Naturalistic Responsibility

How should we think about responsibility from a naturalistic standpoint? A presentation for Boston Causality Club.

How should we think about responsibility from a naturalistic standpoint?

How do we talk about it?  Can we continue to use terms like responsibility, accountability, blame, credit, deserve?  If so, how?  Can we naturalize these words, or must we abandon them? 

From a naturalistic perspective, people act precisely as they do in a given situation because of sufficient sets of causes.  Rewind the tape of history and they will behave exactly the same way in the exact same situation.

They really couldn’t have stepped outside the causal stream and behaved otherwise.

So in what sense are we to blame for anything?  In what sense can we be given credit for anything?

TC anecdote about father falling off back deck: acute sense of responsibility. Should I have felt so bad? 

 Of course  we’re designed by evolution to be very quick to blame and praise (especially ourselves!), to have “reactive attitudes.”  We can see that punishment and rewards played a crucial role in creating stable communities which permitted cooperation that in turn allowed survival.   

So moral practices and language involving the idea of credit and blame served a natural function from evolution’s “point of view”.   They were selected for, they were adaptive.  Even the feeling that people just deserve praise and punishment might have been selected for: Tamler Sommer’s hypothesis that “When we are wronged, we experience not only a desire to punish the offender, but a conviction that the offenders ought to be punished—not for any consequentialist reason, but simply because they deserve it.   If we lacked this belief—the belief that the culprit deserves blame and punishment—we would too often fail to act aggressively (or signal to others that we will do so) when the act of aggression conflicted with our immediate self-interests.”  An empirical claim.  Raises the question of whether a naturalistic view of ourselves would make us less likely to resist aggression, etc.

So, we are inherently and powerfully susceptible to praise and blame by our very nature – we can’t escape the power of social reinforcers, even though as naturalists we know there isn’t anyone inside that could have done otherwise that deserves credit or blame. 

We have to understand giving blame and credit naturalistically as guides to future behavior.  They help determine behavior, and are crucial in shaping behavioral dispositions in favorable directions. 

  • Expressing displeasure at behavior a form of punishment – creates the anticipation of future criticism if behave similarly, hence will change behavior. 
  • Expressing admiration, pleasure, is a form of reward – creates the anticipation of future reward, hence will reinforce behavior, keep it in one’s repertoire.

 Flanagan expresses this in The Problem of the Soul, p. 150:

 “What the neo-compatibilist means when she says that a person is responsible for some act is, first, that the act was routed through the conscious deliberation/habit module; second, that this module is adjustable from the inside, by the agent, and from outside, by way of feedback from the moral community; and third, that by virtue of being routed through a modifiable cognitive module, the person can learn to respond differently in the future.  We might say that a neo-compatibilist agent is respons-able, (with an a, not an i) in that she is able to modify her future actions in the light of her own and her community’s responses to her past actions.”  TC: that is, she has the capacity to respond to the anticipation of future contingencies.

This means we can justifiably hold people responsible and accountable, both in terms of applying sanctions and rewards, as a way of getting them to behave properly. Law professor Stephen Morse calls this “guiding goodness”.

But, there is no agent that could have done otherwise – so our moral practices thus can’t include a categorically retributive component even though we might be designed to feel that retribution is justifiable. 

This naturalistic understanding of ourselves as fully caused helps to moderate reactive attitudes, since it undercuts the idea of intrinsic, metaphysical blame and credit.

Also, by understanding the causal dynamics of behavior, we see that we can be more effective agents and get along better (e.g. avoid cycles of retribution and blame) if we’re careful in how we apply rewards and sanctions.  That is, be smart about credit and blame as we hold people responsible.  

We see our moral language and practices as being essentially forward looking, not backward looking.  We couldn’t have done otherwise in the situation exactly as it arose, but our moral evaluations are exactly that which make anticipated future situations different, so we’ll behave differently.

Explanations vs. excuses:  all behavior is caused, and so can be explained.  But when should we excuse a wrongdoing?  What does it mean to excuse? 

Well, we excuse someone if we see that their behavior wasn’t intentional or if it was coerced, or that a person doesn’t have the capacity to have been guided (e.g., insane or too immature).  To excuse is to not apply sanctions, since we see that the person doesn’t need an inducement to behave better next time.  Or, we excuse once  we determine that the person has learned his or her lesson. 

Can we naturalize moral language, or must we invent a new language?  

A tactical decision – no absolute right or wrong here, but a pragmatic decision.  TC recommends using ordinary language, but be careful to explain what the naturalistic meaning is.  Responsibility, credit, blame, are too central to give up, and these can be naturalized. 

Does naturalism weaken our moral resolve? 

Perhaps not, since our built in reactive attitudes insure a swift, strong response. 

And, our reactive attitudes now imperil us, since we usually tend to overreact in delivering punishment and get caught in deadly cycles of violence.  Understanding causality as we do means we can look outside the individual for solutions to bad behavior and to exert control.  Less after the fact blame, more prevention, more humane culture. 

TWC, December 2004