In her 2011 book, Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility, Nelkin is looking for a "sense of ourselves as free agents" that interprets that sense in a very particular way, namely, as a commitment to the idea that we can choose among multiple undetermined options."
This is a striking defense of the reality of alternative possibilities for action, which give us the ability to do otherwise, something denied by most compatibilists since the work of Harry Frankfurt in the 1980's.
Nelkin says that
We have an unshakeable sense of ourselves as free and responsible agents. And vet we can easily be made to question whether this sense of ourselves is accurate — by sophisticated philosophical arguments, apparently simple generalizations from cases in which we are clearly not free and responsible, disturbing experimental results in psychology and neuroscience, and more.
(Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility, p.1)
Nelkin presents what she calls a "natural theory" that defends against skeptical challenges to the idea that we are free and responsible. She also presents a particular conception of ourselves as agents. She presents a picture of our "sense of freedom and responsibility" in two different senses: first, an account of freedom and responsibility, second, an account of our sense of ourselves as free and responsible.
She says that our sense of ourselves as free agents interprets that sense in a very particular way — namely, as a commitment to the idea that we can choose among multiple undetermined options. This interpretation in turn has been used to motivate a particular picture of freedom itself, one that requires that the world be indeterministic in order for agents to be free. So figuring out exactly what our sense of freedom is that is, what our conception of ourselves is, and why we have it — can have significant implications for the debate about the nature of freedom, and, by extension, about the nature of responsibility, for which freedom has often been thought to be a necessary condition.
Nelkin traces her work back to Immanuel Kant and Thomas Reid, who tried to answer the skeptic about freedom. She quotes Kant and Reid,
Kant wrote, "Now I say that every being which cannot act in any way other than under the idea of freedom is for this very reason free from a practical point of view".1 The suggestion is that the necessity of thinking of ourselves as free entails that we really are. Reid took a somewhat more cautious, but still bold approach, writing that "This natural conviction of our acting freely, which is acknowledged by many who hold the doctrine of necessity, ought to throw the whole burden of proof upon that side ... '.2 For both Kant and Reid, the discovery that we must think of ourselves as free is a step in answering the skeptic (for Reid, a complete shift of the burden of proof, and for Kant, a decisive refutation — at least if we confine ourselves to conclusions within the practical point of view).
(Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility, p.1-2)
At the same time, I believe that each project has independent importance. For example, determining whether we are in fact "stuck with" a certain view of ourselves, whether as rational agents or as human beings, is interesting in itself. And if the answer to either question is "yes", and yet our view of ourselves is false, it would be interesting, at the least, to learn that one of our central commitments is an illusion. The question of what freedom and responsibility are, and whether they can be and are ever instantiated has immediate implications for the ways that we treat and feel about others, as well as ourselves. So while I believe that my approach to each question helps to illuminate the other, I also believe it is possible for a reader to accept one without the other.
Two features of the initial response set it apart from the general "it seems true" strategy. One is emphasized by Reid, who pointed out that the sense of freedom appears to be universal, at least among human beings. Importantly for Reid, our "natural conviction of our acting freely" is natural, existing even in those who deny that we are free. Even if we do not follow Reid himself who thought that this fact "ought to throw the whole burden of proof" on the skeptics, the fact that the conviction seems universal does make it something to be explained and reckoned with. Why, if it is not true, would we be stuck living under an illusion about something so central to our self-conception?
Of course, it is possible that all human beings are, by their nature, simply stuck with a false conviction. After all, human beings are susceptible to perceptual illusions under certain conditions. And we have an explanation for this sort of illusion that involves facts about human perceptual systems. Perhaps our sense of freedom is like such perceptual illusions, and, in both cases, we should consider ourselves fortunate to be able to discover that our natural convictions are false.
Yet, there is an important point of disanalogy between the perceptual illusion case and the sense of freedom case—a disanalogy that would seem to rob us of a ready explanation for our allegedly false sense offreedom. While it is in virtue of being human and so of having the physiology we have that we are subject to perceptual illusions, it is in virtue ofbeing rational deliberators that we have a sense of freedom. In other words, we possess this sense because of our capacity to consider and evaluate reasons for acting with a view to making a decision and ultimately acting. This idea is suggested by Kant:
(K) We must necessarily attribute to every rational being who has a will also the idea of freedom, under which only can such a being act."
Kant went on to make the claim, stronger than Reid's "shift the burden" one, that if we accept this point then we must conclude that such beings are "for this very reason free from a practical point of view".4 It is one
3 Kant (1785/1981, 448. p. 50). emphasis mine. In Kant's temiinology, "will" means "a kind of causality belonging to living beings in so far as they are rational" (p. 49). Without going into a detailed exegesis of Kant. I take it that such a being is similar to what we would call a "deliberative agent", i.e.. a being with the capacity to act on considered reasons. In my terminology, being a rational deliberator is a necessary condition for being a deliberative agent. as a deliberative agent is one who deliberates and acts on those deliberations.
Kant (1785/1981. 448, p. 50).
(Making Sense of Freedom and Responsibility, p.118)