Saturday, December 22, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Six)

In my last post, I addressed the libertarian thinker C. A. Campbell and the problems with the libertarian stance neuro-science presents as summarized by Daniel Wegner. Here, it’s time to address the “compatibilists” who attempt to argue that free will and moral responsibility are perfectly compatible with naturalism. Yet, when we look closer, we’ll find that they always end up slipping in some small, but crucial and telling element of non-natural free choice.

First, let’s look at an account of free will presented by Daniel Dennett. He suggests that: “the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry” contribute to our sense of ourselves as responsible free agents “roughly in the following way: I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation I say to myself, ‘That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act,’ in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.” (1978, 297)

Dennett seems to think that the crucial element needed for legitimately accepting responsibility is simply “I could have considered further.” It’s a slim margin for free will, and when we examine more closely, this margin quickly dissolves. What we find is that people do act freely when they choose to stop or continue deliberating, but while these are occasions of “free choice,” individuals are not acting from a position of having open and unconditioned power to choose either way! Such a power is not required for free action, but it is a necessity for assigning moral responsibility. For instance, when I am engaged in the process of writing, the question of when “enough is enough; it’s finished” is one I often grapple with, and after some time of deliberation, I choose either to “finesse it a bit more” or consider it “done.” That choice is most certainly mine, but it is also most certainly made under the influence of powerful factors and conditions of which many researchers have made extensive study. And these various conditions I did not choose.

For instance, some people truly enjoy careful, systematic deliberation and find it quite satisfying to engage in it; such folk are referred to as chronic cognizers by psychologists who study this sort of thing. Conversely, those folk who do not enjoy careful, lengthy deliberation, perhaps even finding such cognizing oppressively boring are called cognitive misers. The differences between these two types of deliberators are shaped by various factors including genetics and myriad environmental forces throughout their histories. One example is the influence of parenting: some are raised by parents who emphasize “looking before leaping” while others might unwittingly punish a child deliberating between two options by impatiently making the choice for her or denying both options! The lesson such a child would learn is that it is costly to “overly think” a decision.

I don’t think it merely coincidence that a philosopher would hinge such a weighty assertion as free will and moral responsibility on imagining that we can always deliberate more, or on the decision to explore or ignore particular lines of inquiry, for surely philosophers as a group are nothing if not chronic cognizers! From the naturalist perspective, such deliberative skills and inclinations among philosophers do not offer some transcendent path beyond nature so that it really isn’t even true of such chronic cognizers that “we could always deliberate more.” Sooner or later, we will come up against the limits imposed by our finite and conditioned “powers” of cognition.

A related argument for positing grounds for moral responsibility is the capacity and practice of self-evaluation – which certainly has ramifications for some forms of yogic practice (for instance, some meditations and the practice of svadhaya or “self study”). The argument states simply that as self evaluation is something we do, when we do it, we can be understood as being responsible for ourselves and because it is up to us to do it, even when we don’t do it, we can be seen as being responsible whether we undertake this process of evaluation or not.

By now you can most likely see the problem with this argument, given a naturalist understanding. The idea that is it always open to us to undertake the self-evaluation of our values and motives, regardless of whether we do so or not, ignores the different conditioned capacities we have to bring to the introspective process! Again, the fact that professional philosophers find it easy and satisfying to undertake such cognitively challenging practices doesn’t mean such endeavor is open to everyone.

Finally, naturalists seek a natural explanation for why one person may deliberate further and another one doesn’t; why one person takes to mindfulness meditation and another finds it overly difficult. The choice to deliberate further or not, or to perform deep introspective self-evaluation or not is mine to make. It can even be argued that I made the choice freely (no one forced me to or prevented me from doing so). But it is important to be clear about this: if the examination is made as to how that choice was shaped by early conditions that were outside my control, it becomes evident that such “choice” is not a feasible support for the gravitas of moral responsibility. If I shirk the process of mindful self-investigation because of such formative conditioning, I deserve no blame. And the fact that my mindfulness practice has created the conditions for me to deepen my self-investigation and to even find some satisfaction in it does not justify any praise either.


