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Very interesting post Gunnar. I have an observation that ties to a question about this account. In reading your explanation of explanation (EH--love that!), I couldn't get van Fraassen's classic account of explanation as the erotetic link of answer(s) to questions out of my head, where the background of what constitutes legitimate questions and appropriate contrast-class answers is largely a subjective/pragmatic one. That account sounds similar to what you're suggesting. Is there any link here?

Has anyone tested for/observed a difference in the number of people reporting as incompatibilists when they are told something like "for the agent to do X, the past or the laws of nature would have to be different" rather than something like "given the past and the laws of nature, it cannot be that the agent does X". It seems to me that the latter more strongly invokes the past and laws as explanations of what the agent does, so if your idea is correct, people should be more likely to report as incompatibilists when presented with the latter.

Also, can you extend your idea to cover incompatibilism about divine foreknowledge? It seems unlikely to me that 'God knows that X' is very often interpreted as any kind of explanation of X, but I could be wrong.

Hi Gunnar,

Thanks for another interesting post. I really like your suggestion that we explain the variation in responsibility judgments in terms of the interest-relativity of explanatory frames. This strikes me as correct.

I would like to ask for a bit more detail about how you understand variation both between judgments made by different individuals and between judgments made by the same individual. You hint at some of the relevant variation in your post--e.g., abstract versus concrete cases. But I wonder about other kinds of variation as well. For example, what do you think explains the fact that, as your phrasing suggests, judgments (even in abstract cases) do not universally reflect a tendency to assimilate motivational structures into the explanatory background? Is this due to variations between subjects in their tendencies to take particular factors to be salient? If so, how do you think this variation is to be explained? Culturally? Genetically? In terms of other sociological factors? In terms of caffeine intake (or some such (set of) factor(s))? Similarly, though I am not sure whether there is any data on this, it strikes me as plausible that we are not uniform in our judgments. Sometimes, we are more incompatibilist, sometimes less. What might explain a single subject's various judgments? Might it be the case that I take as salient certain factors when I have had less sleep and others when I am better rested? Might my tendency to treat factors as salient be influenced by things like bad smells? Or whether I was just watching Law and Order?

I suspect that how one explains some of the variation in judgments may feed into an error theory. For example, if my own judgments are sensitive to factors such as bad smells because they affect what I take to be salient, this strikes me as a consideration in favor of treating my own judgments as suspect. That is, if it can be shown, first, that the mechanisms you suggest are in play when I make judgments about responsibility and, second, that that these mechanisms are sensitive in relevant ways to (intuitively erroneous) situational factors, then this would seem to undermine confidence in the correctness of my judgments. Similarly for others' judgments. And it seems as if this may be a slippery slope to an (universal?) error theory.


This is very thoughtful--I really like your suggestion.

Perhaps this is not strictly speaking a question about your suggestion, taken as a hypothesis about how many people think, but a critique of its force. In any case, you write at "2":

"What deterministic scenarios do is to introduce abstract deterministic explanatory models saying that every event is causally determined by earlier events (back to the beginning of the universe, if there is one). In such models, human motivational structures, deliberation and decision-making play no privileged role, being mere causal intermediaries and providing no independent input into the general unfolding of events."

But this is problematic, isn't it, insofar as the posited determination goes "through the agent"--through his or her motivational systems, etc. Indeed, it would seem to *have* to go through the agent (in a certain way), if the behavior is to count as genuine action and a candidate for moral responsibility. The antecedent causal factors cause the behavior, but only by also causing suitable motivational states--states that *must* antedate and suitably related to the subsequent behavior, in order for their to be genuine agency, moral responsibility, and autonomy. So the antecedent factors are not "privileged" or hegemonic.

Couldn't we say that incompatibilist intuitions rest on an incorrect theory of explanation, namely the D-N model? Recall the D-N model requires laws and entailment relations between the explanans and explanandum. I wonder, specifically, if thinking of things in this way -- the compatibilist offers a better model for explaining human actions and other phenomena -- might not provide you with answers to some of the worries and comments offered by Ben, John, and Al.

Alan, there is most definitely a connection between what I am talking about and van Fraassen’s account, but contextualism about the semantics of explanatory claims is fairly common these days, in one form or other.

CJ, I don’t recall any test targeting that particular distinction. But I’m not antecedently sure which of the two locutions would most strongly engage the relevant explanatory models: such models are very much invoked in regular counterfactual thinking.

In the case of incompatibilism about God's foreknowledge, you might be right that it has a different source, unrelated to explanations. In general, though, experiments using predictability scenarios seems to yield much weaker incompatibilist intuitions than causal determination.

Alan, there is most definitely a connection between what I am talking about and van Fraassen’s account, and also relations to various more recent forms of contextualism about explanatory claims.

Ben, you asked why a minority of people attribute responsibility even when asked abstractly about the possibility of responsibility in a deterministic scenario. I would like to know, but I’m note even near a definite answer, or even an educated guess.

But let’s indulge in some possibilities, all of which might be part of a full answer: It might be that some people have a strong commitment to holding people responsible, and that this tendency triggers the explanatory perspectives from which this makes most sense. It might be that some people have a principled commitment to responsibility (perhaps because of the above), insisting on attributions of responsibility almost (even in cases of serious brainwashing, say). It might be that some people think that determinism might be true, and find the conclusion that people in the actual world are not responsible absurd or frightening. For other reasons, some people might simply be less cognitively inclined to take abstract perspectives, or less capable of doing so, others disinclined to take unfamiliar perspectives. Perhaps they never really get into the abstract perspective in the first place, sticking to the more concrete stories that are often part of deterministic scenarios. These and other factors might in turn have more genetic or cultural explanations (americans might be unusually committed to and invested in thinking that people are responsible for their own fortune, for example). More proximally, there might be that random situational factors at work, such as the ones you listed, or subjects' recent memories or discussions of related issues, and so on. Finally, some people might have answered randomly (in spite of passing accuracy tests), misunderstood a question, forgotten whether their questions concerned the deterministic or indeterministic universe, and so forth.

