Avoiding Responsibility in Ten Easy Steps

UPDATED: 1/1/2011

I had a fruitful discussion with Jack Angstreich about Strawson’s article below. Based on that discussion and other material by Strawson that Jack pointed me to, it’s become clear to me that my analysis below is wrongheaded and that I initially badly misunderstood Strawson’s argument in the NYT piece. I read the argument in haste and wrongly made the assumption that Strawson both assumed a materialist view of the mind and also was attempting to argue that individuals are not morally responsible based on that fact. Jack pointed out that Strawson’s argument makes (or at least requires) no  metaphysical assumptions in order to work and that his argument is focused on mental states regardless of the metaphysical view one has regarding the mind. I think this is mostly correct and have come to see that Strawson’s argument is quite strong.

As I now see it, Strawson is attempting to argue that individuals cannot be morally responsible because one’s moral decisions are an outcome of the way one is at the time the decision is made. I originally took this to mean that the state of one’s brain and body prior to a moral act (antecedent conditions) determines one moral actions. But I now see that Strawson is only concerned with the state of one’s mental life at the moment of a moral decision—it doesn’t matter whether determinism is true or indeterminism is true, whether one is a dualist or a materialist. The reason it doesn’t matter is because the argument claims that a moral decision is the outcome of the mental state of the person (the development of much of that mental state being out of the persons direct or indirect control) and this is true regardless of one’s metaphysics.

Suppose you face the decision to put money in the Oxfam tin. The following may be true:

~ You want to help the poor person
~ You believe you can afford it
~ You want to feel better about yourself

But suppose the follow also are true

~ You want cake really badly
~ You're tired of people begging for money and don't want to support it
~ You promised your spouse you'd bring home the cake

Let’s suppose you choose not to put money in the tin. One could argue that the above six antecedent beliefs and desires are in moral parity for you: they neither determine that you’ll act (put money in the tin) or refrain from acting (withhold money from the tin). Now let’s also suppose the following: dualism is true (you have a non-material soul) that possesses an active power over which you have control and that you’re rational (generally considered three necessary conditions for a free act on Libertarianism). Let’s also assume that it makes sense to say you can choose to act or refrain from acting in this case. This means that your action is strictly uncaused but choose to act or refrain from acting in order to meet some yet not-realized goal. Since the antecedent conditions do not determine your actions, why did you make the choice you did?

If we ask why you refrained, there either is an answer to that question or there isn’t (this isn’t merely an epistemological claim—I’m saying there is or is not a metaphysical antecedent that explains the decision). If there isn’t, then the choice appears to be random and violates the third of the three necessary conditions for a free act. If there is a reason (let’s say you acted because you put more value in the second set of beliefs and desires more than the first), then that value judgment would be included in the first of Strawson’s premises in the Basic Argument: You do what you do ��� in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are. In this situation, we could capture this by asking, “why did you value the second set over the first such that it influence your decision?” If your decision was truly yours, it came out of the state you were in at the time of the decision the development of which may be partly or entirely out of your control. How, then, could you be responsible for the choice to value the second rather than the first set and thus for the choice to refrain from putting money in the tin?

Of course Libertarians would not say that one’s character (I think we could substitute “the state of one’s mental life”) at the point of any moral decision is not important in decision making. However Libertarians would argue, I think, that it’s possible to act in a way other than what your character might dictate (without this power, one might run into problems similar to the one presented in the Reformer’s Dilemma). Instead of the second set of reasons functioning as efficient causes (“that by means of which”), they function as final causes (“that for the sake of which”). The problem for this response is in how one ought to understand how the notion of final causality works here. If a person chooses to refrain from putting money in the tin for the sake of meeting the goal of valuing the second set of beliefs and desires, isn’t it true that the person is in a state where she values the second set of beliefs and desires or at least in a state where she wants to be in a state where she values them? If the answer is yes, then we’re back to Strawson’s first premise; if no then we’re on the road to an infinite regress.

