Freedom, Responsibility and Martian Anthropology

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

As John Perry notes in his pre-show post,  some philosophers think that if determinism is true, then there is no freedom, and, consequently, no moral responsibility.     Other philosophers, the compatibilists,  try to find a way to reconcile freedom and determinism.  The goal of such attempted  reconciliations is often to find enough room for freedom to support moral responsibility.  Such philosophers worry a lot about figuring out just what sort of freedom is necessary to support ascriptions of moral responsibility and then they try to show that that kind or degree of freedom is thoroughly compatible with the truth of determinism.    But I want to suggest in this pre-show post  that  just maybe the connection between freedom and  responsibility has been oversold.   Maybe the two John's will talk me out of this view during the episode.  We'll see.

Suppose you are a Martian Anthropologist, on a scientific  expedition to planet Earth.  Your goal is to understand the alien Earthling practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions.  There are no such practices on the planet Mars.  Let's grant for the moment that your advanced Martian Science has once and for all established the truth of determinism or its functional equivalent.  (If the fundamental laws turn out to be indeterministic, the fundamental problem about freedom and responsibility still don't go away.)  There are many things you might want to know.  You might want to know exactly what one human is responding to  in another human being when the first holds the second responsible for an action.  You might want to investigate the things people say to one another to justify their ascriptions of moral responsibility.   You might eventually get around to examining weighty tomes of human philosophy, theology, psychology, anthropology in which humans theorize and investigate their own practices of ascribing moral responsibility to one another.  But because you are really interested in understanding from bottom up what people actually do,  you'll put the trip to the library off until the very end.   You belong out in the field where the practice actually happens, with your observations uncorrupted by centuries of possibly false and misguided theorizing.

So what do you find, when you look in the field, at what people are actually doing when they  make ascriptions of moral responsibility?   To what about an action, or about the will behind the action, are people actually responding when they hold another responsible?   What you  find  is something like the following.  As a first pass,  it appears that  a person holds another responsible for her actions when the person performed the action knowingly and willingly.  You notice pretty early on  that when the actor  is  forced or coerced  into the relevant  action by either  another person or by an external impersonal force,  people typically withhold or withdraw ascriptions of responsibility.  You notice that others just on the occasion of their acting were looking the wrong way, or were trying to do something good that inadvertently went bad somehow in a way that did not depend on their care or lack of care. On such occasions, they are not held responsible, at least not fully.    You  also notice a more systematic set of cases.  Becasue Earthling neuroscience is still so backwards,  some  people are stuck with abnormal or malfunctioning brains.  You notice that earthlings are reticent to hold at least some such people responsible -- though you wonder about their consistency in this regard.  For example,  you find that some people have pathological inabilities to control their impulses.  And you find that others are less likely to hold them responsible when they discover such pathologies.  You find that others who are not  held responsible  are subject to severe delusions and have very limited abilities to make their beliefs track reality.   Finally, you  also find that the very young and immature are often not held fully responsible, though as they mature the extent to which they are held responsible gradually increases.

With this first level data in hand,  you look deeper  into what distinguishes normal  mature "intact" cognizers and agents, who typically are held responsible for their actions from the broken or immature ones that typically  are not.   You develop a rich psychological theory of the workings of the mature  intact human brain, in particular of mature,  intact human cognition and volition.  You think you have a good idea of what distinguishes the responsible from those who are not liable to be held responsible. Your theory, by the way, is entirely consistent with the deterministic fundamental theory of nature that Martian Science has already developed.   Human knowing, willing, deliberating are for you causal processes governed by causal laws and you now understand those laws and processes fully.   But that's unsurprising,  since you have not ever been exposed to the relentless debates among Earthling thinkers.  You are just a good scientist investigating a phenomenon that you come across in the natural world.  Why should you even suspect that there is a question about determinism to be considered here?

