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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. Blame or praise for the behaviors of others, or for their guidance (or our own), can never be more than a chimera, something we fool ourselves about. Of course, if people come to this conclusion, after considering arguments like Strawson's, they will have no reason to act or refrain from acting for specifically moral reasons.

This rejection of moral possibility is not unique with Strawson. Others have hazarded this approach including thinkers like J. L. Mackie and, in more recent times, Richard Garner. Both argue for the unreality of moral notions of goodness with Mackie suggesting that such notions can yet be useful social fictions (rather like the Marxian assertion about religion being “the opiate of the people"). If so then moral notions may still deserve a place in our discourse although those of us who see through them, to discern the fictions they are, will then have to make the choice of whether or not to play along. Failing to do so simply removes us from the game of moral responsibility.

Garner, for his part, proposes jettisoning the concepts of morality entirely in favor of psychological notions about our better and worse choices for the purpose of getting along with others in the world while still attending to the satisfaction of our own individual needs, goals, etc—those which are worthy of our attention in any case. For Garner, ethics can still be done in a sense, albeit without the antiquated notion of morality which consists of belief in some special sort of moral authority. He equates moral valuing, as a phenomenon (a form of activity which we engage in), with schemas we build on a framework of prescribed codes of action, the prescriptions for which can never, he tells us, be justified as they seem to require. That is moral claims, for Garner, simply lack the authority we suppose them to have, moral valuing proper simply pretending to an authority which sets their claims above other value claims even though no basis for such authority can be demonstrated to exist.

Thus, while Mackie provides a kind of linguistic cover for continuing to make use of moral discourse, Garner suggests we do away with moral categories entirely, replacing them with a kind of non-moral ethical language—a discourse concerning judgments for acting, or refraining from acting, that reflects other factors influencing and shaping our choices. Garner offers the ancient Mediterranean world's Stoics and the Buddhist and Taoist approaches of the ancient east as better models for guiding and judging behaviors than the moral codes model prevalent in the West today. In so doing, he seems to have simply moved the goal posts, however, redefining the kind of thing we think of as moral valuation in different terms.

But Strawson's attack looks more serious because it focuses on the impossibility of a self judging ever itself (in terms of the quality of the actions it performs) since whatever we think the self is (what we can say about how that person behaves) is entirely a function of that person's biological predispositions and the cultural influences which have shaped them. On Strawson's view, the self cannot change itself because it cannot cause changes in itself in a fashion that reflects a judgment that lies outside it. Whatever the self decides to do is already decided, in a sense, because it will reflect what that self already is. Any such changes which it thinks it’s implementing are already predetermined by the agent’s dispositions (both inherited and trained). Thus there is no room on Strawson’s view for moral culpability—not only in the sense Garner uses "moral" but in his broader valuational sense as well. And without the possibility of doing something that is not already predetermined by one’s personal and biological history, even the useful fiction of moral belief as proposed by Mackie cannot stand. To the extent we think we are all victims of forces outside ourselves (either heredity or cultural or both) there can be no independent judgment of the choices we make other than that which reflects whatever it is we want (or think we want) at any given moment.

In the paper Strawson says he has found this argument compelling with his students but most philosophical professionals tend to dismiss it as:

. . .wrong, or irrelevant, or fatuous, or too rapid, or an expression of metaphysical megalomania. And I think that it is the natural light, not fear, that has convinced the students I have taught that this is so.

He adds:

I think that the Basic Argument is certainly valid in showing that we cannot be morally responsible in the way that many suppose. . . . . If one wants to think about free will and moral responsibility, consideration of some version of the Basic Argument is an overwhelmingly natural place to start. It certainly has to be considered at some point in a full discussion of free will and moral responsibility, even if the point it has to make is obvious. Belief in the kind of absolute moral responsibility that it shows to be impossible has for a long time been central to the Western religious, moral, and cultural tradition, even if it is now slightly on the wane (a disputable view). It is a matter of historical fact that concern about moral responsibility has been the main moto —indeed the ratio essendi—of discussion of the issue of free will. The only way in which one might hope to show (1) that the Basic Argument is not central to the free will debate would be to show (2) that the issue of moral responsibility is not central to the free will debate. There are, obviously, ways of taking the word ‘free’ in which (2) can be maintained. But (2) is clearly false nonetheless.

