A while back I started watching a Standford University lecture series by Robert Sapolsky on human behavioral biology (I even made it through about half of ’em!). Really interesting stuff, and there’s this moment, right at the beginning of the first lecture, where he asks his class: ‘How many of you believe in free will?’ You can’t see the class, only Sapolsky’s face as he surveys the raised hands, nods, and says ‘that’s gonna change’.
He then proceeds to explain, in great detail, all of the non-me factors that cause me to act the way I act. Evolution. Social conditioning. Genetics. Epigenetics. Neuroscience. The space for something called a ‘free will’ seems to close up rather rapidly as deterministic factors mount, and brain scans fail to find a little man in our heads who pulls the levers.
I personally believe this physical determinism sweeps consciousness under the rug in a way that isn’t rational or justified, and that free will is an open question.
Nevertheless, that is how many people see the world, and it begs a question which I actually find much more interesting — the question of moral responsibility, and it’s implications for personal empowerment. Both of these operate from the same basic premise — that we can, and should (or shouldn’t), do or achieve something. This article will focus moreso on responsibility, but only because, as I will hope to demonstrate, responsibility is the necessary basis for empowerment.
Let’s assume for the moment that determinism is the case, and our thoughts and actions are all caused by things that aren’t us. As Sam Harris points out, this challenges many traditional perspectives on responsibility:
“Most of us naturally feel that men like Hayes and Komisarjevsky [multiple murderers] should be held morally responsible for their actions[…] Of course, if we learned that both these men had been suffering from brain tumors that explained their violent behavior, our moral intuitions would shift dramatically. But a neurological disorder appears to be just a special case of physical events giving rise to thoughts and actions. Understanding the neurophysiology of the brain, therefore, would seem to be as exculpatory as finding a tumor in it.”
Ultimately, in the deterministic view, the big bang (or whatever antecedent causes came before it) is the reason and the culprit behind everything that has happened or will ever happen in this universe.
Would this mean, however, that the entire concept of moral responsibility is moot? Often, both determinists and free will advocates believe that it would, that free will is necessary for any kind of responsibility at all.
I don’t think so, and Harris agrees:
“If we cannot assign blame to the workings of the universe, how can evil people be held responsible for their actions? In the deepest sense, it seems, they can’t be. But in a practical sense, they must be. I see no contradiction in this.”
I think we still have (and should actually want) responsibility, for ourselves and for others — but perhaps a different kind of responsibility from how many typically conceive of it. More on that difference later.
Responsibility is a pragmatic necessity for a functioning society, and for an actualized, empowered individual. In our lives and in our communities, there are things that need to be done, and so we must ask ‘who is (or was) rightfully expected to do it?’ and ‘who must take care of the consequences?’
Who should take care of a newborn baby? Who is expected to make sure that airplanes run on time? Who is responsible for fulfilling my dreams for the future?
Without responsibility, without some construct to help us to determine the answer to these questions, the answers “Bill Clinton”, “my parents”, “Lady Gaga”, “any random Bangladeshi worker”, and “me” work equally well for all of them.
Jimmy and The Spilled Milk
To demonstrate the practical necessity of responsibility, allow me to use an example:
Jimmy is rushing to attend his first high school basketball game. After jumping out of the shower, he decides to grab a glass of milk. However, in his excitement, he drops and spills the entire jug across the floor.
Now, like any good determinist, we could trace the causative factors of this event in nearly endless directions. Male sports hysteria contributed to his excessive excitement about a basketball game, as did evolution and his drive to reproduce (there’s a particular cheerleader Jimmy really likes). Jimmy’s ride was waiting outside for him, honking, making the moment all the more urgent. His mother has a habit of being careless when in a rush, that he’s inherited. The milk jug could have been designed so that it was easier to grip, though his hands were still moist from the shower, making his grip less secure.
We can name a near-infinite amount of not-Jimmy factors that, regardless of what free will enthusiasts may think, caused this event to happen, partially or totally.
But the fact remains: there is milk on the floor.
If Jimmy were to say that because of these outside factors, he was exonerated from the responsibility of cleaning his mess, we would view him (rightly so) as kind of an asshole. If we agreed with him, if we don’t hold him responsible, we would reinforce his belief structure that he can expect others to solve his problems for him. This could have crippling effects on his success in other areas of his life.
