Thursday, February 19, 2009

An equivocating argument?

  1. If I am responsible for an event E, then I am responsible for at least one of the causes of E. (Premise)
  2. There are no infinite regresses or circles among the events I am responsible for. (Premise)
  3. Therefore, any event E for which I am responsible has among its antecedents a cause that I am responsible for and which is not an event. (By 1 and 2)
  4. All causes are either events or agents. (Premise)
  5. Therefore, any event E for which I am responsible has among its antecedents an agent that I am responsible for. (By 3 and 4)
  6. Therefore, if I am responsible for any event, agent causation occurs.

I think the argument is unsound because (4) is false. Causes can be events or substances. (Actually, I think only substances, but the weaker claim is all I need.) With this substitution, I get the conclusion that substance causation has occurs if I am responsible for any event. But then when we examine the substances I am responsible for, I think we will eventually get another regress. For substances other than myself, such as my dog (if I have any), I am responsible for only because I took on that responsibility. To avoid regress, I must arrive at a substance that I innately have responsibility for. And that's myself. Hence, there there is an agent who is a substance cause (namely I myself), and an agent who is a substance cause is an agent cause.

The equivocation is in (1), in that I am differently responsible for myself and for events. Maybe it's better to call it an argument from a disjunctive notion of responsibility rather than an equivocating argument.


Heath White said...

When I present my students with G. Strawson's argument on the impossibility of moral responsibility, the universal reaction is that I become responsible over time, at least if properly educated (some hand-waving and havering there). So the intuitive picture is that as an adult, I am responsible for myself; as an infant I am not; and responsibility is vague in the interim. How to explain that? For it seems one could also run a regress on responsibility for a substance at a time: if one is responsible at time t, one must be responsible at time t-1. Etc. But that will contravene the intuitive picture. And if there is some form of argument which makes sense of _this_ sorites, then mightn't we use the same form to get out of the other regresses your argument turns on?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't see why a substance that was responsible at t would have to have been responsible at t-1. I imagine the swamp man, who comes out of the swamp, fully educated, knowing the difference between right and wrong (or at least having all the relevant true beliefs), and then going on to rescue someone who fell into the swamp, at great personal risk, and with indeterministic agent causation. The swamp man is responsible for the rescue, assuming he has the same kind of free will we all have. I see no pull whatsoever for thinking that to be responsible for the rescue he has to have been responsible for his beliefs that rescuing people is good, that rescuing people is risky, etc. Assuming he has a sufficient range of normative and factual beliefs like that, and all the normal desires, I see no need for him to have caused himself to have that range.

Heath White said...

Consider the following inconsistent tetrad:

1. If an agent is not responsible for himself or his actions, then a small qualitative change (in mental life, e.g.) will not make him responsible.

2. Normal infants are not responsible for themselves and their actions.

3. Normal adult agents are responsible for themselves and their actions.

4. Normal infants become normal adults through a process of small qualitative changes.

Presumably you’d want to give up 1? I can imagine two varieties of this:

A. The change from irresponsibility to responsibility really does come all at once, as a quantum leap. Something like the traditional “age of accountability.”

B. Responsibility is itself a vague predicate which can increase slowly.

There is also

C. Deny 2. Infants are responsible except that they get a pass for ignorance for several years. This is compatible with versions of either A or B.

A strikes me as implausible. B strikes me as plausible, but then I wonder if there isn’t some version of the same strategy that will stop the other regress arguments. C is interesting; since it seems to require a version of either A or B also, though, I think my reservations would carry over to it. I’d have to see, though.

Alexander R Pruss said...


My inclination is to say that whenever you choose in the metaphysically right way (agent causation, maybe alternate possibilities) between alternatives on the basis of reasons for the alternatives, you are responsible for that particular contrastive choice based on reasons. Thus, if the infant chooses on the basis of reasons between playing with toy A and playing with toy B, the infant is responsible for that particular contrastive choice based on reasons. I don't know, however, if infants ever choose in the metaphysically relevant sense of the word, and I do not know that we could know this (apart from divine revelation).

I am perfectly fine with saying that there was a first time that each person made a choice in the metaphysically relevant way. And the making of a choice is a genuine leap. But it's not a leap that, I think, we find problematic. We do not have trouble in thinking of each choice as a kind of leap. And since choices are discrete, I am not sure what your continuity argument avails. For, of course, one is only responsible once one has made a choice, and there is a first choice one made. Since each choice is a discontinuous transition (so say libertarians like me), there is a discontinuity. So I affirm A. But I qualify. "To be responsible" is an incomplete expression. What I affirm A in regard of is "Being responsible for something or other." And the first choice is probably really minor (in the normal case; not so for my swamp man). So what one is responsible for is something very little. But as one makes more momentous choices (choices between alternatives that, with their reasons, are more morally significantly different), one becomes responsible for more.

Maybe you can reformulate the sorites not in terms of responsibility but in terms of the capability of making a choice. But that can perhaps develop gradually. Think of increasing an electric current through a cable. Eventually the cable will, let us suppose, burst into flame. That is a discontinuous thing. But the increase in current is continuous. (And it may be indeterministic when the cable will burst into flame.)

Heath White said...

I think we just have different intuitions about choosing; it seems much less discrete to me. Both in terms of what a choice is (e.g. I am much less sure that "choice" is a count-noun, rightly understood, or a discrete event, or at least that what we are responsible for would come in count-nouns or discrete events) and in terms of the capacity for choice (e.g. I do not think infants choose in the relevant sense, and I think the transition to real choosing would be gradual). FWIW, these commitments seem to me to be the results of commitment to a libertarian theory, not evidence for it.

I will have to think about it more though.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The increase in responsibility in compatibilistic cases seems wrong to me. It seems to me that if a set of events in a non-overdetermining way deterministically cause some event, one's responsibility for the effect never exceeds one's responsibility for the causes.