This will be a very philosophical post. You have been forewarned. But, as is perhaps usual for a blog, I am not going to provide citations, except one (Pink’s A Very Short Introduction to Free Will).
In philosophy, there are, usually, three points of view, when it comes to choices. There is the deterministic view (either strong or compatibilistic): a person’s choice is the necessary result of the past of that choice. Or, the libetertarian free will view (not to be confused with the similar libertarian politics, which have the same name, but have nothing to do with the philosophy of choice that we are considering): a person’s choice is not the necessary result of the chronological past of that action, but at the same time, a person’s actions are not arbitrary. Finally, there is the (rarely taken, philosophically) view that a person’s choice is totally random.
Now, if a choice is the result of the chronological past of that choice, we might argue, that person bears no responsibility for their action. After all, a person bears no responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, but their very existence is a consequence of their ancestors! How should they be held responsible for their action, since that is as necessary as the actions of their ancestors, or any other action?
On the other hand, if a person’s actions are totally arbitrary or random, then, how can we hold them responsible? If they are completely random, then surely, their actions are merely chaotic, and therefore, they are just as innocent of those actions, as if they were totally the result of past actions.
Finally, there is the libertarian free will view: a person’s actions are not independent of the past events, nor are they totally arbitrary, but they are something else entirely. What is this other? Well, it cannot be reduced to the concepts of determinism or randomness, any more than the concept of ‘blue’ can be reduced to the concepts of ‘high pitch’ and ‘soft.’ It is a concept that must be understood directly. Libertarian free will cannot be reduced to determinism, nor can it be reduced to any other collection of concepts. I invite readers to consult T. Pink’s A Very Short Introduction to Free Will, for a description and defense of how it is possible to conceive of libertarian free will.
Now, it may surprise you, but, although I am an atheist, I believe libertarian free will is a distinct possibility for humans. After all, there is a chance that quantum mechanics (which appears to be random, under certain probability distributions) may be key for brain function. And that could well be a matter of choice, which would give a probability distribution, not simply a ‘totally arbitrary’ result.
However, I want to ask the following question: should a person, at this moment, be held responsible for their previous actions?
Well, I would answer, if determinism is true, or true for a person’s actions, then no (although, as William James pointed out, even if a person bears no responsibility for their actions, society would continue to punish people for their actions to act as a deterrent, etc.).
Also, if total arbitrariness rules over human choices, then no.
Now, the supporters of libertarian free will usually say that one of the key points of libertarian free will is that it lets an agent be responsible, in the future, for the choice that they made at this moment in time. So, ten years ago, person X chose to do action Y, and they made that choice freely, and now they can be held responsible for that choice. I will not here debate the definition of a libertarian free choice. No, what I will ask is, supposing person X has made a libertarian free choice, at some point. Are they, now, in the future of that choice, responsible?
My answer is no. And not because I believe such a choice is deterministic, nor because it is random or arbitrary. Rather because of the following reason. We hold a person responsible for what they can control. But even if a person freely chose to do something in the past, they can no longer control the past. Therefore, they can no longer control that past action, and therefore cannot be held responsible for their past action in the present. We are solely responsible for our present actions, including our present attitudes.
In other words, a choice is made by person x. Does x, later, have responsibility? No, because the later x no longer controls that choice. This x no longer has control of their past, any more than x has control over the actions of their great-great-great-grandfather, before they were born. Yet, we no longer hold a person responsible for their great-great-great-grandfather’s actions. That choice was made. It was free, but now, no longer. This is also true of the actions of x in the past. Therefore, x is now no longer responsible for x‘s past choices. This holds regardless of how we view choices: whether we are determinists, randomists, libertarian free will philosophers, etc. Even in this last case, we cannot hold a person now responsible for their past actions.
Does that mean I condemn holding people responsible? Yes. But does it mean we should not punish people or reward them? Well, perhaps not. We should, perhaps, hold people responsible, in order to pragmatically encourage certain actions and discourage other actions: good actions should be rewarded, others punished, to encourage or discourage.
However, on a moral level, this means that a person who celebrates an action can equally morally be granted celebration or punishment for that action: a person who celebrated the Islamic terrorist actions of ISIS in Paris is just just as worthy of punishment as the people who conducted those acts.
So, if this is so, how do we prevent punishing people for thought crime? Well, a person who conducts an action shows that they have the courage to carry it out, whereas those who merely praise the action lack that courage. So, we punish those with the courage to both suggest and perform an action, and do not punish those who merely approve of the deed, without the courage to do it. Is this a good thing? In terms of manipulating future behavior, perhaps. As in the case of determinism, we are punishing and rewarding in order to mold future behavior. But a detailed study of the interrelation between thought and action, under this view of guilt, would be very lengthy.
I mention this, as a philosophical analysis of responsibility. I also mention it in terms of constructing future moral ideals. Holding people responsible for past actions only makes sense if we also hold those who ‘would have done’ those actions responsible. And a person who did something terrible should (from the perspective of responsibility) be entirely let off, ‘forgiven’ if you will, if they now reject their former deed, abjure it, reject it.
PS I have chosen not to delve into the issue of whether causal order and chronological order agree with one another here. Where it matters, ‘past’ here refers to ‘causal past.’ Obviously, for something to now be known, it is likely to be in the causal past. However, I do not rule out the possibility that time and causation have a more complicated relationship, such as is suggested by the Transactional interpretation of quantum theory (developed by Cramer if I recall correctly, although I do not think his specific formulation is very likely – but that is a matter for another time).
Also, William James has written good stuff on our ability to conceive of choice and causal power. I am too lazy to look up the exact essays, however.