One Idea that Will Change Your Life

If you let go of preconceived notions, if at the very least you view this as a self-contained thought experiment, you’ll come away changed. Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument is very simple and therefore elegant. The paper offers some important insights about moral responsibility. What? Moral responsibility? Yawn.

Punishment takes on a new meaning when we consider the Basic Argument. (Source: Christian Graphics)

This is serious. The world’s penal systems rest on the concept of moral responsibility. Most folks judge other people’s behavior standing atop the foundation of moral responsibility. You’ll understand how powerfully this concept impacts your life once we get into it. So without further ado… The Basic Argument goes like this: 1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are. 2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain crucial mental respects. 3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all. 4. So you cannot be ultimately responsible for what you do. (Incidentally, Mr. Strawson does an excellent job of presenting his own work here at the NY Times) Fooey! you say. That’s just a way to shirk one’s responsibility, to justify bad choices! Look. Nobody is ultimately responsible for what they do, yet people make great decisions all the time. This argument isn’t going to change that. In fact, this argument will change very little, except some people’s understanding, those people whose experiences have taught them to value logic. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it a step at a time. You do what you do because of how you are. We probably won’t disagree here. Why else would you do what you do? Because of the way someone else is? Of course not. You might eat chicken curry because you like it. You detest horrible pop music because you always have. You choose to learn BASE jumping because you have the inclination and because caution isn’t hardwired into your genes. Every predisposition and preference and decision you make is a product of who you are. It would be a hard sell to say: I do what I do not because of the way I am but rather because fairies tickle mushrooms, or because my parents messed me up (both of which would suggest somebody else was responsible for what you do anyway). I rock climb because that’s an activity I enjoy. I write because that’s an activity I find stimulating. I floss my teeth because I’m afraid of gingivitis. I mentor a kid because it’s rewarding to help somebody. I gulp down water because my experience and instinct taught me it quenches thirst, and I want to be quenched. I do all these things because of who I am. Simple as that. Can you think of any other reason you would do what you do OTHER THAN THE WAY YOU ARE? If so, please tell me. Now, to be responsible for your actions, you must be responsible for who you are. As we just saw, you do what you do because of who you are. If that’s true, and if you’re going to take responsibility for your predispositions and preferences and decisions, you must be responsible for how you are. In other words, you must have had some role in creating yourself.

Wall-E, like each of us, was created by the forces that shaped his “brain.” He didn’t create himself.

Ah. Here comes the crux of the argument: nothing can be causa sui – nothing can create itself. At first blush, that’s not hard to believe. I mean, a robot can’t create itself. A lamp can’t do so. A panda isn’t going to give birth to itself. And so on, including human beings. You didn’t make yourself. People begin to really take issue with the argument here, because we have the feeling, some unreasoned yet seemingly irrefutable sense, that we play a role in choosing who we are. However, because nothing can create itself, it becomes obvious that two things claim responsibility for creating the “me” which is ultimately responsible for my choices: 1) my genes, 2) my earliest experiences. In fact, we don’t get to choose either one, so this takes us to the last point in the argument: if you cannot be ultimately responsible for who you are, you cannot be ultimately responsible for the things you do, and therefore, moral responsibility is impossible. But, you might want to claim: I choose whether to do wrong or right, or you might say: I make the choice between stealing food or paying for it. Yes, you do, and always your choice is based on who you are, and since you can’t create yourself, you’re not ultimately responsible for what you choose. We do, of course, have an intrinsic sense of responsibility for our decisions, at least those of us with a conscience. Yet this is something also inherited from our genetic makeup and life experiences and therefore something for which we’re not responsible. The trajectory of our life can be selected, but the decisions always will be based on previous life experiences and innate proclivities that we didn’t independently select, so this proximal sense of responsibility is only illusion. It’s an illusion so powerful that we grant culpability to every human being that might treat us well or ill. Though we have good reason to do so in many cases (such as promoting beneficial behavior and protecting ourselves against dangerous circumstances), that doesn’t mean we’re correct in assigning praise or blame. Take any action somebody performs. Ask whether the decision was a product of who she is. Inevitably, any behavior consciously performed (any behavior done intentionally, because what else would we want to hold her accountable for?) will stem from who she is. Since she can’t ultimately be responsible in any way for who she is, she can’t be ultimately responsible for what she’s done.

Charles Whitman: Suffered a brain tumor that turned him into a murderer.

Here’s an apt example that serves to show how our choices – those decisions that seem to be made with independence and freedom – are simply products of wiring. An intelligent man began feeling ill. He noticed dramatic changes in his own emotional stability, his thinking. Hours after killing his wife and mother, he climbed into a bell tower and shot pedestrians down with a case of guns before being gunned down by the police. In his suicide note, he wrote that he couldn’t provide a logical explanation for his behavior and asked for an autopsy. The medical examiner found a tumor in his brain that impinged on the amygdala, a region of the brain “involved in emotional regulation, especially of fear and aggression.” It’s a simple case of a man carrying out decisions that were a product of an altered state of consciousness, one caused by a bundle of anomalous cells. (Read the full Atlantic article here.) The above is an extreme example, but it’s nevertheless appropriate because we are each and every one of us like this man – products of circumstances beyond our control. We inherited these neural structures. We were exposed to certain stimuli that shaped our personalities. Brain tumors strike at random all the time, something for which nobody is culpable. That is who we are. So I can do whatever I want? I can steal or kill or maim without being responsible for it? The answer hinges on the idea of the self, the concept ME. You – your experiences and genetic inheritance – are responsible, though you’d like to think there is a self separate from the mechanics of the brain. But remember, that brain in no way created itself, so it is the experiences and genetic inheritance that are ultimately responsible for the actions you’d call your own. In this society and in any society that I’d want to call home, we won’t allow a bundle of experiences and genetics to commit theft or murder or assault without recourse. Yet at the same time, to place blame verges on cruel or even downright barbarous when the criminal is an instrument of circumstances beyond his control. Tune in to a future post about real-world consequences of the Basic Argument. And in the meantime, take a shot at putting a hole in the Basic Argument. I dare you.


4 thoughts on “One Idea that Will Change Your Life

  1. I remember you writing a similar essay at uni and having it change my life view then. Still agree with the arguments. Brilliant. Can I use this as material for our Free Will – Determinism debate in class next month?

    • Yep. Go ahead and use it. And of course, thanks for visiting. Some of these other source materials (links) might be useful too in a discussion of free will because the Basic Argument works regardless of whether determinism is true or false.

      Say, if you have any feedback on your ALCAT experience, feel free to share on that post, which has been the most popular on the Good Nihilist. People are curious about the test’s value. Have you switched over to the recommended diet?

  2. Pingback: It Is Time to Be Free. | CreateWhatYouWant

  3. Interesting pingback from a blog espousing the benefits of choosing one’s own path and including a quote about the truth of moral responsibility. Odd relationship between this post and that, yet one which prompts thought. “It Is Time to Be Free” may resonate with some folks, and through no merit or fault of theirs, that synthesis could create something beautiful. Raises the important question: why not encourage feelings of self-efficacy and responsibility when such methods will elevate the good?

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