The Moral Levitation of David Brooks

Must we float free of causality to count as moral agents?

In his latest book, Freedom Evolves, Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett coins the wonderful term “moral levitation” – you’ll even find it in the index. It names what some philosophers and many lay people think is required for morally responsible choices: “Real autonomy, real freedom, requires the chooser be somehow suspended, isolated from the push and pull of…causes, so that when decisions are made, nothing causes them except you!” (p.101-2, original emphasis).

New York Times regular David Brooks expresses this view perfectly, writing in his May 15, 2004 column, “Columbine: Parents of a Killer,” that “My instinct is that Dylan Klebold was a self-initiating moral agent who made his choices and should be condemned for them. Neither his school nor his parents determined his behavior.”

By claiming Klebold was self-initiating, Brooks isolates Klebold from the causal push and pull of school and parents, disconnecting him from the world so that he can count as a “real” moral agent. Brooks seems to think that Klebold’s choices are morally condemnable only if he wasn’t determined to make them. But as Dennett, myself, and others continue to point out, such supernatural moral levitation isn’t in the least necessary to sustain judgments of right and wrong, or to justify holding persons responsible. Causal determinism – being fully caused to be who you are, and do what you do – isn’t a threat to moral agency, although it undermines certain justifications for punishment which Brooks and other conservatives may not want to give up.

Very briefly, moral agency survives under determinism because most people, having capacities of rationality and anticipation, can legitimately be held responsible in order to “guide goodness,” as University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen Morse succinctly puts it. Those who are insane and those children who haven’t yet reached the age of reason don’t count as moral agents, because the prospect of being held accountable simply doesn’t work to shape their behavior. Rationality and reasons-responsiveness are causal, deterministic functions of our complex but fully physical brains, and if such functions weren’t deterministic, they wouldn’t be reliable. Likewise, the processes of moral, legal, and criminal accountability that shape good behavior (or not, if the agent or the processes are defective) are causal, not magical or supernatural in their operations. Dennett explores these themes at length in Freedom Evolves and his other book on free will, Elbow Room, as does Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan in his book The Problem of the Soul.

So Klebold, an adolescent having reached the age of reason, and undoubtedly knowing that what he and Eric Harris were contemplating was wrong, counts as a moral agent. But he was determined – by his biological endowment, parents, school, bullies, peer influences, Harris, the availability of guns, and other factors unknown – to commit mayhem just as certainly as objects fall to earth. To suppose otherwise is to imagine that human behavior is supernatural in some respect, magically self-initiated in a way that owes nothing to one’s history or genetic endowment or current circumstances. We are not causally privileged moral levitators, and don’t need to be to be judged and held responsible. Indeed, if we were in some respect independent of causality, then our responsibility and accountability practices wouldn’t work.

It’s important that our hard won, scientific understanding of behavior should be reflected in these practices, and in this instance it should modulate our condemnation of Klebold. Seeing the determinants of his character and actions, we can no longer demonize him in the way Brooks does – we can no longer suppose his atrocity had no roots beyond him. The naturalistic appreciation of causality forces us to acknowledge that Klebold was not self-initiated in his depravity, but a product of his biology, his parenting, his friends, his town, and his culture. This doesn’t in the least undercut the judgment that what he did was depraved, but it illuminates the factors that made him who he was and therefore materially contributed to the fatal outcome. This means that retributive justifications for punishment based on the traditional notion of contra-causal, libertarian free will – that the agent before us is a causa sui, the ultimate source of himself and his evil – lose their footing. Not a happy prospect for those who relish the imposition of just deserts. (Of course, this is not to say that we don’t have other very good reasons for detaining dangerous individuals.)

The explanatory stance – to acknowledge that there is indeed a full causal explanation of human behavior, albeit partially hidden to us – is strikingly absent in Brooks’ analysis of the Columbine massacre (both here and in an earlier column on Harris), possibly because it conflicts with claiming retributive satisfactions. According to Brooks, Klebold’s parents, although they cite the “toxic culture” of the school as a possible contributing factor, “confess that in the main, they have no explanation.” But not having a complete explanation in hand is quite different from supposing that no real-world explanation is conceivable. The latter supposition feeds the assumption of moral levitation: that morally consequential behavior, whether good or bad, must somehow arise independently of the push and pull of causality. It also legitimizes the supposed inscrutability of evil: the pernicious doctrine that horrific behavior is in a realm apart, beyond our understanding or control.

An interesting and important question is whether Brooks and the legions committed to the assumption of libertarian free will can be persuaded to examine this assumption, or first, even see it as an assumption. Despite the logical and empirical implausibility of contra-causal agency, and despite Dennett’s and others’ explicit attack on libertarian free will, there are considerable forces arrayed in its defense. We love our retribution, we love taking ultimate credit and assigning ultimate blame, and we don’t particularly like the hard work of figuring out causal explanations. But if we can demonstrate that moral responsibility survives determinism, and moreover requires it, then perhaps the fear-based objections to a naturalistic understanding of ourselves can be overcome. In any case, showing that David Brooks is committed to something as implausible as moral levitation – thank you Dr. Dennett – might be a good start.

TWC, May 27, 2004

See also Brian Leiter's trenchant critique, quoting Nietzsche to good effect.