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The Stubborn System of Moral ResponsibilityReview - The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility
by Bruce N. Waller
MIT Press, 2014
Review by Simon Wigley
Feb 2nd 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 5)

In this book Bruce Waller sets out to explain why the belief in moral responsibility is stronger than the arguments for it permit. From Waller's own point of view the practice of praising and blaming is fundamentally unfair in virtue of the fact that our behavior is the product of myriad factors beyond our control.  [Bruce N. Waller,Against Moral Responsibility (Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 2011)] Waller argues that even those who reject the fairness challenge must concede that their arguments for moral responsibility cannot explain the strength of the commitment to moral responsibility amongst philosophers and ordinary folk. The question, therefore, is what extra-philosophical or non-rational factors might explain why the belief in moral responsibility is so deeply entrenched. This is an important question and one that has received surprisingly little attention in the literature. Waller appeals to the biological, cognitive and behavioral sciences to develop a series of intriguing explanations for the emergence and robustness of the belief in moral responsibility.

As Waller notes contemporary philosophers are willing to go to great argumentative lengths to reconcile moral responsibility with an entirely naturalistic account of the world. One such strategy involves redefining moral responsibility in terms of either the usefulness of blame and punishment, or the appraisal of a person's character or behavior. According to Waller this merely serves to avoid the hard question; namely, whether individuals deserve blame and punishment. Punishing a person may encourage good behavior, but that does not entail that they deserve such treatment. Ascertaining that someone is a bad person is not sufficient to determine whether it is fair to punish them. In other words, it is the stubbornness of the belief in desert-entailing moral responsibility that should form the focus of our attention.

Waller argues that the practice of moral responsibility is based on a system of interlocking beliefs which are, in turn, reinforced by the criminal justice system. The moral responsibility system is so much part of our world view that it is uncritically accepted. Thus, new evidence from the cognitive sciences that raises doubts about the fairness of blame and punishment (say the role of situational circumstances in triggering behavior) is more likely to lead to an attempt to further revise the moral responsibility system, than to the questioning of the system itself. For Waller this is analogous to attempts by advocates of the Ptolemaic view of the universe to accommodate apparently incompatible evidence about the movement of celestial objects. In the western tradition at least, humans were divinely granted the remarkable power to shape themselves and, therefore, to be the subject of praise and blame. This presents a problem for contemporary scholars who wish to defend moral responsibility as well as a non-miraculous account of the world. Increasingly desperate maneuvers are required, Waller contends, to accommodate evidence that suggests that we do not exert even a modicum of control over our character and actions.

As I see it, Waller offers two broad reasons for the stubborn adherence to the moral responsibility system. Firstly, moral responsibility provides an attempted justification for the primitive urge to strike back at wrongdoers by imposing a cost on them. What is in fact a purely primitive emotional response is rationalized by appeal to the idea of just deserts. Moreover, we seek such a justification because we have an unshakable belief that the world is just. According to that background belief, the infliction of harm on another human being should not occur unless we can show that it is just for them to suffer in that way. Secondly, we fear that the renunciation of moral responsibility would mean the loss of the sentiments, practices and capacities that we take to be core elements of our moral lives; specifically, the reactive social emotions, punishment and free will. Part of Waller's mission is to show that we are wrong to conclude that giving up on moral responsibility would mean jettisoning those elements of our moral lives. If he is right, then there is no need to repair the moral responsibility system in response to competing evidence about the origins of our character and behavior.

