Chapter 4. CONSCIOUSNESS AND RESPONSIBILITY

1. The consciousness in volition

2. The factors of responsibility

3. Judging, and misjudging, people

 

1. The consciousness in volition

Volition as an inner effort of the soul requires some degree of consciousness – else it would not be volition but mechanical movement. But the question arises: ‘consciousness’ of what? There are several answers.

Firstly, every act of will requires some minimum amount of awareness to be at all performed. To produce a volitional act, some attention to one’s inner faculties of volition has to be invested.

If all we invest is only just enough attention to perform the act in the most perfunctory manner, we call the act effectively unconscious or inattentive or mindless or involuntary, because as volitions go it is almost so. Note well that the negative terms used in this context are not meant as full negations, but as hyperbolic. Such conduct may be reproved as essentially lazy; for example, one may wash the dishes barely aware of what one is doing, while thinking of one hundred other things. Often, such actions are gauche and fail, because one was ‘absent minded’, one’s ‘heart was not in it’.

As we deliver more and more consciousness to our volitional faculty, the act becomes increasingly mindful or conscious, attentive or voluntary, till a peak of awareness is attained. In this case, contrary to the preceding, we are fully focused and concentrated on what we are doing; our mind is empty of extraneous thoughts, our action is pure and uncluttered. Everything we think or do is relevant to the job at hand; there is little hesitation, decisions are efficiently made, timely action proceeds. For example, a good fighter has this consciousness; whoso has experienced it knows its magic.

Note that the terms here used are sometimes mixed up in practice – so that mindful action may be called ‘unconscious’, meaning unconscious of irrelevant matters; we are not attaching to words but to their intended meanings. Also note, the expression ‘self-conscious’ is sometimes used to mean ‘mindful’, whereas at other times it is meant pejoratively, with reference to an interference of ego. In the latter case, we are conscious of other people looking at us, and careful to appear at our best so as to impress them; this implies a lack of self-sufficiency or self-confidence, and more important, turns our attention from the job at hand, so that we in fact lose our ‘presence of mind’.

Between unconsciousness and mindfulness, as above defined, there are many degrees of awareness. Just as cognition may involve different intensities of awareness, so does volition. This distinction explains why movements requiring will may nevertheless seem almost automatic or ‘involuntary’ to us: it is because they have no more than the minimum awareness in them, the agent being distracted by many other things, almost absent. In the case of ‘voluntary’ will, the agent is by virtue of his greater presence more of a volunteer, who will therefore more readily acknowledge the action as his own.

The possibility of minimal awareness helps explain self-programming: once a choice of freewill is launched, its continuation has a momentum of its own, hard to stop without special dedication; this means that more effort of consciousness and will is needed to stop it than to continue it.

A component of what we have called mindfulness is awareness of the influential context. This refers to consciousness to some degree of all the influences impinging, or seeming to impinge or possibly impinging on one’s current volitional act – including attitudes, concerns, motives, goals, feelings, moods, emotions, mental images, memories, imaginations, anticipations, thoughts, arguments, bodily aches and pains, physical sights and sounds perceived, that disturb or please, distractions, obstacles, and so forth. One should also mention awareness of one’s level of awareness. To the extent that one is conscious of all eventually influential factors, one’s volition is lucid and efficient.

Such consciousness is of course momentary and peripheral to the volition. It serves to minimize or even dissolve negative influences, and maximize or empower influences in the direction of our will. It makes the will as free as possible, or at least freer than when unconscious. It is a preparatory act, making ready for volition, aligning its resources, helping to focus and concentrate it. But if we exaggerate it and linger on it too long, we miss the point: instead of facilitating our volition, it confuses and interferes with our action. So, one has to know the right balance. Awareness of influences does not consist in weighing volition down with irrelevant thoughts, but on the contrary in emptying the mind of extraneous material.

In yoga meditation, by the way, this is known as pratyahara. We just calmly observe internal or external disturbances. As we do so, they either cease to exist or to appear, or they at least cease to disturb us. In this way, our consciousness can settle and become more intense.

