Thursday, October 28, 2010

Two Inadequate Defenses of Moral Responsibility

Moral Responsibility is a central concern in ethical philosophy. The question of whether or not we are responsible for our actions is the primary issue one must set out to answer before it is even possible to develop an ethical theory. Interestingly, as ancient philosophers realized all too clearly, the possibility of moral responsibility ultimately hinges upon one’s natural philosophy. Is every event, including our own actions, completely determined according to the causal laws of nature? Or do we possess the freedom to choose any action we want, in any given situation? If you conclude that our actions are the necessary results of a causal chain, then you are a Determinist; if you conclude that our actions are freely chosen, then you are an Indeterminist. One further question must also be answered: if our actions are in fact causally determined, is it possible for us to ascribe moral responsibility to our actions? A Compatibilist would maintain the possibility of moral responsibility ascriptions in spite of determinism; an Incompatibilist would say that determinism makes ascriptions of moral responsibility impossible. Both the Stoics and the Epicureans realized the need to answer these very questions as they set about developing their ethical theories. In the end, both philosophies maintain that we do in fact have moral responsibility, however their defenses of that responsibility are perfectly opposite.

The Epicureans defend moral responsibility by maintaining the position of Incompatibilism, Indeterminism. They are Incompatibilists because they find the combination of causal determinism and moral responsibility to be fundamentally irreconcilable. If our actions are determined only by preceding causes, and not by some sort of autonomous agency, then there is no way we can say a person is responsible for that action. Aulus Gellius summarizes the Epicurean position on this irreconcilability when he describes them as thinking, “[if] everything is moved and governed by fate and the sequences and revolutions of fate cannot be turned aside or evaded, then men’s sins and misdeeds should not rouse our anger, nor should they be attributed to men and their wills, but [only] to a kind of necessity and inevitability” (IG 185).

This intuition seems quite reasonable: either we are free to choose our actions and therefore responsible for that choice, or we are not at all free to choose out actions and therefore entirely “dragged by fate” (IG 185). Moral responsibility is simply incompatible with a causally determined view of human action. On behalf of the Epicureans, Terence Irwin develops this intuition into an explicit, logical argument for Incompatibilism:

(1) An agent is morally responsible only for actions that are voluntary.

(2) An action is voluntary only if its origin is in the agent.

(3) The origin of an action is the earliest event whose occurrence is sufficient for the action.

(4) If determinism is true, events in the distant past are the origin of our actions.

(5) Conclusion: Either determinism is false, or agents are not morally responsible.

Irwin’s argument here emphasizes an important point. Given the definition of moral responsibility that Epicurus settles upon (i.e. we are responsible only for behaviors that we undertake with perfect autonomy and with a perfectly free will), moral responsibility will be impossible given determinism.

In the end, Epicurus does want to preserve moral responsibility. Therefore, he must next prove determinism to be false; he must show that there are at least some occurrences in the world that do not result from a traceable causal chain.[1] If he can do this, he will have an account of how our actions are able to escape being perfectly determined. How does Epicurus explain this possibility? He practices natural philosophy and ultimately concludes that there are uncaused events in the world. He starts from Democritus’ atomic theory that “these same indivisible and solid bodies [atoms] move down in a straight line by their own weight” (IG 45). This original theory implies causal determinism, for all patters of action among atoms are regular and predictable according to natural laws. However, Epicurus proceeds to modify Democritus’ thoughts and explains that atoms do not in fact move regularly; instead, “Epicurus thinks that the necessity of fate can be avoided by the swerve of an atom… and he is forced to concede, in fact if not in his words, that this swerve is uncaused… if an atom exists and it does swerve, it does so without cause” (IG 47). By explaining the possibility of uncaused action and thus negating the Determinist theory, Epicurus ensures the possibility of our own actions originating without cause, and he thereby concludes that we are in fact able to hold ourselves morally responsible for our behavior. His theory is meant to “free our impulses from being necessitated by external causes [by] positing in the leading part of the soul an adventitious motion… [that] generates a swerve in the soul all by itself” (IG 183).

The Stoics vehemently oppose the Epicurean account, particularly regarding their Indeterminist stance. Chrysippus, a leading Stoic thinker, accuses Epicurus of “doing violence to nature by [positing] something which is uncaused” (IG 183). What the Stoics really reject in the Epicurean Indeterminist stance is their highly questionable natural philosophical stance. Cicero attacks Epicurus on this very point, arguing that “he introduced a fictitious notion” and that he is merely “seeking help from wandering atoms” (IG 45, 49).

The Stoics think that Determinism, or Fate, is an undeniable force driving all actions in nature, where “Fate is a sempiternal and unchangeable series and chain of things, rolling and unraveling itself through eternal sequences of cause and effect” (IG 184-5). The intuition that everything is caused is also a very difficult one to shake, for it really does seem that there are causes in effect any time anything happens. For example, the cause of a billiard ball’s movement is the other billiard ball that struck it. Even more complex examples, like our own behavioral decisions, can be explained in terms of causes: the cause of my choosing to come to Colgate was my character when I was eighteen years old, me likes, my dislikes, my past experiences, and the opinions of my friend and family at the time. Sure, I had other options of schools I could go to, but in the end I was essentially caused to choose Colgate by all of the forces in my life. In the end, the Stoics maintain Determinism because they take the world to be ordered teleologically: “Fate is a continuous string of causes of things which exist, or a rational principle according to which the cosmos is managed” (IG 137).

