Is there an Action/Omission Asymmetry?
The question of how moral responsibility and free will are undermined by the truth of determinism is one of the most extensively, but also most controversially discussed ones in philosophy. Many philosophers hav come to believe that the truth of determinism does not threaten moral responsibility and free will, as they reject the necessity to the ability to act other than one actually did.
However, while many philosophers reject the Principle of Alternate Possibilities for actions, they still believe it to be essential when it comes to moral responsibility for omissions. The fact that an agent could not have saved a drowning child because, had he tried, he would have been hindered by a strong, indurmountabale current, seems to render the agent blameless. He might be to blame for not trying to save the child or for being the kind of person who doesn’t feel the strong urge to help, but he is not morally responsible for the child’s death.
Various arguments have been presented as to why there is an asymmetry between actions and omissions with respect to alternate possibilites. And also, there is much debate about the conditions under which the agent is relevantly unable to act other than he actually did. One predominant and extremely influential tool used in the debate are philosophical thought experiments about hypothetical cases. And philosophers using these cases often make claims such as “in this case, we all have the clear intuition that alternate possibilities are irrelevant” or that “here, the lack of alternate possibilities undermines responsibility”.
In this research project, I investigate whether these empirical predictions actually hold. To do so, I sift through the libraries written in the debate about determinism and free will and moral responsbility. I identify the most commonly used cases and compile the empirical predictions as to what intuitions “we all have” about them. I then methodologically revise these cases to make them suitable for systematic experiments. I then conduct controlled experiments on laypeople’s intuitions about these cases and evaluate the extent to which they confirm or question philosophical theories.
For a pre-print of my latest empirical research on alternative possibilities click here. The paper will appear in the 2019 volume of Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy.
Are we causally connected to situations which we could not have avoided?
Many philosophers believe that in order to be morally responsible for something, you need to be causally responsible for this thing. For instance, if I were to hold you morally responsible for the broken window in my bathroom, I would have to demonstrate that you are causally responsible for the broken window. If you can prove that someone else broke it, you are off the hook. This supposedly necessary connection between moral and causal responsibility is supposed to hold for both actions and omissions alike.
While this claim is not much debated when it comes to actions, metaphysicians do have some trouble to explain the causal relevance of omissions. How could you cause anything by not doing anything? I have argued elsewhere (Willemsen & Reuter 2016; Willemsen 2016; Stephan, Willemsen & Gerstenberg 2017; as well as Willemsen 2019) that the folk believe omissions to be causally relevant and that people are causally responsible for the consequences of omissions. So it might seem as if Necessity is empirically supported and indeed all moral judgments are supported by a causal judgment about the agent.
Interestingly, the causal (ir)relevance of omissions plays a key role in some versions of the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis. Carolina Sartorio recently argued that both actions and omissions can be causes of an outcome, and agents can be held morally responsible for both actions and omissions — but only as long as the outcome could have been avoided. In Frankfurt-style scenarios, so when an agent could not have avoided a negative outcome, she can only be held responsible for her actions, yet not her omissions. The reason, so Sartorio argues, lies in the causal connection of the agent with the outcome. The consequences of an agent’s unavoidable action are still causally connected to the agent. For omissions, this causal connection is missing. Assuming Necessity to be true, this means that agent’s cannot be causally and thus not morally responsible for the unavoidable consequences of an omission.
Building on my most recent paper on Alternative Possibilities, I test the explanatory power of this suggestion. Is it possible, that moral differences between actions and omissions can be explained by a difference in their causal status? We will find out!
[Spoiler: Pre-tests suggest that there are differences in omissions’ and actions’ causal status. However, this differences is merely a difference in the degree to which they are judged causes of the outcome. At no point is it denied that omissions whose consequences couldn’t have been avoided are causally relevant.]