Do We Own Our Decisions?

Not all of our actions are by choice. For example, Petra might go to the hospital because she has broken her hand in a cycling accident. She doesn’t choose to go, she has to go. Yet, in another respect she does decide to go to the hospital insofar as she moves or wills herself to go, even if she would rather not. Not everything we do is by choice, but most everything we do is willed. Willing in this sense is the act of deciding for oneself to do something – no one else or no outside force is the cause of this act. We ourselves are the cause. If we were not, then nothing we do would be decided by us. Instead, we would be akin to puppets whose strings are the external forces. We are obviously not puppets. I got up this morning, for example, and I decided to brew coffee. Nothing or nobody forced me to decide to do this. Very often I am said to have decided this of my own free will. But I won’t talk in these terms directly because the concept of free will  itself leads one into a thicket of arguments in which most soon lose their way. I want to keep the discussion as conceptually basic as possible and hence manageable, both for the reader and myself.

All this matters because we hold each other accountable for our own actions. If I were to strike a passer-by with an umbrella, for example, that passer-by would not suppose that I was not responsible for my actions, as if I were the equivalent of a branch falling from a tree. I would be blamed for his injury. That said, it might be that there are mitigating circumstances. I might have been told by a madman that if I didn’t strike a passer-by he would shoot me. Here I would not have chosen to strike the gentleman. There were coercive forces at work. Still, at a more fundamental level I would have willed my striking him, else I could not have carried out the action.

So, willing in this fundamental sense does not always entail moral responsibility for an action, since sometimes we will actions we do not choose to perform. The assumption is, however, that all our decisions ultimately originate with us. I struck the passer-by and so owe him an explanation. I am not a robot, puppet or automaton whose controller acts through ‘me’. I act in my own interests. My willed actions are my own in that I owe others an account of them in principle.

Imagine someone – call him Gregory – murders a woman by breaking into her house and stabbing her in a brutal manner, with no rationally based motive. One might reason as follows: It is understood that Gregory committed a heinous crime. But if you were in many respects like him and found yourself in the same circumstances, then you too could have murdered the woman. It is only chance that you do not share his traits and characteristics and did not fall into his circumstances. Therefore, it is only by accident that you too are not guilty of committing such a crime. In knowing this it would be disingenuous to punish Gregory for his crime, even though he willed it. The underlying thought here is that who you are and how you behave is a result of external forces. The way you decide to act at any moment is ultimately determined by the external conditions that have fixed your intelligence, physical strengths and weaknesses, behavioural tendencies etc.[i] That you, hopefully, are compassionate and thoughtful, and are less violent than Gregory in your interactions with others, is not anything you have had control over. Hence ownership of our actions is irrelevant with respect to being responsible for them. None of us are ultimately responsible in this way. It is purely by chance that you and I are not murderers. And it is bad luck that Gregory is one.

If we grant, for argument’s sake, that our abilities and traits are outside of our own control, still we might question the assumption made above that given these predetermined characteristics we cannot act other than the way we do on each occasion.[ii] Perhaps we can transcend these limitations, e.g., by sober reasoning. One might articulate the assumption we’re questioning in following ways: (1) If two people had exactly the same set of relevant traits (were alike in every relevant respect) then they would be bound to act in the same way under identical conditions. (2) Assuming one person decides to do A at time t, if we were able to turn the clock back as often as we like, still at time t that person will invariably do A. This assumption or thought is usually given the name determinism. If determinism is true we could suppose that Gregory ought not to be punished for his crime.

There is no way to go about verifying or falsifying determinism. We can neither go back in time nor can we find two people who are alike enough to test the scenario described in (1). Determinism, then, is not scientifically testable. Instead philosophers argue for determinism, that is, they seek to provide reasons for thinking it is true. The standard argument is as follows: First, all our actions have physical causes, e.g., my choosing to brew coffee in the morning is the result of certain neurons firing, leading to muscles contracting and my grinding coffee beans and so on. Second, one physical event’s causing another like this is governed by exceptionless laws. The causal necessity implied by such laws means it cannot be the case that identical physical conditions on separate occasions could lead to different effects. Therefore, any action I perform occurs by necessity. Given the physical conditions of my body and immediate surroundings at any point in time, there is only one course of action that can follow from them. Hence determinism is true.

