Luck Swallows Everything

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Are we ultimately responsible for who we are and the choices we make? Can we choose to be the person who is able to make them? And if not, does this really change anything in the way we live?

This is the second in an impromptu series on things that bother Galen Strawson. (See my earlier post “The ‘Unstoried Life’ — Not Having a Narrative”.)

This particular, and particularly bothersome, thing is the issue of moral responsibility and whether we are free agents. It seems to Strawson that we are not — and I find it literally impossible, try as I might, to disagree. In order to accept that we are ultimately responsible for our decisions, we would have to accept that we are entirely responsible for who we are. After all, if we were not who we are we would not make the choices we make. If we were not constituted by many conditions for which we were not responsible — gender, parents, country of birth, etc. — we would not be who we are.

This is not a fashionable thesis. As Strawson points out, it appears to let Hitler off the hook.

It seems to me however to be simply the truth of the matter: in the same way there’s no point in arguing with gravity, it is not really possible to take things back far enough that we hit the point in which we become truly responsible for ourselves, unless of course we became God. We would have to be the original cause, sui generis. This obviously is not the case.

With what we have, and who we are, of course we do experience moral choices every day; we can change our behaviour, learn, develop, go against our instincts and develop a sense of responsibility for our actions that leads us to act more ethically and do less harm to others. However, at the end of the day, did we decide to decide to do that? Could we ever even enumerate all the factors that go into making us the person who made the decision to change? How can we ever know what shift in the combination of those factors in our histories, personal and collective, our experiences, our constitutions, the relationships we have had, could have led us to make a different decision?

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This dense web of causes and conditions is familiar to Buddhists, who go on to conclude that there is no basis for us to conceive ourselves as separate entities/selves at all. This is a conclusion with which Strawson disagrees at length. I think that the Buddhist distinction between absolute and relative truths is of significance here. In an absolute sense, good luck with separating yourself out of the web of inter-relations to qualify as just you — an autonomous, separate being. On a relative, everyday experience sort of level, we tend to feel this way. Of course we also feel responsible in the moments we battle with a moral choice, and of course this sense of responsibility feels important. It seems that if we believed we couldn’t change then we really couldn’t, so it is beneficial to hold that belief. But underneath that edifice of belief lies the fact that those who are able to believe in change at a certain moment in time can do so and carry it out and those who can’t, at that time, don’t.

We probably don’t need to tend to this level of ultimate truth any more than we need to keep a conscious eye on gravity: it just works that way and we can get on with making the choices we have to make and judging the behaviour that needs to be judged, leaving the issue of ultimate responsibility on a separate level of thought. The further back we trace it, the clearer it seems to be that, as Strawson puts it, ‘luck swallows everything’, and we cannot take ultimate credit either for our sins or for our achievements. Could this way of understanding lead not to a fatal lack of judgement for people’s actions, but to the addition of compassion into the mix at all times — not only for the ‘deserving’?

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