Determinism renders moral responsibility impossible
Debate Rounds (3)
Round One - Constructive Arguments
Round Two - Rebuttals
Round Three - Closing Remarks
Firstly, however, some definitions:
Determinism - the philosophical school that holds that every state that currently exists in the universe is the result of previous states, and that those previous states could cause no other outcome.
Principle of sufficient reason - the notion that everything can be explained in terms of causes and effects.
Free will - an attribute that humans supposedly have that enables them to defy determinism and act in a way that is not necessarily the product of their previous state.
Moral responsibility - the idea that as humans have free will and are capable of moral reasoning, that they therefore should be accountable for their immoral actions.
Note that for the purposes of this argument, exactly what is moral and what is not is irrelevant.
The brain - the collection of neurons that processes information and controls bodily processes. 'Us' - our conscious selves - inhabit only a small portion of the brain at any one time, and so consciously controlling it all is, as far as we are aware, impossible currently.
The winner of this argument will either
a) if the Instigator, demonstrate that any rational argument the contender puts forward in defence of the concept of moral responsibility is flawed, or
b) if the Contender, show a sound rational argument for the validity of the concept of moral responsibility.
And so, we begin.
Firstly, consider that the brain, including the portion that contains 'us' is at the base level, a collection of particles, and that all particles follow laws governing their interaction and movement. It stands to reason, therefore, that all the activity that occurs in the brain is the product of these laws. The foundation of moral responsibility is that if you are free to act and choose your action, you are responsible for that action, and yet the fact that our brains are controlled by natural laws seems to suggest that we do not in fact control our actions, so how are we responsible?
Secondly, on a larger scale, consider that 'intended' is merely a label that we apply to actions after they are done. Research has shown (Libet et al., 1983), that the motor cortex in the brain is active three hundred milliseconds before a person perceives that they wish to move. Even more interestingly, Fried et al. (2011) found that observing only two hundred and fifty six neurons was enough to predict with eighty per cent accuracy the subjects movements seven hundred milliseconds later. Consider, therefore, that our movements are the products of brain processes that we do not control, and if we do not control our movements, how can we be responsible for them? Moral responsibility relies on our accountability for our own actions, but accountability simply does not appear to be present.
I have said all I have to say thus far. I now turn the debate over to someone who is, I'm sure, much more experienced at this than me. I appreciate your time, and feel free to comment.
I interpret the resolution to be saying there's a contradiction between these two claims:
1. Our actions are determined.
2. We are morally responsible for our actions.
If these two claims contradict one another, it follows that:
3. If our actions are determined, then we cannot be morally responsible for them.
And the contrapositive to that claim is that:
4. If we are morally responsible for our actions, then our actions are not determined.
Notice that this debate can proceed without ever addressing the question of whether we actually are, in fact, determined or whether we actually are, in fact, morally responsible for our actions. After all, we just want to know if the two claims are consistent, i.e. whether it's possible to be morally responsible for our actions if those actions are determined.
Pro spent the majority of his opening statement defending hard determinism. But as we've seen, whether any kind of determinism is true or not is irrelevant to the debate. Suppose, hypothetically, that I was able to convince you that people have free will by Pro's definition. We would still be left wondering whether determinism would render moral responsiblity impossible. Whether we actually have free will or not tells us nothing about whether the resolution is true. So Pro's defense of determinism is irrelevent to this debate.
But not everything Pro said was irrelevant. He did make a few claims that, if true, would be directly relevant to the debate. He said:
"The foundation of moral responsibility is that if you are free to act and choose your action, you are responsible for that action. . ."
". . .if we do not control our movements, how can we be responsible for them? Moral responsibility relies on our accountability for our own actions, but accountability simply does not appear to be present."
Since "responsibility" and "accountability" are roughly equivalent words, Pro is simply asserting the resolution. He isn't even making an argument here. Since there is no argument, there's really nothing for me to respond to. I could, if I chose, go on to disprove his assertions, but since the burden of proof is on him, not me, it is unnecessary for me to do so. My only burden is to refute his arguments, but since he hasn't offered an argument yet, there's nothing for me to refute.
Nevertheless, just to keep this debate interesting, I will attempt to demonstrate that we can be morally responsibie for our actions even if our actions are determined. But before I do that, I want to explain what Pro would need to accomlish in order to carry his burden of proof.
