One of the major problems in ethical philosophy is the linguistic problem of defining what we are talking about when we use the word ‘morality.’ Is it the actions and conditions which bring about a preferred (normatively superior) world? Or is it the conditions of mind made by a rational free will? This is essential, because the view of ethics for a thinker like Kant is even if the world would become a global Utopia overnight, if human beings are not rational free agents but instead entirely causal beings then there is no morality because there is not the conditions for “rational free choice.” Of course under the consequentialist and pragmatist purview it doesn’t matter in the slightest that humans and other beings in creation are causal, and in fact to the extent we can know the effects of their actions and what caused said actions is the extent we can know what is moral and how to make a more moral world through moral education (teaching people to behave in a way that has desirable effects) among anything else that appears to effect the causal chain in a desirable way.
This paper will not attempt to argue for a consequentialist approach to ethics but will approach ethics from a consequentialist perspective. Instead, what I am interested in exploring is the possibility of moral responsibility assuming both A) that human actions being in a causal chain is required for them to be of normative significance and B) that if human actions are in said causal chain it seems that humans cannot “help” or ultimately alter what they will or will not do. If determinism is true then human agents like all other physical phenomena act according to physical law, are subject to said law, and cannot act otherwise. And even if Hard Determinism is not correct, even if there is some indeterminancy relating to human action, humans cannot control the indeterminancy of whatever fundamental metaphysical substance truly exists (of which I hold we can never truly know – but this is another topic that doesn’t hold immediate relevance to the topic at hand) but are subject to their own nature and how it is affected by outside forces.
On one hand it is the causality of our actions which give them any moral significance at all – if they had no effect on the lives of others they would hold no importance. But if our actions not only produce effects but in turn are themselves the results of prior actions and happenings of other entities sentient and non-sentient in the world then it seems like we cannot hold people accountable for what they do. There can be no “ought” for as Kant stated: Ought implies can.
However, just as Kant’s categories of understanding have nothing to do with “things in themselves” and instead only with how humans can gain knowledge of things, so I would argue the “can” of ought implies can is not the physical but instead the theoretical potentialities based on our experience of what certain agents can do.
We see this in the example of a man stranded on an island who is accused of not following his moral obligations from his seclusion. We instinctively find him free from any potential moral obligations we would give to others due to his inability to help anyone from his state of involuntary isolation. If it was his own actions that brought him to the island, then perhaps we accuse him or criticize him of doing what he did, when he theoretically could’ve done otherwise, to arrive on the island but once he is stranded he is given a “pass” morally speaking. Similarly, though we may call someone immoral for performing actions which lead to the deaths of himself and several others, once he is dead we do not call the corpse immoral – and the stranded person is just as capable of helping someone in Brooklyn or Tanzania as a corpse is.
But it seems we need to return to our original quandary: if people are causal beings can we hold them responsible for what they do? And like all great philosophical questions the answer is in some sense yes and another no. We cannot hold him responsible in the “radical” sense of “blaming” them the way we would assign blame to a radically free agent, but we can in another sense with the assumption that other possibilities were “abstractly” or theoretically possible.
Let us look at the example of infanticide. Both humans and our cousins in the Great Ape family have been exhibited to commit it as well as to refrain from it. It has been observed to be a common practice in chimp clans, and though we are compelled to ask whether or not it is immoral for chimps to perform this action we will bracket this normative question for it is not immediately pertinent (though I’ll quickly say that it seems that just as much of the evil that can be perpetrated by Man in part follows from biology and evolutionary psychology, so just because a behavior is commonly observed in nature does not excuse it morally – the intuition that moral blame can be placed on humans alone is a trait of Kantianism that holds no bearing). Both humans and chimps are capable of killing their young and not killing their young. I give the example of behavior observed across species because I wish to emphasis the lack of human uniqueness in this view. For both humans and non-human animals the actions of the agent can be seen either as a passive misfortune when actions are performed that detract from what is preferable or manifest or increase what is unpleasant or seen as detestable. The difference being if one focuses on the causality of the agent or the alternatives the agent had regardless of whether or not he was “fated” to do ‘x’ or ‘y.’
