Ultimate Responsibility

Robert Kane argues that ultimate responsibility (UR) should guide us in determining whether someone is responsible for their actions. He gives the example of a drunk driver who gets into an automobile accident. If the actor tries to skirt responsibility because s/he was intoxicated, hence incapacitated, then [1] we can still rewind to an action taken that caused this intoxicated state and then [2] choosing to drive—a causal relationship articulated by Aristotle. This seems fine, but it’s a specious defence.

According to Kane

According to Kane—noting an issue raised by some—, it doesn’t require an assessment that a person could have done otherwise. This condition has numerous implications for free will.

For example, it doesn’t require that we could have done otherwise for every act done of our own will. But it does require that we could have done otherwise with respect to some acts in our past life histories by which we formed our present characters. Kane calls these self-forming actions (SFAs). According to Kane, [3] we act from a will that’s already formed, but [4] it’s our own free will by virtue of the fact that [5] we formed it by other choices or actions in the past—self-forming actions—, [6] for which we could have done otherwise.

Consider the drunk driver. If this were not the case, there’s nothing we could have ever done differently in our entire lifetimes to make ourselves different than we are—a consequence that’s incompatible with our being, at least to some degree, ultimately responsible for what we are. And that’s what I think free will requires.

Kane’s Challenge

I marked passages in brackets [n], to serve as a reference for my commentary here. Some of my responses may be repetitive, so I’ll try to make any redundancies recursive.

[1] Kane suggests that even if the person is incapacitated at the time of the accident—hence not responsible in the moment—, we can trace events back through time and pinpoint an event that caused the incapacitation. In fact, we can trace it back to the decision to imbibe in the first place. I have two objections here, but I’ll defer the second one to my next reaction.

Kane says we can rewind to some causal event. We are in agreement on this point, but I have a question: why stop there?

In engineering, there exists a concept called root cause analysis, and there is a concomitant heuristic called the 5 Whys. Essentially, using the DUI example as a discussion point, we can refer to the accident as event T0. Then we can trace back.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll ignore trivial or immaterial events such as s/he encountered a detour and so took an unfamiliar route or s/he fell asleep at the wheel, missing a green light, which caused a delay, which meant that she was in a place to happen to hit another vehicle—presuming that if s/he had been a minute ahead of her fateful schedule, there would have been no other vehicle to hit. This might be a logical line of inquiry, but let’s shelf it.

So, tracing back, at T-1, we find our actor already intoxicated and starting the car. At T-2, we find our actor drinking the last of multiple rounds of alcohol. We could trace back all the way back to, say, T-5, where our actor made the decision to take the first drink.

We may have difficulty pinning down where the impairment kicked in. Was it the drink at event T-2 or was it earlier, say, ay T-4, where all subsequent drinks were not assessed rationally? In any case, even if we stop at the last lucid state, T-5, then everything that follows can be said to be related to that event. But I have a problem.

[2] Firstly, if s/he was mentally incapacitated, how could s/he make a rational decision to drive or not? Secondly, even if we say that s/he became mentally incapacitated at event T-4, then the decision at that juncture was not rationally deliberated.

We could introduce a twist here, which is to assign culpability to the drink server. Some local statutes exploit this by making the barkeep culpable for serving a drink to an already intoxicated patron. Of course, this has the same issue noted above because we can’t say with any reliability whether the actor was intoxicated at T-2 or T-4. Let’s not get mired in this. This is not my biggest concern.

My key concern is in stopping there at T-5. Why not go back to why s/he even had the first drink? Why not go back to why she drinks in the first place? Why not keep going back. More on this ahead. Let’s continue.

[3] Kane says that the actor, the decider, already has a formed will. In this, he is introducing another concept—one of the self or the individual. Let’s continue, and I’ll get to that, too.

[4] Echoing the self, Kane doubles down and says that this self has a will, and the actor owns it. As such s/he is responsible for these willed actions, these caused actions. So, let’s dig in.

[5] Kane asserts that we formed this self by other choices or actions in the past that he calls self-forming actions. This is where in my mind this skein of logic unwinds.