A second important aspect of consciousness in volition is its intentionality, the direction of its aim. If agent A specifically wills W, then W is what A ‘has in mind’ as his aim as he stirs his volition into action, i.e. W is indeed what A ‘wanted to do’. In such case, we say that A intentionally or purposely willed W; and W is called the object or purpose of his will. If however A wills something else, of which W is a mere side effect, then we say that W was unintended. In the latter case, W is not the object or purpose of A’s act of volition, although it is a de facto product of will; we label this an incidental consequence of will.

Note that the ‘intention’ of the will resides primarily in the agent, as the intelligence of his act; thereafter only, is the term applicable to the act of will or to its object. The agent is conscious of the object-to-be, and exercises will towards it.

A third way consciousness is involved in volition is through deliberation, which serves to aim will in some appropriate direction. This may be a quick, almost instantaneous thought and decision, or it may require a long process of thought, involving complex research and difficult choices, gradually ‘making up one’s mind’. A deliberate act is thus filled with intelligence, in contrast to an inadvertent or haphazard act. Deliberation also implies adjusting action as one proceeds, to make sure one gets it right on target.

Volition may consist of a simple act of will or a series of such acts. The degree of attention, effort and appropriateness involved in either case is a measure of the endeavor in willing, how hard we try. That A intends W does not guarantee that his endeavor is bound to result in W; he may succeed or fail to achieve his purpose. W may be an necessary consequence of A’s act of will, in which case success is inevitable; or W may be a contingent consequence of A’s act of will, in which case failure is possible.

If A’s intention to achieve W is strong enough, A will do all in his power to increase the chances of success and reduce those of failure. If A’s endeavor is half-hearted, as we say, the chances are proportionately small. Agent A may also make no attempt to will for W, but merely wish for it to occur somehow; a wish may be a nice thought, but it is not will. If agent A pursues some goal W, and does not take the necessary and sufficient precautions to ensure success, then when failure occurs he may be said to have been negligent. Note that, in the case of more complex goals, success or failure may be partial; i.e. they both may result, and more or less of the one than the other.

In some cases, although A intends W, but (whether due to insufficient endeavor or circumstances beyond his control) fails to achieve it, W happens anyway through other causes (as an incident of some other will by A, or due to another agent’s volition, or through natural causes). From the perspective of A’s said intention of W, the latter cannot be regarded as success, but at best as ‘lucking out’.

A fourth measure of consciousness in volition relates to knowledge of conditions and consequences.

Agent A may intend W by his will, and yet fail to foresee whether W will inevitably follow upon his act of will or merely follow ‘if all goes well’. For example, he may aim an arrow in the general direction of a target, yet not be in full control of the resultant trajectory; his imperfect skill, or the bow breaking, or a sudden wind, or some unexpected obstacle, may yet impede a bull’s eye hit. Thus, intention does not exclude unforeseen circumstances, nor therefore by itself guarantee success. All the more so, if W is an incidental consequence of A’s will, it may be foreseen or unforeseen. In the former case, it occurs knowingly; in the latter case, it is called an accident.

The concepts of incidental (or unintended) and accidental (or unforeseen) consequence can further be clarified with reference to causative chains, as follows. Suppose P is a complete causative of Q (i.e. “if P, then Q” is true), either in all circumstances or in some given circumstances. Then, when A wills P (i.e. when A wills away with P as his intention, and indeed achieves P), Q will necessarily also follow. So, A will have effectively willed Q. However, if A had no interest in willing Q or even preferred to avoid Q, then Q is only an incidental consequence of A’s will, not an intention of his. A may have known Q to be a necessary consequent of P; or he may not have known it, or even may have thought notQ to be a necessary consequent of P; or he may not have thought about the issue at all. In the latter cases of ignorance, Q is just an accidental consequence of A’s will.[1]

We should also distinguish between foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences (be they intentional or not). In the former case, agent A could have foreseen the consequence if he had made appropriate preliminary investigations; in the latter, not. Foreseeable consequences may be inevitable or avoidable (if avoidance should be needed). If some undesired consequence of will was foreseeable and avoidable, then its not having been foreseen and avoided is indicative of some failure or weakness of will, i.e. not enough effort was expended to achieve the intended result or to prevent some unintended result.

There are, of course, many degrees of expectation, depending on the factual probability or improbability of the anticipated event in the circumstances considered. An unexpected event has either been unforeseen or foreseen not to happen. Whether factual expectation is great or small, or nil, it is based on belief. That is, it may be demonstrable knowledge, or it may just be more or less justifiable opinion. The latter refers to the epistemological likelihood of the event, the former to its ontological likelihood.

