Avoiding Responsibility in Ten Easy Steps

UPDATED: 1/1/2011

I had a fruitful discussion with Jack Angstreich about Strawson’s article below. Based on that discussion and other material by Strawson that Jack pointed me to, it’s become clear to me that my analysis below is wrongheaded and that I initially badly misunderstood Strawson’s argument in the NYT piece. I read the argument in haste and wrongly made the assumption that Strawson both assumed a materialist view of the mind and also was attempting to argue that individuals are not morally responsible based on that fact. Jack pointed out that Strawson’s argument makes (or at least requires) no  metaphysical assumptions in order to work and that his argument is focused on mental states regardless of the metaphysical view one has regarding the mind. I think this is mostly correct and have come to see that Strawson’s argument is quite strong.

As I now see it, Strawson is attempting to argue that individuals cannot be morally responsible because one’s moral decisions are an outcome of the way one is at the time the decision is made. I originally took this to mean that the state of one’s brain and body prior to a moral act (antecedent conditions) determines one moral actions. But I now see that Strawson is only concerned with the state of one’s mental life at the moment of a moral decision—it doesn’t matter whether determinism is true or indeterminism is true, whether one is a dualist or a materialist. The reason it doesn’t matter is because the argument claims that a moral decision is the outcome of the mental state of the person (the development of much of that mental state being out of the persons direct or indirect control) and this is true regardless of one’s metaphysics.

Suppose you face the decision to put money in the Oxfam tin. The following may be true:

~ You want to help the poor person
~ You believe you can afford it
~ You want to feel better about yourself

But suppose the follow also are true

~ You want cake really badly
~ You're tired of people begging for money and don't want to support it
~ You promised your spouse you'd bring home the cake

Let’s suppose you choose not to put money in the tin. One could argue that the above six antecedent beliefs and desires are in moral parity for you: they neither determine that you’ll act (put money in the tin) or refrain from acting (withhold money from the tin). Now let’s also suppose the following: dualism is true (you have a non-material soul) that possesses an active power over which you have control and that you’re rational (generally considered three necessary conditions for a free act on Libertarianism). Let’s also assume that it makes sense to say you can choose to act or refrain from acting in this case. This means that your action is strictly uncaused but choose to act or refrain from acting in order to meet some yet not-realized goal. Since the antecedent conditions do not determine your actions, why did you make the choice you did?

If we ask why you refrained, there either is an answer to that question or there isn’t (this isn’t merely an epistemological claim—I’m saying there is or is not a metaphysical antecedent that explains the decision). If there isn’t, then the choice appears to be random and violates the third of the three necessary conditions for a free act. If there is a reason (let’s say you acted because you put more value in the second set of beliefs and desires more than the first), then that value judgment would be included in the first of Strawson’s premises in the Basic Argument: You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are. In this situation, we could capture this by asking, “why did you value the second set over the first such that it influence your decision?” If your decision was truly yours, it came out of the state you were in at the time of the decision the development of which may be partly or entirely out of your control. How, then, could you be responsible for the choice to value the second rather than the first set and thus for the choice to refrain from putting money in the tin?

Of course Libertarians would not say that one’s character (I think we could substitute “the state of one’s mental life”) at the point of any moral decision is not important in decision making. However Libertarians would argue, I think, that it’s possible to act in a way other than what your character might dictate (without this power, one might run into problems similar to the one presented in the Reformer’s Dilemma). Instead of the second set of reasons functioning as efficient causes (“that by means of which”), they function as final causes (“that for the sake of which”). The problem for this response is in how one ought to understand how the notion of final causality works here. If a person chooses to refrain from putting money in the tin for the sake of meeting the goal of valuing the second set of beliefs and desires, isn’t it true that the person is in a state where she values the second set of beliefs and desires or at least in a state where she wants to be in a state where she values them? If the answer is yes, then we’re back to Strawson’s first premise; if no then we’re on the road to an infinite regress.

There is much more to explore here but I acknowledge that Strawson’s argument is powerful and strikes at the heart of the free will debate. Thanks to Jack for setting me straight and for some thought-provoking discussion.


Original post of July 23, 2010.

