Responsibility: are we really responsible for our actions?

Topics: Choice, Decision making, Philosophy Pages: 5 (1586 words) Published: December 6, 2002
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

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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

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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...

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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