Tuesday, March 03, 2009

it's been a somewhat difficult and totally wonderful february. march!

i've just completed, after two weeks of toil, a prospectus for what will be my writing sample. i will no doubt tinker with it in the coming days:

Despite the foundational role that capacities play in so many analyses of moral responsibility, capacities are not, as far as I can tell, entities1 of which there is some common or uncontroversial understanding. Nearly any theory in which moral responsibility or membership in a moral community is predicated on some notion of freedom or agency will in turn explain freedom or agency in terms of capacities, either rational or sympathetic. The risk philosophers run when they don’t state plainly some preferred analysis of the term—and even, it turns out, when they do—is packing that which is at issue into an unanalyzed or amorphous conception of a capacity, rather than directly claiming or arguing for it.2 It is essential, I think, that those philosophers who invoke capacities and claim for them some power, explanatory or otherwise, should state their analysis plainly and in a way that gives us some reason to think that capacities are rightly thought to have the powers claimed for them.

In Ethics and the A Priori Michael Smith does provide an explicit analysis of capacities, which he offers in service of his own account of moral agency and responsibility. Here Smith, in his explicitness about capacities and their role in his larger project, models what I think is a useful and forthright approach to moral theory. And, further, I find his analysis of capacities itself to be both plausible and illuminating. Where I disagree with Smith is in thinking that capacities, as he ably explains them, are adequate to the task of supporting his larger views on agency and responsibility. Far from shoring up his larger view, his analysis of capacities gives us an excruciatingly clear view of why rational capacities will fail to provide an adequate justification of our attributions of moral responsibility. [In this paper I will present Smith’s view, offer a criticism of it, and then evaluate two potential rebuttals.]

A capacity, as Smith analyzes it, is an essentially metaphysical entity. While a rational capacity is underwritten by some actual psychological state constituted, perhaps, by some state of the brain, of the individual in possession of said capacity, the capacity itself is, over and above the actual state, a host of true counterfactual claims about that agent in relevantly similar circumstances. So when confronted with the question “could X have done otherwise?” we are to understand this as a question of whether or not X had the capacity to do otherwise, and this, in turn, depends on whether, in a certain number of relevantly similar possible worlds, it is true of X that she does otherwise. Smith has aggregated the would haves into a could have, which is yours (you could have), and which is therefore you. In the case of someone who has one drink too many, for example, we might ask, “would she have chosen to have that drink if a different friend had been there with her?”; “would she have chosen to have that drink if she had considered for a moment longer her commitments the next morning?” If the answer to enough of these sorts counterfactual questions is yes, then it can be truly said of the agent in question that she had the capacity to do otherwise—that her failure to do the right thing is, in these sorts of cases, best explained as a failure of her capacity to act rationally (which, for Smith, is synonymous with acting rightly). She had the capacity to act well, and she is therefore rightly thought answerable for her poor choice.

Claims about capacities are claims about possibility-- about what we could have done, what we can do. Anyone committed to a moral system in which responsibility depends on capacities, either directly or by way of agency, will therefore have to predicate their system on certain metaphysical commitments, some way of making sense of modal claims. Smith offers a possible worlds analysis of capacities, and possible worlds analyses provide, if I understand correctly, our clearest and best analyses of modal claims. It’s hard to see what we could mean by claims about capacities other than something along the lines of what Smith suggests. What this analysis reveals, I will argue, is that our assumptions about what capacities justify are, according to our best metaphysical theories, misinformed. More specifically, I will argue that Smith’s analysis of capacities makes clear that he, along with others who claim that the possession of rational capacities justifies attributions of moral responsibility, begs the question against his opponents. Far from demonstrating that capacities provide an adequate basis for attributions of moral responsibility, Smith's analysis lays bare their inadequacy to the task.

To see why this is so, we need only look to Smith’s analysis of dispositions. Though the disposition he analyzes is the property of a non-human animal (a chameleon), his analysis of a disposition is otherwise identical to his analysis of a capacity—both are analyzed in terms of hosts of true and relevant counterfactual claims. In his example case, we have a shy but powerfully intuitive chameleon who, though disposed to be green under normal viewing conditions, blushes red when he knows he is being watched—and always knows when he is being watched. He has, in other words, the disposition to be green when viewed though, when actually viewed, he is red without fail. His disposition to be green under normal viewing conditions is constituted in part by properties of his skin, and in part counterfactually—in all of the many nearby possible worlds in which the chameleon is a little less shy or a little less intuitive, he will be green when viewed. As in the case of capacities, dispositions are a kind of aggregate—the collection of relevant would haves—underwritten by the actual constitution of the one to whom it is attributed.