Despite their support of Determinism, the Stoics still profess to maintain moral responsibility. Whereas the Epicureans are Incompatibilists and think it impossible for us to have moral responsibility if our actions are fully determined, the Stoics are Compatibiists who think that such a combination is perfectly acceptable. How do they defend this view? Chrysippus begins his argument with a deeper investigation into causality. He distinguishes two types of causes: “some causes are perfect and principle, while others are auxiliary and proximate. Therefore, when we say that all things occur by fate by antecedent causes, we do not want the following to be understood, viz. that they occur by perfect and principal causes; but we mean this, that they occur by auxiliary and proximate causes” (IG 187). This distinction is essential to the Stoic defense of moral responsibility.

Chrysippus and the Stoics offer a famous analogy to help better explain this distinction between causes. They interpret the case of a cylindrical object rolling down a hill: “just as he who pushed the cylinder gave it the start of its motion, he did not, however, give it its “rollability”” (IG 187). With this analogy, Chrysippus identifies both types of cause – the pusher of the object is the proximate cause, and the “rollability” inherent in the character of the object is the principle cause. Given what Chrysippus says above, we can understand him to mean the following: the rolling was caused by the push (proximate cause), but the way that the object rolled, or that it rolled at all was a result of the cylinder’s character. Cicero makes this point of the analogy a bit more clearly when he says, “[The cylinder] cannot begin to move unless [it] is struck; but when that happens… it is by [its] own nature that the cylinder rolls” (IG 187). In other words, the more significant aspect in interpreting the object’s rolling is not that the object was pushed, but instead that the object possessed the particular characteristic of “rollability.”

Given that Chrysippus accords explanatory significance primarily to principle causes, we are now ready to understand how the Stoics maintain moral responsibility: just as with the cylinder rolling down the hill, “the order and reason and necessity of fate sets in motion the general types and starting points of the causes, but each man’s own will [or decisions] and the character of his mind govern the impulses of our thoughts and minds and our very actions” (IG 185). Certainly we are acted upon by proximate causes like impressions, but these only serve as the impetus of our consequent behavior; what action we decide or “assent” to is the result of our own particular characters. It is this character for which we are morally responsible. Cicero nicely summarizes this form of moral responsibility, saying, “a presentation which strikes [someone] will certainly impress [him] and as it were stamp its form on the mind, but our assent will be in our own power and the assent…will henceforth be moved by its own force and nature” (IG 187). Thus, Chrysippus concludes that “we ought not to tolerate or listen to men who are wicked or lay and guilty and shameless, who when convicted of misdeeds take refuge in the necessity of fate as in the asylum of a religious sanctuary” (IG 186).

Given these two defenses of moral responsibility, which is better: the Epicurean Incompatibilist Indeterminist, or the Stoic Determinist Compatibilist? Which account of moral responsibility best aligns with our intuitions? Which defense of responsibility seems most plausible? At the start of this analysis, it is important that we step back and compare the overall project and approach of these two different views. In doing this we discover that although both philosophies end up with supposedly the same result, moral responsibility, it turns out that they both start and finish in different places.

The Epicureans seem to be first and foremost ethical philosophers, who find themselves obligated to address issues of natural philosophy in order to defend their original claim. It appears that Epicurus is initially convinced that human beings do have moral responsibility, where moral responsibility is the direct result of our free will to choose between multiple possible courses of action. Having established this starting principle, Epicurus soon realizes that in order to defend this claim, he has to address the issue of Determinism. He soon discovers that he can in no way reconcile Determinism with his definition of moral responsibility as free will, for a free will requires freedom from causal determination. Having fallen into the Incompatibilist camp, and having committed himself to an account of moral responsibility, he is left no choice but to reject Determinism. Thus, as Cicero explains, “Epicurus introduced this line of reasoning [i.e. the atomic swerve argument] because he was afraid that if an atom always moved by its natural and necessary heaviness, we would have no freedom” (IG 47). In other words, the Epicurean argument against Determinism simply is their unfailing belief in moral responsibility.

The Stoics, on the other hand, are much more grounded in natural philosophy. They commit themselves from the very start to a steady Deterministic account of nature. Although perfectly content with their notion of causal Fate, the Stoics are not comfortable eliminating moral responsibility. Cicero identifies this philosophical worry when he describes, “Chrysippus, it seems to me, wanted to strike a middle path… but attached himself more to the group which wanted the motions of the mind to be free of necessity. But while employing his own terms he slipped into such difficulties that he wound up unwillingly confirming the necessity of fate” (IG 186). How then could Chrysippus and the Stoics reconcile moral responsibility (as defined by the Epicureans) with their undeniable Determinism? They cannot – for the perfectly free will truly is irreconcilable with causal determination. How then might they develop a Compatibilist theory? The Stoics simply redefine moral responsibility to make it fit with their account of Determinism. No longer does moral responsibility necessitate a free will, they explain; instead, we are responsible for our actions insofar as those actions outwardly represent our character or inner constitution.

Given this analysis, it turns out that these philosophies are practically talking past one another. They refer to different versions of moral responsibility, and their strategies for defending that moral responsibility are in no way comparable. The Epicurean view is weak in its careless and ad hoc treatment of natural philosophy; it fails to take seriously the legitimacy of the Determinist account. The Stoic view is weak in its watered-down definition of responsibility; their modified definition hardly seems to place any real responsibility in a person, but instead suggests only that certain types of people are fated to have such a character that they will be held in high or low regard.

In the end I am inclined to think that the Stoic argument for Incompatibilism, and the Epicurean argument for Determinism are the strongest. I do not think this because either of these arguments are particularly strong in themselves, but only that, out of the four positions laid out above, these are the two that are the least suspect. In the end, I do not feel that either view adequately accounts for moral responsibility. Given these arguments, I find myself only convinced of Hard Determinism – determinism is true, and there is no moral responsibility. Ironically, this is precisely the view that both of these philosophies set out to reject.

[1] He also offers a logical argument that he takes to prove absurd the maintenance of a determinist view. However, this proves to be a relatively weak argument – much less substantial than his reasoning I offer here.

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