Strawson is right, I think, that the question of free will is critical to the possibility of moral valuation (or any sort of valuation, actually, though it's moral valuation, uniquely, where our freedom to choose, based on our judgments about reasons, really matters). Whether we like vanilla flavored ice cream more than chocolate or raspberry is not a very significant concern in the choice of which to eat. No one thinks our dispositions to favor one flavor over another are somehow rendered pointless or unreal just because we may have certain biological factors in our taste buds or bodily needs which manifest as taste preferences. Nor does anyone think that liking what we have become familiar with, or conditioned to, undermines the quality of our choice in choosing vanilla rather than raspberry. The physically and behaviorally conditioned preferences we have simply don't matter at this level of valuation.

But when more is at stake, as is the case in moral valuing, when the issue is whether the person is acting in ways that are appropriate when behaving toward and with other persons, then we want to be able to tell the agent that he or she must choose correctly, that there's more at stake than in such cases than when choosing from competing ice cream flavors.

But we cannot claim there are such stakes in the moral case if our decisions about whether to pay for that ice cream (or just to steal it), or whether to deny it to someone who is starving so we can enjoy it, or whether to use our funds (which were intended to purchase it) for some other purpose involving others, are thought to be the outcome of factors which compel us, even if we are unaware of them. If the freedom to choose isn't available to us, including the real possibility of doing something else, then moral responsibility is impossible—and so are genuine moral choices. If Strawson's argument, hinging on the impossibility of a "self" choosing actions that are inconsistent with itself (its present wants, needs, desires, inclinations, etc.), as that self is constituted at the time of the choice, then moral valuing must really be impossible and even the solutions offered by people like Mackie and Garner are unavailable to us.

As Strawson goes on to say:

In saying that the notion of moral responsibility criticized by the Basic Argument is central to the Western tradition, I am not suggesting that it is some artificial and local Judaeo–Christian–Kantian construct that is found nowhere else in the history of the peoples of the world, although even if it were that would hardly diminish its interest and importance for us. It is natural to suppose that Aristotle also subscribed to it, and it is significant that anthropologists have suggested that most human societies can be classified either as ‘guilt cultures’ or as ‘shame cultures’. It is true that neither of these two fundamental moral emotions necessarily presupposes a conception of oneself as truly morally responsible for what one has done. But the fact that both are widespread does at least suggest that a conception of moral responsibility similar to our own is a natural part of the human moral-conceptual repertoire.

Strawson explains:

Suppose you set off for a shop . . . intending to buy a cake with your last ten pound note. On the steps of the shop someone is shaking an Oxfam tin. You stop, and it seems completely clear to you that it is entirely up to you what you do next. That is, it seems to you that you are truly, radically free to choose, in such a way that you will be ultimately morally responsible for whatever you do choose. Even if you believe that determinism is true, and that you will in five minutes time be able to look back and say that what you did was determined, this does not seem to undermine your sense of the absoluteness and inescapability of your freedom, and of your moral responsibility for your choice. The same seems to be true even if you accept the validity of the Basic Argument stated in §1, which concludes that one cannot be in any way ultimately responsible for the way one is and decides. In both cases, it remains true that as one stands there, one’s freedom and true moral responsibility seem obvious and absolute to one.

In essence, Strawson's argument is that we do what we do because of what we are and, even if what we do affects what we are (as it arguably must), at any given moment it is only what we are which determines how we respond to the options before us because what we think, in any given case, is already determined by what we are and have been.

The farther back you go in this chain of causes, so must you inevitably come to rest at a place where what you are is given by your genetic make-up and the enculturation which informs your upbringing and education. We are caused but not the causes of what we are in this sense. So how anyone can be held morally responsible for his or her own actions, if what he or she thinks about them (and so judges what’s right or wrong to do—such thoughts being aspects of the self who is acting) is unclear at best, impossible at worst.

On this view the possibility of moral praise or blame, the very possibility of supposing judgment in the actors, must collapse and with it the entire edifice of moral valuing. Here Strawson's argument seems to rest on two suppositions.

