Do Incompatibilists Have Inconsistent Intuitions?

Posted on December 20, 2013 by

Incompatibilism, for our purposes here, is the view that the sort free will required for moral responsibility is not compatible with determinism. In a few recent studies there seems to be an apparent disconnect between  incompatibilist intuitions when asked compatibility questions in a different way. On the one hand, in abstract cases the folk seem to be incompatibilist. However, in concrete cases, such intuitions seem to be compatibilist. Abstract cases are cases in which the folk are not given details about specific moral failings, rather, they are given the facts of the universe and are asked a question about the moral responsibility of agents in that world. Concrete cases are cases that are given with details of moral failings. In these latter cases it seems that the folk intuition is that moral responsibility, or the freedom required to ground moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. So, what’s causing the difference?

In a very nice paper, Gunnar Björnsson argues that the “explanation hypothesis” is better equipped than the “bypass hypothesis” offered by Eddie Nahmias and Dylan Murray to handle the inconsistent intuitions incompatibilists seem to have. The explanation hypothesis claims that “subjects’ tendencies to withhold responsibility attributions to agents in deterministic scenarios do not stem from tendencies to understand determinism as implying bypassed agency. Instead, bypass intuitions are explained by intuitions of undermined responsibility, or, as I have suggested, by a condition closely associated with those intuitions.” (pg 20).

Now, rather than get into the details of both views or declare one side a victor over the other I would like to pose a few questions about the explanatory hypothesis for those in the know. Bjornsson amd Perrson claim:

“In earlier work, Karl Persson and I have argued that a certain independently supported general account of responsibility judgments gives us reason to disregard the basic intuitions grounding incompatibilist or skeptical convictions (Björnsson 2011, Björnsson and Persson 2009,2012, 2013). According to this account, the attributions of responsibility are implicit explanatory judgments, understanding the object of responsibility as straightforwardly explained by the agent’s motivational structures. Incompatibilist intuitions arise from shifts in salient explanatory models, shifts that, we argue, are predictable but epistemically weightless side effects of mechanisms the function of which is to keep track of mundane relations between agents and outcomes.”

But, why think this is so? Why reject the first set of intuitions rather than the second? I think it would be plausible to reject the second set of intuitions, the intuitions brought out by concrete cases for biological and evolutionary reasons. For instance, if we attempted to replicate Björnsson’s study but slightly altered the questions  I think we could get different results. Instead of asking,”Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?” as they did in their first study, we could ask   “Is Bill as much to blame for killing his wife and kids as he would be in Universe B?”  One reason we could give to speak to the answers given the way the question was asked in the first instance  could be that the folk responds in disgust, or something like it, when a wrong-doer is not held accountable for their actions. This could be the cause of why their intuition shifts. Here’s a short podcast where Savulescu discusses the “Yuk factor” . To tell if this is the cause we could change the question a bit to secure the fact that the wrongdoer is still to blame but not as much, as suggested above. If it turned out that the wrongdoer is thought not to be *as morally responsible* as the wrongdoer from Universe A then we seem to save the initial intution and the inconsistency seems to go away. We can also explain the difference in intuitions via the “yuk factor” or some variation of it. If this is true then the conclusion drawn by Björnsson and Persson might be misplaced.  Rather than concluding that “attributions of responsibility are implicit explanatory judgments, understanding the object of responsibility as straightforwardly explained by the agent’s motivational structures” we could conclude that attributions of responsibility do track a more metaphysical account of the world. Since many already seem to have incompatibilist intuitions in abstract cases, and, if the results of the newly asked question do track that agents involved in the concrete cases are less to blame in Universe A rather than Universe B, then the intuition from the first cases would not seem so arbitrary.

So, in conclusion, the cause of what looks to be a  difference in intuitions could be a variation of what Julian Savulescu dubbed the “yuk factor”. I don’t think it would necessarily flip flop the results but I do think it would bring the results more in line with the incompatibilist intuitions folks have in the initial abstract case. Think about it for a second, in the first abstract cases the “yuk factor” is not activated so to speak. The idea is that people have reactive attitudes of disgust when they hear about adverse situations. It’s biological and evolutionary in nature. But, once we place a victim and a horrific crime in the mix (as in the concrete case) the “yuk factor” comes in to skew the results. Sounds plausible at least. If we ran the study we would at least be able to gauge if in fact the intuitions are inconsistent or if there was something else at play doing the work (the yuk factor?).