Thursday, February 23, 2012

The intuition of responsibility

A central theme in the free will debate is the question whether responsibility exists. The idea is that a free will cannot exist, if responsibility does not exist. Therefore it has to be proved that responsibility exists. This is often done with the help of so-called Frankfurt-style cases: a kind of exemplary argumentations first presented by the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. A typical case is this:
“Jones is in a voting booth deliberating whether to vote for the Democratic or for the Republican presidential candidate. Unbeknownst to Jones, a neurosurgeon, Black, has implanted a mechanism in Jones’s brain that allows Black to monitor Jones’s neural states and alter them if need be. Black is a diehard Democrat, and should Black detect neural activity indicating that a Republican choice is forthcoming, Black is prepared to activate his mechanism to ensure that Jones instead votes Democratic. As a matter of fact, Jones chooses on his own to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, so Black never intervenes.” (adapted from Eric Funkhouser, “Frankfurt Cases and Overdetermination”,, p. 3)
In this case, Jones has in fact only one option: to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. If Jones had wanted to vote Republican, Black would have forced him to vote Democratic. Then it would not have been Jones’s responsibility that he had voted for the Democratic candidate. However, it was Jones’s own choice to vote Democratic; Black did not intervene and so the vote was Jones’s own responsibility. This shows then, so the reasoning is, that responsibility exists in the sense that there are situations in which it is possible. At least that’s what the intuitive argument of Frankfurt and other free will advocates maintains. Now I do not want to doubt that free will exists, but does it follow from this case that responsibility exists? My intuition says no.
Much has already been said about these Frankfurt type cases, so it would suffice for me to refer to the literature. However, as a “good philosopher” I, too, want to give my contribution to the discussion, so take this case: Under international pressure a dictator organizes free elections according to the accepted democratic rules: everybody can stand up, the candidates have free entrance to the media, they can present their programs freely, and so on. The elections are as free as elections can be. However, when the counting of votes starts, the president gives the following instruction to the counters: in case I get the majority and become re-elected, it’s okay, but if one of the other candidates will win, manipulate the votes then that way that I’ll be the winner. And just like Black in the first case succeeded to implant a mechanism in Jones’s brain unbeknownst to Jones, the dictator succeeds to have the instructions applied and to be kept secret. In case the dictator was beaten by another candidate but was re-elected by his manipulation, then we, the onlookers for whom nothing can be kept secret, would call the regime still a dictatorship. However, as it happened, the dictator was re-elected with 90 percent of the votes. Would we conclude now that democracy exists just as some concluded in the Jones-Black case that responsibility exists? Must we call the re-election of the dictator with an overwhelming majority a case of democracy? I don’t think so. My intuition says that it is a cunning way of manipulation by a dictator, just like so many dictators in this world try to govern with a varnish of democracy. And what makes this case fundamentally different from the Jones-Black case for responsibility? If we want to show that responsibility exists, we’ll have to choose for another, if possible less intuitive, explanation. At least, that’s the way I see it.

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