Friday, January 28, 2011

No one but you yourself can reliably make you be evil

This argument for incompatibilism is inspired by an excellent paper by Patrick Todd that I just heard. I don't know if Patrick would endorse the argument I give, though.
Start with this principle:
  1. No one but you yourself can reliably make you be evil.
Explanation is needed. Evil isn't just a bad here—it is a particularly serious kind of bad. Nor is being evil just a matter of having an evil character. For I could, through no fault of my own, be brainwashed into having an evil character, but that wouldn't make me be evil. If I were brainwashed into having a seriously bad character, my actions and my character would be worthy of condemnation, but I would be deserving of pity, and not the kind of condemnation that evil people deserve.
Now, people can cause you to be evil. For instance, they can present you with the temptation to do an evil, and if you fall prey to it your character becomes distorted and they have successfully caused you to be evil. But this temptation was either one that you were very likely to fall prey to or it is not on that you were very likely to fall prey to.
If it was a temptation that you were very likely to fall prey to, then you already had an evil character. For a character that makes one very likely to fall prey to a temptation to do an evil seems to be an evil character. So, the tempter did not make you have an evil character. This may seem to show that the tempter did not make you be evil, but that's not right—it leaves out one possibility, which is that previously you had an evil character but were not evil, because you were not sufficiently culpable for the evil character, but now that you've falled into this temptation, that made you be evil. But I think this can't be so. For if an evil character that you were not sufficiently culpable for made the evil action very likely, then you were not very culpable for the evil action—you were only somewhat culpable for it—and that isn't enough to make you be evil. So if the temptation was one that you were very likely to fall prey to, then either you were already evil, or else you lacked sufficient culpability, and you still lack sufficient culpability.
Oone might worry about boundary cases. Let's say you're pretty bad, but not quite evil. You're just one micromoriarty short of being evil. In that case, maybe, the tempter can produce a temptation such that very likely you'll take it, and then it'll push you over the edge, giving you that micromoriarty, and make you be evil. But I think it's not correct to say then that the tempter made you evil. The tempter only helped you a little bit—you already were almost all the way there.
On the other hand, suppose that the temptation was one you were not very likely to fall prey to. Then quite possibly you did become evil, but because you were not very likely to fall prey to the temptation, the tempter's method by which he made you evil wasn't a reliable method, and so we still do not have a counterexample.
One might have another worry about the argument. There may be some temptations that only a moral hero would have much chance at withstanding. Let's say that only a moral hero would have much chance at failing to betray her friend given some particularly nasty torture T. But we can imagine that if she betrays, she will acquire an evil character. So if you're not a moral hero, it will be very likely that the torture will make you betray, and hence will become evil. But I deny that in this case you will become evil—only your character will. The reason is that temptation that only a moral hero would have much chance at withstanding makes you only slightly culpable, and that isn't enough to make you be evil, unless you were already just a shade short of being evil.
What I said above about single temptations generalizes to long-term plans of temptation. If the plan is pretty sure to work, you already have an evil character, or else you don't become culpable when you fall prey to the plan.
Suppose that (1) is correct. Then we can have the following argument against compatibilism:
  1. If compatibilism is true—i.e., if freedom is compatible with all one's mental life being determined—then by setting up appropriate environmental and genetic conditions, one can reliably make someone be evil.
  2. Therefore, compatibilism is false. (By 1 and 2)


enigMan said...

It's a nice argument, but I worry about that "reliably", as though it was a matter of luck. I would say that one can in a sense cause someone else to be evil, but that one can't really cause the other to be evil, only give her the dangerous situation.

I see that we can correctly say that that was a kind of causation, by analogy with more obvious situations (otherwise you don't kill people by shooting them, you only put them in dangerous positions). But I'm not sure that adding "reliably" does all that's necessary here. Still, I'm not sure that it doesn't either. (This is more of a question than a criticism.)

enigMan said...

...also, I'm not sure about the final generalization to plans. If you go on becoming more and more culpable, for a bad character, then you become more and more evil. And although you might occasionally resist your inclinations, that will not be enough to reform you unless there is a string of such resistances. So if the plan is to continue indefinitely, then it may well be more likely that you eventually become evil than that you turn it all around and develop a good character. (But surely it can't come down to probabilities.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

But can the tempter reliably make sure you will get more and more evil? As long as you're not evil, you've got a pretty decent chance that you'll choose the right thing under temptation. And if you choose the right thing under temptation, then (unless the tempter directly acts on your character) your character will improve. And if your character improves, then next time the probability of your choosing the right thing will be even higher.

enigMan said...

Yeah, I think you're right. And if there are no probabilities for tendencies to become evil, as I suspect, then (1) is true. So it's a good argument, I think.

Heath White said...

I have many doubts about this "I" that is beyond both actions and character. We could approach it this way: my Bible says we will be judged according to our deeds, and maybe we could stretch this to include deeds-plus-the-reasons-for-them which would include character. But I don't know how to judge this transcendental ego-thingy you are talking about. Does it really make sense to say, "I have committed terrible crimes because I have a depraved character, but I'm really good underneath"?

Alexander R Pruss said...

It does make sense to say that the evil deeds are not fully imputable to one, and hence that they are not fully one's own. This is a very natural thing to say in cases of brainwashing. I an inclined to think the degree to which an action is one's own is variable.

Nightvid said...

So the empirical evidence that brain damage can make someone mean in character is "An Inconvenient Truth"...

Alexander R Pruss said...

The empirical evidence, together with the principle, shows that there is a difference between having a mean character and being evil.