4.1. The choice as free

The theory that morality makes sense because life goes on after death seems to hang together, so far at least. It supposes, of course, that there is a difference between our acts and their consequences here on earth and our choices and their eternality. It also supposes that these choices are always under our control; because if they aren't, then (a) self-determination and eternally being what you chose to be is nonsense, because you had no control over the choice; and (b) eternal frustration for immoral choices over which you had no control would be self-contradictory and unjust. In other words, if our choices are not free (whatever may be said about our acts), then life is once again nonsense; the whole theory collapses, and so does any attempt to make sense out of life and morality.

This in itself constitutes a proof that our choices are free--at least in the sense that they are under our control. There is, however, other evidence that leads to the same conclusion; but this evidence, like that for immortality, is the proper subject of the Philosophy of Human Nature, and so will not be treated here (once again I refer you to Living Bodies for a more extended discussion).

Let me just sketch the evidence for those who simply want to see an overview of what it is.

(A) The choice, which is conscious of itself, is a spiritual act, containing the whole of itself within itself (e.g. whenever you choose, the choice includes the choice to choose now--and not postpone it--the choice chooses itself). Such an act, as directly within itself, cannot be deceived about itself (because there is nothing "between" it and itself to fool it); and since it recognizes itself as in control, then this must be true.

(B) If the choice were not free, then our idea that we could have chosen differently must be a delusion based on ignorance of what is making us choose. If this were the case, then those who have unconscious things directing them would have to feel freer than those who know what is influencing them. But neurotics do not know what is making them do things, and yet feel unfree.

(c) People feel unfree in the situation in which they choose to do something and then find that they can't carry out the choice. But if the choice is forced, then what forces the choice would also force the act; it would be contradictory for the act to be forced in the opposite direction.

Hence, the evidence confirms what we need for our theory: that our choices are free, even when our acts aren't.

[See also Modes, 3.3.6]

4.1.1. Characteristics of free choice

Obviously, we are not free in every sense of the term. I just got through saying that our acts are not always under our control. Also, when someone threatens us, even though we can choose to do what he threatens us not to do, we aren't as free as we were. So let me list the characteristics of the kind of "freedom" that is relevant to our present discussion:

1. Our choices are always under our control.

That is, it is always possible to choose any of the known alternatives (and always possible to choose not to choose now), whether those alternatives are reasonable or realistic or not.

2. Nothing unconscious can directly affect a choice. Our choices can be influenced, but only by facts we know at the time we make the choice.

The first part of this point says that options we are not consciously aware of cannot be chosen. If you don't realize (at the time you make the choice) that you can, say, leave the room, you can't at that time choose to leave the room. Further, you can't use as a motive (a "reason") for your choice some information you have forgotten at the time you make it. If you decide to buy a car and you choose to buy a less expensive one because you don't think you have the money for the down payment--and the next day your tax refund comes--the fact that the information about it was "filed" in your unconscious didn't affect the choice.

And this brings us to the second part. These facts are the reasons for which we make the choice, or its motives. We do not choose based on emotions we have, except insofar as the fact that we have the emotion figures as a reason for choosing.

Be very clear on this. When we choose to do something because we like it or it feels good, it isn't the feeling that influences the choice, but our knowledge of the fact that the act we choose will make us feel good. Similarly, if we choose to avoid some act because we are afraid, it is not the fear itself but the fact that we have the fear that is what influences the choice.

This is a very subtle little distinction, but very important.

3.The choice has control over how much each known fact is going to influence it.

That is, we choose not only the act we perform, but we choose the reasons for which we perform it, and we choose how important those reasons are for the choice.

We are not at the mercy of the "objective weight" of the motivations for the choice; we make the weight and importance of these motivators by choosing which is to be important, which is to be insignificant, and which is not to figure at all in the choice.

So, for instance, when you are wondering whether to buy an expensive suit or a stereo system instead, you weigh the fact that the suit will let you "dress for success" for your job interviews, that it will make you look nice, that it will be the envy of others, etc., against the fact that the stereo will allow you to hear Starship without distortion (?), that you can invite others to your house without shame for parties, etc. You then put these facts in an order of importance which depends on you, not on some "objective goodness." (This is where the subjectivity of goodness comes in.) You may recognize that objectively, it is more to your long-term advantage to buy the suit, but you choose to make, say, the looks of the stereo in your room the most important consideration, and buy the stereo for that main reason. You choose to ignore what your parents will say.

