Thursday, January 6, 2011

Action, Responsibility and the Ability to do Otherwise (Part 1)

(Conceptual Framework on Free Will)

This is the first part in a brief series on Justin Capes recent paper “Action, Responsibility and the Ability to do Otherwise”.

Capes paper looks at the relationship between two principles that are popular in the free will debate: (i) the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) and (ii) the principle of possible refrainment (PPR). PPR is sometimes used to support PAP, but Capes objects to this on the grounds that there is reason to reject PPR.

The ensuing discussion will make little sense if we don’t define our terms, so let’s do that now:

(i) PAP: This principle maintains that a person is morally responsible for an action (call this “A”) iff they could have done other than A; or, in other words, iff they could have refrained from A-ing.

(ii) PPR: This principle maintains that A counts as one of S’s actions iff: (a) S has the power/ability to do A; and (b) S has the power to refrain from A-ing.

Obviously, PAP is about the necessary conditions of moral responsibility while PPR is about the necessary conditions of action. The two are related for the straightforward reason that action is integral to most theories of responsibility.

As Capes notes, PPR can be deployed in two different ways as part of the effort shore-up PAP. First, it can be used as a premise in an argument to support PAP. Second, it can be used as part of an objection to one of the most popular counterexamples to PAP.

We will look at both of these uses in the remainder of this post. Before we do that, however, we should note that both PAP and PPR make reference to the power or ability to “refrain from acting”. If PPR is to be used to support PAP, then this phrase must mean the same thing in both principles. Otherwise, the fallacy of equivocation would be committed.

So what does it mean for an agent to have the power to refrain from acting? There appear to be two aspects to this. First, the agent must possess a general capacity that allows them to refrain from A-ing. And second, that general capacity must be operational at the particular historical moment under consideration.

1. From PPR to PAP
With the preliminaries out of the way, we can now proceed to examine the different ways in which PPR is used to support PAP. Capes begins this process by outlining the following simple argument from PPR to PAP:

  • (1) A is something for which S might be responsible if A is among S’s actions.
  • (2) A is among S’s actions iff S it is within S’s power to refrain from A-ing (this is PPR).
  • (3) Therefore, A is something for which S might be responsible iff S has the power to refrain from A-ing (this is PAP).

Although this is a very straightforward argument, Capes thinks it is flawed for reasons unconnected to PPR. He thinks that premise (1) is obviously false because we are often held responsible for things we omit to do (omissions) or for the downstream consequences of our actions and omissions.

Here’s a simple example of what Capes is talking about. It is well-known that it is a criminal offence to cause death by dangerous driving. But what happens if you are feeling drowsy, fall asleep at the wheel, and your car subsequently injures and kills someone? Surely you can’t be said to be acting at the time at which your car injures and kills the person in question?

There are, in fact, several legal cases dealing with this issue (or something very close to it). In general, you would be found criminally responsible for causing death by dangerous driving. But how can this be if you were not acting at the time the offence was committed? One way of analysing these cases is to argue that your responsibility for causing death is derived from your prior fault of falling asleep at the wheel. Thus, you are responsible not for your actions, but for the downstream consequences of your failure (omission) to stop driving when feeling drowsy.

In light of examples like this, Capes tries to salvage the argument from PPR to PAP by distinguishing between direct and indirect responsibility. Direct responsibility arises when we are held responsible for what we actually did as opposed to what we failed to do or what occurred as a result of what did or failed to do.

This allows Capes to formulate the following argument:

  • (1*) S is directly responsible for A, iff A is among S’s actions.
  • (2) A is among S’s actions iff it was within S’s power to refrain from A-ing.
  • (3) Therefore, S is directly responsible for A iff it was within S’s power to refrain from A-ing.

Having revised the argument by making premise (1*) more plausible, Capes thinks the only question remaining is whether premise (2) is plausible. He thinks not and we will consider his arguments in part two.

Allow me to pause at this stage to offer some commentary of my own. While Capes may think his revised premise (1*) strengthens the argument from PPR to PAP, it is my opinion that it actually substantially weakens the argument. (Capes would probably not be bothered by this since he rejects PAP anyway).

Why so? Well, PAP is generally taken as being a necessary condition for all sorts of responsibility, direct and indirect. Indeed, I can’t see why it would be of much use if it didn’t cover all of these cases. By limiting the scope of the argument to cases of direct responsibility one is tacitly forced to accept that there are other cases in which PAP might fail to be a necessary condition for responsibility. This means that PPR can, at best, provide only partial support for PAP.

2. Frankfurt cases and PPR
The second way in which PPR is used to support PAP is to challenge the conceptual coherence of the most popular objection to PAP, namely, the Frankfurt-style cases.

Frankfurt-style cases are a set of thought experiments, originally conceived of by Harry Frankfurt, that are designed to undermine our intuitive endorsement of PAP. The most famous of these thought experiments involves Jones, a hapless voter in a presidential election, and Black, a nefarious neurosurgeon.

The set-up is as follows: Jones wishes to vote for the Democratic candidate in the forthcoming election. However, unbeknownst to him, Black has implanted in Jones’s brain a specially designed fail-safe device which will force Jones to vote for the Democratic candidate if he shows any sign of voting for the Republican candidate. As it happens, Jones goes ahead and votes for the Democratic candidate.

The question is: given these conditions, is Jones responsible for voting for the Democrat? The suggestion, by Frankfurt and others, is that he is. But if one accepts this suggestion one must reject PAP because the conditions of the thought experiment are such that, due to the presence of the fail-safe device, Jones could not have refrained from voting for the Democrat.

Capes notes that proponents of PPR have challenged the use of Frankfurt-style cases on two grounds.

First, they argue that because the set-up is such that Jones could not have refrained from voting for the Democrat, it follows, given PPR, that Jones did not act when voting. Thus, his casting a vote for the Democrat is not among the class of events for which he can be held directly responsible.

Second, they argue that Frankfurt cases appeal to counterfactual scenarios (i.e. what would have happened if the fail-safe device became operational). In particular, Frankfurt cases rely on the suggestion that Jones would have been forced to perform a particular action in a counterfactual scenario. But, according to proponents of PPR, this is incoherent because it is not clear that something that one is compelled or forced to do can count among one’s actions. And since acting is a necessary precondition of direct responsibility...

John Martin Fischer, the foremost defender of the Frankfurt-style case, has a ready-response to all of this. He argues that the function of the Frankfurt-style case is to show us that responsibility and action are constituted by aspects of the actual sequence of causation leading up to an event, not by the hypothetical counterfactual sequence. In other words, Frankfurt cases are designed switch our focus from what is possible to what is actual.

In relation to action in particular, Fischer asks us to imagine a truncated version of the Frankfurt-style case outlined above in which we are told Jones voted for the Democrat without any mention of fail-safe devices. Fischer argues that we would never deny that Jones acted when voting in this truncated version of the story. But if that’s true, then we have no reason to doubt that he acted in the non-truncated version either. Why? Because in neither version did the fail-safe device play any actual role in what Jones did. In other words, action is a function of what actually happened, not what could have happened.

Capes is basically in agreement with Fischer in this debate. His goal, in the remainder of his article, is to find reasons for doubting PPR. We will look at these next time out.

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