Pro needs to show that statements 1 and 2 above are contradictory. As Alvin Plantinga pointed out in his book, God, Freedom, and Evil, there are three different ways that a set of propositions can be contradictory--explicitly, formally, and implicitly.
An explicit contradiction is when one claim is the negation of another claim. 1 and 2 are clearly not explicitly contradictory.
A formal contradiction is when you have a set of propositions from which it is possible to deduce an explicit contradiction by the logical laws of inference. Take this set for instance:
5. All men are mortal
6. Socrates is a man.
7. Socrates is not mortal.
None of these statements explicitly contradict the others. However, one can deduce from 5 and 6 that:
8. Socrates is mortal.
And since 8 explicitly contradicts 7, the original set is formally contradictory.
But there is no law of inference that allows you to deduce anything at all from 1 and 2 alone, so the original set is not formally contradictory either.
Since 1 and 2 are neither exlicitly nor formally contradictory, the only way they could contradict at all is if they are implicitly contradictory. A set of propositions is implicitly contradictory if there is a necessarily true proposition that when added to the set renders the set formally contradictory. Now, if Pro wants to show that 1 and 2 are implicitly contradictory, he needs to tell us what that necessarily true proposition is. I could make some guesses if I wanted to, but then I'd run the risk of being accused of making a strawman argument since I'd inevitably throw out some possibilities that Pro would not endorse. So I'll leave it to Pro to supply the necessary proposition.
I the meantime, let me go ahead and explain why I think moral responsibility is possible on determinism.
What Pro described is called hard determinism. It's the view that our every action is determined by non-rational cause and effect according to the laws of nature. But his definition of determinism does not limit us to only material causes. His definition says that "every state that currently exists in the universe is the result of previous states." But those previous states need not refer merely to the activity of atoms, molecules, and subatomic particles. They could refer to mental states, such as desires, motives, inclinations, biases, preferences, etc. That makes a big difference, which I'll demonstrate presently.
Pro and I would agree that if some physical state is such that it determines your action, then your action is not your fault. So, for example, if you have an involuntary reflex that causes your arm to swing up and strike your neighbor, you're not morally responsible for it. If some state has so much influence over your action that your action could not be otherwise renders your morally responsibility null and void, then any state that so much as influences your action in some degree that falls short of determining it must diminish your moral responsibility by the same factor. For example, let's say that on your best day, you can lift 300 lbs. Obviously, you can't be blamed for your inability to lift 301 lbs. But suppose you were asked to lift 299 lbs. While it may be possible for you to do so, you would be less blameable for your failure than you would be if you were asked to lift only 20 lbs. So, moral responsibilty is proportional to one's physical ability to do otherwise. The more difficult it is for somebody to do their duty, the less blameworthy they are, and if the difficulty is such that it is beyond their ability, then they are not morally responsible at all.
But suppose we treated mental states, like desire and bias, in the same way that we treat physical difficulty. It would follow that the deeper your hatred for somebody, the less blameworthy you are for harming them. The deeper your love for somebody, the less praiseworthy you are for helping them. The deeper your desire to do good, the less praiseworthy you would be for doing good, and the deeper your desire to do harm, the less blameworthy you would be for doing harm. After all, if your desire to do good or harm was so strong that you couldn't help but give in to it, then you would be worthy of neither praise nor blame.
But that is exactly opposite to our common notions about moral responsibility. We are morally responsible for actions to the degree that our actions are determined by our prior motives, desire, and inclinations. The reason is because we can only be responsible for our actions if we do them on purpose, and to perform an action on purpose is to act out of a prior disposition. If I'm doing exactly what I want, then that is the very defintion of being in control of my action. The more hand my own desire plays in bringing about my action, the more that action is my own and under my control and will. It follows that we are most responsible for our actions when our actions are completely determined by our prior mental states.
The opposite extreme of our actions being determined by our prior mental states is that our prior mental states have no influence whatsoever on our actions. But if that were the case, then our actions would be indistinguishable from accidents. We are obviously not responsible for things we do on accident, so the only way we can be responsible for our actions is to the degree that our prior mental states influence them.
1. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 12ff
With regards to his first comments, everything he says on contradiction is true. Hence, I would like to amend my presentation slightly:
S1. All actions that are not free are not subject to moral responsibility .