The first regards free will and what it means to have it. There is no denying, of course, that we feel free when we confront the possibility of making choices in the real world (s demonstrated by Strawson’s Oxfam tin example above. I feel as if I can type the next word as I’m writing this sentence or cut away to look at something else for a moment or just throw up my hands and cease to write anything at all. And, of course, I may agonize here and there over the choice of a word or phrase, always convinced I could have done otherwise. Freedom of will is a feeling that attends most of our everyday acts at multiple levels, even if sometimes we also feel compelled to do some things (to eat if we are ravenously hungry or to sleep if our eyes are heavy and we’re having trouble staying awake). That is, there’s a whole range of behaviors available to us, and not just on the moral front, wherein we think we have choices, even if it's the moral dimension that seems to demand the most from our capacity to choose.

To the extent that causal factors constrain physical entities like ourselves they are certainly exceedingly complex. A person may bump into me in the street without any intention of doing so and cause me to stumble or move to one side. But it's not this level of causation that concerns us here. To the extent this is about agential choice, the possibility of thinking about and drawing conclusions and coming to decisions based on those conclusions is what matters and this means the workings of our brains in producing our mental world. Here, too, causation seems to be the operant factor because brains, being physical entities, operate according to physical laws. At the cellular level, too, and below, at the molecular and atomic levels, physical causes govern what happens. Few today would dispute that brains are physical and so is what they do (causing the subjective dimension in entities like ourselves which we recognize as our mental lives).

But as with the stranger bumping into us in the street, it's not the relation between physical phenomena coming in contact, one with the other, that’s at issue here but the choices, the agential deliberations that lead to decisions to act and to the actions which realize those decisions that matter. At this level one may well ask whether the pervasive role of physical relations really matters to the choices we're considering.

Of course without such relational activity on a physical level there is no mental life and so no actions that come from it. But discourse about deliberative choice and actions is not focused on the underlying physical dimension which produces, through its activity, the mental phenomena of choosing and acting. Its concern is with what the mental entity the brain makes in each of us is looking at, thinking about, deciding to do, etc.

Whether or not there is physical causation at this level simply seems irrelevant. The question is whether a physically caused self, a subject distinguished by having a mental life, can choose freely on its own level of operation. Even if we are all constrained at the various micro levels available to physical phenomena, still we want to know if those constraints have an impact on our moral level of operation. And here it seems that the answer is to point out that there is simply no translation from physical activity at a micro level to the physical activity manifested at the intentional level. Actions taken by agents via deliberation, whatever the physical underpinnings of that deliberation, are finally actions taken by decision, by volition.

Yet this removal from the physical domain still can't assure us of free will on the intentional level (or at least enough of it to justify a belief in moral responsibility) if Strawson is right. As he notes, the mental life which each self possesses is itself a function of certain physically determined predispositions including the preferences and inclinations we are biologically geared to have. Moreover, to the extent these elements are alterable in us, it seems that they, we are altered by forces outside our control, that is by others’ intentions (whether explicitly expressed or merely implicitly embedded in the cultural milieu in which we are nurtured and educated). Even assuming other mental lives which are, themselves, grounded in other physical activity, our mental lives are not strictly speaking our own. On the view Strawson has sketched, they are not made by us but what we are made of. To the extent any choice and any action we make in the course of our lives simply reflects the mental state we are in when we make it, it seems reasonable to say, as Strawson does, that we are not the ones deciding—even if it seems otherwise to us. And if we're not, then there can be no real moral responsibility (just the illusion of that) and so no real moral dimension to our behavior.

This, perhaps, takes us closer to the real issue at hand and that is to what extent, if any, can one be responsible for what one is over the course of one's life? More significantly, can one act in ways that are contrary to what one already is and can one's actions, in doing so, alter in some fashion what one happens to be?

If the answers to these questions are negative, then moral discourse is, as Strawson suggests, illusory because we can never be held responsible for what we choose to do. Indeed, we can never choose other than what we are already predisposed to do. And even if this seems to run up against how things seem to us when we act, the truth of the matter will be that moral valuing is unreal, a lie we tell ourselves and others. Strawson again:

. . . if one takes the notion of justice that is central to our intellectual and cultural tradition seriously, then the evident consequence of the Basic Argument is that there is a fundamental sense in which no punishment or reward is ever ultimately just. It is exactly as just to punish or reward people for their actions as it is to punish or reward them for the (natural) colour of their hair or the (natural) shape of their faces. The point seems obvious, and yet it contradicts a fundamental part of our natural self-conception, and there are elements in human thought that move very deeply against it. When it comes to questions of responsibility, we tend to feel that we are somehow responsible for the way we are. Even more importantly, perhaps, we tend to feel that our explicit self-conscious awareness of ourselves as agents who are able to deliberate about what to do, in situations of choice, suffices to constitute us as morally responsible free agents in the strongest sense, whatever the conclusion of the Basic Argument.