Philosopher Galen Strawson for The New York Times philosophy column“The Stone” presents an argument (well, one argument in three different forms)--the logic of which he believes is irresistible--for why persons cannot be “ultimately” responsible. He argues that for any given choice we make, we do what we do based on the way we are at the moment. But the way we are is not under our control but is a product of our genes and previous experiences. If we did not choose and cannot change the way we are, and our choice is based on the way we are, then we are not ultimately responsible (I wonder if we’re proximately responsible—Strawson does not say) for the choice. Ian McEwan calls the argument watertight.

The argument ends up being a reductivist argument popularly written. But reductionism is very much like behaviorism in that it fails to account for first person experience. If an argument proves I don’t see the color red when I’m looking at a red object, then so much the worse for the argument. (As Professor Daniel Robinson has said, “If your doctor tells you you’re not in pain when you are in pain, it’s time to find another doctor.”) Strawson’s argument also seems to be question begging. If he is attempting to ask whether our perception of freedom really is actual freedom, then his first premise (in the first version of the argument) seems to sneak in the conclusion: “You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are". But isn’t that what we want to know? Is it the case that we do what we do because of the way we then are or is it that we can act in ways other than the way we are? Perhaps we do what we do because of the way we want to be. Perhaps our perception that we are goal directed beings is an indication that we are goal directed beings and that the background belief that selves are completely governed by natural law is incomplete (or just plain false).

Why does Strawson seem to think his argument is so strong? And I’m confident he would reject the claim that it’s question begging. Why does he deny that our experience of free acts are “feelings” only and do not represent any actual choice we’re making? Jaegwon Kim’s exclusion argument provides an answer. The argument goes like this. Physicallists (Kim would put himself in this camp) believe in the causal closure of the physical domain which he takes to involve the following conditional: if a physical event has a cause (occurring) at time t, it has a sufficient physical cause at t. But, says Kim, this principle causes problems when it comes to mental events. More...

The Reports of Philosophy’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

John Haldane for First Things says no. In fact, says Haldane, their arguments for M-theory are philosophical in nature and thus demonstrate the continued relevance of philosophy particularly in theoretical phyisics. Even if one disagrees with his analysis of Hawking and Mlodinow’s arguments, I think he’s correct that their pronouncement that philosophy is dead is somewhat undermined by their reliance on it.

Thanks to Greg Taft for the link.

Call for abstracts: Experimental Philosophy

Mark Phelan is organizing the second annual Experimental Philosophy Workshop in New York City, and the Call for Abstracts has just been posted.

Abstracts are only 1,000 words and can present either experimental results or more theoretical work. The deadline is February 10th.

The conference itself will take place on March 26th. Invited speakers include Alvin Goldman, Kurt Gray, Edouard Machery, Shaun Nichols, David Rosenthal, and Susanna Siegel. Although submitted abstracts can be on any aspect of experimental philosophy, the invited speakers will be focusing on folk attributions of consciousness.

Consciousness Online Final CFP

The deadline for contributed submissions to the 3rd Online Consciousness Conference at Consciousness Online is this Wednesday January 5th 2011. Submit papers to consciousnessonline@gmail.com

This year the conference has as its theme Neurophilosophy and the Philosophy of Neuroscience with invited talks by Paul Churchland, Kathleen Akins with commentary by Pete Mandik, Stevan Harnad, and Jesse Prinz. I am also pleased to announce a special session organized by Jacob Berger featuring a paper by Benj Heille on Direct Realism and Perceptual Justification and respondents tba. Papers need not be related to the theme to be considered for inclusion in the conference but papers that are related to the theme will, pending additional external review, be published in the special issue of Synthese "Neuroscience and its Philosophy".

For more information see the conference website; http://consciousnessonline.wordpress.com/

Kierkegaard and the Modern Religious Mind

I met my wife-to-be when I was 17 and she 14. She was from Oregon, I was from New York. She grew up in a middle-class town consisting mainly of residents of Irish, Scottish, and German descent. I was raised lower-middle class in a homogenous population of second and third generation Italian-Americans. She loved sushi, salsa, smoked salmon, and lima beans. I subsisted mainly on pasta with red sauce and Iceberg lettuce salads. Distance, age, family background, economics, and a long list of other circumstances should have kept us apart. Yet we found ourselves spending a summer together and connected on wholly irrelevant grounds: we both are identical twins. Our relationship made little sense and most everyone we knew let us know it. My mother regularly reminded me of my full-blooded Italian heritage and the implications of “breaking the chain.” Her father, with a knowing grin on his face, thought that “dating” a scrawny boy of 17  who lived 3000 miles away wouldn’t last more than 3 months. Our twin siblings, amused by the quaint letter writing and phone calls, didn’t get it. Our worlds couldn’t have been more distant. Our families couldn’t have been more different. Yet we were in love. Damn the critics and naysayers and all the reasons why it wouldn’t work. We didn’t care what was reasonable. We cared about each other and we wanted nothing more than to be together and spend each waking minute with each other.

