Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 1:36:29 — 88.4MB)
On P.F. Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment" (1960), Galen Strawson's "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility" (1994), and Gary Watson's "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme" (1987).
Do we ordinarily act with the right kind of freedom so that blame is justified? Galen Strawson says no: our choices stem from our character, which is not something we chose (or if we did choose a path to having that character, that prior choice wasn't the result of another choice, etc.). Galen's father P.F. Strawson said that blame and resentment are essential parts of our social attitudes and aren't really open to philosophical critique, no matter what you think about determinism.
Mark, Wes, and Seth are joined by Tamler Sommers of the U. of Houston and Very Bad Wizards podcast, who tries to convince us that ole' P.F. was right. Well Pffff to that!
Listen to Talmer's introduction, then read more about the topic and get the articles.
End song: "Irresistible" by New People, from Impossible Things (2011), written and sung by Matt Ackerman. Buy the album at partiallyexaminedlife.com/store.
Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.
Lukasz Stafiniak says
I am sure you guys are familiar with Dennett’s exposition of compatibilism. But has anyone read Gary Drescher “Good and Real” (and more on the fringes, Eliezer Yudkowsky http://intelligence.org/files/TDT.pdf pages 100-114)? Metaphysically serious compatibilism can draw from (at least) analogy with functionalism. In fact, the phenomenal experience of free will functionally latches onto an “algorithm” of choice between actions or of monitoring one’s conduct so that an action can be abandoned given reasons.
Balthasar Sohanstag says
This is the first podcast to which I’ve listened, and I plan to listen to more. Unfortunately I started with an episode to which I bring the most mental baggage.
I was anxious to hear you elucidate the recent conflict between Harris and Dennett through your examination of the Strawsons. Instead I just kinda heard derision for skepticism and especially in the case of the “latecomer” Sam Harris. His essay, and Dennett’s, are fairly brief, and your podcast is relatively brief. I didn’t hear one word of disagreement with Harris’s critique of free will (or his subsequent take on compatibilism). Instead, I heard Wes assert that the wiggle room compatibilism offers is underestimated by skeptics. Ok…how? Because there’s the rub.
I’m a brand new listener, so I’m not sure if you do follow ups, but I’d be very eager to hear one on this podcast. The underlying issue is certainly a popular subject, and poorly understood.
Wes Alwan says
Hi Balt, I’ll publish a more detailed account of my view on free will in the near future (and make reference to the Dennet/Harris debate).
Balthasar Sohanstag says
Great – I’ll be very eager to read it.
Frank Levi says
I know this is an old post but I’m listening through all of the episodes in order from the beginning so I’m way behind. Did the more detailed account of your view on free will ever get posted? I’m having trouble finding it but what you said in the podcast was very interesting and I would love to hear more. Thanks for the great podcast!
Wes Alwan says
I’d like to get this on the record before we get the inevitable corrections come: yes, I know that the ancient Greeks ultimately rebuffed the Persians (I make a joke about the Persians conquering Ancient Greece in this episode). But the Persians did sack Athens and overrun Greece for a while before the invasion was rebuffed.
Sean Coyle says
Wonderful episode guys, I was on the edge of my seat for the entire time. I felt a substantial tension (a good kind) in the dialog. Alas, content of the argument aside, I wanted to voice a comment with regards to Seth, as I respect his input.
My first gut level non-reflective reaction to the episode was both a sympathy towards Seth’s disillusionment with the kind of talk implicit in detached analysis, and a pining for more of what Seth’s alternative type of discussion might look like (if that is, he knew of another way).
I put forward this criticism with hesitancy, since I’m not sure I understand the nature of the debate enough to know: if, Seth, there is another way to approach the discussion of moral issues amenable to a furthering of understanding (if understanding is even the goal), what might that type of discussion look like? Normally you are refreshingly charitable with regards to the conversation at hand. This episode though, I felt a palatable cynicism. But hey, all topics can’t interest all people!
That being said, I laud the episode a resounding success! 🙂 Cheers
This was a very interesting and enjoyable discussion. I find myself in agreement with a concept Seth began to articulate… people can be without blame, but still held responsible in some way. He used the example of the child falling in the well.
