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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Clark on Sam Harris and free will

Over here, Tom Clark has a review of The Moral Landscape cum discussion of libertarian free will. I expect to return to this in the next few days. For now, here's a large sample (with material in bold quoted from Harris):

Harris rightly and crucially points out that there are viable conceptions of moral responsibility and moral judgment that survive the death of the little god. Wrongful acts are still wrong and condemnable in a world where their perpetrators are fully caused, and we are justified in holding perpetrators responsible since doing so is essential for an ordered society. But this essentially consequentialist notion of responsibility has major implications since it calls into question what Harris calls “the logic of retribution.” As he puts it:

Clearly, we need to build prisons for people who are intent on harming others. But if we could incarcerate earthquakes and hurricanes for their crimes, we would build prisons for them as well. The men and women on death row have some combination of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas and bad luck – which of these quantities, exactly, were they responsible for? No human being stands as author to his own genes or own upbringing, and yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character throughout his life. Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life…The urge for retribution…seems to depend upon our not seeing the underlying causes of human behavior. (109)

Harris also makes a broader point, connecting a naturalistic understanding of ourselves to compassion:

Despite our attachment to the notion of free will, most of us know that disorders of the brain can trump the best intentions of the mind. This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity – and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics. It seems to me that few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. (110)

Harris acknowledges the strength of the retributive impulse – a natural endowment present in all of us to greater or lesser extent – and speculates about how it can best be managed in a future culture, one fully cognizant of the causes and cures of evil. Might we continue to punish perpetrators simply to satisfy the thirst for retribution? From a humanitarian standpoint let’s hope not, since once that thirst no longer serves its original social function, now taken over by prevention and rehabilitation, its satisfaction simply imposes unnecessary suffering. Harris again: “…it seems quite clear that the retributive impulse, based on the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion, and perpetuates a moral one.”

I'm on board with both Harris and Clark that the kind of free will that they're talking about doesn't exist. I'm also on board with the claim that this doesn't eliminate responsibility for our actions, though it may require that we nail down what "responsibility" really means. I'm not sure we really know what we're talking about when we use the word unreflectively, and it may not be straighforward to get to a considered understanding of it while also (at least approximately) tracking what work the word does in our ordinary discourse. Still, to adapt some phrasing from Dan Dennett, a sort of responsibility that is compatible with our being the products of natural forces, traceable beyond our wills, may be the only responsibility worth having.

I sometimes think that Clark overreaches a li'l in his views about the social and political implications of all this, but that's for another day. As I say, I'll return to it. Meanwhile have a look at his review and at the whole site of Naturalism.Org, which is well worth keeping up with if you're interested in such issues.

45 comments:

March Hare said...

Punishing behaviour serves 3 functions currently:
Retribution;
Protection of society;
Discouragement of others from committing the same crime;

When you remove libertarian free will you only remove retribution, the other two are still intact. The other two account for enough of the current crime and punishment standards that I can't see any great shift - in fact, the only shift I see is one towards altering behaviour/attitudes of criminals leading to much better rehabilitation rather than seeing them suffer.

Mark Jones said...

Thanks for the link Russell.

Tom Clark talks a lot of sense, and I really like this piece.

Although, he did say this:

That revolution might also entail a rethinking of how naturalists, including the new atheists, deploy contempt and derision when conducting their campaigns for rational enlightenment. Seeing that the irrational and faith-based opposition is fully caused to be (sometimes, as are we) oblivious and obtuse, we can’t suppose they deserve contempt the way they would were they self-created. There but for circumstances go we.

Things get a little post-modern here. We must all be oblivious and obtuse to a degree, but if moral responsibility survives the death of the little god, then I think a certain contempt is going to come the way of the irrational, even if they don't *deserve* it, fully. If repeated attempts are made to disabuse immoral people of their misconceptions, there comes a time when contempt is surely due. More to the point, if one is to grant the immoral person no just desert for his immorality, then one can hardly condemn the derisor for his derision either, by the same token. But we intuitively think we can avoid being contemptuous, don't we.

So we must (perhaps only for the sake of a workable society, which seems to be Dennett's thought) include some element of retribution, but craft the entire justice system in the full knowledge that a person is not a self-made thing.

Dimitri said...

The people on death row didn't commit crimes of that nature because of "bad genes" or parents, and while I agree that parents have a strong influence in their children's future (lead by example thing), I think that bad their acting upon their bad ideas is entirely their own fault. If our system of justice relied wholly upon the circumstances in which the person grew up in or whatever, then how could justice be had? What type of justice would we be dealing with, Moral justice, political justice, libertarian justice? By definition libertarian is "free will" in whatever sense. In a broader sense "free will" means that no one knows what you will do, and you can do whatever you want t a degree. If justice relied on "free will" to determine the fate of a person, then every person would be free, because they were just "exercising their free will". In order to believe in true free will, one must be an atheist. For unless you deny god, how can you actually believe in any kind of free will? For if god "had a plan for us from the beginning" and "knows our every thought and deed, and has a plan for them", then how is that free will?

verbosestoic said...

These sorts of arguments always leave me cold -- Harris' as well as Clark's -- because they always boil down to one claim that cannot be made, and yet was made as far back as Skinner:

"Wrongful acts are still wrong and condemnable in a world where their perpetrators are fully caused, and we are justified in holding perpetrators responsible since doing so is essential for an ordered society."

The problem here -- and there are better examples in the article, but I'm too lazy to look them up -- is that whether or not we are JUSTIFIED in holding perpetrators responsible because we need to do that in an ordered society is irrelevant, because under those conceptions of free will "we" don't actually decide anything. Our decision to punish is precisely as determined as their decision to commit the crime.

There is no point to asking the question "Is it okay to punish someone if their actions are determined?" because in most senses we will punish or not regardless of how we answer it. But we cannot decide to not ask the question either, because that is also determined. And so on and so forth.

