Academic philosophers are a fairly homogeneous bunch--mostly male, mostly white. So, when a philosopher proposes a thought experiment and then goes on to make a general claim of the form "in this case, most people would surely say that P" or "in this case, it is clearly the case that P", one might wonder whether the philosopher's intuitions really are so obvious or widely shared. Perhaps only philosophers, or male philosophers, or Western male philosophers, or Western male philosophers who maintain theory x, would find it obvious (or even entertain the idea) "that P".
Indeed, in recent years, experimental philosophers interested in such intuitions about particular cases (and their role in philosophical theories) have discovered that it's not hard to find significant cross-cultural variation. For example, recent studies have shown that Americans, East Asians and Indians may differ considerably in their intuitions concerning key thought experiments in epistemology and philosophy of language.
Some colleagues and I wanted to see whether this phenomenon held true for beliefs concerning free will and moral responsibility. We asked participants in Colombia, Hong Kong, India, and the United States what they thought about the following case. (For a video presentation of these questions, click here.):
Imagine a universe (Universe A) in which everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. This is true from the very beginning of the universe, so what happened in the beginning of the universe caused what happened next, and so on right up until the present. For example one day John decided to have French Fries at lunch. Like everything else, this decision was completely caused by what happened before it. So, if everything in this universe was exactly the same up until John made his decision, then it had to happen that John would decide to have French Fries.
Now imagine a universe (Universe B) in which almost everything that happens is completely caused by whatever happened before it. The one exception is human decision making. For example, one day Mary decided to have French Fries at lunch. Since a person’s decision in this universe is not completely caused by what happened before it, even if everything in the universe was exactly the same up until Mary made her decision, it did not have to happen that Mary would decide to have French Fries. She could have decided to have something different.
The key difference, then, is that in Universe A every decision is completely caused by what happened before the decision – given the past, each decision has to happen the way that it does. By contrast, in Universe B, decisions are not completely caused by the past, and each human decision does not have to happen the way that it does.
1. Which of these universes do you think is most like ours? (circle one)
Universe A-----Universe B
2. In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?
Previous work in cross-cultural psychology has shown that Westerners and non-Westerners differ in the way they think about moral responsibility, individual agency, and even the more fundamental notion of what it means to be a person; naturally, we expected to find some significant differences in the response patterns of these groups. Not so. In all four cultures, the majority of participants responded as indeterminists and incompatibilists! That is, the majority of participants believed our own universe to be indeterministic, and denied that moral responsibility could be compatible with determinism.
How is it, then, that individuals from such different cultural and religious backgrounds, with divergent ways of understanding the world, who have probably never been instructed on the topic of causal determinism, all tend to embrace the same two theses--indeterminism and incompatibilism? Such cross-cultural similarities in beliefs cry out for one of two kinds of explanation. The first would focus on innate endowment, such as some basic capacities concerning causal cognition or theory of mind. The second would focus on shared experience, such as the phenomenology of moral choice or the unpredictability of human action. Either approach seems worthy of exploration. It is also possible—and indeed quite likely—that the similarities here arise from a complex interaction between innate endowment and shared experience. Future research may shed light on the mechanisms involved. For now, it remains a puzzling finding in an area where one might expect some variation.
Saturday, May 03, 2008