Here’s an argument I find compelling:
- If TNR is unjustified, then incompatibilism is unjustified.
- If TNR is justified, then no one is morally responsible for anything.
- So, either incompatibilism is unjustified or no one is morally responsible for anything.
As I suggested in response to Tamler’s post about Transfer of Non-responsibility (TNR) principles, I think the conclusion forces a Moorean dilemma of the sort that was leading Tamler’s Jack, even after reflection, to impale himself on the first horn of the dilemma, despite finding TNR and incompatibilism (and my premise 2) plausible. I’ll offer some of my thoughts on these issues (sorry for the length) and then I’d love to hear what others think.
I find premise 1 compelling because I think TNR principles
serve as the crux of every
incompatibilist argument (including hard incompatibilist/skeptic arguments), often
explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Peter
van Inwagen’s Principle Beta (and the modified versions of it like “Beta-box”)
is a TNR principle, and he says the Consequence Argument (and incompatibilism)
relies on its validity. TNR appears in
Robert Kane’s UR
Before I move onto premise 2, you may be wondering what I (and Tamler) mean by TNR, since no one has explained what it means in these posts. The basic idea, as captured in the above examples, is that, in order to be morally responsible for an action (or decision), one must be morally responsible for some part of what brought about that action (or decision) (I’ll stick with talk of moral responsibility, though I think we could just as well plug in one sort of free will people in the debate are talking about). This basic idea sounds eminently plausible, since in real life the people we consider morally responsible are highly involved in the conditions that bring about their actions and decisions (they made lots of decisions that formed their character and got them into the situations they are in), and this prior involvement in their actions is clearly one of the reasons we hold them responsible. But, of course, the basic idea then gets you on an infinite regress going back to a time when the (infant) agent is not involved in the right sort of way in the conditions that bring about her actions and decisions. The basic idea makes less and less sense the farther back in an agent’s life you go.
(In a separate post I might argue that the way to get out of the silly infinite regress is to realize that moral responsibility (and desert and free will) is a graded concept and getting from none to just a little bit and then more and more doesn’t require some magical injection of agent-causal powers but the slow development of relevant psychological capacities. The infinite regress dissolves into a Sorites paradox, and we all know that there are, in fact, heaps.)
But let me try to be more precise about TNR. Here is a version I find at least as plausible as the ones found in the literature (it is similar to Kane’s U):
TNR: If X is a set of conditions that (ultimately) brings about Y, and an agent A is not morally responsible in any way for any part of X, then A is not morally responsible in any way for Y.
(Or perhaps we could try a version replacing “brings about Y” with “in principle could explain Y as much as it is possible for Y to be explained.”)
Notice that this TNR principle is neutral between deterministic and indeterministic universes or causal explanations. After all, why should it matter if the prior conditions X that precede any possible contribution from the agent are logically sufficient for Y or simply as complete a cause/explanation as is possible for conditions that ultimately bring about Y.
Consider the informal version of van Inwagen’s Consequence argument, which basically expresses the idea behind TNR: “If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.”
Has anyone noticed that the opening antecedent does no work as written? With the antecedent, we need to add “then our acts are logically necessary consequences of…” But we could just start the sentence without the antecedent like this: “Our acts are ultimately the consequences of…” Is anything really lost by taking out determinism here and replacing the logical necessity with the idea of ultimately bringing about? This allows us to see the similarity between the Consequence argument and Strawson’s Basic argument; to see what many on all sides of the debate have accepted—that the issue is really about sourcehood rather than alternative possibilities; to see why van Inwagen has moved towards combining the Consequence argument and the Mind argument into a general argument for mysterianism (skepticism by another name?); and to see that incompatibilism is really—ultimately!—about TNR (and not determinism specifically).
Now, why would a compatibilist like me accept premise 2 above? First, because “moral responsibility” is built right into the TNR principle (it doesn’t work through some tenuous claim about ultimate sourcehood being required for MR), and second, because it seems obvious that for any agent, there must be conditions for which the agent is not MR that bring about or explain (as much as is possible) what that agent does (except perhaps, as Joe C. points out, for weird agents that spring into existence fully formed or infinite agents, such as God, though the “as much as is possible” clause might come into play here, and in any case, shouldn’t we really be interested in whether any humans can be MR for anything?).
So, this has all been set up for what I really want to ask people about (of course, feel free to crush me on any of the above):
1. Are there any arguments for TNR principles? If so, what are they? If not, does its support come from intuition and lack of clear counterexamples (as van Inwagen suggested about Beta, though of course, there were counterexamples to the original Beta and there is always the non-question-begging stipulated counterexample of the adult human who is (clearly!) responsible for doing A even though she is clearly not responsible for the set of conditions in the distant past and laws that ultimately bring about A, either deterministically or indeterministically)?
2. If TNR is just supposed to be a plausible idea supported by our pre- and/or post-theoretical thinking, why should we think it trumps our very strong, perhaps un-give-up-able (cf. Peter Strawson and van Inwagen) pre- and post-theoretical intuitions that people are morally responsible for much of what they do and are apt targets for reactive attitudes and genuine desert?