Now, finally, just to round out your investigation,  you start to attend to the philosophical, theological, and everyday lore that surrounds ascriptions of moral responsibility.   Much to your amazement,  you find that these earthling philosophers and theologians  have been debating the basis of their own practice of holding people responsible for centuries.  And you find that  they are still in the midst of very divisive debates with no real consensus in sight.  You find, for example, that  many philosophers think that the truth of determinism would undermine all freedom and all responsibility.  You find that others disagree.  What startles you is that in your full theory of mature intact human volition and cognition the question of freedom vs determinism never needed to come up.   You found nothing in the actual practice that seemed to depend on whether human beings are "free" in some metaphysically deep sense.  So you are puzzled.  You investigate a little further.  You find that at least some of the philosophers and theologians seem to be asking a different question from the one you were asking.  They seem not so much to be debating what people actually respond to in their actual practice of holding people responsible but to be asking whether anyone ever "deserves" to be  held responsible, whether we are ever "justified"  in holding another responsible.  And at least some of them  think that the question of whether determinism is true is crucial to answering that question.

So you go back and look again at how people justify, when challenged, their ascriptions of responsibility.  Much to your surprise,  you discover that although they can talk the lingo of the philosophers and theologians,  what they really do when challenged is to point to the exercise of mature in tact cognitive and volitional capacities of the sort you've already developed a rich theory of.  Since the issue of freedom vs determinism played no role there,  you wonder what the issue of freedom vs  determinism really has  got to do with this.  As a good Martian anthropologist, you decide you need more time. You  need to take a much  longer look at the development of human intellectual culture, especially at how these have shaped humans  own reflection on their own natures and their own practices. 

You call to Martian Science Academy for help.  You are going to be at this a lot longer than you ever imagined.   And you need some help.  You begin by tuning into Philosophy Talk

Comments (18)


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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Wow, what a thoughtful and interesting post, Ken.

Wow, what a thoughtful and interesting post, Ken. I kind of worried we were all Martians, especially the people who live in my neighborhood in Southern California...
Anyway, yes, even in our own rather paltry world, we use certain criteria to impute responsibility, moral and legal, which are similar to what you describe as certain "cognitive and volitional capacities". We do not inquire into metaphysics, when we are spanking our children (gently, of course--maybe I should have said "scolding"), or deliberating as jurors say in the Scott Peterson case (or the Michael Ross case, and so forth). But I think that as philosophers we can and should step back from these practices and try to figure out what lies behind them, as it were--what warrants or justifies the everyday invocation of facts about our psychology in ascriptions of responsibility. And, in my view, when we "step back" we are not giving up commonsense, but relying on parts of it (as in any good philosophy). My contention is that from this sort of more expansive perspective, we can see that our ordinary ascriptions of responsibility (moral and/or criminal) are bound up with free will or "control" in a certain way.
Think of it this way. We use certain relatively superficial criteria--such as appearance, spatial location, and so forth--to warrant identifications and re-identifications of objects (tables, chairs) and even persons. But, whereas these may be the criteria we typically use, they need to be evaluated and philosophically scrutinized. Upon such scrutiny, we may find what's "really" behind identify--or perhaps less pretentiously, what can be justified from a philosophical point of view as being the real basis for (say) persistence of objects over time. Presumably this will in some suitable way be related to our ordinary practices.

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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Actually, determinism is entirely irrelevant. If d

Actually, determinism is entirely irrelevant. If determinism is true, then there is no meaning to any action. Indeed, there is not even action - there is merely "the way things are", including all the future and past.
If determinism is true, then there is no sense in which we "should" do anything, there is merely what will happen. All life becomes meaningless, as life itself is no more interesting and no less inevitable than the cold vacuum of space.
If determinism is true, people will continue for a long time in the belief that it is false, and eventually some belief will prevail, just as in the long term the entropy of any system increases. Instead of moral responsibility, you have only system dynamics, and our beliefs are only states of existence. There are no implications for justice, because there is no justice. There is no change to what is morally true, because moral beliefs are simple states of being which rise and fall according to the equations of physics playing out under us.
To suggest that a true belief in determinism would change what any of us "should" do is to mis-understand determinism. Full determinism is nothing more or less than irrelevant. Partial determinism is however far more interesting.
-T

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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

