Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are You Always Responsible For Your Actions?

I have another question to pose and this one is a doozy, at least it is for me. It’s one of those morality questions that can tie your brain into knots.

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.


Kent McManigal said...

Sometimes you do what you think you have to do, even if you have no right to do it, and accept the consequences of your actions. I would say this is one of those cases.

MamaLiberty said...

The proposed dilemma is so unlikely that it at least borders on one of those famous "straw men" arguments, I think.

If someone actually had the power to kill you if you refused to kill someone else, why wouldn't they just kill the other person themselves and be done with it? And the idea that they wouldn't then kill you anyway is probably a vain hope.

No, most of the time when people say they are being "forced" to do evil things, a great many other factors are at work.

Humans have an astonishing capacity to justify and rationalize their choices and actions. Honestly taking full responsibility for themselves is probably one of the hardest things to do.

I say that from the perspective of 50 years striving to be a self owner and fully self responsible. Nobody does, or ever will do it perfectly.

Debbie H. said...

Hey Mama, you might want to read the original article to see the example used because it actually lays out a plausible motive for why someone would want the other person to do the killing.

Anonymous said...

Coercion is immoral either covertly or overtly

E.W. said...

When acting under duress, your morality is constrained to the degree that your freedom is constrained. Yes, your moral position has been compromised--but perhaps not completely.

To extend the illustration: if the target of this hypothetical killing were instead to kill you in self-defense, that would certainly be justified. If the target had good information and the luxury of time to respond, he might choose to kill the real instigator rather than you. But said target would also be reasonable to question your willingness to kill them rather than expend yourself fighting the original evil.

In my view, moral (actually, I prefer to think in terms of ethics, rather than morals) judgments are situational in se. In a completely negative scenario such as this one, it is hoped that "damage control" is possible.

If it isn't, then you are in the position of a total slave, unable to take any opportunity to address the situation positively.

Chaeros of the Wild said...

I think that you are always responsible, no one has the power to force anybody, though it may appear so... if you behave fear like, this person may use your fear to threat even thus it is still your choice to comply or not, that is what I think Carl meant, given the reverse case if he sees that his violent threat does not work because you are not afraid, he lost his only weapon against you, that is he has nothing to terrorize you with. So that is to me what morality implies... to have the balls to stick to your ideals even in the darkest hour. Kind Regards from Argentina a fellow libertarian

Debbie H. said...

Chaeros, you make a very interesting point about reversing the case. You're right, people do lose their only weapon if they see they cannot terrorize you and make you afraid. I'll have to think about that some more. Thanks for your input!

Chaeros of the Wild said...

Thanks to you for your blog, one of the few which is not Junk and helps me in my job of open the eyes of the Argentines, who don´t seem to know what are the Libertarian philosphy, when I read Atlas Shrugged I realized that those were the core of my beliefs since ever, so I began to seek aobut and found you in the Voluntary Society page. I´ll be glad to collaborate with my inputs, when I see fit!!! My Thanks are always to you

MamaLiberty said...

Debbie, I would have read the article if the link had taken me to it. As it was a list of pdf files (which I loath) I didn't download it. Sorry about that.

But I have debated this kind of question many times over the years and I've never seen one proposed that wasn't a "Have you quit beating you wife?" affair.

Nobody, in any way, can force me to commit an act of aggression. If I do so, it will always be my own responsibility.

So, forgive me for not reading it, but I stand by what I said. Your words, "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." simply confirm it. :)

Stateknowsbest said...

The only thing you can control, or are responsible for, are your own actions. Our job is to be ethical examples for others, not to worry about the possible consequences of our just actions. We only need to ask ourselves one question. Is the action I am about to take an ethical one? If the answer is yes, then act. The consequences of the act are not, nor ever were, in our control.

Chaeros of the Wild said...

I don't think it is out of our control... there is nothing out of our Control. we are not puppets but human beings, and for that, capable of reasoning and measure all or at least a big part of the possible repercissions our choice can have... What you say is comfortable a position to take, We are not in control of everything so aour conscience is free... I don't see that way stateknowsbest. We are not robots, we are sentient reasoning beings ALL THE WAY DOWN since choosing to calculating the weight of those choices... Sorry but it is so, here and in any world of your choice. Regads