PH1102E Week 2 Determinism and moral responsibility

I. Review of key concepts A. Moral responsibility B. Determinism 1. Versus fatalism 2. Laplace’s demon II. Strawson’s argument A. Overall argument B. Is determinism compatible with moral responsibilty? 1. Argument for determinism/responsibility incompatibilism 2. Humean objections, Strawsonian replies C. Is indeterminism a red herring?


it was already inevitable that you would enroll in PH1102E. This means that if you know the position of every ball on a pool table. it was already inevitable that you would enroll in PH1102E even if you had no desire to do so.) But determinism and fatalism differ in one very crucial respect. But according to determinism. Laplace’s Demon Let’s assume. in theory. 2 . According to fatalism. these factors are past states of the universe combined with the laws of physics. Fatalism says that a thousand years ago. For fatalism. if there was a first event). 2. then. Moral responsibility and determinism A. Determinism says that a thousand years ago. Determinism 1. you give others a GOOD reason for thinking well or ill of you. Fatalism is a cosmic conspiracy theory. one thing follows from another in a strict causal sequence. Moral responsibility Definition: You are morally responsible for doing X if by doing X. you can. your present and future behavior is decided in advance by factors out of your control. (For determinism. Definition Every event has a prior cause (except for the very first event. as well as what their final resting position will be.I. the deciding factor is Fate.” (Even if the Gestapo officer thinks well of you for turning over the Jewish family.) B. Contrast with fatalism Determinism and fatalism have this much in common: according to both. that we live in a deterministic universe. for the sake of argument. In our universe. and know the precise strength and angle at which the player will strike the que ball. he has no good reason to think well of you. his reason is the bad one that your action facilitates the Nazi program of genocide. You could deduce all this using Newton’s laws of motion. Determinism is not. your future behavior is decided by forces that will make you do the things you will do regardless of whether you want to do them. your future behavior is decided by forces that will make you do the thing you will do by making you want to do them. because it was already inevitable that you would desire to enroll in PH1102E. and even if I had no desire the offer the module. Notice the word “good. 3. deduce exactly how all the balls on the table will move. and inevitable that nothing would prevent you from acting on that desire. and even if you had a strong desire not to enroll.

suppose that this demon has existed for a very long time -. the demon was able to predict -. In a moment. When I say “three. Creepy. or one hundred years from now. And then you could apply the same laws again to predict the location and motion of all the matter in the universe two seconds from now. exactly what the particles making up our bodies are going to do two minutes from now. are you ready? Have you decided which hand to raise? 3 . In particular. simply because given the events that are taking place in our bodies and environment at this moment. by applying the laws of physics. you could. the exact location and trajectory of all these particles one second from now. And what makes it possible for him to know this is determinism. This has come to be known as “Laplace’s demon. and the exact physical relationship between each of these molecules and the particles making up the Earth’s oceans and land masses. Thousands of years ago. An experiment Let’s do a quick experiment. By successive applications of the laws of physics. Likewise -. it is inevitable that we will be doing certain things a minute from now. a minute.” although there’s nothing particularly demonic about it. and then three seconds. He has known it for thousands of years. if you could somehow learn the exact location and momentum of every molecule of in a drop of ink that you let fall into a glass of water the moment before it enters the water. and knows right now. and so on and on. three seconds. the demon has known for thousands of years. with perfect accuracy.the position and state of motion of every particle in the world today. Pierre-Simon de Laplace asks us to imagine that there really is a being who knows the location and state of motion of every particle in the universe. it knew the position and state of motion of every particle in the cosmos.thousands of years. The Laplacean demon already knows which hand you are going to raise (or that you aren’t going to raise a hand. you could predict. Likewise. ten seconds. 4. You would be the ultimate meteorologist.Likewise. or that you are going to raise both of them.either your left hand or your right hand. as well as the Sun and the moon. Anyway. or one week. in theory.with complete accuracy -. including the atoms that make up living things like us. as far into the future as you like.” I want each of you to raise a hand -. figure out exactly where each of these molecules would be one day.if you knew the exact current position and trajectory of every particle in the universe. if you could somehow figure out the exact present location and state of motion of every molecule in the Earth’s atmosphere. infallibly.still assuming the truth of determinism -. an hour later. and given the laws of physics. I’m going to count to three. if you choose not to cooperate). He can predict what our bodies will do a minute and a half from now. In a famous thought-experiment. exactly what the cloud of ink would look like one second. and the location and state of motion of every molecule of water in the glass. two seconds. you could use the laws of physics to predict. isn’t it? OK.