 

2. The factors of responsibility

Volition implies responsibility, which is estimated with reference to various factors and their measurements. The concept of responsibility is of course primarily aetiological. The concepts of moral and legal responsibility are more specific, since they refer to specific ethical norms or to legislation.

The important distinctions we made above, concerning consciousness, intention, deliberation, knowledge and expectation in volition, allow us to specify the measure of responsibility of the agent, the degree to which the action may be attributed to its doer, whether for moral or legal praise or blame, or (in the case of no responsibility at all) exoneration. In the case of crimes, with or without a victim, note the terms guilty or innocent used for responsibility and non-responsibility, respectively.

Agent A is fully responsible for event W, if W was his object of conscious will, his purpose or goal, his intention in willing, and a foreseeable and inevitable outcome of his actions. A is only, in one sense or another, partly responsible for W, in all other cases, to various degrees.

As we shall see in later chapters, influences on volition that are considered psychological, such as desires and fears, obsessions and compulsions, urges and impulses, whether operative on a conscious or subconscious level, do not ultimately diminish or remove and agent’s freedom of will and so remain his responsibility.[2]

We commonly also appeal to extenuating or aggravating circumstances in estimating responsibility (whether for good or bad acts), considering the former to somewhat diminish responsibility and the latter to increase it. This concept may be understood in two ways[3]:

(a) It may refer to terms and conditions, which objectively affect[4] the course of events, either before or after volition, but not through cognition. For example, if a man stole bread in a society refusing him both work and charity, he would have an objective extenuating circumstance, granting survival is a right. By way of contrast, if a man stole bread to save money, the fact that he did so although rich enough to buy bread, would be an objective aggravating circumstance, since he had no need to steal.

(b) Or it may refer to influences, which subjectively affect[5] volition, through cognition. For example, if a man witnessed a crime, but did not report it to the police because his child was threatened with retaliation if he did, he would also be able to appeal to ‘extenuating circumstances’. He had a difficult choice to make between his duty to society and that to his family, and since both are generally acknowledged values, the choice he made (under the influence of the criminal’s threat of violence) is understandable. On the other hand, if did not report the crime but also actively concealed it so as to avoid eventual blame for not reporting it, he would be regarded as having ‘aggravating circumstances’. Here, the man not only failed as a citizen, but (influenced by some inexcusable laziness or antisocial feelings) he committed the additional crime of making the witnessed crime more difficult to discover and punish.

All the preceding factors refer to direct responsibility, of an agent for his own actions.

An agent may also have a share of direct responsibility in some resultant of the actions undertaken by two or more agents. If each of the individual agent’s action has an identifiable portion of the resultant, it may be said to have a proportional partial individual responsibility for the resultant. But if the resultant is a collective outcome of all the individual contributions, such that it cannot be arithmetically divided among them, we may speak of collective responsibility. The latter is more difficult to apportion, though we can do so with reference to causative considerations. In practice, the distinction is sometimes moot, or both aspects may be involved. In any case, further clarification is possible with reference to individual intentions, common purposes, cooperation or confluence, degree of coordination of actions, and the like.

For example: if we refer to shares in a financial venture, the total capital is the sum of the parts, so each part-owner is responsible for that portion of the whole in the company’s environmental damage, say. If capital reduction by withdrawal without replacement of one of the partners would result in proportionately less damage to the environment, then that partner may be considered to have a ‘partial individual’ share of responsibility. But of course, in practice, the company is not just about money input, but involves the effort, skills and intelligence of numerous people, who collectively do the work. If this or that worker or manager is removed, the others may not be able to do their job; or what they do may not result in a finished product; or operations may after a while come to a standstill. In the latter case, we have to regard each shareholder, manager and employee as having a greater or smaller part of the collective responsibility in the joint project.[6]

An agent may also have indirect responsibility in another’s actions, if the former knowing of the latter was possibly able to prevent it, alone or with others, but did not try to do so, or tried to but did not make a sufficient effort to. Such responsibility is necessarily partial, implying passivity and tacit acquiescence. In most cases, this is just ordinary non-interference or tolerance, ‘minding one’s own business’; but in some cases, this would be called criminal negligence[7]. Note that if there is any show of dissent or disapproval, or other incipient effort of protest or opposition, one’s indirect responsibility is proportionately diminished; and one may claim a share of direct responsibility in the opposite direction. Inversely, if there is any show of consent or approval, and all the more so in the case of explicit encouragement or other active involvement, then one is not merely indirectly in part responsible, but acquires a direct share.

