Monday, December 26, 2011


The question of "responsibility" plays a central role in retribution and is central to our feelings and thought about justice. There are two different forms:  legal responsibility and moral responsibility.

Legal responsibility is not necessarily identical to moral responsibility. Not everything that is “legal” is “moral,” and not everything that is moral is legal. The basic difference between legality and morality lies in the distinction between “laws” and “rules” and how each are monitored and enforced. Laws are monitored and enforced via the coercive power of the state. If you break a law and get caught, you can get punished by a government. In the Western world, governments “sanction” law breakers via fines, incarceration, and sometimes via death (United States). Some non-Western countries whip or beat law breakers. If you break a moral rule, members of the community will praise you or blame you. Most governments limit what groups can do to enforce morality. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, almost everything that is immoral is also illegal.  

Moral responsibility involves the basic question of what kinds of persons are “fair” targets for moral praise and moral blame. Simply put, we praise or reward persons that do good things, and we blame persons that do bad things. But what is it about the nature of persons that justifies holding them responsible for their behavior? And, why do we, in fact, hold each other morally responsible for our actions? Well, at least in the Western moral tradition we assess responsibility based on two main criteria: rationality and free will.

We praise and blame persons that are capable of understanding and applying moral rules and reasoning about consequences before they act. The assessment of degrees of rationality usually involves assessing mental processes such as logical reasoning, forethought, learning from experience, processing information etc. Thus, mind or mentality is a necessary condition for the assessment of moral responsibility, but not a sufficient condition. Not all persons that possess mentality are morally responsible. We do not hold young children responsible for their behavior. But as they get older we tend to hold them more responsible. Nor do we hold persons that have a "cognitive or defect" responsible for their actions. And, obviously we do not always hold other persons responsible for acts born out of ignorance of the rules or the consequences. We generally do not hold animals morally responsible for their good or bad behavior, although we may praise or blame them in order to encourage or discourage future behaviors.  

We also praise and blame responsible persons for acts of free will; that is, acts that they are capable of controlling. Basically, this means that we do not praise or blame persons for acts that are coerced by other persons or forced by internal or external circumstances. Personal coercion generally involves the use of personal threats and enticements enforced by others. Both threats and enticements come in various degrees. Major threat: "Rob that bank or I'll kill your family!" Minor threat: "Rob that bank or I'll take your shoes!" Major enticement: "Rob that bank and I'll give you 10 million dollars!" Minor enticement: "Rob that bank and I'll give you one dollar." Generally speaking, we hold moral agents responsible for bad acts that were performed in exchange for enticements and we do not usually praise people that do good things in exchange for major enticements. In other words, responsible persons ought to be able to resist at least some low-level threats and/or enticements. Philosophers argue over whether and/or to what degree threats and enticements undermine free will, and whether the concept of free will even makes sense.

As a general rule, we do not praise or blame others for good or bad consequences that are brought on by chance, or moral luck. If I accidentally run into a fleeing bank robber, I probably will not be praised as a hero. Unless, I could convince the media that I knew he was a fleeing bank robber and that I deliberately tackled him. If I accidentally killed that robber, I might even be held legally responsible and blamed for his death. More on that later.       

Not only do we hold persons morally responsible for their actions, we also hold groups of individuals legally and morally responsible for their actions. But collective responsibility is much more difficult to assess. Here’s why. First of all, our individual association with groups is not always framed by rationality or free will. Sometimes we are coerced into associating with others, and sometimes we associate ourselves with groups without really knowing everything that they do. Sometimes we associate ourselves with groups based on tradition alone.  Most of us remain associated with the same religious group that we grew up with.   

Voluntary associations are those groups that we rationally and freely choose to associate.  These associations are often organized hierarchies that involve leaders and followers. Generally speaking, we hold both leaders and followers morally responsible for their actions. But the responsibility of followers is contingent upon what they knew beforehand and the presence of coercive influences. When we really know exactly what an organization does and when we freely choose to follow its leaders, we are held individually responsible for what that organization does. Hence, responsibility is diminished commensurate to both information and freedom. Unfortunately, in the real world followers do not always possess perfect knowledge or perfect freedom.