For Søren Kierkegaard, being a Christian is like falling in love. Most passionate, erotic relationships are not rational nor should they be. They are not strictly irrational though Cruise-Oprah-Crazy-in-lovereason doesn’t seem to apply to them. When two people fall in love, they may know very little about one another but this is not relevant; in fact its part of its virtue. Common sense becomes a ballast and the lovers discard it, intentionally or not, for the possibility that all the promises they hope are true will be realized. To those on the outside, their relationship may seem silly at best and dangerous or harmful at worst. Yet they jump in with both feet, critics and naysayers be damned. Theirs is a voyage christened by passion and driven by the excitement of a lifetime of discovery and private, personal moments that only the two will share. Their relationship is lived each moment, and only analyzed or talked about or reasoned with when disaster strikes. They have nothing to prove to outsiders and seek to be true only to themselves and what they’ve committed to each other.

If one is to be a true Christian, says Kierkegaard, one must take a similar leap of faith.

This idea is so important and so central to my thesis in this series that I will now say plainly what I have only hinted at thus far: if one wishes to understand the contemporary religious worldview, he or she must first understand Kierkegaard’s religious epistemology. I think it could be convincingly argued that Kierkegaard has had and currently does have very little direct, global influence on the contemporary religious mind and religious belief and even exerts little explicit influence in the West. But this is to view Kierkegaard only as an ideologue—something he would have passionately rejected. I find him relevant mainly (ironically) in his role as an analyst and polemicist. Kierkegaard understood perhaps better than anyone before or since the essence of the religious frame of mind--what it is or what people hope it to be. In this role, Kierkegaard spans Western religious thought and could be seen to provide us with a searing analysis of religion per se. It is in this role that I will examine his ideas and I will do so through examining various stages or movements in his thought.

More...

Good Even If Not True: Anderson on Religion

Bruce Anderson, for the Spectator, opines about his atheism and the factors that caused him to reject the Christianity of his youth. Religion is attractive, culturally indispensible, and may even be necessary. Unfortunately, it’s probably not true, says Anderson, and that creates his intellectual barrier.

So why do I still abstain? For two reasons: realism, and science. The urgency of need cannot of itself summon the necessary help into being, as bank managers have been telling their customers down the ages. Although science cannot prove that God does not exist, it does make the search vastly more complicated.

Thanks to Stan Dokupil for the link.

Full article: http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/all/6543688/confession-of-an-atheist.thtml

Faith and Reason in Tension

“Faith has declined in contemporary western culture because contemporary westerners have become emotionally and imaginatively impoverished. We have ceased to care in the right way about the right things.” – C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard: An Introduction”

Reason: If anyone is to have justified beliefs in what is true, then they must believe based on evidence and argument. Faith, you have little to offer when it comes to truth-gathering.

Faith: You’re not the boss of me!

Reason: If you mean by that odd remark to claim that faith is just as relevant to truth seeking, how do you know? What evidence do you have for such a claim?

Faith: You always ask for evidence but you can’t provide evidence for the claim that you require evidence. Stop looking around for what does not exist and live your life, Reason!

Reason: But what life should I live? How can I adjudicate between alternate possible lifestyles? Either one must live by reason or by faith. It is not the case that one should live by faith. Therefore one must live by reason.  Evidence for the second premise can be put in terms of the following modus tollens: If one should live by faith then any lifestyle will do. But it is not the case that any lifestyle will do. Therefore . . .

Faith: Stop right there. I can only live the life that’s been given to me and that’s what I choose to do. Embrace life instead of sitting around mulling over pseudo-intellectual problems that have an appearance of significance!