4.Feelings, habits, instincts, and drives affect choices only indirectly, by (a) making us unaware of facts we might have known if we were calm, or (b) creating illusions that we take to be facts.

Feelings, then, affect choices (indirectly, not directly) by creating misinformation. We then use this misinformation as the reasons on which we base our choices, thinking that we are basing them on facts. Either that, or the emotions conceal information; and we base our choices on fewer facts than would otherwise be available to us.

Thus, a person who is in love simply cannot understand what someone else is talking about when the other person says that his beloved is, say, selfish; his emotion prevents him from being aware of this. Similarly, he sees his beloved as more beautiful than she really is, because his emotions are "enhancing" his perceptions.

Note that the choices in this case are still free, and the emotions did not "force" them. It is just that they are more ignorant than they would have been if the emotion hadn't blinded the person.

5. Our acts are never free. They are ordinarily forced by our choices, but may be forced by emotions or habits in spite of the choice.

We often choose to get into habits, in fact, because we don't want to be bothered deliberating and choosing about the minor affairs of our lives. The habit amounts to a "programming" of the brain so that a given response is automatic upon a certain stimulus; as, for example, when you get into the bathroom in the morning, you reach for the toothpaste and brush.

Sometimes these habits (and emotions) can be so strong that they operate even when we choose to stop them. Then the person feels out of control. His choice is still under his control; but his act is not, because it is not under the control of his choice.

Note on terminology:

This is something else that belongs in the Philosophy of Human Nature, but has a certain relevance here.

Acts can be called analogously free when they are the acts we choose to do (because the choice is free). Thus, when I choose to type at this computer, the act of typing is a "free" act, because I could have chosen to do something else (and presumably would be doing it). Actually, the act is forced by the (free) choice.

Choices can be called "less free" or "not free" insofar as they are made under a threat. The choice is still free (choices are always free) in that it is possible to choose to act in spite of the threat; but the threat (the warning that some harm will come if you make a certain choice) makes such a choice positively unreasonable. That is, no reasonable person would (or morally could) deliberately choose harm to himself; and so threats give a person only one reasonable and/or moral option. The freedom to act unreasonably is not a realistic freedom. It is in this sense that the victim says to the robber, "You leave me no choice." Freedom from threats is sometimes called liberty.

There are other senses of "free" and "not free," but these are the ones that are apt to cause difficulties in ethical investigations if one is not aware that there are these different meanings.

4.2. The general moral rule

I think it now can be seen why it is the choice that is moral and immoral and has eternal implications; only choices are always under our control. Our acts (morally right or wrong) may or may not be, and in any case, the moral rightness or wrongness of the act may not be known to us.

Let me refresh your mind with the first statement of the moral command:

GENERAL RULE OF MORALITY: You must never be willing to do what is morally wrong (i.e. what is inhuman in some respect).

There is a lot hidden in this rule. What it says is that "to be willing" to do something wrong is the same as to choose to do what is wrong. That is, your choice is immoral even if you don't precisely want the wrongness in what you choose, as long as you see that it's there, and you're willing to put up with it.

So, the thief doesn't precisely want the self-contradictory situation of pretending he owns what he really doesn't; he just wants to be able to watch "The Cosby Show" on the set he stole, and he's willing to pretend he owns the set in order to do it. He'd rather, perhaps, watch it on his own set, but he chooses to watch it on this one. That choice to steal the set is immoral, even if the pretense is not his goal.

Now of course, you can't be willing (or choose) to do something you don't know about (as we saw above); so this willingness depends on your factual knowledge.

But this is quite a complicated subject, as it works itself out in practice; and so let us start with something fairly simple: the relation of emotions and how you feel to the morality of your choices.

4.3. Morality and emotions

Since morality depends on the choice, which in turn depends only on our awareness of facts, not on how we feel, then it would seem that emotions, habits, feelings, and drives are completely irrelevant. Unfortunately, this isn't quite true, because emotions, habits, and so on can affect information you have, and can also take over control of your actions in spite of your choice.

Since this is so, then based on the general rule above, we can make this application:

RULE: We must never be willing to let emotions force us into doing what is morally wrong.

