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Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility

Frankfurt, Watson, and Taylor

The following is excepted from Susan Wolf, “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility”. Read it and answer the question at the end.

My strategy [in this article] is to examine a recent trend in philosophical discussions of responsibility, a trend that tries, but I think ultimately fails, to give an acceptable analysis of the conditions of responsibility. It fails due to what at first appear to be deep and irresolvable metaphysical problems. It is here that I suggest that the condition of sanity comes to the rescue. What at first appears to be an impossible requirement for responsibility – the requirement that the responsible agent have created her- or himself – turns out to be the vastly more mundane and noncontroversial requirement that the responsible agent must, in a fairly standard sense, be sane

In his seminal article “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Harry Frankfurt notes a distinction between freedom of action and freedom of the will. A person has freedom of action, he points out, if she (or he) has the freedom to do whatever she wills to do – the freedom to walk or sit, to vote liberal or conservative, to publish a book or open a store, in accordance with her strongest desires. Even a person who has freedom of action may fail to be responsible for her actions, however, if the ... desires she has the freedom to convert into action are themselves not subject to her control. Thus, the person who acts under post-hypnotic suggestion, the victim of brain-washing, and the kleptomaniac might all possess freedom of action. In the standard contexts in which these examples are raised, it is assumed that none of the individuals is locked up or bound. Rather, these individuals are understood to act on what, at one level at least, must be called their own desires. Their exemption from responsibility stems from the fact that their own desires (or at least the ones governing their actions) are not up to them. These cases may be described in Frankfurt’s terms as cases of people who possess freedom of action, but who fail to be responsible agents because they lack freedom of the will.

Philosophical problems about the conditions of responsibility naturally focus on an analysis of this latter kind of freedom: What is freedom of the will, and under what conditions can we reasonably be thought to possess it? Frankfurt’s proposal is to understand freedom of the will by analogy to freedom of action. As freedom of action is the freedom to do whatever one wills to do, freedom of the will is the freedom to will whatever one wants to will. To make this point clearer, Frankfurt introduces a distinction beween first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are desires to do or to have various things; second-order desires are desires about what desires to have or what desires to make effective in action. In order for an agent to have both freedom of action and freedom of the will, that agent must be capable of governing his or her actions by first-order desires and capable of governing his or her first-order desires by second-order desires.

The Deep-Self View

[Along with two other philosophers, Watson and Taylor] Frankfurt shares the idea that responsible agency involves something more than intentional agency. All agree that if we are responsible agents, it is not just because our actions are within the control of our wills, but because, in addition, our wills are not just psychological states in us, but expressions of characters that come from us, or that at any rate are acknowledged and affirmed by us. For Frankfurt, this means that our wills must be ruled by our second-order desires....[T]hese

philosophers seem to be saying that the key to responsibility lies in the fact that responsible agents are those for whom it is not just the case that their actions are within the control of their wills, but also the case that their wills are within the control of their selves in some deeper sense.... [W]e may speak of their ... positions as variations of one basic view about responsibility: the deep-self view....

One virtue [of this view is that it] explains a good portion of our pretheoretical intuitions about responsibility . It explains why kleptomanias, victims of brainwashing, and people acting under posthypnotic suggestion may not be responsible for their actions, although most of us typically are. In the cases of people in these special categories, the connection between the agents’ deep selves and their wills is dramatically severed – their wills are governed not by their deep selves, but by forces external to and independent from them. A different intuition is that we adult human beings can be responsible for our actions in a way that dumb animals, infants, and machines cannot. Here, the explanation is not in terms of a split between these beings’ deep selves and their wills; rather, the point is that these beings lack deep selves altogether. Kleptomaniacs and victims of hypnosis exemplify individuals whose selves are alienated from their actions; lower animals and machines, on the other hand, do not have the sorts of selves from which actions can be alienated, and so do not have the sort of selves from which, in the happier cases, actions can responsibly flow.

At a more theoretical level, the deep-self view has another virtue: It responds to at least one way in which the fear of determinism presents itself. A naive reaction to the idea that everything we do is completely determined by a causal chain that extends backward beyond the times of our births, involves thinking that in that case we would have no control over our behaviour whatsoever. If everything is determined, it is thought, then what happens, happens, whether we want it to or not. A common, and proper response to this concern points out that determinism does not deny the causal efficacy an agent’s desires might have on his or her behaviour. On the contrary, determinism in its more plausible forms tends to affirm this connection, merely adding that as one’s behavior is determined by one’s desires, so one’s desires are determined by something else. [On the deep-self view, this “something else”, in the case of a person who has a free will, includes his second-order desires, or values.]

The Condition of Sanity

This account of responsibility thus offers a response to our fears of determinism; but it is a response with which many will remain unsatisfied. .

Unfortunately... the deep-self view fails to be convincing when it is offered as a complete account of the conditions of responsibility. To see why, it will be helpful to consider another example of an agent whose responsibility is in question.

JoJo is the favorite son of Jo the First, an evil and sadistic dictator.... Because of his father’s special feelings for the boy, JoJo is given a special education and is allowed to accompany his father and observe his daily routine. In light of this treatment, it is not surprising that little JoJo takes his father as a role model and develops values very much like Dad’s. As an adult, he does many of the same sorts of things his father did, including sending people to prison or to death or to torture chambers on the basis of whim. He is not coerced to do these things; he acts according to his own desires. Moreover, these are desires he wholly wants to have when he steps back and [reflects], “Do I really want to be this sort of person? [Am I acting on desires I value – on desires I want to be my will?]” his answer is resoundingly “Yes,” for this way of life expresses a crazy sort of power that forms part of his deepest ideal.

In light of JoJo’s heritage and upbringing – both of which he was powerless to control – it is dubious at best that he should be regarded as responsible for what he does. It is unclear whether anyone with a childhood such as his could have developed into anything but the twisted and perverse sort of person that he has become. However, note that JoJo is someone whose actions are controlled by his desires and whose desires are the desires he wants to have: That is, his actions are governed by desires that are governed by and expressive of his deepest self. ... [W]e cannot say of JoJo that his self, qua agent, is not the self he wants it to be. It is the self he wants it to be.

The deep-self view was right in pointing out that freedom and responsibility requires us to have certain distinctive types of control over our behaviour and over our selves. Specifically, our actions need to be under the control of our selves, and our (superficial) selves need to be under the control of our deep selves [wherein our values reside]. ... But not all things necessary for freedom and responsibility must be types of power and control. We may need simply to be a certain way [without it being in our control]...

[I]t becomes obvious that at least one condition of responsibility is of this form as soon as we remember what, in everyday contexts, we have known all along – namely, that in order to be responsible, an agent must be sane.

[In the rest of the article, Wolf elaborates the requirement that the agent be sane – that the sanity condition be added to the necessary conditions for moral responsibility to have a complete analysis. She briefly examines the definition of sanity. - mh]

WOLF holds that:

The Deep-Self view (Frankfurt’s theory of free will) is incomplete. The case of Jo-Jo shows this. Sanity is what is missing in the case of Jo-Jo according to Wolf. So sanity has to be added to the analysis of free will.

Do You Agree With Wolf’S reasoning? Do you agree we should include sanity as a condition on free will? Why or why not? (Consider whether it is easy to define sanity.) Explain your reasons. Try to persuade someone who might disagree with you. Your answer should be from 300 – 800 words. You should start your answer by stating and explaining the deep-self view, and explaining how Wolf thinks the case of Jo-Jo shows that the deep self view is flawed.

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