Ignoring whether the self is anything but narrative convenience, why should one accept that the actor has any agency in this so-called self-forming? What proof do we have that this actor is just a victim of circumstances—from geworfen until event T0? Even without invoking determinism, I think it’s safe to assume that this actor is a consequence of, at least, hereditary and (monomorphic and polymorphic) genetic traits including temperament. Then we have structural influences, such as family, peers, institutions, and authority figures, societies and cultural norms.

It might be difficult to determine what percentage of the self are formed by this, but it would be disingenuous to defend this as self-forming rather than formed by some crucible.

[6] Kane’s final point is about whether one might have done otherwise. He downplays this point, and so shall I. If someone insists that this is important, I’ll address it at that time.


I left out some key points that I’ll likely return to in future. Essentially, Kane is a traditionalist who pines for virtue and character, two concepts I feel of figments intended to act as tools of power maintenance. I feel this will get us down a rabbit hole, and I am rabbitted out, so let’s end here.


Nicomachean Ethics

Someone will have to try very hard to convince me that the classical Greek philosophers were not strictly satirists. I believe I’ve commented on Plato in the past. I try to be well-rounded and not just cherry-pick material that supports my worldview—even though that competes for my available time and creates opportunity costs.

Listen on Spotify

This time, I decided to pick up Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. If there is anything I needed to read to drive another nail into the coffin of Virtue ethics, this does the trick.

Nails in a coffin

Reading Classical philosophical texts feels like reading the Bible or any other religious works. It feels like it is only meant for disciples. It’s just choir preaching. If one agrees with the foundational position, it all works. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

I am not going to deconstruct the text. That would quite literally take several posts. What I want to point out is that within the frame he attempts to establish, his position is entirely heuristic. In this case, if one believes in virtue and honour and how these may or may not connect to happiness, then this is right up your street in much the same way as a Christian knows that s/he will be forgiven because Jesus loves them.

In some ways, it feels that the philosophy underlying Western Civilisation is more insidious than Abrahamic religions. They act in a similar way, attempting to convey an underpinning that simply doesn’t exist. Both are aspirational, but they claim to be foundational.

Like Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics comes across (to me) as mental masturbation—some free-association thought experiment. I’m about 60 per cent through and tempted to quit, but on some level, I want to be able to defend that I have read it. Like the Bible, the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur’an, and other such canon, I want to have read the source material and not just references to it.

So, I’ll take one for the team and see whatever gems I can find.

First page of a 1566 edition of the Nicomachean Ethics in Greek and Latin

UPDATE: I’ve finished the book. It doesn’t get any better. He drifts off into politics as he sets up his sequel. My biggest criticism is that he casts his elitist worldview as reality based on assertions based solely on his opinions and appeals to tradition and authority. Read this if only to understand where certain people derive this moralistic, virtue-laden worldview. I was surprised by the foreshadowing of Descartes’ Cogito—though given how that further led to popularise Dualism, I’m not saying that’s a good thing.

Justice or nonsense?

Why should justice be the foundation of a society, and why not something else, say, honour or valour or wealth? What do we mean when we say justice? Do you mean the same thing as me? Dating myself to be sure, but would a Klingon from the Star Trek universe share your definition? So what is justice anyway?


‘Justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to every man his due. Jurisprudence is the knowledge of divine and human affairs and knowledge of what is just and what is unjust’, or so writes Justinian in Institutes 1.1 in 533 CE.

“Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.  Iuris prudentia est divinarum atque humanarum rerum notitia, iusti atque iniusti scientia.”

This is Justinian’s answer to the question: What is justice? In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss relates that ‘justice is the constant and unflagging will to render to each person what is due to him’ (or perhaps ‘what he’s entitled to’), and therein lies the rub: what exactly is one entitled to?

Geuss goes on to point out that entitlement was contingent to one’s place in society. Citizens were entitled to some things, resident aliens another, and slaves, pretty much nothing at all. In fact, giving a slave more than s/he was entitled to would be considered unjust, as it would be considered to be undeserved. As Geuss writes, ‘that to treat a slave as if he or she had any entitlements would be a gross violation of the basic principles of justice’. Of course, you are thinking, post-Enlightenment ‘all men are created equal’, or so the saying goes.

