Jimmy Doyle on human agency

by Chris Bertram on August 6, 2005

My friend and colleague Jimmy Doyle has a guest post on Normblog: Human Agency and the London Bombings . I hesitate to summarise Jimmy’s argument here, since it is stated with characteristic carefulness and precision, but among the more striking claims he endorses is that genuine human actions cannot figure among the causes of other human actions:

human actions cannot be thought of as mere events in a causal chain of further events. This is expressed in the traditional legal doctrine of novus actus interveniens , according to which a human action cuts short the chain of causally-connected events consequent upon any previous action. For the cause of a human action is not an event at all, but an agent: a person, a human being.

I am not putting a counter-argument, but merely making an observation, in saying that if Jimmy’s view is correct then much of social science and history rests on a mistake. Economics and psychology, for example, certainly presuppose that one person’s action can figure among the causal antecedents of another’s. And all those books on the “causes” of the First or Second World Wars would have to be pulped or substantially rewritten.

Jimmy advances this consideration in favour of his view:

I should emphasize that I have not tried to show that what is presupposed in our ordinary thought and talk about human action is true. But if it turned out false, that would be a disaster; and we would very likely find it impossible to lead recognizably human lives consistent with such a realization.

I suspect that we would find it a good deal easier than he supposes to lead “recognizably human lives”, but let’s leave that to one side. The examples of history and social science show that whilst Jimmy may be right to say that we engage in much thought and talk about human action which rests on the very presuppositions he mentions, we also engage in a great deal of talk about human behaviour that rests on the causal view he rejects. Very likely we would find it hard to get along without that mode of thought and talk too.

{ 68 comments }

1

abb1 08.06.05 at 3:33 am

With such critics, one gets the sense not just that Blair (and Bush) are as a matter of fact responsible for nearly everything bad that happens in this arena, which is already implausible enough, but that these leaders have a special metaphysical status: only they can be responsible. Everyone else is just a pawn in their game. Thus the claim that Blair is directly or primarily responsible for the bombings rests on a paranoid fantasy.

Don’t they indeed have a special (albeit quite material) status of being a couple of most powerful men on earth? And doesn’t level of responsibility strongly correlate with amount of power exercised by the individual?

Duh – of course they are as a matter of fact responsible for nearly everything bad that happens in this arena.

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John Quiggin 08.06.05 at 3:39 am

Doyle seems to me to prove way too much.

On his analysis, Osama bin Laden can’t be responsible for S11, and neither Blair nor Bush is responsible for the invasion of Iraq. Only the actual terrorists are responsible in the first case, and only the actual members of the invading force in the second. OBL and Bush and Blair may have issued orders, but it was up to others to decide whether or not to obey them.

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Chris Bertram 08.06.05 at 3:41 am

I should make clear, since it was not the subject of my dissent from Jimmy’s post, that I share his view that the bombers were primarily and directly responsible for the bombs and that Blair is not to blame for them.

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Chris Bertram 08.06.05 at 3:56 am

John Q, that isn’t so because on Doyle’s view you can be responsible for more than you cause. So, he writes:

bq. … we are responsible for more than we cause. One may bear some responsibility for someone else’s action (through temptation, incitement, predictably enraging someone, etc), even though, so long as the other person remains the author of her actions, one is not causally connected with the action or its consequences. Whether or not Bush and Blair bear any blame for the bombings, they cannot be said, on this view, to have contributed causally to them.

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Matt Daws 08.06.05 at 4:00 am

Chris, But then Blair is “responsible” for the London bombs, just that he is not “causally connected” with the bombings. Surely the same goes for Osama, radical preachers etc.

Personally, I’m getting a little tired of the semantic difference between “responsible” and “causally connected” but there we go.

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abb1 08.06.05 at 4:14 am

Terrorist acts of 7/7 in London and 9/11 in the US were committed by suicide bombers. I am not a lawyer, but I strongly suspect that if post mortal criminal trials were held, these people would’ve been found NOT guilty, NOT responsible by reason of insanity. I think it’s quite clear that physically healthy 22-year-old committing murder-suicide is most likely criminally insane, not responsible criminally (even less morally) for his actions. The bombers are insane, forget them, end of story. Prosecute the real culprits who created this environment, who set this up.

criminal insanity

A mental defect or disease that makes it impossible for a person to understand the wrongfulness of his acts or, even if he understands them, to ditinguish right from wrong. Defendants who are criminally insane cannot be convicted of a crime, since criminal conduct involves the conscious intent to do wrong — a choice that the criminally insane cannot meaningfully make.

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Chris Bertram 08.06.05 at 4:29 am

matt daws: (1) it isn’t a merely semantic difference but one of substance; (2) JD concedes that it would be possible to hold Blair responsible (though not causally connected) if the right conditions held (as they do in the OBL-911 case). But he thinks they don’t (and he’s right about that). Your “But then …” doesn’t point to any implication that anyone ought to accept.

8

Iron Lungfish 08.06.05 at 4:33 am

I’m not sure of the standard for criminal liability where you live, abb1, but the standard in my state (and in most states in the US at least, to my knowledge) for determining an insanity defense isn’t “was the offender crazy,” or even “did the criminal know that criminal act X was wrong,” but “did the criminal recognize that criminal act X was a criminal act” – that is, did they recognize they were breaking the law. By that standard, yes, by all means, the bombers are obviously guilty, since I doubt any of them believed that blowing themselves up on a subway or crashing a plane into a building conformed to U.S. and U.K. law.

Regardless, the people who planned the attacks and gave the orders are still responsible, and you’d want to prosecute them too, for the same reason you’d want to prosecute both the low-level grunts and the bosses in a mob case. None of this is particularly relevant to the question of whether Tony Blair is in some sense responsible for the subway bombings, and I suspect the question is somewhat moot, since Blair would never acknowledge any responsibility by, say, hastening a withdrawal from Iraq. Better to deport some foreigners for saying ugly things instead.

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abb1 08.06.05 at 4:52 am

Iron, again, I am not a lawyer, but I think you got it wrong: being able to distinguish right from wrong is fundamental, while knowing details of the law is not.

You do have a point about people who planned the attacks: they are, of course, responsible too, unless they’re also insane and assuming they do exist in the 7/7 case.

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Matt Daws 08.06.05 at 4:53 am

Chris, Okay, I agree with this (and with Jimmy– unusual, that). Btw, what’s up with no comments on Normblog (sigh). Anyway, the issue is that you didn’t give this reasoning in your rebuttal of John Q. John was in fact correct when he says that Blair is, in some small way, responsible for 7/7. Also, if Jimmy is correct, then Osama is not “casually connected” with 9/11. So why exactly does the US have a price on his head? Why are we going to start expelling radical preachers, if they are not “casually connected” with terrorists?

Look, I agree that Osama should be caught and tried for funding and organising a terrorist group, and I agree that Blair should not be tried (or anything similar) over 7/7. What annoys me (if you will) is that Jimmy is using “responsible” and “causually connected” in a very, very precise, philosophical sense. As these words also have everyday meanings which overlap, it all seems to get a bit confused.

Anyway, back to the rest of Jimmy’s post: it would seem that a good deal of criminal law is wrong then. Certainly, what place do any incitement laws have in our books? If, say, a radical preacher is not a cause of terrorism, then isn’t prosecuting the preacher for incitement completely unfair? Nothing Jimmy says suggests that Blair/Bush are absolutely not a cause of terrorism while a radical cleric is.

Now, I would say that both are causes of terrorism, but a rather different ends of the scale (so that a cleric should be held account in law, and Blair should not). However, Jimmy does not seem to be saying this.

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Matthew 08.06.05 at 4:54 am

It is a very good article. I’m not totally convinced that many people who believe Blair has a link to the bombings would use the phrase ‘casually connnected’, rather than responsible, so maybe he’s adressing a very small audience there.

On the issue of responsiblility he argues that those who think the war was wrong can find Blair responsible, those who don’t won’t, i.e. “The fact of the bombings sheds no light on the legitimacy or otherwise of the war”

Surely however this is not the case if the reason you believed the war was the correct policy was that it would reduce the chance of Britain being a victim of Islamic terrorism (which I think was Blair’s main argument along with WMDs)? Then the bombings present some evidence it was the wrong policy, and Blair’s responsibilty grows.

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Brendan 08.06.05 at 4:56 am

I can tell you now (evidence is too boring to provide, but can be made available on request, although frankly I advise against it) that a strict division between ‘reasons’ and ’causes’ (which is what Doyle is arguing for) is simply a non-starter. (What about food, for example? You need food, so you are caused to eat, in the strictest sense in the word, but you can also choose to avoid it for specific reasons and you can choose what you want to eat but on the other hand that is constrained (i.e. caused) by availability, money etc. etc. etc…….the debate could go on and on).

As John Quiggin points out, to insist on Doyle’s argument in the absolutely strictest sense of the word would mean that Hitler was not “responsible” for the Holocaust because, to repeat, the only people “responsible” in this highly restricted sense are the people who actually did it.

Another confusion is probabilistic reasoning, which a lot of people are uncomfortable with (and don’t understand). It’s important to see that Britain might have been struck my terrorist bombs anyway . No one could prove otherwise.

This is of course true. But it misses the point. The argument is not that Blair shifted the probability of a terrorist attack from zero to one. It was that he shifted it from a low probability to a high probability.

Another point is culpability. Would Blair be responsible (partly) for these bombs if there had never been a terrorist ‘counter-attack’ ever? I think the answer is ‘no’. In a situation where no reasonable person could expect such a response then they can’t be held responsible if it happened.

But of course Blair was warned that this might lead to further attacks, and even a simple common sense view of the middle east would have told him that such a thing was probable.

The final point to be made is that if you are viewing things purely in terms of morality then this is all simply irrelevant. If you genuinely belief that the Iraq war was the right thing to do then frankly it doesn’t matter how many British cities are bombed. All of Britain could be destroyed by nuclear warheads, and it wouldn’t matter: all that matters is that the initial war was morally justified.

The problem is (and moral philosophers won’t like me for saying it but it’s true) in the real world, most people don’t live in a world of ‘pure’ morality. They like their wars to have some form of pragmatic benefit. Politicians understand this. If you disentangle the rhetoric of ‘WMD’s etc. what our politicians were really saying was ‘this war will make us safer’.

But it self-evidently hasn’t made us safer, it has put us more in the firing line.

Again, intellectuals won’t like me pointing this out, but it’s interesting to note the abstract nature of much of the war discussion and I feel like a party pooper to point out that most people don’t think like ‘that’. Even WW2 (which, to read most blogs, you would think was a wholly disinterested moral act undertaken by the allies purely out of the goodness of their hearts to defeat fascism) can be described in purely pragmatic terms: Germany attacked our ally (with whom we were treaty bound remember) and any sane person could see that we would be next. We had to fight for reasons of self-interest, and in a pure cost-benefit scenario, the war aims were met. We had to ensure we were not faced by German military aggression for a looooooooooong time to come, as as British German relations since 1945 have shown, this has proven to be successful. The war aims were met. It left us safer.

A key war aim of the Iraq war was to leave Britain and the US safer. In terms of Britain at least, it has self-evidently failed to do this, and it is in this restricted sense that Blair is responsible. Note what I’m arguing. He’s not morally responsible. He didn’t plant those bombs, nor did he give the orders for them to be planted. But it is part of Blair’s job to ‘defend the realm’. This means to pursue actions that lead to Britain being more secure from military (in the broadest sense of the word) actions by external powers or forces.

Blair was warned that the Iraqi venture would not lead to increased British safety, but he gambled (Blair is a gambler, a point which is often missed. He gambled over clause 4, he gambled over Peter Mandelson etc. etc. Blair likes risk and seeks it out). Unfortunately, in this case, he gambled wrong, and people are pissed off with him because the gamble was taken by him, but the risks accrue to us.

13

abb1 08.06.05 at 5:17 am

Would Blair be responsible (partly) for these bombs if there had never been a terrorist ‘counter-attack’ ever? I think the answer is ‘no’.

Hmmm. If I bet my employer’s money on a horse and win – am I still guilty of embezzlement? I think I am.

14

fifi 08.06.05 at 5:53 am

Well OK but so what, really? You can make the more adventurous case there is no intrinsic meaning in events, that causality does not exist and that politics is a clever adaptation somewhat fancier than hyenas quarrelling but not one little bit more privileged true or value-wise … even if all that were scientific evidence we’d still behave as if weren’t. I mean Clarence Darrow didn’t believe in the concept guilt and publicly advocated ideas about the nonexistence of crime and moral responsibility but you can’t kill the lawyers to make the world a better place because that would almost certainly be illegal.

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Brian 08.06.05 at 6:04 am

It is too bad that normblog doesn’t allow comments. Ah well, we can comment here.

There would be no point in trying to figure out which of a range of actions to do if my choice were not really open or if I am not really the author of my actions … agent-causation would then be best understood as a special case of event-causation, in a way that rules out our being really free.

Doyle is making a lot of assumptions here that he really should be arguing for. All compatibilists about free will think that there is a point to trying to figure out what to do even if my choice is ‘not really open’ and ‘agent-causation would then be best understood as a special case of event-causation’. Libertarians don’t agree with the first of those claims, but most of them (the event-causal libertarians) do agree with the second. There are a few brave agent-causation theorists out there, but I think Doyle needs to do a lot more to even make the point that it is our ordinary view. Personally I think a world with compatibilist free will could be a perfectly fine world to live in.

But there’s more to be said here than just this sociological claim. There’s something very odd about Doyle’s line of (typical agent-causation) reasoning.

Did I cause you to pig out? Not at all. That could only be true if there were a chain of causally-connected events, beginning with my tempting you and ending with you pigging out.

Doyle believes that some causes are agents rather than events. But he assumes (with no argument that I can see) that causation is only transmitted through chains of events. I don’t see why anyone should believe this. If agents can be causes, what reason could we have for saying they aren’t effects?

This seems to match up quite well with our ordinary talk. I make many of the decisions I make because (in a causal sense of because) of the way I was brought up. It seems to me that most agents are the effect of a certain kind of upbringing. The chain of causation here may or may not be deterministic, but I think it’s clearly causal. To deny this is to get the role of child raising all wrong – the parents _cause_ the child to become the kind of agent that she does become, and hence in partially cause her good or bad decisions.

