Would we better off in a world without blame?
Friday, June 28, 2013

 

In an article published shortly before his death, the political scientist James Q. Wilson took on the large question of free will and moral responsibility: 

Does the fact that biology determines more of our thinking and conduct than we had previously imagined undermine the notion of free will? And does this possibility in turn undermine, if not entirely destroy, our ability to hold people accountable for their actions?

Wilson’s answer was an unequivocal no.

He has lots of company, which should come as a surprise given what scientific research into the determinants of human behavior has told us over the past four decades. Most of that research, as Wilson says, points to the same conclusion: our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements—everything we conventionally think of as “us”—are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance. The study of the brain is in its infancy; as it advances, the evidence for determinism will surely grow.

One might have expected those developments to temper enthusiasm for blame mongering. Instead, the same four decades have been boom years for blame. 

Retributive penal policy, which has produced incarceration rates of unprecedented proportions in the United States, has been at the forefront of the boom. But enthusiasm for blame is not confined to punishment. Changes in public policy more broadly—the slow dismantling of the social safety net, the push to privatize social security, the deregulation of banking, the health care wars, the refusal to bail out homeowners in the wake of the 2008 housing meltdown—have all been fueled by our collective sense that if things go badly for you, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Mortgage under water? You should have thought harder about whether you could really afford that house before you bought it. Trouble paying back your college loans? You should have looked more carefully at job prospects for sociology majors before you took out the loans. Unless of course “you” are “me,” in which case the situation tends to look a bit more complicated. 

This has also been a boom time for blame in moral and political philosophy, partially in reaction to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which is widely credited with reviving these fields. Rawls focused not on personal responsibility but on ensuring fair conditions that would create opportunities for everyone to pursue their aims. Within a decade, however, Rawls’s theory was under attack from the left and right for giving insufficient attention to personal responsibility and associated attitudes toward blame. On the right, Robert Nozick’s 1974 Anarchy, State, and Utopia heralded a major libertarian revival, centered on individual rights and individual responsibility. On the left, Ronald Dworkin proposed an alternative to Rawls’s vision of liberal egalitarianism, one that brought personal responsibility into the egalitarian fold. On the one hand, Dworkin argued, our fate should not be shaped by “brute luck”—circumstances, whether social or biological, not subject to our control. But as to anything that results from our choices, blame away. As the philosopher G. A. Cohen said of Dworkin’s argument, it has “performed for egalitarianism the considerable service of incorporating within it the most powerful idea in the arsenal of the anti-egalitarian right: the idea of choice and responsibility.”

Why exactly are we trying so hard to make the world safe for blame? What have we gained and what have we lost in the effort? And is there an alternative?

• • •

The treatment of blame in moral and political philosophy closely tracks cultural and political sensibilities on the subject, and as a result will go far in answering these questions.

In the philosophical literature, arguments in praise of blame divide into two categories, distinguished according to whether free will is regarded as compatible with determinism. Compatibilists—as the name suggests—think the answer is yes: provided certain minimal conditions of voluntariness are met (you must not have been physically coerced into acting as you did, you must have the mental capacity to comprehend your actions, etc.), your actions are freely chosen, notwithstanding that they are predetermined. Incompatibilists think the answer is no: if a person’s actions are determined by antecedent conditions, such actions are not freely chosen. 

Some incompatibilists, concluding that our actions are in fact predetermined, are reluctant to assign personal responsibility and blame. I will return to these “skeptical incompatibilists” later on. The category I want to focus on now are libertarian incompatibilists. Like skeptical incompatibilists, they believe that free will is incompatible with determinism. But they are libertarian incompatibilists because they reject determinism in favor of the view that we freely choose our actions. And, having stipulated that we are blameworthy if and only if we freely choose our actions, they conclude that we are blameworthy.

But what is the requisite sense of free will—of our actions not being determined by antecedent conditions—that makes someone blameworthy? And do we in fact have free will in that sense? 

Recent decades have been boom years for blame—our collective sense that if things go badly for you, it’s all your fault.

For the metaphysician, the theoretical possibility that one could have acted otherwise in some alternative world may suffice to establish free will. But if the question is whether we should hold a real-life Smith blameworthy in this world, one would think that the requisite sort of free will is not metaphysical but practical: When all is said and done, how plausible is it to think that Smith could have acted differently? 

To take an all too frequent scenario, suppose that Smith grew up in a neighborhood where drug dealing was the most common form of gainful employment. He was raised by a single mother who was a cocaine addict, and by the time he was twelve was supporting his family by selling drugs. When he was seventeen, he got caught up in a drug deal gone bad, and in the altercation that ensued, he shot and killed the buyer.

How should we think about Smith’s level of moral responsibility? Is there some magical moment at which Smith was transformed from the victim of his circumstances to the author of his own story? If so, when was it? What can we realistically expect of someone who finds himself in Smith’s circumstances with Smith’s history and biological endowments? And what is to be gained—and what lost—by adopting social policies that expect more? Given the high stakes of public blame these days, one might hope that libertarian incompatibilists would take these questions seriously. But most have simply assumed that whatever kind and degree of freedom is required for moral responsibility, all of us, except for a small class of “abnormal” people, have it once we reach seventeen years of age.

The reality is that we are all at best compromised agents, whether by biology, social circumstance, or brute luck. The differences among us are differences of degree that do not admit of categorical division into the normal and the abnormal. A morally serious inquiry into the requisite meaning of free will needs to face some basic facts about this society—for starters, that in the United States parental income and education are the most powerful predictors of whether a three-year-old will end up in the boardroom or in prison; that most abusive parents were themselves victims of abuse and neglect; that the norms of one’s peer group when growing up are powerful determinants of behavior; and that traits of emotional reactivity and impulsiveness, which have a large genetic component, are among the more robust predictors of criminal behavior. Such an inquiry would also need to address what evidence would suffice to conclude that Smith could have behaved differently. Is it enough that someone in a similar situation once pulled herself up by her own bootstraps? That the average person does? And how can we be sure that the situations are in fact similar in relevant ways?

Libertarian incompatibilism, in short, hangs profoundly consequential judgments on the insubstantial hook of an abstract possibility.

Compatibilism, in contrast, dispenses with these uncomfortable questions about the existence of free will by dispensing with any robust requirement of free will. Even if conduct is determined by antecedent conditions, the compatibilist argument goes, people nonetheless are free in other ways that suffice to make them blameworthy for their actions.

The compatibilist position has been around for a long time, with the role of determinism played variously by fate, luck, the gods, God, and social and biological forces. Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century New England preacher, arguably had the hardest compatibilist hand to play. His cards included the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (a take-no-prisoners version of determinism) and the Calvinist doctrine of sin (a take-no-prisoners version of personal responsibility). But he played the hand he was dealt. In his 1754 essay “Freedom of the Will,” he offered the following grand equivocation: even if we do not will as we will (that is, do not choose what we will to do), we do as we will, and the latter suffices to justify God’s dangling us like spiders over the pit of hell in the event that our actions do not entirely please Him. In short, what matters is not how we came to possess a sinful desire, but that we had it and acted on it. 

