Tuesday, April 15, 2008

God and the Principle of Alternate Possibilities

A commonly held idea about moral responsibility is the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, which says that if an agent cannot do otherwise than X, then he is not morally responsible for doing X. An example might be a case where Smith is involuntarily pushed out of a helicopter and lands on Jones, killing him. Smith could not do anything to prevent his landing on Jones, and it seems clear that Smith is not morally responsible for killing Jones.
Now consider the following scenario:
You are a soldier trying to decide whether to shoot a suspected terrorist. God wants you to shoot the suspect, and will cause you to decide to shoot if you are inclined to make the wrong decision. As it turns out, you decide to shoot on your own and God does nothing.
Are you morally responsible for shooting the suspected terrorist?
The idea here is that you cannot do other than shoot the terrorist, and yet it is unclear whether you are morally responsible for your action. What do you think?

9 Comments:

Anonymous Steve said...

Okay, I'll take the bait . . . I'd have to say that you ARE morally responsible for shooting the terrorist if you indeed pulled the trigger. No understanding of the sovereignty of God (or predestined actions) should eliminate moral responsibility from one's actions.

1:55 PM  
Anonymous Curtis said...

What about the Egyptian Pharaoh whose heart God caused to harden so He might go through with the plagues, revealing His power and ultimately wear down the Egyptians? Although it's debatable what it meant for his heart to be hardened, I think the bible is clear that moral blame is placed on Pharoah.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

I think your analogy breaks down. Smith did not "decide" to land on Jones, whereas the shooter makes the decision to shoot. Decision implies choice, which, taken in the context of free will (which can always be debated), implies responsibility, moral or otherwise. At least, that's my take on it.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I suppose the intuition I should've highlighted is the following: no one should be held responsible for things he cannot prevent from happening. This is why we don't hold people responsible for epileptic seizures and the like.
In the shooter's case, it is also true to say that he could not prevent what happened. So, why is he responsible?

5:47 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

We've had "responsibility" questions in the past. I am always interested in what you mean by the term "responsibility."

Now, if you'll permit, I'd like to change your hypothetical a bit:
You are a soldier trying to decide whether to shoot a suspected terrorist. Your history of reinforcement predisposes you to shoot, and will bias your responding in that direction if you are inclined to make the wrong decision.

Do these changes in terms change your interpretation of responsibility?

10:50 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

So, are you suggesting that even if you "try" to decide not to shoot, your conditioning will kick in and bring about a decision to shoot? It's funny, but this sort of case is often discussed in moral responsibility debates. I would say that you are morally responsible here only if you are responsible for your conditioning. (I might be willing to talk about partial responsibility.) If you have been conditioned from birth to shoot (I'm imagining a "Walden Two" type scenario) then you are not responsible, on my view.

7:54 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

In a sense, yes. In both examples, God and conditioning, or reinforcement histories, are external operators that affect behavior.

Glad to see a "Walden Two" reference.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I'm having visions of a paper collaboration here.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Could the title be, "Walden Three: Where Schedules of Reinforcement are God."?

7:09 PM  

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