Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 4: Moral Responsibility

This will be my last post overviewing Frankfurt's ideas in Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right. After this discussion of moral responsibility from a Frankfurtian perspective, I'm going to draw out a couple of implications for soteriology, ecclesiology, and theodicy. I might even, if you're nice, talk about the theology of politics.

Rather than bore you with a review, I'm going to jump right in and assume you've read all my prior posts in this series.

What does moral responsibility look like from Frankfurt's perspective? Framed in my terminology, what does a weak volitional model of moral responsibility look like?

Often, moral responsibility is linked to strong volitional models. That is, we tend to think that if a choice were determined we can't really blame the actor. She could not have done otherwise. So, if Frankfurt reconfigures freedom, how do notions of moral responsibility get adjusted?

Recall that Frankfurt sets aside the free will versus determinism debate in favor of a psychological account of freedom: Volitional unanimity, freedom as doing what we want to do. Frankfurt continues this approach when he addresses moral responsibility:

"Becoming responsible for one’s character is not essentially a matter of producing that character but of taking responsibility for it. This happens when a person selectively identifies with certain of his own attitudes and dispositions, whether or not it was he that caused himself to have them. In identifying with them, he incorporates those attitudes and dispositions into himself and makes them his own. What counts is our current effort to define and to manage ourselves, and not the story of how we came to be in the situation with which we are now attempting to cope."

Let's unpack this. What does it mean to "take responsibility"?

In a very superficial sense, taking responsibility is often simply recognizing one's causal influence in an event:

"Who broke the window?"
"I did."

This is often all that is required.

However, this kind of "taking responsibility" is rarely seen as moral. Moral responsibility has to do with your dispositions and choices as a reflective, deliberating creature. Accidents aside, "taking responsibility" has mainly to do with your inner life and its structure.

In short, moral responsibility is about you. How you exist as a moral creature.

Thus, if you are forced to act in an immoral manner due to an external coercion (e.g., I'm holding a gun to your head), we don't hold you morally responsible for your actions. Your actions don't reflect your own, freely willed, inner nature.

So, setting aside accidents and external coercion, let's look inside ourselves to see what it means to take moral responsibility. According to Frankfurt, we act freely when we will what we want to will. This is freedom as volitional unanimity. So, let's say you act in a premeditated way to perform some immoral or illegal act. In this, you act freely. You want to do this deed. In the language of law, you have mens rea, a "guilty mind" or "criminal intent."

If you have mens rea you are acting, according to Frankfurt, freely. It doesn't really matter if you are determined to do this act. As Frankfurt notes, the story behind your actions is largely irrelevant. For finite creatures like ourselves, the only coherent question we can ask about moral freedom is simply this: Did you WANT to do this? If so, if mens rea is present, then you acted freely. And you are held morally responsible for your actions.

Another way to frame this is to say that, in a weak volitional world, we hold people morally responsible when we desire communal input into their volitional structure. If you WANT to do these bad thing then we hold you responsible. That is, again borrowing from Frankfurt, you identify with these impulses and actions. You own them. Given your volitional configuration, we have quibbles with you. Your self-identification prompts us intervene because if we don't stop you you will not stop yourself.

However, there are times when people claim that they are internally overthrown by impulses. They act harmfully and/or immorality but they don't identify with the act. The are ashamed of it. They claim they resisted acting in this way to their full power. In short, they inform us that they did not have volitional unanimity. They were not free.

Are these people morally responsible? Because we need a notion of freedom to hold people responsible.

The answer is, sometimes yes and sometimes no. These are the sticky cases. They are sticky because we know what an irresistible impulse can do to us. Think of insanity or addictions. We know what it feels like to be internally terrorized by renegade impulses. So, in case law some people are held less accountable on just these grounds. The trouble is, people could be lying to us. Or, someone can make up some unheard of irresistible impulse and argue that this is what overthrew them (e.g., road rage). On such things lawyers debate and ponder. The best we can do is hear the evidence--expert or otherwise--and make reasonable community discernments about how irresistible that irresistible impulse really was. It's a messy, error-prone process, but there is no better way to do it.

To conclude. The point of all this is that robust notions of moral responsibility are fully compatible with weak volitional models or even strict determinism. That is, yes, notions of freedom are integral to notions of moral responsibility. However, that freedom doesn't have to be free will. Volitional unanimity seems to be enough.

Well, that's it for Frankfurt. Next week I'll build some theological structures on top of this foundation (as problematic as it is).

