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Response to Strawson on the Impossibility of Moral Responsibility

In a 2008 paper published in Real Materialism and Other Essays by Galen Strawson (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 2008) and uploaded onto academia.edu by the author, Galen Strawson argues for the impossibility of what he terms ultimate moral responsibility. He does so based on the argument that nothing can be the cause of itself (it’s a logical impossibility for there to be uncaused phenomena, events, entities, etc.) and presents his argument in several iterations including a formal argument and a more informal one. Here is one version of his informal statement of his case:

(1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise)

(2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience.

(3)For both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And

(4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience.

(5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random factors. But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesi in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is.

He continues:

The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions . . .

By adding the qualifier of “ultimately” to “responsible” he allows moral discourse to incorporate various lesser claims of responsibility. The possibilities may include feelings of responsibility even if we have no objective responsibility as well as distinctly non-moral versions of responsibility (e.g., being obliged to follow some given set of societal prescriptions for prudential reasons). But, in essence, he wants to offer an argument which denies peculiarly moral responsibility and, thus, the validity of supposing we ever really make moral choices in the way we think we do. On this view morality is illusion . . . .

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Truth, Belief and Moral Reasons

The point of making moral claims is to tell others and ourselves what we should or should not attempt to do. To accomplish this we produce statements about the shoulds and should nots which amount to reasons, i.e., providing our interlocutors (or ourselves) with information whose possession amounts to a source of motivation (a desire and a decision, when that becomes possible) to act. There are many sorts of reasons for acting, of course, including belief in the efficacy of the act for bringing about something we want (or which we believe we should want) or belief in the desirability (for whatever reason) of the act or object of the act, itself. Reasons stand at the heart of moral claims. And they imply a demand for justification because no reason stands alone. It's always part of a string of justifications: do this because of that, because of something else, etc. But reasons come to an end. If they did not, we would always be arguing (with others or ourselves) and never acting. At some point we must agree that something is reason enough or else the process is never ending and cannot result in action.

Sometimes we just stop the process of justifying arbitrarily. We grow tired, either explicitly or implicitly, and finally act, or desist from acting, without demand for further reasons. And many actions we take are done with no prior consideration of explicit reasons at all. We just act -- and perhaps compile and report our reasons after the fact. Actions are not dependent on reasoning to be actions although deliberating about what we should do and then doing it (or not) represents a large class of our actions as human beings. Those actions which we deliberate about, seeking for, and adducing and evaluating reasons, before acting, are the ones that are generally relevant to moral considerations. Actions performed instinctively, reflexively or mechanically (perhaps by habit or conditioning) fall outside the realm of moral consideration (except to the extent that we can address and alter our habits, conditioning and so forth). Morally relevant actions are those which we have the capacity to think about and weigh our alternatives before and during the acts themselves.

But to think about our actions in this way implies something else, namely that there is a potential for our beliefs about them to be correct or incorrect, true or false, thus worthy of our attention and action or not. . . .

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Value, Self-Interest and Moral Reasoning

In a paper available on academia.edu, Marc Champagne argues for a naturalized ethics via the idea of the "umwelt" or surrounding world which he ascribes to the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexkull, and which he filters through Ayn Rand's objective egoism. According to Champagne,

In an effort to bring substance to the right-headed suggestion that values are rooted in the biological and conform to species-specific requirements, we present a novel conception that strives to make explicit the elemental structure underlying umwelt normativity. Building and expanding on the seminal work of Ayn Rand in metaethics, we describe values as an intertwined lattice which takes a creature’s own embodied life as its ultimate standard; and endeavour to show how, from this, all subsequent valuations can in principle be determined.