Strawson explores three possibilities for restoring the notion of free will to moral discourse and rejects them all. He acknowledges the compatibilist position (that feeling like we have freedom at our level is enough, even if we are physically determined all the way down), but argues that it is insufficient to answer the free will challenge of his argument because moral discourse demands a higher standard of freedom, namely the capacity to choose differently than we chose at the intentional level. Compatibilism merely preserves the appearance of moral choice on this view. He also rejects the libertarian account which asserts a degree of free will on the grounds that human behavior contains at least some indeterminate elements. Such indeterminism, he suggests, merely support the idea of luck in our behaviors, i.e., that what is undetermined in our choices is that only because of contingently serendipitous occurrences over which we have no more control than we have over what we have been determined, by forces outside of ourselves, to do. If the point, says Strawson, is to restore responsibility to moral choice, luck serves us no better than pre-determined inclination. He concludes:

The general objection applies equally whether determinism is true or false, and can be restated as follows. We are born with a great many genetically determined predispositions for which we are not responsible. We are subject to many early influences for which we are not responsible. These decisively shape our characters, our motives, the general bent and strength of our capacity to make efforts of will. We may later engage in conscious and intentional shaping procedures—call them S-procedures—designed to affect and change our characters, motivational structure, and wills. Suppose we do. The question is then why we engage in the particular S-procedures that we do engage in, and why we engage in them in the particular way that we do. The general answer is that we engage in the particular S-procedures that we do engage in, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves, because of certain features of the way we already are. (Indeterministic factors may also play a part in what happens, but these will not help to make us responsible for what we do.) And these features of the way we already are—call them character features, or C-features—are either wholly the products of genetic or environmental influences, deterministic or random, for which we are not responsible, or are at least partly the result of earlier S-procedures, which are in turn either wholly the product of C-features for which we are not responsible, or are at least partly the product of still earlier S-procedures, which are in turn either the products of C-features for which we are not responsible, or the product of such C-features together with still earlier S-procedures—and so on. In the end, we reach the first S-procedure, and this will have been engaged in, and engaged in the particular way in which it was engaged in, as a result of genetic or environmental factors, deterministic or random, for which we were not responsible.

Having dispatched the compatibilist and libertarian responses, he turns to a third option which he characterizes as "phenomenological" because it’s grounded, he says, in the sense we have of ourselves when thinking about and deciding on our actions. This sort of rejoinder to his basic argument stands on the notion that "One is free and truly morally responsible because one’s self is, in a crucial sense, independent of one’s character or personality or motivational structure—one’s CPM, for short," he writes.

He argues that, in fact, one's self is not independent of these things at all:

The trouble with the picture is obvious. [The self or "S"] decides on the basis of the deliverances of one’s CPM. But whatever S decides, it decides as it does because of the way it is (or else because partly or wholly because of the occurrence in the decision process of indeterministic factors for which it—i.e.one—cannot be responsible, and which cannot plausibly be thought to contribute to one’s true moral responsibility). And this returns us to where we started. To be a source of true or ultimate responsibility, S must be responsible for being the way it is. But this is impossible, for the reasons given in the Basic Argument.

But is it genuinely impossible, as Strawson asserts, for the self to be responsible for what it does, even granting that it consists, at any given moment, of a set of "character or personality or motivational structure" traits for which it is not, itself, responsible and for which it can never be at the moment of deciding (because those mental elements, however defined, are pre-existing for that particular decision)? This requires consideration of two elements which Strawson overlooks. The first is the nature of valuing itself and its role in our thinking lives. The second is the notion of the self and how it fits into a valuational framework.

To the extent that valuing is just a kind of rational activity we engage in (the sorting and ranking of discernible referents, whether observable phenomena or conceptually conceivable) we may apply this process to all sorts of things. Among these, obviously, are actions (which typically express the values we hold, themselves, i.e., the output of the decisions we make in relation to the world of referents before us). Actions, no less than ice cream cones and other types of physical phenomena or circumstances consisting of complex arrangements of such phenomena, can be referred to because they are describable and so conceivable.