Agent-causation theorists frequently just assume that there are two types of causes (agents and events) but only one type of effect (events only). They don’t often offer reasons for this, and I think this is a bad mistake. Now this won’t _directly_ show that there is a causal connection between, say, the Iraq war and the London bombings. But once we’ve seen that agents can be nodes in a causal chain, the style of argument Doyle is making is undermined, perhaps largely undermined.

16

Matt Daws 08.06.05 at 6:44 am

Brian, are you perhaps saying that we are free agents, but within a (constantly shifting) constrained environment? Some examples which have occured to me:

i) I chose what I shall cook for dinner tonight. I’m not cooking a Jamie Oliver receipe, as I don’t own any of his books: it didn’t even occur to me to think about Jamie until now. So I did make a free choice, but my not owning one of Jamie’s books did cause me not to consider a whole set of possibilities. In this sense my options were constrained.

ii) If you punch me in the face, then I might, of my own free will, decide to beat the crap out of you. However, I make this decision while in pain, with adrenalin pumping round my brain; in short, the environment has radically shifted, and I probably make a different decision to that I would make the following morning (in what limited sense this is meaningful).

So, one could argue that Blair’s actions (well, our government’s actions) have shifted the environment in which the terrorists made their decisions. In this sense, it’s possible both for the bombers to make a free choice, and it’s possible for that choice to be causually affected by Blair’s actions.

I do, however, have to agree with Jimmy’s point that the bombings have no effect on whether the war was “correct” or “justified” or whatever. Well, except that Matthew points out that *if* the war was partly about reducing the threat of terrorism, then it has failed in its aims.

17

Phil Bailey 08.06.05 at 6:58 am

On the other hand, Stormin’ Norman Geras is just a war propagandist keen to publish articles which serve to shift attention from the fact that the invasion of Iraq has increased the threat of terror, in the UK and wider world.

Acting as a recruiting sergeant for al-Qa’ida and helping to provide them with a better training ground than Afghanistan in the 80’s doesn’t look too good on the CV does it? But that’s precisely what Stormin’ Norman’s war has done. Hence, deny, deny, deny.

18

Jimmy Doyle 08.06.05 at 8:21 am

Chris: Thanks for your comments. If what I claim to be presupposed by our thought and talk about human action is true, I don’t think we need worry about pulping social science and history. We just need to be careful about how we use the word ‘cause.’ First, I claim only that particular human actions (according to those presuppositions) cannot have prior events as causes. Since (eg) the Second World War and the Great Depression are not particular human acts, more work is required to show that, on my view, the presuppositions of our action-talk rule out their being caused by prior events. I’m not, here, just pointing to an ‘academic’ possibility. Actions are free and intentional under some descritions and not under others. Possibly they are all caused under physical descriptions (as Davidson maintained). There might be a systematic way of talking of actions as caused, so long as they are not considered under the descriptions under which they are intentional etc. (But these are dark matters and I don’t want to claim that I really understand them.) Secondly, even if this work can be done, or if we confine our attention to particular human acts (eg Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand), nothing I say implies that we can’t, consistently with the presuppositions in question, say everything we want to say about prior events, including the actions of others, raising the probability of the assassination. But I still maintain that to speak about causes in this connection would be implicitly to deny that Princip’s deliberations about whether to shoot the Archduke were real or had any point.

Abb1: “Don’t [Bush and Blair] indeed have a special (albeit quite material) status of being a couple of most powerful men on earth? And doesn’t level of responsibility strongly correlate with amount of power exercised by the individual?” I don’t deny that “with great power comes great responsibility.” I do deny that Blair counts as an agent in a way that the bombers don’t. The bombers were responsible for the explosions; their victims were not. This is because the bombers had a choice, which they denied their victims, about whether to detonate. This choice was not predetermined by Bush, Blair, or anyone or anything else. I claim that this is implicit in what everyone says about human action and deliberation.

Matt Daws: “if Jimmy is correct, then Osama is not “casually [sic] connected” with 9/11. So why exactly does the US have a price on his head? Why are we going to start expelling radical preachers, if they are not “casually connected” with terrorists?” Because we are responsible for more than we cause. Please reread Chris’s comment 4, in response to John Quiggin. To repeat: those who incite terrorism bear some responsibility for it because they culpably raise the probability that it will occur. But since terrorism (usually) consists of free human acts, the inciters cannot be causes of it. The causes of free human acts are the agents who perform them.

Matthew: “Surely however [it is not the case that “the fact of the bombings sheds no light on the legitimacy or otherwise of the war’] if the reason you believed the war was the correct policy was that it would reduce the chance of Britain being a victim of Islamic terrorism (which I think was Blair’s main argument along with WMDs)?” Good question. It may be said in Blair’s defence that he was clearly talking about the long term, and the fact of a terrorist attack does not show that things would have been better in the long term if Blair had acted differently. Of course, this line of argument would have a lot more going for it if Blair (and David Kelly) hadn’t turned out to be wrong about WMDs in Iraq.

Brendan: “As John Quiggin points out, to insist on Doyle’s argument in the absolutely strictest sense of the word would mean that Hitler was not “responsible” for the Holocaust because, to repeat, the only people “responsible” in this highly restricted sense are the people who actually did it.” You’re a little behind. See Chris’s response to John Quiggin in comment 4. That Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust does not follow from our ordinary ways of talking about human action, nor from anything I said in my post on Normblog. The responsibility is particularly clear here because not only did Hitler ‘raise the probability’ of genocide – which would be to put things rather mildly – but it is about as clear as it could be that the immediate perpetrators of the mass murder were Hitler’s agents, acting on Hitler’s behalf.

Brian: “There are a few brave agent-causation theorists out there, but I think Doyle needs to do a lot more to even make the point that it is our ordinary view.” When I say that agent-causation is our ordinary view, I am understand the claim that agents cause their actions as merely another way of saying that agents act, or do things. No-one who denies that agents do things could be said to subscribed to our ordinary view about human action. You may mean ‘our ordinary view’ to include incompatibilist libertarianism, which I do indeed believe it contains. But this feature of our ordinary view is guaranteed not by agent-causation: it could be true that agents cause their actions, but are themselves caused to cause their actions, in a way that implied determinism. I think that incompatibilist libertarianism is implicit in our practice of deliberation. (This is really Kant’s point.) I agree that “All compatibilists about free will think that there is a point to trying to figure out what to do even if my choice is ‘not really open’.” I just don’t see how compatibilists could possibly be right about this. I don’t understand how there could possibly be a point to my deliberating about which action to perform out of the available alternatives A, B and C if it is not now true that A, B and C are all open to me, in a way that rules out determinism. And in addition to all this, I think that incompatibilist libertarianism is implicit in the way we attribute responsibility to each other, on the assumption, which I would defend, that ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’

“Doyle believes that some causes are agents rather than events. But he assumes (with no argument that I can see) that causation is only transmitted through chains of events. I don’t see why anyone should believe this. If agents can be causes, what reason could we have for saying they aren’t effects?” I don’t make this assumption and didn’t mean to give the impression of making it. I acknowledged the possibility that agent-causation *could* turn out to be best understood as a peculiar species of event-causation; but that in that case we wouldn’t be free. As I’ve said, freedom gets into the presuppositions of our ordinary view not via agent-causation, but via our ideas of deliberation and responsibility. Once it’s in, it rules out anything incompatible with it; so it rules out that agent-causation could be a species of event-causation.

19

Tom T. 08.06.05 at 8:23 am

I think Doyle is stretching the legal concept too far out of context. Under the law as I learned it, some human actions cut off a chain of causation, but not necessarily any human action.

Example: Suppose I’m practicing my golf swing in my apartment, and on the backswing I accidentally let the club fly out of my hands and out the window. On its way down to the street, the club conks the driver of a convertible passing below, who loses control of his car and drives into the storefront of a jewelry shop, smashing its front window. A separate passer-by takes advantage of the broken window to steal a tray of tennis bracelets. Under the doctrine of novus actus interveniens, I am probably liable to the jeweler for his window, but not for his stolen jewels. (And of course I’m liable to the driver).

Incitement offenses are a somewhat different matter. They’re a distant cousin to conspiracy laws, essentially positing an implied agreement between two people to commit a crime. It’s an awkward fit, obviously, which is presumably why incitement cases are so rarely prosecuted.

20

Brian 08.06.05 at 8:43 am

Jimmy,

The assumption I was attributing to you wasn’t that agent-causation is a particular species of event-causation, it was that all effects are events. If it’s a logical possibility that agents are causes, it is also a logical possibility that agents are effects. Or are you taking it to be a conceptual truth that all effects are events, so saying that agents are effects is equivalent to saying that agent-causation is a species of event-causation? What could be the justification for that? It seems to me the effect of a process of child raising is a moral agent.

On the first point, I really don’t see why you think if my actions are caused by X, then they aren’t free. The point of bringing up a child well is to cause them to be a good moral agent, that is to freely make the right choices. On your theory that is impossible – that your child is disposed to freely make good choices can never be a causal consequence of good upbringing.

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Matt Daws 08.06.05 at 8:56 am

Jimmy, But Chris’s answer in point (4) does not address my point.

“To repeat: those who incite terrorism bear some responsibility for it because they culpably raise the probability that it will occur. But since terrorism (usually) consists of free human acts, the inciters cannot be causes of it. The causes of free human acts are the agents who perform them.”

So, as I agree, Blair is not the *cause* of the bombings. But he did raise the probability that such an act would occur, in precisely the way inciters do. So why are we wrong to try to hold Blair to account, whereas it is right to try to hold inciters to account?

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Brian 08.06.05 at 9:01 am

Actions are free and intentional under some descritions and not under others. Possibly they are all caused under physical descriptions (as Davidson maintained). There might be a systematic way of talking of actions as caused, so long as they are not considered under the descriptions under which they are intentional etc.

I should have put this into the last post, but this is a very strong claim. It seems to amount to the view that the Y in “X causes Y” is an opaque context. Are there examples to motivate this? I would have thought that if X caused Y and Y is Z, then X caused Z. If some things cause my brain movement, and my brain movement is my decision to have a beer, then those things cause my decision to have a beer, no?

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Matt Daws 08.06.05 at 9:14 am

“That Hitler was not responsible for the Holocaust does not follow from our ordinary ways of talking about human action, nor from anything I said in my post on Normblog. The responsibility is particularly clear here because not only did Hitler ‘raise the probability’ of genocide – which would be to put things rather mildly – but it is about as clear as it could be that the immediate perpetrators of the mass murder were Hitler’s agents, acting on Hitler’s behalf.”

Rubbish! The people who carried out mass murder were not “Hitler’s agents” in the sense you mean “agents”: they were humans with free will, who decided, of themselves, to follow their (rather indirect, if my history is correct– I might be wrong here) orders. So in your analysis, Hitler is *not* the cause here, although he might be responsible, at least partly.

What, then, is the difference between Hitler giving an order (which the person it is given to is free to ignore) and Blair generating an environment where it is inevitable that some people will become terrorists?

24

Kevin Donoghue 08.06.05 at 9:16 am

JD concedes that it would be possible to hold Blair responsible (though not causally connected) if the right conditions held (as they do in the OBL-911 case). But he thinks they don’t (and he’s right about that).

I don’t think he is right. He says:

This doesn’t show that he’s not partly responsible, but additional premises would be needed for that. Among these premises is the claim that Blair was wrong (for other reasons) to participate in the war. [Emphasis mine]

Why should the case against the war have to rest entirely on other reasons? Leave aside the fact that there were plenty of other reasons on offer; it is perfectly reasonable to argue that a war is wrong because it increases the risk of terrorist attacks on the population of the aggressor nation. I don’t think that was a very strong argument against the Iraq war. But it was certainly made, it was perfectly valid and the London attacks are evidence of that.

But what really galls me about Doyle’s argument is that it suggests that Bush and Blair have no responsibility for the terrorist campaign in Iraq. They certainly do. They provided the terrorists with motive and opportunity while failing to deprive them of means. That is not to deny that the terrorists are free agents who are waging an unjust war. Of course they are but that doesn’t get Bush and Blair off the hook for creating this mess in the first place.

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Luc 08.06.05 at 9:44 am

Raising the probability of something can be described as a cause.

It would be strange if there were no cause and effect relationships in macro economics.

Idem in politics. Removing speed limits for all traffic would have a disastrous effect. None of the traffic participants is compelled by this to cause an accident. Yet the removal of the speed limits will properly be described as the cause of the increased casualty figures.

This may simply be another use of the word cause, it may just be the evaluation of cause and effect at a different level of abstraction, and it probably has nothing to do with the tradition in which Jimmy Doyle describes the meaning of “cause”.

But what is the relevance of stating that Blair cannot be described as causally contributing to this bombing, when you limit the meaning of cause to a specific philosophical interpretation that most people aren’t even aware of?

26

Tim R 08.06.05 at 10:12 am

I understand the premise, and human beings are ultimately responsible for what they do. But this argument seems to make no room for influence, and shared culpability. Small cruelties are often the starting point to larger ones. Small acts of kindness can disuade people on an otherwise destructive path. Humanity isn’t a singular agent. We’re a collective. It’s always tempting to exempt ourselves from guilt by pretending that picking on a kid didn’t make him commit suicide. We all hate to adfmit that our acts of petty selfishness can come back to haunt us, or others. It’s still a load of sellf serving crap though.
A big question is what should “causal” mean in a social science? Especially when these philosophical sciences diregard notions of mono-causation? If I kick jimmy and then jimmy kicks his dog, did I cause his dog to be kicked? Not even if jimmy wouldn’t have if I hadn’t kicked him? It doesn’t make jimmy less guilty for me to be held to blame too.

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abb1 08.06.05 at 10:50 am

…it is perfectly reasonable to argue that a war is wrong because it increases the risk of terrorist attacks on the population of the aggressor nation.

In case of an aggressive war it sure is one of the arguments against it, but it’s not a good argument against policies in general. Take for example that guy who snapped yesterday and shot a bunch of people in an Israeli bus. Gaza evacuation was a cause of it (among other causes), but it’s still the right policy.

And that is what Blair&Co should’ve argued if they really do believe in their democratizing the ME by force nonsense: yes, this is a result of the Iraq war, yes, Blair is responsible, but the war will bring benefits in the long run. But apparently they are too cowardly for that.