To the modern reader, Edwards’s argument is likely to seem too clever by half and the entire compatibilist enterprise a little baffling. Why are we knocking ourselves out to make a deterministic world safe for blame? If we really believe someone could not have done other than she did, might we not want to take a different tack altogether?

But the majority of contemporary philosophers writing on the subject are compatibilists. And many have offered what is essentially Edwards’s grand equivocation, updated for modern sensibilities. Character or attitudes have replaced God as the forces that determine what we will, and the two halves of Edwards’s equivocation—willing as we will and doing as we will—go by different names. But the basic argument is the same. In T. M. Scanlon’s words:

The lack of freedom that would be entailed by a general causal determinism need not [rule out responsibility and blameworthiness]. Even if our attitudes and actions are fully explained by genetic and environmental factors, it is still true that we have these attitudes and that our actions express them.” 

These days compatibilism is mostly the project of the left-liberal philosophical establishment, and, not surprisingly, has been given a kinder and gentler face. No more dangling over the pit of hell; indeed, in some versions, the consequences are no worse than the deliberate withdrawal of trust and friendship from those we believe have wronged us. But its indigestible core is unchanged: we are blameworthy for doing what we could not help but do.

Parental income and education are the best predictors of whether a three-year-old will end up in the boardroom or in prison.
 

That indigestible core is plainest to see when fate enters the scene not to determine what action we choose, but to determine its consequences—that is, when simple bad luck affects the outcome of our choices. Consider the following scenario. A bus driver is following his accustomed route, with all due care. A young child darts out in front of the bus. The driver, who does not see her and could not have seen her in time to stop, hits and kills the child. We may blame him for what he did, but in what sense is he blameworthy?

Focusing on such an unlucky outcome allows us to strip out two common distractions in discussions of compatibilism. The first is lingering doubt about free will. When a person makes a poor choice—say, the choice to drive recklessly—it is hard for us not to think that he really could have acted other than he did, if only he had tried harder. That thought often insinuates itself into compatibilist arguments, making the indigestible core go down more easily than it deserves to. In contrast, we have no difficulty believing that, having committed to a course of action, a person may—like the bus driver—have no control over the consequences.

The second distraction is special concern for antisocial conduct—that is, conduct that, whatever its consequences, we wish no one would engage in. Driving recklessly is one example. But, far from acting wrongly, the bus driver in our hypothetical scenario acted just as we would have him act. Someone had to drive the bus; he did the job and did it prudently. What more do we want from the guy? Why on earth should we blame him for doing what we would have had him do, just because things turned out badly?

The answer most compatibilists have given is: because that’s the way people are. We just do that sort of thing. Here is Thomas Nagel’s famous version of the argument: 

It is tempting in [cases of decision under uncertainty] to feel that some decision must be possible, in the light of what is known at the time, which will make reproach unsuitable no matter how things turn out. But this is not true; when someone acts in such ways, he takes his life, or his moral position, into his hands, because how things turn out determines what he has done. . . . That these are genuine moral judgments rather than expressions of temporary attitude is evident from the fact that one can say in advance how the moral verdict will depend upon the results.

It may be predictable that we will blame others for the bad consequences of their prudent actions, although I think that response is less widespread and more amenable to reason than Nagel’s observation suggests. But the predictability of the response does not establish that it is a “genuine moral judgment” about the blameworthiness of the person as opposed to a pre-reflective emotional or psychological expression of upset at the consequences of what they have done. To establish the former requires a different sort of argument, one that I doubt can be made. If it can’t, then the claim that “how things turn out” determines the morality of “what one has done” simply raises hindsight bias to high moral principle.

Instead of defending the proposition that we are blameworthy for actions or consequences we could not control, many compatibilists have simply done away with the requirement of blameworthiness. More precisely, they have said, in essence, that our ordinary practices of blaming people settle who is blameworthy. This is at least suggested by Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1962), a classic discussion of compatibilism that helped to launch its modern revival.

This account of blameworthiness leaves us with no vantage point from which to distinguish, say, our annoyance when our friend forgets to pick us up at the airport from the rage of a lynch mob demanding vengeance for a rape they believe, with no evidence, their quarry committed—unless of course the intensity of blame establishes the relative blameworthiness of its object, in which case the innocent victim of the lynching is much the greater sinner. 

I do not mean to suggest that Strawson or his followers embrace any such perversities, or that they lack the resources to distinguish among instances of blaming.  Their project is, at root, a humane one. The aim is to insist that we are not just thinking reeds, that part of what it means to be human—and to relate to others on human terms—is to react to terrible losses or antisocial acts with anger, blame, and other negative emotions. But it is a long way from that observation to the conclusion that such “reactive attitudes,” as Strawson called them, are at the core of our humanity and at the heart of our relationships of mutual recognition and respect. They can be part of our nature without being the better angels of it.

Earlier I mentioned a third position on the issues of determinism, free will, and moral responsibility: skeptical incompatibilism. The skeptical incompatibilist agrees with the libertarian that we are blameworthy for our actions only if we have free will in the requisite sense (the incompatibilist part). But, contra the libertarian, the skeptic concludes that we don’t have the requisite free will, or at least there is no persuasive evidence that we do. Although a minority view, skeptical incompatibilism has many eloquent defenders in contemporary moral philosophy. I have trouble seeing the case against it. At least, I have trouble seeing how libertarian incompatibilism or compatibilism could be regarded as serious contenders given the empirical challenges to the former and the normative challenges to the latter.

• • •

Why, then, have so many thoughtful people invested so much intellectual energy in making the world safe for blame? Here are some possible explanations. 

(i) We can’t not believe in free will, and hence in moral responsibility, because each person’s daily experience of life is as an agent. Our experience is—to use Jonathan Edwards’s terms—that we do not merely do as we will, but that we also will as we will. 

Edwards proved himself an astute psychologist as well as a brilliant metaphysician when he urged this argument on his fellow Calvinists. Wouldn’t people recoil from the idea that God would dangle them over the pit of hell for what they did, even though He made them do it? Edwards saw no cause for worry, because most people are never really going to focus on the “God made me do it” part: 

The common people do not ascend up in their reflections and abstractions to the metaphysical sources, relations and dependencies of things, in order to form their notion of faultiness or blameworthiness. They do not wait till they have decided by their refinings, what first determines the Will. . . . The idea which the common people, through all ages and nations, have of faultiness . . . . [is] a person’s having his heart wrong, and doing wrong from his heart. And this is the sum total of the matter.

