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Essay questions on free will and determinism

Essay prompts

Write an Essay in Response to one of the following questions.

1. Is Robert Kane’s response to the problem of present luck successful? (Libertarianism)

2. Do manipulation cases undermine Harry Frankfurt’s account of acting freely and of one’s own free will? (Compatibilism)

3. According to Derk Pereboom’s quarantine model of punishment, we could still imprison criminals in a world without free will. Is it a problem for his view that it implies that those who will never reoffend cannot justifiably be imprisoned? (Hard Incompatibilism (Free Will Scepticism)

The reading for each topic is as on Moodle (this will become available once the course component starts).

You should feel free to mention other theories, but there’s no need to discuss them in depth. Doing so will only cut into the space you have to discuss your chosen theory.

Demonstrate to the marker that you understand the theory you are discussing. Explain it in your own words. Don’t rely on quotations or summaries from (say) Helen Beebee’s book or from the PowerPoints (or wherever) to do this for you.

Try to decide how the point you would like to make. Then argue for it. Don’t just give a general, neutral summary of the debate. We want to see you doing philosophy yourself.

There’s a lot more reading out there, and Wolf, Kane, etc., have written a lot more on the topic. If you want to explore their work further, then you should feel free to do so (but make sure you’ve understood the recommended readings first!)

If you use someone else’s words, give credit! 

Thinking through the question: Make sure you understand the question. Your essay should explain any technical terms, positions, and arguments mentioned in the question.

Finding your contribution: You may wonder how you can contribute to a debate. Here are some tips to finding you

Do you feel undecided about which position to adopt even after hearing the arguments for and against? Good news: you find these arguments unconvincing. Try to figure out why. What about the arguments has failed to satisfy you? What needs to be decided before the argument can succeed? Articulating these reservations can be your contribution to the debate. You should look for other philosophers who have had a similar reaction.

Do you have a strong reaction in favour of or against one of the positions discussed in the debate? Find the source of this reaction. Are you reacting to the position itself or to an argument for it? This may be a way to find a contribution. However, I often find that my initial reaction was misguided. In many cases, I simply fail to understand the position or confused the position with an argument for it. Thinking through how the proponent of the position would respond to my criticism allows me to better understand it.

Advice for writing the essay

If you don’t like the conclusion of the argument but can’t identify a definite flaw, then you might try to figure out which premise in the argument you have to reject to make your position coherent. What would a position that rejects this premise look like? Many great philosophy papers show how a position can be modified in response to an argument.

Along similar lines, you might have a knock-down proof that an argument cannot succeed. If so, that’s great. But, good philosophy doesn’t always offer a conclusive reason to reject an argument. It often just advances the debate.

To do well on this essay, we want critical engagement. If you can show that the debate turns on a controversial thesis (that two issues are interestingly intertwined), then that would be a positive development in the debate. 

Charity and clarity in exposition: One of the most important tasks you should learn in a philosophy class is to charitably and clearly explain a position or argument you disagree with.

It is absolutely essential that you figure out what the position is, why someone would hold it, and how its proponents would respond to the most obvious criticisms.

If the question asks you to evaluate a position or argument, your first task is to present that position or argument as charitably as possible.

Think through your initial reaction. How would a proponent of the position you don’t like respond? As stated above, this can help you understand what is at issue.

For a stab at a first draft, pretend you are writing a very short essay defending the argument you want to assess or critique.

It is best to make sure that you present a version of the argument that is valid. That way you can uncover any hidden assumptions behind the argument or find a specific premise to object to.

If the argument is straightforward enough, it’s often best to present it in a paragraph rather than separating it out from the text. But make sure that you are clear to the reader what the premises and conclusion of the argument are. You can use signal words such as ‘therefore’ or ‘because’. Or, it might be useful to indent specific premises that call for further discussion.

If the argument is more complicated, then it can be useful to separate the argument from the main text using bullets or numbered list. Writing the argument in this way can be useful to clarify your thoughts. But I would avoid over-reliance on this. If used excessively, it can lead students to present an argument in a more complicated way than is necessary.

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