S2. All human actions are not free.
S3. All human actions are not subject to moral responsibility.
With this in mind, I would like to refer back to his comments regarding the weightlifter. Now, I will interpret 'on his best day' to mean 'on a day such that a mixture of internal and external factors that are beyond his control enabled him to lift the maximum weight that he is at that time capable of lifting'. With this in mind, note that Con proceeded to argue that the weightlifter might fail to lift 299lbs. If this were true, then the period of time 'on his best day', would be finished (by Con's own admission that 'on his best day' he is capable of lifting more than this). Is it his fault that this day is over? Is he blameworthy because the factors (that are beyond his control, including natural laws, forces and particle interactions) that would allow him to lift that weight are not present? I may have misunderstood Con completely, but I believe that this is what he was arguing.
Con then argues that 'doing exactly what you want' is being in control of your actions. And yet, as I have already shown, your brain activity demonstrates that it sends signals to your muscles before you know you want to move. Your brain is acting independently of your conscious self - 'doing exactly what you want' is really 'doing what your brain decided you would do, and you attributed a 'want to do' it after the fact'.
And also, he argues that 'doing exactly what you want' is 'the very definition of being in control of your actions'. What Con then forgets is that you are not in control of your actions, as I have pointed out. Your brain begins the movement, your conscious self attributes a 'want' to it after the fact. With this in mind, consider that his comment to that effect in ineffectual - whilst it may have been true that, in a world where 'doing exactly what you want' and 'being in control of your actions' were possible, I would recognise that statement as true, however what it is actually saying is that x (which cannot happen) is the definition of y (which cannot happen). Consider the pointlessness of that remark.
With regards to S1, both I and Con agree on this ("if some physical state is such that it determines your action, then your action is not your fault"), unless I misunderstand him.
With regards to S2, the evidence that I have provided is in my view sufficient to support this statement, and if it is not, I would like to ask Con exactly what evidence I would have to present to successfully assert it.
With regards to S3, I believe that my conclusion is sound. If that is not the case, then I invite Con to correct it.
Also, with regard to the implicit contradiction needed for my argument to succeed, here I present it:
1. Our actions are determined.
2. No actions that are determined can engender moral responsibility.
3. We are morally responsible for our actions.
If there are any significant mistakes that I have made in this argument, I look forward to them being exploited by my opponent in his next argument. At any rate, I would like to thank him for his patronage and hand the debate over to him.
Recall that in my opening, I explained that whether our actions are, in fact, determined, and whether we are, in fact, morally responsible for our actions is irrelevant to this debate. The debate comes down to whether there is any contradiction between the proposition that we are determined and the proposition that we are morally responsible for our actions. The resolution that Pro must defend is that determinism, if it is true, renders moral responsibility impossible. Pro congratulations me on "successfully explaining my argument in a clearer way than I did," which I take to mean I interpreted the resolution accurately.
But then Pro goes on through the rest of his post as if his original argument for determinism was relevant. He restates his argument like so:
S1. All actions that are not free are not subject to moral responsibility .
S2. All human actions are not free.
S3. All human actions are not subject to moral responsibility.
But notice that his conclusion does not resemble the resolution to this debate. This debate is no over whether human actions are subject to moral responsibility. The debate is over whether moral responsibility is consistent with determinism.
I argued that whether determinism is consistent with moral responsibility depends on what is doing the determinism. I completely agree with Pro that if all our actions are determined merely by physical processes, that we cannot be morally responsible for our actions. But hard determinism is not the only kind of determinism there is. There's also soft determinism, which is what I explained. Under soft determinism, our actions are determined by our mental states, such as our desires, motives, preferences, etc. I showed that if our actions are determined by our mental states, that establishes our moral responsibility. It doesn't eliminate our moral responsibility.
Pro did not dispute my claim that we could be morally responsible for our actions if our actions were determined by our mental states. Instead, he just denied that our actions are, in fact, determined by our mental states and argued instead that they are determined by mechanistic physical causes. But that is irrelevant to the resolution. What I showed was that determinism does NOT render moral responsibility impossible since it's possible to be morally responsible for our actions even if our actions are determined by mental states. It doesn't matter whether they actually are determined by mental states or not. We just want to know whether moral responsibility is possible given some form of determinism.
