Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nagel, Freedom, and Moral Responbisbility

**This is from guest blogger, Dan S.**

I should start off by saying that I really shouldn’t have picked Nagel as one of my blog posts, because in the past I’ve often agreed with quite a few things that he’s said in ethics, and it turns out, that this paper is another instance of that agreement. So, instead of just simply agreeing with the things that he says and providing just an exposition of his argument, I’m going to play the devil’s advocate!

I, personally, believe that it is a necessary condition for a person to be “free” in order for them to be morally responsible. In that regards I agree with the Control Principle, which states, “We are morally assessable only to the extent that what we are assessed for depends on factors under our control”. Thus, if this holds true, a person is not morally responsible for an act that is outside of their control. In playing devil’s advocate, however, why should we believe that it is a necessary condition for a person to be free in order for them to be morally responsible? Let’s say that we imagine a man that goes and kills someone, and seems to do it out of his own free will. We convict the man to life in prison, finding that he murdered the person without any outside factors influencing his actions. A few weeks later, we find out that determinism is, in fact, actually true, and that free will does not exist. What do we do? Do we actually go and let the person out of prison because we found out that he didn’t murder the person freely? It doesn’t seem like we do. The person still killed someone, even though they were morally unlucky that they pulled the wrong deterministic straw. I imagine that we would still hold the person morally accountable for his/her actions even though they might not have committed the act freely. Here’s a different thought experiment. Let’s assume that there is a guy holding a gun to your head, and he tells you that if you do not shoot the person in front of you, he will kill both you and the other person. If you shoot the guy, he will let you live and he will turn himself in, absolutely admitting that he indirectly murdered the person who you shot and taking all blame for any immoral actions he forced you to do. So, let’s say just for the sake of the argument, you shoot the guy. Even though you were not free in your action, you’re still going to feel completely like crap because you were the one that pulled the trigger, or at least, I know I would feel terrible. Perhaps one of the reasons that you feel so absolutely terrible about what you did is because you in some way hold yourself morally responsible for the death of the person whom you were forced to shoot. Even though you think that you shouldn’t hold yourself morally responsible for the man’s death, you can’t help but partially blame yourself.

Perhaps the distinction, at least in the second thought experiment, might be seen between subjective and objective moral responsibility? You hold yourself morally responsible on a subjective level, but on an objective level you know that you weren’t morally responsible? I guess I’d like to hear what you guys think, as to whether or not you think that we could not be free, but still be morally accountable for our actions.


Dylan Lambert said...

There are certain actions that I feel there is no possible way to argue for determinism. I see how things could be coerced as is demonstrated in some of the Frankfurt Cases, but I would still argue that one should be held accountable for one's actions in all of those cases. I think Nagel is demonstrating a sort of the Nature vs Nurture argument which is a valid concern, however I do not feel like it would apply to free will. One might think that what he did is right because of how he was raised but that does not mean he is right. If there was in any case that we were not free then I do not feel that any of us are ever morally accountable, but we are morally accountable because we are free.

T. Stoehr said...

Dan, I think this is a really interesting point to address. It seems as though we may feel that our actions should be independently judged, regardless of external influence, in certain circumstances, like the second thought experiment you offered. We seem inclined to say that the act of killing another human being seems to be objectively wrong, which would account for your feeling guilty after shooting someone, even under direct influence. However, there are certainly cases in which killing is more justified and probably less guilt-inducing. In these cases, how do we hold people accountable? Thats where it becomes a sticky situation.

David C. said...

I personally do not believe determinism is true, but I think it is not necessary to get into that whole determinism-freewill debate in understanding your thought experiment as a response to Nagel’s essay.

I think in order to respond to Nagel, the question being raised need not be: “If we can never be free (if determinism is true), can we still be morally responsible/assessable?” This question would no doubt drag us back into the determinism-freewill debate. Instead, to pose the same kind of response to Nagel, we can ask a different question: “If it so happens in some cases that we are not free, are we morally responsible/assessable”. To answer the second question, there’s no need of troubling ourselves with the determinism-freewill debate, and I think your thought experiment about the being forced to shoot another person is precisely a case of the second question.

