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03/17/2015

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Alan, I'll need to go back and re-read the post/article before I can say anything meaningful. I'm always skeptical, however, of pragmatic attempts to justify basic desert MR. If that's what you are trying to do, I doubt you are going to convince me (if that's not what you are attempting to do, I apologize in advance). Not only do you need to show the pragmatic benefits of maintaining non-consequentialist basic desert MR (something I'm arguing against here), you also need to explain how this in any way *justifies* such MR. I should probably go back and read it before saying more--I may be off base.

Gregg, as I at least implied in my previous post here, and stated explicitly in my "five beliefs" post earlier this month, I do not endorse or accept basic desert MR. The Zombies paper is a rejection of that stance, despite what anyone might think about whether Zombies or non-Zombies possess some form of FW. The only thing left is something like a compatibilist MR view, pragmatically founded on the argumentative stalemate whether Zombies "really" have FW.

Alan, what do you mean by "compatibilist MR" that is not committed to basic desert? Sounds a lot like consequentialist MR or forward-looking MR--which is consistent with the kind of MR skepticism I defend. As I see the debate, it is essentially between those that accept basic desert MR and those that don't. I see most compatibilists as defending basic desert.

I suppose I see most compatibilists as rejecting basic-desert MR, and accepting consequentialist (or something like it) and thus forward-looking MR. That must be why we are talking past one another here. Yes, there are some compatibilists who claim to retain some sense of basic desert MR, but aren't such views in the minority of the entire group of compatibilists? If not, then mea culpa. People may deserve blame, but only in the sense that they are acceptable subjects of responses that apportion punishment as yielding improved futures for us all. I certainly do not regard that as involving desert in any retributive sense.

I think we may have been talking passed each other. To me you sound like a skeptic! I consider myself a FW and MR skeptic, yet I have no problem with forward-looking MR. Perhaps we are on the same page. I wonder, though, if other compatibilists would agree with you that you are defending a compatibilist conception of MR. I see most compatibilist as defending basic desert. Perhaps we should see what others think.

Since no one else has weighed in yet, I thought I would just add a few more thoughts. I define free will as “a kind of power or ability to make decisions of the sort for which one can be morally responsible” (Fisher, Kane, Pereboom, and Vargas 2007, 1), where moral responsibility is understood in the basic desert sense. I think this definition is shared by many, though not all in the debate. It is definitely the definition shared by Pereboom, Levy, Kane, Vargas, etc. I presume it's the definition that many compatibilists are also using. This is why I see the compatibilist as defending basic desert MR, not a consequentialist or forward-looking account of MR. I take this to be the heart of the debate, since if the compatibilists is willing to give up on basic desert the substantive differences between FW skeptics and compatibilists fade. I would welcome that but I doubt most compatibilists would be willing to give up on basic desert. Still waiting to hear from others since I could completely wrong!

(Of course there are also those like Waller who separate the two concepts, defending one while rejecting the other--as Neil was so kind to remind us.)

Hi Gregg,

I think you misunderstood me. (Wouldn't be the first time I wasn't clear enough!)

I wasn't claiming that MR skeptics are making a mistake. I was claiming that, while if MR skepticism were true the thought that criminals deserve punishment (as an instance of the blameworthy deserving blame) involves a mistake, it is a mistake of a different kind than victim blaming and blaming those in poverty as lazy, etc.

The point was meant to be that the best justifications for reforming our penal practices might not be to lump those in with the other supposed implications of belief in a just world, because deserving blame and punishment looks sufficiently different, on any going view of responsibility. We shouldn't want to pave over differences just because a theory gives the same verdict across a range of cases.

Matt, fair enough. (And sorry for misunderstanding your original point--my apologies.) I agree that I was painting with a rather large brush in my post and that there are important and subtle distinctions that need to be made. That said, I think there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in the empirical literature and it's worth connecting up the literature on free will belief with the literature from moral and political psychology. I also think JWB may be playing a bigger role than some think. It's at least worth investigating further. One common denominator for me seems to be the pernicious belief in just deserts ;)

If, unlike compatibilists, many folk believe in some sort of libertarian causa sui, and if allegiance to just deserts retributivism is at least partially a function of that belief (the wrong-doer should be retributively punished since she unconditionally could have done otherwise), then undermining the causa sui should reduce the punitiveness justified by just deserts retributivism. And indeed, the literature Gregg cites in the last section of his post seems to support that hypothesis, on the assumption that the experimental interventions helped to induce doubt about the causa sui (by highlighting the agent’s causal antecedents, some of them mechanistic), and not just reductionism and bypassing.

