Thursday, October 14, 2010

Two kinds of responsibility

I hire Jack the mad brainwasher to capture a random Wacoite and brainwash the victim into burning up a local hardware store's stock of ramin dowels.[note 1] Jack captures Bob and brainwashes him into this, and as a result Bob promptly burns up the local hardware store's stock of ramin dowels. I am responsible for several things, notably:

  1. my hiring Jack to fulfill such-and-such purposes
  2. Jack's brainwashing the victim
  3. the victim's burning of the dowels
  4. the dowels' ceasing to exist.
Of these four things, however, only (1) is an action of mine. Items (2) and (3) are actions, but not my actions: I don't brainwash the victim or burn the dowels, but I have the victim be brainwashed and have the dowels burned. However, (2)-(4) are intended and foreseen consequences of my action, and indeed my hiring Jack to fulfill such-and-such purposes is my having the victim brainwashed and my having the victim burn the dowels. Thus, I am fully responsible for (1)-(4). But the responsibility involved in (1) differs in kind from that in (2)-(4). For in (1), I am responsible in a normal first-person-action sort of way. I am not merely responsible for the occurrence of Jack's being hired: I freely and with responsibility hire Jack. And it is by freely and with responsibility hiring Jack that I assume responsibility for (2)-(4).

Actions (2) and (3) are ones I am responsible for, but I am responsible for them in the way one is responsible for occurrences or events, and not in the way one is normally responsible in a first-person-action sort of way. And of course (4) is not an action at all. We might call my responsibility for (2)-(4) "event-responsibility", while my responsibility for (1) is "agency-responsibility". Observe also that Jack is agency-responsible for (2) and event-responsible for (3) and (4), while (unless there is some further backstory) Bob is not responsible in any way for any of (1)-(4).

Now, I think it plausible that agency-responsibility is intrinsically a different kind of responsibility from event-responsibility. For instance, event-responsibility does not essentially depend on my mental state during the event I am responsible for, but agency-responsibility does essentially depend on my mental state during the action I am agency-responsible for. I could be dead by the time the event I am event-responsible for occurs. There is even a little tense difference. If I am event-responsible for an event E at t2, by virtue of an action of mine that I undertook at an earlier time t1, the better thing to say at t2 is that I was responsible for E. (This is particularly clear in backwards-causation cases. If in the year 2020 Smith sends a bomb backwards in time in a time-machine, and it explodes in the year 2009, in 2009 we could correctly say: "Smith is not yet responsible for this explosion." He will be responsible for it in 2020.)

Normally, I have agency-responsibility for my actions and event-responsibility for their consequences. But it is also possible for me to have event-responsibility but not agency-responsibility for my own actions. For suppose that the Wacoite that Jack randomly kidnaps happens to be me. I think I am no more agency-responsible for the burning of the dowels than Bob was in the original story. I am in exactly the same boat as Bob was. (We can even tweak the story so I am just as surprised as Bob was. For I could have my memory of my hiring Jack wiped as soon as I've hired Jack so that I wouldn't give my part in the plot away.) While the action of burning the ramin happens is done by me, it is not done by me in such a way that I would be agency-responsible for it. But I am event-responsible for it, exactly as I was in the case where Bob did it.[note 2]

If I am right about this, then some examples in the literature (e.g., in Randolph Clarke's response to van Inwagen's omission-centered versions of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities) in which one is responsible even though at the time of the action or omission one cannot act otherwise, where one is responsible for the action or omission because one is responsible for the impaired mental state that led to it, conflate two distinct kinds of responsibility. In cases where one's action or omission results from a severely impaired mental state that one has freely and responsibly produced, one may be agency-responsible for the production of the mental state, but one is only event-responsible for the action or omission flowing from the mental state. As far as one's responsibility goes, that action or omission could just as well have been done by a third party in whom one produced the mental state.

A more difficult question is about cases where with responsibility I produce a normal mental state that then constrains me to do something. Do I then bear only event-responsibility, or do I bear agency-responsibility? Do the souls in heaven bear agency-responsibility for acting rightly (as such) or only event-responsibility? (There is also the divine case, but I think divine simplicity complicates that case further, so it might go different from the souls-in-heaven case.) My incompatibilist inclinations based on the above discussion push me to thinking that even when one induces a normal mental state that determines an action, one only has event-responsibility for the resulting action. But the case in heaven might be different, because there could be miracles involved. It could, for instance, be the case that just as, plausibly, Christ's sacrifice of the Cross is really present at Mass[note 3], so too our graced earthly decision to follow Christ is present in our heavenly life and the heavenly decision to act rightly is numerically identical with our conclusive earthly decision.

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