This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Argument Against Compatibilist/Calvinistic "Freedom"

"Compatibilism" basically says that both determinism and moral responsibility are compatible. "Yes, it’s true that everything is basically like dominoes--one falls just because the previous one fell on it and it couldn’t have done otherwise. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t say you aren’t morally responsible for what you do. In fact, you are morally responsible for what you do. Even though everything is caused and fixed-by-causes (including your actions), your actions can still be right and wrong and thus blameworthy or praiseworthy."

How is it that my actions are still morally significant? What you’re going to get are answers that have to do with your desires and your "freedom" to do what you want. You may not have been able to do any different, but you did do what you wanted to do. You were not coerced into doing it. You did act on your own desires. (But, of course, you couldn’t have desired any differently--those are as caused and determined as anything else.)

Calvinists don’t tell precisely the same story, but in telling the story they do tell, they often commit themselves to these same basic ideas about freedom and responsibility. Theologically, they’re more worried about saying that certain people are not able to want or to perform morally good actions. Nevertheless, this commits them to an account of how human freedom and responsibility works. They can’t accept that a person can only be blamed for doing a bad thing if that person had the ability to have done a good thing instead. Why? Because they’re committed theologically to the idea that lost people *cannot* do anything good, but that lost people are nevertheless blameworthy for their sins.
Okay, that’s all set up and intro. And please consider that i broad-brushed it a little. There are actually some compatibilist-philosophers who might try to give a different account of how it all works. and i know that there are a handful of Calvinists who actually hold different views about how freedom works. But take these as trends.

So imagine for a moment that i build a tiny machine. This little machine was designed to be attached to someone’s head, and at the touch of a remote-button, it will send signals to that person’s brain which will cancel out that person’s desires and substitute my desires so the person carries out my desires. Suppose i attach it to Mr. Smeed’s head. So now every time i push my remote button, Mr. Smeed will carry out an action i desire. Suppose i really hate Mr. Togglesworth’s guts. In fact, i want to punch him in the face. But instead of doing it myself, i push my remote button, that desire gets sent to Mr. Smeed’s brain, and then Mr. Smeed walks over to Mr. Togglesworth and punches him in the face.

Some of you reading may think it’s perfectly okay to sucker punch people (i hope that’s not true of you though), but just assume with me for the moment that this is a bad, wrong thing to do. The important question is this: Do you think Mr. Smeed is blameworthy for punching Mr. Togglesworth? i’d say absolutely not--he’s not to blame at all. Some of you might disagree, and if you do, i’d like to know why. But i think this is a clear case of coercion, and even on the compatibilist’s/Calvinist’s account of freedom, coercion exempts one from responsibility.

Now suppose i built another machine. This machine is slightly different. Instead of sending *my* desires into the brain and will of another person, what this machine does is allow me to simply input or create desires in that person’s brain. So again i run through the same scenario--i put the machine on Smeed’s head, i input into the machine the desire to punch Togglesworth, and thus Smeed punches Togglesworth. Is Smeed blameworthy for punching Togglesworth? I’d still say absolutely not. This doesn’t seem to me to be any less a case of coercion than the last one. You might disagree, and if you do, i’d like to know why. But if it’s coercion at all, then Smeed is not to blame even if compatibilists are right about freedom and responsibility!

One last hypothetical and then i’ll make my case. Suppose there was no machine at all. Suppose that i simply hypnotized Smeed. i hypnotized him and instructed him to punch Togglesworth. i woke him, Smeed immediately got up, found Togglesworth, and punched him. Is Smeed blameworthy for punching Togglesworth? I’d still say it’s obvious that he’s not. Hypnotic suggestion still seems to me like clear coercion.

If you’re on the fence about whether or not these would definitely be coercion, let me just ask, if i put the first machine on your head, and you killed someone due to my machine-input desire, and if i put the second machine on your head, and you killed a second person due to me inputting that desire into your head, and then if i hypnotized you and you killed a third person due to my hypnotic suggestion--if all that were true, would you think it was fair for *you* to be sentenced to death or prison-for-life for those killings? i seriously doubt anyone would consider that fair. But if you do, comment and tell me why. But i’m going to press on under the assumption that it sounds very reasonable that Smeed really wasn’t blameworthy for any of the punching he did.