There is much more to explore here but I acknowledge that Strawson’s argument is powerful and strikes at the heart of the free will debate. Thanks to Jack for setting me straight and for some thought-provoking discussion.


Original post of July 23, 2010.

Philosopher Galen Strawson for The New York Times philosophy column“The Stone” presents an argument (well, one argument in three different forms)--the logic of which he believes is irresistible--for why persons cannot be “ultimately” responsible. He argues that for any given choice we make, we do what we do based on the way we are at the moment. But the way we are is not under our control but is a product of our genes and previous experiences. If we did not choose and cannot change the way we are, and our choice is based on the way we are, then we are not ultimately responsible (I wonder if we’re proximately responsible—Strawson does not say) for the choice. Ian McEwan calls the argument watertight.

The argument ends up being a reductivist argument popularly written. But reductionism is very much like behaviorism in that it fails to account for first person experience. If an argument proves I don’t see the color red when I’m looking at a red object, then so much the worse for the argument. (As Professor Daniel Robinson has said, “If your doctor tells you you’re not in pain when you are in pain, it’s time to find another doctor.”) Strawson’s argument also seems to be question begging. If he is attempting to ask whether our perception of freedom really is actual freedom, then his first premise (in the first version of the argument) seems to sneak in the conclusion: “You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are". But isn’t that what we want to know? Is it the case that we do what we do because of the way we then are or is it that we can act in ways other than the way we are? Perhaps we do what we do because of the way we want to be. Perhaps our perception that we are goal directed beings is an indication that we are goal directed beings and that the background belief that selves are completely governed by natural law is incomplete (or just plain false).

Why does Strawson seem to think his argument is so strong? And I’m confident he would reject the claim that it’s question begging. Why does he deny that our experience of free acts are “feelings” only and do not represent any actual choice we’re making? Jaegwon Kim’s exclusion argument provides an answer. The argument goes like this. Physicallists (Kim would put himself in this camp) believe in the causal closure of the physical domain which he takes to involve the following conditional: if a physical event has a cause (occurring) at time t, it has a sufficient physical cause at t. But, says Kim, this principle causes problems when it comes to mental events.

Let’s suppose you’re at an ice cream stand and have to choose between two flavors, chocolate and strawberry. Some mental event m (you desire chocolate) causes some physical event p (you point to the chocolate ice cream container). The closure principle says that there must be some physical event p* (say a brain state of some sort) that occurs at the same time as m that causes p. This puts us in a dilemma says Kim. Strawson’s argument grabs the first horn and says that m=p* (where the equal sign is an identity relation) and thus we don’t have a mental event causing a physical event but one physical event causing another. The mental event becomes a chimera on this approach and the experience of freedom we believe we have is not real. Our brain is tricking us into thinking we’re free (m) but really p* is the real cause. The other horn is that we have two events, m and p* both causing p, which is a genuine case of causal overdetermination.

But the second horn should be constrained by what Kim calls the exclusion principle: no event can have more than two or more sufficient causes, unless it is a genuine case of overdetermination. Kim gives the example of two bullets hitting a person at the same time killing the person. Either bullet would do the job so which one actually did the job? So, says Kim, if we want to preserve the closure principle and say that p* actually caused p but that m is not identical to p* and it is not a case of overdetermination, the physicalist is in trouble. She must either embrace reductionism which is what Strawson has done or admit that there is a real mental event (a free act of will in this case) that is not reducible to physical causes. But this is unacceptable for a physicalist.

But notice what we must give up if we choose reductionism: no mental event ever causes anything. Desires (like the desire to help a poor person), emotions (elation at getting a new job or falling in love), reflection, reason, and the like are never sufficient causes for anything. They are facades for brain events that actually (and deterministically) cause our actions. Accepting Strawson’s reductionism seems to entail that our experience of being and acting in the world is not anything like we generally take it to be. That seems like an extremely high cost for such a modest argument.

Maybe those steps weren’t all that easy after all.

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