But of course some (most?) compatibilists think there are good reasons for us to remain retributivists. Following Strawson, Eddy (responding to Gregg’s first post) believes that retributivism is still justifiable so long as behavior doesn’t bypass rational and conscious processes: “backwards-looking features are justified because of their role in our psychology.” It might be a mistake to opt for consequentialism “given the kind of creatures we are.” Tamler is of the same Strawsonian persuasion, holding that it’s morally appropriate to act on our retributive emotions, whether or not that results in any social benefit (check out the Very Bad Wizard podcasts with Sam Harris). Retributivist Michael Moore (http://www.naturalism.org/criminal.htm#AgainstRetribution ) defends the virtue of retributive emotions like moral outrage, and, like Tamler, suggests that any sympathies generated by seeing the causal antecedents of a wrong-doer should be discounted as reasons to withhold punishment. Jared Diamond (http://www.naturalism.org/revenge.htm ) argues that we should give retributive emotions and their satisfaction (e.g., attending executions) pride of place in our culture, on a par with love.

My question (I’m genuinely curious!) is whether there’s an additional moral principle at work that justifies acting on retributive emotions, or, as it seems to me on the face of it, these justifications for retributive, non-consequentialist punishment are simply an appeal to the emotion itself: that to deny its expression in action (inflicting suffering and deprivation on wrong-doers) would be to deny ourselves important, deeply human satisfactions.

Gregg, I like your analogy with the way people blame the Prez for both X and not-X. I think you're right that there's an interesting tension between saying skeptics views will lead both to overly lenient punishment and overly harsh punishment. I'm inclined to say it is likely to lead to both, but of course that claim will only make sense from a perspective that accepts that what people deserve depends in part on more than just what future-directed consequences will obtain.

There's an interesting discussion of some of these issues over on Coyne's blog (where, alas, I cannot contribute because he has blocked--censored?--me). Question for you: In the case he discusses of the killer with brain damage who was just executed, how does the optimistic skeptic argue that executing such criminals is inappropriate? Isn't it plausible that some such criminals cannot be rehabilitated (e.g., due to brain damage) and that the consequences of executing them would outweigh those of incarcerating (quarantining) him for life? (I understand that there are lots of consequentialist reasons for abolishing the death penalty--lots of non-consequentialist reasons too!--but play along and try to give me the possibility that some cases of long-term quarantine without rehabilitation will be more costly than execution.)
https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/brain-damaged-man-executed-for-murder-but-all-criminals-are-brain-damaged/

(Coyne has a more recent post that's relevant too, about Dennett's use of the Vohs/Schooler stuff.)

Tom, thanks for the exhaustive documentation of compatibilists who are committed to retributivism and just deserts. I think even more can be added to that list. Again, I take that to be the heart of the debate.

Eddy, I have my hands full keeping up with this blog so forgive me if I don't have time to ready Coyne's posts at the moment. I don't see why optimistic skeptics would have any trouble being opposed to executing a man missing a section of his brain (as was recently done)! On the quarantine model *no one* deserves to be executed, and that includes this case as well. I don't see why cost or utility needs to be the only measure of punishment open to skeptics. Perhaps the scenario you are describing would be a problem for a rudimentary consequentialist account of punishment, but not for (say) Pereboom's account. Even in the case of a criminal who cannot be rehabilitated, the quarantine model dictates that we can detain the individual but not treat him cruelly. Consider as an analogy a case where someone had a contagious disease that could not be cured but posed a terminal risk to others. We could imagine that they have a genetic mutation which makes the disease deadly to others but not them. I think we would be justified detaining that person but not executing them--even if we needed to house them and care for them for life. Since they do not *deserve* to be put to death, cost and utility are not the be-all-to-end-all here. Others might want to jump in with different accounts and ways to respond (Thomas? Neil?).