Deciding what to believe and what beliefs we should hold is, it seems to me, irrelevant unless we either have something selecting from potential beliefs to determine actions or selecting what beliefs we hold. And it seems to me that if those are determined it really is a case of "Whatever we do is what we do". I will be convinced or not. I will punish or not. I will attempt to convince or not.

At which point, again, it will not matter. But we'll still act like it matters, because we don't get to really choose to decide that it doesn't matter.

In summary, my biggest complaint is that the free will complaints act as if the criminal has no real choice, but asks how we should react to that as if we have a real choice there. But the latter is just as determined as the former, if they are correct.

Ethical Ape said...

Russell, are you familiar with Peter Strawson's account of personhood? If so, do you think that his description of persons as necessarily embedded in a web of 'reactive attitudes' offers a way of saving moral responsbility?

Russell Blackford said...

There's an argument about whether the reactive attitudes are justified. Personally, I'm glad we have them. But I suppose there are circumstances where we could decide they have become counterproductive.

On another point, I'm a compatibilist, myself. I see no conflict between the idea that we have all the things in the vicinity of free will that we'd want to have, on reflection, and the ideas that Clark and Harris are talking about. I actually think it's misleading to say we don't have free will.

Ben Finney said...

Russell, this raises a long-time annoyance with your style for quoting text.

Rather than using the ad-hoc italics and bold, can you please use the structural ‘blockquote’ entity for block quotes?

That way, every user will get the text rendered as a block quote in their browser. You get the additional benefit that there's an unambiguous way to represent block quotes within other block quotes; no need to tell us what your own markup means.

Tom Clark said...

Russell, many thanks for posting this, a few responses…

March Hare: “I can't see any great shift - in fact, the only shift I see is one towards altering behavior/attitudes of criminals leading to much better rehabilitation rather than seeing them suffer.”

Seems to me this would be a huge shift, given that retribution is the dominant justification for punishment in the U.S. (and elsewhere), entailing vastly unnecessary and counterproductive suffering for inmates.

Mark Jones: “So we must (perhaps only for the sake of a workable society, which seems to be Dennett's thought) include some element of retribution, but craft the entire justice system in the full knowledge that a person is not a self-made thing.”

Keep in mind retribution is defined as punishing without *any* regard to good consequences, such as having a workable society. The retributivist has to justify punishing the offender as *intrinsically* good. If you can supply a convincing justification for that, I’ll sign up as a retributivist.

Verbosestoic:

Should it be the case that determinism is true about human behavior for all practical purposes, it doesn't follow that acts and policies can’t be judged wrong or right according to some set of norms. If all things have causes this still leaves open questions such as whether we are justified in holding offenders responsible to create an ordered society. Similarly, that my perception and reasoning are likely fully caused doesn’t mean they can’t track (respectively) the world and the norms of rationality and thus be judged reliable/rational or not. We might be fully caused in our decisions and choices, but that doesn’t render the decision/choice-making process unreal or irrelevant when it comes to human well-being. It’s just as real as anything else in nature. Determinism doesn’t subvert any of this, it’s simply the medium of human action, leavened by whatever randomness exists. Without causal regularities, things such as reliable perception, reasoning and decision-making would all be impossible, http://www.naturalism.org/resource.htm#rationality

Ethical Ape & Russell: Yes, P.F. Strawson argued that we should accept our reactive attitudes as determinative of our responsibility practices (what morality boils down to), but why should we? It isn’t as if reactive attitudes, such as the retributive impulse, are anything more than what evolution has bequeathed us as interpersonal behavior-control modules. By exploding the myth of retributive desert based in contra-causal free will, we are now in a position to second-guess and override our punitive inclinations in favor of more effective and less punitive alternatives.

Re saying we have free will: it’s important to define what’s meant by free will when either affirming or denying we have it. The free will being denied by Harris, myself and other progressive naturalists is the libertarian, contra-causal free will of the soul or self-caused mental agent - more or less the capacity to have acted otherwise in the exact situation as it transpired without that act being merely random and thus not the agent’s doing. As you know this contrasts with the compatibilist (compatible with determinism) free will of, more or less, acting in one’s right mind, uncoerced, according to one’s reasons and desires. As far as I’m aware, no one denies that most folks in open societies generally have that sort of freedom. To just say we have free will is ambiguous between these definitions, so we always have to specify which kind we mean to avoid confusion.

Tom Clark said...

Russell, many thanks for posting this, a few responses…

March Hare: “I can't see any great shift - in fact, the only shift I see is one towards altering behavior/attitudes of criminals leading to much better rehabilitation rather than seeing them suffer.”

Seems to me this would be a huge shift, given that retribution is the dominant justification for punishment in the U.S. (and elsewhere), entailing vastly unnecessary and counterproductive suffering for inmates.

Mark Jones: “So we must (perhaps only for the sake of a workable society, which seems to be Dennett's thought) include some element of retribution, but craft the entire justice system in the full knowledge that a person is not a self-made thing.”

Keep in mind retribution is defined as punishing without *any* regard to good consequences, such as having a workable society. The retributivist has to justify punishing the offender as *intrinsically* good. If you can supply a convincing justification for that, I’ll sign up as a retributivist.

Tom Clark said...

