Monday, July 16, 2012

Past history, responsibility and compatibilism

Suppose that in present circumstances C, which includes both external and internal (e.g., character, mental state, etc.) circumstances I decide to take out the trash. Compatibilists (and maybe libertarians as well) have to say that the causal history of how I came to be in C is relevant to determining whether I was responsible for deciding to take out the trash. On a fairly standard view, I am responsible for the decision only if I came to C via a process that I "owned" in some important sense—a process that involved the normal self-directed formation of character.

But why is the causal history of C at all relevant to grounding my responsibility, or lack thereof, for the decision? I want to suggest a very simple answer: The causal history of C partially grounds facts about what aspect of C I am responsible for, and facts about what aspect of C I am responsible for very naturally at least partially ground facts about how far I am responsible for the decision I make in C. The causal history of C is relevant precisely because it helps determine how far I am responsible for relevant features of C, such as my character, mental state, etc.

If this is right, then the following supervenience principle is very plausible:

  1. If x and y make the same decision in the same way in the same circumstances, and are responsible for these circumstances in exactly the same way (degree, etc.), then x and y are responsible for their decision in exactly the same way (degree, etc.).
It doesn't matter how x and y got to C, as long as they ended up having the same responsibility facts in C. In particular, if there is some aspect of C that they aren't at all responsible for, the causal history of that aspect is irrelevant to determining how far they are responsible for their decision. For instance, suppose that both x and y have IQs of 124, but x got to that IQ because her mother forced her to various puzzles when she was a very small child (and hence not yet responsible for her actions) while y got to it purely for genetic reasons. Then the history of how they got to their IQs doesn't matter.

But while (1) is very plausible, it has a very controversial consequence:

  1. If x and y make the same decision in the same way in the same circumstances, and neither is in any way responsible for the circumstances, and y is in no way responsible for the decision, then x is in no way responsible for the decision.
Now, if I am responsible for some decision, then there was a first decision that I was ever responsible for. Moreover, plausibly:
  1. I can't be responsible for anything at all without being or having been responsible for some decision.
So prior to the first decision that I was ever at all responsible for, I was not responsible for anything at all. But then (2) shows that anybody in exactly the same circumstances as I was when I made my first decision, who chose in exactly the same way, would be responsible for the decision.

Suppose my first responsible decision is made in circumstances at t0. Imagine a swamp being that comes into existence, out of the random confluence of swamp matter, at t0 in exactly the same internal and external state as I had in t0 (so an environment might need to come into existence from the swamp). If determinism is true, that swamp being is not responsible for the decision he makes. This is generally acknowledged by compatibilists, since compatibilists insist that an appropriate history is needed for freedom given determinism (without determinism, it is plausible that no history is needed; if x comes into existence at t0, with a sufficient understanding of the moral features of options A and B, and chooses between A and B in the way libertarians say that choices are made, then x may well be free). But then by (2) neither was I responsible for the decision in the same circumstances, since the swamp being and I are alike in not being responsible for any aspect of the circumstances at t0. And so I wasn't responsible for my first responsible choice, which is a self-contradiction. So determinism needs to be rejected.

I think (3) is a weak point in the argument. But the reliance on (3) can be eliminated when we strengthen (1) to apply to events other than decisions.

15 comments:

Heath White said...

I think the compatibilist would say (a) that you and the swamp being only dubiously get to the decision “in the same way” and (b) that history has a different role than you are implying in compatibilism.

My take is that the compatibilist recognizes as excuses anything that breaks the inference from “S did A” to “S had a bad will in doing A” (or thereabouts). Some such excuses are historical in nature. For example, if Black has been manipulating your mind recently, or you are under hypnosis, we might want to say that your will is not implicated in the action. On the other hand, if you are acting under the influence of early childhood education and social convention, these things shape your will (rather than override it), and it is implicated. (No doubt the line is vague here.) But the historical criterion that compatibilists are interested in is there to make sure it is YOU behind the action.

There might be other relevant historical considerations too. For example, if Davidson is right, then the swamp being has no concepts, therefore cannot engage in reasoning, and therefore plausibly cannot have a will. That might be a significant difference in the way in which it and I arrive at “the same” decision.