In essence, he argues that the Humean notion of an is/ought dichotomy collapses once one recognizes that every living thing (being a system that's self-sustaining and so inclined to "pursue" its own survival by its very nature) exists in a world with a normative dimension. Everything in such an entity's world is subject to an attraction, repulsion or neutral charge for that entity. It's something to which the entity is either drawn or from which it flees or it is something towards which the entity is indifferent, in the background so to speak. This, he argues, is as true for plants as it is for animals though animals, of course, are differently constituted to interact with their world. For the ant, he writes, the stem of a flower is a highway to its "hunting ground," to us it's what supports a flower while to a cow it's part of its meal. Different organisms have different needs and so different means of responding to the elements of their world. This, he suggests, is Uexkull's "umwelt," the kind of world each organism exists in.

Thus, on this view, value is just the attraction/repulsion charge which any distinguished thing in the surrounding world of the organism has and this charge is always there, always a part of the world of that organism, i.e., it comes with the territory of being a living, self-sustaining system such as we and all the plants and animals of our universe are. . . .

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Logic, Value and Our Moral Claims

When we think about language, logic seems to be an intrinsic part of what we have in mind. It’s logic, after all, i.e., the rules of relations between expressions of thought as realized in language, that make any language intelligible. This seems so because, without such rules built into it, language could not do its job.

To the extent that language is about referring, either by describing or naming (i.e., using words to point out or point at things), logic (the rules by which we put our referring terms together to accomplish the foregoing in complex ways which succeed as communication) is indispensible. And so logic seems an indispensible element of any language that we recognize as a language.

Of course, language consists of more than just the complex process of asserting things about other things. It includes doing things like signaling and expressing our emotional states for the benefit of others (so they will see and react to those expressions) and it’s this aspect in our languages that we find, in various forms, in the broader animal kingdom of which we are a part. Language also includes other types of things we can do with our words such as voicing imperatives (do this, don’t do that) which seem to depend, at least in part on, our assertoric capabilities (the capacity to describe and name things). Language is plainly multi-faceted and at least one more thing we do with words, in the context of speaking a language, is to evaluate the things we make assertions about. Indeed, even the assertions themselves, when these are taken as referents (depictable elements in the world) in their own right, are subject to valuation by us.

Unlike logic, however, which we seem to take on faith, seeing little reason to trouble ourselves about justifying it as part of language, valuing appears to occupy a different niche in our thoughts about language and what we do with it . . . .

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The Problem with Properties

When we use a term like “property” in relation to things having them, we suppose we know what we mean. What we have in mind in these cases is just some feature (or features) of a thing which, along with other features, combine to make it what it is. That is, we suppose that a property is that element or aspect of a thing which possesses it – along with every other element or aspect of it which then, if all are specified in full, would convey to an interlocutor the complete picture of the object in question. The property of a thing, in this sense, is any of its parts or elements which are accessible to us via the senses, either directly or indirectly.

Synonyms for the word “property” in various contexts include words like “feature,” “quality,” “aspect,” “element,” “constituent,” “characteristic,” “part,” and so on. None of these may be precisely the same as what we mean by “property” in every case for some are more specific, or refer to physical elements of a thing only while others have a more abstract reality. The idea of a “feature,” for instance, suggests something that may belong to a thing but is not an intrinsic part of it, i.e., something temporarily connected to the thing in question. A “quality” of a thing seems to suggest an evaluative or evaluated fact about it. An “aspect” conjures the picture of a particular appearance of something, depending on the viewer’s perspective and to speak of a thing’s “characteristic” suggests something not quite physical, something more like an effect the thing has on its observer, i.e., something it’s prone to produce in observers. The word “element” suggests some basic constituent part of the thing while the term “constituents,” itself, suggests parts, albeit not necessarily basic ones (i.e., something that is non-reducible to anything more basic than itself). . . .

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A Jamesian Wittgenstein?

