Friday, November 21, 2008

What is it like to be a heteronomist?

Here's a conference paper I gave in 2001. To be honest, I wasn't very happy with it at the time, but I've thought about it since giving it, and there's something here worth developing. I was thinking about the reactive attitudes at the time, and some claims by Strawon in Freedom and Resentment.

What is it like to be a heteronomist?

Philosophy and the Emotions: The Royal Institute of Philosophy Conference 2001
University of Manchester: 11-13 July 2001

Heteronomists believe that humans lack freedom of thought or action. In this paper I examine the moral psychology this commits them to which they there by commit themselves, and in particular, what account they can give of the rationality of emotions. I argue that the practices of praise, blame, the emotions of pride, shame, and resentment normally assume that people are free. Heteronomists are pushed towards giving an instrumental justification of these practices and emotions: they have to say that they are useful as ways of manipulating other people and oneself. There is a tension in the thought of heteronomists between denying freewill and asserting that it possible to affect one’s own behavior, and I pursue this tension by examining what account a heteronomist can give of the practical deliberation. What is the point of deliberating about what to do if the future is not genuinely open? Heteronomists can argue that deliberation is a matter of finding out what one will do. Thus heteronomists can reconstruct an account of the rationality of emotions, and so they don’t need to have a radically different world-view from believers in freedom.

I use the term "heteronomist" to mean a person who does not believe in free will or free action. The doctrines of physical, biological, psychological, social or metaphysical determinism hold that the future is determined. Those who do not believe in freedom of will or action generally say that determinism is true, and that determinism is incompatible with freedom. Note that a "heteronomist" in the sense I am using the term may not hold that every action and event is completely determined in advance. What is essential to the heteronomist's doctrine is that people do not think or act with freedom. This doctrine applies to all agents. I will assume that a heteronomists accept that there are agents; i.e., people do perform actions, but they do not do so freely, and people make choices, but again, their choices are not free.

Some heteronomists may hold their views for other reasons than the argument from determinism. For instance, they may hold that the very concept of freedom is confused in some way. They may have theological reasons for their beliefs. Or they may simply be heteronomists because they find the view pleasing. For my purposes here, I am not concerned with the philosophical justification of a belief in heteronomy.

What I am concerned to explore is how a belief in heteronomy would affect one's view of life and one's practices. I believe that philosophers have neglected to examine the implications of philosophy for everyday life, and that the rise of philosophical counseling is leading us to think more about such implications.

I should explain at the start of this paper that I am not a heteronomist, and indeed, the doctrine strikes me as bizarre, largely because I find it extremely hard to imagine what it is like to a heteronomist. I suspect that our ordinary practices presuppose that people can act freely, and thus, that a heteronomist would have to abandon many ordinary practices. The purpose of this paper is to explore these suspicions of mine. Through this exploration, I hope even to discover an argument against the heteronomist.

"It makes no difference."
First I want to examine the view that heteronomists are just like everyone else, except that they hold a different philosophical view. This position would claim that all of one's ordinary moral psychology can remain independent of one's lack of belief in freedom. This view would say that praising, blaming, loving, liking, hating, pride, guilt, and of course, resentment do not depend on any assumption of freedom--either the other person's freedom or one's own freedom. This view might say that one praises a person when she does something good, one feels guilt when one does something bad, and one resents another person when she does something harmful to oneself, without ever assuming that any of the actions involved are done freely.

This "no difference" view has its attractions. For example, it is plausible that pets and children can like, dislike, hate, love, trust and fear others without any beliefs about freedom. Sometimes we even say that young children and pets look guilty when they have done something they know we will chastise them for, and we imagine that they feel guilty too. But this is far more speculative.

When it comes to praising and blaming, it is hard to see how these practices could be independent of an understanding of freedom and self-control. If I praise a student for writing a good philosophy paper, I assume that the student has tried hard and has stretched herself. She has not been lazy, and she has taken her assignment seriously. Furthermore, I assume she could have done otherwise, but that she freely chose to put the effort into the paper.

To take Peter Strawson's example of resentment, it seems to me that he is right that our attitude of resentment assumes that a person could have done otherwise. For example, if I resent a cat for scratching me, this seems to be irrational, precisely because the attitude of resentment assumes that the person resented could have done otherwise, but chose to act maliciously. Resenting a cat attributes too much to the cat. However, we normally that resenting the actions of another person is a practice that makes sense. If a woman resents her husband for having an affair, she believes that he could have done otherwise. If I am right, then believing that there is no such thing as human freedom should then make a difference to how one lives one's life.

