With all this discussion about the influence of circumstances on our behavior, I thought I'd draw your attention to my interview with Philip Zimbardo (of Stanford Prison Experiment fame), which is in the latest issue of the The Believer. By special permission from the good people over at McSweeney's, you can read the interview here. Zimbardo talks at length about the prison experiment, its bearing on the abuses of Abu Ghraib, and the implications of situationism for moral responsibilty in general.
A longer version (where we also delve into free will and control) is included in the collection of my interviews, entitled A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, due out later in the Fall. The book includes interviews with Galen Strawson, Michael Ruse, Jon Haidt, Frans de Waal, Steve Stich, Josh Greene and Liane Young, Joe Henrich, William Ian Miller, and Zimbardo--all on stuff we love to talk about here at the Garden. More shameless self-promotion to come when the book comes out!
Over the summer I came across an interesting exchange between Ted Honderich and Richard Double in the Dec 1996 issue of PPR. Double leads off with a critique of Honderich’s attempt to develop an objective synthesis of compatibilism and incompatibilism. Honderich in his books has argued that neither of these positions is true because a belief in determinism leads to a different set of mutually consistent attitudes that encompass elements of both. We feel “dismay” when we understand that we cannot rise above the influences of our heredity and environment. Yet we also have another set of “life-hopes” that require only that our actions be voluntary in the compatibilistic sense. Thus, according to Honderich, determinism does have consequences even if those consequences are different from what both the compatibilist and incompatibilist imagine.
Richard Double makes two important points about Honderich’s view. First, Double notes that the view might best be classified as a kind of incompatibilism. Incompatibilists don’t deny that voluntariness is possible if determinism is true and are not committed to the view that determinism would remove all important types of freedom. But I want to focus on Double’s second criticism. Double faults Honderich for concluding that determinism has objective consequences of any kind. He writes:
If our responses to determinism are simply attitudes, and if attitudes are neither nor false, then determinism has no logical, moral or psychological consequences in the sense of correct conclusions that have to be accept by all rational persons. There are only reactions to determinism, none of which is objectively better than all the rest .(848)
The idea is that since attitudes have no truth values, Honderich’s objective synthesis of compatibilism and incompatibilism is doomed from the start. To drive home the point, he imagines a “smart aleck” who denies that incompatibilist intuitions would count as evidence for incompatibilist conclusions about moral responsibility and demands a reason for thinking that they do. Since attitudes aren’t reasons, according to Double, there is no response to give to the smart aleck.
Here’s the latest in my series of increasingly dangerous concessions to Strawson-style compatibilism.
Assume (plausibly) that theories of moral responsibility hinge on our all-things-considered intuitions or judgments about the proper conditions for deserving blame, praise, punishment and reward.Now imagine a person, call him Jack, who finds hard incompatibilist arguments intuitively compelling all things considered, and therefore accepts that no one can be morally responsible for their behavior. (He even publishes a couple of articles defending that view.) But then Jack thinks of a scenario in which someone deliberately, willfully harms his daughter.The offender in the imagined scenario meets all normal compatibilist conditions, but not the incompatibilist conditions that Jack believes are necessary for desert.
Were this scenario to occur, Jack would feel that the offender deserved to suffer for the act— he would feel this more strongly than just about anything else. In fact, he thinks it would be obscene of him to apply incompatibilist principles to this case, to worry about whether the guy was causa sui, or whether the factors that trace back beyond his control led him to harm his daughter. If someone said "but what about the TNR principle?" he would say “F*ck the TNR Principle!” More importantly, even now, just imagining the scenario, Jack believes that this is the right or appropriate response—that it would be wrong not to feel this way. Lastly, Jack realizes that he wouldn’t feel that response to be appropriate if the offender didn't meet certain basic compatibilist conditions.If the man was completely crazy, or manipulated into performing the act, he doesn’t think that it's wrong not to feel retributive towards that person. (He might feel retributive anyway, but now, upon reflection, he sees that as more irrational.)
Now Jack is fully aware of his incompatibilist commitments.He finds the four-case argument and the basic argument no less compelling.He is also aware that his retributive attitude in this case has deep psychological roots that trace back to his evolutionary history, kin selection etc. But he doesn’t care. He still thinks it would be deeply inappropriate to favor his incompatibilist intuitions over the intuition that the guy who harmed his daughter deserves to suffer for that crime. And he cannot see why the same reasoning shouldn’t apply to other people’s daughters (and relatives, friends etc.) as well.Since intuitions are the ultimate arbiters for theories of responsibility, and the force of this latter intuition is greater that the intuitions that favors incompatibilist principles, does Jack has reason to rethink his all-things-considered rejection of compatibilism?