The fact that we are all instinctive libertarians has given libertarian incompatibilism a free pass on the empirical front. If those instincts are impossible to dislodge—if they are the firm deliverances of ordinary experience—then some accommodation must be made. But if the predisposition to blame is no more than an instinct and habit, the argument for accommodation is not a moral one. 

(ii) Even if conduct is not blameworthy, blame is an indispensable tool to control antisocial behavior. This justification does not rest on the moral desert of the party we blame. It rests on the social benefits that flow to the rest of us from locking up the morally blameless and throwing away the key. Those who wish to rely on it have a moral obligation to show that such benefits are great enough to justify the costs we are imposing on the morally blameless, their families, and their communities. In the current American criminal justice system, or the current American version of giving every child an equal opportunity to succeed in life, it is preposterous to think we have come close to meeting that test.

Is blame an indispensible tool to control antisocial behavior?

More importantly there are tools of social control that are directed specifically at harm reduction. The point of such tools is not to coddle criminals, or to deny their accountability or volitional capacities. It is to reduce future harm at a tolerable cost to all of us, wrongdoers included, by influencing wrongdoers’ future choices through rehabilitation, more carefully calibrated deterrence, and, when necessary, isolation from society. There are serious disagreements about whether harm-reduction policies have worked in the past, though there are no serious disagreements about the failures of mass incarceration. But we have some evidence that interventions can work if they are evidence-based and carefully tailored to the problems we are trying to fix. Since, unlike retribution, such tools are designed for the purpose of harm reduction, we should hardly be surprised if they do a better job of it.

(iii) Blaming others is a way to show respect for them. This very Kantian argument is at the core of much of the contemporary academic literature in praise of blame.

In the hands of hardcore retributivists, the argument has a decidedly Dickensian cast. To quote one proponent, when we punish someone, we respect his “fundamental human right to be treated as a person” by “permitting him to “make the choices that will determine what happens to him” and then respecting his “right to be punished for what [he has] done.”  Lord save us all from such respect. 

In the hands of modern-day compatibilists, the stakes of the argument are much lower, and the delivery not so redolent of the Dickensian workhouse. Blaming others, Jay Wallace tells us, “is a way of taking to heart the values at the basis of morality” and of taking seriously “relations of mutual recognition.” Refusing to blame others, in contrast, “involves an attitude of superiority toward the person in question (something like the attitude of a parent toward a very young child) and thus represents a failure to take that person seriously as a participant in the relationship,” according to Scanlon.

A genuinely humane impulse is at work here. When we expect too little of others, we do in a certain sense fail to treat them as equals, and we also limit the kind of relationship we can have with them. But the argument presupposes that there are only two standpoints from which we can evaluate others: the subjective standpoint, in which we are enmeshed in a relationship and therefore in thrall to reactive attitudes such as blame; and the objective standpoint, from which we dispassionately evaluate others as fit objects for rehabilitation or instrumental social control, or as unfit candidates for friendship. 

There are other possibilities that neither hold us hostage to reactive attitudes such as blame nor require us to view others from a position of moral superiority or indifference. We could begin by extending to others the interpretive generosity we would wish for ourselves were we standing in their shoes. Here is Erin Kelly’s eloquent account of what such a standpoint might entail: 

While it seems to me that we are not morally required to enter into a wrongdoer’s perspective enough to appreciate the difficulty of the obstacles that led her to falter, the possibility of a compassionate recognition of the reasons for a person’s moral failures humanizes relationships and opens possibilities for understanding, forgiveness, and an honest reckoning with faults we might share.

Which kind of respect would you rather have? 

In either the hardcore or softer versions, the “blaming you is how we show respect for you” argument runs into a serious PR problem when applied to bad actors whose moral agency is undeniably compromised: young children, the mentally ill, those in the throes of dementia, the severely retarded, and others who are commonly regarded as morally blameless. Retributivists and compatibilists have dealt with the problem by making an exception for these abnormal cases, acknowledging that the absence of meaningful moral agency renders such actors inappropriate objects of blame. 

For the compatibilist, that concession is deeply problematic. Once compatibilism allows for the possibility that some forms of compromised moral agency excuse bad conduct, there is no logical stopping place short of incompatibilism. If a schizophrenic can introduce evidence that he is not a full moral agent, why not someone in the grips of a major depression, or impulsive anger, or drug addiction? A teenager growing up in gang territory, whose physical safety and social inclusion depends on choosing sides? Of course, the compatibilist may observe that we do commonly distinguish among different factors that compromise agency, allowing excuses in some cases (schizophrenia) but not in others (impulsive anger). But that observation, like Strawson’s view, merely describes current practice; it does not justify it.

For the libertarian incompatibilist, making an exception for the abnormal isn’t problematic in principle: we needn’t have free will always to have it some or even most of the time. It is, however, troublesome in practice. Nowhere is this clearer than in our current criminal justice system. Of the more than 2 million Americans currently incarcerated, 15 percent show symptoms of psychosis (delusions, hallucinations, etc.); another 25 to 40 percent have serious non-psychotic mental disorders. And this does not even get to the severe deprivation most prisoners faced growing up. But most libertarian incompatibilists see no reason to inquire into these or any other realities of our criminal justice system before concluding that we are finally giving criminals what they deserve. 

(iv) Blame is here to stay, and if we can’t beat it, we might as well do what we can to civilize it.

Such fatalism is understandable. But there are lots of reasons to reject it. 

First, while we experience many feelings toward others that contain some element of reproach, the feelings are more nuanced, more variable, and more mutable than the public face of our blame fest would suggest. 

Public reactions to wrongdoing have been studied most extensively in the context of crime. Researchers have found that peoples’ evaluations of serious wrongfulness vary significantly across social conditions and individuals. Tellingly, the more information people have about the context of the crime, the person who committed it, and the circumstances he or she came from, the more nuanced are their views of moral responsibility. Peoples’ intuitions about appropriate punishment are as likely to be responsive to future-directed utilitarian concerns as past-oriented desert-based ones. There is little consensus about the absolute levels of punishment appropriate for different forms of wrongdoing, and, according to a number of recent studies of public opinion about punishment, the same people who describe current punishment policy as insufficiently punitive recommend replacing it with policies that are significantly less punitive.

The same is true for most of us in the personal realm. Even as we experience anger toward those who have harmed us, we are capable of fellow feeling as well. (He had a bad day; this is an issue he has a very hard time with; etc.) Many people placed in the position of the parents whose child was killed by the blameless bus driver would be capable of not blaming him—indeed, of sympathizing with him, knowing that for the rest of his life he will reproach himself, as others will reproach him, for an outcome for which he was in no sense blameworthy. It doesn’t take a saint or an emotional paralytic to feel that way. What it takes is empathy: the capacity to look at someone else’s life as we hope others will look at ours. 