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Justin 08.06.05 at 11:19 am

Doyle says we can’t hold Blair even indirectly responsible for the bombings unless the decision to go to war was antecedently wrong. Doesn’t this assume that we’re evaluating the decision to go to war on non-consequentialist grounds? Otherwise, what justifies Blair’s action is the long-term balance of good and bad results of the war (or perhaps just those that were foreseeable). In that case, Blair has some sort of indirect responsibility for these bombings, because they are foreseeable consequences that would count against going to war. Otherwise, you’re just picking and choosing so as to ignore any inconvenient results.

What sort of non-consequentialist reason would even putatively justify going to war with Iraq?

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Dan Simon 08.06.05 at 12:07 pm

if Jimmy’s view is correct then much of social science and history rests on a mistake.

Not just social science and history–if people, as opposed to deterministic laws or quantum probability functions, can cause things all by themselves, then we all have to chuck physics out the window, don’t we?

Well, yes–until we hit on the common-sense idea that science and morality are fundamentally different worldviews, and the rules for determining moral culpability are quite different from the rules for determining scientific causality. There are a million examples: if I fire a gun at a great philanthropist, miss, and hit a mosquito that’s carrying a new, ultra-contagious strain of encephalitis, I may have increased the world’s material well-being many times over in objective terms, but morally speaking, I’m not a hero–I’m a would-be assassin. If I decide to walk through the most crime-ridden section of town at two in the morning, waving my bulging wallet around and shouting about how much cash I have, then I’m objectively raising the likelihood of a crime being committed to near-certainty, but I’m morally blameless.

And so on, till one of the guys in the dorm room notices it’s 5AM, and figures it’s time to start cramming for that day’s exam. Has the discussion here at CT really sunk to this level?

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Kevin Donoghue 08.06.05 at 12:14 pm

abb1, fair point and that’s also partly why I say that the increased risk of terrorism in Britain was a weak argument against the Iraq war. Suppose Saddam had been engaged in putting down an insurgency in 2003, with his usual ruthlessness. The war could then have been justified as a bid to prevent mass murder, maybe genocide. To worry about the risk that a terrorist backlash would result from an invasion in those circumstances would rightly be dismissed as cowardly.

But in the actual circumstances the increased risk of terrorism in the UK was part, if only a small part, of the reason why the war was wrong. The dead in London are part of the total bodycount. James Doyle offers no good reason for excluding them.

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Kevin Donoghue 08.06.05 at 12:28 pm

If I decide to walk through the most crime-ridden section of town at two in the morning, waving my bulging wallet…raising the likelihood of a crime being committed…I’m morally blameless.

Suppose Bill Gates visits my town wearing a false beard as a precaution against kidnapping and I announce his true identity. All I have done is advertise the presence of a wealthy individual. That’s not morally blameless. To put myself at risk is less blameworthy, but still wrong.

Has the discussion here at CT really sunk to this level?

When Dan Simon appears, the ocean floor is the limit.

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Dan Simon 08.06.05 at 12:46 pm

Suppose Bill Gates visits my town wearing a false beard as a precaution against kidnapping and I announce his true identity. All I have done is advertise the presence of a wealthy individual. That’s not morally blameless. To put myself at risk is less blameworthy, but still wrong.

I don’t agree, but arguing the details of this particular example would only distract attention from my larger point—which I gather you concede, no? (You don’t have to do so explicitly, if that’s too embarrassing. I’ll accept silence—or even another cheap ad hominem, unaccompanied by a serious counterargument—as assent.)

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Daniel 08.06.05 at 12:51 pm

hmmmm, but isn’t “Blair caused the bombings” just a shorthand for “Blair’s policies increased the risk that something like this would happen”?

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Chris Bertram 08.06.05 at 12:58 pm

Jimmy, many many comments ago, you wrote that we don’t need to pulp social science and history, just to be careful about how we use “cause”, and also that your strictures apply to unique actions and not unproblematically to large-scale complexes like the Second World War.

Since your polemic was in part directed against those who claim that Blair’s actions contributed causally to the bombings, I wonder whether you should be replying to me in those terms. (Or at least, whether in doing so, you concede more than you ought if you are to preserve your position.)

First, if there are acceptable looser uses of “cause”, as you seem to be suggesting, then your argument, in presupposing a very tight use on the part of those your criticize, attributes to them a view that they need not hold.

Second, the bombings, like the Second World War, are complexes of human actions, physical events, etc. Granted, WW2 is more extended and intricate than the bombings, but it looks like the difference is one of degree rather than kind.

If it is metaphysically acceptable to say “The Allied policy at Versailles was among the causes of the Second World War”, as I think it is (whether or not we think that statement true) then I really don’t see that it can be metaphysically unacceptable to say “Blair’s Iraq policy was among the causes of the London bombings.” Again, whether or not we think that statement true.

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Daniel 08.06.05 at 1:21 pm

I dimly remember this being all tied up in various uses of “cause”. As I understand Jimmy, he would not necessarily object to “Blair’s policies was among the causes of an increase in global terrorist violence”. I have no very clear philoshopical intuition about whether accepting a causal statement about a class of events commits you to accepting similar statements about members of that class and suspect that it doesn’t.

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Kevin Donoghue 08.06.05 at 2:42 pm

Dan Simon,

The reason I didn’t deal with your “larger point” is that you didn’t make one. Your remarks about science, morality and the worldviews thereof are vacuous. Likewise the observation that a man who attempts murder has attempted murder, even if he accidentally (or mistakenly) swats a mosquito to the greater good of humanity.

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John Quiggin 08.06.05 at 4:26 pm

Jimmy, I don’t follow the distinction between “be a cause of” and “be responsible for” (and if I made it, it would probably go the other way). But you did make this distinction and I missed it. So please substitute “be a cause of” for “be responsible for” in my comment #2.

Restating my point, you assert (in the para quoted by Chris) that causal relations between human actions and outcomes are broken by any intervening human action “human actions cannot be thought of as mere events in a causal chain of further events.”

If you define causality in this way, you can’t, as Matt Daws points out, then start calling people “agents” of others and refer to “acting on orders”. On your definition, Blair isn’t a cause of the Iraq war, since only actual participants can cause this.

It is of course, true, that there are well-established social institutions that make it highly probable that, when the British PM issues orders to go to war, they will be obeyed. Equally, there are well-established social institutions elsewhere that make it highly probable, for example, that if Coalition troops kill an Iraqi (for whatever reason), members of the Iraqi’s family will feel obligated to seek revenge. Most of the time when we talk about causality, we take relations of this kind into account.

So, in the usual sense of the term, Blair’s actions were a cause of both the Iraqi invasion and the ensuing insurgency.

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Daniel 08.06.05 at 5:32 pm

I think it’s worth pointing out that British common law (which appears to be at least part of the base of JD’s argument) recognises the concept of “contributing” to an event, which is not as strong as causing it but which nonethless means that one shares some responsibility for its having happened.

For example, if I were to spend the evening in a pub with John Q, constantly insulting him and telling him that Aussie Rules football was for shit, then when he eventually broke my arm with a well-placed karate chop, the courts would probably rule that he was responsible and would be sentenced accordingly, but that I had to a significant degree contributed to the event and thus wasn’t entitled to full compensation.

The phrase “substantially the author of one’s own misfortunes” is one that I often find myself using and I think it ought to be more popular.

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Purple State 08.06.05 at 6:10 pm

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky says: “We are all responsible to all for all.” (Or at least that’s how Constance Garnett translated it.)

This is, of course, an impossible principle on which to build a criminal justice system (since we’d all go to jail everytime anyone committed a crime), but it is the highest possible standard of personal morality in my opinion.

If I accept this statement, then:

I am responsible for Bush
I am responsible for Blair
I am responsible for terrorist bombings
I am responsible for the invasion of Iraq
I am responsible for everything everywhere

My duty, then, is not to judge others or place blame, but to do my best to relieve the suffering of others and bring happiness to the world.

This is how Dostoevsky resolved the problem of evil in his own mind. Personally, I think it’s brilliant.

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Peter Levine 08.06.05 at 8:36 pm

I agree with Brendan (quoting from way above): “Blair shifted the probability of a terrorist attack … from a low probability to a high probability.” This makes Blair causally responsible for the bombings. Brendan thinks that Blair could avoid moral responsibility if the terrorist attacks were unforeseeable–but they were foreseen. So (apparently) Blair bears some moral responsibility.

This result bothers me, among many others, because we want to blame the bombers alone, even though we recognize Blair’s causal role. Thomas Aquinas’ Doctrine of Double Effect comes in handy here, and I’m a little surprised that no one has cited it (although Doyle does mention Aquinas’ name on Normblog). The New Catholic Encyclopedia, as quoted in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, explains that the Doctrine excuses an act (in this case, the invasion of Iraq) that has bad consequences under these conditions:

1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent. 2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary. 3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed. 4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

Thus, to take Tony Blair’s side, we would say: The act of invading Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein was morally good. Even if its net consequences turn out to be bad for Iraq (mainly because of the incompetent US leadership), British participation was well-intentioned and reasonable. Blair did not will a terrorist response to the invasion, even if he had reason to predict it. The removal of Saddam was a direct consequence of the invasion; the London bombings were highly indirect results. Finally, the end that Blair willed was sufficiently good to compensate for the death of Londoners.

This seems to me a plausible argument. I developed it a little bit further here.

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Dan Simon 08.06.05 at 9:11 pm

Your remarks about science, morality and the worldviews thereof are vacuous. Likewise the observation that a man who attempts murder has attempted murder, even if he accidentally (or mistakenly) swats a mosquito to the greater good of humanity.

Sorry–I thought my point was clear, but I guess it wasn’t.

Chris complained that “if Jimmy’s view is correct [that ‘human actions cannot be thought of as mere events in a causal chain of further events’] then much of social science and history rests on a mistake.” But by the same token, I could complain that if you are correct that “a man who attempts murder has attempted murder”, then much of physics rests on a mistake. For just as in social science and history, people and their intentions are simply elements in a chain of historical or social interactions, with no moral responsibility implied, in physics, people and their actions are simply elements in a chain of physical interactions, with no intention implied (let alone moral responsibility).

But since (I assume) nobody here wants to throw out either moral reasoning or science (physical or social), the solution is simply to accept that the two ways of thinking about the world follow different rules, and may not come to the same conclusions. Thus, I may judge the attempted murderer morally guilty of attempted murder, even if the notions of “guilty” and “attempted” mean nothing to a physicist, whose views of causation take no account of volition, let alone morality. Likewise, I may judge each of a thousand attempted murderers–sharing a particular social class, political orientation or state of mind–guilty of attempted murder, even if the notion of “guilty” means nothing to a social scientist, whose views of mass motivation take no account of morality.

Does that make things clearer?

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Dan Kervick 08.07.05 at 1:56 am

My friend and colleague Jimmy Doyle has a guest post on Normblog

You friend Jimmy Doyle is a fool.

Rarely have the silly and groundless prejudices of the agent causation tradition been revealed so transparently for what they are – expressions of a fearful and feeble-minded desire to concentrate all of the multifarious causal lines leading in and out of some event into a tidy, separable and neatly comprehensible ball. If the world were really like this, it would certainly make our lives and choices enormously more simple, and allow for very clean-cut distributions of our affections into little packets of simple love and simple hate, simple moral admiration and simple moral contempt. But the world really isn’t like this at all.

What’s more, we all know it isn’t like this, but still, under the anxiety of difficult causal challenges, and in response to the intimidating social pressures of the herd, we revert to this crude and superstitious worldview, and the primitive social practices associated with it.

One should have no more sympathy with this line of thought than with the notion that the sole cause of a drought was the rootless volition of the Rain God. Of course it makes our lives harder to have to recognize the complexity and scope of the causes human action. How much easier if every human problem could be solved by isolating a solitary human causal agent, and destroying it, or expelling it from our presence! In the same way, it would be easier to deal with droughts if they could be ended by expelling some demon-ridden object from our midst. Surely it is this fear of complexity and hard intellectual work, and the haunting suspicion that our conventional social practices are still unspeakably crude, inept and backward, that leads people like Doyle to so stubbornly deny the obvious.

Doyle claims to show that “to say that he [Blair], or the fact of the war, contributed causally to the bombings is fundamentally inconsistent with what is presupposed in our ordinary ways of talking about human action.”

But in fact Doyle makes no serious attempt at all to show that saying this is really fundamentally inconsitent with our ordinary ways of talking. His claim is an empirical semantic hypothesis. But his evidence is anecdotal at best, relying on a few fragments of conventional idioms, and some very inept argumentation relating to what is presupposed in deliberation. A moment’s further reflection turns up numerous pieces of ordinary expressions and idioms, loaded up with common sense causal implications, that reveal that ordinary thought and talk quite readily contemplate the obvious truth that some human actions causally influence others.

Doyle also makes the very strange claim that one agent’s actions can “raise the probability” of some other agent’s acting in a certain way without causally contributing to that action, should it occur. Apparently he has in mind some sort of magical probability raising that occurs outside the realm of causal influence. Perhaps he confusing causal contibution with causal necessitation and then working with a crude model of causation according to which causes and effects are arranged linearly on a chain.

Equally bizarre is the suggestion (in the ice cream cone example) that my own action can, in thus magically “raising the probability” of your action, be such as to make me partly morally responsible for your action without it being the case that my action was partly causally responsible for the action. It is almost impossible to understand here what sort of thing Doyle thinks causation is. Suppose I held up an ice cream cone in the vicinity of your face, but held it up behind an opaque wall, where you can neither see nor smell it it. You then eat an ice cream cone. Am I morally responsible for that? Of course not. So what is the difference between this example and Doyle’s example? Isn’t it the most obvious explanation that my moral responsibility in the case Doyle describes flows from the fact that in that case my holding up the ice cream cone is part of the causal explanation of why you actually ate the ice cream cone; and that if I hadn’t held one up, you wouldn’t have eaten one?

In the end, rather than take on the intellectual challenge of showing that these ridiculous views really are true, Doyle prefers to hide behind the (thoroughly unsubstatiated) claim that they are embedded in our conventional talk and thought about human action. He then pronounces the prospect that they might be shown to be false to be the prospect of a “disaster”. Well, perhaps it would be a disaster for trembling primitives like Mr. Doyle – what with having their crude superstitions about human action destroyed.