These possibilities form a motley crew, but my hope is to make progress without having to figure out their individual roles. Of course, as you point out, some of these explanations might not cast the resulting intuition in very good light. But if we disregard the ones that seem too flimsy and completely unrelated to issues of responsibility, things seem to me to turn tricky, quickly. Are intuitions suspect if they stem from a culturally inherited commitment to holding people responsible suspect? If they stem from emotional commitments to holding people responsible? Now we it seems that we need a story of the role of culture or emotions in moral epistemology to make progress.

With that said, I do think that there is a story to tell that ends up portraying incompatibilist intuitions as erroneous. I hope, though. that it can be told without providing the sort of details you have asked for, relying more on the general shape and context-dependence of our ordinary conception of responsibility. (More on that in my next post.)

John, thanks for raising that worry. You are of course right that the agent’s motivational structures is of crucial interest for a variety of purpose, and of central interest for attributions of responsibility. So I need to be clearer by what I mean when I say that motivational structures “play no privileged role" in abstract deterministic models, "being mere causal intermediaries and providing no independent input into the general unfolding of events”.

I think of an “explanatory model” as a representational structure (psychological, linguistic, computational) which represents a set of variables as connected by asymmetric “making”-relations (relations of making it the case that, influencing to a certain degree, or making it possible / impossible / probable / etc). In normal models, the relations involved are acyclic, which means that some of the variables in the set have no “makers”: these are the variables whose values provide input into the model, the values that are seen as doing the explaining—as “significant” causes—when the model is employed.

When I say that human motivational structures play no privileged role in the abstract deterministic model, then, this is what I mean: such structures do not provide *input* into those models. This is why, when we understand things using those models, we do not see such structures as parts of a significant explanation of actions (or anything). But it is crucial that the property of being a “significant” cause of something is not an objective property: it is a property that something only has relative to an explanatory model. So the “insignificance” of features of agents is not a property of how things *are* in the deterministic universe. Various events in that universe might be explained using a variety of other explanatory models, including folk-psychological models in which features of agents do figure as input. This is why I think that I can agree (emphatically) with what you say about the role of suitable motivational states without thinking that it undermines the force of the proposed explanation of incompatibilist (and compatibilist) intuitions. The explanation requires that people take on a certain explanatory perspective and grasp things using that perspective, not that other perspectives are invalid.

Joe, could you say a little more about how you think that incompatibilist intuitions might rest on a *theory* of explanation? Are you suggesting that some such assumption might be playing a role at some stage in the account I offered in the post, or are you suggesting this as a separate suggestion?

Hey Gunnar! It is great to read these posts. One quick remark about a point that is somehow detached from the current discussion but that I find interesting. I think the explanation hypothesis may have (more than) something to say about the employment of brain imaging and neuroscientific jargon in the court. While neurosciences might well have something genuine to contribute to the assessment of legal responsibility, the EH predicts that allowing for a massive introduction of them in the court in the form of legal evidence risks bringing about a shift in the perspective adopted by members of the jury away from the everyday framework that characterises the ordinary practice out of the court. If the jurors’ decisions draw their legitimacy from their reflecting the moral intuitions that the citizens they represent entertain in their everyday life, a similar shift should be avoided. Thus I think that the EH may complement and perhaps strenghten the remarks made in this respect by Roskies and Sinnott-Armstrong (who, at least up to few years ago, were moderately sceptic about using brain-imaging in the court).

Thanks, Stefano, that strikes me as a very good point indeed. As Karl and I point out in our forthcoming, EH predicts that the introduction of mechanistic explanations of action will undermine responsibility judgments (in the absence of clear identification of aspects of such explanations with states figuring in ordinary folk-psychological models). We draw no practical consequences of that prediction, however, but what you say seems to be an important such consequence, well worth thinking more about.

Gunnar, do you take EH to be a descriptive (what we collectively do in many instances) or a prescriptive (what we should think about all explanation) hypothesis? Or a descriptive account of some explanation of agency that yields certain critical conclusions (that incompatibilism is unjustified overall, e.g.). I take it that van Fraassen would say that his account of explanation is both descriptive and prescriptive. What do you think?

Alan, EH itself is descriptive: an account of the mechanisms governing ordinary responsibility judgments. To arrive at an explanation of compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions, I also rely on (descriptive) assumptions about our explanatory thinking, in particular that it is interest dependent in certain ways. This is as far as I have come in these posts,

To draw further prescriptive conclusions, more premises are needed of course. I'll probably post something on that later today, but the last section of, Karl and I sketch a number of possible such consequences.

All I meant was that D-N explanations seem to be the kind of explanations of human action that you are critiquing. Of course, such explanations are not sufficient. That the man took the pill does not explain why he didn't get pregnant, even though it is a law that no men (who take the pill) get pregnant. Thus, just by providing a D-N explanation, one has not (necessarily) given an explanation.

Can it be so simple as that the incompatibilist merely adopts a faulty explanatory model?

Joe, I personally don't see any reason to think that incompatibilist intuitions rely on understanding explanatory relations along D–N lines. In particular, when I say that deterministic scenarios introduce abstract deterministic explanatory models, I do not think that those models are C-N models. (See my reply to John above.)

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