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Responsibility: are we really responsible for our actions? Essay

Have you ever wondered if the decision that you have just made was the best possible decision for you to make? An agent’s relationship between responsibility and his decisions in life are affected by the alternative choices that were not taken as well as the choices that were made. Thomas Nagel believes that an agent’s autonomy is always being threatened by the possibility of a viewpoint that is more objective than his own. His view on responsibility is such that in order to place responsibility on an agent, sufficient reflection about alternative choices must be considered. On the other hand, Carl Ginet claims that free will cannot be caused (free will is not determined), but rather that the will is free.

He claims that responsibility is a result of the agent’s inherent free will to choose and is event specific. Ginet feels that since we are free beings, we are responsible for every decision that we make, but not for the causes of our choices. This is contrary to Nagel’s stance of responsibility. He asserts that in order for an agent to be held responsible for his decisions, the agent must have sufficient knowledge of both subjective and objective viewpoints. Nagel believes that this requires a highly developed view of the self and is very difficult to achieve.

Responsibility for our actions seems to only stem from the choices that we make, but the decisions that we do not make also affect our degree of responsibility.

Ginet feels that the only two propositions regarding free will are either that the will is caused or that the will is free. He argues that if the will is caused no agent can be held responsible for his decisions. One of Ginet’s arguments is that if the will is to be caused and a choice is presented to an agent that “no one can be intelligibly described as knowing what his decision will be before he makes it because the claim to possess such knowledge is implicitly inconsistent,” (Ginet 50). He claims that since agents cannot know what decision they are going to make before they make them, that the agent’s decisions are not caused. There is no point in deciding to take a course of action that is already known to the agent. A decision, in this case, would be useless because an agent cannot ‘decide’ on an action if the agent already knows what he will do.

As Ginet points out, “if [the agent] does already know what he will decide to do, then he cannot by the process of making up his mind persuade himself to anything that he does not already know,” (Ginet 52). If this is the case than an agent cannot be held responsible for his decisions because he could not possibly persuade himself to take a new course of action. On the other hand, if the will is to be free, placing responsibility for the decisions of an agent is valid. Ginet believes that with free will, a decision should be self-determining, “?a decision is a specific event which, like a flash or bang, can be identified independently of inquiry into its causes,” (Ginet 54). A decision is to be judged simply as an event and not by the events that caused it. If the will is free, responsibility can be placed on an agent, while if the will is caused, responsibility is discounted.

Autonomy and the tradeoff between the subjective and objective points of view are at the heart of an agent’s decision making, according to Nagel. He contends that there are levels of autonomy but no one can reach the highest level (perfect autonomy). Higher levels of autonomy are reached through self-actualization and reflection on oneself. An agent’s autonomy stems from the objective reflection of his viewpoint. However, Nagel believes that an agent can loose his autonomy and ultimately his free will by being overly reflective as is shown in this quote, “?so the problem of free will lies in the erosion of interpersonal attitudes and of the sense of autonomy,” (Nagel 112).

Nagel’s problem with free will, in making decisions, comes from the desire to possess both the objective (observer) perspective and the subjective (actor) perspective at the same instant. The problem here, is that an agent cannot be both causing the action and, at the same moment, be a passive observer. Why would we want to have both a subjective and an objective viewpoint at the same instant? To possess both would mean that the agent has the knowledge of the external perspectives affecting the decisions as well as the internal desires and the ability to act on them. Because an agent views his choice subjectively, there may be alternative choices that are not made aware to the agent and that may eventually prove to be the best course of action. An example of this particular case is as follows: a bank teller (who is relatively new to his position) is held up at gunpoint and ordered to give the robber the bank’s money.

This bank teller mentally reviews his situation and finds that the best course of action is to hand over the money peacefully. While this is happening, the bank manager is also reviewing the situation and has decided that if he were in the teller’s situation that he would push the hidden button underneath the desk. This button would release a plate of bulletproof glass between the robber and the teller. Unfortunately, the teller is new to his position and does not have this objective knowledge. The question before us: is the teller responsible for the loss of the bank’s money? This question will be considered later. Subjective and objective viewpoints often coincide with autonomy and self-reflection.

It is the choices from which we have to choose from, in any particular situation, that determine the degree of responsibility to which we attribute our actions. In order to answer the question stated in the preceding paragraph about the bank teller, one must choose to go along with Nagel’s or Ginet’s view on responsibility. If one holds to Ginet’s conviction that the will is free, then we are responsible for our decisions. However, judgment of the particular decision is limited to the decision being only a specific event and not of the preceding events. Judgment and responsibility in this case do not have anything to do with preceding causes in any way or the decisions that could have been made if the agent had a more objective viewpoint. In the case of the bank teller, his decision in giving the robber the money and thereby choosing the safest and most peaceful solution was, indeed, the best decision he could have made.

He is not held accountable for the lost money. When Nagel’s outlook on responsibility is applied to assess this situation, we see that there was a better decision that could have been made. If the teller had the objective knowledge about the button under the desk that the manager had, he could have prevented the robber from stealing the bank’s money. However, if he only had this objectivity and not his subjectivity, he would not be in the position to produce the volition at all. The teller did not, in this case, choose the best decision, but at the same time is not fully responsible for the loss of the bank’s money.

The teller is partly held accountable for the lost money because there was an alternative choice that would have made the overall outcome better off. Unfortunately for the teller, the knowledge of the hidden button was not made aware to him. This is why the teller is only partly responsible. Ginet asserts that responsibility is to be judged by the specific event while Nagel implies that there are different degrees of responsibility that vary with the amount of information that the agent has.

Judgment on a decision can be assessed using Ginet’s ‘event specific’ outlook on responsibility or Nagel’s view that there are varying degrees of responsibility. Both of these methods rely on the agent’s knowledge of the particular situation to make the best decision, but only Nagel’s method of judging a decision incorporates objective knowledge that the agent may be partially (or not at all) unaware of. Ginet’s stance on responsibility is that only the specific decision can be judged because the causes that led up to the decision are irrelevant when an agent finally comes to a conclusion when making a particular decision.

Nagel states that in order to make the best decision possible, an agent must have both subjective and objective knowledge. In this case, responsibility is not only derived from the decision that is actually made, but is also derived from decisions that could have been made (even if the agent did not have enough knowledge to consider all his possibilities). Both methods of assessing responsibility are valid, but Nagel’s method may be considered ‘unfair’. The agent is being held accountable for something that is out of his control (he does not have adequate knowledge). When we are faced with a decision, we must consider all that is before us in order to make the best possible choice. We will be held responsible for the decisions we make and for the decisions we did not make.

Works Cited

Ginet, Carl. “Can the Will be Caused?” Philosophical Review 71 (1962): 49-55.

Reprinted in New Readings in Philosophical Analysis, ed. H. Feigl, W. Sellars

and K. Lehrer (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972).

Nagel, Thomas. “The View from Nowhere.” Cambridge University Press. (1979).

pp.110-137


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