Here’s my basic argument: I don’t see how compatibilism or Calvinism significantly differs from any of the above three hypothetical situations. In the above three situations, it seems entirely plausible that Smeed was not morally responsible for his actions. Unless a compatibilist or a Calvinist can show that people’s desires originate in a way that is significantly different than any of the three ways suggested above, then all they’ve said is that *all* actions are coerced. If all actions are coerced, then no one is morally responsible for their actions.

The Calvinist is basically going to say either that my desires are determined by God, or that my desires are determined by my spiritual ancestory. So God has a "machine" (His miraculous power) that makes me want to either do good or bad? So Adam had a "machine" (passing on his spiritual genes by procreating) which made me want to sin? How is that not coercion?

The compatibilist might have an account like biological determinism. i want such-and-such because it was in my DNA or my genes to want it. But i don’t see how that’s any different than a Calvinist’s story about Adam. Basically its saying that since my grandfather wanted to be a jerk, i will also want that--my grandfather inputted desires into me.

The compatibilist might also say that my desires are determined by my environment or my upbringing. In either case, i still have someone outside me inputting desires into me that i act on.

Again, i don’t see how a Calvinist or a compatibilist is going to tell me where desires come from without telling me something so close in character to one of the Smeed/Togglesworth scenarios that it amounts to coercion. If it amounts to coercion, then a Calvinist or a compatibilist will either have to say that no one is morally responsible for their actions due to coercion, or that their accounts of morally responsible actions are false.


Matthew said...

Brother you are deep man. We are making a move in ministry. Come read about it. To the West we go.

Aric Clark said...

An interesting question, it seems to me, is what are the actual mechanisms of choice? There is a lot going on in the brain when we make choices. Much more than mere conscious thought. In fact, some studies have suggested that they can read your mind - ie: predict your choices by monitoring electric activity that is pre-conscious they can tell which you will choose between 3 types of ice cream before you yourself know it. If choice is in part pre-conscious it does suggest that there is some pretty severe restriction on freedom as we usually define it. Our desires may well be beyond our complete control.

I don't like this calvinist forumlation any more than you do. Since I have a relatively low view of human volition, I also have a relatively low view of human responsibility. At the same time is it remotely satisfying to say that the holocaust was "beyond our control"? I think not.

So what are good and evil if choice is impure, compromised, restricted?

reborn1995 said...

i think there are two basic worries felt by both libertarians and compatibilists when it comes to issues of responsible actions. First, a "source" worry. In order for my actions to be *my* actions, i need to be the author of them in a way that the past and the laws of nature are not. Second, a "bringing-things-about" worry. In order for my actions to be my *actions,* the manner of their generation needs to be significantly distinguishable from mere happenings. My premeditated murder of Jones has to be somehow distinct from an intense muscle spasm in my back.

Some libertarians think you've got to have Alternative Possiblities in order for these worries to be aleved. Some libertarians even think you need some sort of "Agent Causation" power that is qualitatively different from event causation.

i'm really not sure that these worries hinge on either AP or AC. But i do think that the compatibilist view doesn't really take care of them. If determinism is true, it's hard for me to see how i'm not merely 'riding a wave' of causes at any given time rather than *me* *acting.* i think if the compatibilist is right, then the past and the laws of nature really aren't any different in relation to my freedom than is these various hypothetical coersion devices i've talked about in my post.

As far as predictability goes--i understand that freedom and foreknowledge can be a paradox. Being able to predict my behavior with total accuracy might puzzle me over how "free" i was in behaving. Nevertheless, there have been a variety of ways "out" of that paradox. Some of them really stink. Some of them aren't so bad. i think a lot of the tensions between the two come from libertarian intuitions--accurate prediction implies i couldn't have done otherwise. But like i said above, i'm really not sure that responsibility hinges on alternative possibilities. So if someone could predict which flavor of ice cream i would choose, i'm inclined to think that doesn't impinge on the notion that i will generate that choice freely. But i'm by no means suggesting i know how it all works.

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