The fact that we alter our judgments of blameworthiness as we acquire greater knowledge of the person and the context in which she acted should put to rest any thought that our blaming practices are naturally immutable, or even recalcitrant. An hour listening to the average lifer in prison or the average at-risk teen talk about his or her circumstances, and most Americans would never view those groups in the same way again. Unfortunately, most of us will never spend that hour. Everything we know about people outside our social circles—assuming we know about them at all—is mediated by others (politicians, pundits, the media) who have every incentive to provide whatever information will elicit the emotional response they are looking for (anger, blame, sympathy, sorrow, etc.). It is hard to break out of that echo chamber, but it is possible. 

Which brings me to the second reason to reject the fatalistic claim that blame, as we currently practice it, is not going away. Change always seems impossible—until it doesn’t. After 40 years of policies that have relentlessly ratcheted up punishment, the direction has shifted slightly in the last few years. New York and Massachusetts repealed their mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. California repealed the most egregious elements of its three-strikes law. The changes in New York and Massachusetts were spurred by budgetary crises and worked out by Republican and Democratic legislators in a manner that gave both groups political cover. In California, change came via a 70 percent majority in a popular referendum. The primary motivation voters cited for scaling back the three-strikes law was not money but rather a belief that the law was unfair. Both developments are encouraging, in different ways—the first, because it suggests the possibility of détente in the political arms race to prove which party is tougher on crime, the second because it suggests that political grandstanding on the subject may finally be losing its audience. 

The final reason for cautious optimism is that we have gotten nothing from our 40-year blame fest except the guilty pleasure of reproaching others for acts that, but for the grace of God, or luck, or social or biological forces, we might well have committed ourselves. Our schools are broken, a new generation of kids has been lost, our prisons are crammed with petty offenders whose lives we have ruined in the name of a war on drugs that has been a total failure. And judging from the current mood of the country, the guilty pleasure of blaming others has not proved all that pleasurable. 

I doubt there will be a groundswell of support any time soon for the view that others may not, after all, be to blame for the mess they (and we) are in. But the fact that we have gotten so little in return for our blame mongering at least opens up the possibility that people would be receptive to a new approach. The next time something goes terribly wrong, suppose that instead of immediately asking who is to blame, we were to ask: How can we fix this problem? Fixing problems is costly. But as we have learned from the past 40 years, so is not fixing them. In the long run, most of us stand to gain by changing the national attitude toward blame. Doing so won’t magically transform the world. But it will increase the odds of a better life for many, if not most, of us. That seems like a more-than-even trade for giving up a sense of self-righteousness that none of us has earned. 

 

Editors' Note: This forum appeared in the July/August 2013 print issue.

 

Photo: Nelson Vargas

Thanks for this engaging colloquy. I wonder about the concept of guilt as an emotion. If blame or blame worthiness is a troubling concept, is it analogously problematic for someone to feel guilty for an act that harms someone else? For a thought of ill will to someone else? The problem with the concept of blame is that it leads to over punishment. Is guilt just internalized blame that makes the culprit submissive to society's sanctions? From an incompatibilist perspective, if I was determined to act in a certain way, then why feel guilty? Unless I am hardwired to feel guilty as a means of internal deterrence or perhaps internalizing notions of blame worthiness. In any case, thanks for the break from other projects and allowing me to disguise procrastination as work.

Re free will & no free will - it's not all or nothing, and it may be the wrong question. Regardless of who's to blame, murderers & rapists should be locked up.

I've listened to both Dan Dennett & Sam Harris. I am interested in what Harris has to say, but I am a bit more on Dennett's "side" of their largely semantic argument. Anyway, when lions, tigers, and bears are around humans, usually it's good to keep them in cages. Same goes for anti-social humans with proclivities which lie on the far edges of a bell curve of human behavior.

I care more about protection & safety than I do about blame. And I have no problem with using the word "blame," because a.) it's not all or nothing re free will & determinism, and b.) humans have advanced enough brains to make a more free choice, within a range of choices. But even if a person is an ultra-leftie, they still want protection from dangerous people. Also assuming that all "skeptics" are not libertarians is also wrong.

Michael Shermer is a libertarian in part, as is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I'm not one myself (because in part I view Ayn Rand as a nutty apologist for sociopathy who had no concept whatsoever of what human nature actually is).

But when one goes to the social security office, or to a small town with high unemployment rates, one does become aware that many people are on the dole who really shouldn't be. But on the other hand the alternative to the state sponsored dole is the Church or the street - both of which are worse propositions.

More evidence that philosophy qua philosophy -feigning distance from the world it contemplates- is a waste of time. 
Moral responsibilty and drug dealers, bankers, politicians, and college professors: if we remove it from one group we remove it from all.  But as usual in arguments such as the one above, the free will of the managerial class of philosophers and technocrats is somehow beyond biology: "Determinism for thee but not for me" is still the rule.
GA Cohen in If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? found two arguments that he found "reasonable"  for a wealthy person not to give away much of his money, both involving the pain of loss, which would be greater for a rich man than a poor man who had nothing to lose, and the fact that it would be unfair to his children to be pulled away from the friendships they'd formed among their peers. Cohen is making the argument for prep schools. 
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/15/nyregion/foreign-parents-in-new-york-p...   Affluent, Born Abroad and Choosing New York’s Public Schools

Miriam and Christian Rengier, a German couple moving to New York, visited some private elementary schools in Manhattan last spring in search of a place for their son. They immediately noticed the absence of ethnic diversity, and the chauffeurs ferrying children to the door.
And then, at one school, their guide showed them the cafeteria.
“The kids were able to choose between seven different lunches: sushi and macrobiotics and whatever,” Ms. Rengier recalled. “And I said, ‘What if I don’t want my son to choose from seven different lunches?’ And she looked at me like I was an idiot.”
For the Rengiers, the decision was clear: Their son would go to public school.
“It was not the question if we could afford it or not,” said Ms. Rengier, whose husband was transferred to the city because of his job as a lawyer and tax consultant. “It was a question of whether it was real life or not.”

What is it that allows German bankers in NY have a better understanding of moral philosophy than Oxbridge Marxists?
If you want to develop a "technology" to manage human affairs (the term is Cohen's) you're looking for a "Colossus" http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064177/ or a "Skynet" (I won't bother with that link) to manage our affairs. The argument's absurd, and in the meantime we've ended up with the moral mediocrity of our contemporary class of scholastic philosophers, fixated on their own terminology of judging and judgement, seeing themselves as judges, that they can't see that their own self-interest is what drives them.  Again: determinism for one means determinism for all. 
Corey Robin, far from a favorite,  at Crooked Timber (ditto)

Several people have emailed me to ask why no one at CT has posted on the George Zimmerman verdict. It’s a good question. I can’t speak for anyone else; as Chris said, we’re a loose-knit crew. I know that I’ve simply not felt up to the challenge. And not able to say anything as cogent as I’ve read elsewhere.

But this clip from 1968 of James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show seems apposite. (The Milton Friedman lookalike trying to get a word in edgewise is the Yale philosopher Paul Weiss.)

