Sunday, July 15, 2007

An Important Paradox

Sometimes it seems like philosophy is, or at least has been, largely a study of intractable paradoxes. The greatest of these is certainly not the paradox of God -- that is a paradox based upon a fictional, contradictory concept, so it's no surprise that it is paradoxical.

A more important paradox is the illusion of free will in a deterministic world. Yet at a closer glance this does not seem to be a real paradox either -- it is based upon another fiction; that is, that people have free will. People can "choose" on a whim to act a certain way.

I haven't heard any convincing arguments resolving this paradox. There is no easy answer. Compatibilism essentially says that lack of ultimate freedom to choose "doesn't matter", but clearly when you are morally blaming people for actions which they were completely compelled to do, it does matter. It's hard to understand why the compulsion of a gun to the head is more meaningful than the compulsion of Hard determinists hit closest to the truth -- and the main argument against them is seemingly that they are "too pessimistic".

People should be held morally responsible for their underlying nature (perhaps genes) rather than their actions because their genetics are at the core of who they are. That means that those who are by their nature criminal (that is, genetically) are more blameworthy than those who are driven into criminal behavior through environmental pressures, such as, perhaps, child molesters. Neither should be regarded as "evil" -- both are "bad" from the perspective of the . They should be regarded with pity. The former is a flawed human being from the start while the latter's potential has been (seemingly irrecoverably) destroyed. If their guilt was sufficiently proven (that is, zero doubt) I would have zero trouble with their execution.

The the perpetual "free will" illusion has a pragmatic, self-fulfilling - when everyone believes that everyone has free will and that people who commit wrong acts do that willfully, it imposes a deterrence on immoral and criminal acts. Lifting the veil could potentially revoke that deterrence and allow people to act even worse than they currently do, if you can imagine that. But is that really likely? I don't think so. The deterrence does not seem to be very effective. The veil, as an obvious fiction, is already under subtle attack and has been since the beginning of human history. The distorted view of responsibility confuses people. The first step to recovery is to stop denying.

Some people may think Social Darwinism when I say genetics. While that may be a concern twenty or thirty years down the road, I don't mean to endorse that view at all. The study of how genes affect behavior seems like it always be an imperfect science because of all the variables. Furthermore, if someone is told that they are genetically dishonest or sociopathic -- is it possible for them to then consciously overcome that? I don't know.

Some may notice that this argument is essentially just a secular repacking of Calvinism. Just as Calvinists felt heavy pressure to prove themselves as God's chosen, so people today may feel the pressure to prove themselves as good genetically.

4 comments:

ADHR said...

I don't see how you can be blameworthy for your genes. You seem to be running together moral blame with defectiveness. Running with the latter and eliminating the former would be a more stable line to take.

You should look into Frankfurt-style examples. They purport to show that one can be morally responsible even if hard determinism is true.

It's also worth noting that there's a growing literature on the possibility of agent-causation -- which would be a rendering of the compatibilist picture that knocks hard determinism out completely. That is, if all actions can be causally determined, and yet actions can still be free to the extent that they were agent-caused, it follows that compatibilism is true and hard determinism is nonsense.

undergroundman said...

So take the "morally" out of "morally responsible"?

My point is that no one is morally blameworthy for any action because they are all completely compelled to do those actions. People are responsible for who they are, period. I'd take the moral part out of it. The fact that they inherited who they are from their parents is irrelevant to their responsibility.

The view that I espouse is not all that uncommon. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Einstein were all basically hard determinists who didn't blame people for their actions. Einstein:

'Schopenhauer's saying, that "a man can do as he will, but not will as he will," has been an inspiration to me since my youth up, and a continual consolation and unfailing well-spring of patience in the face of the hardships of life, my own and others'. This feeling mercifully mitigates the sense of responsibility which so easily becomes paralysing, and it prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it conduces to a view of life in which humour, above all, has its due place.'

I'm not very impressed by Frankfurt's idea of "higher-order volition" but I suppose I haven't read enough of it to dismiss it.

ADHR said...

I'd ditch the whole notion of responsibility. It becomes vacuous if you accept hard determinism. How can you be responsible for something that you couldn't affect? Of course, this is where Frankfurt-style examples and the rest come in: they try to establish that you could affect things, and yet actions could still be causally determined.

