Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How can one be responsible for the self that is responsible for the choices that create the self??

What or who is this self that does the choosing of actions that leads to the formation of one’s character? One might suppose that, for Aristotle, this self has no moral character (it is the pre-character self, at least in the normal sense of character) and thus this being’s choices do not reflect the self’s character at least in the early stages of action-choosing (i.e., moral development). How then explain the “badness” or “goodness” of this self who, it seems, Aristotle holds responsible for the course of actions taken, leading to a particular character? (He seems to be assuming that this self is responsible for his or her choices.) Taking his view, we seem compelled to recognize a kind of moral agent sans moral character that nevertheless makes choices that can be moral or immoral. Are we to imagine some Calvinistic fated self who simply comes into being disposed to right- or wrong-choosing as moral development commences? (This is absurd/appalling.) Or does this initial self in some sense “choose” its “character*”—because of a peculiar proto-character not accounted for by my later action-choices that yield the dispositions that are my ultimate character?  
– RB, 4/18/16

I have always been interested in the free will debate, though, years ago, I decided essentially to stop thinking about it because continuing to do so seemed at the time to threaten my ability to function as a normal human being (an ability that was already pretty feeble in my case).

(My "decision": there’s a kind of irony in this that I won’t go into but that you can guess.)

Among the views that I have always found attractive is the notion that the very idea of free will is incoherent. I suppose I understand those who insist that free will is a possibility despite the correctness of some sort of mechanistic view of nature, but it has always seemed to me that these thinkers have a conception of free will that is foreign and that, in any case, is not the notion I came to the philosophical table with years ago. To me, these philosophers seem to come into the room wanting to play chess, whereupon they commence bringing out baseball gear. WTF?, as they say.

To my (pre-reflective and reflective) notion of free will, it is, of course, a kind of causation: the causation of a "self." But I can’t make any sense of this "self" if it is viewed a la the Libertarian in part because that view seems unable to explain how the self is in some sense responsible for itself. The Humean view (alluded to above) seems even worse in this regard.

How can you make sense of the self as something for which one is responsible--and it does seem to me that this is a requirement for any sense of “freedom” and “responsibility” that is even remotely like my pre-reflective notions. The enterprise seems unpromising in the extreme. At least to me.

Today, I happened to come across a reference to an essay by Martin Heisenberg (yes, the son of the great physicist) that appeared in a May issue of Nature. Heisenberg, it seems, was defending free will, but the blogger I was reading (who offered a critique of H's article) rejected Heisenberg’s argument owing (he said) to Heisenberg’s conceiving free will as “randomness.”

Following that up, I ran into the view called “Pessimism.” I had come across it before. It is associated with the contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson (yes, the son of the great Philosopher Peter S).

To make a long story short, S’s “pessimism” sounds right to me.

Here’s a brief Wikipedia account of that view:
The contemporary philosopher Galen Strawson agrees with Locke that the truth or falsity of determinism is irrelevant to the problem. He argues that the notion of free will leads to an infinite regress and is therefore senseless. According to Strawson, if one is responsible for what one does in a given situation, then one must be responsible for the way one is in certain mental respects. But it is impossible for one to be responsible for the way one is in any respect. This is because in order to be responsible for the way one is in some situation "S", one must have been responsible for the way one was at "S-1". In order to be responsible for the way one was at "S-1", one must have been responsible for the way one was at "S-2", and so on. At some point in the chain, there must have been an act of origination of a new causal chain. But this is impossible. Man cannot create himself or his mental states ex nihilo. This argument entails that free will itself is absurd, but not that it is incompatible with determinism. Strawson calls his own view "pessimism" but it can be classified as hard incompatibilism.

The view is explained in more detail in this entry of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I’ve got to run, but I wondered what others thought about this view?

* * * * *

Just got back from my lunch date with my pal Jan. I want to return to the earlier matter.

I recall studying Aristotle’s ethical views in graduate school. Aristotle says that one is responsible for one’s moral character, for one’s moral character is (more or less) one’s set of dispositions, and those arise via the actions one had chosen to perform which, when repeatedly performed over time, produced a habit or tendency—a second nature.

This is, I think, more or less correct and importantly so. For what it is worth, I try to live by this view in my own "moral saga," at least as far as my own moral agency is concerned.

