Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Moral Responsibility and its Skeptics

Last week we considered the question of whether we are morally responsible for things that are beyond our control.  Since it seems like there are many things beyond our control, does this mean that we should be skeptical about moral responsibility?  This week, we move from the topic of moral luck to the larger issue of whether people are morally responsible for what they do.

Aristotle, Nagel and Scanlon all think that people are morally responsible for what they do.  Only in special circumstances are people excused from moral responsibility.  For example, if someone physically forces you to do something, you are not responsible for that action.  This supports the control principle, which says that because we excuse people from responsibility when they are not in control of their actions, we can hold them responsible on if they are in control of their actions.  Frankfurt objects to the control principle by providing counterexamples where we can freely choose actions that we ultimately cannot control.  One alternative to traditional views on moral responsibility is skepticism about moral responsibility.  This is the view that we are not morally responsible for what we do.  Nagel flirts with skepticism.  He notes that we paradoxically believe that the control principle is both true and false depending on whether we consider our actions from a personal perspective or an impersonal perspective.

There are a couple of ways to argue for skepticism about moral responsibility.  The first strategy is an argument from incompatibalism.  The argument has the following general form:
  1. Incompatibalism is true (determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility).
  2. Determinism is true (All physical events are directly caused by prior physical events).
  3.  Therefore, moral responsibility is impossible.  

This argument form follows the structure of Modus Ponens, which is a simple valid logical form (related to Modus Tollens):
  1. If P, then Q. (If determinism is true, then moral responsibility does not exist)
  2.  P (determinism is true)
  3. Therefore, Q (moral responsibility does not exist).

Here is another version of the argument:
  1. If you are morally responsible for an act, you must have been able to have acted otherwise.
  2. If determinism is true, then you can never act otherwise.
  3. So if determinism is true, then you are not morally responsible.

Responses to the Skeptic.  What is called the libertarian position claims that we must reject determinism.  Although determinism is incompatible with responsibility, determinism is false, so there is no threat to our moral responsibility.  An alternative view is a compatibalist reply.  There are a number of possible compatibalist responses to skepticism.  First, on can claim that to say that moral responsibility requires the ability to have done otherwise just means that we would have done otherwise if we had indeed chosen to have done otherwise.  For example, a drug addict may want to choose to not do drugs but he or she cannot actually choose to do otherwise.  If the addict could choose otherwise, then he or she would not do drugs.  Such an example shows that moral responsibility requires that a person has the ability to choose to do otherwise.  Second, one can reject that moral responsibility requires that a person could have acted other than he or she did.  The force of this second version of compatibalism are counterexamples where we freely choose to do something even though we lack control over our actions.  For example, say that I decide to drink coffee in the morning.  Now, a major coffee supplier has planted mind-controlling nanobots inside my mind that will cause me to drink coffee even if I decide to drink tea.  I still freely choose to drink the coffee even though I could not have done otherwise.  Third, a compatibalist can claim that we are responsible for actions that we "own", meaning that actions that we think we have good reasons to perform are the actions that we are responsible for.

Another kind of argument for skepticism about moral responsibility.  Unlike the above arguments, Strawson provides an argument for skepticism without referring to determinism or compatibalism.  His argument follows the logical form of modus tollens:
  1. Moral responsibility requires that you must be the cause of yourself (a "causa sui"). (If P, then Q)
  2. You are not the cause of yourself. (Q is not the case)
  3. So you are not morally responsible.  (So, P is not the case)

Strawson points to commonplace notions about the punishments of hell and the great rewards of heaven as standards for responsibility.  He thinks that our notion of moral responsibility must be strong enough that we can hold people responsible such that they deserve either heaven or hell.  Being responsible enough that we deserve either heaven or hell requires that we cause ourselves.  Strawson thinks that we do not cause ourselves.  To truly cause our own actions, we would have to consciously choose our actions for reasons.  In order to be responsible for our choices, we must also be responsible for being able to make conscious choices. Strawson thinks that even if we do make some choices freely, we are not the ultimate cause of our sources.  There must be a capacity that I have that allows me to make choices.  Strawson notes that we never choose genetic predispositions, such as those that allow us to make free choices.  Also, what happens to us as children greatly shapes our character and we are not responsible for what happens to us as children.  Strawson says that at best, we shape our given moral characters.  Being able to shape our character does not mean that we have the kind of moral responsibility that can justify either heaven or hell. Hence, we do not have the relevant and important kind of moral responsibility.

Possible replies to Strawson.  Kane, a libertarian, responds to Strawson by saying that we are causes of ourselves.  Although we cannot choose our birthplace or families, we can always choose to be different.  An alternative view is that we can be responsible for actions that we are not ultimately responsible for.  It is sufficient that we merely shape ourselves or have reasons for actions to make us morally responsible.  Also, Scanlon notes that we need not use severe punishment as an appropriate standard for moral responsibility.  We can hold people morally responsible without punishing them for their actions.  

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