Saturday, July 23, 2011

Producing a character

Suppose I act in a way that contributes to Bob's having a vicious character that deterministically produces wrong actions under a wide variety of circumstances. Am I responsible for these wrong actions of Bob's? Maybe and maybe not. I might have completely inculpably acted in such a way as produced this character in Bob. Perhaps my action caused Bob to undergo some minor temptation that he simply did not withstand. Perhaps I was brainwashed into brainwashing Bob. On the other hand, if with full responsibility I produced Bob's vicious character, and produced it so that it would deterministically produce such wrong actions, then I am fully responsible for those wrong actions of Bob's. The following seems right:

  1. x is responsible for the actions determined by y's character precisely to the extent that x is responsible for y's having a character that determines such actions.

Now, I will apply principle (1) in the special case where x=y. You might wonder if (1) is applicable in that case. But consider cases where I act so to induce a vicious character in some individual under some description and it turns out that that individual is me. For instance, I pay a brainwasher to kidnap a random person and brainwash that person into being a bank robber, and I turn out to be the random person. In those cases, (1) seems exactly right, too. It is plausible that (1) holds in general. (I think I am thinking about N-responsibility here.)

In the special case where x=y, we get the claim that one is responsible for the actions determined by one's character precisely to the extent that one is responsible for having such a character. And now add this:

  1. x is responsible for a state of affairs S only if S depends (causally or constitutively or by a chain of causal and/or constitutive relations) on or is identical with one or more of x's choices or actions that x is responsible for.
One could probably formulate this in terms of degrees of responsibility, but there may be some difficulties. The idea is that one is responsible for S to the extent that x is responsible, under that description, for choices or actions on which S depends or with which S is identical. Maybe that's exactly right or maybe it needs to be tweaked. But I'll only need (2).

Now, in the case of someone all of whose actions are determined by her character, given (1) (in the special case x=y) and (2), if the individual is responsible for any action, we generate an infinite regress, as in Galen Strawson's argument against responsibility.

I think the compatibilist has to either deny (2), and insist that we can be responsible for a character that does not depend on any responsible choices or actions, or else has to distinguish in (1) between the case where x is non-identical with y and normal cases where x is identical with y (cases like the one where I hire the random brainwasher being abnormal).

As a libertarian, I also think the above arguments conflate derivative and non-derivative responsibility, but I do not think the compatibilist can really make much use of that distinction.


ryanb said...

(1) is tempting because in typical manipulation cases, the way the manipulator gets responsible for the manipulated person's action is by contributing to the formation of that person's character.

But this is not the only way that one person could be responsible for the act of another. She could push a button that causes the exercise of a power in the other person to do the action. Here it's a stretch to say that the "manipulator" contributed to the formation of the manipulated person's character, but it is still plausible that she shares a great deal in the responsibility for the action.

So my suggestion would be for the compatibilist to deny (1).

I do think, though, that it is quite promising to think in general about what makes *anyone* responsible for S's doing A, rather than simply what makes *S* responsible. I do think it would be attractive if the account of what makes *S* responsible is just one particular application of the general explanation of what makes anyone responsible.

I've been toying with some such accounts lately and would be happy to share them if you're interested.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Good point. (1) is true only if one replaces "determined by y's character" with "solely determined by y's character". But the conclusion of the argument then becomes uninteresting, since few if any actions are determined by y's character.

Much better to replace 1 with:

1*. x is responsible for y's actions determined by y's character and environment precisely to the extent that x is responsible for y's character and environment being such as to produce such actions.

I think the rest of the argument should continue to work.

ryanb said...

Here's a different way for the compatibilist to respond.

Say: (1) is true where x isn't identical to y, but not true where x does equal y. In fact, this is just implied by a more general account of what it is for any person x to be responsible for any action A done by any person y (where we leave it open whether x is identical to y). Finding such a general account won't be easy. But whatever it says will involve some kind of causation running in the right way from x's character to A. But then it makes perfect sense for the compatibilist to think that (1) is true where x isn't identical to y but not true where x is identical to y. For, where x isn't identical to y, the only way x could be responsible for y's action would be by x's character contributing to the formation of y's character (or her environment). But where x is identical to y, x needn't do this, since we've already said that A is caused by y's character and environment.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: I am very curious to know what your response to Galen Strawsons and Peter van Inwagen's objections are. How do you maintain the coherence of Libertarian free will? I find myself more and more in a corner, since I have both philosophical and theological reasons to insist that Libertarianism is true, but then I find at least some force in van Inwagen's and Strawson's arguments....

Have you written on this, or can you point me to someone who has?

Personally, I start with the fact that a proper account of agent causation makes sui generis causation, even on the part of a totally physical object like a human being, a genuine possibility. And I don't mind if "rewindings of the tape" (as van Inwagen puts it) produce the same result over and over, since that at best demonstrates that I WOULD NOT do differently under those circumstances; not that I COULD NOT do differently. I also find that people like Raymond Tallis make an interesting point when they see each choice as embedded on larger meta-choices of a sort where we deliberate and come to decisions, but then we uphold those decisions at each relevant sub-decision, and so we have created a set of circumstances freely in which we make more-or-less free choices....

But, I'm still not sure exactly how to give a full account of a how a person can have a psychological character of a particular sort, and yet be able to choose differently in a particular case so as to be morally responsible.

Any suggestions?