Verbosestoic:

Should it be the case that determinism is true about human behavior for all practical purposes, it doesn't follow that acts and policies can’t be judged wrong or right according to some set of norms. If all things have causes this still leaves open questions such as whether we are justified in holding offenders responsible to create an ordered society. Similarly, that my perception and reasoning are likely fully caused doesn’t mean they can’t track (respectively) the world and the norms of rationality and thus be judged reliable/rational or not. We might be fully caused in our decisions and choices, but that doesn’t render the decision/choice-making process unreal or irrelevant when it comes to human well-being. It’s just as real as anything else in nature. Determinism doesn’t subvert any of this, it’s simply the medium of human action, leavened by whatever randomness exists. Without causal regularities, things such as reliable perception, reasoning and decision-making would all be impossible, http://www.naturalism.org/resource.htm#rationality

Ethical Ape & Russell: Yes, P.F. Strawson argued that we should accept our reactive attitudes as determinative of our responsibility practices (what morality boils down to), but why should we? It isn’t as if reactive attitudes, such as the retributive impulse, are anything more than what evolution has bequeathed us as interpersonal behavior-control modules. By exploding the myth of retributive desert based in contra-causal free will, we are now in a position to second-guess and override our punitive inclinations in favor of more effective and less punitive alternatives.

Re saying we have free will: it’s important to define what’s meant by free will when either affirming or denying we have it. The free will being denied by Harris, myself and other progressive naturalists is the libertarian, contra-causal free will of the soul or self-caused mental agent - more or less the capacity to have acted otherwise in the exact situation as it transpired without that act being merely random and thus not the agent’s doing. As you know this contrasts with the compatibilist (compatible with determinism) free will of, more or less, acting in one’s right mind, uncoerced, according to one’s reasons and desires. As far as I’m aware, no one denies that most folks in open societies generally have that sort of freedom.

To just say we have free will is ambiguous between the libertarian and compatibilist senses, so we always have to specify which we mean to avoid confusion.

Tom Clark said...

Verbosestoic:

Should it be the case that determinism is true about human behavior for all practical purposes, it doesn't follow that acts and policies can’t be judged wrong or right according to some set of norms. If all things have causes this still leaves open questions such as whether we are justified in holding offenders responsible to create an ordered society. Similarly, that my perception and reasoning are likely fully caused doesn’t mean they can’t track (respectively) the world and the norms of rationality and thus be judged reliable/rational or not. We might be fully caused in our decisions and choices, but that doesn’t render the decision/choice-making process unreal or irrelevant when it comes to human well-being. It’s just as real as anything else in nature. Determinism doesn’t subvert any of this, it’s simply the medium of human action, leavened by whatever randomness exists. Without causal regularities, things such as reliable perception, reasoning and decision-making would all be impossible, http://www.naturalism.org/resource.htm#rationality

Tom Clark said...

Ethical Ape & Russell: Yes, P.F. Strawson argued that we should accept our reactive attitudes as determinative of our responsibility practices (what morality boils down to), but why should we? It isn’t as if reactive attitudes, such as the retributive impulse, are anything more than what evolution has bequeathed us as interpersonal behavior-control modules. By exploding the myth of retributive desert based in contra-causal free will, we are now in a position to second-guess and override our punitive inclinations in favor of more effective and less punitive alternatives.

Re saying we have free will: it’s important to define what’s meant by free will when either affirming or denying we have it. The free will being denied by Harris, myself and other progressive naturalists is the libertarian, contra-causal free will of the soul or self-caused mental agent - more or less the capacity to have acted otherwise in the exact situation as it transpired without that act being merely random and thus not the agent’s doing. As you know this contrasts with the compatibilist (compatible with determinism) free will of, more or less, acting in one’s right mind, uncoerced, according to one’s reasons and desires. As far as I’m aware, no one denies that most folks in open societies generally have that sort of freedom.

To just say we have free will is ambiguous between the libertarian and compatibilist senses, so we always have to specify which we mean to avoid confusion.

Ethical Ape said...

Hi Tom and Russell,

I agree that contral-causal free will is an illusion, but I'm not sure that spells the end for retribution. The consequences of punishment could be, in Antony Duff's words, 'logically connected to its means'. As a kind of secular penance, punishment becomes an intrinsic good.

I like Duff's ideas about punishment and retibution because they preserve the status of the offender as a moral agent, something that consequentialism often struggles to do.

While I enjoyed much of Harris' book, I found his move from 'no contra-causal free will' to 'no retribution' too quick. Perhaps he should have explored a bit of legal philosophy (although he might find it even more 'boring' than meta-ethics :)

Anonymous said...

Verbosestoic:

under those conceptions of free will "we" don't actually decide anything.

Sure we do.

You seem to be assuming that "deciding" must not be deterministic.

Every known case of "deciding" appears in fact to be more or less deterministic information processing. That's just what deciding is---you don't get to define "decide" in such a way as to exclude the common and/or paradigmatic cases.

If my puppy decides to pee on the rug, that may be a deterministic consequence of all sorts of other things outside the puppy, but it's still the puppy deciding to pee on the rug. The locus of decision making is in the puppy's head.

If I decide to punish or reward the puppy to shape it's behavior, that only makes sense if the puppy's behavior is more or less deterministic. (I have a fair degree of confidence that that the puppy can learn not to pee on the rug, given suitable feedback.)

The fact that a decision may ultimately be determined by external factors doesn't mean that it isn't a decision, or that the particular decision wasn't made locally, by a particular being at a particular place and time.

If my dog is hard to train, I may blame the breeder and/or evolution and/or the gods, in some larger sense.

Up to a point, that doesn't mean that I don't blame the dog for peeing on the rug, and hold it responsible. Unless the dog is completely untrainable, it needs to be held responsible for its actions, and know that it is at fault if it pees on the rug.

The fact that it's not ultimately the dog's fault that it is at fault doesn't mean it's not at fault. It just explains, in a larger sense, why it is at fault in the basic sense.

These are different senses of blame and fault, at different levels, and they're not mutually exclusive. The dog peeing on the rug can be 100 percent the dog's fault and 100 percent my fault (if I've been careless about housebreaking), and 100 percent the breeder's fault (if she was careless about selecting for trainability), and 100 percent evolution's fault for getting us all into this mess, and 100 percent God's fault too.

Those are compatible claims at different levels of analysis.