US-Camp_x-ray_detainees-Guantanamo-Bay-Jan-11-2002-Phot-Shane-T-McCoy-US-Navy-Creative-Commons-513x239[1]In practice, it’s been easy to sidestep the application of justice by redefining a certain group to be outside of some protected group. During the illegal aggression by the United States against Middle Eastern countries that resulted in extraordinary rendition of civilians spirited off to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, off the coast of the United States and outside of their jurisdiction, their acting regime declared that the detainees were not people, strictly speaking, and as such were not subject to the protections afforded to people, therefore they had no access to justice.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”
— John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

Hermione’s Time Turner

The ancient Greeks had a different idea of justice, so perhaps we just need to break out our trusty time turner to see what Aristotle had to say about it.

Here Aristotle rather equates the notion of justice to that of equality, but that begs the question: what equality? as we understand that equality comes in a variety of colours, so I won’t belabour the point any further here.

Instead of asking about justice, why don’t we focus on the root of the word, just? This yields the following definition:

Just: (adj) based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair

This brings us into the normative domain of morality, fairness, and reason, so it’s not much to work with—basically, we are in the realm of opinion defended by rhetoric.

For ‘all’ intents and purposes, we’ve got four forms of justice. We’ve been focused on the distributive type, but there are also procedural, restorative, and retributive varieties. In many cases, not just one form of justice is satisfying and so multiple varieties are deemed, well, just.

  • Distributive or economic justice is about fairness in how things are distributed, about getting a fair share.
  • Procedural justice is also about fairness, but it’s more about fair play, an even playing field.
  • Restorative justice is about compensating for an injustice, about restoring some perceived balance.
  • Retributive justice is about punishment—retribution.

A problem arises when we try to quantify and measure justice. Consider distributive justice: If two people work in a field and each cultivates 50% of the crop, are each entitled to 50% of the yield? If the cultivated land was the ‘property’ of some other landowner, what portion would s/he be entitled to? All of it? Some of it? None of it?

What about the court system? Procedural justice comes into play here. Should a wealthy person have access to better attorneys than a poor person? Is this just? The poor person may argue no, but the wealthy person may argue that s/he earned the ability to pay for a better lawyer, so s/he is entitled to this benefit.

Restorative justice sounds simple at the surface. If I steal a loaf of bread, wouldn’t returning the loaf (or, at least, a similar loaf) be restorative—no harm, no foul? Many people will argue that this is not good enough. Balance has not been restored.

This is where retributive justice comes into play. Retributive justice is a poorly veiled euphemism for vengeance. This is where Hammurabi‘s code (or Leviticus‘)  eye for an eye—but not Matthew‘s turn the other cheek rendition—comes in. Let’s not get into Nietzsche’s take on forgiveness as being unjust and part of slave morality.

Keep in mind that in Hammurabi’s code, as with Roman law, justice was relative: Given eyes, (Nº 196) ‘If a man put out the eye of a nobleman (amelu), his eye shall be put out’, yet (Nº 198) ‘If he puts out the eye of a freedman or breaks the bone of a freedman, he shall pay one gold mina’.

Through all of this, we are still left wondering: just what is justice besides some vague notion constructed solely to preserve the status quo.


  1. http://legalhistorysources.com/LisbonRights/JusticeDefinitions.htm
  2. http://changingminds.org/explanations/trust/four_justice.htm

Leibniz’ Blockchain Revolution

The first thing that popped into my head was blockchain.

Polymath, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), coincidental discoverer of differential calculus with Isaac Newton, was also an Age of Reason (or Rationalism) philosopher. Whilst listening to a lecture (Nº 5) about Leibniz’ monism (whence: monads), wherein he believed that all substance is comprised of monads—think of them as like atoms—, which  contain ‘entelechy‘ (from Aristotle’s Greek, ἐντελέχεια*), « an inner principle that unfolds all the changes it goes through with respect to other substances, that everything true of the substance, including its relations to all other things, must be deductible from it ».

The first thing that popped into my head was blockchain, that a thing would contain within itself the entire history of itself, in particular, it’s spatiotemporal relationships. Of course, this is not a very tight analogy, but I thought I’d share it anyway.


*Etymologyentelekheiaen– (within), –teleos– (end or perfection), and –ekhein (to be in a certain state).