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12/13/2012

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First stab: distinguish epistemic conditions concerning how to perform an action from those concerning whether to perform an action. What does this do? is a question bearing on the epistemic conditions on control. Should I do that? Is it wrong to do this? Will my action serve as an example to others, and so forth, are questions bearing on epistemic conditions external to control.

How about "being able to reasonably foresee the moral significance of the act?"

For what it is worth, in /Building Better Beings/ I go in for a distinction similar to the one you provide, but I put it in a different place. In BBB, I distinguish between two epistemic conditions: (1) a general foresight conditions on what I characterize as "self-directed" agency-which need not be responsible agency; and (2) a "recognitional capacity" which I characterize as central for free will (of the moral responsibility-supporting type).

So, on the account in that book, the epistemic condition is really two distinct conditions: a general one on a kind of agency that serves as pre-requisite to responsible agency, and a distinctive epistemic condition on specifically morally responsible agency.

I should also note that I'm a super-revisionist semi-libertarian neo-incompatibilist dualist agnostic about variantist free will. But not about responsibility. There, I'm a Democrat.

Some minimal appreciation of the value of one's action should be an epistemic condition on being responsible for A-ing that does not seem to entail that one has some sort of higher-order control whether to A (so I think I'm agreeing with Neil here; I'm less sure about Manuel the Neologizer-Bunny--but I adore his signatures!)

Example: my nephew is an intelligent autistic young man who has pretty unmovable moral stances due to his condition, yet also frequently indulges his love of video-gaming when some extra cash is available. If I gave him $75--enough for a nice new game--but stipulated that he could keep only $25--not enough for a game--because the other $50 had to go to the church offering, I know without supervising him that the cash would go to the designated places. Being autistic, he is a rule follower, and although he attends church is not particularly religious, but he knows that doing something as promised is the right thing to do. Despite the fact that he might also think about the fact that he could buy the video game--he is intelligent--his penchant for rule-following really forces him to do as I say. And he knows and understands that keeping promises is morally good. However, I believe his underlying autism (probably) robs him of any real dual-ability to do otherwise in this case. After all is said and done, I also think my nephew is laudably responsible for his actions in this case.

Yes, it’s a busy time of year, with a Christmas party to go to tonight after a stressful day of philosophical hand wringing...

It’s 8:22 PM and my wife and I are attending my employer’s annual Christmas party. The room is crowded as I venture over to his beautifully decorated eight foot tree. With my usual boldness, I lean forward precariously to reach out and touch one the many handmade glass ornaments that his terminally ill daughter created in his garage during the Fall months. Unfortunately, while I’m off balance leaning forward, I pass out due to the 7th cocktail that I just finished drinking while thinking about my son’s failing grades, and I fall face first into the Christmas tree thereby knocking it down onto the buffet table. While I’m lying passed out on the floor covered in tinsel, salsa, and twinkling bits of colored glass, a cringing smile comes to my wife’s face as she carefully lifts the cat off the top of her head; she just realized that I may have satisfied the requirement for Al’s scenario.

With tears of laughter in her eyes, my wife equates my action of falling into the tree with me freely choosing to lose my job, and she therefore believes that my knowledge about excessive drinking wasn’t a requirement in order for me make my decision to become unemployed.

Hi Al,
Your first two problems were damned hard, but this one is easy: Moral responsibility requires ultimate unmoved mover control, while acting freely does not. So, do I win a T-shirt for getting the right answer? (Not that I justly deserve it, but I could always use a neat Florida State T-shirt.)

I think an example of the sort of thing I’m looking for would prove useful. I can see that I lack James’s story telling ability; so I’ll settle for something less dramatic. In his *Nicomachean Ethics*, Aristotle mentions hypothetical gods for whom the moral virtues are otiose (bk. 10.7). In *Autonomous Agents* (1995, pp. 3-4), I invited readers to imagine, in the same vein, a universe whose only sentient inhabitants are self-sufficient, divine beings who devote their lives to various solitary intellectual activities, as they judge best, and want nothing from one another. Having no need or desire whose satisfaction requires interaction with other beings, they act in total isolation from one another. They also have no reactive attitudes: indignation, gratitude, and the like. Nor do they have any concept of such attitudes. Might they sometimes act freely even if they know nothing of morality and moral reasons for action?

If the answer is *yes*, we might have the basis for a story in which an agent satisfies all “freedom-relevant” (or “control”) conditions for being morally responsible for A-ing without satisfying a necessary epistemic condition for being morally responsible for A-ing. If it is conceptually impossible for an agent who is – and always has been – devoid of any notion of morality to be morally responsible for A-ing, there is a necessary epistemic condition for being morally responsible for A-ing that the imaginary beings at issue fail to satisfy.