Maybe it's all god's fault, at some level, but that doesn't make nonsense of blame, reward, and punishment at the usual levels.

The problem here is that too many people have a naive idea that blame is simple and single-leveled---if my misbehavior is my fault, then it's not also society's fault that I misbehave, and it's not ultimately God's fault that we sin.

Naive ideas about free will blame are often supported by religion, as a way of getting God off the hook for the Problem of Evil.

Libertarian free will is mostly a dodge to make the buck stop with us, and get God off the hook.

It doesn't really work that way. We are fully on on the hook for our decisions, at one level, but God is fully on the hook too.

-- Paul W.

verbosestoic said...

Tom,

Taking your examples from the link, under your model:

Saying "That person is an astrologer" is identical to saying "That piece of wood has a knot in it."

Saying "The scientists has a better model than the astrologer" is identical to saying "Wood floats better than iron".

Saying "The astrologer should adopt the model of the scientist" is essentially saying "Iron should float like wood does".

Saying "That person should not be an astrologer" is identical to saying "That piece of wood should not have a knot in it".

They may be true, but you're only describing states of the world. There is no justification involved here, only causes. They are astrologers and scientists because ... they are astrologers and scientists. Their history made them that way, and they certainly didn't choose or decide in ANY way to be that way, and they don't choose or decide TO stay that way.

When you write the article you write and talk about the model of the scientists versus that of the astrologer, all that is is a cause that interacts with their existing state. If the two align in one way, they may change from a scientist to an astrologer ... or vice versa. And if it aligns another way, nothing changes.

So there's no justification for judging the person, as what there is of the person is involved in everything, even in getting to that state, and just happens. Just as you don't really judge wood PERSONALLY for having a knot. But you'll do it, or not, regardless, for the same reasons: ultimately, your causes and your state demand it. And that's all there is to say on the matter.

We will, then, take retribution or not. The arguments may "sway" us, but if they don't they simply don't; there is no choice to ignore or be unconvinced in play here.

That's pretty much what I'm getting at.

Svlad Cjelli said...

To what Tom Clark said: I suspect it could even be more difficult to "track the world and the norms of rationality and thus be judged reliable/rational or not" if my perception and reasoning were caused to a lesser degree / more loosely caused.
My accuracy depends on my being affected by context and objects of investigation. I dare say that any assessment that were uncaused would be a lucky yet unqualified guess at best, and much more likely to be simply inaccurate.

Though I see now that my last sentence is just stating the obvious if slightly rephrased.

March Hare said...

verbosestoic - we 'decide' like a set of scales decides which side is heavier. We simply obey physical laws but we also happen to have feedback loops in our assessments, hence we think we have some control over the outcome of the 'decision'.

Self-deluded automatons that we are.

Richard Wein said...

Russell, I'll be very interested to see how you manage to make sense of the concept of responsibility. From previous posts I understand that (like me) you're a moral anti-realist (moral error theorist), so I presume you're not talking about _moral_ responsibility. ;)

Tom Clark wrote: "Should it be the case that determinism is true about human behavior for all practical purposes, it doesn't follow that acts and policies can’t be judged wrong or right according to some set of norms."

Tom, it seems you're taking a relativist view of morality: right and wrong are relative to "some set of norms". In any case (to return to verbosestoic's point) it seems very strange to say that someone has a moral responsibility to do something (or not to do it) if his choice of whether to do it is predetermined.

Richard Wein said...

P.S. I said I was returning to verbosestoic's point. But, on reflection, the point I was making was a rather different one.

Russell Blackford said...

Just some general comments, not aimed at anyone in particular, but reacting to some themes on the thread. First, we're not talking about fatalism or anything similar, in case there's any doubt about that. Denying incompatibilist free will emphatically does not entail endorsing fatalism. It also doesn't entail that all events were predetermined from eternity - maybe they were, maybe they weren't, but that's not the theory.

Remember, I'm (roughly) a compatibilist. I don't actually deny that we have free will. My account of what free will consists in may not be exactly what the folk have in mind, but that's mainly because I doubt that the folk have anything in mind that's very coherent at all.

I certainly do deny that we can step out of the causal order or that we can go back in time and change our own genetics and socialisation, etc. Even if we could, our decisions about how we'd do it would be a function of our current values, affective attitudes, etc. We can never step out of these entirely. But these are rather weak claims that I'm making.

I don't think we have any spooky powers, but I'm quite happy to say that we have free will. I don't see anything at all that's especially tricky or paradoxical or unsatisfactory about compatibilist free will. Like any other such concept it takes some explaining and making some distinctions, but that's okay. In fact, I'm with Dennett that it's the only kind of free will worth having.

I think it's actually incompatibilist ideas of free will that end up being mysterious, bizarre, difficult to nail down, difficult to reconcile with ideas of responsibility ... and really don't make sense as conceptions of free will at all.

As for moral responsibility, hmmm. I don't think there are any moral truths that transcend affective attitudes and institutions. Gyges can always say, "What's that to me?" without making a mistake about the world. If that's an anti-realist position then, yes, I'm an anti-realist.

But it's still the case that X can freely decide to engage in phi-ing, which (perhaps non-accidentally and predictably) caused outcome Y, which in turn is something that I and most other people consider a bad outcome. Why shouldn't I consider agent X to be worthy of blame for outcome Y? How much more is required for blame to attach? Whether moral responsibility is the correct term for what I've described may be mainly a matter of semantics: the facts themselves seem fairly clear.

Admittedly, X would (let us say) not have phi'd if he or she had had a different value set and other psychological characteristics, but so what? She had the value set that she had, and it was expressed in her action. That just rubs in that X didn't phi by accident or coincidence or mysteriously but precisely because X is the sort of person who would make such a decision in the relevant circumstances.