The video is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=a6WlM1dca18
"Yale philosopher Paul Weiss."  Most college educated people, and most academics have no idea who Paul Weiss is, but almost all know the name James Baldwin. That fact is important in any discussion not of philosophy but of philosophers, even in serious discussion of the subjects they claim to deal in.
I'm fine with seeing the vast majority of animal behavior ruled by determinism, but then the answer is as old as Aristotle and as new as Skinner: training and conditioned response. Raise your children to be better than you are. 

@ Seth.  I'm not sure if you've made any sort of coherent point. Is your point that the ideas presented by philosophers are worthless because philosophers do not live up to those ideas? That seems strange. You'd normally think that a theoretical claim is either true or not true, regardless of the motivations of those making the claim. Is your point that all philosophical questions are psuedo-questions and there simply is no fact of the matter about morality or blame?

Is theoretical physics a waste of time? Theoretical physicists are not engineers; they try to study the world "while feigning distance" from it. Generally there is supposed to be a division of intellectual labor. By feigning distance from the world, theoretical physicists are better at discovering things that can then be turned into new technologies by applied physicists and engineers. For the most part, you could say the same is supposed to hold for ethicists. They work on abstract considerations, and then if they discover some important principle, the policy makers can then use it. Of course in practice that rarely happens, but does that mean we should give up on any sort of theoretical treatment of morality? Or are you suggesting that philosophers need to live up to their own ideals better in order to have their ideas accepted?

I think the best way to construe your claims given what you've said is that you think that there is an objective morality, but philosophers themselves are biased and cannot get to it because they are determined by petty concerns for their careers or by some sort of dysfunctional curiosity that forces them to focus on the wrong sorts of problems.

That might be true, but you'd need an argument to support that claim. When you argue that "determinism for one is determinism for all", are you claiming that philosophers are determined in such a way that they just can't get to the truth about moral matters? Is that supposed to imply that determinism is false? If so, I don't see how. Or do you think determinism is true and that there are other people besides philosophers who are determined in such a way that they can get to the truth about morality?

If your argument is that the average person just intuitively knows what is right and wrong, then that's a pretty substantial claim. Surely some people's intuitions are wrong. How do we sort out which? Is it just a numbers game? Was homosexuality wrong when most people believed that it was wrong? Are you committed to some form of nihilism or relativism?

Of course, you're right that not many people pay attention to philosophers because their points are sophisticated and seem pedantic. They really need to work on making more accessible explanations for their arguments.

to be consistent it should be "Raise your children to do better than you do."

An excellent article that clarifies many current metaphysical and moral issues; but it overlooks epistemological issues. If (pre)determinism is correct - as Fried, Harris, Edwards, et al. assume - then their thinking, writing, and analyzing is as predetermined by their circumstances and internal conditions as anyone whose actions they assess. Nonetheless they present presumably rational discussions of the issues as if their discussions are exempt from the determinism they attribute to everything else! How then can they - or anyone - know that what is said is true, instead of their merely being predetermined to think that what they say is true (whether it is or not), that their reasons are good ones, etc? 
This is a version of the "determinism is self-refuting" view. The usual response by those who disagree with it is to claim that there is no incompatibility between one's thinking being predetermined and its being true or correct; with which I agree (but if my agreement is predetermined by my . . . whatever . . .?). But what such critics of the self-refuting view neglect is that there is also no incompatibility between one's thinking being predetermined and its being false or incorrect! So which is it, correct or incorrect, and how could one know which it is? Well, if determinism is true, then one thinks what one is predetermined to think which it is, and that's the end of the matter.
In short, determinism is incompatible with rationality. Of course, if determinism is true, then I can't help so thinking.

> In short, determinism is incompatible with rationality. Of course, if determinism is true, then I can't help so thinking.
 
Determinism isn't incompatible with rationality as a process, it's merely incompatible with the assumption that one's rational arguments are necessarily devoid of fallacies or implicit assumptions, and thus necessarily true.
 
Basically, it's incompatible with what some people consider "rationality", or rather, it shows that such "rationality" never really existed.

Writers who argue for determinism don't discuss whether or not they, and their writing, are also subjected to determinism's trappings. I think it is just assumed they believe they are. Their discourse on the topic could be predetermined. No controversy there for the determinist. The truth of what they have to say is another matter, and not necessarily an epistemelogical one.

In your second paragraph I you seem to be saying two things:
i. A predetermined thought and the content of that thought being true is compatible.
ii. A predetermined thought and the content of that thought being false is also compatible.

Well, yes, of course. We can be right and we can be wrong and we're almost always one or the other. No controversy here either. It could be predetermined that we will confirm determinism or refute it. It remains to be seen. I don't think this says anything for rationality really.

Even if rationalily is reduced to just having a sound and convincing causal chain for establishing a position on something it will still be here.

An excellent article that clarifies many current metaphysical and moral issues; but it overlooks epistemological issues. If (pre)determinism is correct - as Fried, Harris, Edwards, et al. assume - then their thinking, writing, and analyzing is as predetermined by their circumstances and internal conditions as anyone whose actions they assess. Nonetheless they present presumably rational discussions of the issues as if their discussions are exempt from the determinism they attribute to everything else! How then can they - or anyone - know that what is said is true, instead of their merely being predetermined to think that what they say is true (whether it is or not), that their reasons are good ones, etc? 
This is a version of the "determinism is self-refuting" view. The usual response by those who disagree with it is to claim that there is no incompatibility between one's thinking being predetermined and its being true or correct; with which I agree (but if my agreement is predetermined by my . . . whatever . . .?). But what such critics of the self-refuting view neglect is that there is also no incompatibility between one's thinking being predetermined and its being false or incorrect! So which is it, correct or incorrect, and how could one know which it is? Well, if determinism is true, then one thinks what one is predetermined to think which it is, and that's the end of the matter.
In short, determinism is incompatible with rationality. Of course, if determinism is true, then I can't help so thinking.

My thanks to Ms. Fried for her fine essay and her able rejoinders. A few observations in support of her thesis:
 
No participant in this debate supposes that indeterminism in human action would make us more responsible. No one supposes that people are ultimately blameworthy in the sense that having libertarian, contra-causal free will is thought to make possible. All agree that even if behavior is fully caused we must continue to hold each other accountable in ways that keep us safe and reinforce moral norms, and that punishment of mentally competent adults is still necessary for deterrence (Rosen’s “coercive threats”). And all agree that we will continue to feel and be targets of reactive attitudes of blame, resentment, admiration, etc. even if we aren’t libertarian agents. Yet compatibilist defenders of moral responsibility and its skeptical doubters end up in different camps about what people deserve, and this has real world implications.
 
If as Fried says, “giving bad actors what they morally deserve and reducing social harm at a tolerable cost are radically different undertakings, with radically different challenges and measures of success,“ then one would expect to see differences in polices and their justifications endorsed by compatibilist defenders of desert and skeptical incompatibilists. And indeed we do.
 