In order to solve Locke?s problem you must exami

In order to solve Locke?s problem you must examine the relationship between Knowledge and Free-Will. Do I have Free-Will? As long as I don?t know anything that would contradict Free-Will, then I can assume I have Free-Will, but that does not mean I ultimately have it. No one has proven that Free-Will does not exist, though they have theories like causal determination. In Locke?s problem it was unbeknownst to the man in the room that it was locked, just like it could be unbeknownst to any individual that they really have no Free-Will. The only being who could know that would be God, or the source from which all the rest come from after point 0. There will never be an answer, because there is no way we can ever get back to point 0.
David Hume would not agree with the whole idea of causal determination, was he not against the whole idea of the link between cause and effects. Has anyone ever said that there could be such things that would fall under causal determination such as physical objects, and things such as the Human Spirit that would not fall under it?

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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

John, Ken, and John (Fischer), Thanks for your

John, Ken, and John (Fischer),
Thanks for your show today on free will, good stuff. Ken writes above that Martian scientists ?found nothing in the actual practice that seemed to depend on whether human beings are ?free? in some metaphysically deep sense.? Perhaps, but it seems that some of our practices very much depend on the *belief* we have libertarian freedom of the metaphysically deep variety. For instance, after a recent murder trial in Massachusetts in which the defendant was convicted and sentenced to death, a juror remarked ?If I could say anything to [the killer], the only thing I would say is, ?Why?? When it comes down to it, you really have a choice. He didn?t have to do what he did. That?s what he picked to do.? Some jurors, if they came to believe we don?t have libertarian freedom, might be less likely to vote for capital punishment because moral desert is sometimes (perhaps often, the data aren?t in yet) thought to depend on such freedom: the killer could have done otherwise in the exact situation as it arose, but didn?t, so he deserves to die. As you know, Clarence Darrow exploited these intuitions in his defense of Leopold and Loeb, who were spared the death penalty.
This relates to a question for John Fischer. You said in the show today that the sort of freedom and control we have on your semi-compatibilist view entails that we have robust moral responsibility and sometimes really *deserve* punishment, and we deserve it in a way that?s independent of its role in changing behavior. On your view, why do normal, rational, reasons-responsive agents like ourselves deserve to suffer (and even die, some think) for their crimes independent of any effect such suffering might have in changing their behavior, or deterring others, or other possible consequences?

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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Ken, I think that some of what I say is related

Ken,
I think that some of what I say is related to John's good posting.
As you yourself note, the Martian Scientist is likely to be confused by what he observes. Some humans hold a certain individual morally responsible. But others may not hold that same individual morally responsible because of worries over whether the relevant capacities are, as you put it, 'in tact'.
What is the Martian Scientist to do? Well, he could just give up on trying to understand humans (I'm tempted toward this on some days). Or he could think something like the following: "Both, those screwy humans sure are messed up. Humans number 1 through 187 find person S morally responsible for action A, while humans 188 through 365 don't. Sure S can't be both morally responsible and not morally responsible for A. So which is it? Which group gets it right?" And once the Martian Scientist embarks on answering this question, he's begun a project that--it seems to me--is going to have to involve a serious dose of metaphysics and ethics. For he'll have to answer "what has to be the case for somehold to be justifiably held morally responsible?"

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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Tom, Thanks for the very kind words. I don't h

Tom,
Thanks for the very kind words. I don't have a nice answer to you. I guess I just believe that there is a residual, ineliminable "retributivism" in our intuitions about punishment. I believe that when one knowingly, voluntarily, and freely acts in a way that harms someone else, one deserves punishment. The punishment is, in my view, part of a "conversation". The criminal "makes a statement" in freely doing something that is hostile or indifferent to someone else--he says, in essence, that the other person does not matter, or does not matter as much as he does, or something like this. In reply, the state says that this is false--that the victim matters just as much as anyone else. This is an "expressive" view of punishment, in which the state expresses the fundamental equality of citizens and "plants a flag for morality". But the conversational model is only part of the story. I believe that the harsh treatment which is part of punishment must "fit" or "match" the crime, and that in virtue of FREELY harming someone else, the criminal DESERVES this sort of treatment. I do not know how to prove or even further explain what seems to me to be a rock-bottom intuition, but of course I would welcome help from anyone!!