In the last round, I explained what Con would need to do to establish the resolution. He would need to demonstrate an imlicit contradiction between these two claims:
1. Our actions are determined.
2. We are morally responsible for our actions.
To demonstrate an implicit contradiction, he would need to give us a necessarily true proposition that when added to the set would render the set formally contradictory. In answer to this challenge, Pro gave us this proposition:
3. No actions that are determined can engender moral responsibility.
I grant that 1 and 3 entail the negation of 2, which renders the original set formally contradictory. The problem comes in demonstrating that 3 is necessarily true. I showed in the previous round that an action that is determined by a desire can engender moral responsibility. Pro did not deny that. He just denied that desires determine our actions, which is irrelevant. If it's true that an action which is determined by a desire can engender moral responsibility, then Pro's 3 is false.
Concerning my demonstration that actions that are determined by desires can be subject to praise and blame, Pro didn't have much to say. He just nit picked a little about my weight lifting illustration. But let me just try to clarify what I meant because nothing he said is really relevant to my intention.
If a person is capable of lifting 300 lbs, and if he is required to lift 299 lbs, then he can be held accountable for not lifting the 299 lbs. The reason is because he was physically capable of doing it, but he failed to do it. However, we would cut him more slack for failing to lift 299 lbs than we would if he were only asked to lift 20 lbs and failed to do it. The reason is because 20 lbs would've been easy for him, but 299 lbs would've been nearly impossible. To lift 299 lbs would've taken nearly all his strength. He'd be stressing himself nearly to the breaking point, and we probably would be somewhat understanding if he didn't push himself that far. I did not mean to imply in my illustration that his attempt to lift 299 lbs did not happen on his best day. My "best day" reference was merely to emphasize that 300 lbs was the maximum weight he was physically capable of lifting.
The purpose of my illustration was to show that physical difficulty dminishes our moral responsibility. If a physical difficulty were such that we could not overcome it, then we would be fully excused. But if the physical difficulty went only half way toward being too difficult, then it would excuse us in part. So the more difficulty, the less blameworthy for failure.
But it is exactly the opposite when it comes to desire. The stronger your desire to act in some way, the more difficult it is to resist acting that way and the closer that desire is to determining your action. If we treated influence from desire the same way we treat influence from physical states, it would follow that the greater hand love plays in your actions, the less praiseworthy those actions are, and the greater hand hatred played in your actions, the less blameworthy those actions would be. But that is exactly the opposite of our common notions about moral responsibility. We treat mental influence exactly the opposite way we treat physical influence. If we act completely apart from all influence from desire whatsoever, we consider that act to be an accident, and we don't hold the person responsible for it. But if a person acts out of a desire to harm, we blame them. If they act out of a desire to help, we praise them. And we praise them or blame them to the degree that the desire influenced their actions. The less hand their desires play in bringing about their actions, the more accidental those actions are, and the more hand their desires play in bringing about their actions, the more on purpose their actions are. It follows that their actions are most on purpose when their actions are determined by their desires. It follows that we are most responsible for our actions when our actions are determined by our desires.
It follows that determinism does not render moral responsibility impossible.
In response, our mental states (happy, angry, sad, desire etc.) are merely the product of neuron interactions and neurotransmitters in our brains. That we address the same thing by two different names is not proof that there are in fact two things.
Con's argument for soft determinism does work to support moral responsibility, and if he could show that mental states are independent of physical ones (and therefore not subject to natural laws or forces) I would concede the argument immediately. As it stands, I remain unconvinced.
(Note Con's own assertion: If it's true that an action which is determined by a desire can engender moral responsibility, then Pro's 3 is false.)
As far as I can see, Con is arguing that an action determined by desire is subject to moral responsibility. I would argue that you do not control your desire, as it is in itself merely a physical phenomenon, the product of forces and laws that you do not control. It is the result of your neurochemistry, a state that you are in that you have no control over. With this in mind, I very much do object to the idea that a desire can engender moral responsibility. How can you be accountable for an action undertaken as a result of, and which the outcome is determined by, a series of physical laws?
If Con showed that you could directly control your desire, he would have demonstrated moral responsibility, as your actions would result from something that you directly controlled, and therefore would be accountable for.
