Manipulation, moral responsibility, and bullet biting



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MANIPULATION, MORAL RESPONSIBILITY, AND BULLET BITING

Alfred R. Mele, Florida State University


Various stories featuring manipulated agents in deterministic worlds have been used in arguments for incompatibilism about moral responsibility – that is, for the thesis that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism.1 Of course, a story that falsifies some proposed set of compatibilist sufficient conditions for moral responsibility might not falsify compatibilism itself. The claim that a particular set of conditions that is compatible with determinism is sufficient for moral responsibility may be false even if compatibilism is true. Elsewhere, I have argued that various stories about manipulation that may seem to falsify compatibilism about moral responsibility fail to falsify it (Mele 1995, chs. 9 and 10, 2006, ch. 6). I also have argued that some stories of this kind should motivate compatibilists to take a “history-sensitive” or “externalist” approach to understanding moral responsibility, and I have replied to some objections compatibilists have raised to these arguments or the recommended approach (Mele 1995, 2006, 2008, 2009a, 2009b).

As I see it, compatibilists who reject even the relatively modest history-sensitive approach I recommend seem to be stuck biting some extremely hard bullets. I lack the space here to rehash the arguments mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Instead, I focus on a related question. It is roughly this: When should compatibilists about moral responsibility bite the bullet in responding to stories used in arguments for incompatibilism about moral responsibility? To clarify the question, I need to provide some background. That is the business of section 1. In the remainder of this article, I motivate a partial answer.

1. Background

As some philosophers use the expression “morally responsible,” an agent can correctly be said to be morally responsible for performing some good intentional action for which he deserves no moral credit or some bad intentional action for which he deserves no moral blame.2 To forestall potential confusion, I report that, as I use “morally responsible,” an agent’s being morally responsible for performing a good intentional action entails that he deserves some moral credit for it and an agent’s being morally responsible for performing a bad intentional action entails that he deserves some moral blame for it.

The following two passages from work by Harry Frankfurt help set the stage for my project in this article:
To the extent that a person identifies himself with the springs of his actions, he takes responsibility for those actions and acquires moral responsibility for them; moreover, the questions of how the actions and his identifications with their springs are caused are irrelevant to the questions of whether he performs the actions freely or is morally responsible for performing them. (Frankfurt 1988, p. 54)
If someone does something because he wants to do it, and if he has no reservations about that desire but is wholeheartedly behind it, then – so far as his moral responsibility for doing it is concerned – it really does not matter how he got that way. One further requirement must be added . . . : the person’s desires and attitudes have to be relatively well integrated into his general psychic condition. Otherwise they are not genuinely his . . . . As long as their interrelations imply that they are unequivocally attributable to him . . . it makes no difference – so far as evaluating his moral responsibility is concerned – how he came to have them. (Frankfurt 2002, p. 27)
Here Frankfurt is expressing what is sometimes called an internalist, structuralist, or anti-historicist view of moral responsibility. To test the claims I quoted, one can search for a pair of cases with the following features: in each case, the agent satisfies all the conditions stated above for being morally responsible for an action but, because of a difference in their histories, only one of the agents is morally responsible for the featured action in his story.

The following pair of stories (based on stories in Mele 1995, pp. 156-63 and 2006, pp. 171-72) were composed with this end in view:3


