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