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Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I don't think punishment should be seen as somethi

I don't think punishment should be seen as something the guilty party deserves. Imprisonment is not primarily a punishment to the offender. It is a means to generate a feeling of safety amidst the public. I think each culture finds a norm for what constitutes good character and orients people toward it. I think this dynamic underlies most law. The more people deviate from this norm, the more effort the society takes to bring them into conformity. The feeling that criminals deserve punishment is a mask for the real intuition that people should strive to develop good character. The reality behind imprisonment is that we remove the incontinent and vicious from the circumstances that enable them to slide further into their self-enslavement.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

John, Thanks for your candid reply. I don?t

John,
Thanks for your candid reply. I don?t think it?s difficult to explain the rock bottom retributive intuition (let?s call it), the gut feeling that people *just deserve* to suffer for any unjustified suffering they inflict. Retaliation against an aggressor that has harmed you or your loved ones undoubtedly serves to deter or thwart the aggression, so the disposition to retaliate embodied in retributive emotions such as resentment and rage is an essential characteristic of social creatures who made the evolutionary cut. Seen from mother nature?s point of view, this is a more or less consequentialist rationale, in that the natural functions of the retributive intuition are basically deterrence and protection, plus punishing cheaters and free riders (obviously this oversimplifies things, but something like this story is probably the case). From our person-level standpoint, we don?t experience the retributive intuition as consequentialist, but simply as the powerful urge to inflict suffering on the aggressor.
But of course there still remains the issue of how to *justify* acting on our retributive impulses. The expressive theory of punishment that ?plants a flag for morality? can I think be assimilated to a consequentialist view, since expressing moral norms via punishment functions to publicize and enforce the norm, and thus guide behavior. But, as you acknowledge, there isn?t a further basis on which to justify acting on the intuition that people just deserve to suffer, independent of any behavior guiding function. If there is no such basis, perhaps we should conclude that *we shouldn?t act on that intuition* if it brings no consequential goods. This conclusion gets reinforced when we consider the often very negative consequences of retribution, e.g., the brutalization of offenders in unnecessarily punitive prison conditions, that the death penalty models killing as a response to injustice, the murderous cycles of tit-for-tat retaliation in ethnic/religious conflict, etc. etc. Once the retributive impulse is shorn of its metaphysical justification in libertarian freedom, then acting on it can only be justified if the suffering we inflict serves ends that we can in good conscience endorse and that can?t be achieved in less punitive, damaging ways. And this of course is to eliminate retributivism per se as a rationale for punishment. These points get discussed more fully in a review of law professor Michael Moore?s book, Placing Blame, at http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm#AgainstRetribution.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I'm not sure my Martian Anthropologist would be he