Regardless of free will, responsibility can’t vanish into thin air. Somebody has to clean up the milk. If not Jimmy, then who? Human evolutionary history? Society? Jimmy’s mother? The cheerleader? His friend waiting outside? The water on his hands? A Chinese sweatshop worker?
Jimmy has the responsibility to wipe up his spill. Even if his understanding sister offers to do it, so he can be on his way, she is choosing to take that responsibility from him, where it naturally lies.
This is a practical justification for responsibility, but it is not based only on arbitrary signifiers, such as local custom or subjective social biases. It would not be equally valid to have a different society where Jimmy’s third cousin is held responsible for his actions. There are real determinable factors that can be used to assess responsibility.
Intention, Volition, and The Falling Brick
Responsibility need not be tied to free will, but it is tied to certain capacities that people inarguably have – intention, volition,1 and ability.
Intention is a specific state of mind (and brain), and it, or the lack of it, has everything to do with responsibility and empowerment. Determinism or not, intentions are important, because they precipitate actions. Things which cannot hold intentions cannot have responsibility, and cannot be empowered.
We are responsible, usually, for the intentions we have (or fail to have). Had Jimmy set a clear intention to be careful when he grabbed the jug of milk, he would not have spilled it. Had he not set an intention to practice everyday, he would not have been empowered to make the basketball team.
Volition is important because we cannot hold people responsible if their intentions are being controlled by another, or forced through some impossible situation. Volition requires choice.2
Ability is also important, because responsibilities we incur yet cannot fulfill will ultimately fall to others who may be affected.
For clarity, let’s use another example:
If a loose brick happens to fall from a building and smashes my shoulder, dislocating it, I might be upset at the situation, or at my bad luck, but I would not say that the brick, or the wall, must be held responsible. I wouldn’t demand it pay my medical bills, or question its intentions, because bricks don’t intend things (or neglect to intend things). The incident was simply the result of unconscious forces coalescing unfavorably.3
If, instead, a man had purposefully dropped the brick, that fundamentally changes the situation. Why? Because there was intention involved. If he had dropped the brick accidentally, we might still hold him responsible, like Jimmy, for his carelessness and negligence (failure to hold positive intentions), but we would rightly assign him less responsibility.
Finally, if we were to learn that the man who dropped the brick had done so because a second man had a gun to his head, we would absolve him of all responsibility, and shift it to the man with the gun. Even though he intentionally dropped the brick, he was coerced at gunpoint. His intentions were essentially not his own, they were superimposed by those of another.
This is the briefest, simplest possible overview of these principles. I could write long discussions on the caveats and grey areas involved, as there are many, but I hope what I’ve written here should suffice.
There is one caveat, however, that I must discuss.
The Responsibility of Responsibility
Let’s say that the man with the gun was brutally beaten with bricks by his father as a child — which is a good bet, as most violent people have histories of abuse.
We can help explain the gunholder’s actions by examining his past, and perhaps find sympathy for him, but this cannot release him from moral responsibility. Just as Jimmy’s past does not mean he doesn’t have to clean up the milk, this man’s past cannot mean he isn’t to be held accountable for his actions. He was physically capable of not taking them; he took them as a result of his intentions.
But he was damaged as a child. He is likely unable, due to that damage, to properly psychologically respond to the requirements of living in a functioning society (like, not dropping bricks on heads). This changes the tenor, though not the presence of responsibility. This is an example of having responsibility, but being unable to meet it. Someone who can’t live up to the responsibility of being a non-violent member of society is dangerous, and must be confined until they can live up to it.
Whose responsibility is it to confine this dangerous man? If Jimmy were a quadriplegic, unable to clean his mess, to whom would the responsibility fall?
Some responsibilities are not easily pinned down, as causation is vague, intentions are unclear (or absent), consciousness is questionable, or ability to respond is absent. These are legitimate grey areas that need special attention and consideration. While there may not be a single, clear answer, that only underscores the need for some agreed upon way to determine responsibility.