Let us unpack this rule. First of all, what it says is that the excuse, "Well, if I go over to her house, I'll be so blind with desire that I won't know what I'm doing and so I won't be making an immoral choice" is fundamentally dishonest. Granted, at that time you might be out of control of yourself, and so your choice at that time (because of misinformation or the emotion's controlling your act in spite of a moral choice) might not be immoral.

But since you now foresee that this might happen, then your choice now to get into that situation means that you are now willing to have it happen; and so your choice now is immoral. You are actually willing to do whatever you might wind up doing when out of control.

We must choose to avoid situations where we have reason to believe that emotions or habits will blind us or take over control and lead us to do what is morally wrong.

Note first that you have to have reason to believe that this will happen; actual evidence (facts) that indicate that this result is probable. The fact that your emotions might take over control ("Things like that can always happen") is no evidence that they will take over. A man who dances with a woman he is attracted to might become so sexually aroused that he would take her out and rape her; but this possibility is not a realistic one except in the case where a person knows this has happened before to him. People in general can dance without becoming that sexually aroused; and so, even if you have never danced before, you have no reason to think that you are going to go blind with desire--and so it would not be immoral to choose to dance with someone you are attracted to.

Secondly, note that the emotions may be operating at the beginning of the situation, so that you may already be out of control to some extent.

The alcoholic, for instance, can't control himself in the presence of liquor, and he knows this. In general, then, he has to choose not to go to bars. It doesn't follow, however, that if he goes to a bar, he has (a) chosen to do so; because his need for a drink is already so strong that he might not be able to prevent his going even if he chooses not to go; or (b) he has chosen to go to the bar knowing what he is doing; because the need for a drink may be so strong as to blind him into thinking that he is just going there to meet a friend (and that's the only reason he chooses to go).

So it is a fallacy for someone observing such a person to say, "Well, if he can't control himself when he gets there, he can at least choose not to go there; and so he's to blame anyway." This might be the case and it might not; just as it might be the case that this time he can control himself when he gets there. No outsider can judge the effect emotions are having on a person's acts (so that he doesn't act the way he chooses to act) or information (so that he doesn't at this moment know fully what he is doing).

Note thirdly that very often the person himself afterwards does not know to what extent emotions took over control of the act or blinded him to information he now is clearly aware of. It is always theoretically possible to control your acts by choosing; it just doesn't work that way in practice; and so you can always say to yourself afterwards, "If only I'd tried a little harder, I could have prevented that"; and this might be true, and it might not. Or you can say, "Well, I knew that I shouldn't have done that" because you now know that you shouldn't have, when in fact at the time, you were so overwhelmed with the emotion that you couldn't think straight.

What to do when in this situation? Don't worry about it. First, if Christianity is not true, and philosophy is the whole of the truth, the immoral choice was either made or it wasn't, and nothing you can do now can change that; so there's no sense fretting about it. Secondly, if something like Christianity is true, then the Lord will erase any sin involved in the choice, if there was one; and so you confess to him your repentance of whatever you might have chosen (or to a priest, if that's what you believe), and stop worrying about it.

The point is that you are not to deliberately let yourself get out of control; but if you are out of control, to that extent you have no moral problem.

[See also Modes, 5.1.5]

4.3.1. Morality and emotional problems

Thus, we can distinguish moral from psychological problems. They do not necessarily go together, nor are they necessarily mutually exclusive. You can have both a moral and a psychological difficulty at the same time; you can be immoral and have no psychological problem, or you can have a psychological problem and not be immoral.

DEFINITION: Psychological or emotional problems occur when a person, because of emotions or habits, is out of control.

That is, whenever a person does what he chooses not to do or does not do what he chooses to do, then this is a psychological problem. It used to be called a "neurosis" when this is a constant problem. This may have no moral overtones whatever. A person may not be able to go into a dark room, for instance, because he has a neurotic fear of the dark. There is nothing morally wrong with staying out of dark rooms; and so he is out of control, but this particular neurosis does not have any moral implications.

A psychological problem that makes a person do a morally wrong act involves immorality when the person is willing to do the acts.

What this means is this: If the person doesn't care that he is doing something that he knows is wrong, the fact that he is doing this because he's neurotic (and couldn't help himself) is irrelevant; he is willing to do it, and so the choice is immoral.

So you can't use a neurosis as an excuse for doing something morally wrong.

If, however, the person chooses to avoid the acts and his neurosis forces them on him, he has only a psychological problem and not a moral one. Here, he is unwilling to do what his emotional problem makes him do.