Because human beings are much alike in their non-cognitive abilities we are often under the same purview of theoretical possibilities. If a man is run over by a train the people on the platform of the station are not held morally responsible in the eyes of most because regardless of determinancy or indeterminancy they are incapable of saving him. However, if Superman disguised as Clark Kent was in the station, there would be one person that would be theoretically able to save the man regardless of whether or not he would – making the assumption that whether or not he would being determined by physical law and not a “rational free will.”
It would be wrong or unreasonable and unproductive to hate Superman for not saving the man, for it is unreasonable to hate anyone for not doing what they could not or for doing what they could not help but do. However, it would be reasonable (assuming somehow it was known by the public that Superman did not save the man) to scold Superman for not saving the man assuming that scolding (or any other action we would take) would produce desirable results in the future. Scolding children similar to teaching them can only have effect on the future – punishing the child cannot change the past and it is in changing the world that is the only goal of consequentialism; “praise” and “blame” in the radical sense make no sense from the point of causality.
If Superman did not save the man for example because he chose to no longer act as Superman and instead live the life of an earthly mortal, it would be right to hold him in some sense responsible for he can in the future make choices (such as resuming the role of Man of Steel) that would affect the lives of similar people in similar situations. However, if he did not save the man either through physical inability (he was affected by Kryptonite) or through moral obligation (to save the man would be to cause greater harm to others) then it seems he could not even theoretically done otherwise to improve things. He cannot save the man if he is affected by Kryptonite, and to save a man that he morally shouldn’t save (through any sound reasoning that would find the likelihood that more would be worse off through saving the man) is to do the wrong thing – which certainly is not the aim of ethical action or reasoning to replicate.
This view in effect reconciles that of Aristotle and the Hard Determinists. Things are causal in nature yet there is volitional action (volition which is pre-determined) which alone can be called virtuous. It alone can be called virtuous for it alone we can have any semblance of control to alter or affect. It may be pre-determined that a man help another, but that does not mean it is not virtuous. Some will say that the moral-status of the action is dependent on the psychological state of the actor. Did the person help the other for selfish or unselfish reasons? But even if we are to presume that states of mind are involved in the determining of ethical statuses (which can be claimed considering the likelihood that motives have on effects and future events) these virtuous states of mind are too caused in nature. The good man is only good because of things ultimately outside of his control just as the unvirtuous and vice pursuing man is as he is outside of his control. However, humans are likely to pursue what is encouraged in society and repelled towards what is demonized or criticized; therefore it holds that even if the murderer cannot help but be as he is it is ethical to both prevent further violent actions and condemn murder making the assumption we wish to see less of it in our society.
In some sense, this view is the happy medium, or “golden mean” of Platonism and Kantianism. For while both hold human beings to be unique in some radical sense, which more biological thinkers such as Aristotle and Schopenhauer are more akin to human beings as natural and causal beings, it is the view of Plato that no one “knowingly” does wrong, and the view of Kant that people are “rational free agents” that can do right or wrong which is determined by the Categorical Imperative. It is the view of Aristotle among others that humans can do wrong, but are subject to their particular circumstances which determine whether or not their conduct should be praised or blamed. If we made praising or blaming the child a universal, would it prevent the action in the future? If we praised a child for being tall it would not affect his height nor the height of other children, so it would seem ludicrous to do so even if height has positive correlations with health. However, a child does have volitional control over his diet which in-part effects his health and his actions. It therefore is reasonable, despite the child being pre-determined to eat healthy or not, to praise or blame the child based on the effects that said compliment or criticism has on himself and society.
It should also be noted that this potentially solves the problem of “self” regarding punishment. If human beings change over time, and all of our thoughts and feelings are fluid then our self changes over time and there is only the illusion of a constant thing we call ourselves. To punish someone on non-consequentialist grounds seems harsh and unwarranted then, because the murderer who is sent to jail is not (typically) committing murder while he is in jail but instead is suffering for the actions of another person – his past self. However, if punishment, as well as all action (for there are other actions and civil policies which are just as if not more effective in some regards than punishment in deterring criminal action and promoting virtuous conduct) is evaluated by its consequences then the notion of the “self” is irrelevant. The only necessary criteria for punishment being warranted is A) evidence that acting otherwise was theoretically possible B) the action performed is one that produces more harm than good and C) punishment deters future performances of the crime or action which likely will produce more harm than good. Though one can give example of individual exceptions (which I’ll get to shortly) in regards to general norms of law none of the three individually are sufficient and all three are necessary to make suffering (punishment) ethically permissible.