I think there are other examples that illustrate this concept. Two I thought of go as follows: let’s say I am driving my car down the street following all the rules and speed limits, and I hit a hidden patch of ice (I grew up in Wisconsin & am currently live in Wyoming), lose control of the car, and crash into a pedestrian. I am Not to blame for hitting the pedestrian because I did not have control of the car even though I was following all the rules and taking precautions. However, if I just kept on driving for whatever reason, I would get into some trouble with the law (pragmatically held accountable), and rightfully so I think (morally accountable). Even though we are Both victims in this situation and I was helpless to stop the event from happening, I still have an obligation to respond and help the other person. In other words, even though I am Not to blame, I am still responsible, hence still morally accountable on some level.
Another example could be a doctor who works in an intensive care unit with very sick patients who are barely clinging to life. Let’s say this doctor is infected with a virus and goes to work, accidentally exposing their patients to a potentially fatal virus they are carrying. Again, this is a case where the doctor is Not to blame for infecting his/her patients, but is in fact responsible for it, and may be held accountable in some form or another as a result. Perhaps the accountability would be as simple as Not being allowed to work until their own health improves and they are no longer at risk of infecting the other patients.
On a similar note, I work as a psychotherapist by profession and regularly treat patients with severe & persistent mental illness (SPMI), including personality disorders. One of the themes in treatment is Not blaming the patients for their character, given that is often determined by early childhood neglect, attachment ruptures, along with severe & repeated trauma… however, given they are the way they are, acknowledging they still need to take responsibility and make changes to become more healthy. Kind of like the car example, they may not have been in control when they hurt other people or themselves, but they still have an obligation to try and improve the situation, whether by repairing damages whenever possible, and / or simply taking proper steps to ensure it does not happen again. Therapy can help people learn triggers, early warning signs, and provide alternative coping skills so they need not repeat the same harmful patterns. As clinicians we also do our best to treat the underlying trauma and psychopathology to improve our patients’ lives as well.
One final note, psychopathy (or antisocial personality disorder as it is called in DSM 5) was raised as an issue several times in this episode, so I would like to comment on that quick. It has always struck me as odd when people (usually philosophers) take the position that just because someone is objectively determined means they are not blameworthy, hence not responsible, and thus cannot be held accountable (criminal sentencing), especially in the case of psychopaths. I think I have already demonstrated that someone need Not be blameworthy in order to be responsible and then held accountable in some way. However, in cases of fully symptomatic psychopathy, which is notoriously the most treatment resistant mental illness around, the person may not be worthy of unrelenting punishment or torture (like Hell), but since they are unlikely to change and have extremely high recidivism rates (clinical and statistical truths), it would seem the only logical option left is incarceration, Not to punish the person, but simply to contain them and protect the rest of society. I think the objective determinism perspective would Not negate incarceration criminal sentencing, especially for psychopaths, but would actually Demand that it be done. In a way this example is similar to the doctor with the virus, only difference is the fully symptomatic psychopath’s virus (of their character or lack thereof) never clears up, so we can never allow them back in the community, they are just too high of a danger to others. Of course if psychotherapy and neuroscience ever find a way to effectively treat psychopathy that would offer some hope in these cases and change the scenario a bit, but the field isn’t there (yet).
I know that is a lot of info, but any thoughts on these examples and concepts? I think they are pretty consistent with the idea Seth was beginning to formulate.
Wayne Schroeder says
Hold me responsible all you want, just do not blame me.
Alan Cook says
Brandon, you might be interested in the series of posts that’s currently being run on the PEL blog. Philosopher Dave Shoemaker has written a book that’s devoted in substantial part to how conditions like psychopathy, childhood abuse and neglect, etc., affect our judgments of moral responsibility; I’m interviewing him about the book. He alludes to these issues in the first installment of the interview, and gets a little more into them in the later installments, but the major treatment really comes in the book. I’d encourage you to take a look at it.
Brian Wise says
Thanks for all the great examples, Brandon. I think they helped explain the difference between blame and responsibility (in at least one sense of that word).
