Compatible Moral Asymmetry

At the center of the free will debate lies two paradoxical claims:

  1. We require free actions from the (deterministic) causal chain to be morally responsible.
  2. We require the causal chain to be effective for moral responsibility on our actions.

(This is the final paper for PHIL75W, my favorite class ever).

Supposing the first is not met, it seems unjustifiable how we can place blame an act of evil if the entire history of the causal chain ever since the formulation of the universe have led to that act in time. Supposing the second is not met, it seems unjustifiable for moral judgements to be made on acts that arose out of spontaneity. For decades, each philosopher has chosen one of the two claims as their poison and staked their position against it, smoothening or understating facts until an intuition-friendly stance can be made, often by ostracizing others’ views by strategically finding the most extreme and counterintuitive corollaries to innocent-seeming principles laid by others. In this back-and-forth rhetorical tennis match, Susan Wolf stakes a claim that seems like an attractive compromise. In this paper, my goal is to make explicit her line of reasoning, debunk a strand of it, and provide an alternative path that leads us to a compatibilist account (*1).

(*1) A compatibilist is one who accepts 1. (morality is present in a determined world).

Wolf points out an asymmetry in our intuition for the deservingness of blame vs praise. While there is a great deal of tension and constitution involved in assigning blame to an agent who was determined to do an act, such a tension isn’t present in assigning praise. Do we ever repudiate praise for those who do us a favor, even if they were determined, or couldn’t help but, to do it? In Wolf’s words, “But when an agent does the right thing for the right reasons, the fact that, having the right reasons, he must do the right should surely not lessen the credit he deserves. For presumably the reason he can- not do otherwise is that his virtue is so sure or his moral commitment so strong” (156). It would be perverse to regard someone who “couldn’t help” but always tell the truth as no more deserving of praise than the average opportunistic Joe. In other words, the agent is deemed praiseworthy for his acts because he is determined, but by the right, virtuous reasons. Thus, the conditions of free will or “could have done otherwise” that we actively seek to make moral judgements become not only irrelevant, but undermines morality. Thus, she gives a stronger condition for our purposes, specifically that one “could have done otherwise if there had been good and sufficient reason” (159). This form of determinism also encompasses bad actions done in the face of more disagreeable alternatives (as there was no good and sufficient reason to act otherwise initially), like stealing from others to survive, as well as actions done without access to normal methods of reasoning, like running over a pedestrian while drunk (*2). This leaves actors who do not appear to satisfy this conditional analysis. Here, Wolf gives an example of someone who “embezzled some money, fully aware of what he was doing” and “was neither coerced nor overcome by an irresistible urge” and “was in complete control of normal adult faculties of reason and observation” (159). This particular actor “ought not to be blamed for committing his crime, for, from his point of view, one cannot reasonably expect him to see anything wrong with his action” if “in his childhood he was given no love… and the people to whom he was exposed when he was growing up gave him examples only of evil and selfishness” and so led him to “conclude that respecting other people’s property would be foolish” (159-60). In other words, such an actor’s reasons “cannot attain its appropriate goal”, which is ultimately determination by the True and the Good.

(*2) Of course, this doesn’t mean the person isn’t rightfully liable to legal punishment. To uncomplicate the matter, assume there was overwhelming peer pressure to get drunk, like how in China many business deals are done over beer. The decision to become drunk by your own volition needs further analysis.

This new taxonomy of responsibility, at first glance, makes a lot of sense, is aligned to our moral intuition, finds middle ground between the two sides of the debate by making praise compatible with determinism, and makes the plausible argument that either a) all blame can be accounted for by the new substitution of determinism by determination by the True and the Good, or b) determinism is false. I believe it is Wolf’s final leap of faith that corrupted an otherwise beautiful line of argument, when she states, “So if an agent is ever to be responsible for a bad action, it must be the case that his action is not psychologically determined at all. According to my view, then, in order for both moral praise and moral blame to be justified, the thesis of psychological determinism must be false” (163). Taking the contrapositive, if determinism is true, there exists only justifiably praiseworthy actions and no blameworthy actions. Prior to this, she acknowledges there are epistemological requirements and value-laden calls for us to form the right values, not just “the capacity to reason” but “sensibility and perception” as well. “But these are capacities, I assume, that most of us have. So when the world cooperaties, we are morally responsible.” It’s clear what Wolf is trying to do is to direct everyone on the universal path towards freedom that is determination by virtue, and everyone who diverges from this was corrupted by psychologically determined circumstances that took away the ability to acquire the capacity to realize and act on virtue. Consider this. If our world is determined, Hitler’s actions are not blameworthy by Wolf’s interpretation because his twisted interpretation of justice was developed by his younger, isolated self who didn’t receive formal education and grew up in a humiliating time for Germany, thereby distorting his view of the True and the Good (*3). I think where Wolf’s view weakens is cases where an individual acts on self-righteous beliefs that were intentionally reinforced into convictions by an individual. Though Wolf will argue such convictions can be reduced to circumstances earlier in life that hindered the individual’s ability to regulate oneself from extremism, I, and many compatibilists who hold a volitional view (*4), think there is a difference in culpability when comparing an individual who formerly had simultaneous access to a view of the True and the Good (and the ability to exercise it) and a morally corrupted view but willingly performed actions to steer oneself to the corrupted one, as opposed to an individual who was brainwashed into a morally corrupted view from a young age, even if both end up with the same corrupted values and insensibility.

