Buridan’s Ass and Libertarianism

A friend was suggesting to me (very) recently that a libertarian agent choosing between two commensurable and equivalent goods seems to be in a Buridan’s Ass situation. I hadn’t heard (or don’t recall ever having heard) of this principle or paradox before. The paradox suggests that if a donkey is equally hungry and thirsty, and if it is placed an equal distance away from water and food, both lying in opposite directions (say, to the right and to the left – though one can imagine them off at an equal distance to the North-East [n° North n° East] and North-West [n° North n° West] and the same could be said, other than the fact that we would expect the donkey to move to the north until both the food and water are located East and West [or West and East] respectively), then the donkey will not be able to move to one rather than the other since it desires both equally. It will, paradoxically, die of hunger and/or thirst (we can ignore, for charity, the fact that it would die of thirst before dying of hunger – just imagine another pile of food in place of the water and the paradox can be run).

The principle is well articulated by Leslie Lamport:

A discrete decision based upon an input having a continuous range of values cannot be made within a bounded length of time.

It seems to me, however, that this amounts to nothing more or less than a bald assertion that Libertarianism is wrong (i.e., that there is no such thing as libertarian free will). It seems to me that the Libertarian has no reason to be impressed in the absence of an argument. Notice also that, first, the principle is extremely hard to test empirically, and second that the principle would plausibly be falsified if tested (I fully expect that it would be). However, interestingly, if it were falsified, it would open a debate about whether animals have free will in a non-moral capacity. Moreover, even if death-by-indecision did occur for an Ass, that doesn’t mean that the same would occur for a person. Those questions can be put to one side for now, my only purpose at present was to show that Buridan’s principle is nothing other than the claim that there are not libertarian-free decisions.

There’s an additional question we might ask, though, even on Libertarianism. Wikipedia notes that “Buridan believed a rational choice could not be made” in such a situation. However, it seems that to the extent that either option accords with some rational plan which aims at the goods one has decided to pursue, it can be rational (a Rawlsian response). Therefore, either option is rational, even though one isn’t ‘more‘ rational than the other (but that just follows from their being equivalent commensurable goods).

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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One Response to Buridan’s Ass and Libertarianism

  1. swfsql says:

    Well, “not walking towards any” is also a choice, a decision; not a lack of.
    So a person can escape that simply by penalyzing the time it takes to decide which way to go. If they are “the same value” for an infinite reasoning, it surely appears of different value any time before that. So the person may take the action and walk towards one; except if the person chooses to think about it “more carefully”, and then maybe until it’s dead.

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