Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him


To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Peter van Inwagen – Big Questions in Free Will

Peter van Inwagen is a personality I’ve had on my radar, but I haven’t spent any time with him because he is a referenced influence of Robert Kane or Derk Pereboom, who hold positions I disagree with.

Video: Peter van Inwagen – Big Questions in Free Will

Still, I was interested, so I thought watching a short 13-minute video interview might introduce me to him. I’ve enjoyed other Closer to the Truth content, so I gave it a go. I feel that Peter sets up the problem perfectly. No faults whatsoever. As I see it, the same problem and solution proposal arises that Galen Strawson adopts, yet this is where I disagree with them both.

As noam chomsky has speculated maybe our minds are just put together in the wrong way to find this fault we got a certain set of cognitive modules tossed up to us in our evolutionary history maybe we got the wrong ones for thinking about this problem

— Peter van Inwagen


Unless I decide to unpack the rest, I’ll cut to the chase. The argument is as follows:

  1. Humans are somehow hardwired to blame. (I do not know if this is universally true, but let’s accept this premise as being true.)
  2. Without the notion of free will (or at least human agency), we cannot assign blame.
  3. Therefore, in order to assign blame, free will has to be true.

I don’t disagree with this syllogism. However, in ‘free will has to be true’ , there are ostensibly two possibilities.

  1. Free will exists as a fact in nature—a priori
  2. Free will is a construction—a posteriori

Of course, the general consensus for proponents of free will is that it exists a priori. My contention is that this is not the case. Free will is an a posteriori construction.

Inwagen is falling into a heuristic trap: It feels like it’s true, so it’s obviously true. Borrowing from Daniel Kahneman, he and others are relying on System I and failing to trigger System II, where System II is required. Moreover, I take this position because I don’t think System II has what it needs to accurately analyse and assess the situation holistically. We can’t get outside of the system, so we make up a story that presumably serves our purposes.

I am not one who believes ‘the universe is a simulation’, but I do believe it serves as an apt metaphor. We are player characters in the game and we can’t see outside of it.

I like to sum it all up with the expression, the future can be different, just not because of you.

Cows Are Suey*

As I research the agency/free will quandary, I am finding a lot of common minds, as it were. On the free will versus determinism spectrum, I can’t say without reservation that I accept determinism or indeterminism, for that matter, but I can say that free will is weak tea. Causa Sui comes into play, but I’ll get to that.

As an aside, similar to the theism versus atheism debate, keep in mind that this debate hinges on free will taking the privileged position occupied by theism. When discussing compatibility versus incompatibilism, it’s whether determinism is compatible or incompatible with free will. I feel that the privilege of free will in this debate is telling insomuch as it reveals a bias on preferred perspective.

If you’ve been reading, I like what Derk Pereboom has to say, but I feel we have a bit of a gap in our accord. But I’m very partial to Galen Strawson’s line of argumentation that doesn’t rely on determinism to declare the free will argument pointless. I believe that there is space to fill in some gaps in his position regarding social responsibility, and maybe there are no gaps; I just am not yet familiar enough with his position. From a strictly deterministic position, I find Robert Sapolsky’s position appealing, but it still ends up being a pissing match. To be fair, I think any position will be a pissing match. I’ll elaborate on this next before I touch on causa sui.

Losing My Religion

In my book, free will is an anachronistic vestige of religion. Not to go too far down a Foucauldian path, religion is a power play. As religion constructs gods, it also constructs notions of free will. Power structures like to leverage these concepts for their own ends.

Interestingly, religion first gave us determinism—at least the Abrahamic monotheistic varieties—, but it needed to construct free will or it would have undermined its ability to cast blame and guilt. When science matured, it said, ‘Hey, hold on there. There’s no room for gods in physics. Everything has a cause and was determined at the start. Your intuition was right at the start. Free will is bollocks.’

Causa Sui

Finally. Causa Sui is the Latin name for a self-caused cause, one that is not the result of prior events. Here is where I really like Galen Strawson’s account. His argument is premised on 4 factors, the first of which is what you do flows from the way you are.

What you do flows from the way you are.

Galen Strawson

In essence, you’ve somehow got to get to be responsible for being the way you are, but you can’t you can’t get back behind yourself in such a way as to be responsible for the kind of person you are. You’ve got to somehow have chosen it, but you can’t choose it unless you already exist as a creature who has preferences.

No Causa Sui

You’d somehow have to get to be the cause of yourself to take fundamental ultimate responsibility for yourself and therefore for your actions that flow from the way you are and therefore free will—indeed more responsibility and free will, and therefore we do not have free will.

In the diagramme, we see you, and the influence of external forces, but at no point are you ever responsible for your own actions. Even if you did make a so-called conscious effort to do something else, it would still be the result of one of these other sources.