Moreover, hierarchies often delegate responsibility, which means that leaders at the top of an organization may not always know what lower level leaders are doing and sometimes upper level leaders employ coercive force on lower level leaders. For example, many of the Nazi doctors claimed that they tortured their patients because they would have been killed if they disobeyed orders.

Corporate responsibility is especially convoluted. Who is ultimately responsible for good and bad corporate behavior? Should we hold the CEO or the Board of Trustees of a multi-national corporation responsible for everything that takes place within that corporation?  Should the leaders get paid for what followers produce? Should leaders be held responsible for immoral and/or illegal behavior of followers? In short, this notion of collective (or shared) responsibility turns out to be very complex.

Another source of complexity has to do with the dynamics of how human beings behave in groups. Historically, philosophers have identified two sources of determinism that limit moral responsibility” biology and social structure. Biological determinists argue that at least some human behavior is “natural,” or caused by our brains and genes. Therefore, biological determinists argue that at least some human behavior lies outside of the realm of rationality and free will and that praise and/or blame cannot alter those behaviors.  

So, how does social structure affect human rationality and free will, and to what degree does "social causation" diminish individual and/or collective responsibility? This question raises a host of other questions concerning the nature and extent of circumstantial coercion, the malleability of human nature, and the "nature v. nurture controversy."  To what degree are human beings conditioned by their social environment and their genetic makeup? There are two wrong answers:

1. Human behavior is infinitely malleable via manipulation of the social environment (social determinism). Therefore individual responsibility is impossible.

2. Human behavior is not malleable at all, but determined by our social environment and biology (genetic determinism). Therefore, the assessment of individual responsibility is impossible.

If the truth lies somewhere between these extremes, then how do we (in fact) go about assessing personal and collective moral responsibility in our everyday lives? How should we?

Now the relationship between legality and morality is itself subject to a long line of philosophical inquiry. Historically, many philosophers have argued that morality is timelessly universal and “objective” and that legality is relative to time and place. Other philosophers have argued that universal morality always trumps legality. Some say that both morality and legality are temporally and culturally relative. Therefore, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Metaphysical Academic Freedom I copped out on my last blog entry on academic freedom. If you all insist, I'll take a crack at the ever-elusive concept of "metaphysical academic freedom." To me, metaphysical academic freedom generally refers to either the descriptive (factual) capacity for human to "freely" produce a theory and the prescriptive (normative) conditions that might be involved. Descriptive academic freedom would  entail addressing the larger problems of biological and cultural determinism. Prescriptive academic freedom might involve the rights and duties that would undergird that "freedom of inquiry." Answers to academic questions are called theories (or conjectures) that either explain, predict, or control phenomena. So it's fair to ask two questions: "To what extent do I have a right to propose theories?" And, "To what extent do I have a right to propose theories to an academic community?"

First of all, what do we mean by a right to propose a theory? There are two kinds of rights: positive rights and negative rights. If I claim a positive right to propose a theory, then someone else has a duty to assist me. If I have a negative right, that means that my right is implies the duty of non-interference by others and does not necessarily mean that others have a duty to assist me or enable me to publish my theory. That is: "Ron you have a right to publish that book, I won't interfere with that! But I don't have a duty to read it, and I don't have a duty to publish it in my journal. How about a case study?

Ron W. is going up for promotion next year and believes that he needs one more publication. So he surfs the Internet and finds a journal titled the Journal of Arcane and Useless Philosophy, which has an acceptance rate of 98.2% and a circulation of 73 subscribers. It is published by the Society for Arcane and Useless Philosophy, which has a membership of 73. Ron thinks to himself: "Ah...the perfect home for my most recent scholarly essay: "Does Academic Freedom Imply Positive or Negative Rights?" He sends the essay to the editor, who then sends it to two "referees," who read it six months later and submit their respective reviews. Reader A loves it, and offers three minor revisions. Reader B hates it and recommends that it be rejected. The editor, however, notes that only three essays were submitted to the journal in the last three months (all were accepted) and that Volume 11 Number 16 needs one more article. So he decides to publish Ron's essay. As a result, Ron was promoted to full professor. Since then, three scholars read that article (one of them finished it!), the Society for Arcane Philosophy has disbanded, and their journal discontinued. However, that article still appears prominently on Ron's curriculum vitae. Question: Does "academic freedom" include a scholar's right to publish research in journals that no one reads? Do academic institutions have a right or a duty to read what their faculty publish? And, if so who and how much should that reader get paid? So much for metaphysical academic freedom.     