Questions: Have I succeeded in presenting a case in which someone freely A-s but is not morally responsible for A-ing because of a failure to satisfy an epistemic requirement for moral responsibility for A-ing? Can you think of other epistemic conditions on moral responsibility such that an agent may freely A and yet not be morally responsible for A-ing because he fails to satisfy that epistemic condition? If so, please provide an example. That will help focus attention.

Alan, you and I are pursuing different topics. You’re suggesting that your nephew is morally responsible for A-ing even though he doesn’t freely A. What I’m looking for are cases in which someone freely A-s but isn’t morally responsible for A-ing owing to some sort of epistemic failure or shortcoming.

Neil and Manuel, examples would help focus people’s attention. What do you say?

Bruce, sounds familiar. Hey, haven’t you written a couple of books about this? (I was tempted to use a smiley face here, but Tamler might be reading this.) Anyway, no T shirt for you (yet). Simply freely A-ing without being morally responsible for A-ing won’t cut it; in a T-shirt-winning-level case, the agent’s not being morally responsible for A-ing is to be explained by his failing to satisfy some *epistemic* requirement.

James, I love your story; but, with all due respect to your wife, I don’t buy her diagnosis of it.

Surely being godlike requires perfect knowledge (I cite no less an authority than Aristotle); that's an epistemic requirement on steroids. I want my damned t-shirt.

Bruce, I'll let others weigh in on whether you deserve a T-shirt for your answer. But so that others don't go wild about getting FSU T-shirts for their answers, let me add that the T-shirt idea is Bruce's and not mine.

Here's the requested example. Suppose Zamir, an immigrant from a third world country, sees someone in obvious need of medical help in a hotel room. Zamir can call for medical help by lifting the telephone nearby and dialing '0'. If Zamir does not know that he can call for medical help by lifting the telephone and dialing '0', he lacks control over whether he calls for medical help, by virtue of a lack of knowledge. However, if (instead) he does not know (weirdly) that it is a bad thing to be in distress and perhaps to die, then he is not morally responsible by virtue of failing to satisfy to satisfy an epistemic condition that is not a control condition.

Bruce, I wish you the best in qualifying for an FSU T-shirt (hopefully it’ll be a new one). If Al remains stingy and you like Christmas decorations, I have a shirt that I could send you.

I don't see why having the ability to know/understand/recognize the moral significance of A-ing is a requirement on being directly morally responsible for A-ing. I can see why there's a requirement on knowing that one's A-ing and knowledge that A-ing has some feature F which happens to be a morally significant feature, but I don't see why there's a requirement on knowing the moral significance of having A'd or the fact that my act has this feature. It seems that my ignorance of A's moral significance might be due largely to my insensitivity and that my A-ing might manifest my complete indifference to the suffering of others. Wouldn't we want to say that I'm directly morally responsible for my A-ing because it manifests my indifference to the suffering of others? (Are vices now excusing conditions?)

I feel like I'm missing something, but that might just be further evidence of my insensitivity. (Or, if I'm not missing something, can I have one of those T shirts that I've been hearing so much about.)

Al--thanks for the clarification. I merely assumed your question was looking for some epistemic asymmetry one way or another. So I guess because I misunderstood it, though I freely chose an example as a response, I'm not responsible for the errant point!

Here are two different ignorant agents, both of whom fail to meet an epistemic condition even though they meet the control conditions. The first case involves circumstantial ignorance and the second, moral ignorance.

Immunization: A parent wants more than anything to do right by her child. In a discussion with friends about vaccines, a believed-to-be reliable source tells her that immunizations are actually harmful. Her initial skepticism of this person's claim is quickly overwhelmed after some Google searches wherein she finds that seemingly authoritative people are coming down on both sides of the debate. After weeks of intense research she realizes she's totally at sea. She finally defers to the beliefs held by her current pediatrician, who happens to believe the immunizations are safe. The parent decides to immunize. Alas, this physician turns out to be wrong, and subsequent research definitively reveals such immunizations to be harmful.

This parent freely exposes her child to harmful vaccine, but, because her ignorance about its harmfulness is blameless, she is not morally responsible for doing so.


