Sat Jan 22 10:07:39 PST 2000

Ken Hanly, Sam Pawlett, and Jim Heartfield are trying to draw me into a metaphysical discussion about whether punishment and responsibility can be reconciled with causal determinism. I won't be drawn. I used to be a philosophy professor and I know the territory and all the moves. I even wrote a dissertation, not on free will, but on attempting to reconcile natural scientific types of explanations with social science meaning-type explanations of human actions. That's all good clean fun, but I have become convinced that it is entirely irrelevant to the questions before us concerning responsibility, despite the draw of the reasoning that pulls us from questions of responsibility back to talk of metaphysical determinism. I have decided that Rousseau is right, we have to resist that draw.

I think that something like the following set of claims are fixed points in our social thinking, by which I mean that we cannot really imagine giving them up except hypothetically, if we amuse ourself by philosophical argument. These propositions include: people of mature enough age and in possession of their faculties are responsible for what they do; that they deserve praise and blame for making choices that are right or wrong; that if they choose to do bad things they deserve to be punished proportionately, and they have a right not to be punished if they did not do bad things. (I do not say that desert is the only thing that matters here, but it is crucial). Please note that nothing I have said in these propositions says anything about freedom or determinism, much less "free will."

I think this set of propositions is crucial to our thinking of ourselves as agents and people who can in part make our own history. Several of you suggested that we might try a different conception of history makers, but I don't think you or anyone has worked one out in enough detail to see if it preserves enough of what we care about to be acceptable. I have a very strong suspicion that any notion of agency that reduces responsibility to a matter of having a role in the the causal chain that produced the event would not do this.

But whatever the reasons are that we believe thsi, I think we do accept these propositions ona far deeper level than any views we may have about determinism. So I think they have to be our starting point, and we should think in terms of making sense of them rather than trying to come up with a hard determinist alternative that we are not going to accept anyway.


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