Have a wonderful weekend. Keep your glucose levels up.

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11 thoughts on “Toward a Post-Cartesian Theology, Part 4: Moral Responsibility”

  1. I think this is an interesting approach because - contrary to what you might expect - it makes everyone a victim of circumstance.

    So you acknowledge that the perpetrator couldn't want other than what he wants, and couldn't have done other than what he did, but rather than saying "so we can't take action against him", you say, "we're taking action against him (or trying to reform him, or whatever) precisely *because* he couldn't have wanted other than what he wanted, and couldn't have done other than what he did."

    In other words, we're jailing this guy because he probably can't *help* but do the same thing again, and so we're removing him from society, or trying to provide a deterrent (an additional stimulus to affect the actions of other people like him) - etc. But we're probably going to be fairly humane about it, because given a different set of inputs, we could have been the perpetrator.

    Of course, this compatibilist approach doesn't do a lick of good for people whose theodicies depend on free will, or those who want to claim that a person's eternal salvation rests on the decisions they make. It also makes moral praise problematic. (Jesus led a blameless life ... so?)

  2. Hi Richard,

    It's completely unfair that I appreciate so much of what you say and then choose to note what I have reservations about. So let me stress how much I learn from and enjoy your blog. Now the reservations.

    It seems that Frankfurt changes the focus of moral responsibility from whether one is responsible for the particular acts that she performs to whether one identifies with them. But doesn't that back the question up one step without answering it? Don't I still have to ask whether I choose (control, determine) what I identify with?

    Sartre seems to have addressed this question (though I don't necessarily agree with him). In the famous example of a man who is caught up in a war, he wrote: "If I am mobilized in a war, this war is my war...and I deserve it. ...I could always get out of it by suicide or desertion." ("Freedom and Responsibility")

    That is a limiting example, and Sartre uses it to depict a view which says that there are no limits to human responsibity, because we can always choose whether we will add our life to participation in events that are outside our control.

    He called views that set up excuses for relinquishing human freedom and responsibility "bad faith" (mal foi).

    Here's an example from Scripture to consider: When Jesus called Simon and Andrew--while they were casting a net in the Sea of Galilee--to "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." are we willing to say that the real issue for them was their willingness to identify with following Jesus or not, or the choice to follow or not? To me it seems that to take such a momentus actual choice and reduce it to whether one identifies with what one is determined to do, is to gut the passage of its force.

    Thanks for the courage to open yourself up to tough questions!



  3. Matthew,
    Yes, there are big implications for soteriology, theodicy, and moral praise/blame. I hope to unpack these starting next week. However, my guess is you know where I'm heading. I think you and I see things the same way.

    Hi Tracy,
    Your feedback and reservations are very welcome. As Socrates said, "I count being refuted a greater good." This is why I work under a blog title with the word "experimental." Most, if not all, my posts are little experiments. I defend the posts insofar as I wish to know which ideas are, indeed, defensible. I often cannot make this judgment unless someone like you pushes back on the posts. So thank you very much.

    I also would like to describe what my goals are in a series like this. I like to consider myself as doing a kind of "theological worst case analysis." That is, if you read here a lot, I tend to launch out from fairly inhospitable, theologically speaking, territory to see how far I can go. What I'm trying to do, in my own mind at least, is to see what theology would look like if I work with certain theological constraints. For example, let's deny the existence of the soul or adopt determinism and launch out from there! What could we do, theologically speaking, from those starting points?

    Is that odd? Perhaps. But people seem to come here to read:-) I’d just like for everyone to know that I’m not sharing my beliefs. I’m experimenting in this blog. And I’d like to invite all readers to enjoy and participate in the experiments. As you are.

    All this is just prolegomena to answering your question. But as I look at the clock I’ve run out of time! I’ll be back with some direct comments on your question.

  4. I'm stuck on this idea of freedom being related to "volitional unanimity." If you do what you want to do, then you are acting freely. But where do your wants come from? Are they not a product of experience, circumstance, genetics etc.? i.e. are not your wants determined? So I don't see how this qualifies as acting "freely" just because there is no internal conflict. "Resolutely" seems a better word. Defining freedom as volitional unanimity only confuses things. But perhaps there is depth here that is beyond me.

  5. William James thought that the free will vs. determinism question was one of those subjects "on the subtle edge of things where thought expires." It's a wonderful phrase that makes it easier to accept the possibility that "perhaps there is depth here that is beyond" us.