If a person recognizes that he has an emotional problem that is leading to morally wrong acts, and he has information that a cure is reasonably possible and takes no steps to be cured, then he is willing to have the problem and so to do the acts.

That is, to refuse to be cured when you are in this situation (supposing it to be realistic that the cure would work), is the same as letting yourself be out of control when you could control yourself; and then you are obviously willing to do the acts.

However, to the extent that the cure is not a realistic possibility, or involves bad effects that make it worse than the problem itself, a person can choose not to have it in order to avoid these bad effects, and still not be willing to perform the acts the neurosis forces upon him. (This is an application of the Principle of the Double Effect, which we will see later.)

For instance, alcoholism can lead to drunkenness and other morally wrong behavior. If an alcoholic has tried to stop and even got help in stopping (say, going to Alcoholics Anonymous), and it hasn't worked--it often doesn't--he doesn't have to try every new gimmick that comes down the pike. He has to do enough to assure himself that he is unwilling to be in this condition, but he doesn't have to "be determined to lick it at all costs." It is then a psychological problem, not a moral one--and some psychological problems can't be cured and have to be lived with, just as blindness or lameness or physical problems that can't be cured have to be lived with.

Of course, the alcoholic can't say, "I've tried and failed; so now I can enjoy myself," because then he's willing to do the act. What I'm talking about is that he can say, "Well, there's nothing I can do about it, so I'm not going to worry about it as if I were a sinner, even though I'm not happy about it. After I die it'll be straightened out."

Hence, there are psychological problems that have no moral dimension at all (if they don't deal with wrong acts), and psychological problems with a moral dimension which involve no immorality (if the person is unwilling to have the problem but can't do anything about it); there are psychological problems which are also moral problems (when the person doesn't care that he is doing something wrong); and finally, there are moral problems that have no psychological difficulty connected with them (when a person is in control of his emotions or what they lead to).

Psychological problems, then, do not provide an "out" for the general rule of not being willing to do what is wrong; but neither do they trap a person into immorality in spite of himself. The question is whether you are satisfied with your condition or not; whether you would stop if you could.

4.3.2.Habits: virtues and vices

Habits can also take over control of our acts, as I mentioned; and in fact psychological problems are usually a combination of emotions and habits; and psychological problems are usually cured (when they can be cured) by some kind of acquisition of a new habit.

But this belongs in the domain of psychology, not ethics. For our purposes, what we can note is that habits are acquired by repeated actions of the same type. As opposed to the "built-in program" of the brain, which is our instinct, which appears in consciousness as the various emotions we have, we can program our brain ourselves, by repeating responses to a certain stimulus. Depending on how often and strongly we do this, the tendency to produce the response (without choosing to do so) upon presentation of the stimulus becomes stronger.

Habits do not in themselves have any emotional overtone connected with them; but insofar as the stimulus-response pattern originally had some emotional overtone (as when you get into the habit of eating six meals a day because you originally felt hungry), the emotion tends to grow stronger as the habit grows--until a certain point is reached, at which the emotion more or less ceases, and we do the act even without the emotional kick.

Because emotions tend to lead us to action, some habits are acquired without realizing that we are doing so. Many alcoholics become so simply by having a drink at a certain time of the day, not realizing that they're getting into a habit, and are becoming dependent on the drink.

Other habits, however, are deliberately acquired. Originally, we must choose to do the act each time, taking pains to remember to do it; and gradually, we need pay less and less attention, until finally the act automatically occurs. Getting into the habit of brushing your teeth in the morning and evening is an example of such a thing.

Morally speaking, once the habit is acquired, it functions in the same way as an emotional problem: if the person is satisfied with the automatic behavior, he is willing to do it; and if he does it in spite of a choice to the contrary, he is unwilling to do it. In either case, it is the choice which counts morally.

Not all habits are bad habits, of course. Hence, to acquire a habit of doing what is morally right is one that you ought to be satisfied with. For instance, if you get into the habit of honesty, so that if you were to see a wallet on the street, you would pick it up, look inside to find the owner's name, and return it intact to him with no thought that you could take anything in it for yourself, then the fact that you aren't trying to stop yourself from doing this would be equivalently a morally good choice. So even though the act is automatic, it has moral overtones, insofar as you realize what is going on and are unwilling to prevent it.

It would be immoral to let oneself acquire a bad habit if (a) one realized he was getting into a morally bad habit, and (b) made no effort to prevent it.

