The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility by Strawson
Introduction and Context
There is something very important at stake in the free will vs determinism debate:  is moral responsibility possible?  Strawson’s answer is “no” but this follows whether determinism is true or false! If Strawson is right, and we can’t be morally responsible for our actions, why the heck do most people think that we can be morally responsible for our actions?  Because free will is an illusion.

In formulating his position, Strawson proceeds as follows:  (a)  overview of the Basic Argument and why we must accept it; (b) account of what moral responsibility means; (c)  why people think there is such a thing as moral responsibility; and (d) why, if we accept the Basic Argument (which we must), moral responsibility is impossible.

The Basic Argument:  Simplest Form
The Basic Argument goes like this:
(P1)  Nothing can be the cause of itself.
(P2)  In order to be morally responsible for one’s actions, one would have to have caused one’s self–at least the mental qualities and dispositions.
(C)   But since (P1), one cannot be morally responsible for one’s actions.

If this seems a bit confusing, lets go through the expanded version, using an example.

Little Ami, Fries, and Mustard
When I was an elementary school student, it was a special treat to get french fries–especially for me.  I was the kid who had the lunch that all the other kids laughed at.  Usually my sandwich was something like cream cheese and alfalfa sprouts or tuna.  Instead of chocolate milk, I got plain milk.   Instead of store-bought chocolate-chip cookies I got homemade oatmeal raisin cookies.  In retrospect, I’m glad this is what I ate, but at the time it was pretty traumatic.

Anyhow, all this to say that to eat french fries at lunch was a huge deal for me.  The problem was, however, that if you got french fries at lunch, all the other kids would want some of your fries.  I’m a ten year-old kid that has to eat alfalfa sprout sandwiches and never gets fries.  I don’t want to share!  At the same time, my parents raised a good boy and I was aware of the social “wrong” of being greedy and that I should share. So, what’s a kid to do?

Here’s what I did:  At that age, most kids hated mustard–including myself.  But in order to navigate the problem of wanting to keep all the fries to myself and conforming with social expectations I decided I would teach myself to like mustard!  Now, whenever it was a rare fortuitous fries day, I’d cover my fries in mustard and the other kids wouldn’t ask me for any! (Incidentally, I did the same thing with black licorice).

Writing this, I’m starting to think I was a pretty strange kid.  And at this point you’re wondering, how the f**k does this fit in with determinism and moral responsibility? Let me try to explain by taking one or two steps back:

Step 1:   Our actions are a direct consequence of who we are

Whatever we do is a consequence of a collection of our mental properties such as desires, beliefs, and psychological dispositions. This is why we can usually anticipate the action of people we know really well. We know something about their desires, beliefs, character, and dispositions. This is also how we explain why different people react differently to similar situations–they have different psychologies.

It would be really weird if our action weren’t a consequence of our psychology. Our actions would seem totally random. Our actions are a direct consequence of who we are (psychologically).  This much is fairly uncontroversial.

Step 2A:  We don’t cause our own psychological make-up
We don’t choose our own psychological make-up.  Did you choose to like chocolate?  Did you choose to want to go to college?  Did you choose to like the people you like?  Did you choose to want the things from life that you want?  Did you choose to get sad, angry, or happy in response to various situations?  The answer, is no:  We don’t choose or create our own psychological make up.

Consider little Ami.  Did he choose to like french fries so much?  Did he choose to be mindful of social conventions? The answer is no.  

Step 2B:  If we can’t cause our own psychological make-up then we can’t be responsible for our actions
So, here’s the thing:  If we accept that our actions are a direct consequence of who we are psychologically and we don’t choose or create our own psychological qualities, then how can we be morally responsible for the consequences of the actions that arise out of that psychology?  In order for us to be morally responsible for our actions we have to have created our own psychology, but this is impossible.

Step 3:   Objection:  I deny step 2A–We can cause our own psychological make-up
Suppose we deny that it’s impossible to create your own psychology: you can create your own psychology and so now you are responsible for you actions.