But most of us I thnk would do just fine with the awareness of human actions as caused. In fact, we are already doing fine with that awareness. Far from being built into our very conception of human action, the notion that human actions don’t have causes is in fact an extreme view – one that is only brought to the surface in moments of great fear, stress and rage, only to disappear again in favor of the cool, sane recognition of the obvious causal influence of one human action on others which is the normal human outlook.

Doyle concludes with the assertion “that we are firmly entitled to believe these presuppositions in the absence of any demonstration (from science, for example) that they are false .. and that no such demonstration has been given or is in prospect.”

But what could be more clear and obvious than that some human actions have a causal influence on other human actions? Aside from the daily confirmation of this phenomenon is scientific study, it is born out in every minute in the laboratory of everyday life. For example, we talk to other people every day, often in the hope of influencing their behavior … and lo and behold, they often behave in precisely the way we intended, and that one would have predicted they would behave. The evidence for the influence of of human actions on other human actions is as clear and obvious as the most straightforward cases of the influence of one inanimate material body on another. (Of course one could always seek to deny that anything causally influences anything else; and hold that they only appear to do so, thus turning causation itself into a transcendant mystery.) Only a stubborn philosophical refusal to acknowedege the obvious, and cling to a beloved dogma, could account for the failure to admit the causal influence of actions on actions.

It is comical to see the Doylean superstitions rhetorically elevated from their (purported) role as common and deeply entrenched contemprary beliefs, reflected in our ordinary talk about human action, to a level at which they are necessary to “living a life that is recognizably human”. Yes, and I suppose if we stop sacrificing animals, or stop believing in the role of demons in our lives, normal human life would cease. This has been the last refuge of cowardly intellectual conservatism throughout human history: the assertion that the intellectual rubbish of the times is somehow either a component of human nature, or fundamental to a non-pathological human existence.

A final criticism: Doyle seems to endorse the view that, even if certain foul consequences were a causal consequence of Blair’s actions, and even if he did foresee these consequences, he can only be said to be responsible for those consequences if his action was wrong or unnecessary. Presumably Doyle is referring to moral responsibility here. But the assertion makes no sense. Whether Blair’s action was right or wrong surely does have something to do with whether he is morally culpable for the foul consequences, or worthy of blame or censure or condemnation for them. But surely also one is morally responsible for, at least, all the accurately foreseen causal consequences of one’s actions. Moral responsibility is not exhausted by the morally censurable.

If one believes Blair was justified in taking his country into the war against Iraq, then it seems to me the most straightforward approach to take to the issue of the bombings would be this: A reasonable and well-informed person would have foreseen that going to war against a Middle Eastern country, in the current political environment, would be likely to produce a certain amount of terrorist backlash. Blair no doubt foresaw, or at least recognized the very strong probability, that his actions would produce such consequences. Thus he, along with others, is partly responsible for this effect of his actions – for causing this evil. But the war also produced certain other good consequences, or was at least necessary to prevent certain worse consequences. And Blair is thus also morally responsible for causing certain kinds of good or preventing certain kinds of evil. And all effects taken together, Blair is responsible for more good than evil.

Now I personally don’t believe this last assertion is true. But at least it makes sense – a lot more sense than the view that seeks to shield Blair, and all of us, from our moral responsibility for the evil acts of others we help bring into the world, either on the grounds that we didn’t in any way contribute causally to those actions occuring, since they were “free”, or on the grounds that we did contribute causally to their occurence, but are not morally responsible for them because we had good reasons for what we did.

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johng 08.07.05 at 5:12 am

One of the survivers of the 7th of July bombings was asked whether she ‘hated’ the bombers. Her response was that she did not because she felt that they were caught up in a larger series of events in much the same way that she had been. This comment was broadcast once and never picked up on again. I thought that it was perhaps the most insightful thing said in all the coverage we have seen. If we are talking about particular individuals and their acts (as opposed to the meaning of the acts, the question of whether they can be justified or condemned, the question of how to catch the people who did it and what should be done to them) this sense of individuals caught up in larger things is a neccessary part of the moral story which has to be told. How did all these individuals get caught up in this larger picture and is there a connection between this larger picture and things that individuals did or what happened to them. Ruling out connections of this sort makes any discussion about responsibility tautological and an attempt to avoid the most pressing moral questions.

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Dan Kervick 08.07.05 at 11:06 am

Her response was that she did not because she felt that they were caught up in a larger series of events in much the same way that she had been. This comment was broadcast once and never picked up on again. I thought that it was perhaps the most insightful thing said in all the coverage we have seen.

Hating what is repulsive and odious is compatible with recognizing the behavior of that repulsive and odious thing has complex causal antecedents. And the fact that there may be an interesting causal history we can tell about all the complex biological and environmental factors which contributed to some person becoming contemptible in the first place, does not alter the fact that they are contemptible.

There may be other good reasons to avoid hatred, and perhaps to cultivate understanding and compassion in their place. Many spiritual teachers, for example, have pointed out that hatred conduces to ignorance and stupidity, tends to generate more harm in the universe than good, and is even painful to the person who experiences it.

But the fact that human actions and motivational systems have complex causal antecedents is not in itself a sufficient reason for thinking that hatred is an inappropriate attitude toward those actions and motivations. One way of thinking about the matter that has appealed to some philosophers is to say that our moral sense is the sense of beauty and ugliness that we bring to bear in the appraisal of human actions and human motivations. It seems to me entirely consistent with the view that human actions have causes to say that some human actions, and the motivations that contributed to their production, are morally defective or ugly. And it seems quite normal for people to seek to destroy what is ugly and preserve what is beautiful.

Some people have durable and coherent personalities, with a relatively stable set of motivations and beliefs. And the motivational systems of some people are more involved and rationally organized than those of others. They may incorporate very sophisticated, interrelated long-term plans. The plans may be buttressed with well-entrenched inhibitions that protect the integrity of the plans from the corrosive effect of short-term pleasure-seeking. I think we can call this either “agency” or “rationality”, and it surely comes in many varieties and degrees.

Rational agency is obviously a valuable and important natural phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean we should mystify it by imagining it involves an exception to the causal patterns of the natural world. First, agency itself has a cause: wherever it exists, there is some causal explanation for how it got there. And where one person is more rational than another, and has more fully or differently developed agency than another, there is some combination of biological and environmental factors that explains that development.

Also, while it is true that a deeply rational agent is less impulsive than a more irrational person, and that means that patterns of causal influence leading from perceived environmental conditions to resulting actions are more involved, and less immediate, that does not mean that there is no pattern of causal influence producing the action. I see no reason to deny that a rational agent is a “mechanism” of some kind. Rationally is a great thing, and that is why we value cultivating it, by building people through their educational formation whose motivational systems are sophisticated rational engines, so to speak.

Turning to the case of people like these bombers, I think one thing we know is that they identify with, feel solidarity with, a large community that extends well beyond themselves and their local neighborhood. When such people actually express themselves about why they did what they did, what they say is that they are motivated by certain injuries that they perceive that community to have suffered – certain ongoing conditions, or recent events, that they regard as harms their community has suffered as a result of the actions of others – harms that were either intentionally inflicted or at least negligently inflicted. They say that they seek either to avenge those injuries or rectify those of the injuries that are ongoing conditions or deter the perpetrators from inflicting similar future injuries.

In response to these claims, we encounter all sorts of responses. Some say:

1. Many of the events they imagine to have happened never happened at all; or

2. Most of those events did in fact happen, but they were not in fact injuries; or

3. Most of those events did happen, and were injuries; but the perpetrators have also bestowed many goods upon the same community, and the bombers are irrationally fixated on the injuries; or

4. Most of the injuries that were inflicted were inflicted in response to other injuries that the authors of the more recent injuries had suffered; or

5. While those events were injuries, they were relatively slight, and the bombings are grotesquely disproportionate responses to the injuries received; or

6. The victims of the bombings were not perpetrators of the injuries, and were entirely uninvolved in their production; so targeting them is morally inappropriate; or

7. The victims of the bombings were involved in some degree in the injuries, but only as remote causal antecedents; so targeting them for such severe reprisal is again morally inappropriate; or

8. The bombings will be thoroughly ineffective in bringing an end to the ongoing perceived injuries, and in deterring other similar injuries in the future.

9. The bombings may actually be effective in bringing those injuries to an end and in deterring others, but given the non-existent, or at least miniscule degree, of moral responsibility for the injuries, it is morally inappropriate to achieve that deterrent and preventive effect in this particular way; or

10. It is bizarre and abnormal for a person to feel such an intense degree of emotional identification with a community that is so big and so widely dispersed; or finally

11. The bombings were rational and appropriate measures to take in response to the injuries received by the community.

Now there is a lot to argue about here, and room for a tremendous amount of complex moral and factual disagreement, including disagreement about the degree of moral responsibility or blameworthiness of our own political leaders for events like the London bombings. But none of these conflicting points of view requires holding onto the absurd doctrine that human actions don’t have causes.

The view that human actions don’t, or typically don’t, have causes is not just a piece of idle philosophical doctrine, with no ultimate import. When people hold the view, they act more stupidly and more irresponsibly. By failing to assume the appropriate level of moral responsibility for the predictable consequences of their own actions on the behavior of others, healthy moral inhibitions are neutralized. The believers in the doctrine of uncaused, spontaneously “free” actions incoherently divorce some of the predictable consequences of their actions from the other predictable consequences of their actions, and thus fail to incorporate the former into their own moral deliberations, and attribute to them the appropriate weight in their own moral self-assessments. They also seem to attribute themselves a strange and miraculous power to predict events in a way unrelated to their understanding of the causal patterns in the natural world. And it is generally a good thing to eradicate superstitious beliefs like this.

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Jimmy Doyle 08.07.05 at 5:04 pm

Thanks for y’all’s further comments.

Tom t: your imagined case is strictly consistent with my presentation of the doctrine of novus actus interveniens. The driver’s breaking of the window does not break the causal chain because it is not an action; by this I mean that there is no description under which it is intentional. (Your flinging the club out of the window is not intentional under that description, but it is an effect of movements of yours that were intentional, and were therefore actions. The wrong here lies in negligence rather than malice.) The thief’s taking the jewels is an action, so you didn’t cause it or its effects. But your negligence gave him an opportunity, and there could (theoretically) be liability for that.

Brian: I’m sorry, I now see that I misunderstood you even though you were clear. There are certainly circumstances in which it is natural to speak of a human being as an effect. Probably the clearest case is an act of procreation. (Upbringing might be thought of as having a person as its effect.) But I doubt that there is real symmetry here with the sense in which human beings are causes. Here is my main reason for thinking this: According to the presuppositions of our thought and talk about human action (I shall omit this qualification from now on, but it should be pretty clear where it is supposed to be in force) human beings are causes in a very intimate and inescapable sense: to say that a human being caused an event, in the relevant sense, is simply to say that that event was an action of hers. The two expressions are synonymous, although neither is a ‘reduction’ or an ‘analysis’ of the other. So to deny that human beings are causes is, on this view, to deny that anyone does anything: to deny that there is human action. I also believe (here I omit the argument) that this sort of causation is sui generis in the sense that it cannot be understood in terms of event-causation (roughly, because then we wouldn’t be free. I realise that you don’t buy this argument). No such drastic consequences attend the denial that human beings are effects. Our pretheoretical sense of human freedom is not under threat, for example, if we say that the effect of a procreative act is not *really* a human being, but rather the series of events that constitute the human being’s coming into existence. The relation of responsibility to upbringing is philosophically as well as psychologically enormously complex in my opinion and there’s not much about it that I feel confident in saying. But I don’t see that we *have* to talk about upbringing as literally having a person as its effect. For one thing, we may be able to say everything we want to say in terms of the upbringing’s effect being the series of events that constitutes the person’s coming into existence – more plausibly perhaps, that constitutes the human being’s becoming a person. Secondly (although I’m not absolutely certain that you imply the contrary) the asymmetry I pointed to above between what’s at stake in identifying human beings or persons as causes and identifying them as effects suggests that, where we do talk in that latter way, we’re not using “effect” as the appropriate correlate of “cause,” as this word is employed when we talk in the former way. We would, it seems, be talking about a different ‘order’ of causation, where transitivity doesn’t hold across orders, so that from the facts that my parents caused me, and that I caused a bunch of events, it would not follow that my parents caused any of those events.

You also said, “The point of bringing up a child well is to cause them to be a good moral agent, that is to freely make the right choices. On your theory that is impossible – that your child is disposed to freely make good choices can never be a causal consequence of good upbringing.”

I’m not sure that one can’t cause people, over time, to have certain dispositions (eg the disposition to make good decisions), particularly in the process of bringing someone up, during the early stages of which their status as free agents is problematic. But it doesn’t follow from that that one causes, or plays any causal role in, the particular actions that express those dispositions. In causing the disposition, one merely probabilifies the actions that express it – at least, this is so once the person has attained the status of a free agent. I anticipate further discussion of probabilifying and causing when I come to the comments of Mr Kervick.

In your next comment, you said that my suggestion that “There might be a systematic way of talking of actions as caused, so long as they are not considered under the descriptions under which they are intentional etc” “seems to amount to the view that the Y in “X causes Y” is an opaque context. Are there examples to motivate this? I would have thought that if X caused Y and Y is Z, then X caused Z. If some things cause my brain movement, and my brain movement is my decision to have a beer, then those things cause my decision to have a beer, no?” In my defence, I did say that “these are dark matters and I don’t want to claim that I really understand them.” But I should have resisted the temptation to speculate. Yet some causal idioms (particularly those involving “because”) do seem to generate intensional contexts. I should probably just shut up about this till I understand it better.

Matt Daws: “So, as I agree, Blair is not the cause of the bombings. But he did raise the probability that such an act would occur, in precisely the way inciters do. So why are we wrong to try to hold Blair to account, whereas it is right to try to hold inciters to account?”

First, it is just not true that Blair “raised the probability that such an act would occur, in precisely the way inciters do.” If this were true, Blair would have had to go around telling people that it would be a good idea for them to blow themselves up on buses and trains full of people, and I doubt that even Faisal Bodi would want to accuse Blair of doing that. As for it’s being “wrong to try to hold Blair to account,” I nowhere claimed this.

