14 March 2007

Moral Responsibility: Part 2

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 11, 2007

The Theist argues that persons are morally responsible for their actions. He thinks that our experience of freedom is enough to show us that they are. I disagree. Let’s revisit my earlier argument, which came in part from philosopher Galen Strawson.

A person is morally responsible for his action only if he chose to do that action and was morally responsible for so choosing. But this is impossible. A human being’s choice is the result of his beliefs, desires, and other mental states (the input) and how he reasons about them (processing). However, a person is responsible for a choice only if he in turn chose what went into making it (that is, the input or how to process it). But this just pushes the question back one step. That is, it raises the issue of whether he was responsible for the earlier choice. In the end, a person can’t be responsible for his choice because he didn’t choose what went into making it or, if he did, he didn’t choose what went into making that earlier choice.

The Theist argues that this is not how we experience the world. We seem to see ourselves as freely able to decide between different paths. We feel free to do something good (for example, donate time at the humane society) or bad (for example, have a torrid fling with a hardbody co-worker). What’s more, we often have emotions that presuppose moral responsibility. Examples include attitudes toward our selves (for example, pride and shame) and others (for example, gratitude and resentment). For example, one can’t meaningfully resent a tree that fell onto one’s car or an alligator that bit one’s mother-in-law because neither the tree nor the alligator is morally responsible for the harm it caused. The Theist’s underlying idea seems to be that unless we have strong evidence to the contrary we should assume that our everyday beliefs about the world are true.

However, I don’t think this is how we experience the world. Our sense of freedom focuses on the lack of coercion or force, rather than radical control over our choices, which is what moral responsibility requires. In ordinary cases, given persons’ preferences and holding their options fixed they will always make the same choices. For example, if you hate anchovy pizza and love sausage pizza and choose which one to buy for yourself, you will always choose the latter. Given what you like, choosing anchovy makes no sense. You are free in the sense that no one is holding a gun to your head, but you always make the same choice in this scenario. Thus, it is not clear that we think of ourselves as having the robust freedom that The Theist has in mind.

The Theist is right about many of our emotions presupposing moral responsibility, but these emotions are mistaken. They’re likely explained by their evolutionary advantages rather than their being true. This explains why they seem to be found in primates and other animals that are clearly not morally responsible for their actions.

The notion that persons have free will in the sense that their future is not already determined by past events is similarly mistaken and in any case fails to support moral responsibility. If human beings are merely their brains, then they are likely determined by their environment and genes. This is because such forces alone shape what goes on in their brain and this determines what they think and how they act. There is a concern here about indeterminacy at the level of sub-atomic particles, but this is irrelevant to moral responsibility.

The Theist denies that a person’s brain is a part of him, but in doing so he has to reject the best explanation for the close connection between mental states and brain states. For example, damage to particular parts of the brain correlates with the loss of various abilities (for example, the ability to recognize faces or speak). In addition, chemical changes in the brain (for example, anesthesia or LSD) produce predictable changes in how we think.

Even if we are ghost-like souls rather than brains, it is hard to accept that our thoughts and actions are not caused by previous events. It seems that if an event is not caused by previous events, then it comes about in a random or arbitrary manner and it is hard to see how a person might be responsible for thoughts and actions that come about in a random and arbitrary manner.

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t give persons incentives to behave one way rather than another and even judge them negatively for their decisions. This is a useful way to get persons to behave in ways that we want. However, saying that praise and blame is useful is a far cry from saying that it is justified. For example, blaming Homer Simpson for donut gluttony or a cat for scratching the couch might produce less donut-eating and couch-scratching, but this doesn’t mean they’re blameworthy.

Human beings are not morally responsible for their actions. This is a troubling conclusion, but a true one nonetheless.


The Theist
Experience and Common Sense Trump Weak Arguments
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 12, 2007

Suppose you’re sitting in the back of the classroom of one of those tedious safe driving classes. Seated in the row in front of you is your least-favorite neighbor Buford--the guy with the five big dogs who bark all night. Suddenly, a twenty dollar bill falls out of Buford’s pocket and lands at your feet. No one’s looking. What will you do? Morality tells you to return it to Buford, and your desires tell you to pocket it. (Twenty dollars buys many donuts.) You go back and forth for half and hour, and finally, heart pounding, you steal Buford’s money. But your momma raised you right; you feel guilty shortly thereafter.

My friend The Objectivist holds that at this point, you’re afflicted with an irrational emotion (guilt). He holds that in the above episode, you experienced not freedom, but only a lack of coercion; that is, you were aware that nothing outside you was forcing you to choose take the money. He believes that given the available options, and the motives you had while sitting behind Buford, it was inevitable that you would steal the money.