To reach that conclusion about X, I don't have to believe in moral norms that have spooky properties or imply spooky properties or entities in the world. Nor do I need to attribute any spooky powers to X. All I attribute to X is a capacity for deliberation in accordance with X's values, desires, etc. Indeed, I think I can get away with even less than that in many cases.

Mark Jones said...

Thanks Tom; you said:

Keep in mind retribution is defined as punishing without *any* regard to good consequences, such as having a workable society. The retributivist has to justify punishing the offender as *intrinsically* good. If you can supply a convincing justification for that, I’ll sign up as a retributivist.

Yes, retribution seems pointless from my world view, in isolation, but surely when one is deciding policy one cannot discount the fact that millions believe in its intrinsic good? Unfortunately, people behave based on what they believe rather than the truth of the matter. So my point was pragmatic rather than principled - it seems to me that in these circumstances retribution delivers an extrinsic good *because* many people believe in its intrinsic good - perhaps this then falls out of the definition of retribution? I'm not sure what it is then.

And isn't Dennett's quote pointing out that we tend to *feel* that retribution is good, rather than it *is* good? I would argue against retribution in *principle*, despite plotting revenge against my enemies. But I'm continuing to read up on justice, so I reserve the right to change my mind!

March Hare said...

Russell, I think you're generally right, but you're being too anthropomorphic (if I can use that word about humans?!?).

When you say, "Why shouldn't I consider agent X to be worthy of blame for outcome Y?"
In a deterministic (or possibly even compatabilist) view then we don't blame the hurricane for killing people any more than we blame a venus fly trap for killing a fly. They both blindly obey physical laws. As do we.

The difference may be that we respond to more stimuli and have a greater understanding of the likely consequences of our actions which can inform and adapt our brains which in turn alter our ultimate behaviour. So what we are actually blaming, when we blame a person, is their initial state that was insufficiently set up to adequately adapt and respond to data in the way that we think they should have.

In that situation I think blame is completely wrong. They had no control over their initial state and subsequent actions. Obviously they are their actions and, as Sam Harris says, we would lock up an earthquake if we could, but we don't blame the earthquake (well, most of us don't), we simply want to stop it from being able to wreak more damage.

March Hare said...

Vengeance is not a noble pursuit, neither is it just or fair. We should seek to protect people and right wrongs, but wrongs are never righted by punishment.

Our biological impulse for vengeance and punishment comes from the wish to stop the perpetrator from doing it again, threatening social harmony, but in our enlightened age we can surely achieve the same ends by altering the state of the perpetrator so that such action is never repeated. And that altering of the person should, in and of itself, be enough of a deterrent to stop the people on the margin from committing the same act. The treatment of the offender becomes their punishment.

Although that does put me somewhat in mind of A Clockwork Orange...

March Hare said...

Possible double post Russell, if the full version goes through please ignore the next three (this being the third) and if it doesn't then please ignore this, thanks.

Richard Wein said...

Russell wrote: "Why shouldn't I consider agent X to be worthy of blame for outcome Y? How much more is required for blame to attach?"

I would say that to be worthy of blame for doing Y requires that X had a moral obligation not to do Y.

The expressions "to blame" and "responsible" are more ambiguous than "worthy of blame". They don't necessarily imply moral obligation, and can be used about inanimate causes. We might well say that cold weather was to blame (or responsible) for some deaths, but I don't think we would say it was _worthy_ of blame.

Anyway, when people talk about blame or responsibility in the context of punishment and retribution, they are normally using those words in the moral sense. Hence, Tom mentions "moral responsibility" and "wrongful acts". As a moral error theorist I say that there's no such thing as moral wrong, moral obligation or moral responsibility.

"Whether moral responsibility is the correct term for what I've described may be mainly a matter of semantics: the facts themselves seem fairly clear."

I don't think you've actually said what you mean by "moral responsibility". But the central claim of moral error theory is that moral discourse is _committed_ to faulty concepts which render its statements incapable of being true. So the choice to use the language of moral discourse (e.g. making an attribution of moral responsibility) is (for a moral error theorist) far from being a matter of semantics. That is, replacing the moral term with a non-moral term would quite change your meaning. You seem to me to be very close here to adopting the sort of moral naturalist position which you've previously rejected.

Russell Blackford said...

Richard, I've never said that I am committed to any particular view about moral semantics. Richard Joyce does take a very strong position about what moral language is committed to, but Mackie himself ends up backing away from this somewhat and leaving it vague. Quite rightly, I think.

I think that moral error theorists can go wrong to the extent that they claim that the folk have a clear understanding of what they mean when they make moral pronouncements. I think that the folk actually have a very vague, inchoate understanding of it (just as they do of "free will").

Of course, this still keeps me in the error theorist camp, especially because it identifies another widespread error - the error that we know what we're talking about when we make moral statements. I doubt that we do usually know what we're talking about when we make moral statements.

However, error theory is correct insofar as it postulates that the folk think something along the lines that there are standards of conduct that transcend all desires and institutions and are, in the sense that Joyce discusses, objectively binding or inescapable. The folk probably do think something like that - but there are in fact no such standards so they are in error. Error theory is correct when it says that there is, therefore, a sense in which moral standards don't have the kind of objective bindingness or inescapability that the folk seem to think they have.

Is this objective bindingness or inescapability built into the language itself as Mackie suggests at one point and his successors make a big deal of? Maybe. I suppose. If so, taken literally, all the standard, first-order thin moral claims are false.

But there are plenty of truths in the vicinity. E.g. it's true that there are things that most of us don't want other people to do, such as torturing babies. It's also true that these standards are not just arbitrary. Is the behavioural standard that most of us abide by and apply to others, "Don't torture babies!" objectively inescapable in the way I've referred to? No. Does the standard purport to be? Yes, oh dear yes, maybe so. I suppose it is. The folk probably do have in mind something like objective inescapability, not just something like non-arbitrariness. Is the moral error theorist correct about all this? Yeah, I guess so, so I guess that makes me an error theorist! :)

But my real interest isn't in the moral semantics part.

