Essay on Moral Responsibility
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Free essay on Moral Responsibility:
A very direct comparison between “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” by Strawson and “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities” by Frankfurt is difficult to draw. They are approaching the questions of free will and moral responsibility from totally different angles. Strawson is taking on the traditional notion of “true moral responsibility” in order to show that it is a false notion; Frankfurt is attempting to show that one can, in certain cases, legitimately be held responsible for an action even in the absence of alternate possibilities to that action. In Strawson, the nature and validity of our every-day sense of true responsibility for our actions is at question; in Frankfurt, the circumstances under which one can rightfully be said to not be responsible for one’s actions are under consideration. Their respective points may seem, at their conclusions, to tie-in together, but it is not clear whether they are talking about the same kind of responsibility or not. In light of the conclusions each comes to, it’s difficult to “take sides” in the sense of which one is right or wrong. But on the issue of desire, which ostensibly is central to each essay, as I will try to show, they diverge most strongly; and I believe that neither of them is totally right in their estimation of the role of desire in our actions.
Frankfurt concludes his essay with a new principle to replace the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (that one is responsible for one’s actions if one could have done otherwise). This principle states that one is not responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise. This point allows us the most direct comparison between the views given in the two essays, as this conclusion and Strawson’s basic argument ostensibly tie-in. Given that principle, Strawson may well agree with it. But Strawson would go on to say that a person cannot ever do other than what they do, as what they do flows directly from how they are, for which they cannot bear responsibility without first having made themselves how they are. As I do not believe Strawson is attempting to dismiss any and all grounds for moral evaluation or questioning of any kind whatsoever, and is instead dealing with the validity of our concept of ‘true moral responsibility’ as we encounter it every day, the question at this point would be to ask if they talking about the same kind of responsibility. Is the kind of responsibility Frankfurt seems to presuppose this same kind of heaven-hell variety morality that Strawson wishes to dismiss?
On the face of Strawson’s argument, one can still say that, even while one is not morally responsible for one’s actions in the heaven-hell sense, one can still retain an evaluation of the state of things as bad or good; even if ultimate moral evaluation in the sense of heaven/hell, the justice of punishment/reward, blame/praise has no logical grounds, there probably still are grounds for evaluations of some cirumstances as better or worse than others, to be preferred or avoided on that basis. I don’t believe Strawson is dismissing the possibility of one’s ever being responsible in any way for what one does; he seems instead to be clearing the ground of traditional notions which may be getting in the way of establishing reasonable grounds for evaluations of a person’s responsibility for their actions. Insofar as the Basic Argument does show that we cannot be responsible for our actions in the way we suppose, it has value, as Strawson says, “as an overwhelmingly natural place to start” (cf. 515 top-left) in considering free will and moral responsibility. And in light of the confusion surrounding the existence of moral responsibility, one wonders if Strawson’s essay is really so radical as it seems (and is claimed to be), or if it’s a very reasonable attempt to re-level the playing field to begin again.
Frankfurt on the other hand seems to presuppose the existence of some grounds for evaluations of moral responsibility. It is unclear whether he is talking about the same kind of heaven-hell ultimate morality that Strawson is out to shoot down (I don’t think he necessarily is); but he does seem to believe that, as self-conscious agents facing choices, in the absence of some factor because of which we cannot do any but one action, we are to be held responsible in some way for the choices that we make. Most importantly however, he seems to suggest that the important factor in moral responsibility is not that the person could do otherwise, but whether the desire that person has to do what they do is really theirs. Some concrete heaven-hell variety moral responsibility is not at question, just accountability for what one does because of what one wants. Frankfurt, I believe, would be with the compatibilists in saying that “the notions of true moral responsibility and justice…[which Strawson is out to show invalid]…cannot possibly be applied to anything real, and…that it is therefore not worth considering” (Strawson, 519 bottom left).
So if the definitions of responsibility as applied to each essay are different, we can still look at the treatment of desire in each. If in Frankfurt the important thing in moral responsibility is one’s desires, then one is not responsible when what one does is expressly against what one desires. In all other cases, one is responsible for their actions as they flow from their desires, and so one is in some way responsible for their desires. This strikes me as unfair, because one can have the desire to annihilate the general population with a plague or nuclear weapons and yet never do it, most likely because it’s beyond their ability. And even if it is beyond their ability, can they really be said to be responsible for that desire to the extent that it would, if the person were actually able to do it, be a truly heinous thing to do, unless they take steps to actually carry it out? I don’t believe that having a desire and actually following through on a desire have equal moral weight.
On the other hand, Strawson would say this desire was due to early influences and hereditary factors and that the person is therefore not responsible in any direct sense for having that desire. I am willing to accede that, on a strictly individual basis, one is the sum of how one is, and how one is is a result of factors generally beyond their control. But insofar as a person is aware of their surroundings, and beyond that, the desires and moral wishes of those around them, I don’t believe that a sane person who wants to do something very terrible and goes about trying to do it can’t be held responsible, if he’s taking into account social factors. That is to say, if there was only one man on Earth, what he would do would be a result of how he is and since it wouldn’t impact on anyone but himself, he would not be responsible. But in the presence of other people with whom, ostensibly, one would like to cooperate (even if only insofar as it’s useful to the individual), then there is a responsibility for one’s actions, in direct proportion to how aware one is of their (social) surroundings. No matter “how one is”, to conduct themselves day to day, they must in some way take into account how those around them are as well. I believe I lean more towards Strawson’s argument than Frankfurt’s as far as what I believe to be right; but neither of their treatments of desires and responsibility for them is fully satisfactory.