Now when anything is a referent, it can also be evaluated (sorted and ranked) because it can be thought about and compared to other things of like type or even of varying types. In fact, it is precisely this that moral valuing purports to do, i.e., it values our actions (though it's not the only form of valuing actions possible for us, i.e., we can and certainly consider actions for their prudential or practical value for us, too).

But what part of an action is morally relevant? If we agree that ice cream cones are morally irrelevant in themselves, except under certain circumstances (such as who is to get one, why, etc.) then the action of securing the ice cream cone and doing something with it will also be morally irrelevant to the extent it consists of nothing more than physical phenomena or particular arrangements of such phenomena as these relate to the valuing subject. But no action, no deliberative action that is, consists solely of such phenomena. The very notion that the action is agentially generated (through a deliberative process) implies a component in the action that is not merely a physical phenomenon, not merely the efforts and motions that go into effecting the action in the world. Critical to it being an action, and so being evaluated as an action, and not just some observable phenomenon, is that which underlies it, which, in fact, generates it. And here we must look to the intention of the agent who acts.

But intentions are not only not physical in the relevant sense (even if they result from the very physical activity of the brain's constituent parts), they are, in fact, not anything discernible at all. There are no mental phenomena we can uniquely describe as an intention. Intentions are just what we call the range of thoughts, feelings and beliefs an agent has at the moment leading up to acting and during the action itself to the extent they are implicated in the decision to act. The intention is just a momentary slice of the agent's broader and more enduring mental life. The intention is referable but not in a physical way. When we see intentions in behaviors what we see are the actions within contexts, contexts which imply a thinking agent behind them. Such actions fit into a narrative about the agent, and the world within which it acts. Importantly, we note that this mental life is present and that it is nothing more nor less than what we call the "self."

Strawson's argument hinges on a picture of the “self” as a thing that is determined in the way phenomena in the world are determined, i.e., as caused by whatever comes before it and thus brings it about. As Strawson notes, things don’t cause themselves and to the extent the self is taken to be a thing in this sense it must be thought to be caused. But this confuses the idea that brains, doing whatever they do, cause the mental lives which we take to be our interior selves, with the idea that the self, as an array of mental events, exists in a world of cause and effect. That picture of the self belongs on an entirely different level of analysis than the idea of the self as the mental life of brains and the entities which have brains.

Considered as an array of mental events, there are no strict causal phenomena to be discerned even if selves, seen this way, are delimited by the physical factors of the brains which produce them. The self as a referent presents us with no particular thing to be discerned by observation and examination. It’s just an ongoing range of mental events which can be said to constitute the particular agent's mental life, a steady stream of experiences of all manners and types, from feelings and beliefs to memories and expectations, from wants and needs to preferences and aversions. This "self" is a fiction in an important sense. But not in every sense for the use of the term "self" for the stream of mental phenomena is built into how we think about what we are. What's fictional for the reader of a novel is not fictional to the characters within it and we, like those characters, are firmly embedded in our own narratives. Here the idea of a self, of our having a self, is intrinsic to how we talk and think about our world and our place in it. It's simply inconceivable that we could dispense with the idea of a self when thinking about creatures like ourselves.

It's at this level of "self" that we can find a form of valuation which we can equate with what we mean by the moral. To the extent that every deliberative action is an expression of intention and every intention a momentary slice or picture of an ongoing mental life, we can, and do, distinguish between the self of the moment and our ongoing self, i.e., the one that exists as a stream of mental events extending forward and backward in our thoughts to the extent we can recall the past and project a future.

Thus, at the level that moral evaluation matters, where the question is what can we say about how we are at this moment, and how that fits with what we may expect to be or with what we were, the momentary self associated with any action is assessable from a different standpoint than the ongoing self. Indeed we can look at the self in slices and not as an indivisible whole, this latter approach being limited to things with an entity-like ontology.

The momentary self which acts is a piece or segment of that stream which constitutes the ongoing or continuing self. The self, each and every aspect we can think about, is only a picture of a moment, or of the many moments in which we stand. As such, moral evaluation, seen as the assessment of our intentional lives through judgment of our actions, becomes possible in a phenomenological way, contra Strawson's rejection of this argument.