Can we go on using moral language even after we realise that moral norms, though often non-arbitrary, are not objectively inescapable? I think we probably can, though I doubt that we can do so with no changes in our language at all.

I doubt, however, that we need to drop talk of moral responsibility. It seems like reasonable shorthand to me. Let me explain this.

If someone was responsible in the ways I described in the earlier comment for doing something that breached our (yours and my) non-arbitrary moral standards, I don't see why it's so difficult saying she was "morally responsible" for her action and its consequences. Yes, the standard wasn't objectively inescapable in the sense we're talking about, but we can still talk about whether someone freely chose to violate the standard or did so under coercion, etc., whether or not the standard was objectively inescapable. If we actually do care about breach of the standard, the questions are whether breach of the standard that we care about was or was not knowing, was or was not coerced, etc. That's what talk of "moral responsibility" is about.

Tom Clark said...

[sorry for duplicate posts, was getting error messages that they were too long]

Ethical Ape: "I like Duff's ideas about punishment and retribution because they preserve the status of the offender as a moral agent, something that consequentialism often struggles to do."

Consequentialists have no difficulty with preserving moral agency - moral agents are those who are capable of imbibing behavior-controlling moral norms - whereas retributivists have a very difficult time, seems to me, in justifying the intrinsic good of punishment. They can't appeal to any sort of consequence, for instance of secular penance.

Vebosestoic: "The arguments may "sway" us, but if they don't they simply don't; there is no choice to ignore or be unconvinced in play here."

Consider: Would you want to have a *choice* about whether to obey the rules of logical inference, or bow to the preponderance of evidence, or concede the strength of arguments that depend on sound logic and good evidence? If you answer yes, then you're supposing that you're not bound by these constraints, and good luck to you as you make your way through the world. Being causal exceptions to nature - being disconnected from it, an impossibility in any case - would add nothing to our reasoning or practical competence, the norms of which are completely compatible with their being deterministic. What would be helpful is a clear account of how being uncaused would allow us to be better practical reasoners and choosers.

Tom Clark said...

Russell: " Yes, the standard wasn't objectively inescapable in the sense we're talking about, but we can still talk about whether someone freely chose to violate the standard or did so under coercion, etc., whether or not the standard was objectively inescapable. If we actually do care about breach of the standard, the questions are whether breach of the standard that we care about was or was not knowing, was or was not coerced, etc. That's what talk of "moral responsibility" is about."

Agreed. And then the question arises whether the compatibilist notion of moral responsibility can justify the claim by retributivists that offenders should be punished whether or not any good consequences ensue. I'm wondering where you come down on that since it has real-world ramifications for criminal justice policy. For instance, do killers *deserve* to die? http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=clark_25_2

josef johann said...

Mark Jones, you make a great point. I have nothing to add beyond that, really.

Dmitri, you say:

I think that bad their acting upon their bad ideas is entirely their own fault.

And what are they?

josef johann said...

Russell,

you say Gyges can always say, "What's that to me?" without making a mistake about the world.

Reminds me of an episode of Family Guy where the Mafia tries to kill Louis Griffin. Louis has a plan to preven this and shares her plan with Peter. Peter keeps saying "so?" to the details of Louis' plan. Even when Louis explains that her life will be saved, Peter says "so?"

The joke is that Peter is being preposterous. It's clearly in his interest for his wife to be alive, yet he's capable of repeating the question.

A True Moral Theory would not, I think, prevent the asker from repeating their question, but it would show the repetition of the question to be absurd after a certain depth of explanation.

Russell Blackford said...

Tom, it depends on what you mean by "deserve to die". Death might be the penalty that is due within the legal system. In that sense, the person might "deserve" it. The judge should, at least legally speaking, allocate penalties as the system says (but this will include some discretion for the judge of course).

Whether I want the system to be such that the penalty is death is another matter. That will depend on whether setting up the system that way is likely to produce outcomes that I care about. Those might, for example, be utilitarian outcomes, though not necessarily just those (I can't prove to someone who prefers fairness in some sense, for its own sake, that she is wrong).

If you're asking me whether I believe in some kind of spooky "desert all the way down", irrespective of what we actually want the system to deliver, no I don't. But the systems of law, morality, etc., that we set up are not just arbitrary. They are based - sometimes too loosely - on widely shared values (fears, hopes, pro-attitudes, desires, etc.), and someone can certainly "merit" or deserve" particular treatment within a non-arbitrary system, or certain treatment can be "due to" someone within such a system.

As far as I'm concerned, I want the system to deliver utilitarian benefits, but maybe weighted by other things such as not producing false findings of guilt even if those turn out to have a beneficial utilitarian impact. I think it's possible to ask what we really want from a criminal justice system, think about it in depth, and see how much we agree; and I'd hope it's possible to get a lot of agreement from people who are prepared to do this that what we really want is mainly utilitarian benefit, or something like it. We should then evolve/reform/develop the system accordingly.

Note that my views aren't based on my views about free will. They're more based on my moral scepticism, if anything. In any event they're based on my understanding of the nature of law and morality as institutions - as social constructions that exist for our collective benefit, rather than as things with some spooky life of their own that we exist to serve.

Josef, quite so. But what makes it funny is that there's a sense in which Peter is right. It has to matter to him. Of course, it seems absurd because (I hope) none of us reading this blog can imagine that our spouses' or lovers' deaths would not matter to us. But part of the uncomfortable humour of little jokey narratives like this is that the person asking "Why?" is not necessarily making any intellectual mistake.

Of course, if he really does care about his wife he's caught in a contradiction. He's acting as if the outcome of saving her life is something he doesn't value when he actually does. But what if he doesn't? That possibility generates some uncomfortable humour. :D

Richard Wein said...