Gregg,
Sorry to be so late jumping into this remarkable discussion among the others you have launched this month; but with Thomas N. and Tom Clark and Neil in addition to your superb comments, you obviously don't need any help from another MR skeptic. I was upset with Neil's suggestion that the folk don't agree with me on splitting FW from MR: since so few philosophers agree, I was sort of hoping that the folk were on my side. In fact, I think it's one of the few points on which we disagree: but I fully expect that after a week in Aberdeen, joined with mass quantities of Highland single-malt, you will begin to see the light. I would heartily second Eddy's recommendation of Michael Carrado's paper in Thomas N's superb book. Carrado does a brilliant examination of the question of proportionality, and opts for the view that punishment can only be justified on the basis of the good for the punished person. I'm not convinced it works -- I keep hearing an echo of Cool Hand Luke: "Wish you'd stop being so good to me, Cap'n" -- but no one poses the issue better. But on this, I think Gregg is right: the proportionality question is primarily a question about limiting retributivism. The problems of disproportion seem to grow out of righteous retribution, not from MR skepticism. The stronger the belief in MR (as in the US) the harsher the punishment; the greater the skepticism about MR -- as in Norway -- the less inclination toward punishment. I don't see us ending punishment anytime in the near future -- but if we don't believe that anyone ever justly deserves punishment, there will be a lot less danger of excessive punitiveness fueled by what criminologists call "populist punitiveness." MR skepticism will not solve all our worries about punishment, but it seems a very positive step in that direction.

Bruce, thanks for weighing in! I am very much looking forward to exploring Aberdeen with you and drinking copious amounts of Highland single-malt. You can try to persuade me to retain the concept of free will while I question you on what the reference setter is for the concept of FW minus its connection to MR ;)

Regarding the proportionality question, I agree with you completely! (I should add a section on proportionality to my Aberdeen paper--I still have a week ;)

Allow me to be more strident than Eddy in my suspicion of "basic desert". I'm not convinced that we have a definitive single concept here. Consider first this Philosophy Etc reflection on desert,http://www.philosophyetc.net/2005/06/entitlement-and-desert.html?m=1
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Also, desert is always grounded on some basis, i.e. it takes the general form "X deserves A in virtue of B". It seems plausible that this basis is always backwards-looking, e.g. some past action that X performed.
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Now, this philosopher doesn't use the word "basic", but does seem to be trying to capture some common moral intuitions. If we define basic desert this way, it becomes quite plausible to assert that this is a belief held by most in our society, or even maybe humanity in general.

Contrast Maureen Sie, https://maureensie.wordpress.com/tag/basic-desert/
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It remains open whether the desert that is presupposed can be given a contractualist or consequentialist account, or whether it is basic in the sense that the agent deserves the indignation just because she has knowingly committed an immoral action.
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Now wait a minute. I can understand why consequentialists, at least of the direct variety, are excluded here. Their approach contradicts the requirement that desert is backwards-looking. But what the heck is contractualism doing here? Are we talking about Scanlon, What We Owe? That doesn't fit. Maybe contractarianism, a la Gauthier? Not sure that makes sense either.

I strongly second Paul's dissection of desert: what is meant in a given case needs precise definition. Causi sui absolutely time-fixed libertarian senses are the baseline (I guess) but certainly not the only good contenders. And of course he's right about any view being backward-looking in fixing responsibility to some past (or very nearly present) act.

Paul, the conception of basic desert that I am using follows Pereboom, G. Strawson, etc. The desert is *basic* in the sense that “the agent would deserve to be blamed or praised just because she has performed the action, given an understanding of its moral status, and not, for example, merely by virtue of consequentialist or contractualist considerations” (Pereboom). Free Will skeptics, like myself, reject such basic desert. I'm unclear from you post whether you agree or whether you want to defend basic desert MR. If you are adopting a consequentialist or contractualist approach to MR, then you are not defending what I am calling basic desert.

Gregg,
Thanks for the comment. This is likely to be wordy, so please bear with me.

I take a contractualist approach to MR, insofar as I take a contractualist approach to everything about what we owe to each other. I think it is basically a right approach to this important moral domain. But rather than denying basic desert, I reject the category as a Frankenstein monster, an illegitimate intellectual package deal, and urge others to do likewise.