Consider little Ami.  This seems to be what he’s doing:  Ah! Ha! he says!  I know a way out of this dilemma.  I’m going to make myself like mustard!  So, there, Strawson and determinists!  Ami just created his own psychological make-up.  Basic argument falsified!

Step 4: Doh!  Stupid Infinite Regress! 
Free at last! I’m free! Free! I tell you!  Um…  Oh….  There is one small problem.  Wasn’t little Ami’s decision to like mustard a consequence of prior psychological properties? Isn’t this the case anytime we resolve to “be” a certain way now?  Consider anytime you’ve resolved to change something about yourself.   You might have said something like, “I’m going to be a nicer person from now on, gosh darn it!”

It seems like we are self-creating some aspect of our psychology but is this really the case?  Doesn’t there have to be an already existent psychological self that wants to change?  The desire to change exists in the prior self. Without it, no change would occur.  

Where did the self that has the desire to change come from?  Did you create that self?  Maybe you did, but then where did the psychological make-up that led to the psychological make-up that wanted to change come from?  Did you create that set of psychological properties?

Lets return to little Ami.  We might say little Ami self-created a new version of himself that likes mustard.  So there! Ami’s psychology is self-created.  But again, the pre-mustard-liking Ami had a pre-existing set of psychological properties and dispositions that caused Ami to become mustard-liking-Ami–it had the pre-existing desire to want to like mustard. But Ami never chose to be pre-mustard-liking Ami.  He “just was” pre-mustard-liking Ami.

We might reply that there was a pre-pre-mustard liking Ami who chose to be pre-mustard liking Ami. But, did Ami choose to be the pre-pre-mustard-liking Ami that would eventually make possible pre-mustard-liking Ami which in turn would make possible mustard-liking Ami?  For Ami to be responsible for being pre-mustard-liking Ami, he has to have been responsible for being pre-pre-mustard-liking Ami.  At some point we have to concede that the initial psychological make up that bring about later incarnations of Ami are not self-caused.

We have, on our hands, an infinite regress problem.  The long and short of it is that every decision “you” make for being a certain way implies that there was a prior “you” that made that decision to take on a new psychological identity/property.  

Step 5:  You didn’t create your prior psychology so you are not responsible for the actions caused by consequent psychological make-ups 
Did you choose to create the prior “you” that had the desire to change or be different?  If you didn’t, then you can’t be morally responsible for the actions that are a later consequence of that psychology.  If you did, then that decision to create a psychological make-up was a consequence of a decision made by a prior “you”.   But did you intentionally create that prior “you”?  At some point we have to say “no” and since all present incarnations of your psychological dispositions are a consequence of your prior dispositions, “you” cannot be held morally responsible for the actions that emerge from those psychological dispositions.

Possible Objection:
People can change the way the are.

Reply:  True, but as has been shown, they can’t do it in a way that attaches moral responsibility to their actions.

What is Do Most People Mean by Moral Responsibility and Why Do People Believe there is such a Thing?
The notion of moral responsibility that is typically implied by most people has to do with justification of punishment and reward in accordance with a principle of proportionality.   In other words, moral responsibility carries with it the idea that you should be punished (in part) in proportion with the amount of moral responsibility you bear for an action.

People believe there is moral responsibility because this is fundamentally how we experience the world. It feels like we make decisions that have moral consequences.  For example, you’re going to walk into 7-11 to get you a cold pop (you smell something and you think someone is BBQ-ing).  On the way in, a homeless person asks you for a dollar.  It feels like you’ve got a moral choice to make.  You can give him the dollar or not.  And this is true even if you accept the Basic Argument.  Regardless, it still feels like we have freedom of choice and moral responsibility for our eventual action.  This is why we believe there is moral responsibility for actions.  It’s the feels.  But it’s not what is actually happening.

8 thoughts on “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility by Strawson

  1. Woow your writing skills are really beyond words! You made very easy to understand and put some cool examples in it. Thanks ^^


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