Russell,

Thanks for the explanation of your view. As far as I could understand it, it seems like a form of relativism, and not a moral error theory in the usual sense, since you're apparently interpreting moral claims as being relative to a moral standard. Once you do that, the question of whether people have false beliefs about the status of the moral standard seems irrelevant to the truth status of the claim.

For example, you wrote: "...we can still talk about whether someone freely chose to violate the standard or did so under coercion..."

But how does that relate to the claim that "she was morally responsible for her action and its consequences"? Are you saying that this claim is equivalent to the claim that "she freely chose to violate the standard"? In that case, we don't need to know the status of the standard in order to judge the truth of the claim.

Anyway, I'll avoid calling you an error theorist in the future.

Russell Blackford said...

No, you probably should call me an error theorist in the future. I think that the most plausible views are error theory and sophisticated relativism. Of the two, I am more inclined towards error theory.

However, it's going to have to be an error theory that acknowledges that a lot of the points made by sophisticated relativists (roughly, Gilbert Harman and his followers) have a lot of force. Does that make sense?

It will all become clear when I write my book on the subject. Meanwhile, the current debate between Richard Joyce (an error theorist) and Stephen Finlay (a sophisticated relativist, on my reading) is very interesting. I tend to side with Joyce, but I do think that Finlay makes some good points.

I suppose the reason I'm a bit lukewarm about this is that I think that a sufficiently sophisticated error theory and a sufficiently sophisticated relativism tend to converge on many issues. They are separated mainly by tricky issues of moral semantics. On those issues I tend to side with error theorists, but to be honest I think it's rather murky.

Richard Wein said...

I look forward to reading your book, Russell. But for now I remain confused and sceptical about your position.

I read Stephen Finlay's paper "The Error in Error Theory" a while ago. It was very interesting, but I found his arguments for relativism flawed. I don't think he even gave a clear explanation of what moral claims mean on his relativist view.

As I've said before, I think meanings are complex, that moral claims can mean different things to different people, and that even a single utterance can have multiple meanings. So I don't deny that moral claims can have a relative component in some sense. Still, I'm strongly of the view that the absolute (non-relative) meaning of moral claims is predominant.

Russell Blackford said...

It's difficult to establish what moral claims mean on any view. Mackie has some good stuff to say about this on page ... let's see ... 72 of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Really, my view is pretty much Mackie's view, but it's the view that emerges from his book as whole, not just the first few chapters.

As for Finlay, I'm not saying I agree with him. But I do think he raises good questions about what the folk think their moral judgments mean. (I think the folk are confused, and that philosophers don't typically do much better.)

Still, I do think (with Richard Joyce) that the folk believe something rather inchoate along the lines that moral judgments have a certain "oomph", that they are justified by some sort of standard that is objectively binding. If you don't accept the standard, so the thought goes, you are somehow just wrong.

Assuming I'm correct on that, the folk are, I argue, constantly making an error, because I don't believe objectively binding standards like this exist. The best we can find are standards that we have strong reasons to go along with - they are not arbitrary, because they connect to widespread human desires, etc., that we ourselves consider important.

This is what Mackie thought, though he also thought (rightly, I believe) that we could have reasons to evolve and refine these standards, and to reject them in some cases. If we accept them, it's not because they are objectively binding on us but because accepting them does some good (as judged by most of us by our own standards).

Anyway, the book is a couple of books away. Right now, I'm focused on the freedom of religion book.

colluvial said...

The current need to exact revenge on the perpetrator of anti-social behavior is not productive. Instead, isn't it more reasonable to view our justice system as a way to assure public safety? People who negatively impact others should be acted upon to minimize the recurrence of such behavior and make amends for those wronged.

Currently, I think we view the "corrections" system as a way to apply punishment to prevent future transgressive behavior, thinking that's all we ever need to do. Instead, the focus should be on trying to protect other members of society by changing anti-social behaviors, if possible. Until that time, that person should not be allowed to live free.

The phrases "served his time" or "paid his debt to society" comes out of the warped thinking that the role of the justice system is to punish rather to ensure safety and co-existence. As if a crime against another person could be repaid by suffering for it. If we can step beyond the focus on punishment, then we don't have to spend time debating whether it's really the transgressor's fault or his genes or upbringing. It just becomes a matter of trying to prevent the behavior's future recurrence.

josef johann said...

Of course, if he really does care about his wife he's caught in a contradiction. He's acting as if the outcome of saving her life is something he doesn't value when he actually does. But what if he doesn't? That possibility generates some uncomfortable humour. :D

Ok, the example is silly, but the issue at stake isn't going away any time soon.

The act of forming the question all over again, even just the sound of it, can be seductive. It can imply the existence of some as-yet-unaccounted for space where the truth lies. Just like "infinity plus one" sounds like it's about something that's higher than infinity.

One the one hand, if Peter is caught in contradiction, well, he's caught in contradiction. I think this is important. Because it could just as well mean someone asking "..but what's it to me?" is caught in contradiction in the sense that there is nothing more for them to be curious about and yet they are still acting curious.

On the other hand, maybe Peter doesn't care. If that's true, I'm not sure how to answer to be honest. I would most likely gesture to his lived life (set aside that he's a cartoon character) and how everything about his everyday behavior is consistent with him believing in the value of his family, and inconsistent with his present claim to not care about his wife.

The facts of lived life are, I dare say, enough evidence to convict him of wrongly representing his own beliefs, or else we have to consider that he's been an impostor, or that an interpretation of his behavior is possible where he seems to affirm the value of his family but doesn't.

Sometimes this is a "tu quoque fallacy," but there are times when I think the observation works.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, you can do all sorts of things to try to persuade him that he really does care, and maybe he does. Maybe it'll work. In most cases it will. We'll be appealing to predictable and widespread values.