With respect to your next comment, I did not mean the expression ‘Hitler’s agents’ to diminish the status of those people as free agents in their own right. I meant merely that the many of the people in question were acting on Hitler’s behalf – were doing his will, as we say. I’m not sure what to say about cases of acting on another’s behalf. For all I know, in some such cases causation does ‘reach through’ the intervening agents to their acts and some of their acts’ consequences. I think that’s a really difficult question.

You also said, “What, then, is the difference between Hitler giving an order (which the person it is given to is free to ignore) and Blair generating an environment where it is inevitable that some people will become terrorists?” You really need to ask? First, if the ‘environment is generated’ as a result of something Blair had to do, or reasonably believed he had to do, for other reasons, to hold him responsible for domestic terrorism on account of his having ‘generated that environment’ would effectively be to require Blair to stop governing, since on this view he could only avoid blame by ceding control of the country to anyone who could credibly threaten terrorism. This point still has some force even if Blair was culpably mistaken in this instance in thinking he had to do the things in question, or knew he didn’t have to do them but just pretended that he did. I concede, what I never denied in my post, that Blair would bear some blame for the bombings if they were provoked by actions of his which were bad. But this is not to say that he is to any degree blameworthy if his actions were right.

Kevin Donoghue: “it is perfectly reasonable to argue that a war is wrong because it increases the risk of terrorist attacks on the population of the aggressor nation.” I don’t think that’s reasonable at all. If a war is right for other reasons, it’s in the nature of the case that those reasons have to be very serious ones indeed. They could not be so negligible as to be outweighed by the sort of terrorism we have recently seen in London: they have to justify the likely deaths of very many combatants, for a start. If the terrorism in question is not catastrophic for the whole country, there is the additional reason for not being deterred by the threat of it that I mentioned in response to Mr Daws: making it clear that you will cede control of the country to anyone who credibly threatens terrorism is not compatible with governing the country.

You also said, “what really galls me about Doyle’s argument is that it suggests that Bush and Blair have no responsibility for the terrorist campaign in Iraq.” No need to feel galled: my argument suggests no such thing. In fact, I’d like to make it clear to everyone: nothing follows from my post about whether Blair was right to go to war, or whether he bears any responsibility for the London attacks.

I’ll try to respond to some of the other objections later.

46

Wrong 08.07.05 at 8:25 pm

To say that a human being caused an event, in the relevant sense, is simply to say that that event was an action of hers. The two expressions are synonymous.

Do you really mean that? It would be very odd to say that all the things we cause are actions of ours (I stood on my cat on my way downstairs and she scratched me – but my cat scratching me is not an action of mine).

Assuming you meant to say that “to say that a human being caused an action, in the relevant sense, is simply to say that that action was an action of hers,” though, I’m not so sure that the synonym is so obvious. Would we, generally, say that I caused some action of mine? Wouldn’t we rather say that I did the action? I’m not sure our everyday language gives us any reason to believe that actions are the sorts of things that are caused at all (although they presumably do supervene on events which are caused).

47

Brian 08.07.05 at 8:33 pm

Jimmy,

Thanks for being so good about coming back to the scene to answer all these questions. If you have the patience, one more purely philosophical question.

Most modern agent-causal theorists (and event-causal libertarians) think the big challenge for a theory of agent causation is explaining the role of reasons. Many of us (myself included) were convinced of Davidson’s explanation of the distinction between having a reason for doing something and doing it for that reason. In the second case, but not the first, the reason is the cause of the action.

Now an agent-causal theorist can’t say just that. (Or at least she can’t say it without giving up some of the distinctive benefits of agent causation – as I think Randy Clarke does.) But what then can be said? Tim O’Connor tries to say something about how the reason doesn’t cause the action but is (if I remember right) somehow constitutive of it (or at least of the intention behind the action). Is that how you would go?

I know this might sound like a purely technical problem, but I think it gets to the heart of a genuine concern. There’s no moral value in acting freely if free action is not responsive to the nature of the world. (If freedom consisted merely in the ability to wave your arms whenever you wanted at seemingly random times, it wouldn’t be worth much.) Compatibilists and event-causal libertarians can deal with this by saying that free actions are caused by reasons. Agent causal theorists can’t say that, and I think this is a problem. What is it to be responsive to something without that thing (perhaps partially, perhaps indeterministically) causing your actions? It seems to me that real freedom _requires_ that my actions be (partially, indeterministically) caused – else they seem too much like random movements.

48

Matt McIrvin 08.07.05 at 9:03 pm

Maybe it’s just that I tend toward a compatibilist view of free will, but I would draw a distinction between the physical notion of causation and the ethical/legal notion of causation. I could be (and, in my opinion, am) a physical system grinding out consequences of physical law through some combination of necessity and quantum/thermodynamic happenstance, but since I am a physical system so constituted as to make decisions that in part involve ethical considerations, that does nothing to reduce my responsibility for my own actions.

This notion that we are either systems with causes or responsible agents is a false dichotomy. It confuses the kind of determinism Isaac Newton talked about with the kind of determinism the Calvinists talked about, in which you’re forever and always one of the sheep or one of the goats, people can tell which if they look hard enough, and there’s nothing you can do about it. (I’ve often thought that much of the confusion about free will vs. physical determinism comes from a subconscious sense that we’re really talking Cavaliers vs. Roundheads.)

49

rollo 08.07.05 at 9:46 pm

Death by stoning has some moral aspects that require an analytic precision a lot of us don’t have readily to-hand.
Intention makes each thrower a murderer, or executioner, but causally no single person can be said to have killed the victim. No single stone can be said to have done the deed.
And the degrees of intentionality are likely to vary from extreme willingness to coerced and unwilling. This is when religion takes over, and judgment gets deferred to a higher authority. The law can’t defer everything, though.
Most of us have been trained to conflate the two, which has created a lot of legal-workaround R&D, and allowed a lot of highly immoral action to occur and continue unchecked, because the law has to catch up with immorality – it doesn’t create morality, it codifies it. Morality is invisible in the eyes of the law.
That Iraqi prisoner on the cardboard box at Abu Ghraib is an icon, but he’s also, unless he’s died in the meanwhile, a real person.
What’s he like now? How’s his metric for moral distinctions holding up? How much blame for any cruelties or other moral transgressions he commits do we expect him to bear? All, just like the rest of us? Some, with a somehow measurable exception, a recognition of his extenuating circumstances? Those questions are too complicated for the law beyond a certain radius from the initial crime. But morally they go all the way, with him, in him.

“this is not to say that he is to any degree blameworthy if his actions were right”
It may be that one of the unspoken objections to Darwinian evolution among many religionists is contained in that phrase. By “right” do we mean by intent, or “right” by accuracy and outcome?
High-steel workers have probably as much sympathy for well-intentioned mistakes as anyone else, but not on the job.
Darwinian judgment by effect alone, not affect or intent, is the final arbiter there.
The problem with that kind of moral discernment according to extended effect is that some of the actions we would seek to judge from here won’t unfold their results in our lifetimes. And things that never happen as a result of actions taken now have just as much a claim on moral judgment by their absence as things we term bad consequence have by their presence.
The law can’t adjudicate things that don’t happen, except in rare and specific cases – but morally we can’t ignore them.
Not doing something wrong is not the same as doing something right, and not doing something right is doing something wrong; and that’s where the law and morality become two separate things entirely.
The immediate outcry of objection – that right and wrong in that diagram are completely subjective and practically meaningless, as well as pragmatically useless – is confirmation that the legal workaround has become what amounts to a survival trait in most of our species.

50

johng 08.08.05 at 5:07 am

I thought I’d respond to Dan’s list because I thought it interesting and useful and relate it to the bombings themselves:

1. Many of the events they imagine to have happened never happened at all; or

I think there is plenty of real injustice and even if it is mixed with fictional injustice in the case of these bombings, this does not seem a profitable root to go down (and would not be effective I think in countering arguments made by those tempted by this view of the world).

2. Most of those events did in fact happen, but they were not in fact injuries; or

ditto

3. Most of those events did happen, and were injuries; but the perpetrators have also bestowed many goods upon the same community, and the bombers are irrationally fixated on the injuries;

This rests on complicated questions about the relationship for instance between progress and suffering. The difficulty here is that resistance to progress may be rational for particular people who don’t benifit from it. Modernity for many Afghans for example meant Napalm (or its equivilants) during the war with the Soviets. Suggesting that ‘in the long term’ this would bring benifits hardly helps people in the present.

or

4. Most of the injuries that were inflicted were inflicted in response to other injuries that the authors of the more recent injuries had suffered;

I think very dubious in this case particularly when you go through who has been injured and the scale of injury.

or

5. While those events were injuries, they were relatively slight, and the bombings are grotesquely disproportionate responses to the injuries received; or

In this case frankly grotesque.

6. The victims of the bombings were not perpetrators of the injuries, and were entirely uninvolved in their production; so targeting them is morally inappropriate; or

This is a strong contender but is difficult to reconcile with the kind of violence routinely inflicted by the West. To hold this position with any consistancy one would have to oppose the war on terror as presently constituted and possibly oppose ALL wars. There are therefore difficulties.

7. The victims of the bombings were involved in some degree in the injuries, but only as remote causal antecedents; so targeting them for such severe reprisal is again morally inappropriate; or

Ditto

8. The bombings will be thoroughly ineffective in bringing an end to the ongoing perceived injuries, and in deterring other similar injuries in the future.

A strong argument but perhaps one which may seem too coldly instrumental (it is the argument as it happens that I am most sure of but sensitive souls have informed me of their unhappiness about this being my main basis of condemnation. I was of course shocked and horrified. But my personal fear should not make me more shocked and horrified by considerably larger numbers of death, perhaps inflicted with far less cause, on millions of people around the world every day).

9. The bombings may actually be effective in bringing those injuries to an end and in deterring others, but given the non-existent, or at least miniscule degree, of moral responsibility for the injuries, it is morally inappropriate to achieve that deterrent and preventive effect in this particular way; or

A very difficult argument to sustain if we do not totally rethink all our doctrines about security and war as presently constituted. I am in general in favour of this, but as conservatives argue with state but not with non-state actors, what do we do in the meantime?

10. It is bizarre and abnormal for a person to feel such an intense degree of emotional identification with a community that is so big and so widely dispersed; or finally

A useful argument if you reject universalism. One difficulty is that it rules out of account the possibility that people are also motivated by proximate as well as distant suffering. The distant suffering is worse but may dramatise more mundane and local suffering in ways commensurate with feelings of dignity and worth. I refer here to the close connection between marginal status in society and the status of the bombers (this accounts for the glee of conservatives: the marginalised deserve to be marginalised we knew it all along. The torrent of this suggests that arguments that marginalisation is not a massive part of British society are false.

11. The bombings were rational and appropriate measures to take in response to the injuries received by the community.

Most of us do not feel this, although if we support Bush and Blair’s war on terror we ought to if we are to be consistant.

There are two big problems about the assumptions in these discussions for me. One is the notion that if an argument challenges what we take it is to be human then it is if not untrue, an argument which for pragmatic reasons we ought to resist. It may be that the ways we instantiate our humanity in our society are irrational and immoral (the doctrine of individual responsibility may lead to barbaric beliefs and practices).

Secondly the weighting given to forensic reasoning and the assumption that any consideration outside of this is ‘spiritual’.

This I think tells us more about conventional moral philosophy, and its history, then it does about the problem under discussion.

51

johng 08.08.05 at 10:11 am

I was interested in the stoning question. Imagine a traditional society with a modernizing state (with all the qualifications neccessary with these imprecise tags). Stoning women for adultory in this imagined society becomes illegal without any modification of the moral system which makes people think this is a right and proper thing to do. The State adopts both a program of education and a program of punative legal sanctions to try and eradicate the practice.

Occassionally however the practice continues and it is neccessary to decide who to punish amongst sullen crowds in the village looking resentfully at the jeep full of men from the city (who usually arrive when its time to extract taxes from the village). Legally it might be very important to work out who threw the first stone, or which stones hit the person. Probably more often ‘ring leaders’ will be sought (who may have no connection with the act). Exactly who is punished is surely quite arbitrary and all depends on how the law might relate best to transforming the moral consiousness of the vast majority of these villagers who think this is a right and proper thing to do.

Its possible that the woman being stoned is grateful to the men in the jeep but is in the position of a condemned man reprieved by a fortuitous accident. The question of individual responsibility is clearly neccessary from the legal point of view (although perhaps the State will decide that a fine on all the villagers might have a better moral effect as they bear collective responsibiliy) but its probably not shared by any of the accused, may not even be shared by the victim.

Is’nt ‘agency’ here just a code for trying to work out who to lock up and quite irrelevent in a moral sense? And does’nt the judgement about who to lock up really flow from questions about how best to change certain social relations and how to preserve others? (with the real moral question being about changing social relations in one direction rather then the other).

If deciding about agency is relative to social relations is there not a kind of Winchian problem with talking about agency as if it is something located in the individual? And is’nt the above description really how historically the relationship between law and state developed?

(this is very tentative and no, I’m not sure I’m right).

52

johng 08.08.05 at 10:16 am

Oh clearly the villagers hold the woman responsible (although perhaps she is just a bad ‘un, or maybe she was possessed or whathaveyou). However the punishment for adultory will seem the natural fate for transgression of the rules and discussion of agency will seem as strange as a discussion of who is to be held responsible for a legal judgement amongst people who believe the law is a codification of societies morality.

53

Matt Daws 08.08.05 at 10:23 am

Jimmy,

You seem now to be arguing two rather different points, summed up roughly as follows (though please do correct me if you disagre):

i) “Blair was wrong to go to war because of the London bombings”. You don’t agree with the statement; I don’t agree with this statement. As you say, if the war was worth doing at all, it must have been worth doing for reasons which far outweigh the risk of a small number of UK citizens being killed by terrorists: to argue otherwise is, amoungst other things, to completely belittle the lives of Iraqis or coalition troops, for example. Now, I would suggest that there is some hazy number of UK citizens that terrorists would have to kill for the war to become wrong (because Blair should protect us first and foremost) be we are certainly no-where near this point.

ii) “Blair did not, in any way or sense, cause the London bombings”. You seem to be stating this, and I disagree, as do others, and I have little to add to my reasons (Dan Kervick seems to do a great job here).

