Friday, March 28, 2008

Do You Have to be Good to be Guilty?

We're transitioning from free will/determinism to ethical theory in Intro this week. The literature of action theory is old and hoary, so I'm not hopeful of plowing new ground, but it sure is fun. Here's today's discussion (7:30AM, no less): it appears that the notion of responsibility involves us in a paradox.
1) A free action must be the action of an agent: agents are free.
(I take this to be the indubitable compatibalist point of the empiricists. "Free" is an adjective. You've got to be somebody in order to be free, because you've got to exist in order to be a cause; if you're not the cause, then it's not your act.)
2) To be someone, one must have a nature/essence/character/personality.
(We recognize you from one time to the next, not just on the basis of your physical constancy, but on the basis of your psychological and behavioral constancy as well. Otherwise we could not say that you were a person. You must have at least that much stability and continuity. This is why quantum indeterminacy, for example, cannot underwrite freedom of action. Randomness or chaos or absence of causes may be real, but their consequences are not your acts, and it's your acts that are free or not.)
3) But to have a nature appears to be equivalent to being determined.
That is the paradox of responsibility. R. M. Hare captures the paradox nicely in the title of his book Freedom and Reasons: to the extent that I have reasons, we can say that my actions are my own (those that are caused by my reasons). But to the extent that I have reasons, it appears that I am not free. Hobbes doesn't mind this. He thinks that the only coherent definition of freedom is "the ability to pursue my desires." Hume says that "Reason is the slave of the passions." And it is Mill's view that values emerge in a world where there are beings that have experiences that are good and bad, this fact being entirely contingent.
I think that this empiricist compatibalism is right. The problem for Sartre and the existentialists, say, is that freedom vanishes along with the concrete (psychological) self, whereas Plato, Kant and the rationalists lose freedom in the grip of logical necessity. But this still leaves much to be said. How can I do good, if I am a good person by nature? That is, what can be praiseworthy about my action, if it follows from my essential good nature? And how can the bad man (that other man!) be said to do wrong? When we say that the good person is good, isn't that like saying that he's lucky, or good-looking? But that's not how we mean ethical praise, is it?

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