Poor Kantian: Some version of utilitarianism is true, let's stipulate. Let's also stipulate that moral truths are stubbornly but not completely opaque to investigation and reflection. Poor Kantian is a philosophy grad student working in ethics. She's also idealistic and really wants to get things right. But, after earnestly considering all the arguments and after talking to all the famous Kantians and utilitarians, she just doesn't believe that utility has intrinsic value. She also fails to believe an implication of the true utilitarian theory, which, we can stipulate, requires her to give most of her money to Oxfam. Poor Kantian keeps most of her money.

Poor Kantian freely keeps her money, but, because her ignorance about the moral obligation to give most of it away is blameless, she is not morally responsible for doing so.

Why do we need to look at such exotic cases? Consider standard cases such as the gruesome classic: A tiny kitten has been sleeping behind my car tire, and I am non-culpably ignorant of this. I back my car out of the driveway and run over the kitten.

It is clear I am not responsible for running over the kitten. But it appears to be true that I am in control of running over the kitten. If this sounds odd, keep in mind standard accounts of control. For example, my running over the kitten issues from a reasons responsive mechanism (such that, for example, in at least one world in which there is reason to do otherwise, I recognize this and do otherwise).

Aren't standard cases like this all we need to in order to separate satisfaction of epistemic versus control conditions for moral responsibility? Those that disagree need to supply an alternative, precise notion of control.

Clapton, we normally think that non-culpable ignorance excuses. Why should NCI of moral facts be any different? Suppose it turns out that grass experiences pain: are you to blame for your wanton walking?

Chandra, issuing from a reasons-responsive mechanism can't be sufficient for control; at least not control over particular facts (perhaps it is sufficient for general control). So far as I can tell, the best explanation for why I'm not responsible for running over the kitten is that though I control what I do, I don't have control over the fact that the kitten is run over. This must be right; here's a case to demonstrate it. I am in the operating theatre, facing a patient who needs an operation. But unlike you, I have no medical training. For all I know, I am more dexterous than you are (actually I doubt it, but never mind). But isn't it obvious that I don't have the control I need to perform the operation?

By the way, your final demand seems unfair: why ask that I do something that no one has been able to do?

Damn you autocorrect: I do know your name, Clayton.


I was operating on the Fischer and Ravizza account of control as a starting position. I just read Al's paper from Phil Explorations where he is questioning the F&R account, and where he addresses just the question I ended with. So I withdraw that question. That paper really nicely sets out the background for Al's question if folks want to check it out.

@Neil, your surgery case involves knowing how. I propose we stick with knowing that cases, before we go to the more challenging knowing how cases.

I know from chapter 5 of Hard Luck (an absolutely superb book by the way) that you put epistemic conditions within the control condition. That may be right, but I have my doubts. While it doesn't sound quite right to say that I do have control over the fact that the kitten is run over, it doesn't sound quite right either to say that I lack control over the fact that the kitten is run over. Control, by my lights, seems orthogonal to the epistemic condition for MR. If you doubt this, reflect on Philip's cases (especially Immunization) that are structurally similar to kitten but even better intuition-elicitors. Does Mom lack control over whether she gives her child harmful vaccines?

Chandra, I think you may be right that there are epistemic conditions that are not control conditions; that's what Philip's case establishes. But there are also epistemic conditions of control, I contend. The mom knows that she is exposing her child to vaccines, and thereby satisfies the control relevant epistemic condition.

I certainly lack surgical know how, and that may excuse me. But I also lack surgical knowing that; just where is the gall bladder anyway? If I had the first but not the second - quite possible, so far as I can see - I would lack control over the fact that the gall bladder is removed.

Can Al or someone clarify something that is making this discussion a bit confusing for me? Why isn't the best way to describe all (or most?) of the cases offered in this thread as cases where the agent satisfies the conditions required for free will but not the conditions for being morally responsible, simply because the agent has not done anything wrong for which one should be held responsible? Is the question whether the reason they haven't done anything wrong because they fail to satisfy an epistemic condition and whether that epistemic condition is different from those required for free action?

Philip and Chandra,

Even if we grant that the agents in these cases are not blameworthy for the actions they perform, it will not follow that they are not morally responsible for these actions unless we also suppose both that (i) they are not praiseworthy for the actions and that (ii) being morally responsible for an action entails being either blameworthy or praiseworthy for it.

Given their motivation and the fact that their ignorance is non-culpable, it's not obvious to me that the agents in Immunization and Poor Kantian are not praiseworthy for the decisions they make, though this seems less plausible in the kitten case. Setting that aside, however, the cases will show that the agents are not morally responsible for their actions only if we assume that agents cannot be morally responsible for an action without being either blameworthy or praiseworthy for it. But why think that?

