Friday, September 29, 2006

The Buck Stops -- Where?: Living Without Ultimate Moral Responsibility - Galen Strawson, interviewed by Tamler Sommers, on getting free of free will

 Imagine for a moment that instead of Timothy McVeigh destroying the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, it had been a mouse.   Suppose this mouse got into the wiring of the electrical system, tangled the circuits, and caused a big fire killing all those inside.   Now think of the victims’ families.   There would of course still be tremendous grief and suffering, but there would be one significant difference.  There would no extra bit of resentment, no consuming anger, no hatred, no need to see the perpetrator punished (even if the mouse somehow got out of the building) in order to experience “closure.”   Why the difference?  Because McVeigh, we think, committed this terrible act out of his own free will.   He chose to do it, and he could have chosen not to.   McVeigh, then, is morally responsible for the death of the victims in a way that the mouse is not.  And our sense of justice demands that he pay for this crime. 

             There is an undeniable human tendency to see ourselves as free and morally responsible beings.  But there’s a problem.   We also believe—most of us anyhow—that  our environment and our heredity entirely shape our characters (what else could?).   But we aren’t responsible for our environment, and we aren’t responsible for our heredity.   So we aren’t responsible for our characters.   But then how can we be responsible for acts that arise from our characters?   
   There’s a simple but extremely unpopular answer to this question: we aren’t.    We are not and cannot be ultimately responsible for our behavior.   On this view, while it may be of great pragmatic value to hold people responsible for their actions, and to employ systems of reward and punishment, no one is really deserving of blame or praise for anything.  This answer has been around for over two thousand years, and it is backed by solid arguments with premises that are consistent with how most of us view the world.  Yet few today give this position the serious consideration it deserves.   The view that free will is a fiction is called counterintuitive, absurd, pessimistic, pernicious, and most commonly “unacceptable,” even by those who recognize the force of the arguments behind it.   Philosophers who reject God, an immaterial soul, even absolute morality, cannot bring themselves to do the same for the concept of free will—not just in their day to day lives, but in books and articles and extraordinarily complex theories.  more...


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