Sunday, August 05, 2007

Fault and free will

Russell Blackford writes sensibly on free will and moral responsibility.

I'm still waiting for someone to come up with an operational definition of "free will" sufficient for me to not just infer whether someone else has it but determine whether I myself—with my privileged epistemic access to my own mental states—have free will. Until such time, the whole area of discussion bores me in the same sense that higher order truths about chmess bore me. The boredom is even more fundamental: At least chmess is well-defined; free will is entirely mystical.

Richard Dawkins mentioned the absurdity of Basil Fawlty punishing his car. He initially gets it wrong, but in a perfect example of a scientifically-minded person, actually (gasp!) changes his mind and strikes closer to the mark. It makes more sense to view ethics in terms of finding and correcting faults rather than assigning deserts to ultimate responsibility:
Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.
Basil's reaction is absurd, not because the car—subject to the laws of physics and without any sort of free will, well- or ill-defined—does not bear ultimate responsibility for its failure, but rather because hitting a car with a branch is an utterly ineffective way to correct whatever fault prevents it from starting.

In a similar manner the discussion of "free will" as it pertains to ethics and responsibility, and the related idea of associating deserts to inherently wrong actions of an ultimately responsible moral agent is absurd not because it is false but because it is ineffective. Since free will is a mystical, unfalsifiable concept, it is possible that even a car has free will. It doesn't matter, though. Even if the car "chose" to fail, its just desert is to have the failure fixed.

Of course, people are not cars or computers. In addition to the quantitative difference—people are considerably more complicated—there's also a qualitative difference. We can talk coherently about what is or is not a fault in a car because there's a privileged position—outside the car's own frame of reference—to discuss what does or does not constitute a fault. A car is a slave to its owner's will: It is good if it performs the jobs the human owner expects of it, and bad if it does not do so. This principle holds even if the owner has unrealistic expectations. If the owner wants to fly, any car will be bad, but it is still the car's fault, and the owner is perfectly rational to get rid of the car by any convenient means—even to melting it down—and obtain an airplane.

Even if we rationally reconstruct our ethical dialog about human beings to be about correcting faults rather than assigning deserts, there is no uniform privileged position about which to talk about what does and does not constitute fault in human beings; or, rather, there are six billion individually privileged positions with no objective way to choose between them.

The problem of objectively determining what is faulty is not created by the fault paradigm; it's isomorphic to the problem of objectively determining what is inherently wrong about an agent with ultimate responsibility. The fault paradigm simply exposes our objectivist hypocrisy: What any person considers either a fault or inherently wrong in another is based on whether the other does or does not conform to the will of the speaker. Objective morality does not escape this basis in will, it merely obfuscates it.

Under the fault paradigm, the mystical notion of "free will" becomes irrelevant. It's not necessary to determine ultimate responsibility, only proximate causal responsibility, a coherent and feasible task. Our goal is not to determine objective ethics, find who or what is ultimately responsible, and praise or persecute it for its inherent ethical quality; our goal is merely to identify and correct faults.

The fault paradigm is just a start. We have to figure out how to determine what is faulty, how to identify faults, and how to correct them. Additionally, we must investigate why we don't currently use the fault paradigm. I'll address these issues in future essays.


  1. I think you mean "desert," "deserts," etc. Otherwise your essay is about sweet foods.

  2. You say: We can talk coherently about what is or is not a fault in a car because there's a privileged position—outside the car's own frame of reference—to discuss what does or does not constitute a fault.

    Do you think, then, that humanity is capable of self-governance? Can we all be "outside" of one another and decent judges of faults? Do we have the autonomy and consciousness to be our own judges?

    Often, I get asked this question from theists--a type of Socratic dialogue one would wager--to "prove" morality and ethics must have a divine source outside of the human condition. I know how I'd answer; I'm curious as to how you'd answer.

  3. This 'New Scientist' article is relevant to your post:

  4. Sorry - the final part of that link is: 19526154.200

  5. Kelly: Yes, I do think we're capable of self-governance, but I don't think there's an "outside" basis for determining what constitutes fault; we have to determine, rather, how to identify fault from the "inside".

    Note that a divine origin of morality merely obfuscates the inside/outside issue because it doesn't solve the epistemic issue: Even if morality were to come from a God, how do we know which morality it prefers?

  6. Explanations have to stop somewhere, e.g. tables are hard because of strong inter-molecular bonds, which are strong because of certain properties of the electrons, which have those properties because... they do (maybe because of how strings are, but then... strings are the way they are because such is a simple hypothesis, given which much would be explained). Presumably free will is in a position akin to the electron (or string), but why should that make it any more mystical than they are? Something caused (in part) only by a person's free will is (in part) that person's responsibility (or something like that). (I'm sure that other postulates are not only possible but reasonable.)

  7. I don't think free will actually is in a position akin to the electron. I don't like strings as a metaphor because there is considerable controversy over whether string theory is actually scientific.

    The hypothetical entity we label as an "electron" definitely entails particular observations: There are things I could, in theory, see that would confirm or disprove the presence of an electron.

    There is no such actual definition for "free will": It's an unfalsifiable concept: every logically possible observation "confirms" the existence of "free will", at least in the sense most often discussed in philosophy.

    One can, of course, create coherent concepts and label them as "free will", without doing linguistic violence to the words: For instance one could label as "free will" the externally-uncoerced expression of one's intrinsic nature. However, such definitions do not provide the notion of ultimate responsibility required for the paradigm of rewarding goodness and punishing badness.

  8. ciao, nice blog, visit mine :)

  9. ...I don't think there's an "outside" basis for determining what constitutes fault; we have to determine, rather, how to identify fault from the "inside". How does one define fault? What if the individual's definition differs from the collective's definition? Surely, then, something will have to be decided. The human construct of "justice" has to "come from somewhere," and in our society it stems from our peers ("outside the self") and is delivered via government.

    Are you suggesting society nutures critical thinking, self-consciousness, and ((gasp)) moral behavior conducive to a flourishing society!? Naughty Bum.

  10. Kelly: I'm as yet silent on how to determine fault, but the problem is exactly the same problem as to how to determine good and bad, which I address in my series on meta-ethical subjective relativism.

    This post (and my hoped-for series) is not about how to determine anything, but what to determine.

  11. Our moral freedom, like other mental powers, is strengthened by exercise. The practice of yielding to impulse results in enfeebling self-control. The faculty of inhibiting pressing desires, of concentrating attention on more remote goods, of reinforcing the higher but less urgent motives, undergoes a kind of atrophy by disuse.

  12. Maybe Micky can write a book called "Kegels for the Soul."


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