he knows exactly what is going to happen in your brain too. in the sense that your action and the deliberation and choice leading up to it had to take place just as they did. Of course. THREE! OK. Strawson’s argument A. etc. Therefore. for you metaphysical rebels out there -. TWO. and S3)1 1 For an explanation of the format of this argument (all the “S1”s and “S2”s. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------S4. just as much as you were destined to raise it. if you do change your mind now. that too is something that Laplace’s demon has foreseen. this is true if we live in a deterministic universe. Whatever you did -. given that things were as they were thousands of years ago. that’s what you would have done. At least. If you want.including not doing anything. He has also foreseen that you would change your mind again at the last second in a pointless attempt to falsify his prediction. Well. Naturally. see the lecture webcast and powerpoint slides. tails left. S3. we are not morally responsible for anything we do. We must live in either a deterministic or an indeterministic world. The overall argument S1. we must not be morally responsible for anything we do. very good. It’s just that you were destined to choose to raise your right hand. Suppose you raised your right hand.). determinism doesn’t change the fact that if you had chosen to raise your left hand instead. S2. Here we go. and so already knows that the coin is going to land heads (if that is indeed how it is going to land).There’s still time to change your mind. if that’s what you are in fact going to do. (from S1. If we live in an indeterministic world. If we live in a deterministic world. Let me give you a little more time. S2. II. After were destined to do it in advance. You were destined to do it. since long before you were born. Laplace’s demon knows exactly how the particles constituting the coin are going to behave. you can flip a coin and let that decide which hand you raise: heads right. none of this changes the fact that which hand you raised depended on which one you chose to raise. we are not morally responsible for anything we do. On the count of three: ONE. However. 4 . Alright.

These philosophers are aware that at first glance.e. (Note that this is different from saying that every event does not have a cause. Argument for determinism/responsibility incompatibilism Here is an argument that S1 (the first premise of Strawson’s overall argument) is true: C1.) So let’s focus on S1 and S2. not that all events are uncaused.very many.S3 is true by definition. His argument for this is as follows: 1. Strawson disagrees. they have causes (assuming that we live in a deterministic world). we are not morally responsible for anything we do. C2. and over which we had no control. 5 . Like other events.believe that determinism and moral responsibility can coexist. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------S1. you’ll see that there’s really no conflict between the two. actually -. it more or less follows from the definition of determinism. B. Indeterminism is the view that some events are uncaused. Desires and choices are events that take place in our heads (or minds). or at least doubtful. We are not morally responsible for the effects of events that are out of our control. Humean objections/Strawsonian replies Humean: “The fact that we live in a deterministic universe doesn’t mean that we never have desires or make choices.: is S1 actually false?) Some philosophers -. but they argue that if you think it through carefully. (follows from C1 and C2) C1 is uncontroversial. So. If we live in a deterministic world. determinism seems to leave no room for moral responsibility. since “indeterminism” is just defined as the negative of determinism: determinism says that every event has a prior cause. then each action we perform is an effect of events that occurred before we were born. if we live in a deterministic world. for one. but that does not call their existence into question.) 2. But why should we accept C2? David Hume. indeterminism says that not every event has a prior cause. Is determinism compatible with moral responsibility? (I. (And many philosophers following Hume have agreed with him that C2 is false. He thinks that there is an irreconcilable conflict between determinism and moral responsibilty. then he is entitled to his striking conclusion as well. thinks we should not accept it. If Strawson is entitled to these premises.

