Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Alleged Impossibility of Moral Responsibility: Galen Strawson's Basic Argument

Galen Strawson the son of the famous English philosopher P.F Strawson is probably best known for his positions on free will and his exposition of panpsychism. But today we are going to be taking a detailed look at Strawson's Basic Argument.

Galen Strawson believes that true moral responsibility is in fact impossible as we cannot be the cause of ourselves. Galen contends that the argument does not require that either determinism or indeterminism be the case, with the argument demonstrating the impossibility of free will either way. Strawson's Basic Argument has produced much interest and to many unversed in philosophy seems very plausible. However the argument hasn't had quite the same effect on those working in the field of academic philosophy, something that it appears Strawson (1994) is somewhat befuddled with.  

The most detailed exposition of his Basic Argument appears in Strawson's 1994 paper 'The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility' where Galen outlines four different but very similar versions of the Basic Argument. What makes the Basic Argument a very interesting talking point is the fact that it can be outlined in a way which makes it easy for a lay men to understand while also presenting a serious challenge to the possibility of moral responsibility. 

Strawson begins by stating the argument in most basic form and that argument goes as follows: 

  1. Nothing can be causa sui - nothing can be the cause of itself 
  2. In order to be truly morally responsible for one's actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain mental respects
  3. Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible. (Strawson 1994:5) 
It appears on the surface than this argument is valid as if we accept the premises the conclusion appears to follow. I'm going to leave the question of soundness to later. Strawson then goes onto then lay out ten point version of the argument, which himself he admits is a rather cumbersome version of the said argument. However he says that the argument can be put in a more natural form without losing much of what the more detailed and albeit more cumbersome argument had. The natural form of the argument is presented as follows: 
  1. It is undeniable that one is the way, one is initially, as result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible. 
  2. One cannot at any later stage in life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. For, 
  3. both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one's success in one's attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience. And
  4. any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial change by heredity and previous experience. 
  5. This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to influence of indeterministic or random factors.(Strawson 1994:7) [But it is absurd to hold that this could somehow contribute to moral responsibility.] 
According to Strawson this demonstrates the impossibility of moral responsibility. The fact that our early character development is not in hands, due to it being down totally to our genetics and environmental factors (such as a caring home etc.) precluded the possibility. For Strawson to be morally responsible we must be able to choose what kind of person we are in conscious manner. However, later in life when we hope accede to true moral responsibility by trying to change our character we are led into a infinite regress. As any attempt to make a change oneself and the degree of success in such a change will come down to our previous experience  and our genetics, both of which are clearly out of our control. While this may not be the whole story in how we develop our personality or character traits any role that randomness plays does nothing in terms of making us morally responsible. Again how can we be responsible for something totally out of our control. 

In questioning the soundness of Strawson's argument it is important to question his concept of true moral responsibility. Strawson has quite a unique and striking conception of what it means for someone to be ultimately morally responsible. He introduces the notion of 'Heaven and Hell responsibility', what true moral responsibility entails for Strawson is that 'it makes sense at least, to suppose that it could be just to punish someone with (eternal) torment in hell and reward others with (eternal) bliss'(Strawson 1994:9). When you take moral responsibility to be such a serious matter it becomes clear why Strawson insists that we must be able to choose who we are to be able to achieve true moral responsibility. The reason that Strawson endorses such a conception of moral responsibility appears to be because he believes that such a conception lines up with our intuitive deep understanding of moral responsibility. 

This is where it seems to get at least problematic for Strawson's argument. As their are other conceptions of what moral responsibility which do not require that we choose how to be in certain mental respects. For example, a compatibilist conception of moral responsibility would contend that an individual would be morally responsible for his actions provided his act wasn't caused by a certain set of constraints (such kleptomaniac impulses, threats and instances of force). What Strawson fails to do demonstrate why his conception of moral responsibility is the correct one. What he does claim is that his conception of moral responsibility is broadly the intuitive conception held by the majority of the public. If this is all that Strawson is able to demonstrate then its clear doesn't show that moral responsibility is in fact impossible, the most it can do is show that moral responsibility cannot be of the kind Strawson endorses. In fact a number of results from experimental philosophy appear to show that the average laymen endorses a conception of moral responsibility which is in fact compatibilist. 

In order to show the impossibility of moral responsibility, what Strawson needs is a couple extra premises on his argument in order to be able to demonstrate that his conception of moral responsibility is the correct one. However this appears to be an impossible task and therefore the best he can do is claim that his argument shows that our deep seated intuitive understanding of moral responsibility is undermined. But even such a claim seems particularly dubious due to the fact Strawson endorses a rather extreme conception of moral responsibility. 

Strawson G, 1994, The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility in Philosophical Studies 75: 5-24, 1994, Kluwer Academic Publishers

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