I work in the medical community, too (I’m an ICU nurse, and found that example particularly poignant). It seems that most of the medical community is of the opinion that without the freedom to make undetermined choices, patients cannot be held morally responsible for their actions (we cannot blame them for what they do). This is most prevalent, as your examples and work experience show, in the mental health field. As we come to see more mental illnesses as disease processes, we are able to find more constructive ways to help people who suffer from them, rather than simply blaming them for making bad choices, as was done in generations past, or worse and more unhelpfully, calling them demon-possessed.
It seems to me that most blaming (in the senses that bring about shame and punishment in the public sphere) are really for the good of those who do the blaming, rather than those who are blamed. There is pretty good evidence that shame and punishment, in the sense of retributive justice, rarely bring about change in the affected individual and in most cases can actually increase the negative behavior. I think we like to blame others because we think it makes us feel good, not because it actually makes the world a better place. Ironically, I don’t know that blaming others really makes us feel better in the long run anyway.
I liked your thoughts about incarceration as it relates to antisocial personality disorder. Incarceration should be used as a means of protecting the public from those who are unable to control their behavior. But I agree that it should certainly be a last resort, and that, in an ideal world, we would have counselling and a wide range of rehabilitative services available for those with mental illnesses. As it stands in America, we tend to simply incarcerate anybody who shows criminal behavior as part of our archaic Judeo-Christian understanding of retributive justice and rarely get around to asking “Why is this person behaving this way?” and “What could be done to provide what they would need to change?”
I’d like to make one comment about your use of the term “responsibility”. I agree that people can be held responsible for their actions while not being “to blame”. Whether we hold a hard determinism or a form of compatiblism that leaves off any causal moral responsibility, it is not inconsistent to simultaneously hold the belief that societies can hold individuals responsible for a wide range of behaviors. The ICU doctor may not be morally guilty, but was still the proximate physical cause of the infections. The driver may not be morally guilty, but was still the proximate physical cause of the injury. Societies can determine that proximate physical causes can be held responsible for their actions and made to help correct the situation (or at least prevent it from happening again) but we need to remember that these are just societally held practices and in no way exist as some sort of metaphysical duty.
I am fascinated by the ways philosophy and medicine interact and very much enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.
Brandon Bykowski says
Thank you for the thorough response Brian Wise. I would like to respond to several topics you commented on. I find myself in agreement with you that blame is pragmatically unhelpful and often has a rebound effect of bringing about more resistance on part of person who is being blamed. I also agree that blaming others is usually more about helping ourselves to feel better and justified. To your points on incarceration, again I agree and would take it even further that in America we have made a quite profitable business by incarcerating a lot of people, mostly non-violent drug offenders for silly reasons when compared and contrasted to someone who is incarcerated for violent offenses or repeated criminal activities. This may also reflect a belief often found among Judeo-Christian followers that our bodies and minds are pure and best left uncontaminated by drugs or other “unnatural” objects. Religiosity is actually one of the strongest protective factors against illicit drug use, particularly among adolescents (sorry if this is reinforcing some stereotypes).
Anyways, I think it goes back to this strange idea commonly found amongst both conservative and liberal social circles that, natural = good, therefore anything unnatural = bad. These ideas are evident in more liberal persons through an irrational mistrust of genetically modified foods and the belief in organic foods. Other ways I see it manifest are a distrust in psychiatric medications, and turning to alternative “medicines” or certain religious rituals to treat psychological problems. Even amongst drug users & addicts, one of most common justifications for using marijuana, aside from increasing legalization, is that it is supposedly unmodified and “natural because it grows from the ground”. I’m not sure if this thinking was made prevalent by Judeo-Christian belief systems or not, but I know there is a lot of old Catholic theology based in the Aristotelian school of thought that advocates for how natural = good.
I agree with your comments about the metaphysical groundlessness or lack of justification for my use of the term responsibility. At least I think that was your point… In any event, I find it important to use a pragmatic conception of responsibility & blame, even if it does Not correspond exactly to a metaphysical justification. Maybe I’m being short-sighted, but I have never really seen a solid example of how metaphysics or appeals to that realm of thought have helped resolve a real social problem. Furthermore, rather than shedding light on how to resolve social issues, I suspect bringing metaphysics in to the discussion would only muck up the waters.
