Monday, December 08, 2008

Ultimate Responsibility

How does 'responsibility' enter the causal chain? Compatibilists may say it emerges from "reasons responsiveness" or rational agency. Past states of the world cause my cognitive functioning -- that is, me -- to exist, and I in turn cause downstream effects to occur through my actions, for which I am responsible. Responsibility enters the system when the causal chain flows through an agent -- through one's character, values, and practical reasoning. Incompatibilists object to this: "how can you be responsible for your actions if you weren't responsible for the upstream causes which determined your cognitive functioning (character, etc.) in the first place?" They claim, in short, that responsibility requires ultimate responsibility. But is this even possible?

Compatibilists respond that this can't be helped even if determinism is false. If our cognitive functioning isn't caused, then it's uncaused ("random"), and that's no better. Our initial state of being may not be determined by prior events, but that doesn't mean it's determined "by us" as ultimate responsibility would require. Rather, it's not determined by anything or anyone at all. (Some compatibilists have gone further and claimed that freedom requires determinism. That isn't quite right: in the right conditions, indeterminism is compatible with the same kind of non-ultimate responsibility as determinism is.)

A person cannot be ultimately responsible for their initial state of being. We have control over some things, but our exercise of this capacity must be underpinned by sub-personal mechanisms that govern how we exercise control. We cannot always control the manner by which we control, or choose the bases on which we choose, on pain of regress. As I once put it:
Suppose you got to choose your own personality. On what basis could you make such a choice? You must base it on some prior preferences that you have. But did you ever get to choose those preferences? If so, on what basis was that choice made? We must eventually reach some foundational standards of evaluation (preferences) that you never chose to have. So "pure" freedom is impossible.

This is a strong conclusion. I'm claiming that the kind of "ultimate responsibility" free-will libertarians are angling for is incoherent. Not even God could have it. And you know something's gone terribly wrong when you're hoping for powers that even an omnipotent being would lack! If ultimate responsibility is impossible in this way, it can't really be required for the kind of ordinary moral responsibility humans aspire to. Perhaps we can't know for sure that we really are morally responsible beings, but here's one thing we surely do know: there are at least some possible worlds containing responsible beings. So whatever our criteria for attributing free will and responsibility to agents, it had better at least be logically possible to satisfy.

Am I right that this rules out the libertarian criterion of 'pure self-creation'?

16 comments:

  1. I find the typical agent-Libertarian position here highly problematic metaphysically. (Ignoring folks like Kane who have a much more acceptable view in my opinion) However the agent-Libertarian would simply say that there is an ontological capability of choosing that renders your argument false. (See O'Conner or Clarke for example) Typically this is either a pseudo-Cartesian "choosing substance" or an emergent phenomena.

    I find that implausible for a variety of reasons but I think it does avoid the charge you make.

    If one maintains physicalism or something close then, yes, I think most varieties of Libertarianism are incoherent.

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  2. Oh, and the portion you are quoting from your old post is very close to Galen Strawson's Basic Argument.

    You can check it here:
    http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/V014

    [Requires subscription.]

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  3. [My first comment didn't appear. Here's a re-try.]

    Hey Richard, you seem to think that, intuitively, free will/moral responsibility is at least *possible*. Thus, if a proposed condition on moral responsibility (such as what you call pure self-creation) is such that it shows no one necessarily isn't morally responsible, then there must be something wrong on the condition.

    I don't think free will/moral responsibility is at least possible. For all I care, it may actually be the case that everyone necessarily isn't morally responsible. (Even Gods can't have free will - so what?)

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  4. Richard, you fail to notice that one state of the universe can be causally sufficient for many different subsequent states.

    Suppose S1 is causally sufficient for both S2 and S3. Then, if S2 occurs, the cause of S2 occurring is S1. If S3 occurs, the cause of S3 occurring is S1. Indeterminism, but every event is caused.

    Now we see that there are many ways that libertarian freedom is possible. Here is one. S1 is causally sufficient for S2 and S3. In making a decision, you ensure that S3 occurs. But the cause of S3 occurring is S1.

    Are you ultimately responsible? Well, you aren't responsible for which states S1 is causally sufficient for. But you are responsible for which state S1 actually caused, so yes. That said, had S1 been causally sufficient for only one subsequent state of the universe, then you wouldn't have been responsible, hence incompatibilism.

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  5. > If our cognitive functioning isn't caused,
    >then it's uncaused ("random")

    Isn't this really the point that is in dispute?

    Libertarians are saying that our choices are neither random nor wholly caused by previous events. They originate with us and we decide their content at the instant of making the choice.

    It's kind of mysterious how this could happen but we believe it because compatibilism just doesn't convince us and an absence of free will should be assumed false (because if its true we have no choice about what we believe anyway).

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  6. "Perhaps we can't know for sure that we really are morally responsible beings, but here's one thing we surely do know: there are at least some possible worlds containing responsible beings. So whatever our criteria for attributing free will and responsibility to agents, it had better at least be logically possible to satisfy."

    Whether or not you're right that the libertarian notion of free will is incoherent, the above claim strikes me as pretty contentious. I'm sure some determinist incompatibilists would deny it.

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  7. AnlamK and Daniel -- let me offer two quick arguments:

    (1) As a general principle, our concepts aim at coherence. So if what I've dubbed 'pure self-creation' is incoherent, then (all else equal) it's a poor candidate for being the true referent of our 'free will' and 'responsibility' concepts. They will instead latch on to any more suitable candidate in the vicinity, such as is provided by compatibilist analyses.