Dennett, Daniel. 1978. Brainstorms. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books

Once again, I acknowledge Bruce N. Waller's Against Moral Responsibility (2011; The MIT Press) as the basis of this on-going series. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Five)

For a religionist who believes in the supernatural, miracles, and the soul, the idea that humans can miraculously create themselves independently of all causality is no big deal. Hell, if you believe in an “almighty god” that miraculously created the cosmos, accepting that humans have the god-like ability to create themselves comes easy. This position is known philosophically as “libertarianism.” Such libertarians maintain that the special human freedom essential for moral responsibility must be independent of natural explanation and all natural causes. Contemporary libertarian free will has, over the last century or so, under the influence of the increasing success of scientific, natural explanations, become a bit more modest.

An example of this more restrained libertarianism is C. A. Campbell, who acknowledges the influences of heredity and environment that prevent any “man” from having a “voice in determining the raw material of impulses and capacities” and thus casting doubt on “whether there is any act of will at all of which one can truly say that the self is sole author, sole determinant.” His solution to this situation it to reduce the scope of the free will function. Rather than “making ourselves from scratch,” he argues that we make small, decisive choices that are the basis of moral responsibility. His free will has been referred to as a “free will of the gaps,” as it is only when we experience conflict between desire and duty that we have this “special power” to exert or withhold the moral effort required to restrain our desire and accomplish our duty. Campbell accepts that science can explain how desires are shaped, and the causes of much of our character and behavior, but asserts that science has no causal accounting of the inner act of exerting will power, which leaves a “gap” for the exercise of “acausal free will.”

As with the problem of the “god of the gaps,” when free will is placed in the gap of our scientific knowledge, it becomes vulnerable to the closing of those gaps. In this case, Campbell’s “gap” closed awfully quickly when neuroscience showed that one’s capacity to exert will power depends upon subtle but identifiable psychological factors, including one’s locus of control, one’s sense of self efficacy, and one’s degree of learned helplessness.

Clearly, we have an introspective sense of a conscious free will power that causes our acts and choices, but there is strong evidence that this sense of self-directed unconstrained will is not at all reliable. Here is not the place to go into great detail regarding this evidence, but a solid summary of the evidence can be found in The Illusion of Conscious Will (2002) by Daniel Wegner.

Briefly, there are cases where we have a strong sense of consciously willing an action when in fact we have performed no action at all; there are also cases in which one performs an action but experiences no sense of willing (obvious cases involve the Ouija board and so-called “facilitated communication”); as well as cases where one has a strong sense of having freely chosen and willed an act when in fact the choice was actually under the control or strong influence of external factors. An interesting example of this is when electrical stimulation of an area of the brain caused patients to turn their head from side to side. When asked, “What are you doing?” the patients always gave a reasonable answer such as “I’m looking for my slippers” or “I heard a noise.” Other experiments show this tendency we have to create reasons for our behavior after the fact.

One of my favorite social experiments shows how even trivial, unrecognized factors can influence and lead to dramatic and powerful effects on our behavior. In 1972, (when public phone booths were common) one group of experimental subjects found a dime in a phone booth and other subjects did not. As each subject left the phone booth, one of the experimenters (the subjects were unaware this was an experiment and that this person was part of the experiment) walked by and dropped an armful of papers he was carrying. The subjects who had found a dime nearly invariably stopped to help the experimenter pick up the papers while most of the subjects who did not find a dime simply walked on by! Subjects never gave finding a dime as a reason for why they helped, but the evidence strongly suggests it had a profound effect. Similar experiments have gone on to show that subtle situational factors have a much greater effect on our choices and behaviors than does any “underlying character,” all of which is in line with the anti-essentialist understanding of buddhism which posits causes and conditions over any substantialist understanding of “self-nature.”

On the basis of these experimental results, Wegner proposes an epiphenomenal account of the conscious experience of willing: the unconscious impulse to act occurs first and the conscious awareness of willing arises as a by-product of that unconscious decision, informing us that the willed action is our own. In this way, the experience of willing serves as useful feedback letting us know that an action came from “within” and thus was our own, and not the result of any external causal force (the movement of my fingers on the keyboard come from my own brain operations and nor from someone manipulating my fingers).

I hope you can see from this that Wegner is saying that while my fingers moving over the keys of my laptop is my free act, he denies that my “experience of conscious willing” is evidence of some special power of free will that is the source of my behavior. The vast range of experimental evidence covered by Wegner makes an impressive case against the truth status of our sense of conscious free willing. The ontological existence of some independent free will would need a much stronger basis than our incredibly unreliable sense of acting from freely efficacious willing.