Painting with a broad brush: Champions of moral desert are more likely to support deontological, non-consequentialist and retributive justifications for punishment, in which the beneficial consequences of punishment for the offender and society, if any, are secondary considerations. Giving offenders what they deserve is what matters, and inquiry into and preventing the causes of crime that lie outside the offender are of less interest. Compatibilists are more likely to see social arrangements as basically fair (as Rawls did not), not in need of any major restructuring to reduce inequalities, since people deserve their lot in life. They are less likely to see reactive attitudes as misplaced or overdrawn, even given the determinism of human action they accept.
 
On the other hand, skeptics about moral responsibility, perhaps more interested in the causal story behind action and less in singling out the morally culpable agent, are more likely to accept consequentialist rationales for punishment that affect the future probability of wrong-doing, and more likely to focus on the situational context of crime with an eye to prevention. Since they believe individuals don’t deserve their (fully determined) fates, as do compatibilists, skeptics are perhaps more motivated to reduce social inequality and end retributive punishment, and more likely to second guess their reactive dispositions, even as they acknowledge their evolutionary rationales and functional role in a moral economy (Bloom’s point).
 
As Fried notes, “real-world compatibilists… typically push offstage the ‘could not have done otherwise’ half of compatibilism...” They’d rather not draw determinism and our lack of libertarian free will to public attention, whereas skeptical incompatibilists think this truth about ourselves should be put center stage in order to reap the personal and social benefits of accepting an explicitly naturalistic view of human agency. Understanding that, any indeterminism aside, we couldn’t have done otherwise in actual situations engenders compassion (Kelly’s point) and highlights the actual causes which produce agents and their actions, whether good or bad. So as Fried argues, acceptance of determinism will “temper enthusiasm for blame-mongering” and increase support for harm reduction and prevention. Contra Korsgaard, metaphysics matters.
 
On unintended consequences: Leiter thinks we’re necessarily on a slippery slope to coercive medicalization of offenders if we dispense with retributive desert, but our commitment to human rights rules out Clockwork Orange interventions. Nor, as Konczal suggests, will statistical models of behavior necessarily be bent to oppressive state agendas; they can equally serve efforts to improve criminogenic communities.  All told, the public naturalization of agency and its impact on attitudes and polices is to be welcomed, not feared, but it won’t happen if compatibilists continue to dominate discourse about moral responsibility, blame and desert. Thanks to Fried for articulating a more progressive alternative. 

My first reaction mirrors Leiter's response, and I would not be so quick to discount his concerns based on our supposed commitment to human rights. I listened to a story on NPR on the history of the eugenics program in North Carolina immediately before reading Fried's essay . . . the same people who thin decades ago sterilized "imbeciles" and the promiscuous came to the same conclusion as Fried, but the response feared by Leiter.

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plan cul a trois

In my recently published book, The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will (The New Press, 2013), I take exactly the position outlined by Professor Fried and I expose our nearly ubiquitous and institutional commitments to free will as a cultural peculiarity of the West.  I expose the origins of the idea of free will in the theology of the Latin West originating in Augustine. I show how that theology became secularized so that we don't even realize today when we invoke free will that we are presupposing a human person beyond nature and context who can intervene as if from above (like an all-powerful God).  I look to the new brain sciences to explain why we hold on to beliefs against so much evidence to the contrary (and there's lots of it!).  I then search the new brain sciences to discover new ways that we can rethink moral agency without free will--why we are ethical, why and when we're not, and how to get people to be more ethical.  The latter is the challenge. My major paradigm is the Nazi Holocaust and I show that both perpetrators and rescuers acted as and within social networks and systems. My conclusion is largely that we are in environments and social and cultural systems which we cannot shed at will.  So the most effective way of changing individual behavior (and before the fact not afterwards to repair the damage) is to intervene in those systems at every scale.  We need also to promote and bolster diversity and whistle blowing within systems so that alternative ways of understanding situations can be introduced into the Groupthink that human nature makes us all too prone to. We are social and contextual beings--our brains have evolved that way.   We ought to take note, as Professor Fried so powerfully argues. 

I would congratulate you for having written a thoughtful article, but if I accept its conclusions would it make sense to *credit* you for your actions?

We have no freewill.Philosopher Spinoza   rightly said  " Men believe themselves to be free,simply because they are conscious  of their actions,and unconscious of the causes whereby  yhose actions are determined? Though we have no freewill and we are danicing tune  of our  unconscious.,til we are living in society so our consciousness developed..To live in society we must obey rule and regulations of socirety if we will did some thing wrong  society have right to punish us.and we must accept that punishment.To control our  unrestraied uncounscious  our conscious  is always ready just like watch man.Freud  rightly said  where is Id there must be Ego.  

On the whole a good article. But I find it useful to think about this issue from a different angle. It seems that the problem of free will may be better understood as analogous to the problem of communication. For example, I can say the words, "Raise your right hand," and you may raise your right hand in response. But your response was not determined or caused by my saying these words. If it were, you would find your arm raising whether you wanted it to or not. The same is true of any behavior. No stimulus or situation causes anyone to act in any particular way. Evaluative interpretation takes place between the stimulus and the response. This is generally true of all living things. As language theorist Kenneth Burke once noted, "All living things are critics." They interpret what is food and what is not food. The fish may be inclined to take the bait but does not do so according to the causal model of response. It it did, all one would need to do is throw the line in the water and a fish would bite. Some days they just aren't biting. In the case of human behavior, I think the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre got it mostly right when he said we are condemned to freedom. We always have some responsibility for what we do precisely because the connection between situation and action is not a causal one. However, Fried is right to point out that there are many constraints to human freedom and the understanding of such constraints has increased dramatically in the last four decades. What any person does is profoundly constrained by factors of genetics, biology, family, culture, language, education, nationality, and other contextual influences. These factors need to be taken into consideration and adequately weighed in every instance. This makes judging human behavior a very complicated process. And the more subtlety we, as a society, can bring to bear in the legal system and its judgments, the more equitable and civilized society becomes. The bottom line, however, is that the causal model is not appropriate when applied to human behavior. We can never be certain of the extent of blameworthiness, but none of us is entirely without blame in the process of becoming who we are. But thiere is plenty of reason to be very limited and cautious in the human impulse to assign blame.