There are different ways grey areas can be handled, and the people who are affected by the situation must make those decisions. If Jimmy can’t clean up the milk, then his family, friends, or roommates must work out who will help him. If nobody does, they will all experience the negative side effects. The same holds true for the community where the gun-toting brick-dropper lives; if nobody takes responsibility for confining him, they all suffer potential consequences.
If we think back to the original brick scenario, where it simply happened to fall from the building, very much the same principal applies. In this case, the difference is that intention (rather than ability to respond) is absent. So nobody can be held responsible for causing the problem; but the problem still exists, and it is those whom it affects — in this case me, with the dislocated shoulder — who will have to accept that responsibility.
Accepting responsibility for a task, whether you caused it or are affected by it, is a statement to yourself and to others that you are capable of fulfilling that task. This element of belief in one’s own ability is the essence of empowerment.
Responsibility vs. Blame
When many people talk about responsibility, they are actually talking about two separate concepts, using one word, and failing to realize it. The first concept I described above: who is expected to take care of a task, and deal with the consequences of an action or inaction. This type of responsibility cannot be eliminated from any practical philosophy.
The second concept is what I will define as ‘blame’. I believe this was the ‘deepest sense of responsibility’ that Harris was referring to, that determinists rightly denounce,4 and that most certainly can be eliminated from our worldview.
Jimmy is responsible for cleaning up the milk, but can we really blame him for dropping it? He had so much on his mind! The gunman who instigated the brick drop, just the same, had previous factors that contributed to his behavior. Healthy, emotionally well-adjusted people simply don’t do such things. There are reasons why he did it. Many (or all) of which were beyond his control. We can’t blame him, but he is still responsible. Nobody else held that gun to the mans head.
Responsibility contains no judgement about the person. That is blame. Blame says that Jimmy IS careless for spilling the milk, while responsibility points out that he acted carelessly.
Responsibility is a clear and pragmatic assessment of facts, that may call for amends or rehabilitation, but never punitive retribution. That is blame, which is vindictive. Responsibility suggests that one should clean up their own mess, while blame would like to punish them for making it.
To make any sense, blame requires that people be the ultimate and only causes of their actions. This level of free will is a logical impossibility given he knowledge we have of psychology and human behavior. If free will exists, it is a capacity that can be limited (or completely destroyed) by the environment of a person. A feral child cannot ‘choose’ to learn language as easily as a child raised by humans. A person subjected to extreme torture and brainwashing techniques has not ‘chosen’ their beliefs in any meaningful sense. People do not make decisions in a vacuum, and thus the impulse to blame and judge people rather than actions should be tempered with understanding and reason.
Stating that a person ‘is evil’ or ‘is a murderer’ makes assumptions that are pragmatically useless. How can a person who is a murderer ever not be a murderer? How can one not be what they are? On the flip side, a person who takes responsibility for a bad action, has taken the first step towards empowering themselves not to do it again.
Blame is an excuse to avoid the responsibility of learning about the kinds of circumstances under which people take negative actions, and then working to eliminate them. It is an excuse to avoid looking at the killer as a person with the potential to be healed and redeemed. He will always be somebody who killed another, but he need not always be a murderer.
Responsibility is proactive empowerment to find solutions to behavioral problems that blame may shunt off as ‘just the way that person is.’
In Defense of Guilt (and Pride)
You may be wondering why, if responsibility contains no judgement, do I call it ‘moral’ responsibility. Is not morality essentially concerned with judgement between ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’?
We return to the distinction between judging a person and judging their actions. Holding a gun to someone’s head and forcing them to throw bricks at people from tall buildings could end lives. It’s wrong. By any sane moral system, it is an evil thing to do.
And people who do evil things should feel guilty.
Guilt, embarrassment, and shame are the natural emotional reactions to feeling responsible for a wrong action. Pride, fulfillment, and satisfaction are the emotional components of feeling responsible for a good action.
When calibrated properly5 these feelings are extremely useful. They are all essential emotions for ‘course correction’ in the experience of being human.
If the gun-toting brick-dropper was unable to feel guilt, that would be a sign of damage, and of an inability to accept responsibility. Moral responsibility involves not only the acceptance of the reality that our actions affect others, but the experience of the corresponding emotional reaction to that knowledge.
