What do you think of my essay? (AQA AS Philosophy - old spec)

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This essay is written in response to the question 'Assess the view that we are responsible for our actions', coming from the PHIL2 paper from June 2011. I ran out of paper today and so had to write an essay on my computer, and just figured 'Hey, why not see what TSR thinks of it?' Here it is:

This essay shall assess the view stated in the essay title by first giving a discussion of intentionality as a common basis for human responsibility, and how determinists threaten this approach and thus argue that we are not responsible for our actions. It shal then look at some important problems for this view, before looking at how Hume's compatibilist approach to free will may resist the determinist claims and secure the notion that we are responsible for our actions.

Human beings are regarded to be intentional agents, meaning that they possess sufficient personal consciousness and intelligence to express intentions (Daniel Dennett). It can be argued that our responsibility for our actions comes from the fact that they have intentionality - they are 'about' something, or can be said to express our intentions on a matter. For example, my action of going to get a glass of water expresses my intention to do something - in this case, to get a glass of water. Another example may be if someone murders another person, we hold them to be criminally responsible because their actions expressed their intentions to perform the action. Thus, it appears that our responsibility for our actions may rest upon the fact that they are intentional. Conversely, something which is not regarded to be intentional agent such as a house brick, is not to blamed for smashing a window - instead, you blame the intentional agent which through the brick.

This account of human responsibility is rejected by determinism. Determinists argue that intentionality is irrelevant and does not secure human responsibility because in each case, we have no choice in our actions. Every physical event is causally determined by what preceded it, including human actions, and so everything, including intentional agents, have no choice in their actions. This approach to human responsibility is often expressed as 'ought implies can': in order for a person to be ought to do X, the person must have been able to do X. It makes no sense to say that a person is responsible for not taking an action which they could not have performed. Thus, determinists claim that we have no free will, and since this means that we cannot do anything other than what we actually do, we cannot be responsible for our actions.

This 'ought implies can' principle requires that we have an effective freedom to act differently in order to say that we can be held responsible for our actions - in order to say that you ought to have chosen X, you must have been able to choose X. However, we can argue that this effective freedom is something which can never be known about our actions. Once a person has made an action, they cannot know whether or not they could have taken another action, since they can only know the actions which they take. If I choose a red bag over a blue one, I cannot know whether or not I was free to choose the blue bag, or if my decision to choose the red bg was causally determined - I can only know what I actually chose to do. Thus, it appears that the 'ought implies can' principle fails to proscribe the conditions for human responsibility because its conditions can never actualy be met - we can never know if we have effective freedom.

This gives us room to defend human responsibility by looking at Hume's compatibilist approach to the free will debate. Hume argued that free will is 'a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will'; essentially, a free action is one which is made on the basis of one's own motives and desires - it occurs as a result of your intentions. Conversely, if an action is physically or psychologically constrained, it is not free. This is compatible with determinism: all physical events can be causally determined, since free events are defined as one which are made on the basis of ones intentionality, not ones in which we have free choice. This creates a sense of hypothetical freedom which can be used to secure our responsibility: if you ought to do X, then it must be the case that if you had chosen to do X (not that you actually could, but nevertheless, your actions occur as a result of your choices), that you would have done X.

From this essay, we can see that the determinist rejection of human responsibility on the grounds that 'ought implies can' is unsuccessful, and that we can justify our responsibility for our actions. The 'ought implies can' principle is deeply flawed, since we can never know if we actually have effective freedom or not, and so it does not provide a basis for rejecting moral responsibility. Hume's compatibilist approach to free will allows us to know when we can be said to be responsible or not responsible for our actions: if they occur as a result of our intentions, we are responsible for them: if they are forced or otherwise unintentional e.g. failing to save someone from drowning whilst tied to a chair, or taking drugs whilst addicted to them, they are not responsible. This approach correlates with our experience, and so determinism has no case for rejecting our responsibility for our actions.


It took me 30 minutes to type out, roughly the same time it takes me to write something like this on paper. What grade do you guys think I'm floating around the general vicinity of?

EDIT: there may be some silly errors made as a result of typing this instead of writing it. Hopefully they are not too intrusive.
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