The following paper was written by Guanyu "Marshall Zhu" in response to the question 2 of John Locke Essay Competition:
If our actions are a consequence of our capacities and preferences, and if those things are, in turn, a result of our genetic inheritance and the external world in which we happen to find ourselves, are we ultimately responsible for our choices?
In Book II, Chapter 3 of Aristotle’s Physics, Aristotle introduces the four causes as explanatory factors. He summarizes four causes that are explanatory for knowledge, which are causa materialis, causa formalis, causa efficiens, and causa finalis. Cause(aitia), in its most primordial meaning, means to be held responsible for something.
Thus, anything that is explanatory for an occurrence’s coming-into-being is responsible for it. When we concern the responsibility of human actions, the being of human as an existential entity, “Dasein,” becomes the focal point of the argument, as it is what we mean, in each case, by “we.” When “we,” or “I,” is clarified in this context, the discussion shifts to determining the possibility of “I” being responsible for the actions. This is done by analyzing if there is the possibility for “I” to take control of the actions of “I,” or the possibility of the freedom of “I.”
The question hence becomes an ontological enquiry into the possibility of taking up explanatory factors for the actions of “I.” Is it possible ontologically for me to be responsible at all? If so, under what ontological circumstances would I be responsible? To what extent does this correspond with common sense? For the sake of concreteness, the question shall be fully tackled ontologico-phenomenologically.
To answer these questions, I seek to prove the ontological necessity for the possibility of responsibility of human actions in a Heideggerian system of phenomenological ontology. It is necessary for us to be able to be responsible because of the kind of entity that we are. Furthermore, I argue that we are able to be held responsible when we are in anxiety, the basic state-of-mind of authenticity. Upon proving the ontological necessity of responsibility, I answer a possible counterargument of moral objectivism by bringing out the moral implication of the ontological argument. The possibility for further investigation to argue for everyday intuition of morality is thus opened up for future discussion, especially in a phenomenological context.
II. Concerning Action and Its Cause
What is at stake when we perform an action? Dasein comports itself towards its own being understandingly. For Dasein, to act is to comport itself towards its own being, which is summed up into one term, “existence.” The explanatory factor for Dasein’s comportment is its own understanding. Since Dasein is in each case I myself am, authenticity and inauthenticity are made possible as modes of existence of Dasein. In authenticity, Dasein understands itself in light of itself. In inauthenticity, Dasein understands itself in light of the “they (das Man)”, which encompasses “the external world in which we happen to find ourselves,” or, our “thrownness.”
The question concerning the possibility of our responsibility is the question concerning us, or, more precisely, concerning whether Dasein as an entity can be responsible at all ontically. It is certain that Dasein’s comportment can be attributed with plenty of explanatory factors like our genetic inheritance and the external world. Explanatory factors like these are the facticity which is the “thrownness” of Dasein’s existence. As expressed by the term itself, Dasein is “thrown” into existence. Dasein did not throw itself into existence, which illustrates that it is not the explanatory factor, or the cause, of its facticity. As a result, if Dasein’s facticity, which Dasein understands in terms of, is the explanatory factor of its comportment, Dasein shall not be responsible in that respect.
However, the point of the question concerning our responsibility is to find the mode of being in which Dasein can be held responsible for its own comportment, if there is such a mode of being at all. The question becomes this:
While our actions are consequences of our capacities and preferences which we are thrown into, are our actions in every case only explanatory by factors like these? Is there a possibility at all for us to be responsible for our own comportment?
III. “I” as the greater explanatory factor in anxiety
If, intuitively, we do not identify “us” with our facticity, where does “I” lie in the context of the discussion of responsibility? “I” am Dasein, which is the kind of entity that being is an issue for itself. Hence, “I” am my own possibility-to-be. This is “existence,” and “I” “exist.” This is what “I” means in the context of ontological responsibility.