At the end of the day, the vast majority of our conceptions of what is right and wrong are subjectively individualized, which is why the field of philosophy, being made up of individuals born & raised in different environments & centuries, has so many varying ethical systems and differing conceptions of justice. People rarely change their minds when they believe they are right, especially when others make appeals to higher level ethical systems or metaphysics to persuade them otherwise. Instead of focusing on metaphysics, I think it is much more important to try identifying the social conditions and practices that foster human health / flourishing, and then focus resources towards building a society that maximize those more favorable conditions. Metaphysics does not really do that, and as a result I suppose I simply I fail to see how it is relevant to discerning responsibility, and I am also uncertain as to what purpose metaphysics serves, other than perhaps being an interesting abstract afternoon conversation over coffee.
I know that was a lot of thoughts, but I do hope to hear any responses you might have.
Carlos Franke says
I would very much like to hear you guys talk about Thomas Nagel’s account of free will in “The View From Nowhere” (chapter VII, “Freedom”), but much of it may be redundant after this discussion, unfortunately. Nagel sees two aspects to what is commonly called free will: autonomy (the private intuition that I am willing my own actions) and responsibility (which is a bit more complicated and has to do with projecting one’s own autonomy into others in order to judge their actions). I remember that, when I read it, this distinction seemed as perfectly clear and reasonable to me as the conclusion which Nagel drew at the end of the chapter: “[…] it seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has yet been said on this subject [of freedom vs. objective reality].”
There is a short section responding to P. F. Strawsons “Freedom and Resentment” in there (chapter VII, section 4, only two pages), if anyone wants to look that up. (I might do so myself later, but no promises.)
Something else I find very interesting about Nagel is how he tries to reconcile his more idealistic intuitions with metaphysical realism or objectivity in general, which he is not willing to let go either. The “dual aspect theory” he ends up having not only preserves the reality of the mental and the material indepenant of each other (by basing both on a third substance, if I recall correctly), but also envisions the future possibility of examining the mental objectively/scientifically (but not by looking at brains). As far as I remember, Nagel presents this theory quite thoroughly in the article “The Psycho-Physical Nexus”. Maybe that’s something for your metaphysics run?
Thanks for all your efforts and this episode in particular!
Thank you for another awesome episode. Very good guest as well, Tamler really engaged the conversation and added a great deal to it. It is very cool when you have guests that actually know something about intricate philosophical problems as opposed to those whom either do not or who think they do. Again, thanks guys for a very in depth discussion of what is an ancient problem.
I just have to disagree a bit with Seth on this one though: the question of probabilism vs. determinism is indeed of massive importance and impact to the questions of ethics w.r.t. foundational aspects such as accountability and justifications (Wes explained why this is so quite elegantly in the podcast, but I am not sure if it really ‘sunk in’ for Seth). I think Seth, you might not consider this so due to something very subtle (not touched upon in the podcast): uncertainty. In other words, our epistemological uncertainty as to whether in actual fact determinism or probabilism is true serves as a justification for you to say ‘well it just doesn’t really intuitively matter to me or actually impact my behaviour’. If conclusively the one or the other was proven without a shred of doubt, it most likely would impact your behaviour. This however leads to a very subtle, but profound philosophical problem…namely that I cannot be certain that said epistemological certainty would in fact alter your behaviour (hence why I said ‘most likely’). This is akin to for example asking the philosophical question of exactly to what extent (if any) the discovery and clear proof that the sun is at the centre of our solar system (which was a paradigm shifting discovery/proof) impacted the behaviour of the ‘common man’. I.e. did people actually really change their behaviours/natures upon learning this? Especially if they believed the opposite?
In short: I would love for you guys to explore the intimate interaction between ethics (behaviours/actions/intents, justifications for these, etc.), epistemology (certainty and nature of our knowledge) and ontology (probabilism, determinism). I believe in this episode you focused on the interaction between ontology and ethics, but ignored the intimate role that epistemology plays. In some future episode I would love if you discussed (and ideally read someone else who also considered) this ‘trinity’. Perhaps have Tamler as well on (and Dylan, his contributions were missed). It would be a fascinating discussion I believe and one that Seth could perhaps partake in more.
Again, thanks for the podcast gents, it was a very good one.