EVIL CHUCK. Chuck enjoys killing people, and he “is wholeheartedly behind” his murderous desires, which are “well integrated into his general psychic condition” (Frankfurt 2002, p. 27). When he kills, he does so “because he wants to do it” (Frankfurt 2002, p. 27), and “he identifies himself with the springs of his action” (Frankfurt 1988, p. 54). When he was much younger, Chuck enjoyed torturing animals, but he was not wholeheartedly behind this. These activities sometimes caused him to feel guilty, he experienced bouts of squeamishness, and he occasionally considered abandoning animal torture. However, Chuck valued being the sort of person who does as he pleases and who unambivalently rejects conventional morality as a system designed for and by weaklings. He freely set out to ensure that he would be wholeheartedly behind his torturing of animals and related activities, including his merciless bullying of vulnerable people, and he was morally responsible for so doing. One strand of his strategy was to perform cruel actions with increased frequency in order to harden himself against feelings of guilt and squeamishness and eventually to extinguish the source of those feelings. Chuck strove to ensure that his psyche left no room for mercy. His strategy worked.
BRAINWASHED BETH. When Beth crawled into bed last night she was an exceptionally sweet person, as she always had been. Beth’s character was such that intentionally doing anyone serious bodily harm definitely was not an option for her: her character – or collection of values – left no place for a desire to do such a thing to take root. Moreover, she was morally responsible, at least to a significant extent, for having the character she had. But Beth awakes with a desire to stalk and kill a neighbor, George. Although she had always found George unpleasant, she is very surprised by this desire. What happened is that, while Beth slept, a team of psychologists that had discovered the system of values that make Chuck tick implanted those values in Beth after erasing hers. They did this while leaving her memory intact, which helps account for her surprise. Beth reflects on her new desire. Among other things, she judges, rightly, that it is utterly in line with her system of values. She also judges that she finally sees the light about morality – that it is a system designed for and by weaklings. Upon reflection, Beth “has no reservations about” her desire to kill George and “is wholeheartedly behind it” (Frankfurt 2002, p. 27). Furthermore, the desire is “well integrated into [her] general psychic condition” (Frankfurt 2002, p. 27). Seeing absolutely no reason not to stalk and kill George, provided that she can get away with it, Beth devises a plan for killing him, and she executes it – and him – that afternoon. That she sees no reason not to do this is utterly predictable, given the content of the values that ultimately ground her reflection. Beth “identifies [herself] with the springs of her action” (Frankfurt 1988, p. 54), and she kills George “because [she] wants to do it” (Frankfurt 2002, p. 27). If Beth was able to do otherwise in the circumstances than attempt to kill George only if she was able to show mercy, then, because her new system of values left no room for mercy, she was not able to do otherwise than attempt to kill George.4
Compare Beth’s killing George with an arbitrarily selected premeditated killing by Chuck after he completes his heart-hardening project – his killing Don.5 Each of these two killings satisfies conditions that Frankfurt, a compatibilist, deems sufficient for its agent’s being morally responsible for it. If it is assumed that moral responsibility for actions is common in Chuck’s and Beth’s world, then in the absence of further details of the story that would get Chuck off the hook, I see Chuck as morally responsible for killing Don. However, I cannot help but see Beth as not being morally responsible for killing George. For some support for my assessment of the two cases, see Mele 1995, ch. 9 and 2006, ch. 7. At this point, I simply ask readers to consult their intuitions about these cases. Readers who have no intuitions about the responsibility or nonresponsibility of one or both agents may make a note of that.

The next item on the agenda is bullet biting. Suppose Ed sincerely claims that Beth is morally responsible for killing George and I reply that, in sincerely making that claim, Ed is biting the bullet. What am I saying? Three things: first, Ed’s claim is counterintuitive; second, Ed himself finds it counterintuitive; third, Ed is sincerely making the claim because he believes that something else he believes commits him to making it. (I recognize that there are other ways to use “bite the bullet” in philosophical discussions. For example, some people use the expression in a way that does not require the second element.)

The issue of sincerity merits a brief comment. For a variety of reasons, Ed may insincerely claim that Beth is morally responsible for killing George. For example, perhaps Ed has published alleged sufficient conditions for moral responsibility for actions that commit him to saying that Beth is morally responsible for the killing, and he may be strongly adverse to admitting that he was wrong even though he is inclined to believe that he was wrong. Another possibility features the following facts, in addition to his lacking the belief that Beth is morally responsible for the killing: it is very important to Ed to offer a compatibilist analysis of being morally responsible for an action, he believes that he lacks the patience to figure out how to do that in a way that lets Beth off the hook, and he wants to avoid seeming to shirk his philosophical responsibilities. When the claim about Beth at issue is insincere, there is at most the appearance of bullet biting.
2. Why Bite the Bullet on Beth?

Why might someone bite the bullet on Beth (if, indeed, the claim that Beth is morally responsible for killing George is counterintuitive)? One possibility is that the bullet biter believes that it follows from compatibilism itself (about moral responsibility for actions) that if Chuck is morally responsible for killing Don, then Beth is morally responsible for killing George. A claim by Richard Double is interesting in this connection. Double contends that “the internalistic view is implicit in compatibilism” and that “compatibilism has not a chance of plausibility without [internalism], since otherwise the incompatibilist abhorrence of determinism will destroy it” (1991, pp. 56-57). The apparent problem is that once agents’ histories are allowed to have a relevance of the sort I claim to find in Beth’s story, their having deterministic histories is relevant, as well, and relevant in a way that undermines compatibilism. This formulation of the problem is pretty open ended. But there are ways of making the worry more precise. For example, it may be thought that if the brainwashing involved in Beth’s story gets her off the hook for killing George, it does so only if it deterministically causes crucial psychological events or states and that determinism consequently is in danger of being identified as the real culprit.