Because understanding is the explanatory factor of Dasein’s comportment, as Dasein’s own being remains an issue for itself, Dasein is “morally responsible” for its own being in a naively primordial way. Dasein’s understanding is essentially the cause and the origin of responsibility for Dasein’s comportment. In inauthenticity, Dasein understands itself in light of the “they.” Thus, Dasein projects itself in light of the “they,” which is captured by the term “falling.” This inauthentic projection shapes Dasein’s possibility-to-be and dictates Dasein’s average everydayness.
However, there remains a room for Dasein’s “I-ness” to take over in the explanatory factor for Dasein’s comportment. The “they” and “facticity” are not attributed to “I” in the context of responsibility, while, in anxiety, “I” takes over the place of “the They” to be the greater explanatory factor for my own comportment. Because Dasein is absorbed in the “they,” Dasein “flees” in the face of its authentic potentiality-for-Being-its-Self and in the face of its authenticity.
In inauthenticity, Dasein’s “I-ness” is forgotten by itself. Being as understood in light of the “they” is thus disclosed to Dasein and constitutes Dasein’s explanatory factors for its own comportment. As a basic state-of-mind, anxiety discloses accordingly the “nothing and nowhere within-the-world.” The totality of involvements encountered within-the-world collapses, and the world is characterized as lacking significance in anxiety. By disclosing its authentic potentiality-for-Being-its-Self, Dasein encounters its “Being-free for” the freedom of choosing itself and taking hold of itself. Here, Dasein’s “I-ness” returns, and Dasein regains its control over its own existence. Although facticity is still and always with Dasein, Dasein in anxiety is disclosed with a world of insignificance that is free from understanding in light of the “they.” Since Dasein comports itself understandingly, Dasein in anxiety comports itself with an understanding in light of itself. Therefore, “I-ness” becomes a greater, even the dominant, explanatory factor of Dasein’s own comportment.
Facing the world of insignificance, Dasein has to comport itself in one possibility rather than others. Being, as manifested to Dasein, is free from the various significance which is a result of understanding in light of the “they.” In inauthenticity, Dasein comports itself in a world of various significances of beings. But, in authenticity, Dasein in anxiety comports in a world of insignificance of indifferent beings. In this circumstance, if understanding is free from the “they,” as entities encountered, or beings, are indifferent, why does Dasein choose this one possibility rather than others? The explanatory factor is Dasein itself, as the understanding is truly in light of itself. Even despite that Dasein never has power over its ownmost Being from the ground up because of its facticity, anxiety discloses a world of indifferent possibilities that allows Dasein to exercise its freedom of choosing one possibility over the others. By opening up this freedom for Dasein, Dasein’s ownmost understanding in light of itself becomes the explanatory factor of its comportment, and it can thus be possibly held responsible for its doings. “I” am responsible for its comportment at this moment, while its facticity is still an explanatory factor for the comportment, and, if one wants to influence the comportment of others, one should seek to change the general environment which is potentially able to raise people in.
In conclusion, anxiety as a basic state-of-mind makes it existentially and ontologically possible for Dasein to be responsible for its comportment, or actions. In inauthenticity, Dasein understands itself in light of the “they,” which does not make “I” constitute explanatory factors of the comportment, and therefore is not responsible for its actions. In authenticity, Dasein in anxiety understands itself in light of itself, which does make “I” constitute an explanatory factor of the comportment, and therefore is responsible for its actions. Hence, Dasein can be responsible for its actions ontologico-phenomenologically.
IV. Possible concern and moral implication of the argument
However, a moral objectivist might criticize this argument by saying that the argument has a subjectivist tendency. The concern might be that, according to the original argument, inauthentic people, which people have a natural tendency to be, are not held responsible for any of their behaviors. Therefore, as long as one is inauthentic for his/her entire life, one never needs to be responsible. But one certainly needs to be responsible for some universal moral laws. For example, even when one is inauthentic, the inauthentic person still needs to be responsible if one tortures others for fun, since it is universally bad for one to torture people for fun.