Nevertheless, it has always seemed to me that something about this account doesn't add up, for, though it is surely correct that one’s moral personality is a matter (largely or entirely) of one’s set of dispositions (to do things, want things, etc.) and that one’s dispositions arise (largely) via repeated actions that one “chooses” to perform, this now focuses all explanatory attention on that self who makes those choices. Who’s that guy? Where did he come from? How do we account for his fortunate (or unfortunate) choices or decisions to act as he does (repeatedly over time)? One cannot return to the “habituation” account--that this self is the product of earlier choices and processes of habituation leading to his moral character--for one then enters a vicious circle or an infinite regress.

But then—what?

I have never understood the familiar notion—familiar, at least, among those who watch TV shows and movies—that criminal psychopaths are evil and deserve to be punished for their terrible crimes and even for being the monsters (in intention and desire) that they are even before they’ve acted. Always in the background, it seems, is the further assumption that they are “born,” not made. (Am I wrong? This does seem to be the thinking, at least sometimes.) Evidently, in the minds of these screenwriters--and of the audience--this further idea does not erode the notion that the psychopathic monsters are blameworthy for their evil. But surely if criminal psychopaths are born as they are (lacking certain capacities essential for empathy, etc.), then they are no more responsible for their criminality than wolves are responsible for their predation.

Well, I suppose one could argue that, though they lack the usual emotions, etc., they still have some sort of capacity to choose what is right. That is, their psychology, being what it is, does not guide them or incline them to do (and want to do) what is right (and eschew what is wrong) as normally occurs in people. But that does not mean they cannot learn what is right and wrong and act accordingly.

I guess I will have to enter into (not today) why this defense strikes me as ridiculous. It seem to me that having those "normal" desires and aversions (etc.) is very, very important in being a moral agent--the sort who can be held responsible for what he does, etc. It does seem to me to be a leap to suppose that, since "obviously" one can "understand" that stealing is bad and charity is good, then one is off and running as a moral agent with all the benefits and burdens. But no: it strikes me as more natural to suppose that one lacking the usual capacity for empathy (etc.) will not likely get the point of the moral game. It will never "take" with him. To lump such a person together with "normal" humans with regard to the availability of morality just seems absurd to me. It strikes me as absurd as expecting a blind person to enjoy the shape of a building that he cannot see but that, nevertheless, can in some sense be "explained" to him.

Well, I'm going to think more about this.

(Note: it would be a mistake to infer from my position that I am in favor of letting dangerous psychos run loose. One can suppose that such people are dangerous and should be "restricted" without also supposing that they deserve to be thus restricted.)

I think I should add that, for me, the point I am making is a matter of justice. I feel that a kind of gross injustice is involved in blaming and punishing beings for being a certain way—ugly, or monstrous, or unpleasant. It angers me. Something in me wants to rise up against it, as one would rise up against gross racial discrimination or bigotry toward, say, short or fat people.

In the end, it seems to me that the Humean thinkers (compatibalists and soft determinists alluded to above) somehow seem to be fine with that injustice (as I would put it), for they do not deny that, given the mechanisms of nature, Joe Schmo had to have the personality and character that he has--this state that led to his decision, in that fateful moment, to kill Sam the innocent shopkeeper. And (they argue), since nobody slipped Joe a mickey or monkeyed with his brain or plied him with threats (etc.), and he “simply” decided to kill Sam, his action was free, something for which he is responsible.

I just don’t get it.


da5id said...

The type of being (call them a "moral agent outcast") you refer to who lacks the capacity to be a moral agent can still have free will, however, they have a different set of tools for deciding action. So the question is should they be held responsible for their actions? Probably not because their lack of ability to be a moral agent can be seen in relation to cultural norms. A culture needs to make special allowances for this type of being (the segregation thing you refer to for example).

The way I see it, criteria for decision making is separate question than free will even though responsibility connects them. Said another way: how we make decisions is a different question than if we are actually making them at all.

Responsibility and justice can be resolved at the cultural level whereas free will is a more fundamental question of existence. Whether or not we have free will, as a culture we proceed as if we do and hold people responsible for their actions.

Bohrstein said...

I suppose I follow the pessimist explanation myself. I view the mental nature of a person as the result of a recursive function []. Something like, mental nature N+1 = M(E, N); E being the broadest sense of the word environment I can use, from one's perspective. M(E, N) might be an algorithm that collects data from the senses and takes in to consideration personal history, etc. Or if I were put up to gun point and told to write an artificial intelligence agent, I would start here and it'd be readily evident that all of his decisions were made based on the function M.

To fix the infinite regress problem , we could say that N_0 = B. B being your mental nature at birth - i.e. void of all environmental influences (i.e. all biology baby).

