Response to Hart and James

Though my legal knowledge is limited, I find it hard to believe Hart broke any new ground with his essay “Acts of Will and Responsibility.”  His distinction between deliberate and inadvertent actions is already codified in criminal law: intentional killing is murder; unintentional killing manslaughter.  Yes, with his theory we can distinguish between absentminded and the unconscious acts of omission, but as he notes, lawmakers had already probed this idea in Hill v. Baxter.  His point that a person who falls asleep at the wheel is responsible for his actions because the event was preventable was made by Aristotle thousands of years earlier when he held drunkards responsible for their actions.

The biggest reason Hart’s contribution does not impress me, however, is that William James makes many of the same points in his much more nuanced and interesting essay on the subject, “Will,” which was published seventy years earlier.  According to him, to concentrate one’s mind on an idea is to exert willpower.  When realizing the idea involves physical action, our muscles impulsively act.  (He cleverly notes that thinking about the muscular movements involved in catching a ball decreases one’s chances of catching it, thus weakening the “will = muscular movement” thesis.)  This theory dovetails with Hart’s assertion that muscle movements are the means, not the ends, of our actions.  Hart made much of the inadvertent omission, made when a man runs a traffic light without realizing what he has done.  This would occur in James’s model when a conscious person never has the idea that he should stop at the light.

The Mind, according to William James, must struggle against the pull of thousands of stimuli so it can achieve a single desired idea.  I find his account utterly fascinating and relevant to our day and age.  With television and the Internet, hundreds and even thousands of sources of information and entertainment are easily available.   With so many available stimuli, it is hard to get bored, but it is also hard to stay focused on one thing, especially if it is difficult.  The popularity of “multitasking,” or doing several projects simultaneously, is proof that for most people, it is now very difficult to stay focused on one project at a time.  It is even difficult for me to write this 2-page essay, since I can click on my Internet browser at any time.  MTV does its part to destroy with attention span with its television programs, which cut between camera angles every two or three seconds.

I worry about what the current environment will do to responsibility and decision-making.  I am certain it will lead people to make more impulsive choices, even on matters of great import.  We can also expect more careless mistakes and accidents.  People do not feel as much responsibility for quick decisions as they do for well-deliberated ones, so we can expect less commitment – high divorce rates, for instance.  Their willpower will atrophy, so they will become passive – and cede ever more responsibilities to the state, for instance.  I’ve heard of “Internet addiction” from more than one person, and after reading James’s piece, it makes sense to me.  Whereas a drug forcibly changes one’s mental chemistry and demolishes one’s decision-making capabilities, the Internet plays directly into the mind’s weaknesses: it allows one to hours, even days, of entertainment and thus frees one from the desire to make any decisions at all.

Explore posts in the same categories: Law, Philosophy, Politics, Schoolwork

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