This post is a summary of the Galen Strawson thought experiment on free choice and moral responsibility: buying a cake vs donating to the Oxfam tin.
🔒 Premium members also have access to the companion post: Stream of Consciousness: Is Ultimate Moral Responsibility a Myth?
Here’s a video where you can watch Galen Strawson tell the thought experiment in his own words:
- Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc. by Galen Strawson
- The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility by Galen Strawson
- Your Move: The Maze of Free Will by Galen Strawson (The New York Times)
- All content in “quotation marks” is directly from the original author.
- All content is organized into my own themes.
- Emphasis has been added in bold for readability/skimmability.
Condemned to Choose: Cake vs Oxfam Thought Experiment (Galen Strawson Excerpts)
The Thought Experiment
Here’s the gist…
“Suppose you arrive at a shop on the evening of a national holiday, intending to buy a cake with your last ten-dollar note to supplement the preparations you’ve already made. Everything is closing down. There’s one cake left in the shop; it costs ten dollars. On the steps of the shop someone is shaking an Oxfam tin—or someone is begging, someone who is clearly in distress.”
“You stop, and it seems completely clear to you that it is entirely up to you what you do next. That is, it seems to you that you are truly, radically free to choose, in such a way that you will be ultimately morally responsible for whatever you do choose. You can put the money in the tin, or go in and buy the cake, or just walk away.”
“You’re not only completely, radically free to choose in this situation. You’re not free not to choose (that’s how it feels). You’re ‘condemned to freedom,’ in Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase. You’re fully and explicitly conscious of what the options are and you can’t escape that consciousness. You can’t somehow slip out of it.”
What about Determinism?
Let’s go deeper…
“You may have heard of determinism, the theory that absolutely everything that happens is causally determined to happen exactly as it does by what has already gone before — right back to the beginning of the universe. You may also believe that determinism is true. (You may also know, contrary to popular opinion, that current science gives us no more reason to think that determinism is false than that determinism is true).”
“Standing there, you may believe determinism is true: you may believe that in five minutes’ time you’ll be able to look back on the situation you are now in and say, of what you will by then have done, ‘It was determined that I should do that.’ But even if you do wholeheartedly believe this—right now—it does not seem to undermine your sense of the absoluteness and inescapability of your freedom, and of your moral responsibility for your choice.”
“One’s radical responsibility seems to stem simply from the fact that one is fully conscious of one’s situation, and knows that one can choose, and believes that one action is morally better than the other. This seems to be immediately enough to confer full and ultimate responsibility. But it can’t really do so … For whatever one actually does, one will do what one does because of the way one is, and the way one is is something for which one neither is nor can be responsible, however self-consciously aware of one’s situation one is.” (Note: see Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument)
“Large and small, morally significant or morally neutral, such situations of choice occur regularly in human life. I think they lie at the heart of the experience of freedom and moral responsibility. They are the fundamental source of our inability to give up belief in true or ultimate moral responsibility. There are further questions to be asked about why human beings experience these situations of choice as they do. It is an interesting question whether any cognitively sophisticated, rational, self-conscious agent must experience situations of choice in this way. But they are the experiential rock on which the belief in true moral responsibility is founded.”
Beyond Moral Responsibility
One step further…
“My claim is that even if you believe the argument that shows ultimate moral responsibility is impossible, you cannot help living that moment as a moment of radical freedom. In the lived moment, you must experience yourself as free. There might be some people who would actually go on from that and say that is freedom. Is that a kind of freedom—not only lived, but inevitable, experience of radical choice?”
“Given that the experience of deep moral responsibility is seemingly inevitable in our everyday lives, can we shake free of it, can we at least diminish it, can we somehow truly live, breathe the impossibility of deep moral responsibility, and not just accept it in a merely theoretical context? And is the inevitability of the experience of deep moral responsibility just a local human fact, a human peculiarity or limitation, or is it going to be inevitable for any possible cognitively sophisticated, rational, self-conscious agent that faces Oxfam box-type choices and is fully aware of the fact that it does so?”
“Well, I’m not sure. But I think that perhaps it’s not inevitable for human beings … The Indian mystical thinker (Jiddu) Krishnamurti reports that the experience of radical choice simply fades away when you advance spiritually: ‘You do not choose,’ he says, ‘you do not decide, when you see things very clearly … Only the unintelligent mind exercises choice in life.’ A spiritually advanced or ‘truly intelligent mind simply cannot have choice,’ because it can ‘only choose the path of truth.’ ‘Only the unintelligent mind has free will‘—by which he means experience of radical free will … Krishnamurti convinces me that it’s not actually impossible for human beings to live the fact that there is no deep moral responsibility, in spite of the cake and the Oxfam box.”
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