I actually don't see any problem here - I think your problem with "Who is that guy?" is explained by the environment variable (i.e. people are, to some extent, a reflection of their previous environments and interactions with other people).

You guys should be proud of me, I more than halved this comment by cutting out personal anecdotes and questions.

- Pun backwards is nup. And that's e-nup out of you! BS

mad as hell said...

Thanks, Roy, for capturing my own mystified response to those "Law and Order" types of shows (oh, how judgmental they love to be!) and for, especially, your wonderful "Who's that guy? Where'd he come from?" comment. I don't get it, either; never have. Don't understand for a second how one could be a compatibilist.

And BS, whaddaya mean, you don't see a problem? Please explain further. If no being that is in a recognizable sense ME creates me--if genetics in intimate combination with my environment determine who I am--than how am I responsible for what I am? If I didn't choose to be me, then how am I to blame (or praise) for what I am, or choose, or do? How is there NOT a problem about responsibility, blame, praise, and justice?

And when da5id above says that "responsibility and justice can be resolved at the cultural level...," what's that mean? As a culture we do proceed as if we have free will, but this is exactly what (I believe) Roy finds unjust, as do I. We may have no choice but to do so, in some sense (yeah--hard to talk about all of this and be bringing in choice, I know), but the situation still seems ugly, unfair, unjust, pathetically inappropriate, "unfitting."

Interesting that Galen Strawson argues for the Pessimist view. I like it. His Dad, P.F., as Roy knows, wrote what I've found to be one of the few profound pieces about the free will problem: "Freedom and Resentment." I took him (P.F.) to be saying that whether we have freedom/moral responsibility or not, we must proceed as if we do, or we'll be sacrificing such a huge part of human life that it'd be unrecognizable and impoverished. *That* view makes sense to me--though we could, it seems, considerably temper our tendency to punish and blame, while retaining love, anger, and other emotions that make human life what it is.

mad as hell said...

Those last two paragraphs I just posted seem self-contradictory, I realize. What I mean is that we may have to act as if we do have free will (and as if the reactive attitudes such as anger, gratitude, etc. that we feel toward one another make sense), given the value of the practices and emotions tied in with that idea; but we do NOT have to continue holding absurdly judgmental ideas, putting criminals to death, and inflicting other horrors on people out of vindictiveness.

That is: we may have no choice but to retain some human forms of life that presuppose free will, but we would be better off (as well as more consistent) if we were to abandon the heavy judgmentalism we carry around and use to justify our draconian practices of punishment.

Hope that makes me seem a bit more coherent!

Roy Bauer said...

Mad, I did not find your paragraphs to be contradictory, but perhaps that's only because we tend to view this matter in the same way. Dunno. I, too, have always regarded the elder Strawson's piece to be among the few profound treatments of this topic, and yet I find that I am a pessimist about this issue. (Not sure about PS.) I do think that here and elsewhere reality and the beliefs we need to "live to" are often two different things--an uncomfortable complexity. I have long suspected that the truth about personal identity (and even reality)--or at any rate the skeptical general direction that one judges (with horror) that reflection is liable to take one--are things that one cannot "live to." Same goes for free will. (I seem to recall that Hume had amusing things to say about this.) This inclines me to avoid going far down those paths, though, at least in the case of free will, I feel that I must retreat from some of my more harsh "reactive attitudes" (condemnation, stark and heavy blame, embrace of harsh punishments, etc.), so, yes, there is some accomodation with "the truth" demanded for me by "justice."

Da5id, you may well be correct that free will is one thing and moral agency another, but I suppose it is obvious that my greater interest here is in moral agency and blame, not the more fundamental thing we are calling free will.

On the other hand, just what is this capacity we are now talking about? It does seem to me that morality is the setting that gave freedom any meaning it ever had. So I'll have to think about this. I wonder if we really have a concept of the self as free (that is not also the concept of the self as responsible for what he or she does and says). Ah, the later Wittgenstein is awakened within me!

I suppose that I am merely repeating myself, but it does seem to me that the burden is on those who assume that the person who lacks the "something" allowing for recognizable empathy and the like is nonetheless a proper subject of praise and blame--since (I suppose) he can in some sense "understand" the standards of right and wrong.

Which brings up this horrible topic: I have never understood this business of lawyers and jurists supposing they could discern that an arguably sociopathic or pychopathic person "knows the difference between right and wrong." I always think: well, sure. They can repeat the sentences. But do they understand? I mean, does morality "take" in them in any meaningful sense? I am inclined to guess: no. I cannot understand people who suppose that it is somehow obvious or likely that the answer is "yes." Why? Because they can recite the appropriate verbiage? Reminds me of my students who seem to think that understanding is the memorization of definitions and such. No, no, no. And again. NO.