We have a name for people who cannot feel these emotions – sociopaths.
One of the most important functions of moral responsibility is the ability to rightly feel or assign emotions such as guilt and pride. Determinists who believe these emotions should be tossed aside along with blame, punishment, and vindictiveness are missing the point.
I am glad that I feel guilty when I act carelessly. It helps motivate me not to do it again.
The recognition of outside causative influences — the acceptance of responsibility rather than blame — should temper, but not remove these emotions. The way we experience guilt based on blame is different than guilt based on unfulfilled responsibility. Guilt based on blame often spirals into intense, disempowering self-judgement, which can reinforce the negative behavior rather than help to correct it.
Guilt should be a motivation to initiate change, not to self-attack. Successfully changing one’s behavior based on shame is satisfying. Fulfillment at achieving a goal we set out to do is one of the most empowering experiences possible.
Responsibility is Empowerment
I believe I’ve made the case that not only do we need responsibility, we should want it.
Determinism or not, accepting responsibility — saying to yourself, ‘I can, and will, do this’ — empowers you psychologically, helping you to be more effective at manifesting your intentions and achieving your goals. It is a powerful first step towards any achievement. Accepting that an outcome is in your hands, and not someone else’s, is a winning attitude.
When we ‘take responsibility’ for a project, we are accepting the task of working on or completing that project. By taking moral responsibility for our bad actions, we are accepting both the possibility and the necessity of working to prevent future occurrences of that action. By disavowing responsibility, we are negating (to ourselves and others) our ability to prevent future mistakes or achieve future greatness.
I am responsible for my writing career. I know that if I want to write for a living, I have to write, constantly, so that my skills improve. I also have to put my writing out there in places where people will see it. Nobody else will do that for me. I may get some help, but ultimately it’s my responsibility.
Taking responsibility for your own life and your own personal fulfillment fosters a sense of potency, autonomy, and self-directedness that is both vital and vitalizing. The belief that you, and only you, can possibly hold ultimate responsibility for your life and your choices means that the power to make positive changes in your life lies with you.
But doesn’t the conditional admission of determinism negate that? How can one have power when their choices (even if they are responsible for them) are ultimately caused from outside?
An acceptance of responsibility can be part of the deterministic system that is your brain. If your brain holds this acceptance, and understands the strategic benefit, it will be far more likely to set positive intentions and believe itself capable of achieving them.
If these words deterministically influence you to accept my vision of responsibility, you will be more likely to deterministically achieve your goals.
On the flip side, if you believe that you do have some ability to initiate causation of your own actions. If you believe there is some essential you-ness that can make shit happen, well, then, make it so! Don’t accept blame or let it bog you down, my dear free will believer!
While most people tend to automatically see free will as the more empowering view, a free will that engenders blame can often be as destructive towards empowerment as fatalistic determinism. If I ‘am bad’ for doing a bad thing, what hope have I of doing good things in the future? I am bad. This isn’t actually that much different from fatalistic determinism — if the future is set, why try to do anything? If I am set, why try to do anything differently?
Responsibility is empowerment, and blame is disempowerment, regardless of how free you think your will might be.
So take responsibility. Do something awesome. Be great, and have a nice day!
- If it pleases you, read this in an entirely deterministic way, to denote whether or not an action was voluntarily undertaken, as opposed to it being a response to duress or force. (back)
- Again, if you are sensitive, choice here can be interpreted entirely deterministically, to denote multiple possible courses of action available to a person in a situation, and not whether they ultimately cause which choice is chosen.
//hemming and hawing (back)
- It’s been pointed out to me that this is an imperfect example, as somebody was likely responsible for maintaining the building in good condition. I accept that point, and just ask that you suspend disbelief in order to grasp the further point being made. Maybe, instead, imagine that a bird dropped the brick. Somehow. (back)
- Though, incidentally, you don’t have to be a determinist to recognize the destructive nature of blame. (back)
- ie: Based on sound moral reasoning. Like any emotions, these can be misplaced. Sometimes, due to ignorance or emotional damage, one may feel guilt when it isn’t necessary, or pride at doing something destructive, etc. (back)