With respect to reactive emotions Waller contends that they are only threatened if we mistakenly construe the argument against moral responsibility in terms of excuse. P.F. Strawson argued that reactive emotions such as resentment and gratitude are essential to human relations and that the denial of morally responsible entails the denial of those emotions. That is to say, it would entail treating people as though they lack the capacity to engage in genuine interpersonal relations. In response Waller argues that his fairness argument against moral responsibility rests on the claim that we are not the authors of our behavior, rather than the claim that we are all cognitively deficient in some way. It remains appropriate, therefore, to respond with anger when a person does something wrong. Even though the reactive emotions, especially anger, are easily manipulated they are important because they allow us to identify and care about wrongdoing.  We have good reason, therefore, to adhere to our social emotions even if the moral responsibility system is abandoned. With respect to punishment Waller argues that the pervasive influence of luck on the way we behave means that no one deserves harmful treatment.  It may be necessary to incarcerate a person in order to protect others, but it remains the case that that person is being treated unfairly. Once we recognize that the belief in a just world is an unfounded assumption, then the imposition of punishment for purely pragmatic reasons becomes a less bitter pill to swallow. Moreover, he argues that punishment should be minimized because it often achieves the opposite of its stated aim of discouraging and containing harmful behavior. With respect to free will Waller argues that abandoning the idea that humans have a unique power to make themselves, does not entail that we must give up on the idea that we can choose between alternatives.

Waller argues that the main challenge to the moral responsibility system is posed by ongoing advances in our understanding of human thought and behavior. Indeed one of the main attributes of this book is the way in which Waller uses recent evidence from the psychological sciences to show that human behavior is mostly unconscious and automatic. Only very rarely are our thoughts and actions overseen by slow conscious deliberation and, if so, only after being prompted by fast automatic processes. Whether a person deliberates is also dependent on how much energy they have already expended making difficult choices. Moreover, careful reflection is often nothing more than a post-hoc rationalization of a conclusion that was already reached intuitively. 

Waller also notes that behavior is often triggered by situational circumstances, as exampled by the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments. This provides yet further evidence that we lack conscious control over our behavior. The problem for Waller is that the results of the situationist experiments also suggest that character or personality traits do not influence behavior. Waller contends that moral character is largely dependent on whether one is a 'chronic cognizer' or 'cognitive miser'. The former personality type describes someone who was fortunate enough to have more intelligence from the outset and, therefore, develops greater fortitude and self-confidence as well as a greater sense of self-efficacy. As a result they are more likely to indulge in careful deliberation before acting and are, therefore, less likely than the cognitive miser to lack self-control, betray trust or act selfishly. In short, moral character is dependent on factors beyond the individual's control. Hence, while it may be appropriate to acknowledge a person's character flaws, it is unfair to blame or punish them because of those flaws. Instead of sanctioning people because of their undesirable behavior we should develop a better understanding of character formation in the hope that we can prevent such behavior. The upshot of the situationist experiments, however, is that there is not much point in developing a better understanding of character formation, because character has little or no impact on how people actually behave. Chronic cognizers and cognitive misers appear to be equally susceptible to the situational triggers devised by social psychologists. It would seem, therefore, that the incidence of correct behavior has more to do with being confronted by the right situation, than it does with socializing the right character. In response to the charge that taking into account all the causal determinants of human behavior will mean that the self or agent disappears from view, Waller argues that: "Careful, deep study of your character and behavior does not 'externalize the causes of your actions.' It may however help us to better understand how to nurture important skills and character traits in ourselves and others." (182) However, if situational factors play a definitive role in determining how we behave, then it is not clear how the causes of our actions are internal and why we should invest time in examining the factors that shape character. In this case it would seem that the psychological evidence does threaten more than just the moral responsibility system.

In this book Waller sets out to explain why the belief in moral responsibility is so strongly embedded in our everyday attitudes and practices. Much of the answer, according to Waller, lies in what we fear to lose if we give up the habit of praising and blaming. It turns out that the book is just as much an argument for the view that those fears are unfounded. That is, the abolishment of moral responsibility will not threaten the sentiments, capacities and practices that we take to be crucial components of our moral lives. Waller provides the reader with fascinating insight into reasons for emergence and stubborn persistence of the belief in moral responsibility, as well as a compelling case for the view that a life without it would not be impoverished.

 

© 2016 Simon Wigley

 

Simon Wigley (Department of Philosophy, Bilkent University)


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