This is the same as getting yourself into a situation where you foresee that your emotions will take over and lead you into a morally wrong act. In this case, of course, many morally wrong acts are involved (because it's a habit), and so the situation is more serious. It doesn't follow, of course, that you will in fact be able to prevent the habit from being formed; you may already be out of control. But insofar as you are in control, to let yourself get into the habit is to be willing to do all the wrong acts you might do when the habit gets entrenched.

Some terminology:

DEFINITION: A virtue is a good habit.

DEFINITION: A vice is a bad habit.

DEFINITION: A moral virtue or vice is a habit of doing something morally right or wrong.

Not all virtues are moral virtues: studiousness is an intellectual virtue; cleanliness is a physical virtue. The following are, however, like moral virtues:

DEFINITION: The Theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity are habits that are given to us by God because of the new life he gives us. They cannot be acquired by repetition, but can be strengthened by practice.

It is outside the scope of this book to talk of the Theological virtues; I put them here to distinguish them from moral ones.

DEFINITION: The cardinal virtues are the four moral virtues on which all others "hinge," all of which are present in any moral virtue. They are good judgment ("prudence"), honesty ("justice"), courage ("fortitude") and moderation ("temperance").

The reason these are "cardinal" virtues (from "cardo," meaning "hinge") can be seen from a description of what they are as habits:

Good judgment (also called "common sense") ("prudentia" in Latin) is the habit of being aware of all the circumstances surrounding the act you are to perform and adjusting the act to agree with the reality of all the circumstances. Obviously, without this habit, a person is apt to act unrealistically, and his action is apt to be self-defeating, even though his intentions may be of the best.

The vice which is the opposite of this virtue is rashness. Here, a person knows what he wants to accomplish, and has the habit of simply doing something that he thinks will lead to the goal he wants, without considering whether, given the circumstances, his action will actually do what he wants it to do.

Honesty ("justitia" in Latin) is the habit of considering the persons involved in the action, and adjusting the act to suit their nature. It has two branches. When the virtue adjusts the act to suit the nature of the agent (oneself), then this "being true to yourself" is the same as morality itself; when it suits the act to the nature of the person(s) acted on, then it is justice. Thus, a person who does not lie is being honest with his own nature as a communicator; and insofar as he does not deceive the other person, he is being just also.

The vice, of course, is dishonesty. This too has two branches. It is immorality when it is the "fundamental dishonesty" we spoke of earlier (pretending that you aren't what you are); it is injustice when the habit pretends that the one who is acted on is different from what he really is.

There are various kinds of justice, which we will see later, when talking of rights and society. Not every just act is either "fair" or "equal."

Courage ("fortitudo" in Latin) is the virtue of getting control over negative emotions, mainly fear, so that they do not take over and either blind us to reasons for doing something or prevent us from doing what is reasonable. Notice that courageous acts are not rash ones. A person who has courage without good judgment has a vice, not a virtue. Such people are the people who run risks "on a dare" just to show how brave they are, without considering whether it makes sense (or even is morally right) to run such a risk. The courageous person will be able to run a risk, even a great one, when it is reasonable to do so; but he will not do so if it is unreasonable.

The vice opposite to courage is cowardice. Here, the person lets fear determine whether he will act, in spite of what is reasonable.

Finally, moderation ("temperantia" in Latin) is the habit of controlling attractive emotions so that the attraction will not either lead one to do what is unreasonable, or blind one to the reasons for not doing the act.

All of the cardinal virtues have to be operating in order for any one of them (or any other virtue, for that matter) to be a virtue; if either of the two types of emotions are deliberately let get out of control, then no act is able to be virtuous; if there is deliberate disregard for either the persons involved or the physical circumstances of the act, then there is no assurance that the act will be morally right.

Other moral virtues

Here is a partial list of some other habits of doing morally right acts that you can get into. These various virtues "fit under" one or another of the cardinal virtues. We could go into a study of them, but it seems to me that this would be of purely academic interest; so I will just list them.

Generosity, open-mindedness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, respectfulness, patience, leniency, kindness, humility, tolerance, sympathy, mercy, obedience, helpfulness.

This, as anyone who puts his mind to it can see, is by no means a complete list; it is here simply to suggest that there are various good habits with moral overtones that you can get yourself into by practicing the corresponding acts.