It needs to be an action or circumstance where the person potentially could’ve done otherwise for otherwise any notion of punishment to deter further repetition for the individual in question or others would be futile. If, not regarding causality but theoretical possibility, I could not have done otherwise but fall on a man and kill him from an airplane (true I could’ve theoretically not jumped out of a plane but there was no reasonable expectation of landing on a man and it was instead manslaughter via “freak accident.”) it would be pointless if not counter-productive to punish me for a crime that there was no other option but to commit. The State is essentially giving the message that no matter what you do, even if it was something you could not have done otherwise but commit, you will still suffer. This will have the opposite effect of just laws and punishments which is to encourage people to refrain from actions that are harmful to the public – done of their own cognizance to state the obvious. For just as a parent who punishes a child regardless of what they do is likely to produce a child that does more wrong than otherwise (for no matter what he does he suffers and therefore he sees little incentive in being good) so a State that punishes actions that are either not harmful or not preventable is likely to have a populous that does not respect the merit of the law and obeys (when able) out of fear rather than respect.
One could give the hypothetical of “unjust punishment” on consequentialist grounds in the following way. Though we know for certain that a man did not commit an action he is being accused of, or did but it is not one that would without extenuating circumstances produce more harm than pleasure, the results of him going free would produce more harm than good – say in a lynch mob that believes he did perform the deed or he should be punished for doing a banal action. Though one can create argument on consequentialist grounds for the execution of one innocent man, one cannot generalize this to be a norm of our judicial system, for to do this would be to have ramifications on society which surely would produce more harm than good. Just as the hypothetical of killing the one man in the waiting of the hospital with a body full of fully functioning organs to save the lives of five who require liver, kidney, heart and various other transplants may be acceptable on consequentialist grounds after one incident, if this action were repeated unless there was some crack cover up force word would surely spread and no one would go to hospitals out of fear. Unjust laws that are implemented out of fear of the consequences of the lack of them will lead to more harm through cultural and moral degradation as well as lack of proper grounding in legislative and judicial execution. The realities of a current situation but be taken into account but so must the capacity of human malleability and an emphasis on the capacity of improving normative values and conditions rather than continuing the status-quo out of fear or passivity.
Shifting back to what we praise and blame, this also could be seen as an effective instrument for what to praise and blame not only in regards to what is praise or blame worthy but what we should spend time in praising and blaming. For though it may be a good for society that people drive according to the laws of their State, if saying “good job” to everyone who does not break traffic does not change their behavior then it would effectively be a waste of time. However, emphasizing kind actions and proper conduct in both children and adults can bring about desired improvements which would lead us to the conclusion that said emphasis is a sound investment in our time and mental energy.
It should also be noted the “is-ought” distinction which on some level seems in conflict with the declaration of “ought” implies “can.” If there is such a radical divide between the normative and descriptive realms then it does not matter in any way whatsoever that an action is impossible in relation to its ethical bearing. Which of course in some sense is true. It doesn’t matter if I can save the world, or if the stranded man can help those he cannot, if either of us performed the impossible then it would be a preferable thing. The “is-ought” distinction exists within the realm of the actual – existence as descriptive and normative phenomena. However, the declaration of “ought implies can” is a useful ethical declaration of how to judge ethical norms of conduct in the theoretical realm of potential action – which is subject to our limited knowledge and therefore we will never know in absolute and with absolute certainty and can only judge to the extent our knowledge seems conclusive and reliable.
Therefore, we should practice both determination and humility in regards to both physical and moral knowledge of particulars, for not only do we not always know the variables that lead to a desirable or undesirable result, we also lack ultimate foundation for what will bring about the best and worst of all possible worlds. So while we know that to have sight is to see (or to behave well is to leave the world with less suffering let’s say) we from person-to-person vary in our abilities to reason on what the objects are in the world (how to achieve the desirable in terms of descriptive interactions) and how these objects relate to us (what is desirable in a more particular sense of what is good and bad in achieving the abstract goods of pleasure and lack of pain).