The Moral Landscape (4)

Harris on moral responsibility:

If we view people as neural weather patterns, how can we coherently speak about morality? And if we remain committed to seeing people as people, some who can be reasoned with and some who cannot, it seems that we must find some notion of personal responsibility that fits the facts.

What does it really mean take responsibility for an action? For instance, yesterday I went to the market; as it turns out, I was fully clothed, did not steal anything , and did not buy anchovies. To say that I was responsible for my behavior is simply to say that what I did was sufficiently in keeping with my thoughts, intentions, beliefs, and desires to be considered an extension of them. If, on the other hand, I had found myself standing in the market naked, intent upon stealing as many tins of anchovies as I could, this behavior would be totally out of character; I would feel that I was not in my right mind, or that I was not otherwise responsible for my actions. Judgments of responsibility, therefore, depend upon the overall complexion of one’s mind, not on the metaphysics of cause and effect.

There is a lot here to consider, but what’s absent is the more weighty, and dare I say relevant, matter: what exactly is it that warrants our responses of praise and blame? Harris doesn’t offer anything that positively accounts for this warrant. Instead, he gives mitigating examples like a twelve-year-old killing his parents due to chronic and severe physical and verbal abuse. Or a twenty-five-year old who confesses to killing a young woman “just for the fun of it” but is later given an MRI that reveals a brain tumor in the medial prefontal cortex. Harris’s point seems to be that our moral outrage depends on how much background information we know about a person’s actions.

This results in the following conditional:

    (C) If we know all the antecedent causes of an action, we ought to be less inclined to assign blame or praise to the person performing the action.

Harris most certainly believes (C) as he appeals to it (or something like it) when making an argument against retributive punishment. Clearly he denies the idea that praise or blame is the kind of thing that a person deserves, given the behavior, traits of character, or as Harris puts it, “the overall complexion of one’s mind.” Of course, this equivalent with

    (C’) It is not the case that we know all the antecedent causes of an action, or we ought to be less inclined to assign blame or praise to the person performing the action.

Besides being logically equivalent with the truth-values of material conditionals, (C’) stands on the metaphysical basis of causal determinism. While we may not know all the particular antecedent causes of an action, we do know that there are such causes, which, in principle, extend back beyond the existence of the person!

In any event, Harris’s definition of moral responsibility is exceedingly weak, as it is relatively useless in ascribing praise and blame. All it does it tell us if an action is attributable to a person–not whether the person is accountable.


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