Our experience of freedom signals to us that the action we have taken is our own action that comes from our own choices rather than being the product of some external force. If your arm is lifted by someone else, it is a very different experience than the experience of freely choosing to move your arm. The movement was initiated nonconsciously, but it is still your own movement rather than some external force. This is a naturally evolved useful tool for distinguishing our own motions from those initiated externally. This epiphenomenal understanding will have relevance for the later distinguishing of “action responsibility” from “moral responsibility” in that while we have the former, there is no real evidence of the latter.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hold Your Nose and Vote For Obama!

Along with being a “naturalist,” I tend towards a pragmatic attitude rather than one of blind optimism or idealism. During the last presidential election cycle, I never bought the “audacity of hope” that so many young people, lefties and yogis I knew seemed to have fallen for. I saw how it would set up exactly what we see now: a hell of a lot of cynicism and a deep sense of betrayal. There are many young folk whose first presidential election vote went to Obama and who have said they are not bothering to vote this time around.

Being pragmatically oriented, I voted for Hillary Clinton in the Arizona primary. I think – and still think – she’d have done a hell of a better job than Obama. I feel pretty sure she has more grit and fire than Obama, and would have given Congress the hell it deserved and not been as pandering in “negotiations” rather than bending over backwards and forwards as Obama did repeatedly. Plus, we’d have had Bill as “First Bubba” and he’s still one of (if not the most) popular politicians in the world.

But, we got Obama. And now, we should do all we can to keep him, because I’m pretty damn certain Romney and Ryan are a bit sociopathic. Yeah, it sucks to not be in the position to vote for someone I’d actually like to see President, one with whom I agree politically, (fat chance in america) but for all his many weaknesses, Obama is the lesser of two evils by far! And that’s the bottom line.

I mean, look at the respective platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties and tell me with a straight face there’s truly no difference!  To take that position you’d have to be as much a bald-faced liar as Romney or as ignorant as John Koster, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, Michelle Bachman, Joe Walsh…. Do I have to go on?!

So don’t give in to whatever cynicism you may be feeling; pinch your nose if you have to, and vote for Barack Obama. Voting for Jill Stein, if you live in a ‘swing state,’ may make you feel good about yourself, but it’s a wasted vote and it’s most likely the immigrant farmer or nanny, the gay couple that would like to marry, the pregnant young girl, and the lower middle-class worker who cannot afford health insurance who will suffer if a Republican administration, in ass-licking subservience to the radical “Christian right" is elected.

And then, don’t just stop your political activity at the ballot box; do all you can do to hold Obama and your Congressional representatives feet to the fire. And work for a really viable third party if that’s what you think the US needs. Just don’t let Romney be foisted upon us!

Friday, July 13, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Four)

There have been a number of arguments made hoping to develop a naturalistic account of open alternatives that would support moral responsibility. However, many of the problems such arguments run into can be avoided with an account that does not require choices among open alternatives, but rather on choices that are one’s “own” choices. This kind of argument rests upon the issue of authenticity. The question is not whether one could have chosen differently but whether one’s choice genuinely reflects one’s true commitments. Harry Frankfurt is one of the more influential advocates of the authenticity approach.

While this “hierarchical authenticity” approach, as it is called, offers some important insights, it too fails as a justification for moral responsibility. Frankfurt’s example of the “willing addict” reveals the difficulty. The “willing addict” is someone who, according to Frankfurt’s argument, has no alternative to taking drugs, but is nonetheless free and morally responsible because she reflectively approves and endorses her desire and addiction.

The psychological state of the unwilling addict is easy enough to understand: all of us have experienced strong, and maybe even addictive desires that we actively disapprove of for such things as chocolate, coffee, sweets, video games, pornography, soap operas, or Facebook. We may toy with our particular “poison,” thinking we can remain in control, and then some of us find ourselves trapped in an addiction we regret and perhaps even despise… but what can we do? Such an unwilling addict is obviously not free, and though the path to such unwilling addiction is clear to see and understand, the path to willing addiction is not so clear.

What is the psychological experience of the willing addict? At some point, his only desire is for his addictive substance, he clings to it and finds no pleasure in anything other than his addiction. He has become “willing” but having lost the desire to escape his addiction, can we honestly say that he has now gained freedom and moral responsibility as Frankfurt’s argument would suppose? The only reason a philosopher such as Frankfurt could lead himself to such an argument is his ideological commitment to save moral responsibility! The shadow implication of holding to this argument are the “happy slaves,” “contented peasants” and women who were “happy with their lot until outside, intellectual, feminists started to stir them up.” When a theory implies that an oppressed class of people can end up “satisfied with their lot” and thus be considered “free” because “willing,” there is something wrong with that theory!