I'm not sure my Martian Anthropologist would be helped by the debate on this thread. John Fischer started out by the comparing what the ordinary folk do in ascriptions of moral responsibility with the identification of ordinary objects on the basis of "superficial" properties. He said, "We use certain relatively superficial criteria--such as appearance, spatial location, and so forth--to warrant identifications and re-identifications of objects (tables, chairs) and even persons." So far, so good. The Martian notices the circumstances in which actual people make or withhold or withdraw ascriptions of moral responsibility. But then he takes the inquiry much deeper -- into the actual cognitive and volitional innards of a mature, intact, human being who is by the lights of the ordinary folk morally responsible. He finds some deep, systematic regularities there. He comes up with a comprehensive scientific story of mature, intact, human volition and cognition. So he's done something like the second step that John recommends -- except he's done it scientifically rather than philosophically.
But he now does a third thing. He scrutinizes the tomes of philosophy and theology and finds debates that seem to be conducted at a pretty far remove from what he has found about the cognitive and volitional dynamics of both those who are held responsible and those who hold them responsible. He's especially puzzled because he thinks he has found what systematic and deep regularities that do in fact support in real practice the ascriptions of moral responsibility. And they strike him as very little like what he finds suggested in many of the tomes of philosophy. He sees human beings as complex natural animals. He sees their cognitive and volitional capacities as part of the causal order.
He knows that he was engaged in a descriptive task -- but a deep task that got beneath the surface. He hears the philosophers and theologians talking about the justificatory task. But upon confronting questions about justification of the practices of the folk and the need for libertarian freedom or some more gentle variety of freedom, he agai goes back to the folk practices and sees how ascriptions are justified in practice. Where else should he go? He notices that there is what he decides to call a "practice-internal" set of moves that the folk make when making their ascriptions. He finds that these practice internal justificatory moves also track nicely with certain robust psychological properties of mature, intact, volitional and cognitive capacities -- both in the ascribers and the ascribees.
He realizes, though, that many philosophers apparently think there is a practice-external justificatory question to be asked. And they apparently think that it is at this practice-external level that issues about freedom and determinism get their deathgrip on questions about moral responsibility.
Our Martian Anthropologist is really pretty thoroughly confused. He can't figure out exactly where these "external" justificatory demands come from or what they come to. He suspects their source is deep within Earthling Culture. That's why he's prepared to spend more time. As a very good scientist, who wishes to be guided by the facts and the evidence, he's prepared to discover that they are a legitimate and crucial part of a practice that he may not have as yet adequately grasped. But he's also prepared to discover that they are fictions and figments, late cultural overlays. placed upon a practice that was perfectly in order as it stood, and that these late cultural overlays serve now only to mask to Earthlings the true nature of the collective enterprise that evidently plays, has played and will play so central a role in their shared lives.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Even though the Martian discovers ?systematic an

Even though the Martian discovers ?systematic and deep regularities [in human beings] that do in fact support in real practice the ascriptions of moral responsibility,? he doesn?t discover a unique, agreed-upon set of responsibility practices on Earth. Although people generally agree on who counts as responsible, what they do with those found guilty varies widely, e.g., Denmark vs. Texas. The Martian finds that the variability in responsibility practices depends partially on the theory of human nature that humans hold, namely whether people are causal exceptions to nature (have libertarian freedom) or not. Humans are sometimes killed by the state because it?s supposed they deserve to die since they could have done otherwise. This supposition and other commonsense notions about human agency, some truer than others, are an integral part of Earthlings? ?cognitive dynamics.?
These same notions and theories of human nature, the Martian discovers, are more or less what the philosophers argue about in the free will debate (e.g., whether there?s a uniquely human sort of agent causation), so there isn?t a clear distinction between practice-internal and practice-external justifications. The difference is ordinary vs. specialized language and the range of distinctions drawn, not essential content. He finds that philosophers, generally, are considerably less deluded than non-philosophers about human causal exceptionalism, but that some compatibilists are bent on retaining punitive practices that are justified only on the libertarian view (e.g., the practice of inflicting suffering or death independent of the consequences). This really gets him wondering. But he quickly sees the causal story behind their beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, sees why they couldn?t have believed and behaved otherwise, and so keeps his annoyance in check as he switches from anthropologist to moral engineer. Once Earthlings get their metaphysics straight (in the light of science) and stop supposing their reactive attitudes are always good guides to justice*, then their practices might attain some degree of enlightenment, by Martian standards. Whether they will ever be ?perfectly in order? not even the Martian can know.
* "...if we understand that there are good evolutionary reasons for our wanting people to suffer when they have done direct or indirect harm to us, then we can account for our strong feelings about the appropriateness of retribution without presuming they are a guide to moral truth.... We may be able to recognize our retributivist feelings as a deep and important aspect of our character - and take them seriously to that extent - without endorsing them as a guide to truth, and start rethinking our attitudes toward punishment on that basis." ---Janet Radcliffe Richards, Human Nature After Darwin, p. 210.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Ken, I'm not sure I am tracking your discussion of

