Tuesday 7/23

Can We Be Morally Responsible?





Last Thursday we discovered not only that we can be good without God, we must be in light of the Euthyphro Argument. Yesterday we followed that discussion up by asking, why then be good, if not to seek eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment? Yet in asking that question we discovered that there seems to be a deeper puzzle afoot: Is it ever reasonable to be held responsible?

It is difficult to understate the importance of responsibility for our relationships and the larger society. We began today by discussing some of the ways in which the assumption of responsibility underwrites our social practices. Any short list must include

  • Gratitude: It would make no sense to be grateful for another person's kindness if they were under the influence of a psychoactive drug and wouldn't otherwise have given you the time of day.
  • Blame: If someone does us injury purely by accident and through no fault of their own, it may for awhile make us feel better to get angry, but we can't really blame the person--accidents do sometimes happen.
  • Friendship: Suppose someone were hypnotized to be your friend who otherwise wouldn't be in the least bit so inclined, perhaps because the hypnotizer pities you; if you knew, what value could you place on the friendship?
  • Love: A mind-control device to make the object of our desires love us might be tempting, but would it be love?
  • Punishment: It would probably be a good idea to imprison someone who randomly assaults others just to keep them from doing so in the future, but doing so could not be construed as an act of punishment since punishment makes no sense in such a case.

Missing in each case (and many others besides!) is any assurance that the object of gratitude, blame, friendship, love, or punishment acted of their own accord. That is, a necessary condition on holding someone responsible is that their actions be up to them and that they presumably could have done otherwise.

Being responsible for one's own actions is, then, for one's actions to be decided by oneself, regardless of outside influences and for one's own reasons.

Enter the Problem of Freedom of Will.

We cast the Problem of Freedom of Will as a dilemma:

The Problem of Freedom of Will
  1 Either Determinism is true or Determinism is not true.  
  2 If Determinism is true, then Freedom of Will is impossible.  
  3 If Determinism is not true, then Freedom of Will is impossible.  
4 Freedom of Will is impossible. 1,2&3

The problem with the dilemma is that it is unclear how to respond. The first premise is simply an instance of the proposition form,

P or not P

which is tautologous--that is, necessarily true. Premise (1) is thus unimpeachable, logically speaking. Nor is it clear, given the following argument, whether we can reject premise (2).

The Argument from Determinism
  1 If Determinism is true, then our actions necessarily have external causes.  
  2 If Freedom of Will is possible, then at least sometimes we could have done otherwise.  
  3 If our actions necessarily have external causes, then it is not the case that at least sometimes we could have done otherwise.  
4 If Determinism is true, then Freedom of Will is impossible. 1,2&3

Note that the above argument assumes a version of Determinism called causal determinism. There are other forms of determinism which we need not pursue at this point, since much the same argument can be given in each case. The upshot is that if Determinism is true, then i) we could not have done otherwise and ii) responsibility for our actions is ultimately not us but the (external) causes from which our actions are but effects.

It's not entirely incorrect to think of the argument as proposing that if the Universe is a gigantic clockwork mechanism, and we are but cogs in the clockworks, then what we do depends not on us but on the movement of the mechanism.

The idea that it is we who determine our actions and nothing else for freedom of will to be possible is also called into question by the following argument, which serves to justify premise (3) of the Dilemma of Free Will:

The Argument from Indeterminism
  1 If Determinism is not true, then events do not have causes.  
  2 Actions are events.  
  3 If actions do not have causes, then they are merely spontaneous.  
  4 If actions are merely spontaneous, then Freedom of Will is impossible.  
5 If Determinism is not true, then Freedom of Will is impossible. 1,2,3&4

Thus if our actions randomly happen for no reason whatsoever, then they are no more up to us than if we were cogs in a celestial clock.

Either way, the Problem of Freedom of the Will is at once imposing and possibly disastrous for many social practices. The problem can be understood in brief as an attempt to explain how one's actions can be at once free yet still be determined by one's own will, which is what our being held responsible seems to presuppose. Yet if Determinism is true, it seems our actions cannot be free, and if Determinism is not true, it seems our actions cannot be determined by our own wills. We seem, then, to be caught in a remarkable--and, to philosophers at least, deeply disturbing--dilemma.

We closed today by considering some of the responses to the problem. Specifically, hard determinists like Skinner embrace the conclusion of the Problem of Freedom of Will, holding that determinism is indeed incompatible with freedom of will, and so much the worse for freedom of will! Soft determinists or compatibilists reject premise (2) of the argument and try to figure out a way in which we can secure some sense of freedom of will in an otherwise deterministic universe, should the universe turn out to be deterministic in the way the hard determinist presumes it to be. Finally, the libertarian rejects premise (3) of the argument, holding that indeterministic or probabilistic processes in the universe make room for a special kind of causation, agent causation. Thus we ourselves are not caused in such a universe to act one way or another, but we in turn cause our actions.

Clearly, the challenge for the compatibilist is to figure out a way to respond to the Argument from Determinism, while the challenge for the libertarian is how to respond to the Argument from Indetermism. Suffice it to say that the Problem of Freedom of Will vexes all who encounter it.