This comes from reading the article "A Moral Riddle? in Issue 28" You can go to the article to read the situation posed there, but here’s the dilemma in general terms: If another person forces you to commit an immoral act, are you responsible for that act?
In the article Carl basically says yes, you are responsible:
“Based on the voluntaryist conception of "freedom is self control," each person alone is always responsible for the actions he or she takes, even if threatened by some outside force.”
After laying out the dilemma and his thoughts Carl then shares a series of exchanges he had with Fred Foldvary, who disagreed with Carl.
As I read those exchanges, I found myself coming down on the side of Mr. Foldvary. One point Carl makes that was particularly bothersome for me was this:
“In some instances, when pressed by violence, men ought to surrender their lives, rather than submit to acts of turpitude or ignominy for the sake of prolonging their existence. It is not a question of when we will die, for we shall all die sooner or later. The question is how we deport ourselves while we are here. To engage in murder of innocents is never right, even if we ourselves get murdered in the process of resisting.”Of course I do not think killing an innocent person is ever right, but then again, I also would not go out and intentionally kill an innocent person. The point is that someone else would be forcing me to do so. I may or may not do it, but if I do, I don’t think I should be held responsible, I think the person who forced me would be responsible.
That’s also not to say that I would not suffer from extreme guilt and shame if I did perform the act. I could even see where those feeling could be so horrible that I might even decide to take my own life, but that would not be because I thought I was responsible, it would simply be that I could not live with what I was forced to do.
That’s different. I think. Isn't it?
Also, maybe there are reasons to do the act in order to remain alive that would be more than just saving my own life. For example, let’s say my children were still young. I could see myself performing the act so that I could remain alive because I think my kids would be better off with me alive than with me dead. Of course I could also make the argument that if I died in such a heroic manner, then my children would benefit somehow from knowing what I did.
But this is really such a back and forth game isn’t it?
In many ways, I think morality as a concept ceases to exist when another human being is forcing me to do something that is morally reprehensible. In those instances, I’m really not able to behave as a moral agent at all am I? I’m merely being used as a tool, a weapon for someone else to commit the immoral act. I am no more responsible at that point than an inanimate object, like a gun or knife would be.
I might choose to do things after the fact to try as best I could (if possible) to correct what the person made me do, but that still doesn’t mean I am responsible. It would just mean that what the person made me do was something I consider to be wrong and if I can’t make them correct it, then I may choose to try and correct the wrong that the other person did.
I don’t see how I can be responsible if I’m not free to act. Okay, yes it’s true that I am always free to choose to die in such a situation. But I would not be facing death were it not for the aggression of that other person.
I can see that in many ways, it’s a no win situation. If I do the act, then most certainly my life would never be the same and if I choose to die instead, then, well, I’m just dead. It’s simply a lose-lose proposition.
So to answer the question posed in my headline, “Are you responsible for your actions?” I would say yes and I would also say under the dilemma posed here that if I did do whatever it was the person was forcing me to do would not truly be “my” action. It would be his.
Now, please excuse me, I’m going to go untie the knots out of my brain.