I am so sad the guys didn’t jump for the ethnics. The rasicst guy kept repeating brown hair and red hair, as if we don’t know what that means.
WTF? You high?
I only listen to this podcast when I am high. Wasn’t there some awful tension in this episode when the republican guy almost justified racism and Wes said, “well, we will never agree…”
Mark Linsenmayer says
I don’t recall the issue of racing coming up at all. The question is can people on some level be excused for what they do because of determinism. Wes says yes (though there are still morally relevant differences between someone coerced or acting with insufficient knowledge or with various other factors in play vs. someone not in any of those categories, i.e. that we’d ordinarily consider free), while Talmer said no: even given the truth of determinism (everyone agreed that at least it’s not verifiably false), blame is still justified in cases where someone is not coerced (or etc.).
Why would you think race has anything to do with this issue at all?
Because in the background of your discussion, there is a huge issue of black incarceration. I think even Seth made a moral, passionate point during your discussion (I cannot quote exactly). You cannot just simply jail poor communities if they steal. It is not about determinism and all that, because the world does not work like that. I remember your guest saying “he will kill someone if ,,, imaginary fantasy”. That imaginary fantasy keeps our world so dangerous, why kids go into schools and shoot their fellows.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I think you’re making an interesting connection, in that these practical decisions about blame aren’t just a matter as we were treating it on the episode (following Tamler) of whether you’re going to feel irritated at someone but of public policy (so Wes was on-point in bringing up Nietzsche’s objection to public policy driven by sentiment). And yes, if you’re going to make public policy decisions, you don’t make them in a philosopher’s vacuum, but in the real world with its existing punishment practices, which certainly have a lot of embedded racism. So there’s a case to be made for approaching this issue with that in mind. So it’s an interesting CONNECTION, but not something that I think was being addressed by the participants in the discussion, and nothing I have any reason to consider Tamler guilty regarding.
Andrew Kirk says
I was perplexed at Tamler Sommers’ assertions that there is more to accountability than just Strawson’s observation that as humans we cannot help but resent, at least to some extent, those that hurt us.
He kept using the word ‘appropriate’ , for instance saying that his wish to harm somebody that hypothetically harmed his daughter was ‘appropriate’. I search for what meaning can reasonably be given to the word ‘appropriate’ in such a context and all I can come up with is that he probably meant that:
1. Most humans would respond that way and
2 Very few humans would criticise him for responding that way.
That’s what ‘appropriate’ seems to me to mean.
But that’s just reiterating what PF Strawson said – that we have evolved to have these reactions, and can never completely free ourselves of them, regardless of whether they can be logically justified. Sommers seemed to feel his use of the term ‘appropriate’ somehow demonstrates that Strawson was missing an important feature of the situation, but he hasn’t demonstrated that Strawson has missed anything. Points 1 and 2 seem to me to be at the heart of what PF Strawson was saying.
The assertions would be understandable coming from a free will libertarian. But as Sommers said he was not a libertarian, I cannot understand his view.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I took Tamler to be wholly agreeing with PF Strawson (apart from bringing hell into the notion of desert).
Best episode you’ve guys have had in a while, really enjoyed it. I can’t get my head around Wes’ position though. If we do have (some conception of) free will, then how can we not blame someone for their deliberate choices? I get that we could hold folks responsible based on pragmatic or utilitarian grounds, but decisions like that (it seems to me) are made in the “objective” position. Yet Wes rejected the idea that moral judgements can only be made in the objective position, right?
If we reject the idea that moral judgements are grounded in reactive attitudes but also reject that they are grounded in decisions made in the objective position, with what then are we left? I suppose we could say that seeing characters as determined wakes us up to certain sentiments not to blame others, but this is a reactive attitude isn’t it?
I get Wes’ point that letting our reactive attitudes run rampant is a bad idea. Yet if we use free will/reason to give shape to our reactive attitudes, we avoid this problem can’t we? I see our reactive attitudes as a crucial part of our humanity, but I get the vibe from Wes that they’re just evolutionary baggage that we need to overcome. If not, I can’t get a handle on what role they play in his conception of moral judgement. I see further up that he plans to flesh out his position; I look forward to it.