    James summed up his section on the will in The Principles of Psychology with these words: "'Will you or won't you have it so?' is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest...things. We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!" (Vol. II, p. 579)

    Richard, I think that your approach of not taking "the big question" head on was probably wise. You were dancing nicely on the subtle edge of things, and I may have pushed you over.

    I guess my point is that you shouldn't feel obligated to solve the free will controversy over the weekend when no one else has been able to do it over all prior time.

    By the way, thanks for the explanation of how you approach this blog. "Experimental theology" is an unusual phrase, but apt. Your ideas appear so quickly and artfully that I think of your blog as "mental jazz."

    Thanks for the good vibes!


  6. Hi Tracy,
    Thanks for the encouragement. I love the quote from James. I'm actually planning a little series on James in the coming weeks.

    I've been thinking about the "Come follow me" in the gospels and the richness of the story you noted. Here's how I think the story might be read with a Frankfurtian twist (and again, I'm experimenting here:-)

    Rather than seeing the Incarnation as involved in posing choices to strongly volitional agents, we might think of it as an act of revelation. I think this reading fits well with John 1. That is, prior to the Incarnation humanity was fundamentally confused about the nature of God, about the difference between light and darkness. The divine status of human investments and caring were up in the air. Thus, when the Light comes into the world the moral status of humankind's volitional constitution is revealed for what it is: On the side of light or darkness. The Incarnation reveals us something about God but, via our response, it also reveals something about us. (I believe this same idea is involved in the revelation at the Eschaton as well.)

    So, when Jesus says "Come follow me," yes, a choice is posed and a decision is made. And, according to Frankfurt, this decision is made freely and joyfully. This is what they want to do. Why? Because, again from Frankfurt, they love the Truth and Light. The Incarnation helps them and others see that this love, this volitional investment is, in fact, correct. However, those who reject the "Come follow me" are also acting freely. This is want they want to do. They love the darkness. Or as John 1 has it, they did not comprehend the light/truth. And, given that they acted freely, we can apply Frankfurt's notion of moral responsibility to them. The children of darkness are not coerced internally or externally. They own/identify with the darkness. And God, rightly, has issues with this and seeks to change it.

    In sum, prior to the Incarnation humans had no way to adjudicate between themselves who was on the side of light and who was on the side of darkness. Thus, the Incarnation was a revelatory event. How will you respond to the Christ? What do you love? Light or Darkness? So, our response to the Incarnation, the "Come follow me," is, on one level, a choice but on a deeper level it is a revelation, an exposure.

    Have a great weekend!

  7. Wonderful!

    I think that you nailed it.

    If we are made in the image of God, then the incarnation ought to reveal not only God to us, but ourselves as we ought to be.

  8. Hey Richard. Thanks for your blog. I'm a regular reader. I've read and re-read all of your posts and comments on free will, determinism, etc. I agree with Tracy, when she says

    'It seems that Frankfurt changes the focus of moral responsibility from whether one is responsible for the particular acts that she performs to whether one identifies with them. But doesn't that back the question up one step without answering it? Don't I still have to ask whether I choose (control, determine) what I identify with?.

    I am basically in despair over this whole question. I sometimes I wish I had never read anything about it and stayed in ignorance about my 'free will'/ lack thereof, especially if determinism is true. I feel that I was much happier when I'd never thought of it. However, maybe it was determined long ago by god/the universe that i would write this post, read all this stuff, love my kids, everything, etc. 

    I appreciate that you are agnostic about determinism but is there a way that determinism doesn't lead to despair for someone who would like to believe in Jesus, etc.? I just don't see how 'weak volition' helps. isn't your model of weak volition still determinism? 

    You've said that we can change slowly over time. It seems to me that the only way we can avoid determinism (and despair) is that if we really are in control of these admittedly slow changes on some level (i.e., some kind of uncaused choice, although I like you don't know what that means). I would never want to go back and argue for this level of 'radical' free will, etc. but unless everything is determined, material, no god, etc, don't we have to have to have some level of 'freeness'. I just can't see how there could be any objective notion of good, evil, meaning, etc. without it. and without meaning, i don't see how we can survive psychologically. this is why i'm doing everything i can to honestly recover any (even if slim) notion of 'free choice' that I can.

    I can't seem to get out of the spiral of thinking I am just a machine ticking away and my consciousness is along for the ride based on what I'm reading here. I grew up in churches of christ, etc. so you know some of my background. i'm really struggling. any advice?

