Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Moral Responsibility Revisited: Scanlon

Last week we dealt with skepticism about moral responsibility.  One kind of skeptical argument was an argument from incompatibalism.  Because determinism is true and is also incompatible with moral responsibility, there is no moral responsibility.  The other argument was a causal argument.  Basically, you only have moral responsibility if you have chosen all of your choices and you are the cause of your ability to choose.  But humans are not the causes of themselves.  Scanlon claims that there is moral responsibility.  He explains moral responsibility in terms of blame.  We are responsible when we harm and change the relationships we have with others.  Because relationships entail certain expectations, when those expectations are violated, someone is blameworthy.  Blame is sensitive to personal fault and circumstances beyond our control.  Hence Scanlon can explain the role of luck in morailty; it matters.  Scanlon's theory is also consistent with determinism.

How is determinism consistent with moral responsibility?  Scanlon notes that freedom and control are necessary to moral responsibility.  There are two senses of freedom and control.  The first is psychological accuracy, which just means that when you blame someone, you are blaming a particular person.  We want to make sure that we are holding the right person responsible.  We blame a reckless driver because he or she has a bad habit or a bad tendency to drive recklessly.  It matters that a person is really guilty of the bad intentions or lack of care that we blame them for.  Indeed, sometimes we might find out that a person did not mean to perform the bad action that we blame them for.

Sometimes we lack freedom such that we cannot be blamed, such as when we act out of ignorance or we are forced to perform an action.  Such a notion of freedom and control is still compatible with determinism.  Just because we act according to causal laws does not mean that we act unwillingly.  The control and freedom that is important to psychological accuracy does not require deep control or total freedom.  Rather, a person just needs to have an appropriate psychological state such that they are blameworthy.  For example, if a person thinks that tying kittens to rockets is a fun, cool thing to do, then we can blame them, even if he or she was causally determined to actually perform that action.  Likewise, if a person has lots of reasons why they should kill the president, then we can blame them for that action, even if that person was causally determined to perform that action.  Psychological accuracy requires only that a person has a mental state that is blameworthy.  It does not require that a person causes his or her own actions.

The other important sense of freedom and control that matters for moral responsibility is adequate opportunity to avoid, which means that a person's control and freedom matters insofar as he or she has an adequate opportunity to avoid performing the actions that they did perform.  For example, if a person decides to climb a very tall rock without any safety gear and then falls and is hurt, we tend to hold that person responsible for his or her own injuries, since the person had an opportunity to avoid climbing the rock without safety gear.  Scanlon thinks that this is the kind of freedom and control that matters for Strawson's idea of responsibility that justifies either heaven or hell.  If people are going to be suffering hell, they must have an opportunity to avoid going to hell.  Scanlon does not think that this is an issue of whether a person deserves heaven or hell; this is not an issue of desert.  Rather, what matters is that you have adequate opportunity to avoid a harm.  If you have an opportunity to avoid a harm, then you are not justified to complain about the consequences.

Having an adequate opportunity to avoid an action does not apply to ordinary blame.  We can and should revise a relationship independently of whether a person could have avoided acting a certain way.  If a friend murders your puppy, it does not matter if that friend could have avoided doing that.  Ultimately, the harm to the friendship is done either way.  This second kind of freedom and control is not necessary for ordinary blame.

Scanlon thinks that this kind of freedom and control are compatible with determinism, but someone might object.  Someone might say that "I could not have done otherwise.  I was determined to act this way.  You can't hold me responsible!"  Scanlon will respond by saying that the issue is not whether you were the cause of your own actions but the issue is what we owe to each other.  It does not matter if you were causally determined, as long as your actions mean that you owe me something in return or your actions harm our relationship.  The real issues are (1) were there adequate opportunities to avoid the action, which is a matter of circumstances (not choice)  and (2) even if circumstances were adequate so that someone could have avoided an action, is there anything that we can reasonably be expected to do for someone.  For example, even if someone is poor and we can blame them for being poor, we may have other reasons to provide them with social support (keep the streets clean, maybe support children of this person.

Scanlon's "stronger view" is that choice can make the consequences of our actions morally relevant, but only if  our choices are not caused by factors beyond our control.

1 comment:

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