Thus, for example, during the Holocaust, history’s greatest crime, the responsibility of the German population varied greatly. A very few heroically made efforts to actively or passively resist the Nazi persecution of Jews and others; these were not responsible for the genocide. Most had indirect responsibility, at least because they knowingly acquiesced. Many of the latter were additionally conscious though passive beneficiaries of the spoils. But much worse, a great many people had various degrees of direct individual or collective responsibility, having participated in the horror as conquering army, appointed mass killers, efficient bureaucrats, railway workers, death camp planners and personnel, slave-labor exploiters, poison manufacturers, etc. [8]

I should mention here the Buddhist principle that at the root of all evil attitudes and acts is a fundamental ignorance of the true nature of reality. Although rather convincing, this principle should be regarded critically. It is true that at the base of our selfish indifference or hatred towards others, disregarding or enjoying their sufferings, there is a stupid blindness to the common nature, source and destiny of all sentient beings. However, to refer only to this fundamental ignorance is to effectively exonerate those guilty of crimes. For the term ‘ignorance’ refers to a failure of knowledge or understanding, a paucity of consciousness – and does not include reference to volition. Yet, it is precisely through our will, our choices, that we may be held responsible and subject to moral judgment. Of course, ignorance mitigates responsibility, if we have sincerely sought wisdom. But insofar as our will is misguided by inadequate cognitive practices, we remain responsible for it.

 

3. Judging, and misjudging, people

What we have said thus far concerning responsibility provides some guidelines for making just judgments about people. But such judgments are no simple matter, and we all very often err in making them. Even knowing in general terms, ontologically, what constitutes responsibility, it does not follow that we are fully armed, epistemologically, against misjudgment. We shall here, in passing[9], attempt to describe some of the methods and pitfalls involved, without claiming to exhaust this vast subject.

Above all, it should be stressed that judging responsibility is a category of factual judgment. It is not in itself moral judgment, though evaluations may subsequently be based on it; that is, it involves no standard of value. The question posed by judgment about responsibility is “whodunit?” (who did so and so, and to what extent is he or she the doer), rather than “was the thing done good or bad?” (which is a separate issue). Of course, judging responsibly is a moral imperative – an absolute one, since whatever our norms, logic dictates we apply them realistically, and to do so we must know the truth.

The object of judgment may be oneself or other person(s). Indeed, judgment about responsibility is relevant to both the inner life and to social life. We may also use such judgment to philosophically judge God’s responsibility in world events, or to determine whether one’s dog or cat ate the cheese – i.e. it relates to any presumed volitional agent. However, here we shall concentrate on humans.

Assessments of responsibility depend on three factors: the facts of the case as we see them, our skill or wisdom at determining responsibility on the basis of such data, and our capacity for objectivity or fairness. Judging one’s own responsibility differs from judging that of others in two important respects.

Firstly, the empirical data at our disposal is greater in the case of self-assessment, since we have direct cognition of our subjective states and actions, as well as perception of their mental and physical consequences. Such introspection is not infallible, since it depends on the degree and clarity of one’s awareness of internal events as they occur, and on the durability of one’s memory of those facts. In the case of assessing others, our database consists essentially of externally perceivable data (physical words and deeds), from which we infer (spiritual or mental) internal events by means of analogies to one’s own experiences.

Secondly, although in principle given certain data, the conclusions we draw from them are dependent on our conceptual framework, and so likely to be about the same whether the object of judgment is self or any other, in practice the identity of the person judged and our predisposition or partiality towards that person affects our judgment considerably. For instance, if we are well disposed or sympathetic to the latter, we will make more effort to find extenuating circumstances; whereas, if badly disposed or antipathetic, our efforts will be directed at condemnation. One usually judges oneself and one’s loved ones favorably, and those one dislikes as unfavorably as possible; although, to be sure, some people have masochistic tendencies, and some people do make an effort at objectivity or impartiality.