Bohrstein said...

If no being that is in a recognizable sense ME creates me--if genetics in intimate combination with my environment determine who I am--than how am I responsible for what I am?

You aren't responsible in the sense of the word we use (I mean the word you). But, you will be held responsible in much the same way a brick "feels" like falling. That is, a brick doesn't "feel" anything, it's motion is guided by some physical structure, or laws, or natural tendency. I think that, just like our brick, the action people take to hold you responsible is part of some other system of natural tendency. I tend to think that words like justice, or even responsibility are descriptive of the kind of thing we enjoy seeing. In fact, I am more inclined to believe that we "make these choices" without any conscious decision process taking place and then, after the fact, rationalize it or categorize it (i.e. we say 'that was justice,' or 'that was responsible').

Consider a pack of lions. Lion A eats Lion C after Lion C peed on Lion A's tree. In some screwed up sense of the word - that was justice. But the lion held no concept (surely) of justice. He just acted in his own natural accordance. To reiterate: it is the pattern of justice we observed, not justice itself (since the lion doesn't even know what justice is).

Does this make sense? Am I off my rocker again?

mad as hell said...

You're not off your rocker, BS. (That would be a tragic development!) But it seems that you are not offering a defense of our practices of punishment--as you seem to acknowledge.

The thing is: even though we are, ourselves, animals who probably will always have urges toward vengeance and reciprocation and territoriality in the amoral sense that some nonhumans do, we also are clearly capable (even as the idiotic society we find ourselves in) of stepping back from our practices and wondering if we should've dropped that brick, or put that mentally retarded person to death, or drawn and quartered convicted criminals, or blamed abused women for killing their abusers.

So sometimes, we do think collectively about blame and freedom and justice; sometimes, we are even in earnest about trying to get it right. I do, however, appreciate your comment, BS; I think it is helpful to think of ourselves more as we do other animals, sometimes. ("Patterns" of justice, vs. the real thing.) Still: we try to think about fairness at least some of the time; then, when everything is at stake, we seem to (collectively) drop the ball.

Bohrstein said...

MAH, I see now I completely missed the point of the conversation. I was offering up a sort of descriptive explanation of how I perceive free will.

I don't know what set me off on that exact train of though (lack of sleep mixed with a topic that is probably above my level of thinking?), but I definitely tend to agree with Chunkerton and you in that we punish unfairly. The topic of free will, just in general, is sort of hard to follow for me.

The rest of this isn't relevant to the topic at hand, near as I can tell: The way it appears to me is that we can describe free will as we see it, but then to hold some view (e.g. that there is no free will) really convolutes the mind. Maybe this is why it is hard to keep thinking about this stuff. Just on my little analysis of the topic, I suppose the Strawson bit is necessary for me, in order to prevent my brain imploding on itself. It feels paradoxical though, that we admit to 'pretend' that there is free will, and that simultaneously describe the reality as though there was no free will, as if we had the choice! *brain pops*

Anyways, I apologize for sidetracking. I suppose I have nothing really interesting to offer here, or so I feel.

- bows out; BS

mad as hell said...

You're right, BS; there is something vexingly paradoxical about trying to think at all intelligently about free will. For if we really follow the view to its logical conclusion, isn't it true that all of our thoughts about the issue are also causally determined (whether we contradict ourselves or not)? Maybe not--and I fervently hope not; for that would seem to kind of take the starch out of philosophy, and thought in general! Hard to live with that one. The brain/mind does really seem to implode, with this issue. Yet there it is--a completely intelligible metaphysical and moral puzzle.


mad as hell said...

p.s. I have to chime in with Roy about those stupid TV legal dramas when they assume that the perp knows the difference between right and wrong--*because he tried to get away with it*!!!

Talk about your non sequitur. Just because one knows he will be punished and lose his freedom due to societal rules, we're supposed to believe that he knows the difference between right and wrong, and also know that what he did is wrong.

That's just patently stupid, it seems to me. The sociopath--or, for that matter, an alien being with a superior morality to ours--might know our thoughts and rules about right and wrong (and legal and illegal), yet reject them all and do what she thinks is morally better.

Hah! It's good to get that off my chest.

Bohrstein said...

You say it the way I wanted to say it, when you say:
For if we really follow the view to its logical conclusion, isn't it true that all of our thoughts about the issue are also causally determined (whether we contradict ourselves or not)?

Thanks MAH.