"Character is destiny" he notes, paraphrasing George Eliot, who, in a footnote he offers, was echoing Heracleitus:

Th[at] remark is inaccurate, because external circumstances are part of destiny, but the point is well taken when it comes to the question of moral responsibility. Nothing can be causa sui, and in order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects. One cannot institute oneself in such a way that one can take over true or assume moral responsibility for how one is in such a way that one can indeed be truly morally responsible for what one does. This fact is not changed by the fact that we may be unable not to think of ourselves as truly morally responsible in ordinary circumstances. Nor is it changed by the fact that it may be a very good thing that we have this inability—so that we might wish to take steps to preserve it, if it looked to be in danger of fading.

Of course, if "it might be a very good thing," as he suggests, then how might it be good if not in a moral way? If only practically good, then preserving a delusion that there is moral choice and responsibility, is simply irrelevant to establishing a moral valuation for it, thereby forsaking the hope of moral implication for it. Strawson, in affirming his “Basic” argument, acknowledges that the opinion that moral choices do matter is very strong in us despite what he takes to be the definitiveness of his argument but none of that has any bearing on the possibility of genuine moral responsibility:

However self-consciously aware we are, as we deliberate and reason, every act and operation of our mind happens as it does as a result of features for which we are ultimately in no way responsible. But the conviction that self-conscious awareness of one’s situation can be a sufficient foundation of strong free will is very powerful. It runs deeper than rational argument, and it survives untouched, in the everyday conduct of life, even after the validity of the Basic Argument has been admitted.

Yet, if we abandon the idea implicit in his analysis, that the self must be some sort of defined thing in the world, something caused in the relevant sense (by the actions or effects of other things in the world) then his argument loses its grip on us and it becomes possible, again, to restore moral valuation to its original position. To the extent that moral valuing is about judging actions at the intentional level, and intentions are merely the crest of a very deep wave of ongoing experiences, the idea that we can shape ourselves through our choices hardly seems odd at all. Just as a river rushing toward the sea shapes the bed in which it flows and, in turn, takes on the shape of the riverbed, so moral valuation may be seen as the means by which the self, an ongoing stream of mental events, is driven, and also drives, its own course towards its inevitable end. That there are factors over which we simply have little or no control is indisputable as is the recognition that they play a role in moral deliberation. But moral discourse and the judgments which constitute them have no need of the complete and utter causal powers that Strawson demands for them, for the status of uncaused causer, as it were, because such valuation is about an ongoing process and not applying valuational categories to fixed phenomena. On this view moral valuing has an organic nature, it’s about ongoing change and development.

All that's needed for moral valuing to be seen to be workable is the capacity (which we manifestly have) to "see" the actions of ourselves and others as intentional within an intentional domain so that we may sort and rank them in terms of their future direction as they run down to their particular sea. It's true that where we are at any point, and thus how we see and feel about the things we encounter at that moment, must be a function of what we are here and now and so what we have been and have been shaped to be. But everything we touch affects us as readily as we affect it and it remains possible at every moment to change the pictures we carry of ourselves—and so to alter them on the fly, nipping and tucking at the edges, finding and realizing different pictures of the kinds of creatures we wish to be.

Strawson argues that if we cannot visualize our selves as uncaused, yet we still suppose the self to be causal in its own right, then we cannot apportion praise or blame to such things as selves at all (or, of course, to the actions they express). But if selves are neither entities nor entity-like in their ontology, contra Strawson's assumption, if they are just the way we refer to the ongoing stream of mental events that constitute each of us at any point in time, then moral valuing is not about judging and altering some distinctly finite thing which is or has been caused by other things but about shaping and guiding the flow of our lives through channels created by that very flow. It may be true that we are drawn to certain types of channels, as Strawson points out, and not to others, because of what we have been taught or due to some innate predispositions we possess. But a self in flux, as all selves ultimately are, is endlessly subject to reshaping and revision. Moral judgment can best be understood as the means by which selves accomplish this, on an incremental basis, for themselves.

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    According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.The Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and itscentral idea can be quickly conveyed. (1) Nothing can be causa sui —nothing can bethe cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui , at least in certain crucial mental re

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