The function of self-judgment is generally attributed to a faculty called conscience. In truth, this concept is a mere abstract construct, though a useful one. One’s conscience is not a structure separate from oneself – it is a part of one’s soul (in time, rather than place) acting as judge in relation some other part of one’s soul. If one is judging sincerely, with objectivity and honesty, one ‘has conscience’ – if our judgments are not in earnest or non-existent, one ‘lacks conscience’. By judging conscientiously, one effectively gives oneself a ‘conscience’. The concept extends to one’s judgment of others, insofar as we are responsible for the supervision of our own intellectual faculties, including those involved in our judgments about other people.

Introspection aims at identifying subjective, mental and physical data. Subjective data includes: (a) one’s volitions, velleities, or inactions; (b) one’s knowledge or ignorance of something; and/or (c) one’s attitudes towards someone or something, including affections and appetites, hopes, fears, and so forth. Mental data includes: one’s memories, fantasies, expectations, whether expressed as phenomenal qualities (sights, sounds, etc.) or verbally, indeed all our mental projections, emotions and thoughts. Physical data here refers to sensations and sentiments appearing in the body, such as feelings of sexual arousal or indifference, or feelings of love or hate.

Subjective data is known intuitively, i.e. it is a direct self-knowledge, not based on phenomenal (mental or physical) data, although it may be confirmed and reinforced by such data. In practice, subjective events are not always perspicuous, so that what we assume them to be must be regarded as an inductive construct. That is, based on fleeting, vague and partial intuitions, one proceeds by trial and error to a firmer, clearer and fuller estimate of one’s volition, knowledge or evaluation. The elements of doubt in successive intuitions are attenuated by repeated experience. Although the database is composed of direct experiences, judgment is still involved in comparing and contrasting such experiences and distilling a considered summary of them.

Additionally, we may and do infer such deeper, more subjective events (when they are not evident by intuition) from mental and physical data, on the basis of past conjunctions in experience (i.e. apparent causations). In this context, we often reason according to the format post hoc, ergo propter hoc (sequence, therefore consequence), proposing an adductive construct (“this sort of mental or physical phenomena seem to imply that kind of event in the soul”), which we repeatedly test with reference to all direct and indirect experiences and reasoning, maintaining our assumption so long as it seems plausible to us, and abandoning it if ever it ceases to do so.

Mental data, i.e. sights, sounds and other phenomenal qualities projected by memory or imagination or anticipation within one’s mind, are known by inner perception. Physical data, is known by sensory perception, i.e. through the organs of sensation deployed in one’s body, whether these organs have been stimulated by psychosomatic events (occurring in the body, due to mental causatives; e.g. anxiety feelings), physiological events (in the body, due to bodily causes; e.g. indigestion), or external events (bodies around one’s own, impinging on it).

It should be stressed that these distinctions between soul, mind, body and beyond, are somewhat conventional, in that in practice events in these four domains are very tightly intertwined, and we may only assign an event to the one or the other after considerable reflection. The resultant classification of the event concerned is therefore not purely empirical data, but itself a product of conception and inductive judgment.

Judgment of others is both extroverted and introspective. It is extroverted, insofar as based on information we have directly or indirectly ‘perceived’ concerning the person to be judged. And it is introspective, insofar as that data is necessarily interpreted according to one’s own inner experience and its customary relation in oneself to similar externally perceivable events. Scientific data, based on the objective observation of the behavior of many people under similar circumstances may be brought to bear, as a third factor of judgment; but such data, note well, itself also logically falls under the preceding two categories, namely ‘externally perceivable data concerning others’ and ‘the interpretation thereof based on one’s own inner life’.

With regard to the external ‘perceptions’ involved – this refers to (a) the things oneself actually sees or hears the person judged do or say, and (b) the things that someone else has actually seen or heard that person do or say. The former (a) is direct evidence, and refers to any data (prior to any interpretation) available to one’s own senses, which cannot be distorted or faked by third parties. If such data can in principle be manipulated, it should be considered with due caution, and of course regarded as open to revision. The latter (b) refers to hearsay evidence, which depends on the reliability of the alleged witness, who may intentionally lie for a variety of personal motives, or be too emotionally involved to distinguish fact from fantasy, or merely be a very incompetent observer.