Obviously, the opposites of these virtues are vices; and the vices involve acts to be avoided.

Not every philosopher agrees on what habits are virtues and what are vices; and this is because a virtue is a good habit, and what is "good" depends on the ideal one has for what a human being "ought" to be doing. For instance, Christians regard humility ("self-forgetfulness") as a virtue; and Aristotle considers it a vice; for him pride (i.e. recognizing one's real superiority to others--if it exists) is a virtue, while for the Christian, this is a vice.

[See also Modes, 3.2.5]

4.4. Responsibility

Because habits and emotions tend to take over control of our acts, then we can say in a sense that they aren't "ours"; we could even have tried to prevent them and failed; it is almost as if someone else had done them. This brings up the question of "responsibility," which anticipates to some extent what we are going to say about conscience, but perhaps goes better here than anywhere else in a general consideration of morality and our choice.

DEFINITION: Responsibility is the attribution of an act (and its consequences) to the person whose choice could have made it different from what it was. It is also called accountability.

That is, the act "belongs" to the one on whose choice it depends. Machines and animals do things, but they are not responsible (i.e. "answerable") for what they do, because, given the stimulus, the act could not have been any different from what it was--and so it doesn't really "belong" to the machine or animal.

But persons are free, and so the acts they do as persons could be different; and therefore, the acts are in a special sense "theirs"; just as they possess their being, so they also possess their acts. Karol Woytyla (Pope John Paul II), in fact, wrote a whole book analyzing the concept of person from this distinction between acts someone "does" and acts that, as it were, "happen to" someone.

Note that humans perform all kinds of acts that "happen to" them and that they are not responsible for (such as heartbeat, falling down when the floor collapses beneath you, feeling anger when slapped in the face--and in general all that we don't have control over); and these are not acts that we really "do" as persons.

Basically, a person is responsible for whatever he had control over; i.e., what he could have prevented or altered by his choice.

DEFINITION: A person is morally responsible for an act and its consequences if (a) he understood what it was he was doing and foresaw the consequences, and (b) that he could morally have chosen to prevent it.

DEFINITION: A person is physically responsible for any act that he could have chosen to prevent (whether the choice would have been moral or not, and whether he understood what he was choosing or not.

DEFINITION: A person is legally responsible for an act that a normal person would have been morally responsible for.

What do these definitions mean? Physical responsibility is the broadest category. Any act at all that could have been different had you chosen differently for whatever reason is one you are physically responsible for.

The idea here is that it is "your" act because it didn't have to be this way; if you had made a different choice, it would have been different.

Moral responsibility means that you could have chosen differently and that the choice was an informed one, and that this different choice would not have been an immoral one. Since making an immoral choice means bringing eternal frustration on yourself, then you can never be expected to make an immoral choice; and so there is a real sense in which you "couldn't" prevent an act when to do so would mean making an immoral choice. Further, since bringing eternal frustration on yourself means knowing that you are doing so (at least in some minimal sense, such as knowing that you are going to do what is wrong), then if you don't have the information conscious, you are not in fact choosing what the act actually implies.

Hence, the act is not morally "yours" in the sense of something you could have prevented; in the first case, it would be immoral (and eternally frustrating) to do so; and in the second place, you would have no reason for doing so (because you don't know there's anything wrong with it). And so, morally speaking, it becomes like your heartbeat, which "happens to" you. You are not morally responsible for it.

Legal responsibility comes from the fact that an outside observer can't get into a person's mind and know what his knowledge is at the time he makes the choice. Hence, society can't tell, if a person violates a law, whether he deliberately chose to do so, or whether he forgot and wasn't aware that he was violating the law.

Hence, society goes on the assumption that, if the person didn't realize what he was doing, he "ought" to have realized it, because a normal person in his circumstances would have realized it; and so it, as it were, makes him responsible for his lack of knowledge, and therefore for his act.

If there weren't this concept of legal responsibility, there would be no way for society to enforce its laws without extremely gross injustice. That is, a person would be punished for something it was obvious no one in his circumstances could have helped doing (such as accidentally harming someone because of circumstances over which he couldn't have had control); or he would be allowed to escape punishment on the bare claim that he hadn't actually thought that he was doing something wrong--which makes punishment a farce.