We are morally responsible for some effects of events that took place before we were born.” Humean: “Yes.or choice-driven behavior with a bad outcome deserves blame.effect. So even in a deterministic universe. he is already performing a kind of action: an inner action of intention-formation. The choice was the cause. But you don’t think it is morally responsible for its action. as such. determinism is also compatible with the fact that these desires and choices often cause us to act in certain ways.for performing the inner act of intention-formation -. he is morally responsible for forming this intention -. what more do you want? Surely. this desire or choice caused you to raise your right hand.” Humean: “I grant that the capacity to act on one’s desires is not enough to guarantee a capacity for morally responsible behavior (the bird is a case in point). as in the case of the bird).) is fully compatible with the fact (if it is a fact) that we live in a deterministic. and.things that might give people good reasons to think well or ill of us. if we have the ability to do things out of choice or desire. etc.So the fact that we have desires and make choices (mental decisions. acted on its desire to eat the fruit. But I don’t see how this alone is enough to make us morally responsible agents. a little while ago.only if he forms the intention intentionally. and not just any desire. according to you. I also agree that determinism is compatible with the fact that we often act out of desire or choice.“ Humean: “True. Well. What’s more. That 6 .” Strawsonian: “I agree that determinism is compatible with the existence of desires and choices.” Strawsonian: “So your view is that a person can be morally responsible for something he does.” Strawsonian: “But when a person forms an intention to do something. we have the ability to do things for which we are morally responsible -. Determinism doesn’t conflict with this. you had a desire (and made a choice) to raise your right hand. he must believe and desire that his action will have the outcome. This is because some of the effects of such long-ago events are also effects of our own choices and desires. after all. then we may hold him morally responsible for his action. any more than it conflicts with the fact that the motion of the moon causes the tide to rise or fall: cause -. But if an agent’s action is backed up by an intention (as opposed to a mere urge. we can do things because we want to do them and choose to do them. clockwork universe. The bird who stole your fruit. the action was the effect. The agent must also intend the good or bad outcome.or choice-driven behavior with a good outcome merits praise. For instance. Not just any desire.” Strawsonian: “But then. are things for which we may bear moral responsibility. provided that what causes him to do it is one of his own intentions. I conclude that C2 is false.

Ghandi as my role-model. but we do sometimes form them implicitly.” Strawsonian: “But then. or a group of friends). can form an 18th-order intention.” Strawsonian: “Certainly it is consistent with determinism. by choosing Ghandi as my role model. adopting a pacifist world-view. By the same token. there’s really no way that I. And living like Ghandi involves. and for which we are not. This is perfectly consistent with determinism. maybe I was too hasty when I said that we cannot form second-order intentions. that’s correct. he is morally responsible for intending to do X only if he intends to intend to do X. or a religion. he is responsible for forming this second intention (the intention to intend to do X) only if he forms it intentionally. If I choose. chooses.” Strawsonian: “OK. even if I can form a second. this is an impliction of my view. And so on. But still. we might not be able form these kinds of higher-order intentions explicitly. But the question of whether people are morally responsible for their actions is not the question of whether we have good reasons to praise 7 .” Humean: “Well. in effect. And it can be reasonable for blame or chastise people for the harm they do. every one of us has intentions that he or she does not intend to have.or even a third-order intention in the way you suggest (by choosing a role-model. because that can encourage them to do more good. intend to intend to avoid violent solutions to society’s problems. and intends not to promote political ends by violent means. only if he intends to intend to intend to do X.” Humean: “Yes.” Hume: “Yes. In fact. because that can discourage them from doing more harm. among other things. morally responsible.” Humean: “That’s true. So. or any other human being. ad infinitum. and that would have taken place regardless of his intentions and desires?” Humean: “The fact that all human action has its ultimate sources in events that predate the human race doesn’t mean that we can’t hold people responsible for what they do. according to you.e. all of our actions are ultimately grounded in intentions (of some order) that we do not intend to have.” Strawson: “But no one can form an infinite number of intentions! In fact.” Strawsonian: “But then how can we be responsible for the actions that flow from these intentions? How can it be reasonable to think ill (or well) of someone for an action that ultimately results from historical factors over which he has no control.. at some level. and no way that any being can form an infiniteorder intention. my intention is to live like Ghandi. i. say. which one can adopt only if one desires. It can be reasonable to praise people for the good they do. most people cannot even form an intention to intend (much less an intention to intend to intend).is. for example when we choose role-models. if you think about it. I do.