Now, the ontologico-phenomenological possibility of responsibility of Dasein fully corresponds with our everyday intuitive understanding and “common sense.” There are two important aspects concerning this objection.
First, there is a fundamental distinction between an ontologico-phenomenological argument and morality. The argument proves an ontological necessity for the possibility of responsibility of Dasein, or us humans, through Heideggerian phenomenology. There is no claim made about morality: whether there is an objective morality or not or whether one should be responsible for anything good or bad. The argument is a direct response to the determinist concern over the possibility of responsibility for human actions. This argument is not an argument for moral subjectivism, but rather the possibility of responsibility in the ontology of humanity.
Second, there is a moral implication accompanying the ontologico-phenomenological argument. In the moral objectivist counterargument, the term “responsible” is used in two senses: the first “responsible” in “one never needs to be responsible” means responsibility in the original ontological sense; the second “responsible” in “responsible for moral laws” means moral responsibility in a different moral sense. Due to different uses of the term in everydayness, “moral responsibility” means the moral obligation of people that comes with their nature or essence. It is expressed as “you are ought to do something because it is natural for you to do so, or because you are/exist.”
The moral implication that comes with the ontological argument implies that, just as Dasein is “thrown” in facticity which made Dasein not (ontologically) responsible for its comportment, Dasein is also embedded with its own mode of Being which urges it to take the moral responsibility of the control over its own existence. Since Dasein’s being is an issue for itself, Dasein is always implicitly responsible morally for its own existence. This is also precisely why Dasein tends to “flee” in the face of Being-in-the-world, and why Dasein is “fleeing” in the face of itself in “falling.” Dasein is essentially an entity for which its Being is an issue for itself ontologically. Because of this nature/essence of Dasein, Dasein is always morally responsible for its own existence. Dasein has the moral responsibility to be authentic. Therefore, an inauthentic person, failing to be responsible ontologically for their own wrongdoing, is responsible morally for their inauthenticity. Therefore, one is able to hold them who are inauthentic responsible based on the extremeness of their morally wrong actions. For example, an average Nazi supporter in Nazi Germany might argue that they are not responsible for their pro-Nazi tendency because of their facticity of the “they,” which is the pro-Nazi domestic environment. These people comport themselves understandingly in light of the “they.” However, they still are responsible morally in failing to be authentic in their important political decisions for shying away from their own moral judgment. They are not morally innocent for their decisions simply because they are inauthentic.
The task of this ontologico-phenomenological argument with a moral implication is to refute deterministic nihilism of responsibility by proving the possibility of responsibility with an ontological concreteness, while the implication that comes from the ontological argument gives room for intuitive “common sense” of morality. It clarifies the possible misunderstanding of the argument as moral subjectivism by objectivists by spelling out the moral implication that comes with the argument.
1. Aristotle, Fine, G., & Irwin, T. (1996). Book II Chapter 3. In Aristotle: Introductory readings (p. 48). essay, Hackett. 2. Heidegger, M. (2008). Being and Time. (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans., T. Carman, Ed.). HarperPerennial/Modern Thought, 27.
3. Ibid., 78.
4. Ibid.5. Ibid.6. Ibid., 168
7. Ibid., 174
8. Ibid., 150.
9. Ibid., 219
10. Ibid., 220
11. Ibid., 229
12. Ibid., 231
13. Ibid. 14. Ibid., 232
15. Ibid., 330
16. Ibid., 330
Works Cited and Consulted
Blattner, William. Heidegger's 'Being and Time': A Reader's Guide. Bloomsbury Academic, 2006. Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-world : a commentary on Heidegger's Being and time, division I. MIT Press, 1991. Fine, Gail, and Terence Irwin, editors. Aristotle: Introductory Readings. Translated by Terence Irwin and Gail Fine, Hackett Pub., 1996. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Edited by Edward Robinson, translated by Edward Robinson and John Macquarrie, HarperCollins, 2008. Polt, Richard, and Richard F. H. Polt. Heidegger: An Introduction. Cornell University Press, 1999.
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