem would be needed to determine a just distribution, and thus no such solution would be needed to determine consequential responsibility for individuals’ actions. Dworkin would have an account of those actions that we should bear the consequences of, and those we should not, without ever having to rely upon any premise about freewill. In itself, this alone would be a very important result, since much of our anxiety about the existence, non-existence and diminishment of free will is driven by a need to assign consequential responsibility to individuals for their actions. If the freewill problem persists, then its practical relevance virtually disappears. However, in this paper, Nikolas Kirby shall push further.

First, he shall argue that if we can offer such a Dworkinian account of consequential responsibility without ever having to rely upon any premise about freewill, then with such an account in hand we can begin to tack backwards: first to offer an account of moral responsibility without any premise about freewill, and then finally to (dis)solve the problem of free-will itself. Secondly, he shall argue that whilst there remains a missing piece of the puzzle - how to respond to Cohen’s expensive tastes objection (although understood in a different light that I shall explain) - we can now see that the answer to that objection need not be deeply metaphysical. Instead, the answer to that objection may depend on more standard, and hopefully solvable, moral and epistemological debates between liberals and perfectionists.In sum, the free will problem may not be solved (yet), but starts to look a lot more soluble.

Dr Nikolas Kirby is Departmental Lecturer in Philosophy and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. He was educated at the University of Sydney (BA (Hons), LLB (Hons)) where he was awarded the University Medal for philosophy, and the Convocation Medal. He then went on to study at the University of Oxford (BPhil, DPhil) as a Rhodes Scholar. He has worked in law, academia and politics in Australia. He is a co-founder and chair of the Good Lad Workshop, a social enterprise that engages boys and men in discussions about masculinity, sexism and lad culture. He plays Australian Rules Football for the University of Oxford during the winter, and village cricket in the summer.


Lawyers/barristers: attendance at this lecture is equal to 2 MCLE/CPD points


Time: 6-8pm

Location: Common Room, Level 4, New Law Building (F10), Eastern Avenue, University of Sydney

Cost: Free, however registration is essential

Contact: Professional Learning and Community Engagement

Email: 2155067f264e1d371f2019293d0f39081e6a3003195e5800