The standard challenge to determinism is simply to deny (1) and (2). This involves arguing for indeterminism, namely the view that the exact same physical conditions do not invariably lead to one effect. If, in the case of (2), we were to turn the clock back it is possible that the person at time t decides not to do A but B instead. The idea is that physical events are not fixed, so that at some level physical event c can lead to either effect e1 or e2 and which one is genuinely indeterminate. Often philosophers who argue for this view will suggest that the indeterminacy recognised at the level of quantum mechanics – as illustrated by the famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment – is amplified in the brain processes themselves.

The difficulty for this view is that it implies that a person’s decision on any occasion is random – it is not the person herself who is the cause of doing A or B, but rather no one or nothing is the cause. If that is the case then we cannot hold that we are each the cause of our own actions. Someone may think that she chose to visit Paris rather than Berlin, say, but in fact the decision spontaneously arose, i.e., ‘popped up’ without cause. Her going there, as opposed to Berlin, was the result of random events in her brain.

It appears, then, that regardless of whether determinism is true or not we are not the ultimate cause of our decisions. In other words, we don’t own what we do at all. So, for example, we cannot suppose that Gregory is the author of a woman’s murder. The murder has no author. Gregory is like a stick floating down a stream, what he does cannot be attributed to him, as odd as this sounds. If determinism is true then Gregory’s decision to murder is the result of external forces that shaped his character and abilities. ‘Gregory’ doesn’t name an agent, but rather a physical object with complex behavioural dispositions fixed by chance, and which can lead to one particular decision only on each occasion. If indeterminism is true then Gregory’s decision is ultimately causeless – it was a random event for which no one can be blamed. And the point generalises: All our decisions are beyond our own control. It is not that we are puppets, but that we are physical objects no different in kind from such lumps of matter as sticks and rocks.

Does that mean willing is an illusion? Do I fool myself when I think that I decide to brew coffee in the morning, for example? What I have described above is essentially a dilemma. If determinism is true then willing is illusory. If determinism is false, then willing is illusory. One way out of dilemmas in general is to dismiss as irrelevant the disjunction, which in this case is that determinism is either true or false. That I think we can do.

You see me in your garden – imaginary garden if necessary – one morning, and I tell you that I decided to dig up all your potatoes. Am I reporting a falsehood? No. It is no argument to say that my deciding to dig up the potatoes is the result of predetermined forces external to me or of a random event in my brain. Rather, all I mean when I report this is that I, as opposed to someone else, decided to dig up the potatoes. Accordingly, you take me to owe you an explanation for this decision instead of someone else. Perhaps you are surprised and so ask me why I had decided to do this. My reporting that it was my decision opens up this possibility. If, on the other hand, I reported to you that I didn’t decide to dig up the potatoes, rather my character and the circumstances made my body move in a way that can be described as digging up potatoes, you’d likely dismiss the report as nonsense. More precisely, it is irrelevant to you if the decision was illusory in this sense or not. What matters to you is that I owe you an explanation.

Now, one might reply that if the decision was not really mine, then I am saying that I do not owe you an explanation. Similarly, if Gregory reported that he didn’t decide to murder the woman, rather it was the result of random events in his brain, then, if true, Gregory cannot in principle explain his decision. Whether, in accordance with indeterminism his ‘decision’ was random, or in accordance with determinism it was an inevitability, is irrelevant. That is because we owe each other explanations for our decisions regardless. It is a fact about how we interact with one another that we make such demands.

We can imagine Gregory being judged as not responsible for his decision. Still, the fact that the murderer was seen as not responsible only follows from assuming that an account of his decision is owed. We cannot seriously hypothesise a society, however, in which no such demand is made. That would be to imagine a world in which no one is blamed for the victim’s death, as if she met her end in the same fashion as a tree falling on her, i.e., completely accidentally. When we posit intentions, desires, inclinations, temptations and so on, to which we variously appeal in explaining our decisions, we do not worry that such accounts might be illusory, that is, merely fiction. We take these explanations at face value. We treat each other as having interests and desires not because we have evidence of their existence, but because we cannot treat each other otherwise.

But, one might insist, if our decisions are in reality not our own but only apparently so, we could not knowingly demand explanations for them from each other. If that were the case then, as some argue, we would have to suppress this fact. Otherwise we’d face a world in which people could disregard all moral inclinations, since moral obligation is based on the assumption that we are each authors of our actions.[iii] I can only attempt to treat others morally if I suppose my actions towards them are in my control. I think that this worry is ill-founded. It misrepresents the grounds for our talk of deciding, desiring, being tempted etc. Again, it assumes that reports of our deciding to do this or that could only be justified ultimately by the metaphysical fact that we are genuinely autonomous beings – our decisions ultimately originate from no other source than ourselves. How are such reports otherwise justified?

