Causality and Moral Responsibility

Consider two imaginary situations:

(1) In the first situation, people are such that when someone sees a red light, they immediately go off and kill someone. Nothing can be done to prevent this, and no intention or desire to do otherwise makes any difference.

In this situation, killing someone after you have seen a red light is not blamed, since it cannot be avoided, but we blame people who show red lights to others. Such people are arrested and convicted as murderers.

(2) In the second situation, people are such that when someone sees a red light, there is a 5% chance they will go off and immediately kill someone, and a 95% chance they will behave normally. Nothing can change this probability: it does not matter whether the person is wicked or virtuous or what their previous attitude to killing was.

In this situation, again, we do not blame people who end up killing someone, but we call them unlucky. We do however blame people who show others red lights, and they are arrested and convicted of second degree murder, or in some cases manslaughter.

Some people would conclude from this that moral responsibility is incoherent: whether the world is deterministic or not, moral responsibility is impossible. Jerry Coyne defends this position in numerous places, as for example here:

We’ve taken a break from the many discussions on this site about free will, but, cognizant of the risks, I want to bring it up again. I think nearly all of us agree that there’s no dualism involved in our decisions: they’re determined completely by the laws of physics. Even the pure indeterminism of quantum mechanics can’t give us free will, because that’s simple randomness, and not a result of our own “will.”

Coyne would perhaps say that “free will” embodies a contradiction much in the way that “square circle” does. “Will” implies a cause, and thus something deterministic. “Free” implies indeterminism, and thus no cause.

In many places Coyne asserts that this implies that moral responsibility does not exist, as for example here:

This four-minute video on free will and responsibility, narrated by polymath Raoul Martinez, was posted by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA). Martinez’s point is one I’ve made here many times, and will surely get pushback from: determinism rules human behavior, and our “choices” are all predetermined by our genes and environment. To me, that means that the concept of “moral responsibility” is meaningless, for that implies an ability to choose freely. Nevertheless, we should still retain the concept of responsibility, meaning “an identifiable person did this or that good or bad action”. And, of course, we can sanction or praise people who were responsible in this sense, for such blame and praise can not only reinforce good behavior but is salubrious for society.

I think that Coyne is very wrong about the meaning of free will, somewhat wrong about responsibility, and likely wrong about the consequences of his views for society (e.g. he believes that his view will lead to more humane treatment of prisoners. There is no particular reason to expect this.)

The imaginary situations described in the initial paragraphs of this post do not imply that moral responsibility is impossible, but they do tell us something. In particular, they tell us that responsibility is not directly determined by determinism or its lack. And although Coyne says that “moral responsibility” implies indeterminism, surely even Coyne would not advocate blaming or punishing the person who had the 5% chance of going and killing someone. And the reason is clear: it would not “reinforce good behavior” or be “salubrious for society.” By the terms set out, it would make no difference, so blaming or punishing would be pointless.

Coyne is right that determinism does not imply that punishment is pointless. And he also recognizes that indeterminism does not of itself imply that anyone is responsible for anything. But he fails here to put two and two together: just as determinism does not imply punishment is pointless, nor that it is not, indeterminism likewise implies neither of the two. The conclusion he should draw is not that moral responsibility is meaningless, but that it is independent of both determinism and indeterminism; that is, that both deterministic compatibilism and libertarian free will allow for moral responsibility.

So what is required for praise and blame to have a point? Elsewhere we discussed C.S. Lewis’s claim that something can have a reason or a cause, but not both. In a sense, the initial dilemma in this post can be understood as a similar argument. Either our behavior has deterministic causes, or it has indeterministic causes; therefore it does not have reasons; therefore moral responsibility does not exist.

On the other hand, if people do have reasons for their behavior, there can be good reasons for blaming people who do bad things, and for punishing them. Namely, since those people are themselves acting for reasons, they will be less likely in the future to do those things, and likewise other people, fearing punishment and blame, will be less likely to do them.

As I said against Lewis, reasons do not exclude causes, but require them. Consequently what is necessary for moral responsibility are causes that are consistent with having reasons; one can easily imagine causes that are not consistent with having reasons, as in the imaginary situations described, and such causes would indeed exclude responsibility.

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