The western philosophical tradition has consistently drawn a clear distinction between having and not having free will. Various philosophers may offer drastically different accounts of free will, but they agree in setting a clear and firm boundary between who does and does not have free will, and under what conditions does free will operate or not operate. Such a boundary itself is based upon the two demands that 1. free will and moral responsibility must go together and, 2. that there must be a clear standard for who is and who is not morally responsible. The naturalistic free will model – one which is consistent with the buddhist teaching of anatta and contingency – argues that there is no such clear line between the haves and the have-nots and no clear standard actually exists.

The buddhist understanding is that the only ‘free will’ that can be spoken about is “relative” or “conditioned” free will and that while all such “willing” is conditioned, there is a matter of degree that allows this relative freedom to be enhanced or weakened by circumstances, training (practice), skillfulness, and cognitive ability and functionality.

Was the unreflective soldier who looked on or actively participated in the humiliation of prisoners in Abu Graib morally responsible? Was the child soldier in Somalia who killed those he was instructed to kill morally responsible. Is Jared Lee Loughner morally responsible for his shooting spree that killed and wounded 18 people at a shopping center? These kinds of questions demand clear black-and-white answers because the answers will determine whether the people in question will or will not be subject to blame and punishment. And yet, the difficulties with drawing such a clear, unambiguous line are indicated by the continuing problems the judicial system confronts in establishing a clear standard for "not guilty by reason of insanity." What continues to be avoided in this discussion is that such difficulty is itself an indication that there is not a clear line between being and not being morally responsible because there is no clear line dividing having and not having free will!

With the acknowledgement of not-self and the absence of unconditioned free will, there is no moral responsibility. Without moral responsibility, we can acknowledge that there is no fixed marker between having and not having free will, and thus free from creating a dubious boundary, we can more clearly look into the multiple factors that strengthen or weaken (relative) free will.

Such factors as greater knowledge, greater self-awareness, a stronger sense of locus-of-control, a stronger sense of self-efficacy, a supportive environment, a developed facility for self-control and higher-order reflectiveness all contribute to a stronger and healthier conditioned free will. Someone with these attributes will have a level of such ‘free will’ superior to someone who lacks such attributes and conditions. It is important and helpful to recognize this distinction and through careful investigation of the factors that nurture such a character, work to create these supportive conditions for all people.

What is presented here is a plausible and workable account of free will that does not support moral responsibility (and the concomitant punishment and blame) and recognizes the completely conditioned nature of will. That the conditioning exists on a continuum from the phenomenological experience of complete compulsive behavior to the experience of choosing among alternative modes of response means there is no absolute of acausal free will, but that willing itself can be influenced by our current actions feeding into the matrix of conditions. If we are fortunate enough to have been exposed to practices such as mindfulness meditation, and have the conditions supportive of such practice, we will have greater ‘freedom,’ but we cannot take any praise for having done so!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Three)

I think it safe to say that without a doubt, the unease and resistance people feel when confronted with the argument against “moral responsibility,” comes from the difficulty they have with what becomes of “free will.” After all, “free will” and “moral responsibility” are generally seen as inseparable. And, when both are based upon the assumption of some supernatural, transcendent soul or essence, known as atman in the Indian philosophical context, acting completely independently of causality, then yes, such a free will and moral responsibility are indeed inseparable. This inseparability is well-voiced by Janet Radcliffe Richards: “Free will is thought of as the capacity to be genuinely responsible for actions and genuinely deserving of praise or blame for the choices that are made.” (2000, 136)

This inseparable connection between free will and moral responsibility forms the generally unquestioned assumption behind all arguments for moral responsibility. Libertarians assert that their viewpoint supports both free will and moral responsibility; compatibilists believe that their view can accommodate both free will and moral responsibility, and hard determinists argue that determinism makes both free will and moral responsibility impossible. The common thread here is that free will and moral responsibility either stand or fall together!

But again, this understanding of the inseparability of free will and moral responsibility arises only because the account usually given of free will was originally developed to support moral responsibility: that is, to support the claim that it is fair and just to punish and reward because individuals could always choose to do otherwise independent of all causality!

A solid, naturalistic conceptualization of free will – one that the buddhist tradition holds – is possible, and it can be held without having to hold the view of moral responsibility.