Attitudes towards others
How then should heteronomists regard other people? It is tempting to suppose that they have to view other people as I might regard a cat or a small child. Of course, it would be unfair to heteronomists the belief that people are childlike or animal life. Clearly, heteronomists can accept that adults have greater intelligence and a greater range of emotions than babies and animals. Nevertheless, it seems that they are rationally compelled to say that it is as irrational to resent another person for her actions as it is to resent a cat.

Heteronomists can give an account of praise and blame. The account is instrumental: one praises a person not because she could have done otherwise but didn't, but instead in order to encourage and promote the good behavior of the person. Praising and blaming are means of manipulating other people. It is an empirical fact that people respond to praise and blame; they like praise and they dislike blame, and so one can influence other people's behavior if they can expect to be praised or blamed for their actions.

To expand this a little, one can even praise the actions of people who will never know they were praised, as a way of influencing third parties. I may praise the actions of long-dead saints as a way of getting other people to try to emulate the behavior of those saints. A heteronomist may rationally publicly blame political figures for their actions even if she knows that the politicians will never learn of this act of blame. The blame might be a way of influencing the opinion of other voters in future elections.

It is also possible to justify private praise and blame, where no one else learns of the act of praise or blame, because it may influence the praiser or blamer. It has been suggested to me that private praise or blame may help to maintain one's own values. For example, if one is watching the news on one's own and condemns the behavior of the president, one helps to remind oneself of one's own values. If one watches the news dispassionately when watching a report of the president's wrongdoing, then one's values may fade. Private praise and blame of others can be a way of manipulating oneself. I'm not sure how true this is of the general population -- it isn't true of me, I suspect, although I do find myself blaming politicians even when nobody else is listening.

Attitudes towards oneself
This last case raises the issue of attitudes towards oneself. The philosophical literature has focused on the cases of pride and shame. One is proud of one's own accomplishments when one has done well, and more tellingly, one is ashamed of one's actions when one has done something one should not have, and, at least arguably, when one could have done otherwise. Certainly it makes no sense to be ashamed of suffering misfortune if one did not bring it on oneself, as it makes no sense to be ashamed of falling ill, and if one had no free choice in doing what one did, then it seems hard to understand how one could be disappointed in oneself.

Perhaps one way for a heteronomist to understand self-disappointment is by using an analogy with disappointment with a material object. One might buy a car with high hopes for it running trouble-free for several years, only to have it break down after a couple of months. One would then naturally be disappointed with the car without believing that it had any freedom. Similarly one could be disappointed in oneself, because one has discovered that one is not as skilled or strong as one had hoped. This view replaces a metaphysically open future with an epistemologically open future. The heteronomist can still believe that we are ignorant about ourselves and that we gradually discover more about ourselves, and this process of discovery can have its pleasant surprises and its disappointments.

Furthermore, there may be a purpose for the heteronomist in self-praise and self-blame. One can praise and blame oneself as a form of self-manipulation. We might equate self-praise with "pride" and self-blame with "shame," although this is more of a substitution than a convincing conceptual analysis. The central idea is that one can affect one’s own behavior as one affects that of other people. One views oneself from a third-person perspective.

There is something suspect about this idea, however. It sounds like it is an attempt of the heteronomist to smuggle in the possibility of self-control (which for my rather crude purposes here, I will equate with autonomy) in the back door. There is a potential logical conflict between asserting that one has no freedom and yet that one can control oneself.

The examined life
I want to pursue this problem by asking what is the point, for the heteronomist, of scrutinizing oneself and one’s life. Indeed, what is the role in one’s life of any practical deliberation?

The obvious purpose of practical deliberation is to decide what to do. A heteronomist can clearly agree that agents deliberate and that this is essential in a person making a decision. What the heteronomist denies is that the deliberation is free. The question immediately arises though, why deliberate if one has no free choice? Isn’t the idea of an open future essential to practical deliberation?

A heteronomist could reply that while the future may be metaphysically determined, the agent still does not know what she is going to do until she has deliberated, so the future is epistemologically open. Maybe this is enough to explain the ordinary sense that one has freedom in making a choice, but it implies that this sense of freedom is an illusion. It seems hard to avoid the conclusion that if the heteronomist is right, then it is futile to try to control one's own life, because one's future is not under one's control.

