A confusion that often arises in the free will debate is on the usage of the word “responsibility”. It seems there are multiple ways in which this word can be used.
For example, we might say: “since free will is an illusion, the person that does action X isn’t responsible for such an action”.
But what exactly are we saying here? The problem with such a generalized statement is with the ambiguity of the word “responsibility”. It simply has different meanings, and only one applies to the sense of that sentence.
Someone could say that the person does X therefore the person is what is responsible for X. This is similar to saying the hurricane is responsible for tearing apart that house’s roof. It’s just a way of pinpointing the “thing” that caused the roof to be torn apart. We could also say that the hurricane is “to blame” for the roof being destroyed. But there are multiple ways in which the word “blame” is used as well.
This definition is very different from what the responsibility word surrounding the free will debate is about.
For the free will debate when the “responsibility” word is used, it’s almost always used in the sense of ethical accountability and a “deserve” sense after the fact – rather than simply being the object that directly causes something. We hardly ever give ethical accountability to a rabid dog biting a person, though that dog is “responsible” for the bite. The dog may even have to be put down, but we often feel sorry for the dog. We don’t think the dog “deserves” being put down. It’s such a shame that the dog was bitten by a rabid animal which caused it to go rabid itself.
For people, however, we often use the word “responsibility” in a quite different way. When we say that the bank robber is responsible for his action, we are saying much more than the bank robber being the body that walked in and robbed the bank. Rather, we are saying something about the decision the bank robber made (to rob the bank of course – need that be said?). We are blaming the bank robber for making the decision he had. In turn, we are saying that the bank robber should have and could have, of his own accord, done differently. He shouldn’t have robbed the bank. He’s blameworthy.
But lets address the usage “the hurricane is responsible for tearing apart that house’s roof” because even though its not the same usage as ethical responsibility (we don’t hold hurricanes ethically responsible, only thinking entities), in itself it’s rather problematic if you get down to the root. You see, though the hurricane was the direct thing that tore the roof off of the house, something caused the hurricane. We might be able to say the ocean’s surface temperature caused the conditions of the hurricane, so technically that is “responsible” for the house roof. Or we might be able to say the sun overheating the water and atmosphere caused the ocean conditions which caused the hurricane, so that is what’s responsible for the roof. And we can go on and on to some conditions that would, on the surface, appear to have no relation to the hurricane and roof. The proverbial “butterfly flapping it’s wings” butterfly effect.
So in reality, the hurricane being “responsible” for the roof is sort of a misnomer. It’s simply the most direct thing we see.
But imagine Dr. Evil builds a hurricane producing device, hits the switch on it, and the device causes the hurricane to form and tear the roof of the house. All of a sudden no one even tacks the word “responsibility” to the hurricane because there is a new cause in town. And even though that new cause comes prior to the hurricane, it’s the one that we’ll assign all of the responsibility to. Dr. Evil was responsible for the roofs damage! And not in the same way as the hurricane, but in this other way. He could have done otherwise but chose not to. He had the free will to be able to not make the machine, but rather he used his free will to make it instead.
It’s this type of responsibility that is incompatible with the lack of free will. That’s not to say we shouldn’t prevent Dr. Evil from doing such a thing again. And yes, we may need to incarcerate Dr. Evil (though knowing Dr. Evil he’s sure to escape). But we shouldn’t be doing so to get revenge on Dr. Evil. He needs to be locked away for the protection of others who don’t “deserve” his wrath. But I digress, this post isn’t about the criminal system, incarceration, rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution, and all of that. It’s simply pointing out the difference between the usages of the word responsibility and which one applies to the free will debate.
Another way the word responsibility is used (and I address this in my book), is in the sense of an ethical duty. If one feels they have a duty to act in such and such a way, this can be referred to as a “sense of responsibility”. The lack of free will does not, in any way, suggest that a person can’t hold a sense of responsibility or duty in this sense. In fact such a sense of duty can come about causally, and is a very rational response. This does not imply, however, that if one ends up not aligning with such duty, that they are, after the fact, “responsible” in the second sense of the word.
It’s common for people to conflate these different usages, so clarification of which meanings if used in the free will debate is crucial.
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