This more precise worry is misguided. Suppose that the stories I told about Chuck and Beth in section 1are set in a deterministic world. And consider the claim that if Beth is off the hook, what gets her off the hook is the fact that the brainwashing deterministically caused various effects. To test the claim, I introduce indeterminism into Beth’s story. In the modified version of the story, there was a tiny chance that the brainwashing would produce new values that fell short of the full strength of Chuck’s values, and there was a tiny chance that even if the brainwashing did not fall short in value production, Beth would not act on her new values. In both connections, the only open alternative was Beth’s suffering a breakdown that would prevent her from acting. As it happens, full-strength Chuck-like values were indeterministically produced in Beth, and those values were involved in the indeterministic causation of Beth’s intentionally killing George. I submit that most readers who judge that Beth is not responsible for the killing in the original case will make the same judgment in the modified case.6 If these judgments are correct, it is false that the brainwashing’s getting Beth off the hook depends on its deterministically causing crucial psychological states or events.

It should also be mentioned (see Mele 1995, pp. 158-73) that compatibilists are in a position to distinguish among different causal routes to the collections of values possessed by agents at a time and to provide principled grounds for holding that distinct routes to two type-identical collections of values may be such that one and only one of those routes blocks moral responsibility for a pertinent action. Consider the familiar compatibilist distinction between caused and compelled (or constrained) behavior.7 An ordinary agent’s washing his hands at noon in a deterministic world, for example, seems significantly different from a compulsive handwasher’s doing the same in the same world. Both actions are caused, but (other things being equal) only one of the hand-washings is compelled. An analogue of this distinction is applicable to value possession. Perhaps in engineering Beth’s values as they did, her brainwashers compelled her to have Chuck-like attitudes and to retain them for some time. Even so, a true and complete causal story about Chuck’s having the values he has might involve no compulsion. If Beth was compelled to have and retain her Chuck-like values whereas Chuck was not, there are some apparent grounds, at least, for taking the latter alone to be responsible for having certain values and, perhaps, for certain actions that stand in certain relations to those values.

In this connection, I argued in Mele 1995 (pp. 166-72, 183-84) for the relevance of a notion of agents’ capacities for control over their mental lives being bypassed. By “control,” I do not mean “complete control”; nor do I have anything metaphysically deep in mind. Examples of what I do have in mind include our capacities to rationally assess at least some of our values and principles, to identify with at least some of our values and principles on the basis of informed, critical reflection, and to modify at least some of our values and principles should we judge that to be in order. Typical readers of this article have each of these capacities in some measure. All such capacities are bypassed in my story about Beth. Her new values are not generated via an exercise or an activation of her capacities for control over her mental life; rather, they are generated in a way that bypasses these capacities.

As I have pointed out elsewhere (Mele 1995, ch. 9), bypassing of the kind I described would not be particularly threatening if agents in the manipulation stories at issue were able quickly to undo the effects of their manipulation. But they are not. Notice also that any process of critical reflection is conducted from some perspective or other; and, in my stories about Chuck and Beth, the corrupt values at issue are supposed to dominate the perspective from which they would reflect on those values in such a way that continued identification with these values is ensured (Mele 1995, pp. 158-59).

Frankfurt may reply that “We are inevitably fashioned and sustained, after all, by circumstances over which we have no control” (2002, p. 28), thinking, perhaps, that having one’s deepest values fashioned and sustained by brainwashers is not significantly different from their ultimately being deterministically caused products of circumstances over which one had no control. But the quoted assertion does not entail that we “have no control” at all regarding any of our “circumstances.” (Frankfurt says “by,” not “by and only by.”) And whereas Beth exercised no control in the process that gave rise to her Chuck-like system of values and identifications, Chuck apparently exercised significant control in fashioning his system of values and identifications.

As far as I can see, there is no need for compatibilists (qua compatibilists) to bite the bullet on Beth. Of course, some people who claim that Beth is morally responsible for killing George might not see themselves as biting the bullet. They may have the intuition that Beth is morally responsible for this or they may at least lack the intuition that she is not morally responsible for this. People who differ in their intuitions (or lack thereof) about Beth’s killing George may try to persuade each other that they are making an error. One strategy features exploring additional cases. Another is to use the methods of experimental philosophy. If it were to turn out that a great majority of lay folk strongly agree with the assertion that Beth does not – or does – deserve to be blamed for killing George, that might sway the other side to some degree. But these are topics for another occasion.


3. Why Bite the Bullet on One Good Day?

Not all internalist or internalist-leaning positions on moral responsibility are as extreme as Frankfurt’s. Manuel Vargas highlights “the basic agential structure of responsibility (BASR)” (2006, p. 363), which he describes as “a thin account of responsible agency” (p. 368). BASR includes “at least minimal rationality, sensitivity to justified moral norms, responsiveness to moral reasons, and the presence and normal operation of basic psychological features, including beliefs, pro-attitudes, and intentions” (p. 363). Vargas contends that “if BASR is present in a Brave New World [covert manipulation] case, the agent ought to be counted as a responsible agent because she has the capacities we are justified in fostering through moral influence” (pp. 366-67).