My problem now is that, to my mind, (i) and (ii) are COMPLETELY ARE UTTERLY different, and don’t really bear on each other (except that if (ii) is true, then (i) cannot be true, but the converse absolutely does not hold). In fact, you are getting dangerous close to arguing that because (i) is false, then (ii) is true, which is rubbish.

For example, by ordering troops into Iraq, Blair is responsible for the deaths of British troops (if not, then how is Hitler responsible for the holocaust?) This in no sense makes (in and of itself) the war wrong.

54

Dan Kervick 08.08.05 at 11:56 am

ii) “Blair did not, in any way or sense, cause the London bombings”. You seem to be stating this, and I disagree, as do others, and I have little to add to my reasons (Dan Kervick seems to do a great job here).

Thanks Matt. But I would like to apologize for one area where I did not do a great job. Somehow I let my hostility toward agent causation theories of agency and responsibility – which anyone can see is fairly strong and intense – rub off into hostility and and an insulting tone taken toward Mr. Doyle himself. I can’t offer any excuse other than, perhaps, the lateness of the hour when the post was made – close to 2am my time. So I apologize to Mr. Doyle, and to his friend Chis Bertram who began the thread.

I’m not taking anything back on the philosophical front though.

55

Marcus Stanley 08.08.05 at 12:55 pm

I thought Dan Kervick’s comments above were rather brilliant. Actually the admixture of personal venom (while uncalled for, and which Mr. Kervick very nicely apologized for above) probably did help make the comments more forceful, pointed, and clear.

I wanted to address Johng’s discussion of Kervick’s list of possible critiques of terrorism in comment #50. In Johng’s response to Kervick’s point #8 (God this is getting convoluted), on the practical ineffectiveness of the bombings, he faults this for being too “coldly instrumental” to carry the emotional weight we look for in a moral response to terrorism. But I would argue that the scale and extent of the human suffering inflicted on innocents by state power in the name of instrumental goals is so great that we have no other consistent option at this point but to criticize terror on an instrumentalist basis. If WWII is a “good war” because of its positive consequences, and it is good despite the wholesale slaughter of over a million innocent enemy civilians in Allied bombing campaigns, then there is no possible ground to criticize terrorists for the sheer act of butchery of innocents. (Bin Laden is quite aware of this by the way, he often refers to Hiroshima in his justifications for terrorism).

Instead we must condemn terrorists because of the lack of connection between their claimed ends and their chosen means. Nor does this instrumentalism necessarily have to be “cold”, as there is quite a rich moral vocabulary possible around the jusification of violence. It does mean that we can’t consistently use any instinctive moral repulsion to the killing of innocents we have as a sufficient argument for moral condemnation of terrorism, unless we want to be a whole lot more serious about applying that same repulsion to our own actions.

56

Chris Bertram 08.08.05 at 1:15 pm

I don’t know whether WW2 was “a good war” in terms of its, in any case incalculable, consequences. But I do believe that the war against the Axis powers was just and that it was important that they be beaten. I think I can consistently hold that belief and also believe, as I in fact do, that the Allied bombings of civilians (Hamburg, Dresden, Hiroshima) were morally impermissible acts. So I don’t think we are required to accept Marcus Stanley’s view at all here

57

Marcus Stanley 08.08.05 at 2:16 pm

I always stumble in this way when talking with philosophers because I don’t make clear the presuppositions in my own arguments, or even what exactly I am arguing for. Which is naturally my stupidity and not theirs. Of course it’s possible to consistently disapprove of both terrorism and Allied actions in WWII. In that logical sense people are definitely not required to accept my point.

But the issue to me is that we as a society have accepted, through own willingness to kill innocents in the name of geopolitical goals, the legitimacy of this fundementally “terrorist” method. Perhaps Chris Bertram actually believes that Truman should have been tried and jailed as a criminal for ordering the bombing of Hiroshima, just as he believes that ObL should be jailed for September 11th. If Bertram *does* believe this he would be in a very small minority wildly outside of the mainstream social consensus. I am concerned with what condemnations of terrorism are consistent with how we in nation-states actually fight modern wars, and celebrate our fighting of those wars. If we underwent a massive conversion and became unwilling to fight wars in the way we do then I think this would be a good thing, but it is highly unlikely to happen.

One should also note that there is a certain sense in which soldiers under conscription in many modern armies are innocents, since in many cases they have little effective choice about whether to participate.

As for WWII being a just war, I am not at all fond of just war theory anyway, but one would then have to apply the whole range of just war theory to the various grievances of middle eastern terrorists. Certainly the U.S. war against Iraq definitely does not fit any just war standard, if one sees oneself as fighting on the Iraqi side then perhaps violence is justified. The U.S. war with Japan, especially our insistence on unconditional surrender before bombings would stop, but also some of our economic and political actions before Pearl Harbor, also fits uncomfortably with just war theory.

Anyway, it seems to me that one must take very seriously the argument violence against innocents is justified or unjustified based on its instrumental usefulness. A huge amount of the history of the modern nation-state is based on just this kind of violence. What moral condemntation of terrorism is there that does not also condemn nation states on the same basis?

58

johng 08.08.05 at 2:44 pm

Pleased to discover that I can be warmly instrumentalist. Thanks for that. I will respond when my sensitive friends become upset!!

59

Chris Bertram 08.08.05 at 2:47 pm

Well I certainly believe that Truman’s act warrants our condemnation. Nothing justified it, though whether he warranted punishment is a further question.

Was the Iraq war unjust? Probably yes against the traditional jwt criteria, but those criteria may be wrong. It isn’t obvious to me that it was unjust (since it was a war against a particulary brutal dictator who had no right to rule anyway). But I certainly think that it was a reckless undertaking that has almost certainly made life worse for most Iraqis and shouldn’t have been undertaken for that reason.

A huge amount of the history of the modern nation-state is based on just this kind of violence. What moral condemntation of terrorism is there that does not also condemn nation states on the same basis?

What indeed? My view is indeed that for states or terrorists deliberately to aim to kill innocents to advance their political aims is wrong.

60

Dan Kervick 08.08.05 at 5:44 pm

I often have the feeling in discussions of responsibility that some people presuppose a sort of “principle of additivity” of moral responsibility. They assume that for every event that is the outcome of human doings, there is a finite total amount of responsibility, to which each person involved contributes some share. Thus if we decide raise our estimate of the degree of moral responsibility for some action pertaining to one agent, we must decrease our estimates of the degree of responsibility of the other agents taken together by an equal amount.

But I don’t think moral responsibility works that way.

Suppose some murderous killer prowls the neighborhood, who, motivated by misogynistic rage, has killed several women who were perfect strangers to him. Suppose I learn my neighbor’s wife was murdered.

Now suppose the facts of this crime spree were well known to all in the neighborhood; suppose it was well known that the killer has never broken into a locked house, but has always entered through unlocked doors; suppose the police had several times issued public alerts and asked people to lock their doors. Suppose I know that my neighbor knew all this. Suppose I now learn that my neighbor failed to lock his doors the night of his wife’s murder. Am I right to raise my estimate of the degree of moral culpability in the matter of his wife’s murder.

Absolutely. His failure to lock the door was spectacularly negligent in the circumstances; it contributed causally to his wife’s death: had he locked his door, the death would not have occurred, and by failing to lock the door he significantly raised the chances of her being killed. His omission was very wrong.

Does this mean I should then lower my estimate of the degree of moral responsibility of the killer? Not at all. The killer is a beast; his action is just as bad either way.

Consider a slightly different example: Black Bart is a heardhearted, ruthless killer and bandit. He has been on a crime spree, moving from town to town, robbing and killing. About once a year, Black Bart visits the town of Misery Creek. A couple of people are always killed, and some property stolen, before he goes on his way. Attempts have been made in the past to stop him, all to no avail. Raids are periodically launched on his stronghold by some local Sherriff. In every case when this has happened, whether the raid has successfully hurt the gang or not, the members of the Bart clan, even those not in the gang, gather themselves up into a revenge party from all over the valley, and raid the town over which the raiding Sherriff presides. They usually kill about 100 people, rape scores of women, and then torch the town. As a result, most people in the Misery Creek have decided that it is preferable to endure the yearly, relatively modest damage wrought by Black Bart and his gang than to bring down upon themselves the wrath of the whole Bart clan.

Suoppose now that one night a huge masked host enters Misery Creek, kills a hundred people, rapes scores of women, and then burns the town to the ground. The survivors are furious, outraged over this vile and despicable act. The people who have done it are the worst of the worst.

Now suppose the townspeople learn that the Sherriff of Misery Creek had the week before lead a posse to Black Bart’s stronghold, and carried out a raid. And they learn that the people who assaulted their town the night before were the members of the vengeful Bart clan.

Should we diminish the strength of our condemnation of the attackers? Should we hold them less culpable than we did before? Probably not at all – or if we do only a very tiny amount. Black Bart is a mangey varmint! He deserves to be hunted down, and either captured or killed. The townspeople on the other hand were mostly good, innocent people. No matter what our Sherriff did, there is no way they deserved that. They especially didnn’t deserve it given that the man the Sherriff went after was a no good, rotten killer. So the Bart clan’s vile action pretty much just as vile in the light of new evidence.

But should the townspeople raise their estimate of the degree of culpability of their Sherriff in their misfortune? Absolutely. The Sherriff’s action was stupid and reckless. No matter what the outcome of his raid, the slaughter was the predictable causal consequence. He should be run out of town, or worse. Again, the additivity principle mentioned earlier fails.

Now I hasten to add that many people would not regard the situation regarding Blair, England and the Middle East as closely analogous to the example just given. Some would say it is more like this:

Misery Creek has for years plundered Bartville. They have sent some of their own townspoeple there, run some of the natives off the land, seized some property, and taken control of the town. They discovered a gold mine there, and have put the mine in the hands of a local businessman and the security force that works for him. They buy gold from the businessman at a good price; the businessman disburses some of the profits for the benefit of the town, but not nearly so much as he disburses to his family and closest friends. He rules without accountability.

There was also for years a simmering feud between Misery Creek and Red River. Many of the people in Bartville were caught in the crossfire, and paid a dear price for it. Some of the members of the Bart clan were even recruited to fight off the people of Red River when the latter too attempted to seize control of towns in the valley. Misery Creek responded by putting more of its people in charge of towns in the valley, with similar corrupt client arrangements established.

From time to time, the leaders of Misery Creek promised they would leave once the feud with Red River was concluded. But that feud is now far in the past; yet the Creekians and their vassals don’t seem to be going anywhere. The Bart clan members who once helped to fight Red River are not trying to drive out the Misery Creek invaders. Some of the clan members actually live in Misery Creek itself, and help from time to time by launching hit-and-run raids against unsuspecting townspeople. Some of the townspeople say “now is the time to pull up stakes in Bartville” Others, their pride wounded, say “Not on your life; now is the time to teach the people of Bartville a lesson and show them who’s boss!”

And of course, there is one other common story people tell about the US, Great Britain and the Middle East, leading to another modification of the Misery Creek example. Remember the Sherriff’s raid? Well that raid was actually a quest to seize one of the most important citadels of the Bart clan in the valley. Once there, the plan is to bring in missionaries from Misery Creek who will spread Creekian values throughout the Bart clan desmains. That way, the Creekians can keep the same people in charge, and keep getting the gold they covet. But the Bart clan won’t feel like attacking them anymore. The pious citizens of Misery Creek are all convinced this War on Orneriness is all for the good of the Bart clan.

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Mike Otsuka 08.09.05 at 5:36 am

Jimmy writes the following in his initial Normblog post:

an agent’s being the cause of an action cannot be understood purely in terms of the causal power of events going on in the agent’s mind or body. Such events presumably must have causes of their own in earlier events; the action can be accounted for without reference to the agent as a cause: agent-causation would then be best understood as a special case of event-causation, in a way that rules out our being really free.

Note that the freedom which Jimmy has in mind is a freedom which implies alternative possibilities. (This is made clear by what he says about deliberation and ‘ought’ implies ‘can’.)

Jimmy also tentatively endorses the following in comment #18:

Actions are free and intentional under some descriptions and not under others. Possibly they are all caused under physical descriptions (as Davidson maintained). There might be a systematic way of talking of actions as caused, so long as they are not considered under the descriptions under which they are intentional etc.

But it’s not clear to me that Jimmy can endorse this while holding onto what he says in his initial post.

For even if Jimmy’s right (and Brian’s wrong to deny) that the Y in “X causes Y” is an opaque context, I assume that he would not go so far as to deny that intentional human actions globally supervene on physical events. Therefore, even if physical events don’t cause intentional human actions, they ‘fix’ intentional human actions in the following respect: these events must have been different for the agent to have acted otherwise. And shouldn’t that be as much a threat to (alternative-possibility-implying) human freedom as the causation of intentional actions by physical events? If not, why not?

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Jimmy Doyle 08.09.05 at 11:14 am

I can’t get to all the remaining comments, so apologies to those I leave out.

Luc: Raising the probability of an event, where this is a human action, is not the same concept as contributing to it causally; nor do these concepts coincide in fact. Suppose that I have a condition whereby my hand, if I try to relax it, clenches roughly every fifteen seconds; but that if I try to clench it, it will clench every thirty seconds (I think this is based on an example of Christopher Peacocke’s). The latter clenchings are human actions: I am the cause of the clenchings, in a way that makes me an agent. But I didn’t raise the probability of a clenching occurring; I lowered it. (Daniel: this is also a reply to your comment 33.)

You also asked, “[W]hat is the relevance of stating that Blair cannot be described as causally contributing to this bombing, when you limit the meaning of cause to a specific philosophical interpretation that most people aren’t even aware of?” There’s nothing idiosyncratically philosophical about the sense of ‘cause’ I’m talking about. Everyone acknowledges that to say that an event was the action of a particular person, is to say that that person caused that event. Furthermore, our deliberative practices presuppose that we consider our actions to be free, in a way that entails that agent-causation cannot be understood in terms of causation by events that go on in the agent’s mind or body. I do realise that this is inconsistent with the sort of statement invoking causality that we find in social science. But I think that that just shows that we should deny that these latter statements are strictly true (although they become true if they are rephrased in terms of (ghastly word alert) probabilification. The notion of cause presupposed by our talk about action, our deliberative practices and the ways in which we hold each other responsible is far more deeply embedded in our self-conception than the social-scientific notion; indeed, I claim that we cannot get by as human beings without it. As I said to Brian about the notion of agents as effects, no grievous consequences would attend our acknowledging that ‘social-scientific causation’ is really probabilification, and not causation properly so-called.