Eddy, as I put it in responding to Alan, “What I’m looking for are cases in which someone freely A-s but isn’t morally responsible for A-ing owing to some sort of epistemic failure or shortcoming.”

Although Chandra withdrew the kitten case, I’ll say just a bit about that. I’ll do it in dialogue form:

X: Kit freely backed up his car, and his backing up his car was his killing the kitten; so Kit freely killed the kitten. But, of course, he’s not morally responsible for killing the kitten. He had no reason to think there was a kitten near his car. So I win an FSU T-shirt [editorial note: the shirt would come from Bruce Waller; he’ll buy it next time he’s in Tallahassee].

Y: When you say that Kit’s backing up his car was his killing the kitten you’re sounding Davidsonian. Your idea seems to be that Kit did something that is describable both as backing up his car and as killing the kitten. But if you individuate actions in Davidson’s way, you should also follow him in saying such things as that the same action that is done intentionally under one description might not be done intentionally under another description. Under the description “killing the kitten,” was Kit’s action intentional – or done knowingly, or voluntarily, or freely?

X: No. I wouldn’t say that Kit knowingly or intentionally killed the kitten. And I guess I wouldn’t say that he freely killed the kitten either. My attitude toward his backing up the car is different: I’d say he did that knowingly, intentionally, and freely.

Y: So no T-shirt for you.

Btw, I’ve never taken sides in disputes about action individuation. For present purposes, you can just pick your favorite theory (if you have one). Things will work out the same. People who are interested in details, might check out the 2010 paper of mine that Chandra mentioned. (To be continued . . . .)

Here’s something on Philip’s immunization case. To make things a bit simpler, let’s suppose that the mother herself gives the child the harmful vaccine. Now, here’s a true / false test. That is, you can answer true or false to the following assertions.

Mom knowingly gave the child a vaccine.
Mom knowingly gave the child a harmful vaccine.

Mom intentionally gave the child a vaccine.
Mom intentionally gave the child a harmful vaccine.

Mom freely gave the child a vaccine.
Mom freely gave the child a harmful vaccine.

Here’s one more pair. Some people think that trying to A requires more than a minimal effort to A. (I don’t, but no matter.) So suppose that giving the child the vaccine was difficult for Mom; the child was squirming or whatever. Then we have:

Mom tried to give the child a vaccine.
Mom tried to give the child a harmful vaccine.

My answers are “true” to the first member of each pair and “false” to the second. Am I right or wrong? If I’m right, no T-shirt for Philip (on this case anyway).

Eddy,
My Poor Kantian case is set up so that the agent does something wrong. The very thing of which she is blamelessly ignorant is the fact that her action is wrong according to the true moral theory. In Immunization, the agent did something that was, if not wrong, at least bad, and I guess I’ve just always assumed that agents can be morally responsible, indeed blameworthy, for bad actions that aren’t wrong. But, maybe that's a misguided assumption.


Michael,
I agree that it’s not obvious that these agents in my cases (and Chandra’s) aren’t praiseworthy for their ignorant actions. But, I don’t know what to make of that. What *is* obvious (to me anyway) is that the mom in Immunization and Poor Kantian are praiseworthy for the epistemic diligence that preceded their actions. If we bracket that out, however, I’m not sure why on would think that either agent is worthy of praise for their subsequent ignorant action. You might think “Well, she did what she believed to be right!”. But, freely doing what one believes to be morally obligatory (or morally permissible) does not suffice to warrant praise. Right? So, why think that the ignorant actions themselves, separate from the laudatory investigative acts, are praiseworthy?

Next, you say I assume that being moral responsibility (MR) for an action entails being either blameworthy or praiseworthy for it. You’re absolutely right. But, I have a hard time thinking about the epistemic conditions of MR in any other way. I’ll grant that MR in the attributability sense might not have this entailment. But, I take it that that is not the conception of MR that we are talking about in this thread. Indeed, I’m not inclined to think that there are epistemic conditions on the attributability sense of MR, or if there are, they are much easier to satisfy.

@Al: My answers are also true for all the first members and false for all the second members except this one (probably the one that matters most):

Mom freely gave the child a vaccine. Mom freely gave the child a harmful vaccine.

I say true to the first, but I am having trouble with the second. This is one where subtle changes in formulation matters. Consider:

Mom was free in giving the child a vaccine
Mom was free in giving the child a harmful vaccine.

I say true to the first and lean towards true for the second. I think it would be helpful to check the negations as well:

Mom was unfree in giving the child a vaccine
Mom was unfree in giving the child a harmful vaccine.

I say false to the first, and I lean towards false to the second.

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