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Entries in Richard Garner (2)


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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Rejecting Morality

Continuing my efforts to look at the notion of moral valuing and the different explanations of how it works that it inspires, I recently had occasion to read Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. Actually I read his updated on-line version, Beyond Beyond Morality, which seems to be his effort to improve his earlier published book. Presumably his basic thesis hasn't changed although he has attempted to amplify and strengthen it for his readers. In a nutshell, the book rejects morality as such based on his embrace of the Humean picture of moral judgment being grounded solely in sentiment. But unlike others influenced by the Humean account, such as the non-cognitivists (emotivism, prescriptivism) or the subjectivists (those who ground moral discourse in individual preferences and those who ground it in consensus preference within particular groups), and, of course, unlike intuitionists like Michael Huemer (who argue that moral claims are cognitively respectable because they address rationally knowable facts derived from our concepts, themselves), Garner (like J. L. Mackie before him) rejects the idea that moral claims state any facts at all. There is no moral knowledge, he argues, and that's a good thing . . .

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