By Scott Sumner
Tyler Cowen recently linked to an excellent post by Agnes Callard, on progress in philosophy. At one point she makes this offhand remark:
In philosophy proper–which is to say, that by reference to which the progress of philosophy ought to be judged–there is nothing “we” think. Some of us believe there are true contradictions. Some of us believe that possible worlds are real. Some of us believe that, because we can’t create our characters, and our characters determine how we act, we can’t ever be morally responsible for anything we do. We are a motley crew.
I find the claim about moral responsibility to be odd, and (not being a philosopher) I’d be interested in what I am missing. First of all, it’s pretty clear that our actions are determined by at least two factors (character and environment) and possibly three if free will exists. But let’s say free will doesn’t exist, and let’s say that individuals have no control over their environment. It still seems to me that people should be held morally responsible for their actions; indeed I can’t even imagine how anyone would think otherwise.
Through the use of environmental factors such as public shaming and prisons, we discourage people from doing bad things. It’s very clear that these sanctions are at least somewhat effective, as people behave differently in settings where they are held morally responsible than in settings where they are not held morally responsible. Compare Germany in 1943 and 2018.
Conrad once wrote a novella about a man that was not held morally responsible for his actions. Here the narrator Marlow talks about the importance of environment, as a way of making his listeners better understand the actions of Kurtz in the Belgian Congo:
You can’t understand. How could you? – with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums – how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude – utter solitude without a policeman – by the way of silence – utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness…
I behave better after people tell me, “Shame on you.”
So what am I missing? Why don’t all philosophers accept the need for moral responsibility?
PS. To be clear, the claims I discussed are not those of Agnes Callard, but rather views that she indicates are held by some philosophers.