On the whole a good article. But I find it useful to think about this issue from a different angle. It seems that the problem of free will may be better understood as analogous to the problem of communication. For example, I can say the words, "Raise your right hand," and you may raise your right hand in response. But your response was not determined or caused by my saying these words. If it were, you would find your arm raising whether you wanted it to or not. The same is true of any behavior. No stimulus or situation causes anyone to act in any particular way. Evaluative interpretation takes place between the stimulus and the response. This is generally true of all living things. As language theorist Kenneth Burke once noted, "All living things are critics." They interpret what is food and what is not food. The fish may be inclined to take the bait but does not do so according to the causal model of response. It it did, all one would need to do is throw the line in the water and a fish would bite. Some days they just aren't biting. In the case of human behavior, I think the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre got it mostly right when he said we are condemned to freedom. We always have some responsibility for what we do precisely because the connection between situation and action is not a causal one. However, Fried is right to point out that there are many constraints to human freedom and the understanding of such constraints has increased dramatically in the last four decades. What any person does is profoundly constrained by factors of genetics, biology, family, culture, language, education, nationality, and other contextual influences. These factors need to be taken into consideration and adequately weighed in every instance. This makes judging human behavior a very complicated process. And the more subtlety we, as a society, can bring to bear in the legal system and its judgments, the more equitable and civilized society becomes. The bottom line, however, is that the causal model is not appropriate when applied to human behavior. We can never be certain of the extent of blameworthiness, but none of us is entirely without blame in the process of becoming who we are. But thiere is plenty of reason to be very limited and cautious in the human impulse to assign blame.

Determinism and the question of whether we could have chosen differently is irrelevant to whether we are blameworth and should be held responsible for our actions. All that matters is whether we respond to feedback, and what sorts of feedback generate the best change in future behaviour.
 
This is why Wilson concluded that we are still responsible even if we had no other choice.
 
In fact, the exact opposite of the assumed position in this article is the case: if you have no antecedent causes determining your actions, then your actions are inherently random. How can you hold someone accountable for the choice made by some random variable in their brain? Particularly since even given the same circumstances, they will never make the same choice again. So why punish or try to rehabilitate them? There's truly no point.
 
And so we come to a "startling" conclusion: we are responsible for our choices to the extent that our choices are deterministic, and thus to the extent that our choices respond to feedback.

When you claim "we have gotten nothing from our 40-year blame fest" you ignore the fact that overall crime rates across the spectrum are down significantly.  Nobody went into Central Park after dark in the 1970's.   There has been what seems to my mind a clear correllation between decreased crime rates and increased incarceration of the "usual suspects".  That is not nothing.  Millions of people live in peace because we have locked up those who otherwise would have disturbed it.
The larger question you duck is how we move from here to decrease the NEED to incarcerate people by reducing the number of broken people, many of whom are from broken homes.  How do we rebuild the family?  How do we internalize moral values such that whatever freedom we do have--and clearly there is a realm within which our decisions make us who we "are"--is used productively? 
Granted, these are practical questions, not philosophical ones, and thus likely beyond your interest and realm of competence.
 

A superb article. I must read it a number of times, to get the most out of it.
I suspect there must always be blame, even at a fairly young age (four, five?) in order to develop a sense of personal responsibility for things gone and done wrong; blame as an anticipatory 'reminder', or warning. But that's a far cry from the traditions in bizarrely punitive societies, such as e.g. the U.S.
Responsibilities have no meaning unless blame attaches to wrongful behavior. That seems to me a necessary formula for a well-run society. I guess free will has little to do with it, as long as responsibilities can be clearly defined and traced.
The contribution by Christine Korsgaard strikes me as a sociological view on the matter.
 

The author asks: 
Why are we knocking ourselves out to make a deterministic world safe for blame?
It all starts with childhood; we raise our kids to be responsible agents; to take responsibility for their actions. She learns to regard herself as the appropriate object of praise or blame, depending on her behavior. And later on, the self-monitoring takes off, alongside the social blame/praise-game. In other words, we are in fact knocking ourselves out to make this (probably) deterministic world safe for blame. And I'm glad we do; for it is constitutive for our moral identity. Moral reputation is a hugely important source for morality; we all desperately want to feel we are good persons. Praise and blame are indispensible carrots and sticks. It is the fabric of morality; they are corner stones of civil society and should be part of the vocabulary in criminal law.
By the way, I notice that the author discusses blame all the time; but what about the praise-part of the story? Does she want to do away with that too? Is she ready to never praise her child? Or her friends or colleagues? 
Later on she asks: 
If a schizophrenic can introduce evidence that he is not a full moral agent, why not someone in the grips of a major depression, or impulsive anger, or drug addiction? A teenager growing up in gang territory, whose physical safety and social inclusion depends on choosing sides?
Well, as Daniel Dennett (2006) points out, it is very important that our society is structured in such a way that people will prefer to remain member of the 'full moral agent'-club, rather than to be thrown out that club of people that can be held responsible for their actions. If a society is such that people would have no incentive to join this club, people would start looking for excuses for their behavior - and they would come up with them. (The mere fact of determinism alone might become a sufficient excuse.) 
On another note, the relation between blame and the idea of "could've done otherwise" is made clear. This is sensible. It's important to distinguish however, between two senses of "could've done otherwise in the same situation". One is in the absolute or fysicalist sense. And in that sense, if determinism is indeed true, no one could have ever done anything otherwise in the EXACT same circumstances. However, in the ordinary sense, what we mean by "could've done otherwise in the same situation", we really mean "could've done otherwise in that SORT of situation". Example: if someone triples over a stone, it is meaningful to say "he could have done otherwise" - i.e. in that SORT of situation - even though in this EXACT situation he could not have done otherwise. Now compare this to someone failing to lift a truck. In this case it is meaningful to say "he could not have done [cq. failing his target] otherwise", because in every variety of this SORT of situation he would've failed to do it. So I claim it is warranted to talk about "he had his chance, but he blew it", without denying determinism. And so it is warranted to blame people. 
The author ends up with a suggestion: 
The next time something goes terribly wrong, suppose that instead of immediately asking who is to blame, we were to ask: How can we fix this problem? 
I believe this is a false dilemma. Everyone in our society should know that if you don't take responsibility, you will be blamed and punished. Making this very clear is one important answer to question of how to fix problems related to immoral behavior. 

so long as you continue to water down the blame game by pointing to all the contingent circumstances that predetermine action, you will end up with a social morality based on the lowest common denominator principle. To the contrary, blame is a higher order good for society that sets standards for justice and retribution. It is part of the moral framework that sets civilsed societies apart from uncivilised ones.
For a practical, example, takes cases of pedophile abuse of children. Victims have the right to blame clergy, teachers, coaches, etc. who have abused them, and to demand that the legal authorities use blame to determine guilt/innocence, punishment, and to see that justice is served. Otherwise, is our response going to be, "sorry kid, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person--better luck next time!"
Blame serves as a protective device for safeguarding the moral standards of a society. The fact that society may be full of injustice and inequity does not require you to abandon all notion of blame----- just be more judicious in assigning it, in order to reflect equally important social values of compassion and justice.

