In chapter 71, Ultimate Responsibility, in Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, author and philosopher, Daniel Dennett presents a counterargument to the notion that an agent, a person, is not absolutely responsible for their actions. He questions some premises in the ‘the way you are’ line of argumentation, but I question some of his questions.
Here is a nice clear version of what some thinkers take to be the decisive argument. It is due in this form to the philosopher Galen Strawson (2010):Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 395). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
2. So in order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental respects.
3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do.
The first premise is undeniable: “the way you are” is meant to include your total state at the time, however you got into it. Whatever state it is, your action flows from it non-miraculously.
Dennett and I are in agreement with Strawson. There is not much to see here. It’s akin to saying the now is the result of all past events until now. This is “the way you are”.
The second premise observes that you couldn’t be “ultimately” responsible for what you do unless you were “ultimately” responsible for getting yourself into that state—at least in some regards.
This second premise asserts that one cannot be responsible for any action that one had no part in performing. Two scenarios come immediately to mind.
First, you are not responsible for being born. As Heidegger notes, we are all thrown into this world. We have no say in when or where—what country or family—or what circumstances.
Second, if one is hypnotised or otherwise incapacitated, and then involved in a crime, one is merely a cog and not an agent, so not responsible in any material sense.
But according to step (3) this is impossible.
Whilst Dennett fixates on the absolute aspect of the assertion, I’d like to be more charitable and suggest that we still end up with a sorites paradox. Dennett will return to this one, and so shall I.
So step (4), the conclusion, does seem to follow logically. Several thinkers have found this argument decisive and important. But is it really?
As Dennett invalidates step (3), he insists that the conclusion is also invalid. He asserts that the notion of absolute responsibility is a red herring, and I argue that Dennett doesn’t get us much further, perhaps redirecting us with a pink herring.
I’ve created an image with tortoises to make my point. There are actually two points I wish to make. The first point is to determine where the responsibility is inherited. This point is meant to articulate that the world can not be strictly deterministic and yet one can still not have significant agency. The second point is that culpability is asserted as a need, and acceptance of this assertion is the problem.
The image depicts an evolution of an agent, with time progressing from left to right. The tortoise on the right is a product of each of the recursive tortoises to its left. The image means to convey that each subsequent tortoise is a genetic and social and social product of each tortoise prior. Of course, this is obviously simplified, because tortoises require pairs, so feel free to imagine each precedent tortoise to represent a pair or feel free to add that level of diagrammatic complexity.
This is not meant to distinguish between nature and nurture. Instead, the claim is that one is a product of both of these. Moreover, as genetic, epigenetic, and mimetic influences are transmitted in family units, they also occur through social interaction and the environment, as represented by the orange and green tortoises.
The point here is that if one is a product of genetic and mimetic forces, how much agency remains for culpability? Each person is an emergent unit—autonomous, yes, and yet highly programmed.
If I programme a boobytrap to kill or maim any intruder, the boobytrap has no agency. I assert further, that the maker of that boobytrap has no more responsibility than the killing device.
But who do we blame? you ask, and that’s precisely the problem. Asking questions doesn’t presume answers. This is a logical fallacy and cognitive bias. This heuristic leaves us with faulty jurisprudence systems. Humans seem hardwired, as it were, to blame. Humans need to believe in the notion of free will because they need to blame because they need to punish because vengeance is part of human nature to the extent there is human nature. There seems to be a propensity to frame everything as a causal relationship. Dennett calls this the Intentional stance. To borrow a from Dennett…
This instinctual response is the source in evolution of the invention of all the invisible elves, goblins, leprechauns, fairies, ogres, and gods that eventually evolve into God, the ultimate invisible intentional system.Dennett, Daniel C.. Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (p. 374). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Sins of the Fathers (and Mothers)
Let’s wrap this up with a sorites paradox. As I’ve already said, I agree with Dennett that the absolute aspect is unnecessary and undesired. The question remains how much agency™ does a person have once we account for the other factors? Is it closer to 90 per cent or 10 per cent? Apart from this, what is the threshold for culpability? Legal systems already have arbitrary (if not capricious) thresholds for this, whether mental capacity or age, which basically distils back to the realm of capacity.
I have no basis to even venture a guess, but that’s never stopped me before. I’d argue that the agency is closer to zero than to one hundred per cent of the total, and I’d propose that 70 per cent feels like a reasonable threshold.
I could have sworn I’d posted a position on this after I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave. Perhaps it’s never made it out of drafts.
In closing, I don’t think we need to settle the question of determinism versus free will to recognise that even without strict determinism, personal agency is still severely limited, and yet as our political systems presume a level of rationality that is not apparent, so do legal systems presume a level of agency not present.