Wayne Schroeder says
The stage wast set: guest Tamler defending PF Strawson’s rather confused position of morality being not based on any objective standard but on acknowledging the reactivity common to the human condition when confronted with “bad” behavior, the push back by Wes and Mark finding holes all over the place, and the detached-from-it-all Seth promoting socially based morality and the advice of being more peaceful by becoming a detached leaf floating through times of conflict (a kind of Zen thing), and as Mark said regarding PF Strawson: “Well Pffff to that!”
I share the sentiments of Mark, Wes and Seth, and congratulate them for not getting sucked in by false moralizing. Thank goodness (intelligence) for avoiding the common religious argument for free will (and the dreaded determinism) which is always a coded argument for the existence of God, Soul and the consequent morality. However with the seculaization of morality, and a freeing up from a ready made solution, secular moralists still can’t resist making overt or covert appeals for some morality which fall prey to the code argument for a rule or principle, and the consequent need for free will (and the dreaded determinism) so we can adequately blame people and keep society from falling apart.
Tamler said he became a Strawsonian in order to accept his own reaction to the possibility of someone harming his daughter, and justify applying social justice–after all reaction to bad behavior is what human’s do. Accept reactivity and then objectively apply social justice. All of this gets so very confused, whether religious or secular.
It is so frustrating that Nietzsche uncovered this whole moralizing problem long ago, but still remains unknown or unapplied in the official and unoffical philosophy of ethics dialogues. Of course there is a reason for this: the power of the unconscious which contains drives (reactivities), which operate historically in false master-slave relationships (see his “Geneology of Morals”), not only with each other but within the individual, yielding false moralizing.
As you can see, it is reactivity itself which Nietzsche attacks, as the cowardly opposite (moralizing) of honest activity (ethics and affirmation). For further elaboration, see my post “Is Morality Ethical?” http://partiallyexaminedlife.com/2013/12/15/is-morality-ethical/ or just do a search of Nietzsche on the PEL home page. Beware of free will arguments as a ploy for someone to sneak in a moralizing claim to false religious or secular righteousness.
Like Seth, I have trouble getting into this discussion. It’s a metaphysical problem for academics to discuss, without much practical value. If anything, it highlights the issue with dualistic metaphysical systems more than it presents a real moral issue.
Harry Rogers says
I often think that these discussions tend to be like a squash player hitting a ball against the wall the players chase the ball all afternoon but haven’t really moved anywhere.
Once Nietzche is mentioned I’m ceratin that we then move into the metaphor of the “mobius loop”
Like a lot of philosophy great over a beer but wake up next morning totally unsatisfied.
I enjoy the the podcasts ….
Bill Youmans says
Hey all. I love determinism because I did some bad stuff when younger and determinism absolves me of blame for those actions. “I did the best I could at the time”. I don’t feel it absolves me of the responsibility of trying to do better, but isn’t that also determined by forces within and without me over which I have no control?
I read the P,F article and feel it doesn’t really answer the question of moral responsibility vs determinism.. You can’t rest a the theoretical argument for the limits of determinism on the complaint that we just don’t actually base our judgements according to deterministic theory, and that it’s not consistent with human nature to do so.. Human nature seems completely beside the point. Yes, in reality, we blame people and ourselves for actions taken, but philosophy isn’t about what we do, it’s about chasing the truth, right? If everything in the world is determined,, then whether we like to judge our actions accordingly or not is irrelevant.
I actually believe that we are not responsible for our actions in any meaningful way. Even if there is a sliver of free will, it’s not very strong. also, there are many people on record who appear to have evolved to the point where they do take the “objective view”all the time- “saints”, enlightened yogis and Buddhists, etc.
I’m probably missing the point but call me out gently if the determining factors of your personality permit you to do so.
Jennifer Tejada says
I hope you guys do another episode on free will. I cannot seem to make the mental leap that – if you believe that there is causality that you have to be a determinist and somehow not hold people morally responsible for things. Why so black and white? Why not say that we don’t know the extent to which causality effects our will and so we will behave as such. Our prisons will be about reform and not punishment. Etc. Why can’t we give some credence to the notion that causality isn’t ALL there is? I never understand that in these discussions which probably means I need to read/learn more – but it seems the obvious first question IMO. Loved this one guys!