Let us begin by asking “What is free will?” The most “person on the street” definition would seem to be that it is the ability to make a free choice among alternatives. If we then ask, “So, why do you want to be able to make your own choices among alternatives?” the responses tend to be weak and circular: “I want to make my own choices because I don’t want to be forced to choose anything in particular.” The weakness and circularity of the reasoning is an indication that the desire for freedom is so deeply embedded in our nature, that it is hard to give any further justification.

Evolutionary biologists have discovered that our very survival depends upon us keeping our options open! Even mice have a degree of variability built into their behavior, so that once they’ve learned a path to food in a laboratory setting, they still will occasionally choose an “incorrect” path. This variability is adaptive to conditions in the wild. Food isn’t always to be found in the same direction; there are many relationships in the natural setting that are not so strictly prescribed. The same holds true for humans; those with very rigid behaviors are at a disadvantage in a world that is always changing. The inclination toward exploring options is part of what psychologists call “sensation-seeking.”

The natural need for open alternatives is an important element of freedom. It involves “spontaneous behavior.” This isn’t the acausal, miraculous ability to act free of any antecedent causes and conditions, but simply the natural desire to occasionally take a different approach to a given situation, to try something new, and to deviate from the pattern. It is a “conditioned” evolved tendency toward spontaneous action: those animals that tried new paths found more food and more escape routes and thus were more likely to survive, procreate, and pass along their tendencies to deviate.

This “relative” free will depends upon conditions! We need freedom to respond differently when environmental conditions change, and our natural inclination to preserve options was itself shaped and determined in such a way as to make our behavior more adaptive to the changing environmental conditions.

The buddha did not isolate “will” from among all other mental formations as being absolutely free and unconditioned. I did not choose the conditions that made me open to try buddhist mediation practice. That I did was conditioned by my inclination to try alternatives. Some alternatives (like homeopathy) I found lacking and useless and so dropped them; meditation proved valuable and I kept up the practice. The practice itself became a cause and condition that determine my behavior. I do not “deserve” any praise for my having taken up the practice, nor in continuing the practice and changing my unwholesome behaviors toward more wholesome ones, though I did choose to do so freely!

Richards, Janet Radcliffe. 2000. Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part Two)

Most people, including contemporary buddhists, are likely not to have thought through what the belief in moral responsibility implies. Pico della Mirandola, writing over 500 years ago explained the uniquely human capacity for moral responsibility as “miraculous.” God, he said, gave special characteristics to every realm of his creation, and then created humans in order to have some beings with the capacity to love its beauty and admire his handy-work. With all the “special gifts” already parceled out there was nothing left for humans. Thus, god decreed that humans would have the special power to make of themselves whatever they chose to be, “constrained by no limits”…set at the center of the world. “We have made thee neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shall prefer.”

This is the central assertion of those who believe in moral responsibility: we make ourselves through our own uncaused and unconditioned choices; past history, genetics, social and cultural influences and circumstances play no part! It really is a “miracle.” Of course, buddhism rejects both the idea of a ‘creator’ and of a ‘self’ that is, or even can be, ‘self-made,’ and asserts that all phenomena – including the empirical or existential ‘self’ – are caused and conditioned. Nothing exists independently and ‘from its own side.’

That such “free will” and moral responsibility requires a miracle is not at all problematic for religious believers, but those of us who reject such miraculous supernaturalism, and who are aligned with a naturalist world view that has no place for gods, ghosts, miracles and other supernatural entities must see how problematic and even nonsensical (from within the naturalist perspective) any assertion of moral responsibility and free will is.

Interestingly enough, the moral responsibility myth is so firmly entrenched, and the emotional resonance of so-called ‘retributive justice’ is so strong, that people who think of themselves as naturalistic, or as buddhist find the idea of rejecting moral responsibility --- unthinkable! Those buddhists and naturalists (and naturalist buddhists or buddhist naturalists) who see that miraculous reasoning is required for moral responsibility to ‘make sense,’ and who, being naturalists reject miracles, reject moral responsibility. But there are other naturalists who refuse to reject moral responsibility, and agreeing that miraculous powers do not exist, assert that it must be mistaken to say such powers are necessary for moral responsibility to be true. Such people are called "compatibilists." So, the question that needs to be addressed is: “Is moral responsibility compatible with a naturalism that rejects miraculous powers?”