Justin suggests that the question is begged against consequentialism in supposing that Blair has a share of the blame for the bombings only if the war was wrong for other reasons. But even if consequentialism were true, the possibility that the bombings could tip the consequentialist scales against the war would be extremely remote, given that reasons to go to war have to be especially compelling, as I argued in response to Kevin Donoghue. Secondly, the long-term consequences of Blair signalling that he would allow foreign policy to be determined by credible threats of terrorism could well be very bad indeed. Thirdly, I must confess that I find consequentialism absurd and repellent anyway. The suggestion that the bombings could have made it the case that the war was wrong is a good illustration of why. Opponents of the war tend not to see how ridiculous this suggestion is; it might help to consider instead the idea that a humane immigration policy could be made wrong by a few massacres by Combat 18.

Chris: I’m not sure whether I want to say that there are “acceptable looser uses of ‘cause’.” I would want to know what more there was to ‘social-scientific causation’than probabilification. If, as I suspect, the answer is “nothing,” then I think we have a certifiably distinct concept from that involved in the relation I bear to my actions; I think this is shown by the Peacocke example I mentioned in my response to Luc. If we can bear in mind that the concepts are thus distinct, then fine; otherwise it can only breed confusion. As I also said in response to Luc, the burden of proof that it is a legitimate concept of causation belongs to the ‘social-scientific’ concept. The agent-causation concept is as deeply embedded in so-called ‘folk psychology’ as any, and so is indispensable in our dealings with each other *qua* human beings.

On reflection I’m inclined to agree that if my argument applies to single actions then it applies to large-scale events like the Second World War.

Daniel: “As I understand Jimmy, he would not necessarily object to ‘Blair’s policies were among the causes of an increase in global terrorist violence’.” That would be fine if it meant that Blair’s policies caused such violence to be more probable, where this would not entail that they were among the causes of any particular incident.

John Quiggin: This is a good point, and I’m not sure what to say about it. I do want to be able to say that Blair was a cause of the Iraq war. But that would require me to argue that there is an underlying metaphyisical difference between raising the probability of (eg) terrorism (no direct agency and no causation) and cases where some people do the bidding of another or act on his behalf (no direct agency but causation). This requires an account of ‘acting on another’s behalf,’ which I’m not in a position to give.

Peter Levine: I am sympathetic to the spirit of double effect. Anyone who wants to be a deontologist without being a pacifist has to have recourse to something like it. But I don’t think the traditional version of the doctrine can work. Donagan argues convincingly (to my mind) in The Theory of Morality that it requires us to make moral distinctions in certain cases where clearly none exist. But in any case, we don’t need to go into the doctrine to understand the Blair/bombings case: Blair may have raised the probability that there would be bombings, but he was not among the causes of the bombings that actually took place.

Which brings me to Mr Kervick: I couldn’t help forming the distinct impression, from your comments, of vehement disagreement with – nay, perhaps even outright hostility to – the views expressed in my Normblog post. And yet closer inspection reveals that you have misunderstood my post with such conscientious thoroughness that the true extent of your disagreement with what I actually wrote is anyone’s guess.

“Of course it makes our lives harder to have to recognize the complexity and scope of the causes of human action. How much easier if every human problem could be solved by isolating a solitary human causal agent, and destroying it, or expelling it from our presence!”

This shows, I believe, that you think that my affirmation of agent-causation is intended to entail that agents are solely and fully responsible for their actions. This is the most elementary misunderstanding of my view that has appeared on the entire thread; please see John Quiggin’s comment 2 and Chris Bertram’s response (4). I am not in any sense advocating an easy option when it comes to assigning responsibility for actions; since I believe we are responsible for more than we cause, my account of responsibility (which you know virtually nothing about, since I have said virtually nothing about it) may be, for all you know, even more nuanced than the agent-causation-denying accounts of such great moral sophisticates as yourself. My affirmation of agent-causation commits me to no particular account of responsibility at all; *a fortiori* it doesn’t commit me to the grotesque caricature you foist upon me. This simple point takes care of a large proportion of your splenetic invective – including your unflattering speculations as to what motivates me (“fear of complexity and hard intellectual work,” for example) to espouse a view I do not, in fact, espouse.

I realise that you later acknowledge, in your treatment of the ice-cream case, that I believe that we can be partly responsible for what others do. But that doesn’t change the fact that a great deal of your rhetorical thrashing-about presupposes the opposite; I can only conclude that you are confused.

“Doyle makes no serious attempt at all to show that saying this is really fundamentally inconsistent with our ordinary ways of talking. His claim is an empirical semantic hypothesis. But his evidence is anecdotal at best, relying on a few fragments of conventional idioms, and some very inept argumentation relating to what is presupposed in deliberation.”

Insulting an argument is not the same thing as refuting it and, alas! it is the refuting that involves the “hard intellectual work.” To say that an agent did something intentionally is to say that she was the cause of the event that constitutes her action. (Very little follows about where responsibility lies.) You seem to want to deny this seemingly obvious fact. I’m not sure why. As for my argument (Kant’s, really) about what is presupposed in deliberation, it may well be “inept”; but don’t you owe us at least a hint about where the ineptness lies? Otherwise this is scarcely an objection I can respond to. Bear in mind that discrediting my argument will involve showing how there can be a point in deliberating about which of a range of actions to perform if only one of those actions is actually open to me. Hard intellectual work indeed!

“Doyle also makes the very strange claim that one agent’s actions can “raise the probability” of some other agent’s acting in a certain way without causally contributing to that action, should it occur. Apparently he has in mind some sort of magical probability raising that occurs outside the realm of causal influence.”

Causing an event (in the sense of intentional human action) and raising its probability are not the same concept and they don’t even have the same extensions. See the Christopher Peacocke example I mentioned in response to Luc.

“Equally bizarre is the suggestion (in the ice cream cone example) that my own action can, in thus magically “raising the probability” of your action, be such as to make me partly morally responsible for your action without it being the case that my action was partly causally responsible for the action. It is almost impossible to understand here what sort of thing Doyle thinks causation is. Suppose I held up an ice cream cone in the vicinity of your face, but held it up behind an opaque wall, where you can neither see nor smell it it. You then eat an ice cream cone. Am I morally responsible for that? Of course not. So what is the difference between this example and Doyle’s example? Isn’t it the most obvious explanation that my moral responsibility in the case Doyle describes flows from the fact that in that case my holding up the ice cream cone is part of the causal explanation of why you actually ate the ice cream cone; and that if I hadn’t held one up, you wouldn’t have eaten one?”

“It is almost impossible to understand here what sort of thing Doyle thinks causation is.” I have no idea what causation is, and I very strongly suspect that you don’t, either. My view is that, *whatever* causation is, we cause our actions. As for your argument against my account of the ice-cream case, I’m afraid it’s quite worthless. “The most obvious explanation” of the inefficacy of my holding up the ice-cream behind an opaque wall is indeed that, in the original case, “my holding up the ice cream cone is part of the explanation of why you actually ate the ice cream cone; and that if I hadn’t held one up, you wouldn’t have eaten one.” But to insert the term “causal” before “explanation” here, as you did, is simply a gratuitous piece of question-begging. Why can’t we just say that my holding up the ice-cream raised the probability of your pigging out, but that you were the cause of your pigging out, in virtue of its being your decision to do so? The holding up of the ice-cream could not have operated as a temptation if there had been an opaque wall in the way; but this doesn’t show that the temptation was a *cause*.

“Far from being built into our very conception of human action, the notion that human actions don’t have causes is in fact an extreme view – one that is only brought to the surface in moments of great fear, stress and rage, only to disappear again in favor of the cool, sane recognition of the obvious causal influence of one human action on others which is the normal human outlook.”

Just to get things straight: I’m the one suffering from “fear, stress and rage,” right? And you’re the “cool, sane” one? In any case, I am utterly at a loss as to why you would impute to me the claim that “human actions don’t have causes.” (You implicitly repeat the allegation in your second comment.) I don’t see how I could possibly have made it any clearer that I believe that human actions have causes. Their causes are human beings.

“But what could be more clear and obvious than that some human actions have a causal influence on other human actions?”

Well, I guess I just think it’s more clear and obvious that human agents cause their actions. So sue me.

“Aside from the daily confirmation of this phenomenon in scientific study…”

It’s funny you should say that. I was under the impression that no account of a purposeful human action in the language of the natural sciences had ever been given – including, interestingly, the purposeful actions that constitute scientific activity.

“…it is born out in every minute in the laboratory of everyday life. For example, we talk to other people every day, often in the hope of influencing their behavior … and lo and behold, they often behave in precisely the way we intended, and that one would have predicted they would behave.”

Nothing in my view denies that one person can influence another’s behaviour. On the contrary, I went out my way to affirm this. Nor do I deny that free behaviour can be predictable.

“It is comical to see the Doylean superstitions rhetorically elevated from their (purported) role as common and deeply entrenched contemporary beliefs, reflected in our ordinary talk about human action, to a level at which they are necessary to “living a life that is recognizably human”. Yes, and I suppose if we stop sacrificing animals, or stop believing in the role of demons in our lives, normal human life would cease. This has been the last refuge of cowardly intellectual conservatism throughout human history: the assertion that the intellectual rubbish of the times is somehow either a component of human nature, or fundamental to a non-pathological human existence.”

It strikes me as hyperbolic, to say the least, to describe the view that human beings are the causes of human actions as “the intellectual rubbish of the times.” For this is just the view that people do things. I don’t think that’s rubbish. I think it’s true! And so do you. Your apology for using intemperate language was an apology on your own behalf: you were accepting responsibility for your actions, as their author. You were not apologising on behalf of antecedent events that were the real causes of your actions; or, if you were, this would not be intelligible as an apology.

Since you are so scornful of the idea that we couldn’t lead recognisable human lives without these ideas, perhaps you could provide a sketch of such a life, in which people thought of human actions as like the weather, no-one held each other responsible and no-one deliberated about anything. If the impossibility of such a scenario is not obvious, I call Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment’ as a witness for the defence.

I’ll post responses to more comments when I have time.

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Chris Bertram 08.09.05 at 11:54 am

Jimmy,

When people say that Blair’s actions were among the causes of the London bombings don’t you suppose that they have a similar conception of “causes” in mind to that contained in Tony Blair’s own slogan “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” ?

Of course, you might reply that the only real causes of crime are the criminals — If you said that in the right tone, you’d sound like Paul Johnson or Anne Widdecombe!

I rather doubt, however, that “only criminals cause crime” was the claim that Blair had in mind when he enunciated the slogan. Rather, he was promoting the idea that Tory policies had led to unemployment and bad housing. If it was acceptable for Blair to make such claims back then, surely Blair himself should have no complaints of a metaphysical nature about people making similar claims about the effects of his policies?

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abb1 08.09.05 at 12:01 pm

Jimmy, it appears that in your clenching example the resulting event (action that you’re the cause of as an agent) is not clenching as such but the change in frequency of clenching.

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abb1 08.09.05 at 12:11 pm

Yes, and thus, it seems to me, even if all you try to do is clenching your hand, but instead, predictably enough, bombs go off in London (via some mechanism that we don’t need to specify now, with or without other human actors involved), then you’re indeed the cause of it.

Don’t try clenching your hand no more, please.

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Jimmy Doyle 08.09.05 at 12:33 pm

OK, a few more:

(First, though, how the hell do you get spaces between your paras in comments?)

Wrong: “To say that a human being caused an event, in the relevant sense, is simply to say that that event was an action of hers. The two expressions are synonymous.

“Do you really mean that? It would be very odd to say that all the things we cause are actions of ours.”

Wrong, you’re almost right. But the crucial expression in my formulation is “in the relevant sense.” Sure, human beings cause all kinds of events which don’t count as their actions. Human beings are (inter alia) physical objects, and any physical object can be thought of as the cause of an event (eg the brick caused the breaking of the window). But there’s a special way in which human beings can be causes, and this is what agency amounts to.

Brian: I entirely agree that the issues you raise are of the first importance. Overall, I’m going to have to pull that lame-o “I’m not really sure what to say” manoeuvre which has served me so well in responses to earlier comments. But I will say: (1) you’re absolutely right that free action cannot be a matter of uncausedness or randomness. (2) On my view reasons cannot be causes of actions. (*Contra* Davidson, of course: but I think Davidson’s error is to suppose that the relation between an agent and her actions is analysable at all; that’s why I’m unimpressed by his criticism of agent-causation talk (in “Agency”) that it doesn’t *explain* what distinguishes human actions from other sorts of behaviour. I’m convinced here by Richard Taylor’s arguments that agent-causation is not further analysable; also by things George Wilson says against the view that actions can be regarded as gaining their status *as* actions through being caused in some special way by mental states or events.) (3) O’Connor’s suggestion sounds very implausible to me. (4) I think that agency might fruitfully be compared to inquiry, in particular as regards the element of *authority*. The evidence available to the inquirer is a crucial influence on the conclusions she comes to or the theories she forms. But the responsibility for the inquirer’s conclusions is her own: she’s not a mere mechanism for transforming data into theories. Similarly, the agent may be influenced by her conception of what reasons bear upon her choice – but the ultimate responsibility lies with her, because the choice is hers in the end.

Matt McIrvin: The picture you advocate (a variant of Dan Simon’s, I believe) is certainly attractive, and especially in the way it promises to reconcile two apparently mutually inconsistent realms of discourse by insisting that they pertain to two different orders of causality. (I take it that this is ultimately part of what Spinoza was up to.) The problem is that if my action is a physical event, and physical events are determined by physical causes, then I can’t be free in the sense that there is more than one alternative action open to me. (There may be indeterminism in the physical system, but not off the right kind – not of a kind that leaves room for *me* to be the determining factor.) I worry that it’s not enough simply to say that one and the same reality can be described in terms of two incommensurable and seemingly mutually inconsistent conceptual frameworks. We are owed an explanation of *how* that could be the case.