Reason: Faith, you appear to be making truth claims. What am I supposed to do with them? I’m happy to hear that you’re enjoying yourself but why tell me? If you want me to understand and, more importantly, believe, what you’re saying, I need to consider evidence provided through something that at least resembles an argument. If you disagree, why? (By the way, if you attempt to answer the ‘why question,’ you will need to use an argument to do so.)

Faith: And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
     For last year's words belong to last year's language
     And next year's words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
     To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
     Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
     In streets I never thought I should revisit
     When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
     To purify the dialect of the tribe
     And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight…

Reason: This is hopeless.

Faith: That’s the first thing you’ve said that I agree with.

Over time, well-worn intellectual debates pick up a number of elements that analysts will tend to use as a pre-analytic framework and unpack the issue in light of that framework. Many times, the framework includes the very positions being debated and analysis may proceed without questioning whether those positions are valid ways to frame the debate. In the United States, the “pro choice” versus “pro life” labels used to describe the two opposing positions on abortion may be an example. On even a cursory inspection, these labels are grossly misleading and designed to foster unfortunate caricatures that not only stagnate any forward movement politically but frame this important issue in terms that don’t allow for any analytic success (even anecdotally, it seems obviously true that most in the “pro choice” camp are not at the same time “pro death” and those on the pro life side of the question actually do not eschew significant reproductive liberties).

Are faith and reason opposed?

Characterizing the discussion about the intellectual viability of religion in terms of “faith” versus “reason” has a long history. It’s both effortless and obvious to adopt these two monikers as labels for a real conflict. But are faith and reason really opposed? Is this the right way to think about the debate? More fundamentally, is there a debate at all? As I’ve attempted to show in previous essays, I believe the answer to all these questions is yes. There is manifest evidence that there has been and presently is tension over the validity and role of religious belief in a modern worldview and there is strong historical evidence that the tension is centered around what broadly can be understood as a distinction between a rational—or in contemporary language, scientific—understanding of the nature of things and one that uses faith as the locus for understanding the essential aspects of the world.

But perhaps this distinction is only linguistic. Perhaps it is the case that all clear-thinking humans that aren’t suffering from some dysfunction and are really aimed towards seeking the truth are rational but many mistakenly create a façade which they call faith even though this term does not really refer to any actual epistemological or psychological construct. Some have argued that the ethical construct “altruism” is like this. Many, in a sort of folk-ethical way, believe they can and do sometimes act entirely for the interest of another with no self-interest involved. But, say some theorists, this is not actually possible. Any personal action, if it is goal directed and not capricious or random, ultimately is performed to satisfy some personal desire on the part of the agent performing the action. A simple bit of evidence for this is that every ethical “why” question—why did you step out in front of that car to save the cat—appears to involve answer centered on personal desire: I didn’t want the cat to die. While it seems undeniable that the hero performed a brave act involving the potential loss of her own life, the action is motivated by a personal desire to see some state of affairs come about. The cat’s life functioned as an object for the desire, not for the action. The desire should be considered the primary driver of the action at least insofar as an ethical analysis is concerned. Perhaps faith is like this.

This does not seem to be the case. Thinkers on both sides of the question that have attempted to dig into the nature of the dichotomy have isolated fundamental epistemological and psychological differences between knowledge that comes by way of a rational analysis and knowledge that is grounded on what can broadly be called faith. Some key terms I’ve thus far used to capture this distinction are: essences and existence, first-person experience and third-person descriptions, and existentialism and rationalism. These terms appear to label real differences. As we saw in James, some view faith as a psychologically isolated approach to dealing with questions about aspects of reality that reason is incapable of unpacking. Reason may have its place, but it most certainly is limited in what it can do epistemically and psychologically.

In the next few essays, I want to explore this distinction further by looking at some themes in Kierkegaard—arguably the foremost religious existentialist. Whereas James sought a both/and approach to the faith-reason dichotomy, Kierkegaard argues for an either/or  solution concluding that religion is essentially non-rational.  For Kierkegaard, the religious mode of existence is the more authentic way to live and so his distinction becomes central to his entire philosophy. It is necessary to remind the reader at this point that my central claim in this series is that proponents of religion in the contemporary West are attempting to ground their religious beliefs existentially but sustain and publicize their beliefs as a rational epistemology (and psychology). In this way, modern religionists are not pure Kierkegaardians in the strict sense but the modern Christian worldview has absorbed the spirit of Kierkegaard and seem to agree with his fundamental philosophy. By examining Kierkegaard’s thought, we may be able to gain better insight into why Western religion finds itself in the position it does and better understand where the modern debate is headed.