Ken, I'm not sure I am tracking your discussion of the Martian Anthropologist. I think we may be in agreement about much. So, for example, I think that the sort of control that grounds responsibility is a naturalistic property or set of properties that emerge from human moral education and functioning in response to reasons in our environment. There is nothing esoteric or excessively "external".
I do think that the worries about determinism come from something quite ordinary--our commonsense intuitive judgemtents that the past and natural laws are fixed and out of our control. Given these judgments, one can construct a skeptical argument that, if causal determinism is true, then we lack the sort of freedom that we ordinarily take ourselves to have (the "Consequence Argument"--versions of which have been around for millenia, in one form or another). So, as with any good skepticism, the ingredients or engines that drive the skeptical worries come from very ordinary, commonsense sources--not from "left field". Given the strength of the skeptical worries, I have tried to give a more nuanced analysis of what our ordinary practices really commit us to, upon appropriate reflection.
This should be cool for an anthropologist, Martian or otherwise, right?

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

John: I don't agree that the worries about dete

John:
I don't agree that the worries about determinism come from "commonsense" whatever exactly that means. Whatever commonsense is, it surely isn't fixed once and for all for all humans everywhere and in all times. What you think of commonsense is probably something like the "wisdom" of this or that age. Put another way, I think that what you are calling commonsense is really a late cultural overlay, peculiar to a fairly recent epoch in human history. By contrast I suspect that the practice of holding one another responsible is as ancient as homo sapiens and pretty much universal in all human cultures. I do suspect that the practice was, at its inception, more or less in order as it stood long before philosophy and theology entered the scene. What's grown up since is a philosophical/theological lore that purports to look at the deep roots of the practice. Not only does the practice antedate the philosophical and theological lore, I suspect that much of the philosophy and theology just gets the practice more or less completely wrong.
Why is that? Because when philosophy and theology first got hold of this problem, the two of them together mostly misunderstood the entire natural order and had no very deep conception at all of what the human being in nature really was. Philosophy and Theology imported false understandings of the human being into our collective cultures. And with that they also introduced false conceptions of what we are doing when we do perfectly ordinary things like ascribe responsibility to another. Entire cultural formations were built on these fictions and falsehoods. We have really only just begun in the last couple of hundred years to systematically throw of the blinders that philosophy and theology sometimes together sometimes separately introduced into our self-understanding. That, I think, is what is gradually happening in the free-will debate.
Now I think the battle is being fought on terms imported from those who entirely misunderstood the order of things to begin with. That's why I say that you were cheating. Your control is an alright notion. I don't know why you want to call it freedom, though. By doing so, you seem to me to concede too much to those who introduced the fiction of libertarian freedom into our self-understanding in the first place.
In a way, htough, it's no big deal. Who needs to engage in a fight over words? The real issue is what in the natural order of things is mature intact human volition and cognition and what role do they play in rendering us responsible for our actins. I very much doubt that a theory of that will have much use for some weak-kneed version of libertarian freedom -- which isn't so much an illusion, as a philosophical and theological fiction.
That's why I say the entire problem just needs to be redrawn. That's the point of the Martian Anthropologist. Think of a human being as social animal. Think of human cognition and volition as part of the natural causal order. Think of holding responsible and being responsible as things that natural animals do and are. Don't worry about using the vocabulary of archaic misguided philosophy and theology to describe these natural phenomona. Simply start over!

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I'm too old to start (entirely) over! And it is

I'm too old to start (entirely) over!
And it is too late (for me) to say much. Except by "commonsense" I mean something like the Rawlsian idea of reflective, considered judgments in a modern western democracy. But actually I think it is pretty pervasive to think that the past is fixed and the laws of nature are fixed. These aren't too culturally dependent, are they? But even if so, so be it: I'm in the "Rawlsian" tradition of trying to systematize "our" considered intuitions. Even this is hard enough, and the intuitions are not uncontentious.
More tomorrow, I hope! Thanks again for your thoughtful and probing critique(s)!