Matt Daws: (i) “Blair was wrong to go to war because of the London bombings”. I agree with most of what you have to say about this, but I also think that any terrorist ‘blowback’ in the UK that would be sufficient to render the war wrong could not be foreseeable in a way that would make Blair culpable on those grounds. (ii) You disagree with my claim that “Blair did not, in any way or sense, cause the London bombings,” and say that if I were right, then Blair couldn’t bear any responsibility for the bombings; but I deny this implication, since I believe that we’re responsible for more than we cause. You claim that I come close to arguing that since (i) is false, (ii) must be true. But I don’t make that argument. Do I? I hope I don’t, anyway, because it’s a crap argument.

Chris: we are of one mind with respect ot your comment 56.

Marcus Stanley: “If Bertram does believe this he would be in a very small minority wildly outside of the mainstream social consensus.” This may well be true; but what follows? Nothing about whether Chris is right or not. Truth is not a matter of majority vote.

“It seems to me that one must take very seriously the argument [that] violence against innocents is justified or unjustified based on its instrumental usefulness.” I’m not sure I want to argue with someone who thinks that.

Mike Otsuka: I’ll get back to you.

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john c. halasz 08.09.05 at 4:31 pm

It strikes me as more than faintly absurd to apply such finely chopped logic concerning agency and causation to the question of Blair’s relative *responsibility* for the London bombings, snd it seems to me to carry something of the air of a diversionary tactic. Granted the possibilities of rhetorical overkill or imprecision on the part of some of his opponents, the general view is that Blair’s decision to participate in the Iraq invasion significantly increased the probability of terrorist attacks against the U.K., which I think is pretty much undeniable, but also acceptable, as well, if one thinks that the Iraq War was somehow necessary. However, Blair’s signing on the the Bushevik GWOT, (or GSAVE?), in the terms and methods it was presented with, amounts not just to a massive infliction of lethal violence, but a great exacerbation rather than effective reduction of the global problem of Islamic terrorism. And that is a much larger issue and still greater responsibility than just the specifics to be attributed in the London bombings. And not the least of the aspects of the issue is the massive amount of terrorism being inflicted in Iraq, together with the specter of civil was, (a forseeable risk), not to mention the potential spill-over effects of Iraq on future terrorism. (It might be useful to remember that the Busheviks were already mooting or vetting the doctrinal change of preventative war and “full spectrum dominance” before 9/11/01.)

But once the philosophical issue of agency is joined, I’d like to wedge an issue between “libertarianism” and “compatibilism” and ask why agency is being discussed only in relation to causality and not in relation to meaning? Granted an act is a causal intervention in environmental states of affairs and their causal nexus on behalf of the separately delimited causal organization of the organism, but that is precisely a feature we share with other animals. It is the capacity to interprete an environmental state of affairs counterfactually in terms of thematized alternatives, in the light of reflective needs and desires and futural horizons, and to select from them for a specific and self-monitored intervention in the environment that constitutes the phenomenon of agency. Whatever the causal status of underlying brain processes, whether they are conceived deterministically, or as indeterminate and open-ended, or as underdetermined, meaning and language are non-causal relations, generated by communicative interaction between human organisms and the level of emergent reality that comes into being only with that. It would follow then, since language is its sine qua non, that all human action is social and all acts are directly or indirectly oriented by interaction, (wherein the connection between the acts of a given agent presuppose connections to the acts of other agents), regardless of the level or intensity of reflective or thematic intentionality involved, else we are not concerned with action, but rather with mere behavior. It also follows that all human agency, “freedom”, is as much a collective as an individual matter, that, granted the existential separateness of each and every human being, one is not “free” if others are not also “free” and freedom is “embodied” in the collective still more than it is in the individual. This view might go some way to resolving the aporia between the social “scientific” point of view and the moral one. (I would suggest that social “sciences” don’t concerns causes, but rather concern structures that constrain the organization of causes and agents). Still more to the point, it rather obviates the point of carefully parsing Mr. Blair’s responsibility in terms of his contribution to causal chains.

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Dan Kervick 08.09.05 at 10:04 pm

James,

OK, I deserved the spleen, since I started it. Let’s try to turn down the heat now.

Just as you think I have attributed to you views that you don’t hold, I believe you have done the same in turn. Let me first state some of the views I hold about causation and agency, and then turn to those of your claims and arguments that seem most important to me, given those views.

First, I accept that things can be causes as well as events. Suppose you are out in the sun for an hour and receive a sun burn. I see you later and ask, “What caused that burn?” You say, “The sun”. That seems perfectly correct to me. Someone else might say: “The sun’s radiating during such-and-such a period of time caused J.D. to receive a burn during such and such a slightly later time.” I think this is also true. As I see it, these two statements are logically compatible, and physically interrelated. Whenever some thing causally contributes to an effect, there is an event in which that thing participates that also causally contributes to that effect; and whenever some event causally contributes to an effect, there is typically some thing which participates in that event which causally contributes to the effect. (I hedged a bit on the second half to allow for the possibility that an “absence” might both count as an event, and serve as a cause.)

I don’t see any reason to hold there is any exception to these views, or important difference in principle, in the case where the things in question are human agents, and the events in question are human actions. Human actions are one particular kind of event. They are caused by other things and caused by other events. I would suggest that what distinguishes those events we generally as classify as human actions from other events that are not actions are the kinds of events that cause the action – not the fact that the action has no event causes. And while I am willing to describe an agent as a cause of its actions, I don’t think that precludes the fact that other things, including other agents, are also causes of the former agent’s action.

If I leave a glass of water out in the sun, and some of the water disappears due to evaporation; then I contributed causally to the partial emptying of the glass. If I leave it out and you drink some of the water, I still contributed to its partial emptying. I contributed causally to your action of drinking the water, and that contributed causally to the partial emptying of the glass.

I do find it a little bit odd to speak of an agent as the cause of that agent’s actions. Suppose I throw a stone, and as a result break a window. I certainly caused the breaking of the windom, but I do find it a bit strained to say that I caused my throwing of the stone. The throwing seems a little too close to the events and states that constitute me to be an effect of me. But that is of no relevance to our disagreement. The claim that agents are the causes of their actions is not something I ever denied, and it has nothing to do with any of the points I made. I am perfectly happy to grant it, since I think “thing causation” of an effect is compatible with “event causation” of the very same effect. I would also claim that the assertion that some thing x caused an event e is compatible with the claim that some other thing y or event z caused x to cause e; and that y or z thus somewhat more indirectly caused e. I think this is the case even when x is an agent and e is one of that agent’s actions. That I caused my throwing of the stone is compatible with the claim that many events contributed causally to my throwing the stone.

So let me turn to some of your points. You say:

“To say that an agent did something intentionally is to say that she was the cause of the event that constitutes her action. (Very little follows about where responsibility lies.) You seem to want to deny this seemingly obvious fact. I’m not sure why.”

But, that is not true. I didn’t originally address the question of whether agents are the causes of their actions, and none of my original points depend in any way on the truth or falsity of this claim. As I say, I am perfectly happy to grant this claim.

I had said:

“But what could be more clear and obvious than that some human actions have a causal influence on other human actions?”

and you replied:

“Well, I guess I just think it’s more clear and obvious that human agents cause their actions. So sue me.”

Again, I don’t see in what sense these claims are incompatible. It is entirely possible for me to have a causal influence on your actions, even if you are also the cause of your actions.

I had also claimed that the hypothesis that actions are caused by other actions is confirmed daily in scientific explanation. You replied:

“It’s funny you should say that. I was under the impression that no account of a purposeful human action in the language of the natural sciences had ever been given – including, interestingly, the purposeful actions that constitute scientific activity.”

You seem to have in mind a purified language of the natural sciences that excludes reference to human actions in intentional terms. But I had in mind something much simpler, which is part of everyday behavioral science. Suppose I hypothesize that hearing or viewing reports of deadly auto accidents contributes to people buying Volvos. In trying to evaluate this hypothesis, I try to answer such questions as these:

Have Volvo sales risen in a certain region following well-publicized accident reports in that region?

Do measurable instances of accident-report viewing in a given sample population during a given period correlate positively with Volvo purchases over the same period?

etc.

We can all think of various ways of adding questions and deepening the study to rule out alternative hypotheses about common causes, coincidences, and the causal influence running in the other direction. It is always possible that the experiments all tend to confirm the hypothesis, and yet there was no genuine causal influence. But the probability that there is no causal influence diminishes the more the experimental confirmations accumulate. These are the sorts of experiments that would generally be considered adequate in the case of hypotheses involving of ordinary events that are not actions – if for example we were testing the influence of drought periods on wildfire occurrence. Why shouldn’t the same sorts of experiments be considered adequate in the case of actions?

We don’t need a comprehensive neurological or even mentalistic, theory of human action to do experiments like these. For example, suppose I wish to know whether the occurrence of sunspots affects the migratory patterns of some species of bird. I could investigate that question perfectly well, and devise many interesting experiments and observations to test it without having much adequate knowledge of the details of nuclear fusion, the behavior of heated gasses, the thermodynamics of large bodies, or the details of bird physiology. As with the sun and birds, so with human beings.

I had said:

“Far from being built into our very conception of human action, the notion that human actions don’t have causes is in fact an extreme view – one that is only brought to the surface in moments of great fear, stress and rage, only to disappear again in favor of the cool, sane recognition of the obvious causal influence of one human action on others which is the normal human outlook.”

You replied, rather appropriately:

“Just to get things straight: I’m the one suffering from “fear, stress and rage,” right? And you’re the “cool, sane” one?”

But that wasn’t really my point. What I had in mind is that people implicitly accept the fact that human actions have causes, and they act on that assumption all the time. When they deliberate, and consider the possible effects of their actions, they typically take into account the possible effects of their actions on the actions of other people. And they implicitly recognize how complex are the causal chains in which human actions are enmeshed. But in their dealings with other people in situations of fear and stress, or when provoked by anger, they have a tendency to “become stupider”, as it were, and to cognitively oversimplify their situation in order to respond decisively to it. They sunder the causal chains that link human actions in patterns of difficult-to-grasp complexity, and divide agents into exclusive categories of “did it” and “didn’t do it”. This individual psychological tendency is reinforced by the pressure added by our social practices, which often seem to demand the allocation of blame and innocence be clear, swift and unambiguous.

Now, you say:

“Nothing in my view denies that one person can influence another’s behaviour.”

But this one really loses me. Do you mean that there is a kind of influence that is not causal influence? Or do you mean that in any cases where such influence occurs, the behavior is a fortiori not an action?

You continue:

“It strikes me as hyperbolic, to say the least, to describe the view that human beings are the causes of human actions as “the intellectual rubbish of the times.””

It’s not – as I said, I have no interest in denying that human beings are the causes of human actions. I believe without reservation that some human actions cause other human actions; and I am willing to accept without serious compunction that human beings are the cause of their own actions. The “rubbishy” view is the view that human actions are not caused by other external things and events. I really do think that this view is not just mistaken, but pernicious. I know that you yourself believe that a person can be morally responsible for events over which they exert no causal influence. But I think most people, when they deliberate, tend not to take into account those eventualities that they regard as outside the scope of their causal control. Thus, to the extent that people come to believe that they cannot cause other people’s actions, their practical irresponsibility increases.

And I also think the view in question deserves to be classified as a superstition – a mystification of nature without any empirical warrant. As I said, I think the empirical evidence is all on the other side.

You say:

“Your apology for using intemperate language was an apology on your own behalf: you were accepting responsibility for your actions, as their author. You were not apologising on behalf of antecedent events that were the real causes of your actions; or, if you were, this would not be intelligible as an apology.”

I apologize for those of my actions that I believe were wrong. I take it that what these actions have in common is that they are cases in which I knowingly caused evil without having a morally sufficient reason for causing that evil, such as the production of a greater, overriding good; or they are cases in which I knowingly caused a good, but do not have a morally sufficient reason for having failed to produce a greater good. In both cases, my action is evidence of a defect in my motivational system. My desires and preferences are not weighted as they should be. People who are normal and well brought up tend to identify with their own motivations, and feel bad about such defects, and appropriately so, since feeling bad about them often tends to result in modification of them. We apologize to others in part to show them that we feel bad about our own actions, and about the pain we caused them. By thus acknowledging our own faults, we indicate that their additional correction is not necessary, since some self-correction is underway. We also lower ourselves and put ourselves in a more vulnerable submissive position, which helps to reverse their own sense of dishonorable submission that resulted from our having successfully injured and wronged them.

I don’t see how one gets from the claim that my actions were caused by antecedent events to the claim that I would then have to apologize for those events. I may regret those other events, but they are not flaws in my own motivational system, and so they are not flaws in myself to be acknowledged.

Finally, you say:

“Since you are so scornful of the idea that we couldn’t lead recognisable human lives without these ideas, perhaps you could provide a sketch of such a life, in which people thought of human actions as like the weather, no-one held each other responsible and no-one deliberated about anything.”

There are many ways in which human actions are like the weather, and many ways in which they are not like the weather. So that analogy doesn’t help. But I don’t see how the general denial of the view that “human actions cannot be thought of as mere events in a causal chain of further events” would prevent us from having recognizably human lives.

I suppose that my own life is recognized as human by other people. And while I deliberate all the time, and hold other people and myself both morally and causally responsible for many things, I don’t for a second believe that my actions and theirs don’t have antecedent causes, or see some reason to deny that they are nodes in a complex causal chain of events proceeding far into the future and the past. My actions, and the deliberations that precede and ultimately cause them, are embedded in such chains.

It would make no sense to say: “my current deliberation is futile, since what will happen will happen no matter how my deliberation turns out.” That is obviously just false. Since the deliberation is clearly of some moment, and not futile, I have no rational motivation to desist in deliberating.

Nor should I say: “it makes no sense to blame my attacker for attacking me, since the fact that his current motivational structure is the result of a long and complex causal chain of events shows that he possesses no moral fault himself.” That is also false. The rottenness of his motivational structure is what his moral fault consists in, even if this rottenness has a cause.

You might say: “well it is true that he possesses a moral fault; but it’s not his fault that it’s his fault.” That may be true; or it may not be true. It may be that his current corrupted state has something to do with earlier decisions grounded in some antecedent corruption. But clearly it is true that somewhere along the line there will be moral fault such that it is not the agent’s fault that he possesses that fault. But that doesn’t seem to matter. All that is needed is a single fault for the agent to be worthy of fault-finding.

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