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Moral Responsibility and Interventions

Written by Gabriel De Marco

Consider a story about Joe, Louie, and Dr. White. Joe is a gambling man and has been for much of his life. In his late twenties, Joe began to gamble occasionally and after a while, he decided that he would embrace this practice of gambling. Although Joe gambles fairly often, he has his limits, and can often resist the desire to gamble.

Louie, on the other hand, is a frugal family man. With his wife, he has been saving money over the last year so that they can take their kids to Disneyland. Dr. White, an evil neurosurgeon who detests the thought of children enjoying themselves at Disneyland, wants to stop this trip. So, Dr. White designs and executes a plan. One night, while Louie is sleeping, Dr. White uses his fancy neuroscientific methods to make Louie more like Joe. He implants in Louie a strong desire to gamble, as well as further attitudes that will help Louie embrace this desire, such that Louie, for example, now values the thrill of gambling, and he desires that his gambling desires are the ones that lead him to action. In order to increase chances of success, Dr. White also significantly weakens some of Louie’s competing attitudes, like some of his family values, or his attitudes towards frugality. When Joe wakes up the next morning, he feels this strong desire to gamble, and although he finds it strange that it has come out of the blue, he fully embraces it (as much as Joe embraces his own gambling desires), having recognized that it lines up with some of his other attitudes about his desires (which were also implanted). Later in the day, while he is “out running errands,” Louie swings by a casino, bets the money he has been saving for the trip, and loses it. “Great success” thinks Dr. White. Since his goal of preventing some children’s joy at Disneyland has been achieved, he turns Louie back into his old self after Louie goes to sleep.

This story is similar to stories sometimes found in the debate about freedom and moral responsibility, though I will focus on moral responsibility. Intuitively, Louie is not morally responsible for gambling away these savings; or, at the very least, he is significantly less responsible for doing so than someone like Joe would be for doing something similar. If we want to make sense of these different judgments about Louie and Joe’s responsibility, we are going to need to find some difference between them that can explain why Louie is, at least, less responsible than regular Joe.

On some views, sometimes called relational views of responsibility (or autonomy), the difference between Louie and Joe has to do with the presence of an intervener or manipulator, in this case, the presence of Dr. White. How this explanation works will depend on the theory, though the unifying feature of these views is that the explanation of the difference essentially involves the presence of an intervener.

But now consider a modified version of the case. Suppose that there is no Dr. White. Instead, Louie undergoes a neurological treatment involving electrical stimulation of the brain, and, as an unforeseen side-effect of this treatment, Louie again, who started off as a frugal man, ends up with a strong urge to gamble that he embraces, and this leads him to gamble away the savings. Once the stimulation is turned off, he loses these desires. (There is a real-life case of someone gaining gambling desires after such a treatment).

In this sort of case, we do have a different agent which brings about the change, namely the neurosurgeon that performed the treatment. But, this neurosurgeon, we can suppose, did not know about the possible side-effect, and we can further suppose that she was blameless for this ignorance. Although there is an intervener, there is no intention to bring about this change, or to make it such that Louie would gamble away these savings. Because of this, these relational views will have a tougher time explaining why this Louie is, at least, less responsible than regular Joe.

But notice that we can simplify things and eliminate the neurosurgeon altogether. Consider cases involving blind forces, which are sometimes used to help decide between theories. Suppose that Louie ends up with this change, and gambling away the savings, as the result of a brain tumor, or a rod going through a part of his brain, or hitting his head after falling down a hill. These changes would not be the result of some agent’s intervention in any way. (These examples come from real-life cases of people who have undergone personality changes through these blind forces). In these variations, we may still have the same intuitive judgments about Louie’s responsibility. Relational views are at a complete loss here, and unable to explain why Louie is, at least, less responsible than regular Joe.

In order to explain the difference between all of these Louies and regular Joe, we will have to look elsewhere. Some have offered other explanations, mainly focusing on Louie’s capacities for control over his mental life (e.g., the capacity to modify the strength of one’s desires in light of one’s normative judgments, the capacity to enter into deliberations regarding one’s values and desires, the capacity to bring one’s emotions in line with one’s desires and values, etc.). One important feature of all of these cases is that the new gambling desire that leads Louie to action is the result of a process that did not engage with these capacities. Another important feature of these cases in particular is that, were Louie to try to use these capacities to evaluate this new desire, he would end up endorsing it in virtue of the fact that the very attitudes that Louie would be using to evaluate the gambling desires were themselves implanted in a similar way.

Working out the details of such an explanation is a long and difficult process.  At the very least, these sorts of considerations help us to see which direction is more promising, if we intend to explain why Louie (in any of these cases) is, at least, not as responsible as regular Joe would be. A developed version of this view will also have practical implications. Finding out when such changes mitigate (or fully undermine) responsibility for some actions can help to guide how (or whether) we hold responsible those who have undergone such changes as the result of treatment, or as a result of the blind forces like those mentioned above. It may also help to illuminate some of the moral factors involved in deciding whether to perform certain types of treatments.


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3 Comment on this post

    1. Andrew,

      Good question. It is not intended to mean ‘compel’. A common view is that mental states will play a significant role in the production of actions. For example, I may have a desire to watch some movie or other, and when I decide to watch the movie, the desire to do so will play a significant role in the making of that decision. Theories of action will sometimes differ in what role they think mental states play when it comes to the production of action, and ‘lead to action’ is intended to stay neutral between those.

  1. Harrison Ainsworth / HXA7241

    First, I want to analyse responsibility as bipartite (and, in the background, more abstractly as of a multi-element interaction structure):
    1, is the element in the causal chain;
    2, is the element modifiable in future similar cases.
    This clarifies by detaching and distancing the complexities of anthropocentrism.

    Now, in the article’s examples, it seems the difficulty stems from them being underdetermined: we have clear elements, and let us assume clear causal chains, but primarily we do not know how and where the modifiability lies. Everyone there qualifies for the first half, of past-causal ‘responsibility-1’, but how they fit the second half, of future-remedial ‘responsibility-2’, is not properly indicated.

    Nevertheless, let us pursue the hypothesis and make some estimates. Joe is presented in quite a fixed form, as the way he is, and so a good inference would be that he is not modifiable, and so exempt from responsibility-2. In comparison, Louie, otherwise stably inconsequential, was subject to whimsical ad hoc influence from White — who is thus the obvious focus for responsibility-2. White’s action is presented as being rather unentangled with the larger network of interactions: it could be easily plucked out: any remedial intervention is clear-cut and easy: just make White *not* do it.

    The second example, of Louie and the other neurosurgeon, again resolves almost identically as Louie before. The ‘salient influence’ is the neurosurgeon’s discrete and alterable action, therefore that is where responsibility-2 belongs. Although there is some counterweighting in what happens without the treatment: presumably something undesired, which would need to factored in to a a more sophisticated decision to desist from it.

    In both of those Joe and Louie are equally non-responsible. They are both in the causal chain, but they are also both not targets for future remedial modification. Any intuitive tendency to label Joe as culpable/blameworthy/etc equates to imputation of responsibility-2, and that needs to checked for firm evidence of modifiability of action/behaviour.

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