These were some late-night thoughts about the conceptual logic of morality and responsibility, written to the tune of Charlie Parker's glorious "Au Privave" (hot on the heels of "Step into the Realm" by the Roots, one of the few hip-hop bands I like at all...).
I guess what I am inching toward here is some sort of cognitive theory of moral responsibility ... but I'm really inching there, one teeny little piece at a time.... (Well, some topics lend themselves to speed better than others....)
I'll start with will, and then move on to my main topic of taking personal "moral responsibility" for one's actions.
Don't worry, I haven't turned into a preacher yet (though I haven't shaved for a while and am sporting a fairly spiffy Jesus-like beard, though I've been planning to shave for a few days and just haven't found the time), my basic orientation on these topics is one of systems theory....
So, for starters: Anyone with any sense knows by now that the intuitive feeling of "free will" we have is illusory. Our unconscious decides for us, before any conclusion is derived by the process of conscious ratiocination that feels like it's making a decision.
So why bother with the decision process at all? Why not just go with the flow of the non-ratiocinative unconscious? Because we know that the intensely-conscious decision process helps dynamically restructure our long-term memory in a way that will help our unconscious make better decisions in the future.
Next: Anyone with any sense knows that the notion of "moral responsibility" is, to a large extent, a hanger-on from obsolete religious belief systems.
And, the notion of "taking personal responsibility" for one's actions has -- in most particular instances -- questionable empirical grounding. After all, anything any one of us does, is to a large extent caused by our social and physical context -- as Saddam famously said in the South Park movie: "It's not my fault that I'm so evil ... it's society ... society...." Of course, it really IS society ... that cute little pseudo-Saddam wasn't lying ... and in any particular case, none of us really has the information to tease out the internal from the external causes underlying any of our actions ... but yet, this is a poor perspective to take, in spite of the element of truth underlying it.
(Causality, in the end, is not really a scientific concept anyway: it's a tool that minds use to understand the world. A causes B, from the perspective of mind M, if
- A precedes B
- The probability of events in class B is differentially higher, given the prior and correlated occurrence of events in class A.
- M can fairly confidently analogize that, if it were to carry out some action similar to A, then some event similar to B might be likely to follow
But that's a topic for another blog post, another day ... and is covered to some extent in the last chapter of my co-authored book Probabilistic Logic Networks, which Springer is supposed to publish this month...)
Sooo .... Why bother with the process of "taking moral responsibility" at all? Because we know that doing so helps us structure our long-term memory in a way that will help our unconscious take better actions in the future.
When we do something we wish we hadn't done, the act of assigning "responsibility" to ourselves causes us to insert a "correction signal" into our unconscious, which then modifies the structure of our internal declarative/procedural knowledge base in a way that makes it less likely we'll do similar regret-worthy things in the future. This is the case even though we (i.e. the deliberative, ratiocinative, "decision process" aspect of ourselves) don't know that much (rationally or intuitively) about how the unconscious works, and can't really untangle the various causal threads weaving through our minds and our worlds and leading to our actions.
The "ordinary waking state of consciousness" that most people occupy most of the time, involves a coupling of ratiocinative-decision-making with the free-will illusion, and a coupling of moral-responsibility-taking with some semi-religious notion of moral-agency. But it's possible to get into a state of mind where you carry out ratiocinative-decision-making and moral-responsibility-taking without any significant illusions attached to them ... simply because these cognitive dynamics tend to lead to effective overall system functioning.
Now, when I say "it's possible to get into a state of mind where X holds", am I saying that "by exercising one's free will, one can cause oneself to get into a state of mind where X holds" ?
Not really. What I'm saying is that "Sometimes the self-organizing dynamics of a mind coupled with an environment will result in that mind getting into a state of mind where X holds."
And what's the point of me telling you this? Well, some states of mind want to spread from one mind to another....
The basic idea is: If one does not internally take responsibility for one's own actions, one will never send those necessary correction-signals to one's own unconscious. Then one will just keep on doing those regrettable things.
Removing the obsolete, flawed quasi-religious concepts of blame, shame and so forth from one's inner mental landscape is an important step toward becoming a rational and self-aware, fully-realized person; but, once they are removed, they need to be replaced with something else ... they need to be replaced with a recognition of the mind as a holistic, complex dynamical system; and with a recognition of the role of the deliberative, ratiocinative aspect of mind as modulating the complex nonlinear dynamics of the unconscious.
None of us can control ourselves, none of us is fully aware of the dynamics by which we operate (in part because of basic information-theoretic limitations on the extent to which any finite system can understand itself; in part because of information-theoretically unnecessary limitations posed by the human brain architecture, which did not evolve in situations where acute self-awareness and mental self-control were key aspects of the fitness function). But "we" (the deliberative, ratiocinative "phenomenal self" portions of our minds) can modulate the dynamics of the other portions of our minds, via doing things like rational-decision-processes and responsibility-taking....