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Ken, There is increasingly some work at the int

Ken,
There is increasingly some work at the intersection of "neuroscience" and "free will". I take it that you are suggesting that we immerse ourselves in neuroscience, cognitive science, and related fields, in order better to understand the scientific basis of our behavior. Perhaps you are saying something different, but I'm not sure.
I certainly think this is a promising and important area of research. I'm not sure in the end that it will lead to the sort of illumiantion we would all hope for. Also, I'm not so confident as you that "theology and philosophy" has been barking up the wrong tree, as it were.
It would be very interesting to me if somehow neuroscience could show that there were some family of neurophysiological processes that were present in all and only those creatures who act from their own, suitably reasons-responsive mechanisms. I don't know if this could ever happen, and I'm not waiting with baited breath...
I do think that those of us interested in free will and moral responsibility should be open to potential insights from the study of the brain and also from the cognitive and "informational" sciences more broadly. But I would not so hastily dismiss the history of theological and philosophical thinking about these topics, nor would I be too optimistic about the prospects for illumination from *exclusively* scientific sources.

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Monday, May 2, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Tom Clark wonders how one can be a naturalist but

Tom Clark wonders how one can be a naturalist but also believe in a retributivist approach to moral responsibility and punsihment. That's what I am, so he wonders how I can be! (Well, sort of...)
I'm not sure what exactly the problem is. I'm a naturalist (whatever that is). So, I don't believe in any supernatural entities, I'm a materialist about the mind, and so forth: there is just the physical world, and what supervenes on it (whatever that means!), and abtracta such as sets, numbers, and so forth.
I do however believe in the existence of morality, aesthetics, and so forth. So I believe there are moral reasons to do certain things, and some things are beautiful, etc. This even in a physical universe. Moral reasons are presumably considerations that count in favor of an action; one might ask what (ontologically) these are, and how they can exist in a physical world. Similarly for the truth-makers of claims about right, wrong, permissibility, impermissibility, duty, obligation, beauty, and so forth. Does Tom or do other naturalists contend that there cannot be moral reasons, or beauty, or truths about what ought to be done, if physicalism is true? I don't think so; in any case, this would be implausible.
So why are claims about "desert" any different? I grant that various philosophers, including such eminent ethicists as Rawls and Scheffler have been skeptical about a non-religious notion of desert, and its role in attributions of responsibility. But I have never exactly understood why desert should be any different from other notions which presumably can be instantiated in a naturalistic context.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

mail this to my box

mail this to my box

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

John, There of course can be, and are, moral re

John,
There of course can be, and are, moral reasons in a physical universe, and naturalists are trying to develop a coherent picture of how our moral sensibilities fit into this universe. One project is to explain how our moral sense developed, and there?s lots of empirical work being done on that score. Another is the normative project of making a case for certain sets of values without appealing to supernatural foundations (which don?t work anyway). How do we justify our moral intuitions, e.g., the retributive intuition that people should be made to suffer for their wrongdoings even if no behavior-guiding consequences or other benefits follow?
The skeptic about desert asks the retributivist to explain why people should suffer if no consequential benefits accrue. This seems a reasonable question, given other strong moral intuitions that we should minimize human suffering unless there?s a compelling reason to increase it. What is the compelling moral reason to make offenders suffer if that suffering achieves no consequential good?
I don?t think compatibilist retributivists have an answer to this question, whereas the libertarian can point to the ultimately responsible, contra-causally free self who deeply deserves to suffer since he could simply have chosen not to offend. Naturalism, by subtracting that self from our picture of the world, calls this justification into question.
Our intuitions about desert have been installed by evolution as an important part of our behavioral repertoire, in that they prompt us to punish cheaters, deter aggressors, etc. But once we see that such intuitions are simply and naturally functional, and can?t be justified by appeal to libertarian freedom, then we can only justify making people suffer if indeed there?s some functional benefit which gets ratified in the context of our other values. This is to naturalize desert, and a naturalized, functional desert, shorn of its metaphysical pretensions as a deep deontological principle, means we should think twice before indulging our retributive appetites. And that?s all to the good.
Btw, I?ve written this up in considerable detail in a review of Michael Moore?s book Placing Blame, see http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm#AgainstRetribution, and again just recently at http://www.naturalism.org/maximizing_liberty.htm. The bottom line is that unless you can supply good reasons for being a compatibilist retributivist, you should stop being one.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

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