But if he ultimately doesn't, then there's ultimately nothing more we can say (though I know there's this itch that people have to find something; the idea that there is eventually nothing is a confounding truth).

The first part is the "not arbitrary
"part. The second part is the "not objective" part. We need to deal with both.

verbosestoic said...

Tom,

I think things have gone a bit sideways in our discussion.

First, you seem to be implying that if I didn't feel bound by the laws of logic and evidence because I could choose not to follow them, I therefore would be in trouble because, presumably, I wouldn't follow them. But that's not true. Not being bound by those rules just means that I don't HAVE to follow them, not that I won't. It means, at a minimum, that I'd follow them if I believed it good for me to follow them.

Second, I'm sure that all of the skeptics here can find areas where people don't seem to follow those rules. This, then, means that humans are not always bound to follow those rules, whether we have any interesting form of free will or not.

But it's at that point that my claims actually start. If the free will we have is such that we can ask how responsible criminals are for their crimes, we can surely ask how responsible someone is for following the rules of logic and evidence. And then, when someone DOESN'T do so, we have to treat them similarly to how you propose for criminals: they do not CHOOSE to do that, but just do that. So you can appeal to attempts to get them to follow the rules of logic and evidence on other grounds, like it being better for them ...

... Except that you are precisely as responsible for that determination as they are for their "irrationality". You will do it or not for the same reasons, with the same basis.

At this point, trying to justify why you do something is pointless ... but you'll keep on doing it, because you literally cannot help it.

My point does not apply to being better reasoners or choosers, but being considered valid reasoners and choosers at all. Practical success is not the determining factor in that, in my opinion. In fact, I think it irrelevant to it; the better "chooser" at that scale might be the one who gets it wrong, but at least chooses.

josef said...

I started to make a comment, but I've adapted it as a post at my own blog.

Tom Clark said...

Verbosestoic,

Choosing is a type of "just doing," that pattern of action which although caused is caused by one's motives and reasons. If your deliberations and choices aren’t fully caused, then it's the case your reasons and motives don't fully cause them - there's something random and arbitrary that participates in shaping thought and action. So you can't point to your reasons and motives as justifications for what you think and do. Authorship is diminished and the connection between intent and outcome is compromised. Freedom from causation only inserts arbitrariness, it doesn't add to control or responsibility. But since you're convinced that *real* rationality and responsibility depend on causal disconnection (although you haven't said how that works), then you don't mind that, as a practical reasoner, you're not as reliable as a deterministic system. To me that's a bad deal and I don't see any evidence for it being true, http://www.naturalism.org/plantinga.htm

GTChristie said...

@ Mark Jones: So we must (perhaps only for the sake of a workable society...) include some element of retribution, but craft the entire justice system in the full knowledge that a person is not a self-made thing.

That is exactly what civil law does and is designed to do: act for the sake of a workable society. It is expressly not designed for retribution (ie, revenge). The law is designed to deter the criminal by codifying the consequences of certain actions which disrupt society. It is irrelevant in the law whether the perpetrator is morally culpable in the metaphysical sense everyone seems to be discussing, so that "free will" present or absent in the agent is irrelevant. If a murderer is not forced by someone else to kill, then the consequences fall to the perpetrator, period. Rather than let a murderer off the hook for certain mental defects, we recognize some modification of the consequences: "unable to tell right from wrong" due to madness, let's say, still gets a person a very long incarceration in a state mental hospital, for instance. Not to torment the fool, but to protect society from him.

The clearest philosopher on this type of issue -- thoroughly secular, which should make us happy here -- is Schopenhauer.

In the discussion above I see nothing as elegant, and quite a few statements that seem blissfully unaware that these issues have been worked out to society's satisfaction long ago. In other words, the arguments here are metaphysical and probably unnecessary at least from the society's point of view. Free will doesn't have anything to do with culpability in the eyes of the law. It's moot.

Tom Clark said...

GTchristie:

"That is exactly what civil law does and is designed to do: act for the sake of a workable society. It is expressly not designed for retribution (i.e., revenge)."

Many law scholars disagree, see www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm Some are out and out retributivists, and retribution is the primary justification for punishment these days in the U.S. criminal justice system.

"Free will doesn't have anything to do with culpability in the eyes of the law. It's moot."

Officially, perhaps so, but as Greene and Cohen point out in their paper "For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything" (available online), dualist folk intuitions about free will are implicit in the retributivist justifications for punishment that now dominate criminal justice in the U.S. and some other countries.

March Hare said...

GTChristie, you could not be more wrong.

Someone who kills but due to some mental defect is deemed insane goes to a mental hospital (note: HOSPITAL) with the intention of making them better. Once they are, they are free. This could be one day after conviction, it rarely is, but the principle holds.

All law assumes some form of libertarian free will. At the very least it assumes it could have been otherwise and we are punished for our choices both to deter others AND to punish us.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't see why law assumes the existence of libertarian free will. Indeed, I don't see how the law could even operate if at least some models of libertarian free will were true. The law assumes that our decisions are not random or indeterminate in some way, but reflect such things as our characters, beliefs, and values (such as the value we place on not being fined or locked up) ... which means it is assuming something more like compatibilist free will.

It does aim to deter anti-social action. The method used to deter is to attach unpleasant consequences (punishments) to crimes. Within the system, different punishments are matched to different crimes. If I commit crime X, the system assigns punishment Y. You are said to "merit" or "deserve" the punishment assigned to the crime that you have committed. It's the punishment assigned by the system (presumably for some non-arbitrary reason such as the more urgent need to deter more harmful crimes). It's not some other punishment that's assigned by the system. It's the punishment that's due to you under the Criminal Code.

Thus, punishments are not just arbitrary. But they can't be demonstrated to be "deserved" in some more metaphysical sense.