Einstein's a bad one to bring in here. He didn't accept quantum mechanics, which requires that determinism, whether hard or soft, is false.

I'm also not convinced that Nietzsche didn't blame people for their characters, if not their actions. I don't know very much Schopenhauer.

Higher-order volition, as far as I understand it, is an attempt to get out of some problems in philosophy of action by hierarchizing (yes, I probably made that word up) the mind. I think the whole project is misguided: if you want to explain action, you should look outside the agent, not deeper within.

undergroundman said...

I'd ditch the whole notion of responsibility. It becomes vacuous if you accept hard determinism. How can you be responsible for something that you couldn't affect?

Good point. I mean to say that people must be held accountable for who they are regardless of their choice in the matter. Responsibility has too many moral connotations.

Einstein's a bad one to bring in here. He didn't accept quantum mechanics, which requires that determinism, whether hard or soft, is false.

Maybe, but to me it's basically just a (weirder) "random" determinism, as we discussed here a while back. Not technically determinism, but effectively the same. Do you disagree? If people are (marginally) random machines, then how is that different? (Quantum mechanics reminds of the atomic swerve theory -- ridiculous.) Bringing up quantum mechanics is really dodging the issue because it doesn't really suggest free will.

Einstein is expressing a very rational perspective: one shouldn't morally blame people (whether they are dumb, smart, criminal, or what have you) for acting as people do any more than one could blame a cat for killing a mouse.

One philosophy student that I talked with said that even if my view was true, it would simply change morality -- not get rid of it. He thought there could be a morality in light of determinism. Perhaps one of the first premises of this deterministic morality would be that morally blaming people for their actions is immoral.

The current blame-game assumes that people "could" have acted differently than they did, but that's nonsense. People only act as they could -- in light of their nurture+nature, they could not act any other way. The correct response to immoral acts is not to revile the doers as evil, because that frames those poor souls as strong, free-agent actors. The correct response is pity, which reframes "evildoers" as weak or simply defective. That response is galling (to the evildoer), magnanimous, and moral.

I'm also not convinced that Nietzsche didn't blame people for their characters, if not their actions.

Didn't blame people for their characters? Wasn't blaming people for their characters what you just said was inconsistent in the post -- so you're ascribing that position to Nietzsche with no quote? Don't you think that's a strawman?

Nietzsche was a determinist - he wasn't into the blame game. That's not to say that he didn't judge everything.


Higher-order volition, as far as I understand it, is an attempt to get out of some problems in philosophy of action by hierarchizing (yes, I probably made that word up) the mind. I think the whole project is misguided: if you want to explain action, you should look outside the agent, not deeper within.


Hmm. Something similar to higher-order volition (without that fancy name) was a pretty attractive idea to me when I first started philosophy. It's just the idea that human beings, as self-conscious, abstracting thinkers, can evaluate their actions while taking into account what causes those actions. The fact that we can recognize and respond to determinism implies freedom. Obviously one of the strongest contradictions of this is the empirical fact that many people are seemingly unable to put their actions into perspective, or, if capable of doing so, they are unable to follow through on what they think -- they lack self-control.

Ultimately it seems like that line of reasoning will make no headway against the theory of determinism (just like Frankfurt's "counterexamples" don't, or the "literature" which you allude to without offering any real convincing argument).

I pulled that higher-order volitions from Frankfurt's Wikipedia page, by the way.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Frankfurt

As an analytical guy, Frankfurt seems to make things a little more rigid than necessary ("first-order volitions" contradict "second-order volitions, thereby establishing the agent's free will") in order to cover up the fact that his arguments don't really hold up against hard determinism-- at least, they don't make any sense to me. People can both want to quit drugs and keep doing drugs -- that establishes that people have free will? Hmm. OK. So the fact that they don't have control over the drugs binding to receptors in their brain is irrelevant?

The counterexample on Wikipedia is completely nonsensical to me. If I wasn't the lazy underground man, I'd load up a research database and look for a paper of his -- but I am, and in this case my second-order volition is in line with my first-order volition -- that is, to clear to out some of these tabs and comment on your other comment before going to bed.