Vargas’s position does not commit him to disagreeing with me about Chuck and Beth. Holding that exhibiting BASR in an action is a sufficient condition for being morally responsible for that action does not commit one to holding that it is also a necessary condition for this, and Vargas maintains that some agents who lack BASR at the time of an action are nevertheless morally responsible for the action (see 2006, pp. 356-57 on drunk drivers). Because Chuck lacks “sensitivity to justified moral norms” and “responsiveness to moral reasons” when he kills Don, he lacks BASR at the time. But Vargas can take the same kind of history-sensitive stand on Chuck that he takes on drunk drivers. (Chuck had BASR when he embarked on his heart-hardening project.) And it is open to him to judge that Chuck is morally responsible for killing Don while also judging that brainwashed Beth – who lacks BASR when she kills George – is not morally responsible for killing George.

Vargas’s position and mine come into conflict over some other pairs of stories. Here is a quick way to generate one such pair (see Mele 2009a, p. 173). First, add to my story about pre-transformation Beth the detail that she is an extremely generous person who for many years has devoted a great deal of time and energy to helping needy people in her community and the local girl scouts. Her system of values plays a major role in generating her generous behavior, of course. Second, add to my story about Chuck the detail that in hardening his heart as he did, he ensured that he had no values at all that could motivate a charitable deed. (He might buy some girl scout cookies to lure an innocent child away for evil purposes; but a cookie-buying motivated in that way is not a charitable deed.) Third, haul in the manipulators. Over night, without Chuck’s consent, they erase his bad values and replace them with good ones that match Beth’s. Shortly after he awakes, he starts working with a local Habitat for Humanity crew in his neighborhood. When the work day ends, he drives around town for an hour and buys several boxes of girl scout cookies from every girl scout he sees – about fifty boxes in all. Then he delivers the cookies to a local homeless shelter. His motives are pure, as Beth’s are when she does her charitable deeds. I call this story about bad-to-good Chuck One Good Day (Mele 2009b, p. 471; for a similar story, see Mele 1995, pp. 164-65.)

Chuck has BASR on the day at issue. So, given the claim about Brave New World cases that I quoted earlier, Vargas presumably would count Chuck as morally responsible for his charitable deeds in One Good Day. I have argued, however, that Chuck is not morally responsible for those deeds (Mele 1995, pp. 164-65). And as I have reported elsewhere (Mele 2009a, p. 173), I find that I have no inclination at all to believe that Chuck deserves moral credit for the good deeds I described. Most people who see him in action and know nothing of his history would take him to be morally responsible both for his good deeds and for his character. But knowing what I do about his history, I take a very different view of Chuck’s deeds and character.

Different people sometimes have opposing intuitions about the same case. I ask readers to reflect on whether Chuck is morally responsible for the good deeds I have described. Some readers may be inclined to believe that he is. I ask such readers to add the following detail to Chuck’s story and to ask themselves whether it makes a difference: when Chuck falls asleep that night, the brainwashing will be undone and Chuck will be back to normal (for him); the manipulators are conducting a one-day experiment. This further detail is now an official part of One Good Day. (The same detail can be added to the story of brainwashed Beth, if that makes a difference for some readers [see Mele 2009b, p. 465].)

I have discussed Vargas’s view in some detail elsewhere (2009b, pp. 470-74). The issue I want to take up now is a general one about cases like One Good Day. Suppose I am right in thinking that it is counterintuitive that Chuck is morally responsible for his good behavior in that story. Are compatibilists who agree with me about this committed to biting the bullet on Chuck simply in virtue of being compatibilists?

In Mele 2009a, I motivate the following claim:


E*. No matter what internal condition an agent who has the greatest self-transforming powers that actual human beings have is in during t and no matter how that condition internally accounts for a purposeful action A of his performed during t, he is not morally responsible for A if the following is true: (1) for years and until manipulators got their hands on him, his system of values was such as to preclude his acquiring even a desire to perform an action of type A, much less an intention to perform an action of that type; (2) he was morally responsible for having a long-standing system of values with that property and he was as morally responsible for that as any actual human agent ever is for this sort of thing; (3) by means of very recent manipulation to which he did not consent, his system of values was suddenly and radically transformed in such a way as to render A-ing attractive to him during t; and (4) the transformation ensures either (a) that although he is able during t intentionally to do otherwise than A during t, the only values in which that ability is rooted are products of the very recent manipulation and are radically unlike any of his erased values (in content or in strength) or (b) that he is unable during t intentionally to do otherwise than A during t.8
If E* is true, Chuck is not morally responsible for his good deeds in One Good Day even if Beth is morally responsible for similar good deeds she performs. Does this upshot falsify compatibilism about moral responsibility? If a compatibilist were to offer a convincing argument for the following claim, compatibilists would be right to worry about the upshot:



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