Note that direct evidence includes concrete evidence of any sort, i.e. physical traces or leftovers of the past events under scrutiny, which may be considered as emanations of the person judged, still available for perception by the one judging. Circumstantial evidence – concerning time, place, opportunity, possible motive, and the like – can be similarly considered, although more abstract or speculative.

Also note, hearsay evidence may be first-hand testimony by a participant in the events, reporting his or her own thoughts, words and deeds; or second-hand testimony about the words and deeds (but not the thoughts) of someone else. The latter witness may be a participant testifying about another participant, or a bystander (a non-participant who observed without affecting events).

Obviously, the person judged may intentionally project a fictional representation of his or her external actions or inner workings; for example, a murderer may wipe off his fingerprints from the weapon used or loudly proclaim his innocence in court. This too must be taken into account when estimating data.

With regard to witnesses, obviously, the more there are of them, the more reliable their common testimony. If their testimonies converge, they corroborate each other, though conspiracies are of course possible. If their testimonies diverge, the judge would want to know why. Perhaps some partial common ground is found between them; perhaps some of the witnesses are more reliable than others.

Obviously too, even when one bases one’s judgment on one’s own perceptions, one must be attentive to one’s competence as an observer, emotional involvement and personal interests (including financial and other advantages) in the affair; i.e. one should clearly distinguish between raw data and subsequent interpretation – no easy task!

The insight that interpreting the actions or words of others depends largely on one’s own inner life and behavior patterns is very important. It means that when we judge others, we are to some extent exposing and judging ourselves. Criminals actualize certain potentials; by doing so, they reveal to all of us what we, as humans, are probably equally capable of (if not actually guilty of); for this reason, by the way, every crime is doubly so, in that it further diminishes one’s self-trust and trust in others, fragmenting society. Conversely, when we project presumed motives or behaviors onto suspects, we are extrapolating these from motives or behaviors we suppose potential (if not actual) within ourselves; i.e. we are also saying something about ourselves. Thus, judgment is a two-edged sword, to be handled with care.

Judgments about responsibility are a heavy responsibility, which few manage to discharge equitably in all cases. A person may unfairly judge himself or herself, claiming undeserved credit or discredit. People may misjudge each other in the family, the workplace, the community at large, the media, and of course the courthouse. Such injustices may befall groups (e.g. religious, racial or national groups), as well as individuals. The legal principles “a person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty” and “guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt before condemning” are often ignored in the courtroom, and more often still outside it.

Many people lack intelligence and intellectual rigor in their everyday life and dealings, so it is not surprising to find them exercising the same stupidity and laxity when they are required to judge people. Such people liberally mentally project their delusions, fantasies and fears on those around them, lacking the training to distinguish fact from fiction. Many people (men, women and children) take pleasure in slander and talebearing, thinking that by bringing shame and disrepute on others they enhance their own status. In fact, all they do is reveal their own foolish thoughts and their hatred: Judaism rightly compares such people to murderers, and wisely commands: “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour”[10].

Nowadays, with the advent of mass media, gossip, slander and talebearing have become an institution, a full-time livelihood! Here, certain thought patterns should be pointed out, which promote prejudice.

One is the very human tendency of generalizing – we take the behavior of some people in certain circumstances and assume the same behavior for other people in similar circumstances. Generalization is a legitimate process, provided it is subjected to checks and balances. The need for repeated testing and, when appropriate, particularization is true for all natural objects – but all the more so with regard to volitional agents, and in particular people. The latter, by definition, do not act in a uniform manner in the same circumstances – so in their case, generalization should be indulged in very carefully. Especially in view of the disastrous consequences of wrong judgments in this field, one cannot allow oneself to generalize at first sight, without due research and verification of hypotheses.