Eddy and I were talking recently about how difficult it is to find discussions of the degrees of moral responsibility in the contemporary literature. Our thought was that this is due to the way theories of moral responsibility tend to be framed—in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions—and that this kind of approach doesn’t lend itself easily to viewing responsibility as a degree concept. Take for example Susan Wolf’s discussion of “JoJo,” the tyrant modeled after one of the Hussein sons, who engages in terrible acts of cruelty, torture, and murder. According to the deep self view, he is morally responsible--period. He meets the sufficient conditions. According to Wolf’s “sane deep self view,” Jojo is not morally responsible--period. He does not meet her necessary condition of sanity. There is no in-between option under consideration—i.e. Jojo as morally responsible, deserving blame, but not as much as if he had grown up in a more enlightened environment. This is odd since the in-between option seems like the most intuitive response. In fact, from this armchair I’d wager that in general the folk understand moral responsibility as something that comes in degrees. Our legal system certainly treats it that way.
So two questions:
1. Has there been a wealth of discussion about degrees of moral responsibility that I’m not aware of?
2. To what extent can leading compatibilist and libertarian theories accommodate the view of moral responsibility as a degree concept?
Most of us are familiar with the view that skepticism about moral responsibility entails skepticism about objective moral values in general. Van Inwagen, for example, makes the claim that “no one can consistently say that a certain act was a shoddy thing to do and say that its agent was not morally responsible when he performed it.” (Essay on Free Will, p. 207). If there is no such thing as moral responsibility, according to PVI, then there is no such thing as shoddy or despicable behavior either. I think this view has been adequately undermined (by Michael Slote, Derk Pereboom, and others I’m not thinking of at the moment) and I don’t want to go back to the debate. What I want to suggest is that not only is it possible to be a moral realist (or objectivist) and at the same time a moral responsibility skeptic, you have to be moral realist in order to be a moral responsibility skeptic. In other words, moral responsibility skepticism entails moral realism or objectivism.
This past year, I’ve been giving a paper arguing that cross-cultural differences in intuitions and attitudes about moral responsibility are deep enough to make it unlikely that there’s a principled way of establishing the truth of theories of moral responsibility (including skeptical ones). At the last conference (ROME in Boulder), I got a couple of comments along the following lines:
“I’m not interested in anyone’s intuitions or beliefs, I’m interested in the nature of moral responsibility. Your project doesn’t tell me anything about that.”
These comments confuse me because every theory of MR that I’m familiar with appeals to intuition about key principles and cases. So how is it possible to investigate the nature of moral responsibility and at the same time claim to be “not interested” in people’s intuitions?
Incompatibilists tend to employ two principles to justify their theories: (1) the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) and (2) the ‘Transfer of Non-Responsibility’ (TNR) principle. Some argue directly for the intuitively plausibility of these principles (e.g van Inwagen’s “Direct Argument”, Galen Strawson’s “Basic Argument”), and others describe specific cases in which an agent is intuitively not morally responsible and then argue that there is no relevant difference between those cases and all instances of determined behavior (e.g. Pereboom’s Four case argument, Mele’s “zygote argument” in a way..). “Generalization strategies” can’t get off the ground unless the reader shares with the author the intuitions about the moral responsibility of the agents in the original cases. Readers who don’t share those intuitions won’t arrive at the incompatibilist conclusion. So the two main strategies for defending incompatibilism seem ultimately appeal to intuition.
Check out this post over at The Splintered Mind by fellow Duke grad Hagop Sarkissian. Hagop, Josh Knobe, and Shaun Nichols ran a cross-cultural X-Phi study and found that incompatibilist indeterminist intuitions were universally shared to a surprising degree.
Hopefully, you'll be able to identify some problems with the experiment since the results are disasterous for my book project!
Some of you may remember about a year and a half ago when my daughter Eliza almost converted me to Strawsonian compatibilism. Well, Eliza’s views have crystallized a bit now that she just turned four. Driving back from Wisconsin this past weekend, our family was discussing the fates of characters in the movie we had recently seen called Enchanted. One of the characters, Nathanial, had helped the wicked queen played by Susan Sarandon try to kill the heroine Giselle with a poison apple. (He was in love the Queen.) Nathanial also made numerous attempts on the life of a chipmunk named Pip, a devoted friend of Giselle. Nathanial ends up the best-selling author of a book about loving the wrong person. My wife Jen said that it was nice that things worked out for him, but Eliza had to disagree.
“No Mommy,” Eliza explained (very patiently), “Good people are supposed to be happy, and bad people are supposed to be sad or dead.”
I think she’s going to fit in nicely when we get to Texas.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a non-Smilansky related discussion (I wish I’d thought of Illusionism!), so I thought I’d post some thoughts I’ve expressed in comment threads but never really put out there for public criticism and ridicule. So here goes:
John noted that in his upcoming Hourani lectures he will accuse Strawson of having an unreasonably demanding requirement for moral responsibility, what he calls “total control.” Others have attacked Strawson for arguing that we need to be ‘wholly responsible’ for our characters in order to be morally responsibility for our actions, claiming that this is asking for too much. Now ‘total control’ and “wholly responsible” can mean a lot of things, but I believe that they are often interpreted in ways that do not do justice Strawson’s theory.
The source of the misconception, I believe, lies in Strawson’s use of the causa sui concept. The problem with the causa sui language (along the entertaining Nietzsche quote that inevitably accompanies it) is that there is rarely a discussion of how much of our character we would have to ultimately responsible for in order to be causa sui.