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Academic Freedom

A friend asked me to articulate my views on "Academic Freedom" from a libertarian perspective. As a philosopher, my usual strategy is to take a close look at the key concepts. In this case, let's look at the meaning(s) of "academic" and "freedom."

The term "academic" describes a human activity, a profession, and an industry. It also implies a unique set of instutional  associations: colleges, universities, departments, publishing companies, professional organizations etc. However, the activity is nothing more than the process of human inquiry, or the distinctly human capacity to ask questions and propose answers between individuals, groups, and generations. I would also argue that academic inquiry (or inquiry conducted within an academic institutional structure) involves the epistemic pursuit of either Descriptive Truth (is) or Prescriptive Value (ought).

The concept of "freedom" within the context of academic inquiry turns out to be enormously complex and therefore wide-open to metaphysical interpretation. For us libertarians, freedom is a political concept that refers to the relationship between individuals and governments. Some of us take on the challenge of addressing "metaphysical freedom," or "freedom of the will," but most of us prefer to focus on freedom as the absence of coercion by government. Minarchist libertarians seek to limit the use of coercive power of governments to tax citizens and limit the use of tax money to the performance of specific functions, such as a: police force, judiciary, a military, and perhaps the provision of a very basic social safety net. Anarcho-capitalist libertarians seek to eliminate all involuntary forms of taxation and all coercive government.

So in light of the above, what can I say about "academic freedom?" For a minarchist like myself, I would say that we need to distinguish between public and private colleges and universities. Most of us argue the publically funded educational institutions violate the basic tenets of minarchy, and that all educational institutions ought to be private institutions. So I really can't say much about what academic freedom might mean in the context of a public college or university. But I can say something about what it might mean within a private institution.

Education is an industry. It involves the interaction of both buyers and sellers, and employers and employees.  Academic freedom in private institutions is nothing more than what's mutually agreed upon within a contract. When you agree to accept employment in a private college the limits of your academic freedom are contained within that contract. If you do not accept those limits, then you have the freedom to decline the job offer. Of course, if you willingly sign that contract then your academic freedom does not include the freedom to violate the conditions of that contract. Unfortunately, as an employer the institution does have the "academic freedom" to unilaterally alter that contract without your consent, but you also have the academic freedom to either abide by that contract or resign (freedom to exit). Or, perhaps you might find solace in the "black market" and conceal or disguise your activities.   

Over the years, academic institutions have adopted a variety of traditions intended to increase job security for faculty and expand the concept of academic freedom. The original idea behind tenure was to protect faculty from revolving administrations that constantly seek to revise the terms of employment of faculty, especially salary, working conditions, and academic freedom. Now we libertarians can argue over whether tenure ought to be included within any academic setting, especially over the cost/benefit ratios. But we are reluctant to argue about academic freedom outside of that contractual framework.

So what can I say about my own academic freedom within a Roman Catholic college? Well, obviously I cannot expect the college to grant me the freedom to publish articles with titles like: "The Virtues of Abortion" or "Why God does Not Exist." If I did, it would violate the terms of my contract and I'll get fired, or at least get reprimanded by my superiors. But since, I'm not interested in "inquiring" into the virtues of abortion or defending atheism, I don't regard it as a limit on my metaphysical academic freedom. However, I do disagree with the church's legal strategy for dealing with abortion and I am more of a pantheist than a theist. Now for the "million dollar question?" How did a libertarian philosopher that publishes regularly in journals like Independent Review survive for 25 years at a Roman Catholic college? The answer is simple. Roman Catholic colleges are, in fact, among the last bastions of metaphysical academic freedom in the United States. While it is true that some are more socially conservative than others, for the most part we enjoy much more freedom than other public or private institutions. I do have a few limits, but overall, my college values diverse points of view. In fact, we have not only a handful of outspoken libertarians like myself on the faculty and staff, but also a large number of non-Catholics and atheists. Let me add that all of the libertarians that I know on the MSJ faculty also have tenure. And at least one libertarian on the maintenance staff stops by office every morning to talk politics. But admittedly we're grossly outnumbered by welfare liberals.