Arthur, your argument assumes that the alternative to blame would be to do nothing ("sorry kid ... better luck next time"). But no one has that view. The alternative view, the one you need to weight arguments for and against in comparison with blame views, is harm reduction. Harm reduction requires that we, when the child abuse is known, investigate its causes and take effective action to block out such causal factors, thereby reducing the risk for someone being the victim of child abuse. Harm reduction may include rehabilitation of persons who contributed causally to bad outcomes. Harm reduction also involves helping the victim in effective ways (health care, counseling, economic support).

What I find interesting here is that both the essay and comments, focus on actions as blameworthy or determined, focus on the most immediate and simple actions with any sort of physical consequence, such as murder, selling drugs, and so on, then claim freedom is libertarian or illusory. Do these arguments apply in the more complex cases as selling sub-prime loans, where the intent and causality is not so clear, and whether the bankers involved were simply conditioned by their environment, were free, are or are not blameworthy, such as those involved in that forgotten moral play around Enron? Did some of their parents neglect morality while they were children, should we worry that new regulations do not seem impending, is regulation necessary, is it consequence or intent that is truly what blame should measure?

Simply Just "stop blaming and move on". 

I do understand the struggle for authenticity in terms of coming to a social understanding of why we do what we do, but humankind in the 21st Century is anything but authentic. Studying the ethological behavior of animals, we indeed see ourselves reflected through the fun-house mirror of self-comparison of essentially apples and oranges. It is true the human being is essentially an animal, but the human individual in the prehistoric world was alone a very weak animal compared to he (or her) natural predators. Hence, in terms of self-protection and the hard facts that Nature demands we grow slowly from childhood forward into adulthood, human families stuck together. Why? Because that was the rational course to take. Families joined with other families and eventually became tribal, complete with a primitive division of labor and the natural political hierarchy of one strong leader, allies of the strong leader and then subjects of the strong leader. That is the natural social condition of humankind. Practicality in the primitive milleux eventually evolved into the advent of politics, something we know as religion. In other words, the natural and thereby authentic social contruction of early civil societies involved an absolute condition, a totalizing force manipulated by the strongest lording themselves and their often-arbitrary whims over often innocent and ignorant subjects through the invention of "absolute value", i.e. "God has made me the ruler; you must do as I say". After around 1,500 years, subjects of feudalism began to rise into a sort of shared omnicompetence, assisted of course by the printing press, something that allowed even the most common within particular societies to begin to question the flaws of a book never before allowed them by an essentially religious empire that grew out of the failure of Rome to force itself away from a recoil into a revanchist mode away from the republic. In other words, not only was Caesar backed by the so-called pagan gods (which the patrician elite had long ignored in favor of the likely suspect of "philosophy"), Caesar was god. Back to absolutism and a quasi-religious totalitarianism. Then came The Questioners, the ones who defeated Batman and declared that absolutism was unreasonable because it advanced only a few while leaving the poor in ignominy. In other words, for the first time in over 1,000 years people were allowed to actually grow-up for a change. I personally have no qualms with "personal responsibility" per se, but I do have a problem with what better might be labeled "antisocial freedom", the freedom to act irresponsibly, to profiteer and to basically make honesty the second-best policy. Some societies take swan dives back into totalitarianism faster than others do, and America is no exception to the rule. Not only has the Industrial Revolution made a mockery of "individual sovereignty", political systems that choose to refuse the recoil into reactionaryism had to make adjustments, not simply to keep a certain power gradient, as critics of the liberal democratic tradition maintain, but also to improve the lot of those exploited and harmed by the vast social displacements that led to the European revolutions of 1848. At one point in France, the power elite of the day was so oblivious to life around the royalty that the streets of Paris had human excrement piled-up between opposing lanes of traffic, something so malodorous that even the royals themselves smelled it. That's incomprehensible to us today, but it's also the natural or authentic effect of simply accepting the status quo while refusing to be pragmatic in the least. Sometimes being unreasonable is the only way to get things done in the world.

The concept of blame is anything but unambiguous or, for that matter, a concern with a single value like seeing to it that people get what they deserve.  In central cases of blame, we let other people know what we think of them and expect it to make a difference in their behavior and/or in their psychological conception of themselves (or in the behavior and psychological conception of others).  Of course, we also assume that our judgments of others are justified in terms of a rational foundation and that our reactions are fitting in the sense that they do not do injustice to those we are blaming.  Need this be “blame mongering?”  Hardly.  We have no way of conceptualizing a society without it.  However, I don’t see that we need the modern concept of morality with its religious baggage for it.   Shame is a better concept than guilt and can be conceived more mercifully.  Bernard Williams’, Shame and Necessity, is the book to read for a start in that direction.

Determinism, as understood by most philosophers and supporters like Sam Harris,Jerry Coyne, D. Dennett, et al, means that every action, behavior, and thought is (pre)determined by antecedent conditions,mainly brain states - not that merely most of them (many more than we imagined not long ago) are thus determined.
Thus understood, then if determinism is true (IfDT), it seems obvious that blame in the traditional sense ("ought" implies "can") must be wrong - for no one can ever have done other than what they did do. But an angle that is routinely overlooked is that, IfDT, then all our reasonings, thoughts, and arguments are untrustworthy! We just think and reason what we are predetermined to think and reason, regardless of whether it is true or false, correct or incorrect - and likewise for those who disagree with us. Of course we think our reasonings and arguments are correct, or at least pretty good - but IfDT then that's merely what we (as well as our opponents) are predetermined to think.
A typical response to all this is to point out that (IfDT) there is no incompatibility between our thoughts, arguments, etc. being predetermined and their being correct!  That seems true, but it overlooks the point that there is no incompatibility between our thoughts, arguments, etc. being predetermined and their being INcorrect! So, IfDT, how can we tell whether our predetermined thoughts are correct or incorrect? Seems to me that we can't - we and everyone else - just think what determinism (antecedent conditions, brain states, and all that) cause us to think. Therefore, IfDT, then our reasoning about determinism - and everything else - is untrustworthy. And if it seems that there is good evidence that determinism is true, then here's a bit of a paradox; IfDT, then we can't really have good trustworthy evidence that determinism (or anything else) is true; but we do have such (good but inconclusive) evidence that determinism is true; therefore determinism is not true! [in accordance with the logically impeccable principle of modus tollens]
Of course, nothing I've said shows that determinism isn't true - because IfDT then I've just been writing what I was predetermined to write.
 

Thanks for the article Barbara. We're products and puppets of conditions of existence, past and present, A malevolent act by a psychopath or an otherwise psychologically normal person put through a highly stressful and extremely unusual chain of events have one thing in common: the act originated in them. They also have one thing that they don't have in common: the former is dangerous, the latter just needs a break, but ought ought to contribute to society in some way. The psychopath needs to be kept away from society. Safety is the only issue that matters.. ..we should look at our feelings of contempt as redundant emotions leading to actions that would reduce the chance of the psychopath mixing genes in with 'us'. Let's just accept that we have no fundamental control and go with the safety flow, when it comes to what to do about such behaviour. Thanks.

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