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!


Unknown said...

Very interesting. The critique of our simplistic conception of free will is very compelling. I'm uncomfortable, however, with jettisoning the idea of moral responsibility altogether. If inner and outer circumstances combine to make something like "free will" a real possibility, then isn't ethical direction at that point more important than ever? Is "moral responsibility" the same or different as "ethical commitments" in the sense that you are using the term? Obviously, ethics are important in the yoga tradition; how do they fit into this discussion?

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Hey Carol!

Nice to "see" you here. I don't know if you've been following this string of postings (if not, your questions may actually be answered by doing so) but short response:

First: from buddhist and naturalist perspective, we must be clear that whatever 'free will' be are discussing is NOT a-causal, non-contingent free will. Such an absolute free will requires a super-natural entity (a 'soul') that is completely independent of any and all 'circumstances.'

Second: I am arguing that "moral responsibility" only makes sense if there is such an entity as a 'soul.' The idea that someone could have done otherwise than what they have done regardless of all conditioning factors is the basis of moral responsibility.

Third: When we assume "moral responsibility," then we get the kind of retributive/punitive justice system we have: we punish those who do 'evil' and praise those who do 'good.'

Fourth: My argument is that when we jettison "moral responsibility," we are forced to have do deal with the circumstances that lead folk to behave as they do. Our justice system would be restorative and preventative.

Finally: Precepts in buddhism are ethical TRAININGS that help create the conditions for more compassionate, wise, 'good' choices. They become part of the circumstances. If through training, I now become a more compassionate, skillful person, that is wonderful, but there is no "being" ultimately morally responsible for acting so.