Moral Responsibility

Can we be held morally responsible for our actions? Yes, says Daniel Dennett. No, says Gregg Caruso. Reader, you decide

Aeon Article, 4 October 2018

Caruso: [Dan,] you have famously argued that freedom evolves and that humans, alone among the animals, have evolved minds that give us free will and moral responsibility. I, on the other hand, have argued that what we do and the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and that because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions, in a particular but pervasive sense – the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward. While these two views appear to be at odds with each other, one of the things I would like to explore in this conversation is how far apart we actually are. I suspect that we may have more in common than some think – but I could be wrong. To begin, can you explain what you mean by ‘free will’ and why you think humans alone have it?

Gregg Caruso

Dennett: A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious, once you divorce the idea of control from the idea of causation. Your past does not control you; for it to control you, it would have to be able to monitor feedback about your behaviour and adjust its interventions – which is nonsense.

In fact, if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent. Lucky you. You weren’t responsible for becoming an autonomous agent, but since you are one, it is entirely appropriate for the rest of us to hold you responsible for your deeds under all but the most dire circumstances. 

Daniel Dennett

if your past is roughly normal, it contains the causal chains that turned you into an autonomous, self-controlling agent

Dan Dennett

So commences this debate. The argument unfolds largely on semantic grounds. Even here, one can see the debate over the distinction between control and causation. I understand what Dennett is attempting to parse here, but I object on the grounds of causa sui.

I recommend reading the Aeon article as there is much more than this distinction, but it does remain a semantic issue. I started a post on backwards- and forward-looking perspectives, that better articulate Caruso’s perspective, but I am also working on other things. This was quicker to post and I wanted to keep a bookmark anyway, so it’s a win-win.

Chthonic Introspection

The title of this post is admittedly pompous, but I promise it’s relevant. I was chatting with an online colleague about the travails of my anti-agency journey. I’ll lay it out here as well.

About a month or so ago, I embarked to research on my suspicion that human agency is ostensibly hogwash*. I went down many rabbit holes to find the skeletal remains of many rabbits who have embarked on this path before me. I thought I had some unique epiphany and I would just have to articulate my position, but it turns out not to be the case. In fact, it’s a crowded space—lots of skeletal Leporidae. Moreover, many of these blokes are still alive and kicking.

As it happens, we all fit under the large umbrella of free will scepticism, but there are several flavours mostly differentiated by where one prunes the branch. Scepticism of free will is the common bond, but the differences, as one might expect, lead to different implications. Some branches still allow for responsibility—even absent agency—, others even insist on responsibility despite not having agency—and still others, like me, claim responsibility is impossible.

All of these perspectives hinge on the validity and strength of determinism or indeterminism. Soft determinism (AKA compatibilism) allows for free will and determinism to coexist, so that’s not on my radar.

As I’ve cited elsewhere, there are not many non-religious determinists these days, as the state of science and quantum theory pretty much obsoleted the idea. But by my reckoning, from the perspective of the would-be agent, it doesn’t matter because in either case, this person (or other animate objects—no need to overspecify) is affected by the causal chain and does not affect it. This lack of affectation is precisely why we can’t attribute responsibility or desert.

This is not just some philosophical mental masturbation. It turns out that entire legal frameworks are designed on the prevailing held beliefs, and the more degrees of free will a culture assumes people have, the more punitive that society is—and vice versa. More on this in a future post where I intend to write about Gregg Caruso’s perspective and where and how our positions deviate.




* What is hogwash anyway? Not Googling it.