Hence, in order to protect its ability to punish violations, society imputes legal responsibility to a person who may or may not be morally responsible for what he does, as long as he would be reasonably expected to be morally responsible. In some cases, this imputation is unjust, because the person actually wasn't morally responsible; but the injustice is an unchosen side-effect of the act by which society protects its right to punish violators.

Points to note on responsibility:

1. Responsibility is not the same as duty.

When lists of "responsibilities" are drawn up for a certain job or position in society, these are the duties connected with that position. They are called "responsibilities" because if they are not done, the person with this job is the one responsible for this. Hence, duties are "responsibilities" in an analogous sense, the way comfortable shoes are "comfortable" because they make you comfortable; or as a morally wrong act is "immoral" because if you choose to do it and know what you are doing, the choice is immoral.

The point, however, is that strictly speaking, duties are duties, not responsibilities. Remember, "responsibility" as we are using the term is the equivalent of "accountability." You aren't accountable for what you haven't done yet; and so you aren't responsible for it either.

2. you have responsibility whether you like it or not; you don't get it by accepting it.

That is, you may "accept" responsibility, which means that you recognize that you are responsible for some act of yours--or on the other hand, you may "refuse to accept" responsibility. But in either case, you have it, provided you could have prevented the act by choosing not to do it.

Similarly, if you "accept" responsibility for an act you had no control over, this acceptance does not give you responsibility for the act. A person, for example, who "accepts" responsibility for an act his employee did against his orders and secretly (so that the employer couldn't have known he was doing it) is not responsible for what his employee did because the employer did everything anyone could reasonably do to prevent it.

3. A person can only really be responsible for what actually happens.

The reason is that an act that didn't happen (but could have) isn't something that can be attributed to a person. Nevertheless, since foreseen consequences enter a person's choice (whether they happen or not), they can make the choice moral or immoral, and thus can affect moral guilt.

[See also Modes, 5.1.5]

4.4.1 Responsibility and guilt

This brings up a distinction that it is important to make. We are apt to use "guilty" and "responsible for" interchangeably; but if you look at the definitions above, you can see that we can be responsible for all sorts of good things, and no one is guilty of doing good. And I just said that you can be (morally) guilty even when you haven't actually done anything (because morality deals with the choice, whether you carry it out or not). Hence, we should define guilt.

DEFINITION: A person is guilty when he has chosen to do what is wrong or illegal.

DEFINITION: A person is morally guilty when he has chosen to do what he knows or suspects is a morally wrong act.

DEFINITION: A person is legally guilty when he is legally responsible for an act violating a law.

For legal guilt, you actually have to do something, and not only do it, but be (at least) legally responsible for it. It also has to be something legally wrong: that is, something that there is a law against. Thus, a person who chooses to murder the President of the United States, but gets sick and can't do anything about his choice, is not legally guilty of assassination or attempted assassination of the President. If he raises a gun to shoot the President and his arm is deflected and he misses, he is legally guilty of violating the law against attempted assassination (because he did actually do something in the attempt), but not of violating the law against assassination.

Interestingly, in legal guilt, you don't actually have to have made the choice in question, because of the peculiar nature of legal responsibility. If in fact you didn't make the choice (because you forgot some circumstance and thought you were choosing something else) and a "normal person" would have realized this circumstance and known what he was doing, the law assumes that you actually did make the choice in question--because it can't get into your mind to tell whether you made it and are now lying, or didn't make it and are now telling the truth. There are, however, loopholes in this; but the burden, as it were, is upon you. If you can show that you were insane at the time, you are freed from legal responsibility. Also, you can plead "no contest," which essentially is taken to be an admission, "Yes, I did it, but at the time I didn't realize that what I was doing was illegal." In this last case, however, you are still legally guilty.

In any case, legal guilt always includes responsibility for some act actually done.

But moral guilt does not, because the "law" dealing with morality commands the choice itself, and the act is morally relevant only insofar as it conforms the fact that the choice was an actual choice and not simply a daydream. That is, if you "think about" killing the President because you're writing a novel about it and you want to "get under the skin" of a killer, but you have no intention of actually doing the act, then you have not chosen to kill the President, and you are not morally guilty of it.

But if you choose to kill the President, and you get sick or your aim gets deflected, then your goal was that he die by your act; and this is what the moral command forbids. Hence, you are morally guilty of the wrong act whether your choice gets carried out or not.

However, you are not morally responsible for killing the President if you intended to do so and you got sick and couldn't actually do it. Why? Because you didn't kill him; and you can't be responsible for something if it didn't occur.

