Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Strawson's Basic Argument

Galen Strawson has a post on moral responsibility at The Stone. One of the arguments he gives is:

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

This isn't an idle exercise; it really is Strawson's view that there is no such thing as moral responsibility, unless we use the phrase in an exceptionally weak sense. The argument above is part of a larger argument ("the Basic Argument") to this end.

Determinists, I find, tend to suffer from lack of imagination, which is perhaps why their arguments are so often elaborate exercises in handwaving that a baby could see through. One of the problems Strawson regularly has (he is not alone in suffering the malady) is an inability to see that 'responsibility' obviously means many different things, not just one or two, and we see this failing as clear as day in (b) in the above argument. Pretty standard usages of the term 'responsibility' and common, albeit not the most common, usages of 'moral responsibility' allow the notion of having responsibility for biological inheritance and early experience or, indeed, any number of things one did not decide or control, any number of things that are thought to come about by chance or by necessities independent of oneself. This same problem arises in another "richer" (to use Strawson's word) and much more problematic (to use my word) argument, in which we suddenly face the completely unexplained phrase "ultimately responsible" as if there weren't many other kinds of responsibility that might do just as well, however Strawson means it. Although actually, Strawson's "richer" argument is,, if we trim away dubious vagueness like this, just a version of an argument that has had a long history among those who accept that there is free will, because it's actually just an argument that deliberation (as it would have been called) cannot infinitely regress, which we find in Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, and ten jillion other people; it is one reason why so very few people who claim that we are morally responsible and have free will have ever claimed that we cannot be "ultimately responsible" for our actions unless we choose every last little thing about them, and has been a standard part of at least certain kinds of accounts of free will and moral responsibility for literally centuries now. Try as he might, Strawson just can't convince me that what most people mean when they claim we are responsible for our actions is that we create ourselves ex nihilo. There's pretty much infinite room for a weaker account that is nonetheless still strong enough to work.

But I am being a bit unfair to Strawson, because his arguments really are pretty cogent when leveled against a wide variety of common positions on the subject today; it's an area of philosophy where memories tend to be short, and the development of ideas correspondingly weak.

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