Saturday, August 13, 2016

Physicalism, character and condemnation

The following argument is valid:

  1. (Premise) Necessarily, it is unjust to condemn a person for something that she is in no way responsible for.
  2. (Premise) Necessarily, it is not unjust to condemn a person for having a gravely wicked character when she in fact has a gravely wicked character.
  3. (Premise) If physicalism is true, it is possible for a person to have a gravely wicked character that she is in no way responsible for.
  4. It is impossible for a person to have a gravely wicked character that she is in no way responsible for. (By 1 and 2)
  5. So, physicalism is not true. (By 3 and 4)
Of the three premises, (3) is clearly true. If physicalism is true, a gravely wicked character is simply a function of the arrangement of matter, and particles in the brain of a good person could just randomly quantum tunnel into positions that constitute a gravely wicked character. That leaves premises (1) and (2). I am pretty confident of (1). And (2) has a certain plausibility to it.

Still, I am not really all that confident of (2). Part of my lack of confidence has to do with Christian intuitions about not condemning others. But those intuitions may not be relevant, since (2) concerns justice, while the Christian duties of forgiveness and non-condemnation are grounded in charity, and a desire to oneself be forgiven by God, rather than in justice to the wicked. Still, I am not sure of (2).

The quantum tunneling argument I gave for (3) in fact established a stronger claim than (3): it established the claim that if physicalism is true, it is causally possible for a human person to be gravely wicked without any responsibility for that. This means that we can weaken (1) and (2) by replacing "person" with "human person" and "Necessarily" with "Causally necessarily". I don't know if this does much to make (2) more plausible.

Whatever the merits of the argument, I think it is an independently really interesting question whether (4) is true.

5 comments:

entirelyuseless said...

I'm pretty sure that (2) is false. It is always unjust to condemn a person for having a wicked character except insofar as it results from wicked behavior, so insofar as it is possible to have a wicked character without producing it by wicked behavior, e.g. by quantum tunneling, as in your example, or simply because your parents taught you certain behaviors before you were capable of moral action, or for some other reason, it is unjust to condemn a person for having a wicked character.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Am I responsible for my wicked character if God created my character?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Walter:

I don't know that God could create a positively wicked character.

But granting that for the sake of argument, we can imagine scenarios on which you're created with a wicked character but eventually become responsible for it. For instance, perhaps your character, while wicked, does not determine your actions, and at some point you have a free choice whether to remain wicked or become good. If you remain wicked at that point, then you may now be responsible for your wicked character.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

I really do not see the siginficance of a kind of free will in which I don't determine my own choices.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: If "physicalism" includes the claim that our moral character is some physical fact about, say, the wiring of our brains, then I would say your argument probably goes through (though I too have misgivings about (2)). However, I think a person can be a physicalist and yet deny that moral characters are physical facts about brains.