would that give him a good reason to think well or ill of them? Would it give him a good reason to resent it when his trees didn’t produce as much fruit as he expected. or well. And it seems to me that as long as people’s actions arise from factors that they cannot control. even though I may still have good reasons to praise. blame. with an actual instance of a person inflicting intentional harm. and maybe deal with the person as I would a dangerous wild animal (but using more subtle forms of behavior control). I fail to see how people are different from trees in this respect. and encourages them to produce good fruit.them or blame them. But this does not make it reasonable to think well or ill of the trees. if determinism is true. reward. or to promise them rewards. Faced with harmful human behavior. in real life. if he does major harm. And to the extent that he tends to give others pleasure and happiness. You admit that you 8 . When it comes to moral responsibility. or to threaten them with punishment. if thinking well of him will incline me to promote his interests.” Strawsonian: “You might as well say that he could have a good reason to let himself slip into madness. or to relieve their pain and suffering. or punish them for what they do. If he does minor harm. of him. and therefore encourage the further production of good acts? And don’t I have a good reason to think ill of someone who intentionally does bad things. Personally. or to feel grateful to them when they did?” Humean: “Maybe it would. on a child. Think of it this way: it is reasonable to prune and fertilize trees because doing so discourages them from producing bad fruit.” Humean: “But you admit that when you are think well or ill of them. But I’m afraid we are losing sight of the central issue here. I’ll think of him as a natural blessing. and the more I tend to think of him as a problem to be dealt with. I have no good reason to think well or ill of them for what they do. I’ll just do what I can to stay out of harm’s way. or a resource to enjoy. the question is whether we have good reasons to think well or ill of people for their actions -. in the sense of punishing or rewarding them for what they do. I’ll think of him as a pest rather than a jerk. not necessarily to speak well or ill of them. and I won’t have a desire to “get even”. Nor is the question whether it is reasonable for us to hold people responsible for their actions. say. I won’t get mad.” Humean: “Don’t I have a good reason to think well of someone who intentionally does good things. rather than as an object of admiration or gratitude. I’ll think of him as a public health hazard rather than a moral monster. your reaction is quite different from what it would have been had the harm resulted from some factor not backed up by intention. if thinking ill of him will incline me to thwart his bad-act production?” Strawsonian: “If thinking well or ill of his trees inclined a farmer to cultivate them in the most productive manner. the more I see a person’s behavior as having causes beyond his control. the less I am prepared to think ill.

he has his faults. In light of philosophical reflection.” Strawsonian: “Yes. wanted to do it. where its parents were. not according to your way of looking at things. he encounters an unattended child. But on this occasion. when I can reflect calmly on my reaction to the pedophile’s harmful behavior. It’s not that the mad scientist has any direct control over Smith’s muscles: the scientist cannot manipulate Smith’s body like a marionette. (Neither Smith nor anyone else is aware of this. But these reactions come in the heat of the moment. and certainly nothing that hints at criminal or psychopathic tendencies. At first. there’s really nothing special about Mr. Smith would stop and ask the child if it was OK. Smith. I’m listening. are we really to say that Smith is morally responsible for what he has done?” Humean: “Surely it is the mad scientist who is to blame in this scenario. as you have claimed.” Humean: “OK. Now. he’s just your ordinary nice guy -. 9 .react to a situation in which a child gets killed by a virus differently from how you react to one in which a child gets killed by a violent pedophile. and did it because he wanted to do it.” Strawsonian: “Consider the case of Mr.” Strawsonian: “We seem to be reaching an impasse. But that by itself does not absolve Smith of responsibility -. After all. Smith. He is a person very much like you or me. Later. then it seems we have no choice but to say that Smith is to blame for murdering the child. Smith murdered the child intentionally: he knew what he was doing. let me ask you to consider a thought-experiment that might change your mind.” Humean: “Maybe you should put more faith in your initial reactions than in your after-the-fact philosophical assessment of them. Normally. As he walks along. I judge it (I mean.” Strawsonian: “Undoubtedly the mad scientist bears a heavy moral responsibility for his nefarious actions. All he can do with his remote-controlled electrodes is to cause various desires and other psychological states to arise in Smith. As a last attempt to move forward. but nothing major. Smith goes for a walk along a secluded beach. enough to make a person a responsible agent. One day. I see that my reaction to the pedophile ought not to have been so very different from my reaction to the virus. If acting on an intention is. Supposing that he acts on this impulse and kills the child. my reaction) to have been unwarranted. etc. suppose that one day a mad scientist somehow secretly installs remote-controlled electrodes into Smith’s brain. the mad scientist remotely activates an electrode in Smith’s brain that causes Smith to have a sudden strong desire to strangle the child to death. I admit it.) These electrodes allow the mad scientist to stimulate Smith’s brain in such a way as to cause Smith to have any desire that he (the mad scientist) wants to Smith to least.