This is how I see your thought experiment: you seems to have formulated it to be precisely the case that the agent pulling the trigger have absolutely no control over the situation, and therefore, can be said to be not free. According to Nagel, since the agent is not free, his is not morally responsible. So far so good, but now comes the core of your experiment. You claim that even though those who agree with Nagel would say the agent is not responsible, the agent himself will nonetheless feel absolutely terrible for pulling the trigger. The agent cannot help but partially blame himself although others won't held him guilty. The reason for this “absolutely terrible feeling” and “guiltiness”, as you claim, must be that the agent is holding himself to be morally responsible. If this were true, then Nagel’s claim that one can only be morally responsible when they are free would seem to run into trouble.

I think what Nagel would respond to this problem is similar to what you said about subjective and objective moral responsibilities. The agent is feeling guilty and terrible because he subjectively hold himself as morally responsible. But given the way your thought experiment is formulated, the agent is not morally responsible in the objective sense. But how can this be? Won’t these two (subjectively responsible and objectively not responsible) somehow be inconsistent with each other? Well, there won’t be any problem of inconsistency. And here’s why: ......

(Exceeds word limit... Continued in next comment)

David C. said...

(Continue from the previous comment...)

Here's why:

First of all, according the way the thought experiment is set up, the agent pulling the trigger have absolutely no control over the situation, and is therefore, not free. Thus, according to Nagel’s view (which I agree), the agent is not morally responsible (this should be objectively true).

Secondly, the agent himself is, nonetheless, feeling guilty and morally responsible. But this is perfectly consistent with Nagel’s view of freedom and moral responsibility. Indeed, it might even confirm it. The reason is that the agent’s sense of guiltiness and responsibility is based on a naïve false believe. The biggest reason why the agent would feel guilty and responsible is because he cannot help but have the false believe that he could have somehow done otherwise. We as persons, all experience this kind of false believes sometimes, when something bad had happens, we tends to form this naïve thought that “only if I have done otherwise, thing would be different”, “only if I have tried a little more, we would not have landed in this mess”. Humans always tend to have this naïve belief that they are always (in some degree) free! They just won’t be easily persuaded that sometimes they just have no control over things, especially when things don’t go as they expected. Sometimes, such naive believes are true, that we could have done better, and therefore, are responsible for the bad results. But in the case of this thought experiment, such a belief is naively false. This is clearly consistent with Nagel’s view, since what people usually do to make themselves feel easier is by persuading themselves out of such naïve beliefs. Once they are persuaded that they really had no control, they will not feel responsible any more (but truth is, people are almost impossible to be 100% persuaded…).

J P H Stephens said...

In society, we commonly take moral responsibility into account. We have an intuition that intent matters--someone who accidentally kills is treated less severely than someone who premeditates murder. Often this fact is taken in order to argue that determinism cannot be true, that we MUST have freedom, otherwise we wouldn't judge our peers based upon intent.

I think that this line of thinking lacks grounding. Perhaps we just judge wrongly. If this is the case, then your question, whether it is possible to not be free yet still be morally accountable, is the more important question.

Our society's judgements surrounding moral accountability seem to be rooted in the idea that one DOES choose freely...that a murderer WILL be held morally accountable, because they chose to do what they did.

I'd like to propose an alternative view. Perhaps it isn't actually morality that we're concerned with. When someone commits murder, we hold them accountable because it is necessary to do so. While morality plays to our emotions, perhaps helping us to be satisfied in our decision to incarcerate someone, it is simply an absolute need for accountability (not on a moral scale, but just on a necessary scale) that causes us to place someone in jail. In this case, even if it is determined that someone is to murder because they drew the short straw in the deterministic world, it is necessary, for society's safety, to put them away. It is for this reason that we ultimately hold them accountable...morality only comes into play because our emotions are also in play and it is a very big decision to send someone to prison for life.