Another common tendency is that of stereotyping – trying to fit all human behavior in a limited number of pre-established categories. Here again, there is some epistemological basis to the process: the human mind naturally pursues categorizations, as neat summaries of information. This is an aspect of conceptualization: seeking out patterns in data, by comparing and contrasting cases. The problem lies in the need to keep an open mind and continue this process all the time, whereas people tend to get lazy and stop it when they have one, two or three such stereotypes in mind. Thereafter, all natural flexibility is lost, and the mind tries to force-fit new cases into the few, rough and ready, prior patterns, instead of modifying categories or generating new ones as and when necessary. Many people misjudge, simply because they constantly refer back to clichés that have little to do with the persons or situations under scrutiny.[11]

Erroneous generalizing and stereotyping are related, the former concerning propositions and the latter concerning terms. Both are due to the failure to practice the logical virtues of open-mindedness and empiricism, careful adaptation, clarity and precision. If one is satisfied with approximation and fixation, one is bound to judge wrongly sooner or later. Another major pitfall is, of course, emotiveness. Under the weight of an intense emotion, a real effort is required to judge correctly. And, of course, emotions are most stirred precisely when people are involved – the very circumstances when cool judgment is called for. In such situations, one must consciously remind oneself to be objective and impartial.

Note lastly that reasoning about responsibility is not just concerned with volition, but often has more to do with causation. Arguments involving if–then statements are often crucial to determinations of responsibility, or the share of it. For example, the premises “if A + B, then E” and “if A + not B, then not E” suggest the conclusion that, given A (which may in turn refer to a conjunction of causes, C + D +… etc.), B causes E and not B causes not E. By such means, we would determine that agent B, rather than potential agent(s) A, is currently responsible for effect E (although to get the full picture, we would have to also check out what happens in the absence of A)[12].

A more thorough analysis of reasoning about responsibility is outside the scope of this book. A volume on this topic, with emphasis on legal issues, which I have found very interesting and recommend, is that of Hart and Honoré.



[1] Often, in political discourse, people accuse their opponents of bad intentions based on unintended consequences of their opponents’ actions; or they credit themselves with good intentions they never in fact had.

[2] This is said to stress opposition to certain psychological theories, which seek to remove guilt by denying responsibility.

[3] Note that the examples given concern blame for wrongdoing; but we could of course equally cite cases of praise for good deeds.

[4] In the limit, if the terms and condition leave one no choice, i.e. if no volition is possible, responsibility is eliminated.

[5] Since influences, whether positive or negative, never abolish freedom of the will, responsibility is certainly never annulled by them.

[6] How exactly to quantify the relative weights of the partial causes making up a complete cause is a moot question. Certainly, common sense supports the notion of such quantification. In principle, we could proceed as in the physical sciences, postulating an algebraic formula linking the variables and repeatedly testing it empirically. In situations involving humans – which are less easy to reproduce identically – such an approach is not always practical. For this reason, our judgments in this issue are often tentative and approximate.

[7] One special case to consider (at least for theists) is God’s indirect responsibility. According to the Judaic theory of volition, God gave humans volition by a voluntary act of withdrawal (tsimtsum). He chose to abstain from exercising His omnipotence, so as to make possible small pockets of individual freewill. Nevertheless, this did not annul His infinite power: He retains the capacity to overwhelm any creature’s will. In that case, we may well wonder why He does not prevent horrible willful crimes, not to mention murderous natural events. Why does He not limit human powers within certain more gentle bounds, to the exclusion on principle of the most heinous deeds?

[8] See for instance Paul Johnson: “The German people knew about and acquiesced in the genocide” (p. 498). Of course, not just Germans, but many other European peoples (he mentions notably the Austrians and Romanians), were actively involved; some did not collaborate but did nothing to help Jews, some resisted and did what they could to help.

[9] This section is not directly relevant to our analysis of volition at the present stage, but is nevertheless inserted as a continuation to the discussion of responsibility, dealing with some of the epistemological issues relative to that topic.

[10] See for instance Talmud: Arachin 15b. Quotation is from Torah: Exodus 20:13.

[11] It should be pointed out that people who judge others by stereotypes tend to adapt even their own behavior to stereotypes! They absorb a number of behavior patterns from TV, movies and novels – which are often artificial concoctions in the first place, based on the fiction writer’s superficial understanding of the human psyche. When faced with a real life situation, rather than draw out an appropriate response from within their own soul, they simply apply one of the formulas they have been fed by the media. They play set roles: the rebellious protester, the macho politician, etc. Even the dialogues are standardized. The sum total of available roles and dialogues is called ‘a culture’.

[12] See my The Logic of Causation for a full treatment of such arguments.

You can purchase a paper copy of this book Books by Avi Sion in The Logician Bookstore at The Logician’s secure online Bookshop.