I’ve written recently (here) about the philosophy podcast called Very Bad Wizards.
I was just listening to the most recent episode where Tamler mentioned and responded to my analysis of the Sam Harris episode where I posed the following question:
Once we as individuals, or as a society, accept that free will does not exist, what justification remains for moral responsibility outside of a consequentialist framework?
Tamler and David thought this question was misguided and offered the following example of why.
Why does a father love his child more than another father’s child?
They went on to compare the situation with love in a number of cases. And that’s when I figured it out:
They’re conflating two separate concepts of blame.
When Sam and I speak of someone “deserving” blame, we’re talking about truth as it relates to responsibility. We’re talking about fact. We’re talking about causes.
When Tamler and David talk about blame, they seem to be speaking of whether one “feels” like someone deserves blame. Feeling guilty for driving drunk, for example. Or feeling like everything bad in this country is because of immigrants.
Or loving your own kids more than someone else’s kids.
Tamler keeps making the following point:
It’s up to our intuition to decide which types of new information will be used to change how we feel with regard to blame. Sometimes finding out that someone wasn’t really responsible will help, and sometimes it won’t. And that’s not logic-based, but emotion-based. It comes down to intuition.
[ NOTE: Not his real quote, just a paraphrasing. ]
I think this line of argument reveals they’re both conflating the meaning of blame. I think we need to disambiguate blame into the two following categories:
- Causal Blame is where someone is an actual cause (and thus truly worthy of blame) for something bad that has happened
- Emotional Blame is where person 1 “feels” like person 2 is responsible for something bad that has happened to any degree
Causal Blame is right out, because none of us in this conversation believes that any actor could have done otherwise. So what we’re left with is always of the second type, where someone has a feeling of attribution, agency, or blame aimed at a particular person.
All we can have is better or worse imitations of it that sit on the Emotional Blame scale (based on how advanced your society is), and we can never get to actual blame because it doesn’t exist. All blame is of the emotional type simply because it’s the only option available to us.
Now, here’s the problem: Emotional Blame is based on perception and knowledge and…well, emotion, and those are poor foundations for establishing responsibility.
Notice the difference between these two: If a drunk driver kills a child in 2014, the fact that it was not (truly) his fault is mostly hidden from all but the most thoughtful (and dispassionate) among us. But if a town gets flooded in 1349 after a newcomer with freckles arrives, the town can be equally convinced that the ginger is the devil.
Neither of these cases is closer to actual responsibility. One feels more solid than the other, so it registers higher on the Emotional Blame scale, but neither actor is truly more deserving of blame because Causal Blame is not available to us.
So all we’re really arguing about is what kind of blame they think someone deserves at any given time given any given set of events. Here’s Tamler making this argument explicitly:
There’s a way in which it’s impossible to be…ultimately and causally responsible…but in terms of people feeling like it’s appropriate to blame you, those things don’t have the sorts of justifications you’re looking for.It’s like trying to explain why someone loves their own child more than someone else’s.
Now we see the confusion directly. He’s equating someone’s actual blameworthyness with peoples’ assessment of blameworthyness based on their emotional guage, and he’s giving legitimacy to their findings in any case.
People are not capable of judging blameworthiness based on emotion. That’s why we have courts—to seek the truth of whether someone did something. You cannot seek truth by asking the victim how they feel about the defendant, and you can’t find moral responsibility by asking what people think about someone’s guilt.
So let’s reset here.
If we’re not talking about moral responsibility in a world without free will, then I don’t know what we’re talking about.
If Tamler and Dave are simply saying that people don’t use logic to make decisions, and they tend to go off of emotional intuition instead, well, no shit. Tamler did a great TED talk on something similar related to moral arguments.
We get it. People are moved by emotion and intuition. Understood. But this fact does not constitute a foundation for moral responsibility, and it’s walking perilously close to the edge of the Naturalistic Fallacy.
I think Tamler and David need to recognize that there’s a clear difference between someone being blameworthy and someone thinking they are.
We live in a country where three quarters of the population rejects evolution, and half are waiting for Jesus to return in their lifetimes. What most people “think” or “feel” about someone deserving punishment or derision are one short step away from, “She’s a witch!”, and that’s no way to contemplate morality in the 21st century.
No, if you want to make the claim that you can get responsibility in a world without free will, you’ll have to do better than asking the guy next door what he “feels” about the situation.
[ NOTE: I am going to address David’s attack on Consequentialism in a future post. It’s a good question, and it deserves a good response. ]
- Although I appear to be beating these guys up, I really do recommend their podcast, Very Bad Wizards. They cover some really interesting topics, and they do it in a relaxed and entertaining way. Definitely check it out if you like either philosophy or psychology.
- You can reach them at @tamler and @peez.