But why should we say that this someone is Smith? Smith would never have done such a thing. whereas in the ordinary murderer’s case. Is indeterminism a red herring? The next time you are trying to decide what to order off of a menu.” C. on my view. desires. At least. and doing at the time -. Smith. It seems to me that what the mad scientist succeeds in doing in this case is to take the good. then it is equally wrong to say that an ordinary murderer (one who is not in the grips of a mad scientist) is to blame for his homicidal acts. these forces take the form of a mad scientist. choices. it is completely out of character for Smith to have a sudden desire to kill a child (or anyone else for that matter). try to think of your deliberations -.” Strawsonian: “It seems the issue here is one of personal identity.” Humean: “I think you are moving rather too fast. How far can the mad scientist go in manipulating Smith’s beliefs. and scramble his mind to such an extent that Smith ends up getting replaced by a murderous villain who just happens to inhabit the body that Smith once inhabited. if he did somehow find himself having such a desire. just as much as Smith’s do. I’ve heard that Pelczar is going to cover that later in the semester. without destroying Smith and replacing him with another person? Who is the “real Smith”?” Humean: “Whoever he is.” Humean: “Perhaps we should sit in on those lectures. I admit that someone is to blame for strangling the child. it is wrong to say this if determinism is true. But this is not a morally relevant difference -. he would suppress it. To begin with. kind Mr. It is just that in Smith’s case. then the ordinary murder’s desires and intentions arise from forces beyond his all being the effects of events in 10 . in your example..Yet it seems to me that this is the wrong thing to say. least. For if determinism is true.everything you are thinking.” Strawsonian: “I suppose that we won’t be in a position to settle this matter until we look into the question of personal identity. I mean. But now we have even less reason to think that the person who strangles the child is Smith.” Strawsonian: “Well. as would any normal person of good character. since someone intentionally strangled the child to death. they take the form of physical laws combined with events in the distant past. not only the mad scientist is responsible for wrongdoing.” Humean: “You can suppose that if you like. we can suppose that the mad scientist also has the ability to shut down Smith’s capacity for desire-suppression. etc. I say. Furthermore. And this new (and dangerous) inhabitant of Smith’s body is. not as far as the question of responsibility for strangling the child is concerned. And if it is the wrong thing to say. morally responsible for the child’s murder. I admit that. it seems pretty clear to me he was not at the scene of the crime.

and your act of focusing on the inner monologue in which you are having all these thoughts. as determinism implies.not decisive reasons. and your act of reflecting on the fact that your decision. everything we do results from forces beyond our control. (I say “seems” to preclude. when I do something for which I am morally responsible. if only we could find a way to argue that our actions do not result from events that took place before we were born. namely random events. whatever it turns out to be.for thinking that we are not responsible for our actions if. According to this theory. long ago. as we have just seen.if you can pull it off -. there are reasons -. will have among its causes events that occurred before you were born. and these events have had many effects in the past. It is in this sense that indeterminism is a red herring in the debate about free will and moral responsibility. It’s not an easy exercise. So it is our lack of control over various causes of our actions that seems to preclude moral responsibility.. Determinism seems to pose a threat to moral responsibility because it implies that everything we do is caused by events that took place before we were born.) But -. This is the strategy of Jean-Paul Sartre and other proponents of what I’ve called the Radical Will Theory. and -. in that it holds out a false promise of allowing us to construe our actions as events over which we have a kind of ultimate control -. It is hard to see oneself as a product of forces beyond one’s control. And. they still arise from events over which we have no control. MWP 11 . including your act of trying to decide what to order. It is a red herring. Taken together.. before you were even born. Why does the fact that our actions arise from long-past events seem to absolve us of responsibility? It is because we have no control over events that took place before we were born.a kind of control that determinism rules out. in terms of the prima facie threat it poses to moral responsibility. it can induce a sort of vertiginous and as it were out-of-body experience. but reasons worthy of serious consideration -. It is even harder to see oneself as unresponsible for any of one’s actions (as convenient as such a self-image would sometimes be). Certain events occurred long. Whether it really does preclude it is another issue. and they are having many effects now. these considerations make it tempting to try to salvage moral responsibility by rejecting determinism.and this is the crucial point -. This makes it tempting to think that we could rescue moral act that is original-with-me in the sense of having its origins entirely within my own psychology. So it turns out that indeterminism is no different from determinism. perhaps. my action proceeds from an act of will that has no causal history -. over which Hume and Strawson obviously disagree.the distant past. But this is a mistake.even if our actions or choices are undetermined.your act of focusing on your act of focusing.

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