There are many arguments proffered as to why moral responsibility can and does fit within a naturalist/determinist worldview, and there are powerful grounds for supposing that moral responsibility is fundamentally incompatible with naturalism and buddhism. “Compatiblists” tend to denigrate those who deny that moral responsibility and naturalism are compatible, and they offer many varied arguments. The naturalist argument, however, is fundamentally one: it is unfair to punish or reward others because of their various actions because their actions are ultimately the result of causal factors they did not – and could not, being causal beings – create or control; causal factors that are a matter of a variety of causes and conditions, including ‘luck.’

To be clear, I am not arguing that there are not genuinely virtuous and evil actions, or that we can relatively speak of people who are virtuous and people who are evil. I will add that there are others who have reformed their unwholesome, unskillful and even evil characters and become virtuous. But, in all cases, the capacities for good and bad behavior are ultimately the result of fortunate and unfortunate conditions, and thus there are no grounds for assigning praise or blame. The buddha, Spinoza, and Schoenberg, among others, all argue that if we could trace all causal action (karma) back in detail, we would see that all our acts would be traceable to earlier sources, causes and conditions that we did not choose, create or control! Under the closest scrutiny we would see, as Thomas Nagel writes: “If one cannot be responsible for consequences of one’s acts due to factors beyond one’s control, or for antecedents of one’s acts that are properties of temperament not subject to one’s will, or for the circumstances that pose one’s moral choices, then how can one be responsible even for the stripped-down acts of will itself, if they are the product of antecedent circumstances outside of the will’s control?” (1979, 34)

This can help make sense of the buddha’s repeated warning not to judge others because we – not being omniscient – can never know all the causes and conditions that lead to anyone’s behavior. All beings are without blame. If all phenomena are causally created, then our actions are the consequences of the laws of nature and of myriad events in the remote past. As it is not up to us what went on before we were born, nor what the laws of nature are, the consequences of these antecedent causes are not up to us. How then could we be morally responsible?

One last example of this argument against moral responsibility comes from Galen Strawson (2010): you do what you do because of the way you are, and so to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you must be ultimately responsible for the way you are. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are. My 18-month old daughter is not responsible for her genetic inheritance, or the early experience she is being exposed to (including the friends we have, the schools we choose for her, the games we buy or play with her etc.) As she ages, the ways she will change herself (through various activities she chooses, including perhaps, meditation) are themselves the result of her genetics and early experiences, none of which she is responsible for! So she cannot ever be ultimately held as morally responsible for what she does.

So, in a nutshell, the basic argument made by those – like me – who affirm a buddhist or naturalist perspective is the claim that our characters and the behavior that stems from our characters are the products of causal forces over which we ultimately had no control. Some of us have the capacity for reform, and others do not. That conditions led me to hear the dharma and to respond with interest, and thus to gradually living a more wholesome, happy, and mindfully awakening life is something I am grateful for, but I cannot take any special claim as the capacity to hear, receive and practice the dharma were all not under my control. I am indeed fortunate, but undeserving of praise. Those who never hear the dharma, or hearing it and not understanding or taking up practice, and thus are not reformed are in that situation because of circumstances they did not create, so they are not open to blame.

In my next posting, I will continue this line of argument by investigating the basic unfairness of assigning praise and blame.

Nagel, Thomas. 1979. Moral Luck. In Moral Questions, 24 – 38. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Saturday, March 31, 2012

All Beings Are Without Blame (Part One)

It is said that the buddha taught that all beings are without blame. Of course, such a radical – perhaps even nonsensical sounding (to our ears) – statement is completely in keeping with his central teachings of dependent–origination and not-self. It’s time for buddhists to come to full understanding of the implications of this teaching and begin to work for the realization of a culture that has gone beyond the illusion of “moral responsibility.” This is the first of a series where I will offer a zen naturalist perspective on the problem of moral responsibility and the necessity to create a more compassionate and wise society.

Arguing against moral responsibility and for the abolition of it is an uphill slog indeed, with many philosophers such as Peter Strawson insisting that “we cannot take seriously” (1962, 74) the rejection of moral responsibility. Indeed, commitment to moral responsibility is rooted in deep, visceral emotional reactivity perhaps evolutionarily evolved, and then seemingly locked in place by an (often) unconscious and very rarely questioned theoretical system – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “systems” as there are several theories designed to make sense of moral responsibility.

What is meant by “moral responsibility?” This question is not without contention, so I want to be clear what I mean for the purpose of this and subsequent postings. What I mean to be “moral responsibility” is that which justifies special reward and punishment. It is the issue of “praise and blame,” two of the “eight worldly concerns” that the buddha warned against getting caught within. Moral responsibility is what offers the moral justification for singling out an individual for praise or blame, reward or punishment.