A former professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper of his on Richard Rorty and another on John Dewey recently for some comments. I have never been much for American Pragmatism, not since, as an undergraduate, I read a bit of William James and John Dewey and thought them somewhat soft as thinkers. I also concluded, probably because of the way an instructor at the time presented the two, that American Pragmatism really amounted to an argument that the truth is just whatever works and that's the whole story. This just seemed superficial and wrong to me and I gravitated, instead, to what seemed the more rigorous Analytic tradition in England. Later, I discovered Wittgenstein and his approach opened things up for me in a way that made analytic philosophy seem rather limited, too. I learned, eventually, that Wittgenstein was not well read in philosophy however, although he apparently liked Schopenhauer (at least in his youth) and, at some point in his career, had read William James. That surprised me because it seemed to me that there was a huge gap between James' seemingly superficial pragmatic vision of philosophy and Wittgenstein's penetrating understanding of how language shapes and reflects the way we understand things. Yet, years later I discovered that more and more thinkers were finding in Wittgenstein a pragmatic strain linking him firmly to the work of people like James, especially in light of his almost off-hand remark about 'meaning as use' (Philosophical Investigations). This approach forms the basis for understanding semantics in pragmatic terms, an approach to meaning in language that has taken hold in later Anglo-American philosophical thought. Marantz' papers reminded me of all this and were suggestive, as well, in their treatment of Rorty and Dewey.

A number of modern thinkers, Robert Brandom among them, have argued that Wittgenstein in fact stands in a long tradition of pragmatists going back at least as far as Kant and coming up through Hegel to the classic American Pragmatists (Peirce, James and Dewey) and flowering in the efforts of Wittgenstein and Heidegger (no less!) to find a modern voice in the work of people like the American philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and Richard Rorty. Pragmatism was back -- indeed if Brandom is right, it never left us. Only some, like me, had failed to notice. A year ago I picked up a book in a used book store by William James. Two books actually in one volume: Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. This volume, with an introduction by A.J. Ayer, consolidates two sets of lectures delivered by James, the first set in Boston as the Lowell Lectures in 1906 and later at Columbia University (with some slight changes according to Ayer) in 1907. The first set was published in 1907 as Pragmatism. The text of that work forms the first part of the volume I bought, which I finally started reading just a few weeks ago. To my surprise, it contains elements which anticipate and predate Wittgenstein's influential On Certainty. In fact, some of the similarities are astounding . . .

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Moral Judgment, Factual Belief and Wittgenstein's "On Certainty"

Returning to an issue dealt with here a while back, I thought it might be helpful to recap what may be understood as a later Wittgensteinian perspective on moral valuing. John Whittaker, explicating the Wittgensteinian thinker from Swansea, R. W. Beardsmore, wrote that:

If we distinguish between Wittgenstein’s substantive moral views, expressed in his early Lecture on Ethics, and his more discriminating grammatical approach to logical issues that we find in the later works, we can say that R. W. Beardsmore tried to bring this latter way of doing philosophy to ethics. One might even say that he tried to give ethics something like a Wittgensteinian moral epistemology. That would be misleading if it were thought to imply anything like a theoretical system for making moral discoveries or resolving moral problems. But if epistemological work includes conceptual clarity about the distinctions that we commonly observe when we are making moral judgements – but which we often forget when we reflect analytically on what we are doing – then it can be said that Beardsmore brought some epistemological light to the dark subject of moral judgement. Contrary to the aspirations of many, Beardsmore tried to show that there is no such thing as an ultimate, rational ground of moral justification in ethics. Not that there are no arguments, but our arguments always rest on deep, often unspoken, moral commitments. These commitments involve our conceptions of value, and the place that they occupy in our thinking does not rest on evidentiary grounds.


If Whittaker's take on Beardsmore is right, then Beardsmore was arguing that a Wittgensteinian approach to ethics works rather like Wittgenstein's approach to knowledge in On Certainty. That is, claims about our moral standards (rather than about the moral judgments we make based on them) are not subject to debate as such because we stand upon them in making the various judgments we make. And yet it's not so easy to distinguish between a particular judgment and the standard it expresses. . . .

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