Mike Almeida said...

The causal history of C is relevant precisely because it helps determine how far I am responsible for relevant features of C, such as my character, mental state, etc

First, I think your argument is not unlike Pereboom's. You are effectively arguing that determinism itself is manipulative: prior to your first responsible choice, it forms your character/circumstances for you. So, there is no first responsible choice. I like the way this is formulated, and I've worried about this problem. But there is a worry here about the difference between manipulation and constitution. Imagine God creating you from nothing, fully formed, yesterday. In this case, God's action constitutes you. He does not manipulate you. It is just odd to say "but I didn't have a choice in creating myself, so this character is not really mine". The proper response is "this just is you, how could any of these features not really be yours?"

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

"For example, if Black has been manipulating your mind recently, or you are under hypnosis, we might want to say that your will is not implicated in the action."

I don't see this. In C, your will causes or makes the decision. If Black was manipulating your mind recently, then he caused your will to cause or make the decision, but the will is certainly implicated.


Mike:

"He does not manipulate you."

Sure. But I say nothing about manipulation in the post. I just ask why it is that the history prior to the decision matters for responsibility, and my answer is that it matters precisely insofar as it grounds which features of the decision situations you are responsible for.

Mike Almeida said...

Right, Alex, but the standard claim is that determinism mitigates responsibility in either of two ways. Either it removes alternative possibilities, or causes you to have certain properties that are in some sense 'not your own'. This latter is a manipulation problem. It is analogous to the neurosurgeon causing you to have certain gambling abilities that you did not invite him to cause in you. And I think this is the problem you're discussing, no? If so, then the same caveat. There is an important difference between constitution and manipulation.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Right.

Obviously, "not your own" can't be taken literally. Manipulated mental states are your mental states, just as a birthmark is your own brainmark. So now the question is: What is the relevant sense of "your own"? And my proposal is that the relevant sense is: "ones you're not responsible for".

For instance, what makes a vice be my vice in the relevant sense? Surely it is precisely that you're blameworthy for having it.

Heath White said...

Alex,

Mike and I are pushing the same point: that (the compatibilist will say) determinism doesn’t take away responsibility if it’s a matter of creating or constituting you, rather than a matter of manipulating you. Your reply

what makes a vice be my vice in the relevant sense? Surely it is precisely that you're blameworthy for having it

Is helpful in that it nicely raises the question: we have selfhood and we have responsibility; which is the prior concept? Your assumption is that selfhood is constituted by responsibility: I AM whatever aspects of me I am responsible for. The compatibilist will claim it goes the other way: I am responsible for whatever is ME, however I got that way.

Thus the compatibilist needs a story about selfhood (or personal identity) and that is not easy. But the incompatibilist needs a story about responsibility. And it appears he faces a regress: there will have to be some first act (or possibly feature) for which he is responsible, which appears de novo. There can’t be any explanation of this first act, since if there were, you could use the incompatibilist’s style of argument to show that you were not responsible for it. The self who commits this first act will be ex hypothesi “bare”, since there is nothing it is responsible for yet. Moreover the epistemology of responsibility is quite mysterious: how do the rest of us know that you are responsible for whatever it is you’re doing, since our knowledge of your causal history is quite limited?

I think my main point here is that the positive part of the libertarian view is pretty hard, perhaps harder than the compatibilst’s task.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

Well, literally speaking, whether a vice is mine doesn't have anything to do with the causal history of the vice. A vice is some kind of a property, and I have the vice provided that I have that property, no matter how I acquired it. That's just a matter of metaphysics.

But there is a metaphorical sense of of "mine" which is more like "genuinely or authentically mine", and that's what I was talking about in the text you quoted. Let me take back what I said there, since it seems to be confusing the discussion.

In the literal sense, the person brainwashed into vice and the person who came into vice the usual way both have the vice--the vice is really and literally theirs. The difference is that the person who was brainwashed into vice isn't (typically) responsible for the vice while the person who came into vice the usual way is (likely) responsible for the vice.

"Thus the compatibilist needs a story about selfhood (or personal identity) and that is not easy."