Suppose some economist defined a "basic worker" as anyone employed as other than a squeegee man or a philosophy professor. Philosophy professors might reasonably object that they are being categorized alongside a disreputable service, for no good rhyme or reason. Perhaps squeegee men will think it is they who are wronged by the comparison. Either way, the category is useless and should be eschewed.

Okay, so why do I object to putting "contractualist considerations" alongside consequentialist ones? Because the former need not be strictly forward looking. What is a contractualist consideration? It's a justification for proposed ways of treating each other in terms which, it is hoped, the dialogue partners cannot reasonably reject, given that the dialoguers hope to reach a result acceptable to all. This doesn't go very far beyond saying that a contractualist consideration is a moral consideration. Indeed that is the origin of a common objection : it is hard to see how to derive anything substantive from this thin looking foundation.

However for our purposes here, the only important point is whether contractualist approaches are inherently, strictly forward looking. I see no reason to think so. As such, there is no reason to place them alongside consequentialists as somehow giving us an un-intuitive picture of desert.

Even if compatibilists and free will skeptics disagree about basic desert, they can and I think should make common cause about there being no causa sui and apply this to criminal justice reform to make our system less punitive. Promulgating the idea that there is no unconditional capacity to have done otherwise, such that offenders are understood to be causal products of bio-social conditions, not self-created in any ultimate sense, would of course contradict folk notions of contra-causal, libertarian agency (to the extent those exist - Eddy and Thomas notoriously disagree about this). But whatever the extent, putting the offender in a causal-historical and situational context helps to distribute causal responsibility for character, motive, and act outside the agent, which in turn helps to diffuse blame, making him a less obvious target for our punitive reactivity (what I call the mitigation response - your response may vary :-). We're then in a better position, psychologically and cognitively, to consider non- or less-punitive responses to wrong-doing such as those advocated by Gregg, Derk, Bruce and others.

But a campaign to debunk the libertarian agent is a delicate undertaking, given the common conflation of determinism with fatalism, of supposing that causes necessarily constitute excuses, of thinking that there are no other sources of proportionality and justifications for punishment outside retributivism. Each of these, plus other concerns and confusions that come up when denying human causal exceptionalism, has to be addressed in ordinary language approachable by the folk - a big project in the mainstreaming of ideas. But if naturalist philosophers mostly agree that we aren't libertarian agents, and that this has non-trivial implications for attitudes affecting criminal justice policy (as Gregg, Derk and Bruce have argued - others are less convinced), then it's worth embarking on as a contribution we can make to the culture.

Tom, thanks! I agree that we can build some bridges here. Compatibilists and free will skeptics both agree that it is impossible for use to be cause sui. I would also like to see more compatibilists join the fight against that notion. That said, I'm still concerned that the continued defense of "just deserts" prevents us from really reforming the system in the ways that are needed. To continue to say that people *justly deserve* to be blamed and punished encourages us to terminate our search for the causes of immoral behavior at the point of the agent. This prevents us from looking more deeply at the true causes that stand beyond the agent. Bruce has written eloquently about this. I know we agree on just about everything, but our one point of disagreement may be on barrier that compatibilism represents. I see it as more of a barrier to true reform than you do.

Paul, I still don't see how contractualism gets us "just deserts." But since I may address this in my next post, perhaps I will hold off on saying more for the moment.

Gregg, good point about the barrier that compatibilism presents insofar as it insists on just deserts and singling out the agent. I'm hoping that challenging the causa sui will undercut the primary basis in folk psychology for just deserts and retribution, thus lead to attitudinal and policy reform. But as some of us have tried to do in this thread, efforts also have to be made to expose other justifications for just deserts as morally suspect (if indeed they are). Dennett has declared himself a consequentialist, non-retributivist compatibilist (at least in personal correspondence, not sure about in public yet), but still wants to talk about just deserts when it comes to punishment. I don't see either the truth or utility of that when applied to reform. Hopefully the folk won't either, once they are disabused of the causa sui.

Tom, I'm glad you mentioned Dennett and his consequentialist, non-retributive compatibilism! I'm going to post about this tomorrow. It's unclear to me whether such a position amounts to a form of compatibilism at all. I'm interested to hear your thoughts--be sure to weigh in tomorrow!

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