Of course, a naturalist understanding of not-self and dependent origination denies that there are any ‘self-created’ individuals. While I am uniquely me and you are uniquely you, we are both caused and conditioned by a long history (much of which predates our birth) that we did not choose! So, how can we be morally responsible for what we are and how we act if what we are and how we act are determined by history?

To be sure, rejecting moral responsibility does not entail rejecting all moral evaluations: John may have done something that is morally wrong, and we can agree that his immoral behavior reflects his deeply flawed character, and facing both the wrongful behavior and the flawed character remains necessary, but John does not deserve blame or punishment. It is inherently unfair to blame or punish John for a character flaw he did not choose or self-create! Yes he has a character with major flaws that have led to some immoral behavior, but that does not change the fact that he is not morally responsible. When we critically look at the society we have created, we have to accept that the practice of moral responsibility is unjust, and that it is not an effective way to produce a safer society or better behaved individuals. In fact, the system of moral responsibility impedes progress toward creating a more peaceful and wholesome society.


One leading argument used to bolster moral responsibility is the perception that moral responsibility is about accountability. This means that if we hold someone morally responsible for an act, then she must be able to give an account of why she acted as she did.

The problem should be obvious: people very often give a sincere and honest account of why they did something that is completely mistaken! There have been many social psychology experiments that show that people act under the influence of factors outside their awareness, and that they are often blind to external factors completely. We are now in the midst of a long, drawn-out primary race for the Republican Presidential candidate. Repeatedly, a large majority of voters say they do not like the “negative ads” that are being run on television and radio, and that they have no effect on their choice for who they decide to vote. And yet, poll after poll show that the ads do affect voting patterns.

In one interesting experiment, people who found a dime (a mere 10 cents!) in a phone booth almost all stopped to help a stranger (actually an experimenter) who had “dropped” a set of papers, and those who had not found a dime did not stop to help. Yet, those who did stop after finding the dime were both unaware and in fervent denial that finding a dime could – and did – influence their behavior!

Brain studies show that when an action – such as moving an arm – is caused by stimulating a part of the brain, subjects make up a “reasonable” explanation for why they moved their arm. All this shows that the capacity to give an account for our actions is not the same as being morally responsible for those actions.

Those who believe in a supernatural soul argue that the soul is independent of all external influences and that rationality transcends the histories, the environmental influence and biology that buddhists, and all naturalists see as conditioning reason. If we reject the kind of supernatural reason full-out libertarians posit, then we have to accept that reason is conditioned and limited; we cannot know all the influences on our behavior, so we can never give a full and accurate account of our behavior. And, if accountability is one’s argument for moral responsibility, then it becomes clear that accountability fails to justify moral responsibility.

The Emotional Commitment to Moral Responsibility

Those philosophers who argue for moral responsibility often have a difficult time arguing why. They will admit to weaknesses in any reasoned defense of moral responsibility, and yet remain unshaken in their certainty of its reality which points to some emotional source for their commitment independent of rational argument. Some even argue that the strong emotional “intuition” and commitment to moral responsibility is positive and defensible. After all, such deeply held emotional commitments as the love of our children are valuable. Yet, many strongly held emotional commitments are much less than positive – emotional commitments such as to racism, sexism, xenophobia and religious fundamentalism are irrational and harmful.

The point is, if we can acknowledge the great extent emotion and “intuition” play in the commitment to moral responsibility, then it should be at least a bit less difficult to investigate more clearly and with greater integrity the possibility that we can challenge moral responsibility and perhaps even reject it for something else; something more fair and in alignment with natural reality.

When we investigate the reasons for holding to moral responsibility, what we find is that they are all basically justifications of a visceral, universal, deeply felt emotional reaction: the evolutionarily evolved retributive impulse; the deep desire to strike back when we are harmed. It is related to the aversive reactivity the buddha said is one of the three major causes of duhkha.

