Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Moral Responsibility and the Unreality of the Past

It is a necessary condition for freedom or moral responsibility concerning some action A that I am the ultimate explanation for A - A ultimately depends on me for its existence. So to be responsible for something, I must be the metaphysical ground for it. But not only that, it is also necessary that I have some sort of control over A, that the fact that A is my action rather than something else is also dependent on me and explained by me. It is my contention that views of time - such as Presentism - which do not acknowledge the reality of the past cannot allow that anyone is morally responsible for their past actions. And if they are not morally responsible for such, then they cannot justifiably be punished or praised (or whatever) for them either.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that if the past does not exist then neither do my past actions. But if I have no past actions, then there are no actions for me to be held responsible for. Anti-realists about the past must, then, make revisionary adjustments to our views about responsibility and insist that we can be "responsible for our past actions" only in the sense that we are responsible for the past-tensed fact that we committed such past actions. Already, this is in conflict with the natural idea that in order for me to be responsible for something there must be some action which is directly ascribable to me as mine - instead, we must have something else that I am responsible for or which is ascribable to me. But let's put that aside for now.

Different views will cash out these past-tensed which we are responsible for in different ways. One way is simply to assert that past-tensed facts are primitive facts, unanalyzable and irreducible to anything more basic (or that these facts involve primitive tensed properties like having performed action A). But why should I or anyone care about such primitive facts or think they have anything to do with whether I ought to punished or praised? After all, if facts about what I could have done are also primitive in the same way and such facts do not justify praise or blame, how could these other facts do the same? What's the difference? In neither case is the fact explained by me or is it something that I am responsible for in any sense. These facts are simply there, free-floating with no input from me as to what they are or how they are and with no relevant dependence on me that could make any difference as to my responsibility for anything. In neither case is there any control over what these things are like. If there was, then I would now have control over the past, which I simply do not - at least not in any significant enough way.

But let's say these past facts aren't primitive facts after all. This is hardly any better. Why should we be held responsible for physical states of the world or states of God or whatever? After all, that things are this way is not in any way up to us or explained by us or relevantly dependent on us. So either way the Anti-Realist goes, there's no getting around the fact that without a real past, there can be no moral responsibility for our past actions. Elsewhere, I've argued that freedom or moral responsibility also requires a real future. So, all in all, friends of moral responsibility ought to be eternalists about time and accept the reality of past, present, and future.


Anonymous said...

...yes, this is really important for the presentist to deal with. do you know if there is any further literature about the problem of moral responsibility for past actions on the presentist account??

Ian said...

In the vein of what I've described here, no - no one really talks about it. Most people just assume uncritically that presentists have no problem here.