(Note that if you prevent something, you are responsible for its non-occurrence; but if you choose to do something and it doesn't get done through no "fault" of yours, you aren't responsible for it, because there is no "it" to be responsible for. You are only responsible for what happens, as was said above.)

Summary of Chapter 4

We know that human choices are free, because, as spiritual, they contain themselves and cannot be mistaken when they think they are free (as they do) and because neurotic behavior becomes nonsense if choices are not free.

The characteristics of freedom of choice are (1) that the choice is always under our control; (2) nothing unconscious can affect the choice; it is influenced only by facts we know at the time; (3) the choice has control over how much a known fact influences it; (4) feelings and habits affect choices only indirectly, by creating misinformation; (5) our acts are never free; they are forced either by choices or emotions/habits or both. Acts are analogously free when they are the ones we choose to do; choices are sometimes called "not free" when made under a threat, but this is an analogous sense of "freedom" called "liberty."

The general rule of morality is that you must never be willing to do what is morally wrong.

Since emotions can force acts or create misinformation, we must never be willing to let emotions force us into doing what is morally wrong. We must choose to avoid situations where we have reason to believe emotions will take over control and force us to do what is wrong. If we have no evidence that this will happen, or if we are already out of control, there is no moral problem; it is merely that we must not deliberately let ourselves get out of control.

Psychological or emotional problems occur when a person is out of control, particularly in a constant way; they have moral relevance only when the person is willing to do the (morally wrong) acts he can't help doing. If he thinks he can be cured and takes no reasonable steps to be cured, then he is willing to have the problem, and this is immoral. But only reasonable steps with reasonable hope of cure need be taken.

Habits are automatic behavior-patterns acquired by repetitions of acts; they function morally like emotional problems, since the person is out of control. It is immoral to let yourself acquire a morally bad habit if you see that it is beginning to happen and you do nothing to prevent it, since then you are willing to do all the acts the habit will later force on you.

Good habits are virtues, bad habits are vices; the three Theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity; they are given and cannot be acquired, but can be increased by repetition of acts. Moral virtues and vices are habits of doing what is morally right or wrong. The cardinal virtues are the four moral virtues that are presupposed in any virtuous acts: (a) good judgment, (b) honesty,(c) courage, and (d) moderation; they are habits of (a) suiting the act to the circumstances, (b) suiting the act to the people involved, (c) not letting negative or (d) positive emotions lead one astray.

Responsibility (accountability) is the attribution of an act and its consequences to the person whose choice could have made it different. A person is responsible for what he has control over. He is morally responsible for what he could morally have prevented; physically responsible for anything he could have prevented by a choice; and legally responsible for what the normal person would have chosen to prevent.

Moral responsibility implies that a person knows what he is doing and does not think he is morally forbidden to do the act. Legal responsibility occurs because we cannot know what another's thoughts are; and so we impute a kind of "moral" responsibility if the person normally would be expected to know what he is doing and realize that the act is not wrong.

Responsibility is not the same as "duty"; it deals with acts that have been done, not possible acts; it is something that a person has, whether he "accepts" it or not, and "accepting" responsibility for what you have no control over does not give you responsibility. You have responsibility only for what actually occurs.

A person is guilty when he has chosen to do what is wrong or illegal. Legal guilt implies legal responsibility for actually doing something that violates some law. Moral guilt occurs when a person chooses to do what is wrong, whether he actually does it (and so is responsible for it) or not.

Exercises and questions for discussion

1. If our choices are always free from determination, doesn't this prove that "brainwashing" won't work, and the people who claim to have been brainwashed into doing something are really lying?

2. If an alcoholic plans how he is going to get out to get a secret drink, doesn't this prove that he was free when he made the plans and so he isn't really out of control?

3. If you drive to a bar, knowing that you'll be driving home, isn't this being willing to take the consequences of drunk driving?

4. Suppose a homosexual doesn't like being homosexual, and he's heard that some psychologists hold that homosexual orientation is curable. Is he morally bound to seek counseling at $100.00 and up an hour?

5. Is it better to be virtuous and not actually to make a moral choice because you're just in the habit of doing the act, or not to be virtuous and be making conscious moral choices to do the act?

6. Are you morally responsible for doing something stupid (but not morally wrong) if you are commanded to do it by someone who has legitimate authority over you (i.e. has the right to command you to do things)?