I don't see why the compatibilist needs a special story about that. Take a simple Platonic story. Selves are fundamental entities. What makes them selves is that, unlike photons, it is metaphysically possible for them to have mental properties (or at least mental properties of an appropriate sort). Features of character are properties. A self has a feature of character if and only if the self exemplifies that feature. A self endures over time if and only if there are two times, t1 and t2, and the self exemplifies locatedness-at-t1 as well as exemplifying locatedness-at-t2.

Such a story seems completely neutral between compatibilism and incompatibilism. Where the differences show up is when we ask about responsibility.

"But the incompatibilist needs a story about responsibility."

Here's mine, at least about non-derivative responsibility. (The story about responsibility derivation can be the same as the compatibilist's story about it.) x is non-derivatively responsible for choosing A over B iff x freely chooses A over. x freely chooses A over B iff x chooses A over B.

(Of course, the compatibilist can try to give this story as well. But when the compatibilist gives it, there is a fatal objection to the story. For if compatibilism is true, it is possible for someone to make you choose A over B, and then you need not be freely choosing A over B. But the incompatibilism can say that it's impossible for someone to make you choose A over B.)

"There can’t be any explanation of this first act, since if there were, you could use the incompatibilist’s style of argument to show that you were not responsible for it."

I think this is only true if you accept only deterministic explanations. But certainly we should accept indeterministic explanations.

Mike Almeida said...

In the literal sense, the person brainwashed into vice and the person who came into vice the usual way both have the vice--the vice is really and literally theirs.

No doubt. But there is a difference between (say) God creating you with the vice and you being involuntarily caused to have a vice post-creation. Think of it this way: there is no you to manipulate prior to the creation of the self. Now it is strange to complain about inauthenticity in the case of nature causing the self to be vicious. What is authentic to you, given who you are, is that you have the property of being vicious that is caused via nature. If someone interfered with the natural development of this property, they are the one's manipulating you.

Incidentally, the 'one's own' talk and the authenticity talk are painfully unclear. Though I agree that this is exactly what is said in these contexts. And, fwiw, the authenticity talk had better have some close logical relation to what is literally one's own.

Craig said...

"But then (2) shows that anybody in exactly the same circumstances... would be responsible for the decision."

I think you mean "...would not be responsible...."
--

The swamp being may be responsible for its decision in the sense that the decision is attributable to it. Another sort of responsibility--the sort that makes sanctions or rewards appropriate--is significantly mitigated. If this latter kind of responsibility is mitigated to the extent that the swamp being's character formation or maintenance could not itself be attributed to the swamp being, then this might begin to make sense of how someone's substantive responsibility for one's decisions is the sort of thing that gradually develops.

Alexander R Pruss said...

No, I do mean "would be responsible". I am assuming that there was a first choice I was responsible for, and arguing that that choice wasn't determined.

Craig said...

Oh I see. Sorry.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath and Mike;

By the way, I am surprised that you are both willing to say that someone just created, and determined to act by her initial state, can be free in that first act. I assumed that compatibilists would want to say that you need some more time for these character traits to become yours, that the agent needs something like an opportunity to shed these states (even if opportunity is understood in a compatibilist fashion), as in Mele's account.

Mike Almeida said...

Alex, I think it again comes down to the character 'being yours' or being authentically yours. Take any artifact that I create. Surely it makes little sense to talk about its traits not being authentic until it is allowed to shed a trait or two. The artifact is shedding traits in ways no differently from the way I am in deterministic worlds. What could it even mean to say that it's traits are not truly the traits of that artifact? Similarly for you. If God created you, you are effectively an artifact of God. How could the traits with which he created you not be most truly yours? Maybe more truly your than any traits you might acquire on your own.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike,

But after I am brainwashed into having new traits, those traits are certainly really mine, in exactly the same way, no?

Mike Almeida said...

The question is hard. Look, for any property that you might acquire involuntarily via some extraordinary way (say, brainwashing), that same property might be acquired involuntarily via some ordinary way, living an ordinary life. In the latter case you'd say it's authentic, the the former not. Neither is voluntary, neither did you have much control over. So it's hard ot know what's special about brainwashing cases.