Also, whether or not you give in to your desire is also outside your control - recall my argument in Round 1 regarding neuron reactions in the brain (Libet et al., 1983) - your brain has decided what to do three hundred milliseconds before you have. Your conscious self is being dragged along with no say in the matter. If Con had demonstrated that your conscious self existed independent of physical laws, then he might have had the foundation of an argument.
What Con is effectively doing by putting forward soft determinism as an response is saying 'your actions aren't determined by X, which you couldn't control and therefore would not engender moral responsibility, but your actions are determined by Y (which is the same as X, except under a different name), which does engender moral responsibility'. The contradiction in this assertion should be evident.
I would like to thank my opponent for accepting my challenge and for defending his chosen position as well as he has. I now hand the debate over to him for any closing remarks he would like to make.
Pro has agreed in this final round that my "argument for soft determinism does work to support moral responsibility." He just doesn't accept soft deteminism because he believes that mental states are the same thing as physical states in the brain. He said that if I could show that mental states are independent of physical states that he would concede the debate.
I know I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I must remind the reader once more that for the purposes of this debate, it's irrelevant whether soft determinism is true, hard determinism is true, or moral responsibility is true. We only want to know whether it's possible for both moral responsibility and determinism to be true. If soft determinism, as I described it, is possible, and if moral responsibility "does work" under soft determinism, then the resolution is false since the resolution states that "Determinism renders moral responsibility impossible." I don't need to show that mental states are independent of physical states. If it's even possible (which it is under substance dualism), then the resolution is false, and Pro ought to have conceded the debate.
Pro could have refuted my argument by proving that my version of soft determinism is impossible. He would have to have shown that it's impossible that a desire could exist independently of a physical state. If some form of substance dualism is true (or even if property dualism is true), that would undermine Pro's argument from physicalism. Pro seemed to recognize that, but he made no effort to argue that substance dualism (or property dualism) isn't possible. He said, "If Con had demonstrated that your conscious self existed independent of physical laws, then he might have had the foundation of an argument." But I don't need to demonstrate it. The mere possibility renders the resolution false.
Pro claims that mental states and the physical states of the brain are the same thing, but his own statements imply otherwise. He said that mental states "are merely the product of neuron interactions and neurotransmitters in our brains." Well, if one thing is a product of another thing, then we are talking about two distinct things. So this statement is inconsistent with his claim that they are the same thing under different names.
Besides that, there are good reasons to think mental states are not the same thing as physical states. Since this is the final round, and it's generally against debate ettiquette to bring up new arguments in the final round, I won't do so. But I should point out that it need only be possible to negate the resolution.
Pro is under the impression that besides being in control of our actions, we also need to be in control of the desires that determine our actions. But that is not so. Recall in the earlier round, I explained what it means to be in control of your actions. We are in control of our actions to the degree that our actions are determined by our desires. Being in control of our actions is enough to establish our moral responsibility without our having to be in control of the desires that determine our actions. If I put a piece of cake in front of somebody, I can cause them to desire to eat the cake, but that does not diminish their responsibility for choosing to eat the cake. So no, we don't need to be able to have control over the desires we act on before we are morally responsiblle for acting on them.
Con's claim that we must control our desires before we can be responsible for acting on them is inconsistent with his own claim that if our desires exist independently of our physical brain states, we would be morally responsible for acting on them. In his own claim, he doesn't even address the question of whether we'd need to be in control of those desires. He recognizes that it doesn't matter. It is enough that we act on them.
Finally, i want to respond to this last argument by Pro:
"What Con is effectively doing by putting forward soft determinism as an response is saying 'your actions aren't determined by X, which you couldn't control and therefore would not engender moral responsibility, but your actions are determined by Y (which is the same as X, except under a different name), which does engender moral responsibility'. The contradiction in this assertion should be evident."
Pro only thinks there's a contradiction because he thinks X and Y are the same thing. But that's his position, not mine, so it's not a contradiction on my part. I demonstrated in the last two rounds that as far as moral responsibility is concerned, we all treat physical causes to action or inaction differently than we treat mental reasons for action or inaction. One elminates moral responsibility, and the other establishes moral responsibility. So there is no contradiction at all on my part.
Thanks to Pro for a thoughtful debate, and thanks to the reader for giving us both a hearing.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by daem0n 1 year ago
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