A disposition, when present, does not engender responsibility in the way that Smith takes a capacity to. If I have the capacity to resist the temptation to have another drink (if, in many relevantly similar circumstances I do resist it), then, Smith says, my failure to resist is best explained as a failure of my capacity to resist, and it is therefore right to hold me responsible. I have failed to do what I could have done. But imagine substituting the term “disposition” for “capacity”. Would anyone ever be inclined to attribute my having an ill-advised third drink to a failure of my general disposition to refrain? I think not. This seems, in fact, to get things exactly backwards: my general disposition to refrain is, for once, not the explanation for my behavior. We must look elsewhere.3 Smith himself, when speaking of dispositions (never in terms of human beings, but in terms of animals), describes these sorts of situations as cases of masked dispositions (i.e. cases in which the disposition is masked by some other disposition, which, I assume, is the better candidate if you’re looking to attribute my behavior to something).

What all of this amounts to is that dispositions and capacities, understood in this way, are both similarly constituted and metaphysically indistinguishable, and yet there is no indication that the attribution of a disposition engenders responsibility, while it is taken for granted that a capacity does. No argument is offered for why capacities engender responsibility while dispositions don’t, or even, for that matter, why some notion over and above dispositions is necessary for adequately explaining human behavior.4 The application of the term “capacity” to certain modal properties of human beings and “disposition” to the modal properties of other things seems merely to name the fact that we just do hold human beings (and not inanimate objects, weather patterns, plants or non-human animals) morally responsible. Smith thus assumes what is at issue.

Smith might reply that the difference between dispositions and capacities is that capacities are constituted in the actual world by brain states giving rise to psychological states, while dispositions are constituted by other sorts of bodily properties—of the skin, for example, or of muscles. Perhaps it is even some particular subset of psychological states that merit the modal status “capacity”. I haven’t fully thought this objection through yet, but I don’t see what (non-question begging) difference this distinction could make.

Smith might also reply that his explanation of capacities need not be justificatory. Indeed, he actually suggests this, on the grounds that not only our moral theory and practices, but all thought and discourse presuppose capacities. It is therefore deemed inappropriate to demand a justificatory explanation on the grounds that that which thought and discourse must presuppose is beyond the reach of valid skepticism. On this view, the job of the moral theorist is just to delineate the role that capacities necessarily play our moral systems and theories, and give the best possible descriptive account of them (which Smith certainly does). And yet Smith’s analysis is rife with justificatory aspirations, and, I will argue, rightly so. Neither thought nor discourse presuppose capacities (though many moral theories, I gladly concede, most certainly do). Our thought and discourse do certainly presuppose some modal truths and entities, but nothing that can’t be adequately explained in terms of dispositions. Again, Smith has provided no reason why we should think in terms of responsibility engendering capacities rather than the similarly constituted and metaphysically identical dispositions which, though they may license certain expectations, do not engender responsibility. We appeal to capacities (over and above dispositions) not because we need to, but because we want to.

Smith, finally, doesn’t succeed in providing an adequate “basis of an account of freedom and responsibility”. He doesn’t make sense of freedom and responsibility by making sense of capacities. The descriptive project—the project of sketching out an analysis of capacities—never gets adequate prescriptive traction. And while his descriptive project accomplishes quite a lot (as I hope to have time to spell out a little)5, capacities, so described, will not serve as an adequate basis for an account of moral responsibility. Which is not to say that nothing could, but only that capacities (or dispositions if you prefer) are not the right sorts of things.

1If capacities can even be said to be “entities”.

2I think that this happens in all sorts of philosophical exchanges, and the “it” therefore varies some from case to case, but I’m thinking most particularly about arguments over free will, practical rationality, and internalism versus externalism.

3In many cases, it will, admittedly, be hard to know just where we ought to look. This, I think, is part of what motivates our reliance on the notion of capacities—it sort of absorbs the impact of all the things we don’t and can’t know about what explains human behavior.

4I don’t think that there is any sound argument for why capacities, given their nature, engender responsibility while dispositions don’t. I don’t think that capacities can offer licit explanatory power over and above dispositions. I think, in fact, that we assign

5Smith’s analysis of capacities/dispositions helps us to see their importance in a number of ways, particularly around issues of personal identity. Who you are, on Smith’s view, is partly constituted by who you might be, who you could have been. There’s something right about this, and that Smith’s view captures it seems to me to be one of its great virtues. Further, a capacity, like a disposition, licenses the making of all sorts of interesting and important distinctions between objects (in this case people). Think again of the shy and intuitive green chameleon: employing Smith’s analysis, we carefully capture a real difference between it and the really red chameleon. Similarly, it seems plausible to think that there is a real distinction to be made among all of those people who have never gone skydiving between those who would go, given the chance, and those who wouldn’t. Smith’s careful analysis structures these distinctions—which are, I think, morally relevant, and generally crucial— setting truth conditions for them, etc. Overall, Smith’s analysis of capacities succeed in making sense of them in a way that allows for a vastly enriched (theoretical) view of the world—and agents in particular.

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