Thursday, October 20, 2016

Free Will and the Praise and Condemnation of Moral Projects

312 days until classes start.

On November 4, I shall go to the University to attend a "Center Talk" (put on at the Center for Values and Public Policy). At that time, I would like to present Dr. Boonin with a paper on punishment. Boonin wrote the book, The Problem of Punishment. So far, in looking at the book, it seems that he did not consider the option that condemnation and punishment serves the function of molding desires, not only in the person condemned or punished but in the society as a whole. Perhaps I can convince him to consider this possibility.

In other news - in my recent studies, I have encountered a similar argument regarding free will and moral responsibility in two different and disconnected places.

Before I discuss them, I want to point out that the argument has important implications. It has to do with what we are responsible for - of when we are blameworthy. The argument that I will be considering stands against a claim that lets us off the moral hook far too easily, and allows those who hold this claim to shrug their shoulders at a significant group of wrongs.

I wanted to stress this importance since the argument being considered and the response seem to be dry, academic, and of having no real significance. That appearance is deceiving.

The claim being addressed states that an agent is not to be held morally responsible unless, at the moment of action, we could have done otherwise. According to this claim, if I tell a lie and, at the moment in which I tell it the determined forces of nature make it the case that I could not have told the truth, then there is no legitimate reason to condemn me for that action. I did nothing wrong - at least in the sense of "wrong" that implies "deserving punishment or condemnation". I could not have done otherwise.

One of the sources where I encountered this issue was in Jules Holroyd, "Responsibility for Implicit Bias", JOURNAL of SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 43 No. 3, Fall 2012, 274–306, 2012.

Implicit biases work in the background. We certainly have no capacity, at the moment of action, to turn them off. We may not even know that they are there - which eliminates any ability to consciously override them. By the application of the principle that we are not morally responsible when we cannot choose a different action at the moment of action, we are not responsible for actions motivated by our implicit biases.

Holroyd rejected the idea that moral responsibility depends on having some type of immediate control over our actions. He points out that we have the capacity to take on projects such as gaining or losing weight, learning a foreign language, or playing the piano. These are not moral projects, yet they are projects where it makes sense to say that the agent is responsible. We can praise or condemn the agent who succeeds in these projects - even if it is not moral praise or condemnation.

There are similar long-term projects where the responsibility has a moral component. A physician has a moral responsibility to acquire a great deal of knowledge and understanding of medicine. An engineer must acquire understanding of the relevant physical laws and their application. Neither the physician nor the engineer can suddenly choose to have the knowledge necessary for their profession. Acquiring it takes time and effort. Yet, the physician and the engineer not only have an obligation to acquire that knowledge, but to keep up on new findings as they come out. This is a part of their moral responsibility.

More generally, we may say that people have a moral responsibility to put themselves in particular states - states that some may say have intrinsic merit, or which are socially useful. Similarly, we may say that moral obligation extends to avoiding being in states that motivate an agent to act in ways that are harmful or unjust. Having an implicit bias is such a state. Putting oneself in such a state may not be doable in an instant, but that does not prevent it from being a moral responsibility.

Henry Sedgwick makes the same point in his discussion of free will. He also claims that it makes sense to morally evaluate a current action even if it is based on acquired traits. Similarly, we regularly hold that moral obligations may be attached to current actions that establish the traits that govern our action in the future.

[E]ven as regards our own actions, however `free' we feel ourselves at any moment, however unconstrained by present motives and circumstances and unfettered by the result of what we have previously been and felt, our volitional choice may appear: still, when it is once well past, and we survey it in the series of our actions, its relations of causation and resemblance to other parts of our life appear, and we naturally explain it as an effect of our nature, education, and circumstances. Nay we even apply the same conceptions to our future action, and the more, in proportion as our moral sentiments are developed: for with our sense of duty generally increases our sense of the duty of moral culture, and our desire of self-improvement: and the possibility of moral self-culture depends on the assumption that by a present volition we can determine to some extent our actions in the more or less remote future. Henry Sidgwick, METHODS OF ETHICS, Book I, Chapter V, Section 2

In short, "free will", insofar as it is necessary for moral responsibility, does not require that an agent be capable of doing something else at the very instant the action was done. It applies as well to the historic choice of actions that established the traits that determine present and future action. Somebody making a moral evaluation can legitimately acknowledge that the current action was based on established traits of character, but can still be condemned (for example) on the grounds that "You failed to cultivate the traits of character you should have."

Desirism, with its concern for cultivating good desires and aversions, is quite comfortable with all of this - though it can actually take the argument one step further.

At this point, somebody may object that the motivation to cultivate a good character itself must come from somewhere. We must either assert that the agent had the free capacity to choose to acquire a good character, or needed first to acquire the character that would motivate him to become a person of good character. Rejecting free will, we are left with the second option. Yet, the second option only pushes the problem back one more step - we must assume having a character that would motivate an agent to acquire a character that would be motivated to be a person of good character. This is an infinite regress.

Desirism breaks this infinite regress by introducing reward, praise, condemnation, and punishment as the tools for motivating character. They need not come from an act of will. They come from the reasons that agents have to promote certain desires and aversions.

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