Moral responsibility and knowing the causes of our actions

There is an interesting and lengthy discussion here about the causes of our behavior and the (possibly irrelevant?) stories we tell ourselves about the causes of our behavior. The traditional view is something along the lines of this: when we consciously deliberate over our actions, we should be held morally accountable for what we do, since the moral worth of what we do has some connection to the reasons we take ourselves to have for doing it. (Some authors call this a “neo-Kantian” view, which seems to me inapt for several reasons, but set that aside.) But suppose it turns out – as some research suggests – that even when we pause to deliberate, our decisions may have less to do with our reasoning than we commonly suppose. So, for example, some studies say that if you find a dime, or smell fresh cookies, you are far more likely to help someone in need than otherwise. And that’s independently of the reasons you recite to yourself about whether you should help the person in need. If this is so, then do we still consider your reasons for action as morally relevant?

In truth, the issue comes down to acting from causes vs. acting from reasons. Lots of things act from causes, and it seems incorrect to hold anything accountable for what they do merely because of causes (consider blaming a stone for rolling downhill, or blaming a person for being hit by a meteor and splattering an elegant dining party with their bloody innards). But when they act from reasons, we do hold people morally accountable. Maybe this is because actions done for reasons are somehow free, or maybe this is because actions done for reasons issue from the appropriate sorts of mechanisms (I am trying to set aside the question of determinism). But now suppose that any time we find an act supposedly done for reasons, we find causes in the mix that very strongly and reliably influence the action. What effect does that have on our attributions of moral responsibility?

Anyway, have a look at the intelligent debate. Nice work. (Thanks to Rob Sica for pointing the discussion out to me.)

Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

3 thoughts on “Moral responsibility and knowing the causes of our actions”

  1. During the kids’ nap time I don’t have time to read the whole article. But reading Huenemann’s gloss did leave me with one question.
    It seems to be framed that either you act from reasons in which case we do think you are morally responsible or you act from “causes” in which case we tend to think you are not morally responsible. But this looks like a pretty thin account of the moral life. Take Aristotle. Virtue (or vice) are habits of action. Since we act out of habit, we don’t “deliberate” over our reasons in some Kantian sense. Rather, habits arise from a series of choices but also the ordering of our passions (and there would be a history to tell about why your passions are ordered in the way they are). Point here is this – Aristotle would say that people are responsible for the actions that arise from habit, even though those actions are not “deliberated” each time in terms of their reasons and were perhaps never deliberated about in some Kantian sense.
    Maybe here is another way of putting it – if you have a sufficiently nuanced view of the human person (not a mind – mechanical body dualism that seems be lurking in the account here), there is a kind of cause that is different than the purely mental deliberative and the material cause (about which I think all agree it seems silly to consider morally blameworthy).

    Am I missing something?

    All of that said, it still leaves us with the interesting question – what if it turns out that some, many, or even all of our actions can be explained by an appeal to these obscure material causes (smelled a cookie, etc) that are apparently totally unrelated to the action in question? Maybe Aristotle would still have something to say here – the good man would have the uncanny knack to size up a situation and act based on relevant considerations. But this presumes that we can “train” feeling responses and habituate ourselves into acting from the right and rightly ordered feelings. The account from Huenemann tends to treat feeling as a material cause (determined), while Aristotle would not want to do this.


  2. Nadelhoffer now has a reply to S&C that, I think, gets to the heart of what is at issue:

    …at this juncture we have a decision to make. One choice involves restricting our traditional notion of responsibility in light of our pared down notions of agency and control. This is the route taken in various ways by Doris, Harman, myself, and others. The other choice involves expanding our traditional notion of responsibility to cover some non-conscious mental states and processes.

    I wonder if there are any free will and moral desert skeptics who would choose the second option.


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