Copyright © 2010 Philosophy News Service

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Christianity and Christmas

Ross Douthat, for the New York Times, uses the upcoming premier Christian holiday to reflect, briefly, on Christianity in America. His reflection focuses on Christianity primarily as a social and political force through two recent book-length treatments that attempt the same. His essay is notable not for what it includes but for what it leaves out. Douthat does not even introduce the idea of the truth-conditions of Christianity but discusses it purely as a social device for good and a political device for power and concludes that it is struggling in both areas. Notably, he comments that its marginalization was predictable when it shifted from a dominant cultural world view to a “persecuted” worldview at “war” with the general culture. He writes, “[the war footing'] has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Anecdotally this is certainly true. People who consider themselves of the “pure faith” certainly describe themselves and their beliefs in the way Douthat describes. Douthat reinforces other data that suggests that organized religion is become less and less attractive to many in the younger generation which leads to a more fluid, less rigid, and more egalitarian view of faith. But the more egalitarian and eclectic faith in some circles becomes, the more entrenched, isolated, and victimized those seeking to be “true Christians” find themselves (a topic I touch on here). Christmas is a time where some of these sentiments are ignored but also a time when the state of Christianity is most exposed.

Perhaps the broader point is that the face of religion in America is changing and fairly dramatically. There are important philosophical questions that need to be explored and answers as these changes occur and thankfully there are a few thinkers willing to take on the task.

Thanks to Bill Pardi for the pointer.

The full Douthat article is here.

Second Annual Notre Dame/Northwestern Graduate Epistemology Conference

Keynote Speaker: Ernest Sosa, Board of Governors Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University. The philosophy departments at the University of Notre Dame and Northwestern University are proud to announce the second annual Graduate Epistemology Conference, including a Symposium on Disagreement.

Submission Guidelines: We welcome submissions in the field of analytic epistemology, broadly construed. The conference will include a small symposium on the epistemology of disagreement (whether religious, moral or theoretical), and papers in this area are especially solicited for inclusion in the symposium. Papers should be no more than 4000 words (approx. 13 pages), excluding notes. Papers should be prepared for blind review: include detachable cover page with paper’s title, abstract, author’s name, mailing address, email, phone number, school affiliation, and word count; please  omit any self-identifying remarks within the body of the paper.

Deadline: Papers must be received by January 10th, 2011. Papers should be emailed as an attachment to the conference organizers at nd.nu.gradconference@gmail.com preferably in PDF format.

Reposted from Certain Doubts

Montclair State University's Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy

imageMontclair State University's Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy is one of a very few programs in the country that bring the disciplines of pedagogy and philosophy into dynamic interaction. The program builds on the University's nationally recognized programs in teacher preparation and decades of leadership in critical thinking, precollege philosophy education, and inquiry into the public purposes of education. It provides a unique opportunity for those who wish to participate in the highest level of philosophical and empirical scholarship, to apply that scholarship to the work of teacher education, and/or to bring philosophical practices to the classroom.

Graduates from the Ed.D. in Pedagogy and Philosophy pursue careers in the following fields in higher education:

  • Philosophy of Education
  • Educational Foundations
  • Teacher Education

The program has also prepared students for, or advanced their positions in the following careers in precollege education:

  • Teaching philosophy in middle schools, high schools and community colleges
  • K-12 classroom teaching that employs philosophical methods, addresses philosophy of the school subjects, and/or engages children in philosophical practices

Applications for fall 2011 are being accepted until Feb. 1. We will be hosting an information session on December 1, 2010, from 6:00 - 7:00 p.m. at the University. To register for the session, visit http://cehs.montclair.edu. More information about the program is available online at http://cehs.montclair.edu/academic/cop/doc_programs.shtml and from program administrators at peph@montclair.edu.

Please forward this email and the attached flyer to colleagues and students who might be interested.

Program Web Flyer: http://cehs.montclair.edu/documents/PEPH_Flyer2.pdf