Notes on Haji’s “Deontic Morality and Control” Ch. 6

In Chapter Six of Deontic Morality and Control, Ishtiyaque Haji moves his discussion of moral responsibility and deontic anchors from the premise of determinism and examines how these concepts fair under the premise of indeterminism. One thing this lets Haji do is test the durability of his asymmetry thesis – the proposition that ascriptions of moral responsibility require only singular control while deontic ascriptions of rightness, wrongness and/or obligatoriness require dual control – in a world where fixed laws and a fixed past do not entail a fixed future.

Equipped with this thesis, Haji proceeds to referee a debate between Modest Meleian Libertarianism and Fischer’s Compatibilism. Not too surprisingly, Haji tends to favour Mele’s view as it, by his lights, seems most congenial to Haji’s own asymmetry thesis.

Mele says that in order to secure moral responsibility, it is enough if an agent’s actions issue from states that are within his proximal control even if what causes these states to occur when they do is the result of an indeterminate process. We can call this Meleian view, following Haji, ‘doxastic indeterminacy’. Under doxastic indeterminacy, action-causing beliefs occur in the mind of an agent in a process much like that of quantum decay, though not necessarily with the same fixed range of probability. Fischer responds critically by insisting that such an account erodes and diminishes the very agency we would need to assume in order to make any meaningful judgments about moral responsibility at all. For Fischer, what constitutes a free action is not merely that the action is caused by an agent’s beliefs but that these beliefs themselves stem from the agent’s own causality, perhaps from his nature or ‘essence’. (I will examine later what this latter term could mean in the given context).

However, Haji’s rejoinder to Fischer’s criticism of Mele is insightful: since Fischer’s compatibilism concedes, under the thesis of determinism, that our beliefs and any action-causing states that make up our proximal control develop from a process that is ultimately external to that very control, it should make no difference, not to our moral responsibility, whether this process is deterministic or indeterministic given that it is, in either case, outside of the agent’s own power. In this respect, Haji’s response to Fischer is very reminiscent of Pereboom’s central argument in Living without Free Will that what is damning to an agent’s bearing of moral responsibility is not whether his actions are deterministically or indeterministically caused but that upon either worldview, his actions are the result of an “alien” causal process that is beyond his agential, or executive control.

And yet, Haji recognizes that Fischer’s intuitions reveal a discrepancy between the cases. More specifically, Fischer has the intuition that Mele’s account “smacks of alchemy” (Haji. p. 95, citing Fischer) as it secures an agent’s moral responsibility at the cost of mutilating what we normally mean by ‘agency.’ Indeed, Mele’s account does leave a somewhat fishy smell in the air: S is only responsible for action A if A issues from a belief B that is both grounding-line and conductor of moral responsibility for S even though B’s occurring to S is entirely outside of his proximal control. For Fischer, this presents us with an impoverished view of agency that is at best a Pyrrhic victory for any honest proponent of free will. Fischer’s concern seems to be that Mele’s solution succeeds in grounding moral responsibility at the cost of destroying the very matter through which that responsibility would be conducted across time, namely, the unity of the agent himself.

Nevertheless, Haji’s point against Fischer is well-taken:

If compatibilists are willing to grant that we can have proximal control over beliefs once they come to mind despite the fact that the coming to mind of typical beliefs is something not in our proximal control, then, it seems, doxastic indeterminacy need not erode proximal control [of the kind needed to underwrite moral responsibility]. (Haji. pp. 100-101)

Haji chalks up Fischer’s misgivings about doxastic indeterminacy to the fact that it doesn’t live up to “the Libertarian’s guiding principle that free will is the power of agents to be the “ultimate buck-stopping originator[s]” of their actions” (Ibid. p.100, citing Strawson): a criterion of freedom that Haji terms “ultimacy”. But to ask for ultimacy, in Haji’s mind, is tantamount to asking for dual-control, and it is unlikely for Haji that a compatibilist like Fischer or a modest Libertarian like Mele can hope for this much, assuming that Haji’s asymmetry thesis obtains. Recall that the asymmetry thesis states that while singular control – S’s ability to do A – is sufficient to ground moral responsibility, deontic anchors require that S be able to do A and not do A, that is, to exert dual-control over his actions.

This means that, for Haji, S ought to do A at T iff at T S can do A and not do A. But on the Meleian doxastic indeterminacy view, the occurrence of belief B that grants S the power to do A does not grant S the power to not do A. In other words, even though S can do A and not-A at time T0, as soon as belief B occurs to S at T1, S no longer has dual-control over A. Any obligation held by S at T0 then is a “remote obligation” (Ibid. p.102, citing Zimmerman). It might be thought that a remote obligation is better than no obligation at all, but in line with Zimmerman, Haji reasons (and rightly, I think) that the notion of a remote obligation depends on a coexistent immediate obligation. This follows naturally from Haji’s modified version of K which states that:

S ought, at T0, do A at T*, iff A, at T0, can do A and not do A at T*. I am only obliged at T0 to discharge a duty at T*if it is within my power at T0 to discharge or not discharge my duty at T* (Where T* may or may not be later than T0).

This Meleian view has the effect of leaving S in a strange bind: up until the time that belief B arrives on the scene, it is, supposedly, well within the range of possibilities that S can do A and not do A since it is an open question whether the belief that occurs to S will cause him to do A or not-A. But as soon as B shows up, S can’t help but do one or the other but never both.

However, I see a deeper problem here: it is a strange kind of power that S has at T0 if he can do A and not do A and yet have no capacity for action at all until belief B shows up. This seems to me to fundamentally obscure the concept of an ability or power. For a power is a disposition to respond to a stimulus according to an internal principle or law and to respond differently to different stimuli (see, eg. Sebastian Rodl, Infinite Explanation, 2010). But the way this doxastic indeterminacy construes the situation, S plays no active role in belief B issuing in the performance of A; A simply follows from B and nothing in S determines this connection. Accepting doxastic indeterminacy, so construed, entails the following: there is no unity between S, B and A.

In short, the strange bind is in fact a double-bind. The double bind is this: at T0, S has the opportunity to do A and not-A but not the ability, while S at T* has the ability but not the opportunity.

The double-bind can be relieved if we instead, view beliefs and actions under a concept of causality that is not mechanical but teleological.

But this will have to wait…


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