Incompatibilist misconceptions #1 – moral megalomania


This is the first in a short series of posts about incompatibilist misconceptions – typically conceptions voiced by the compatibilists against the freewill sceptic/denier (who I will refer to as the incompatibilist)

#1 – Moral megalomania

According to this typical compatibilist response, they claim that incompatibilists (of the non-libertarian kind) believe that the condition of control must be entirely within the agent for him to be morally responsible, yet they deny this possible because there are always factors beyond our control that make this type of agency impossible.

As  Cuypers states:

“He reminds us of entirely external factors such as my not being born with a brain lesion, my parents’ feeding and clothing me when I was young, the sun’s continuing to shine, and the earth’s not being hit by a meteorite. These are conditions over which the agent has absolutely no control but they are undeniably are causal contributors to his psychological constitution, agency and moral responsibility. Hence the incomaptibilist’s [non-libertarian] requirement of total control, including control over these causally contributing factors, “seems to be a kind of metaphysical megalomania … is a fantasy.”(John Fischer)

This is clearly a very harsh reading from Cuypers and Fischer, and a reading that the incompatibilist need not accept on this account

(1) Not all incompatibilists agree, myself included, that the total control condition is so expansive as to include taking control over the universe – this appears a parody of what we believe. The typical position of an incompatibilist is  rather that who we are, our psychological dispositions, our personality etc. is formed of genes and biology that which we have no control over. Adding this to a roughly deterministic universe, and we come to the conclusion that we are not ultimately morally responsible for our decisions in a deserving sense.

Now, the fact that it is impossible to have control over these aspects – such as our genes – as to who we are does not make the incompatibilist position a type of megalomania. The argument from the incompatibilist is not that we must have total control over ever aspect of our personality formation, thus we are not fully morally responsible. Rather incompatibilists believe (or atleast I do) that in this type of universe with the metaphysics of near-enough determinism, we do not have control over who we are in the sense of personality formation and behaviour, and thus are not fully morally responsible. A subtle yet important difference.

Before this quickly written post is finished, I’ll offer a stupid objection on behalf of a compatibilist – that I’m sure most philosophers would not argue for.

Compatibilist: Yes, but the fact that you cannot choose who you are means that incompatibilism is false, since it is ludicrous to think that you should have control or demand that you can have control over yourself for moral responsibility.

Incompaitibilist: What!? That is the precise reason that we think that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism: since I can’t choose who I am. Well done for begging the question against the incompatibilist. Moreover, whether the concept of moral responsibility pertains in our world should be dependent on the facts of nature (i.e. on the abilities we do and do not have – i.e. unable to choose who we are).



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