Their justification can be likened to that of the worth we put on money. Why is the note or bill in my pocket worth anything at all? After all its intrinsic value is negligible; it is worth little more that any scrap of paper. Its worth derives from its agreed use as a means of exchange of course, as well as a useful means of storing wealth and extending credit. How we use it is all there is to explaining its worth. There is nothing more to add. None of these uses of money are underwritten by intrinsically valuable entities that a note is a substitute for. Still the note has genuine worth. No one would suggest that because we cannot guarantee its worth with something intrinsically valuable really it is worthless. Likewise, Cicero’s reporting that he decided to inform the Roman senate of the Catiline conspiracy, for example, is true not because it is backed up by facts concerning his autonomy, or his ‘having free will’ as it is often dramatically phrased. Rather it is true insofar as it was Cicero who made the decision as opposed to someone else or to denying that there was any genuine decision made at all, i.e., it ‘just occurred’ much like a stick floats down a stream.

Still, there is the worry that if in fact we do not own our decisions, we are rationally obliged to reevaluate people’s actions morally. If indeed Gregory’s behaviour is like a stick floating down a stream, then it makes no sense to blame him for committing a heinous crime, any more than we could blame the stick for floating in one direction rather than another. But recall that I have distinguished between owing an explanation for one’s decisions and being morally responsible for their resulting actions. Sometimes an immoral act committed by someone can be explained away, that is, it can be excused in some way. Holding that no one owns their decisions would allow us to explain away everyone’s immoral actions all the time. I suspect that this is conceptually possible, though I think we could never act on such exculpatory judgments applied universally. Still, we must insist that everyone owes an explanation for their decisions.

I have argued that we always owe each other explanations for our decisions. We do so not because we really own our decisions in some metaphysically robust sense. Rather, we owe each other explanations in the same way that we expect to be able to buy something with our money. We simply expect or demand an explanation for someone’s decisions in principle, just as we expect or demand that someone accept our legal notes or bills in exchange for some good or service. We cannot make sense of someone asking how she is to know that this money is really of any worth at all. Likewise we cannot make sense of someone’s doubting that she is in principle owed an explanation for another’s decisions. We do not treat people as if they were sticks floating down a stream in this way. Could we in principle treat them thus? I doubt it. It would be like someone trying always to ignore the presence of anyone in her proximity beyond seeing them as physical obstacles around which to navigate. Insofar as we owe each other explanations for our decisions, we hold that we each own our decisions; that is to say, we perceive each other as autonomous in this sense.

There is a tension here. I have admitted that we could in theory excuse everyone for their moral failings if we were to hold that we do not own our decisions. But if that is the case then providing explanations or excuses for our decisions seems redundant. Whatever we might say is immediately negated by the assumption that we are not the authors of our decisions. However this tension is removed once it is understood that our demand for explanations for each other’s decisions is invulnerable to concerns about determinism or indeterminism. Again analogously, one can reason that the paper money in our wallets is in fact next to worthless and so we ought to abandon pretending that it has any value. We would of course ignore this prescription, for the cost of following it is too high. Similarly, one could conclude that we are really like sticks floating down a stream and we ought to treat each other accordingly. But the cost of doing this would be too high and, anyhow, it is impossible to enact. We do not choose to treat others as authors of their actions, instead we do so as a matter of fact in the same sense that plants seek sunshine. And once we ask for and obtain explanations we evaluate them in terms of being satisfactory or not. This opens up the possibility of making moral judgments about one another. Yes, these judgments could be informed by a belief that we are not authors of our decisions, but that belief cannot alter our behaviour in the way some philosophers assume. Reason has a limit in this regard. Do we each own the decisions we make? Better to ask if we treat each other as owners of our decisions. And, yes, we invariably do.

[i] The full argument behind this idea was originally presented by Galen Strawson. He call it ‘The Basic Argument’. See his Freedom and Belief, 2001, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

[ii] Of course, some philosophers have argued against the assumption that we have no autonomy over the formation of our character in this way. In particular Robert Kane postulates what he calls Self-Forming Actions. These are in essence actions that we each willed and which have major impact on the formation of our future character. See his ‘The Dual Regress of Free Will’ in Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 14, 2000.

[iii] Saul Smilansky argues that the truth of this so-called hard determinist picture demands that people be lied to essentially. See his ‘Free Will, Fundamental Dualism and the Centrality of Illusion’ in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, Kane R., ed. 2002, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, pp. 489-505.


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