(*3) Hitler left his small Austrian town and his disapproving father, who was a civil worker, after his mother passed away. He left for Vienna only to get rejected by the Academy of Arts, but voraciously made art and read politics.

(*4) The volitional view holds that an individual’s state of mind is the aggregation of previous, perhaps more intentional actions, which can be subjected to blame.

In my alternative framework, an individual is not only an inheritor of the True and the Good, but also an instantiation and lifelong interpretation of it (what’s good). Regardless of how conditions prior to the instantiation of it, as long as he or she has adequate rational and conscientious faculties (*5), the individual should be held responsible in cases when his or her interpretation of it begins to change. The individual is praiseworthy for his or her right convictions of what’s the True and the Good, and blameworthy for the wrong ones. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of biotech company Theranos (*6), believed in her own lies and enforced a strong NDA policy for her employees. Yet, I think it’s safe to say she did possess the rational capacities of differentiating between true and false (*8). Thus, her value system that consisted of lies was not the product of a lack of capacity to differentiate between fact and fiction that would have exempted her from blame, as Wolf puts it, but her overriding her lies with the (impossible) vision she guaranteed would come true: changing the world, democratizing healthcare, and becoming the next Steve Jobs. Regardless of whether the circumstances of her life can explain her actions, the fact is she had a warped value system, performed many actions that detrimented others on that basis, and should, I think, rightfully be blamed.

(*5) Cases for which this isn’t the case is treated similarly as cases Wolf described, either where an individual was faced with a more disagreeable alternative, or couldn’t exercise proper decision making capacity. In both such cases, the individual had no sufficient reason to act otherwise, so they are still determined by the True and the Good.

(*6) The founder of Theranos, she deceived investors by repeatedly making false claims of the company technology’s capability (beyond what’s even theoretically possible) and promising unrealistic returns. Holmes herself conducted fake proof-of-concept tests with other state-of-the-art equipment at the time, returned falsified results to consumers, and turned a deaf ear to many advisors who decreed her technology impossible. By 2018, the company dissolved and Holmes received nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy after becoming the youngest self-made billionaire and cover of Forbes and Fortune.

(*7) This is considering she dropped out of Stanford and convinced top industry experts and investors of Silicon Valley to back her idea.

After giving my compatible account of blame, it may still prove worthwhile for me to explain why I personally think Wolf’s asymmetry argument in conditions for praise and blame is so intuitively attractive (to the extent we can think one is compatible with determinism, one isn’t) to the human psyche. Along evolutionary history, even as organisms became capable of reasoning and making moral judgements from a metaphysical perspective, we are first and foremost driven by a fear of death and any event that may cause it, including situations where we may be excluded or excommunicated from a community which we depend on for survival. Thus, our limbic system biases us to be more averse to loss than seeking of gain (*8). In a complex society, transmitted messages is lossy, with meaning often being lost in the process (i.e. texting), and so loss aversion makes us process the uncertainty with more negativity than positivity. To make up for this inherent threat to the stability of the moral community and prevent negativity from spiraling into bigger issues like wars, we learned (the hard way) the need to reinforce a feedback loop that propagates the goodwill, even in neutral situations, beginning as children. There is an unspoken rule, that, to be a part of the moral community, one must have the bare-minimum ability to recognize and propagate this inherent goodwill in society. This may be why we find praiseworthy even acts done by an agent who “couldn’t help” but do it, so we can set a precedent for the future and fulfill the implicit demand on us.

(*8) The bias of loss aversion is well-documented in many psychology studies of people preferring more to not lose money than to make it.

To summarize, in this paper I present a case against Wolf by arguing that moral blame, even when it appears incompatible with determination by the True and the Good, is compatible with psychological determinism. The core oversimplification in Wolf’s argument, I believe, is that failure of being determined by the True and the Good (or cases not satisfying her revised conditional analysis), can be due to an agent’s inaccurate beliefs of the True and the Good, which can be blameworthy.

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