  9. Hi Mark, I appreciate your honesty and sharing your struggles. A couple of things.

    First, I don't know if there is a solution. People have been wrestling with this for, what?, hundreds if not thousands of years. I'm not sure there is an answer I can give you.

    Second, my interests in all this are theological rather than existential. That is, I only care about this question insofar as free will is used by Arminians (which the CoC is) to justify God sending people to hell. My questioning free will is to simply weaken the Arminian case to make them more open to post-mortem change. That is, this all fits into why I ended up shifting to a view like universal reconciliation. And I don't need determinism to make this critique, just a more modest vision of what will can do. Hence the weak volitionalism

    That is what all my writing has been about, the issue of will in theological systems like Arminianism. I've never focused much on your questions which are more existential: If we don't have free will is life meaningful?

    I don't know of any answer to that question other than our subjective experience. Life appears meaningful in that I love, care, suffer, and dream. More, what I do today--the choices I make--affects all that. I can, through my actions, be an agent of grace or violence in the world. That, as best I can tell, is all we know. It's enough for me. But it might not be for others who feel like they have to penetrate the riddle. But like I said, I don't know if penetrating the riddle is possible. Or a good use of your time and energy.  In this I take the advice of David Hume, one who also ran aground in the shores of skeptical inquires:

    "Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of
    dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose,
    and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either
    by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively
    impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I
    dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my
    friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I
    would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and
    strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter
    into them any farther."

  10. Richard,

    Thanks for your reply. I think I understand your motives in writing on the subject. UR is also very attractive to me and I hope very much that it is true. It certainly makes sense to me intuitively. . .not sure whether it does biblically.

    I guess what I'm claiming is that life really is meaningless without free will, however limited (at least its meaningless with respect to my vantage point). Do we disagree on this? This doesn't seem like a place where agnosticism is needed right? 

    Does this mean that the will that is free in some way exists or that life does have meaning? I don't think so. However, I like you, do believe that life does have meaning based on my experience and that is why I keep thinking that we must have some kind of will that really is free. Does that make sense?

    Thank you for the Hume quote. I definitely resonate with that. My wife tells me that I should take a break, stop reading, try to stop thinking about it for a while but I only seem to be able to manage this for short spurts. Are you able to avoid these speculations almost all the time?

    Sometimes I think I should just call b.s. on the whole thing and admit that I am a materialist/determinist/atheist. However, I can't dismiss Jesus, and I can't dismiss the work of N.T. Wright in his JVG, RSG, etc. Jesus really is stunning right?

  11. I don't know if this helps, but here's how I think about it.

    A part of the problem with determinism is the model of it we have in our mind. We think of robots and automatons. But that's not what we are. We are biological organisms. And though causality might infuse us through and through the model of determinism we have in our minds are models of physics. So when you say determinism undermines meaning I'm guessing the model you have in mind is something like physics rather than what is playing out in the world of biology.

    The key difference is consciousness and how consciousness loops back around and can reflect on causality. And loop back on those reflections. That is, when we think of physical pictures of determinism we think of billiard ball tables, where past configurations determine all future configurations. But that's not what is going on with you and I. What is missing from the physical picture is consciousness. That those billiard balls can say "Ouch!" Or feel joy, transcendence and love. Those feelings, which as best I can tell cannot be reduced of physical arrangements, move the whole game away from some configurations and toward others. Which others? Well, toward love, peace and joy as best I can tell. We move away from pain, damage, and suffering. Sure, the whole thing might be "deterministic" but it's also directional. I might not be free, but where I'm going is pretty good and I should lean into that. I should allow myself to be drawn toward that. And the fact that Jesus is "stunning" is a part of all this. That experience is pulling you and I. And as we lean into that pull the feedback loop intensifies, moving us faster and faster toward joy and love. All the while sending out ripple effects which pull others into our wake. If I love my boys that sets into motion a pathway in their own lives toward love, and from them toward others. And why love is the directional force behind causality is what motivates my religious sensibilities. When I think of causality I don't think of billiard ball tables or molecules colliding in the void. I think of sex, the budding of a flower, the shiver of delight when rain hits my skin. I think of my boys. And Jesus.

    And while this view might not answer the questions about determinism, I find these reflections more inspiring than automatons and billiard balls. You find Jesus stunning. That's causality. That's determinism. Go with it.

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