Perhaps an inapt example would be for a homosexual person to ‘decide‘ to be a heterosexual person. This is not to say just to act like a heterosexual person, but to actually be attracted to the opposite sex. It should be obvious that this can’t be done, but if you are having difficulty, imagine the mirror example where you are a heterosexual person and you ‘decide‘ to be attracted to people of your own sex. Of course, this is akin to deciding that you like cilantro when you don’t, deciding you like Justin Beiber when you don’t, or deciding that you don’t actually enjoy chateaubriand when you do. Even if you manage to act the opposite of your sexual orientation, it is still not you who is responsible for the apparent change. It’s a response to social forces and external conditioning. You are the way you are because of the way you are. You’ve had absolutely no say in the matter.

You are the way you are because of the way you are.

So what’s the big deal? you might still be asking yourself. If you’ve just done something morally or legally “wrong” —emphasised by big bold scare quotes, you need to be punished or at least blamed irrespective of how you became you, right? Let’s ignore that I am a moral non-cognitivist at the start and pretend that this moral indignation is otherwise meaningful.

Quarantine Justification Theory

Let’s say that someone has done something outside the bounds of social acceptance in some milieu. To make it even easier to consider, let’s imagine for a moment, instead, an autonomous robot that was designed to seek glass and smash it. This robot has no conscience and no free will. It is just a robot programmed to break windows.

This robot has been unleashed on our community. In one sense, some might blame the robot for breaking the windows, but we know that whoever programmed this robot is to blame. But we don’t know who programmed it. What we do know is that we want to stop the robot from breaking more windows.

So we track down the robot and we disable it—or perhaps it’s designed in such a way that it can’t be turned off. Even though the robot is not to blame, it is a menace and we’ve collectively decided to disarm it or quarantine it. We build a glassless room and sequester it away so it can do no more damage.

Some people find this scenario a reasonable justification to quarantine the actor, but I think that this has at least one problem, I’ll mention two considerations I have.

Not a Robot

So, let’s revisit quarantine justification theory with a human actor, and let’s presume no causa sui. As we can’t blame the robot actor, neither can we blame the person actor. As with the robot, the goal is not to punish but to quarantine.

Not to Blame

Now let’s add a dose of reality. This human is not on a window-breaking rampage. Instead, s/he vandalised the window of a shop for some reason; let’s say that s/he was short-changed and wanted to exact damage equal to the shorted change. A police officer witnesses the act and takes the perpetrator into custody. What should the judge do? Remember, the person did not create themself, but s/he did the act s/he was accused of.

The image below shows two scenarios. In scenario A, you are integrated with society; in scenario B, you are quarantined. The question is what is the justification for quarantining you.

Quarantine Justification Model

It’s difficult to argue that this person should be quarantined because this was a tit-for-tat response, not a rampage. It’s unlikely to happen again. One might try to argue that this person should be fined or, in line with quarantine, incarcerated to be made an example, thus acting as a scapegoat to serve as an external social pressure mechanism to disincentivise this retributive action. But this would ostensibly be punishing this person for something beyond their control.

We can even loosen the scenario to consider a person who has robbed a liquor store or kidnapped a child. These events are all too common, but there is nothing to suggest that a person will repeat this activity, so quarantine cum incarceration is hard to justify.

I can envision someone reading this thinking that we need to do something. We can’t let this person get away with it, but if you find yourself drifting in this direction, it’s your programming. You can’t help yourself. You don’t even have this degree of agency.

I haven’t given it enough thought, but it feels like this is similar to the dissonance when one grasps something intellectually, but instinctually or emotionally something just doesn’t sit right. Whilst you try to get outside of yourself, your programming doesn’t allow it.

* If you haven’t sussed it out quite yet, ‘cows are suey’ is how Google’s auto-generated transcript heard causa sui in an interview with Galen Strawson on this topic, and the rest is history.

There Are No Accidents

There are no accidents, or so claimed Carl Jung in his work on synchronicity, positing that events may be connected causally or by meaning. Some people see this as the work of some karmic force whilst others use it to suggest that a person is being passive-aggressive.


In the karmic sense, this means that there is no escaping fate, and, as with Santa Claus, he is constantly watching you, like some personified panopticon. See the short post on karma, too.

I’m not sure if the bible story of Judas and Jesus is really a karmic anecdote, but under this paradigm, everything is a no-fault situation. Judas was fated to betray Jesus. And despite this lack of responsibility, Judas still committed suicide once he realised what he had done and despite it not being an accident.


In the passive-aggressive sense, it is to say the event A may be caused by something in person B’s unconscious mind—and not by some collective consciousness or a Universal Overseer. So, secretly, if Person B accidentally backed into your parked car, it may not be by some conscious volition; rather, it’s because or some deep-seated anger or other ill-will harboured and directed for you.

The problem is that if you accept that there are no accidents, then you—intentionally or otherwise—parked your car in a place where it would necessarily be hit by someone—by anyone. It just happened to be this other person for whom there are also no accidents. So, both parties are blameless. But people love to blame, and they like to defer responsibility.


The bottom line is that both of these concepts are a bit sketchy. In a world of no free will, the karma situation might be plausible, but this wreaks havoc on moral-ethical systems. I discuss that in most post on karma.