Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Freedom and Responsibility

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One of the most problematic areas I’ve had to think about in moral philosophy is that of freedom and responsibility. The theory that the laws of nature are strictly deterministic makes the idea of free will is problematic. If every natural process is explainable then humans, as beings composed entirely of physical matter and obeying the laws of physics, cannot truly have free will. In other words, every action we’ve taken is explainable by reference to the physical processes proceeding it, and every action we will take results from those prior processes, and thus we cannot have free will. This thought has troubled moral philosophers a great deal. Fortunately, there are ways out of the deterministic bind, including one that relies upon quantum physics and the idea that there is a degree of randomness in the laws of physics, making the course of our actions probabilistic rather than deterministic. However, this isn’t entirely satisfactory, so for my reading today I’ve turned to Randolph Clarke’s chapter in the Routledge Companion to Ethics.

Clarke sets out to both uncover the nature of moral responsibility, and what kind of freedom it requires. Note here that the kind of responsibility we are concerned with is the sort that we use to apportion blame or praise following an act (and perhaps also thoughts, emotions, or intentions), rather than the sense of responsibility associated with being under a duty (being responsible vs having a responsibility).

Responsibility requires the exercise of freedom. We do not think someone is compelled to act in a certain way is responsible for their actions. But, we don’t think mere freedom is sufficient – a cat is responsible for the killing of a mouse in the sense that it’s actions caused the death, but it is not deserving of praise or blame for that act, and this is because it is not a moral agent. Thus, to be responsible an agent must be autonomous.

There problems immediately present themselves, I’ll raise a couple, but I won’t discuss them in any depth because I want to get on to the problem of determinism. One is that if I am under a duty to Φ then I am not free to Φ or not to Φ (I do not have a liberty to Φ). But, even though I am under a duty to Φ, it would seem that if I Φ then I am responsible for Φ’ing. A second and related problem concerns what is meant by compulsion: when conscientious objectors speak of their actions, they often claim that, due to the demands of conscience, they could not have acted otherwise. These two types of constraints are internal, and there are others like them, such a fear or phobia that prevents us from doing what we wish. So,when we speak of people acting freely, we should bear in mind that what we mean by this requires a great deal of clarification and thought.

On to determinism then. The first question Clarke addresses is whether we can have free will even if determinism is true. One position is that if determinism is true then we cannot have the kind of freedom necessary for responsibility – determinism is incompatible with having the necessary kind of freedom. This is a worrisome, but not exactly very interesting position. The theory that we can have the kind of freedom necessary for responsibility in a deterministic universe (compatibilism) strikes me as addressing a much more fascinating question. Could you have done other than read this blog post if the universe is truly deterministic? And even if we could not have done otherwise than that which we did, does responsibility require having been able to do otherwise?

The idea that we must have been able to have done otherwise than we did in order to be responsible for our actions is known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. If we reject it then it might be that we can be held responsible for our actions even in a deterministic universe. In response to this Clarke raises an interesting challenge taken from Frankfurt: if we do something of without being compelled, but we, without knowing it, could not have done otherwise – are we still responsible? It looks like I’d be responsible for doing something I chose to do, but at the same time I could not have done otherwise, which makes it seem like my choice doesn’t matter so much.

Responding to this, we could claim that what it is appropriate to blame or praise agents for actions that are attributable to them rather than that they are responsible for. If this is the case, however, it seems that there is no difference in blameworthiness between someone who acts whilst sleep-walking or insensible on drugs, and acting while conscious. However, there may be different kinds of responsibility that we can identify, which is where compatibilism comes in.

Compatibilists argue that it is possible for determinism to be true and for agents to be responsible for their actions.

As mentioned, to be responsible we have to be able to exercise freedom of the right sort. The right sort of freedom consists in autonomous action (i.e., it requires that we are acting as conscious, uncompelled, choice-makers). Compatibilist accounts attempt to show that we have this kind of freedom even if determinism is true. One version points to the capacity to act otherwise as the condition from which to hang responsibility. Another argues that the mechanisms that generate our behaviour are responsive to reasons – if there were sufficient reasons to have done otherwise than we did, then we would not have acted as we did, and therefore we are free even if those reasons are deterministically generated.

I can’t say I find either of these accounts very convincing or satisfying. If strikes me that they may well be little more than sophisticated ways of seeking comfort in the face of strong reasons to believe determinism. It also seems to me that this is one area where philosophers may have to wait for the physicists to tell them how the universe works before the philosophical questions can be satisfactorily answered. On the other hand, Clarke correctly points out that, if causation is probabilistic, then it would seem that how we act is to some degree a matter of luck – and we can no more be held accountable for bad luck than we can in the deterministic universe.

Here’s hoping that causation is not deterministic then, and that our decisions spring from ourselves in a way that is good enough to be described as free.


Author: Steve C

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and ethics and political philosophy.

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