Tuesday, November 5, 2013

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Ten)

Previously, I’ve put forward the argument that while taking responsibility has been shown to be generally good and psychologically healthy, it is not moral responsibility that is actually taken. Despite the intuitive feeling and tendency to strongly identify with one’s “character traits” as one’s “authentic self,” claims of moral responsibility that open one to punishment or reward cannot be founded upon such “feeling.” And yet, not only do some advocates of moral responsibility say we take moral responsibility for the character you happen to have, some say you gain moral responsibility because you literally “make yourself.” It is to that claim, I wish to now turn attention.

The Renaissance philosopher, Pico della Mirandola, in “The Dignity of Man” says that god has granted “man” a supernatural power of unlimited self-making. He writes: “Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have places thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature…. thou mayest fashion theyself in whatever shape thou shall prefer.” Such positing of acausal free will requires the belief in a supernatural soul. Buddhists, allegedly rejecting such an essence, must face the implications of the anatta teaching and reject such a belief.

While rejecting god, Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, also settles onto a miraculous assertion when, insisting that our existence precedes our essence goes on to assert that we are “self-conscious, self-creating ‘being-for-itself’ with the free power – indeed, the necessity – to make ourselves; we are different in kind from entities with their own given natures, the unfree ‘being-in-itself.’” (2011, 115) Sartre argues that humans alone are uniquely self-creating, and that we make ourselves unconstrained by natural causes and natural processes.

To this, the buddhist and naturalist must ask: “who is doing the making?” The positing of “self-making” infers that there is already a self that is doing the making. Infinite regress follows! Or, if it’s a miraculous process (as with della Mirandola) or if it defies natural understanding (as with Sartre) then there is nothing that can be said about it and it by definition cannot fit into a naturalist system of thought or worldview.

And yet, there are avowed naturalists, like Daniel Dennett, who argue that one does indeed create and unleashes an agent who is oneself, and therefore should be held morally accountable. Not denying that  there is indeed a sense in which we do indeed make ourselves, it is also undeniable that we start with different resources and abilities which we neither chose nor created for ourselves!  If you have a loving and supportive early family life, an excellent education, good genetic dispositions and financial security, you are likely to create a superior character; someone starting with the opposite extreme is likely to fashion a ‘self’ with serious deficiencies and flaws. It remains unclear that you deserve reward and the other deserves blame.

Others say while we may not be “self-made,” we “choose ourselves” through the various choices we make. But even here, to speak of choices free of influences and conditions makes no sense in a naturalistic worldview. Yes, we all make choices, but we come to make those choices with differing capacities of rationality, self-efficacy, different temperaments and experience. It remains unclear how one becomes morally responsible for choices that have been conditioned by conditions out of one’s control.

Once again, Bruce Waller puts it succinctly and clearly: “… when I make my own choice – a choice that shapes my further character development – that choice is not made in a vacuum, nor is it the product of some miraculous power that transcends my causal and social and genetic history (at least naturalists cannot claim such transcendent choices). For the issue of moral responsibility, the key self-making question is whether it is fair to punish or reward for the results of choices that are themselves the product of vastly different conditions that ultimately were not the product of choice.” Some may argue that it is fair, but they must them offer convincing reasons to accept this, which I’ve not heard, yet. In fact, I believe that the weight of evidence shows that it is not fair.

The Dhammapada is replete with verses that extol “self-cultivation.” Many distinguish between “the foolish” and “the wise.” Verse 85 reminds us:

Few are the people
Who reach the other shore.
Many are the people
Who run about on this shore.

It should be clear to any practitioner that we do shape ourselves “as a fletcher shapes arrows; as carpenters fashion wood; as irrigators guide water.” In important ways my practice has shaped my life and has led to me being who I am today. But it should be equally clear to every practitioner that the “shaping” never transcends the causal history that set us on the trajectory we have followed. Zen Naturalism is not fatalism: our decisions, evaluations, and actions play a hugely important role in shaping who we become. We, and our practice, are part of the shaping process, not simply pawns or automatons. But this “self-shaping process” (including our own values and choices) among individuals proceeds upon differences in capacities, opportunities, circumstances and situations that were not created by the individuals. Thus, if one practitioner shapes the character of an arahant, and another remains tethered to "foolishness"; if one yogi shows fortitude and commitment to her practice and another falls into “laziness,” these differences are based upon differences in resources and capacities that were not created or chosen by the individuals. How then, does the one morally deserve praise and the other blame?

I end the current post by arguing that the system that asserts moral responsibility is unfair in another, perhaps more pernicious way. It is a system that blocks and forestalls any deeper inquiry into the causes that shape our values, our choices and our behavior. As soon as we say someone is morally responsible, we stop investigating the factors that underlie their behavior: from the “personal” factors such as cognitive capacities, differences in self-efficacy, and locus-of-control to “external” factors including specific circumstances, as well as cultural, social, economic, and political influences. The status-quo goes unquestioned. 

Waller, Bruce, 2011: Against Moral Responsibility. Cambride, MA: MIT Press