Some examples:
“Sometimes vengeance is wholly called for, even obligatory, and revenge is both legitimate and justified. Sometimes it is not, notably when one is mistaken about the offender or the offense. But to seek vengeance for a grievous wrong, to revenge oneself against evil – that seems to lie at the very foundation of our sense of justice, indeed, of our very sense of ourselves, our dignity, and our sense of right and wrong.” (Robert C. Solomon, 2004, 37)

“We ought to admit, up front, that one of our strongest unspoken motivations for upholding something close to the traditional concept of free will is our desire to see the world’s villains ‘get what they deserve.’ And sure they do deserve our condemnation, our criticism, and – when we have a sound system of laws in place – punishment. A world without punishment is not a world any of us would want to live in.” (Daniel Dennet, 2008, 258)

“Personal and vicarious moral anger can be and ought to be placated by hostile responsive action taken against its cause. Wrongful actions require hostile retribution. That, despite its seeming lack of fit with the body of moral principles upheld in our culture, is actually one of the primary foundations of morality. It is a foundation that is settled in passions, attitudes, emotions, and sentiments, not in reason.” (Peter French, 2001, 97)

These intelligent, “reasonable” men, philosophers all, clearly – even somewhat brutally – base the source of the fervent belief in moral responsibility upon a feeling; the powerful, undeniable feeling that those who do wrong and cause harm should suffer. That feeling itself is rooted in another deeply held feeling: when we are harmed, we should strike back.

The issue becomes: the almost universal belief in moral responsibility, based upon this deeply felt emotion cannot be used to justify moral responsibility any more than the almost universal belief in the existence of god, or the justice of subjugating women, for instance, can be used to justify those beliefs.

The “strike-back impulse” is a deeply rooted one we share with all animals. Rats in a cage who are given an electrical shock will attack one another. Just like with humans, it doesn’t really matter who receives the brunt of retaliation; the retaliation is for our own sakes. Interestingly, those rats that are shocked but able to vent their rage against another rat – or a gnawing post – have less increase in adrenal hormone and blood pressure levels. It seems striking back is “good for us.” But we have higher-order brain mechanisms that can be trained to restrain the impulse without causing any physical problems. This is the nirodha taught by the buddha and Patanjali.

What happens when we simply give in to this strike-back impulse? It is common knowledge that when economic stresses increase we will find a corresponding increase in spousal and child abuse. When the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, and with the assailants either dead or in hiding, Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attack, bore the brunt of US strike-back aggression. It’s also common knowledge that – especially in dramatic crimes that receive major media coverage – getting someone – anyone – declared “guilty” in order to punish them often takes precedence over getting the actual perpetrator, and leads to many miscarriages of (so-called) justice.

There is one other major foundational source for the deeply entrenched belief in moral responsibility, besides the strength of our retributive emotions and the strike-back impulse, and that is the generally unquestioned (by anyone other than philosophers) belief in “free will.” This of course ends up making belief in moral responsibility an article of faith, and a faith in the supernatural at that, and one that flies in the face of dependent origination. Buddhism has always denied any “absolute” or “a-causal” free will since buddhism denies a supernatural soul and affirms the contingent nature of all phenomena. If a “person” is actually a conditioned aggregation of causes and conditions, it is irrational to exempt will from conditioning and causality.

Bruce Waller pointedly notes: “The rich variety of arguments in favor of moral responsibility may remind us of the rich variety of arguments for the existence of god and may prompt the same response to that large collection: if there were really a good argument for god or for moral responsibility, would there be so many? In contrast to the multitude of arguments in support of moral responsibility, there is one basic argument against moral responsibility – though it is available in a number of different styles and colors.”

The series of postings, of which this is the first, will be very much influenced by the work of Bruce Waller and others like George Lakoff, but with a ‘buddhist’ style and a zen naturalist color. I realize some of what I have already written – and what I will be writing – will cause reactivity in those who either haven’t given this topic much thought or who have a strong investment in the belief in moral responsibility (which is truly most of us). I hope you will be able to put your reactivity aside at least just enough to be open to hearing why the buddha said, “All beings are without blame.”

Dennet, Daniel. 2008. Some Observations on the psychology of thinking about free will. In Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will, ed. John Baer, James C. Kaufman, and Roy F. Baumeister. New York: Oxford University Press.

French, Peter. 2001. The Virtues of Vengeance. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.

Solomon, Robert C. 2004. In Defense of Sentimentality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Strawson, P.F. 1962. Freedom and Resentment. Proceedings of the British Academy 36. Page reference as reprinted in Free Will, ed. Gary Watson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Most Awesome Reality

A friend sent this link to me, and I would like to pass it along. Perhaps the music is not my favorite, but the sentiment needs to be heard. There really is no need to postulate and rest the meaning and value of THIS (this world, this life, this thusness) in some transcendent, super-natural realm!

It is not merely poetic to understand that we are not simply in the universe, but the universe is in us. Each of us, the universe in unique manifestation.