As best I can tell, the outlook expressed in the previous paragraph has only two things going for it. First, it can seem practically advantageous to cast off the whole moral outlook. (Conscience--who needs it? It only gets in the way, right?) Second, one might think this outlook fits hand in hand with what philosophers call “naturalism.” This view holds that only physical things are real, and that the world, with all its current splendors, came to be from nothing, for no reason, without any intelligent agency involved. Sometimes naturalism goes with what we can call the clockwork universe idea--the view that all that happens is the result of the circumstances plus the laws of nature; every event is part of a tight, chain-like matrix, and so it is not even possible that some persons should control whether or not some event, such as a choice, occurs. Not all naturalists hold to this idea, but some, like The Objectivist, think it fits hand in glove with naturalism.

Some people, then, find the view that humans are never responsible practically and theoretically convenient. Though that’s so, The Objectivist has not given us any good reasons to believe it, nor has he refuted the strong reasons we have to deny it.

When you took Buford’s money, you of course were aware that nothing outside you forced your choice. (No thug threatened you at gunpoint.) But you’re also, aware of two conflicting impulses within you--the moral one pushing you to give the twenty back to Buford, and the non-moral one pushing you to take the money. You feel free; you’re convinced that you could make either choice. When you choose to steal, you as it were feel yourself shouldering aside that voice of morality, and embracing the inner donut glutton. You know that you are in control--that you’re freely choosing, and that you could have made the other choice. You also know that it’s morally wrong to steal. The emotion of guilt you later feel depends on these twin convictions. If you really believed that your theft was inevitable, and/or that stealing is morally permissible, then you simply wouldn’t feel guilty at all. But you do believe those things. The freedom belief is usually a firm one, based on a vivid memory of what it was like to freely choose to steal. You shouldn’t doubt it unless someone gives you strong reason to.

Do we have these beliefs and the accompanying emotion because they did or do confer some survival advantage on our species? Maybe--it doesn’t matter. Our ability to remember what happened yesterday surely contributes to the “fitness” of our species. But that’s no reason to doubt your memory of taking Buford’s money yesterday.

The Objectivist argues that you can be morally responsible for a choice only if you’ve also chosen and are responsible for every belief and desire that was relevant to the choice (e.g. your belief that stealing is wrong, that there’s a twenty dollar bill on the floor, that you like donuts). But why accept that? Maybe my preference for donuts is the product of my genes and my environment, and my belief that the bill lies there for the taking just occurs when my eyes receive certain stimuli--I chose neither the desire nor the belief. It still seems that I can freely choose to steal, and thus, become guilty of wrongdoing.

He further argues that “if an event is not caused by previous events, then it comes about in a random or arbitrary manner,” and thus isn’t something anyone could be morally responsible for. By “caused” he means that the choice was such that given previous events, it had to happen. But that’s the very point at issue. When we believe we’ve chosen freely, we believe that choice could, in those very circumstances, have not occurred. Thus, in the above sense, we hold the free choice to be “uncaused.” However, that doesn’t mean the event has no explanation. The explanation for your choice to steal, is that you desired donuts, knew that twenty bucks could buy a lot, believed that no one was looking, and thought that Buford deserved to lose the money anyway. The choice is “random” in that nothing forced it to happen, but not in the sense of being inexplicable or chancy.

In sum, we should prefer experience and common sense to unproven and implausible theories.


The Constructivist said...

O, how does it feel to join existentialists, psychoanalysts, and post-structuralists of all stripes among the ranks of the "unproven theory" peddlers? You know, the thing about all these other theories is that their adherents tried to offer new ways of theorizing responsibility (for examples of post-structuralists doing this, see Thomas Keenan's Fables of Responsibility and Judith Butler's Excitable Speech). It seems that your basic point is that the Anglo-American concept of responsibility itself is fatally flawed, trapped between pure determinism and pure arbitrariness....

It also sounds like you think nevertheless that "responsibility" remains a "useful fiction" (or perhaps what Plato called a "noble Lie"). How constructivist of you!

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I guess I think my theory is proven not unproven. Here's how you can see it. Consider the following two premises.

1. I'm responsible for a choice only if I'm responsible for what explains it (either the belief/desire input or the reasoning).

2. I'm responsible for what explains a choice (the belief/desire input or the reasoning) only if I chose one or both of them.

Moral responsibility for finite beings strikes me as impossible. I don't see why this is unchosen. Here are other things that you can prove.

3. You can't travel back in time with free will (libertarian stripe - for philosophy types). If you could you could accidentally kill your grandfather in his teens, thereby creating a contradictory state of affairs.

I don't see why it involves constructivism to say that something is both false but has good effects if it's generally believed. Don't we do this all the time.

For example, the wife or girlfriends asks if she looks fatter or dowdier and we tell a lie because it benefits us and the world.

The Objectivist said...

Dear C:
I also think it's impossible for infinite beings to be morally responsible for their actions. Even though they could have an infinite number of choices, they still couldn't be self-creating in the right way.

The Constructivist said...

You're making me want to find back issues of Howard the Duck--"trapped in a world he never made"!

The Constructivist said...

BTW, O and T, you might find it interesting to debate the religion/money issue discussed here.

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