But we must be careful here. I stipulated at the start of this paper that the heteronomist agrees that people perform actions, and that their actions have effects on the world. Am I not now falling into the trap of accusing the heteronomist of saying that there is no agency at all, and that we are no more than machines or puppets?

In order to avoid this trap, we can say that on the heteronomist world view, the agency involved is not the same as we normally believe we have. Deliberation on this view does not require a genuinely open future. Examining one's life does not mean narrowing down one's options, because one has no genuine alternatives open to one. Rather, deliberation is a matter of finding out what one will do.

Shifts of worldview.
One might regard a move to becoming a heteronomist as one in a series of historical shifts in perspective. Consider this list:
· Theism to Atheism
· Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy
· A belief in an immaterial soul to materialism.
Each of these is a shift to a more scientific worldview. Maybe one of the great attractions of heteronomy is that it can claim that freedom is a myth of a pre-scientific era, and that while progress may entail abandoning our previously favored myths, it is a move for the better. For those who cling to old conceptions of action and our role in the world, the heteronomist's view seems pale and anemic. But the same is probably true of the shift in the concept of self from a belief in the soul to materialism. Now that we are acclimatized to a materialist worldview, the baggage of the dualist view seems (to most) utterly unnecessary.

So how major is the shift involved in becoming a heteronomist? If it what Kuhnians would call a "paradigm shift" or is it merely a slight shift in perspective? How great a change in our practices does the shift require?

It is fairly clear that heteronomists can engage in the same kinds of goals and projects as ordinary people: they can work in business, plan their careers, go on dates, form families, watch TV, and enjoy nature in similar ways to the rest of us. Their views may not be compatible with some religions, but generally religious debates over freedom (such as in the problem of evil) are part of specialized theology, and one can belong to a religion without worrying about the details of its theology. As I have already suggested, belief in heteronomy probably fits best with atheism -- and certainly all the heteronomists I have met have been atheists.

One might expect that heteronomists would be gloomy people. After all, they don't believe in what is generally held to be one of the most important aspects of our lives -- our freedom. Without any belief in freedom, one could become gloomy, and being a gloomy person in the first place could make one predisposed to the gloomy doctrine of heteronomy. However, this association seems simplistic: one might equally find the doctrine of heteronomy comforting -- after all, Sartre, whose early existentialism is the direct opposite of heteronomy, said that we are "condemned" to freedom. Anyway, there's not much evidence to support a connection between a philosopher's views and her mood. For example, it is implausible to suggest that atheists are more gloomy or even selfish people than other people. A world without a deity promising to punish the guilty and reward the good may seem more tragic and harsh to some, but only to those who believe or used to believe that there is such a deity.

However, to see whether a heteronomist is markedly different from other people, we must still look to her emotional life, and particularly her relationships with other people and herself. We have already examined these attitudes in earlier sections, and we can see that the shift in becoming a heteronomist would be subtle rather than major. So I conclude that the practices of the heteronomist would not have to be radically different from those of other people.

Emotions are central to thinking about everyday life, and one of the central implications of belief in heteronomy concerns emotions. The issue of how free we are is vital in understanding how to live our lives, and thus the doctrine of heteronomy needs full exploration. In this paper I hope that I have managed to set out, if sketchily, some important implications for living one's life of a belief in heteronomy. I do not pretend to be the first person to do this; indeed, Stoic philosophers were for the most naturalists and determinists, and they are famous for exploring the emotional consequences of their metaphysics, and for their focus on integrating philosophy ideas with ordinary life more than most other philosophical schools of thought. For a range of reasons, there has in the last decade been a revival of the idea that philosophy can be a guide to everyday living. This goes hand-in-hand with the longer-standing rise in applied ethics and feminism, which has brought to attention issues such as abortion rights, the right to die, sexual harassment, affirmative action, and the judgment of repellent practices in other cultures. It is notable that the theory that we have no freedom, as with theism vs. atheism, and belief in an immaterial soul vs. materialism, is a metaphysical doctrine with clear implications for our attitude to life. Thus it helps to support a more general idea that when examining the importance of philosophy to life, we need to look as much to metaphysics as to ethics.

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