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.