Could you have done otherwise?

In a 2017 talk, I argue that it’s unfair and unreasonable to suppose that any of us could have done otherwise in actual situations in a way that would make us more responsible than were our actions fully caused. This has major ramifications for all the agency-related attitudes, beliefs and practices that help define our culture.

Let’s say you take a completely deterministic view of your personal development and current behavior. Looking back on a particular choice or action, you agree that it was the fully caused outcome of all the conditions in play, such that were we to replay the situation, all conditions set the same, the same outcome would have transpired. This means you couldn’t have done other than what you did in that situation. Had, counterfactually, the situation been different in some respect, then perhaps you might have done otherwise since different causes would have been in play, but since it was as it was, you didn’t and couldn’t have done otherwise.

As a thought experiment, let’s add in some indeterminism, such that given the actual causes in play, a different outcome might have transpired. Some sort of slack in causal laws and regularities, some element of randomness (say at the quantum level), makes it the case that replicating the conditions doesn’t necessarily replicate the outcome. Here it seems that you might have done otherwise (even though you didn’t). But would this indeterminism make you more responsible, more of an originator of your choice or action in that situation? It’s difficult to see how, even though libertarians about free will such as philosopher Robert Kane argue that such is the case. To originate a choice or action, you have to cause it, and randomness or chance doesn't seem to help with that, but rather to attenuate responsibility.

In a talk given at the University of Minnesota, I explore this question and its implications for our beliefs and attitudes about human agency, responsibility, credit, blame and how these help determine policy, using addiction as a case study (slides for the talk can be downloaded by clicking here). I defend the conclusion that it’s unfair and unreasonable to suppose that any of us could have done otherwise in actual situations in a way that would make us more responsible than were our actions fully caused.

Importantly, this doesn’t erase our role as agents in situations, or render us powerless, or mean that we don’t make choices. Indeterminism, should it play a significant role in human affairs, wouldn’t add to our agential powers, but neither does determinism eliminate them. However, determinism does place us firmly within the diachronic unfolding of cause and effect, such that we can’t claim to be ultimate originators, either of ourselves or of our actions. Given that most folks probably think they could have done otherwise in actual situations in a responsibility-enhancing way, the claim that we couldn’t has major ramifications for all the agency-related attitudes, beliefs and practices that help define our culture.

In a recent book and Tedx talk, philosopher and artist Raoul Martinez essentially takes this position and explores in depth the personal and social implications of determinism, so I highly recommend his work. Others promoting this view in various ways include philosophers Gregg Caruso, Bruce Waller, and Derk Pereboom, all of whom are involved in the Justice Without Retribution Network. Supposing that we are in any sense ultimately self-created, and using that belief to justify and motivate punitive policies, social and economic inequalities, and ignorance of actual causes is a major barrier to an enlightened, humane society. Were we all to become good determinists like those mentioned above, such a society would be far more within our reach. 

Should you be interested in joining forces to promote the understanding and acceptance of a humanistic, pragmatic determinism, please be in touch.

Note: Articles on which this talk was based include Fully caused: coming to terms with determinism and, most recently, What should we tell people about free will?