    (2) There's no reason to care about incoherent ideas. They're not important -- they don't even make sense. But free will and moral responsibility are important. So they're not incoherent.

    Nigel - "our choices... originate with us and we decide their content at the instant of making the choice."

    How does that engage with my regress argument? I'm asking: by what process do you make decisions, and did you ever get to choose that (and if so, by what process...)?

    Jack - ditto. (Aside: I think you misdescribe the scenario -- at least, I would use the terms 'cause' and 'sufficient' very differently. But it doesn't really matter. The question is: how did you decide whether to bring about S2 or S3?)

    Clark - But is the posited "ontological capability of choosing" really coherent? How is it supposed to work? And how, exactly, does it escape the regress problem? (Does one get to choose the nature of one's ontological capability of choosing?)

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  8. I think your basic regress argument is on the right track to show that ultimate-sourcehood libertarians face a serious problem. But I think it's obscured by the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all process of decision; processes of decision are literally made up as they go on, and a little reflection shows that this is so. In one process of decision I may come to the decision with a ready-made filter, some set of criteria, and pick the option that fits that; in another I may assign options to a coin or die and pick the chance outcome of a flip or a roll; in another I may waver back and forth between options and go with what I'm on when time is up; in another, the process of decision may involve at least some decisions on the best way to decide; etc. Even though there is a regress problem with processes of decision, it's not actually immediately obvious to most people because there's a perfectly straightforward sense in which processes of decision are spontaneously self-forming, and people confuse spontaneous organization with ultimate sourcehood all the time.

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  9. I probably should just repeat what I wrote last time. But maybe this will make it clearer.

    I turn right. A cause of my turning right was my decision to turn right. "By what process" did I make that decision? There are many answers to that question, but among others, brain state S1 was a sufficient cause of my deciding to turn right.

    Now, I claim that had I turned left instead, a cause of my turning left would have been my deciding to turn left, and a cause of my deciding to turn left would have been being in brain state S1. No matter which direction I decide to turn, S1 is a (sufficient) cause of my so deciding, though not the only sufficient cause. I determine which event--turning right or turning left--S1 is a cause of.

    I don't get what you don't get. To be honest, I don't understand your regress argument either, unless I supplement it with the false principle that: if C caused E, had E not occurred, C would not have occurred. What is the regress argument?

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  10. But is the posited "ontological capability of choosing" really coherent? How is it supposed to work? And how, exactly, does it escape the regress problem? (Does one get to choose the nature of one's ontological capability of choosing?)

    Well if it's a fundamental ontological capability why do they have to explain how it would work? That is they see it as ontologically fundamental. Those libertarians sees a choice that is neither random nor determinate (nor a combination of the two) as basic. Their appeal is to our perception of how we see ourselves choosing.

    I don't buy it for a second, mind you. But I don't think that makes it incoherent.

    As to the regress problem, I confess I just don't see how it applies. The fact one has the ability to chose doesn't mean there is a regress. Rather the 'fact' one reaches this choosing substrate ends the regress.

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  11. Just to clarify a bit more. The libertarian would say your view is based on a fallacy of false dichotomy. Either something is determined or it is random. The whole point of this subset of libertarianism is to say there is a third choice. Once you accept that then the whole structure of your argument falls apart.

    As I suggested the big question is why we should think there is a third category between random and determined. But since they think we have 1st person introspective reasons to think we have this they don't think the fact we find no examples outside of humanity terribly problematic. In a sense it is akin to the appeal to 1st person introspection for there being an irreducible conscious element (contra physicalism).

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  12. Brandon - "Even though there is a regress problem with processes of decision, it's not actually immediately obvious to most people because there's a perfectly straightforward sense in which processes of decision are spontaneously self-forming, and people confuse spontaneous organization with ultimate sourcehood all the time."

    That's a good way to put it.

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  13. Freedom of choice and related responsibility for our actions is part of our being human. We can never be completely free and have everything under control but the pursuit of happiness is what makes us human. Freedom and responsibility are inalienable we cannot trade, cede or denounce them. The material limitations do our exercise of freedom and choice doesn't change there absolute validi6y To deny responsibility is to deny humanity.

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  14. Hey Richard,

    Thanks for the helpful reply. Nonetheless, I am not so sure of the coherency of our important concepts as you seem to be.

    In fact, if you read Matti Eklund's work (of Cornell University), he argues that predicates such as "looks red" are inconsistent due to Sorites paradox and personal identity (and so why not free will?), too, is an incoherent concept. (He argues that a concept, predicate or a "piece of Language L" is incoherent if "meaning-constitutive" principles of that predicate/concept/piece are jointly inconsistent.) I suggest you check out his work.

    Moreover, consider the concept of traditional God that is pretty important to a lot of people. According to this conception, God is all-knowing, all-powerful and wholly moral. But I'm sure, as you'd agree, this is not really coherent.

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  15. Seems coherent to me. (There's nothing in our world that exemplifies those three traits. But in a sufficiently different world, something might.)

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  16. Re: Jack and sufficient cause.

    I believe that Richard expects a "sufficient cause" to function in reverse such that the outcome serves to identify the cause. If one cause may instantiate two different outcomes under the same conditions (in different possible worlds) then that cause runs afoul of that definition.

    On the other hand, it is also improper to ask for a sufficient cause of that type in the case of a LFW (incompatibilist) model. The question apparently assumes an explanation for incompatibilist LFW causation in terms of causal determinism. And that would be nonsense.

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