Monday, July 26, 2010

Can you be morally responsible?

Galen Strawson argues that you can't be morally responsible for your actions regardless of whether the world is deterministic or not. An op-ed piece in the New York Times outlines what he calls the "basic argument". Essentially:
  1. You do what you do at any time because of the way you are.
  2. So in order to be ultimately responsible, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are – at least in some mental respects
  3. But you cannot ultimately be responsible for the way you are in any respect
  4. Therefore, you can't be responsible for anything you do.
Which is utter nonsense. Strawson fools us by first saying that it's irrelevant whether the world is deterministic. He then makes a first premise that presumes determinism, i.e. that you do what you do because of the way you are. This can only be true if the world is truly deterministic. If it is not, then step 1 in his "basic argument" does not hold. It is false that we do what we do because of the way we are if the world is not predetermined.

But Strawson snares us in a knot that seems to lead us to accept his deterministic position in step 1. Because it would seem that if we don't do what we do because of the way we are, then how can we be held responsible for what we do? Our action becomes a completely random event. Like a coin flip where there's no telling what will happen. How can we be held responsible for such a random thing? The reason insanity is a legal defense is because if someone's actions are completely dis-jointed – one thing does not reasonably lead to the other – a person cannot be held to account. And no one wants to admit their own insanity.

What Strawson fails to consider is that the world can be seen as a set of potentials and not in terms of either/or. Yes, once an event has occurred potentials cease to be just that – possibilities – they become actualities that are either true or false, black or white. But prior to the point of actualization, the outcome is merely predictable to a given degree. It is the degree of possibility that is crucial to moral responsibility.

Absolute uncertainty is equivalent to a 50/50 chance. Or, on a scale of 0 to 1 where 0 means it will never happen and 1 implies inevitability, absolute uncertainty would be the same as a potential of 0.5. Moral responsibility exists at neither of the extremes between absolute uncertainty (i.e. 0.5) and complete certainty (i.e. 0 or 1). It exists in varying degrees somewhere between 0 and 0.5 and 0.5 and 1.

Before I get back to moral responsibility, let me first address freedom as well, which is intimately linked to moral responsibility. Freedom can only exist if the world could have been different than it is. Freedom implies a degree of randomness, of various future possibilities that could actualize into concrete facts of the past. Freedom does not exist at positions 0 (the impossible) and 1 (the inevitable). It does, however, exist anywhere in between these two polarities. The distance between the closest extreme (0 and 1) and absolute uncertainty (0.5) is equivalent to the degree of freedom.

An agent that acts with complete predictability is a mindless creature indeed. Such an agent is, in fact, not an agent at all, nor is it a creature. It is a thing, a substance acted upon. It's the imprisoning feeling that creeps up on us as we think about determinism. On the other hand, an agent that acts with complete freedom at all times is an insane agent. Complete freedom is not as attractive as it's hyped up to be. Complete freedom is another form of mindlessness, a state of complete chaos, a world without rules, without laws. A completely free agent is as mindful as a tossed coin (i.e. not at all).

Moral responsibility assumes a mindful degree of freedom. What do I mean by this? I mean that to be responsible for ones actions, one must generally act in a neither completely free way (i.e unpredictably) nor in a fully predictable manner. Importantly, only experience can tell us how probable somethings might be, because once they actualize we can no longer speak of them in terms of how probable as particulars they are. This process of actualization where potentials collapse (and disappear) into a resolution is what gives us that feeling that things were meant to be. It's what gives us 20/20 hindsight. A mindful degree of freedom is a heuristic process that looks at similar past events and universalizes these particulars into possible futures, thereby potentiating future actions.

Strawson is just plain wrong in stating that we "do what we do at any given time because of the way we are". More correctly, we had a potential to do what we eventually did at any given time because of the way we were. The difference in the latter statement may seem picayune but in fact the slight alteration is vastly important and prevents us from falling into Strawson's trap. Like so many seemingly rational but ultimately nonsensical arguments, it relies on false premises that at first glance seems true and then applies prepositional logic we have a hard time refuting. We end up having to agree that the moon is made of cheese or that God exists necessarily.

That things have potential is not so strange if we consider randomness to be a fundamental part of how our universe moves from present to past. If the world is inherently unpredictable to some degree, if anything has a minute albeit perhaps highly unlikely chance of occurring, then moral responsibility can exist. Just as evolution culls out stability from chaos, there is a process by which we cull our potentials to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. If a person is deemed to have the potential to alter their potentials to act good (think of this as meta potentials, or as that which we call free will), then they can be held morally responsible. The internal random events that "cause" us to either be selfish or charitable are neither entirely linear nor entirely unpredictable. Saying someone is a morally responsible person is simply saying that someone exists within a mindful degree of freedom.

I will surmise that a mindful degree of freedom is when there's roughly an 80% chance that we will set ourselves up to do the "right" thing (that which is morally expected) at the moment we are forced to make a decision. Note that there are only two levels of potentials here: the potential to act a given way, and the potential to alter the potential ways you will act. There's not infinite regression of turtles upon turtles upon turtles. Which leads me to the idea that our obsession with and incorrect assumptions about causation is what partly allows Strawson to bamboozle us.

If we divide the world into two distinct groups of that which acts on and that which is acted upon, Strawson can more easily hoodwink us. We scoff at the notion that a rock has a "mind" and consider humans the only things with a truly free will, a mind. The universe is black or white. Mind is there or mind is not there. Things are determined, or they are not determined. When we free ourselves of this notion (no pun intended), we can begin reclaiming some responsibility for what we do in this world.

1 comment:

Dreas said...

Thanks to a discussion at Talking Philosophy, I have discovered someone who made a very similar argument about free will. In 1938, Charles Arthur Campbell (1897 - 1974) made an inaugural address at Glasgow University entitle In Defense of Free Will.