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Arguing about moral responsibility

Outside applied ethics and neuroethics, I work in philosophy of agency, specifically on the interlinked topics of free will and moral responsibility (interlinked because I, like most participants in the debate, understand free will, if it exists, to be the power we have to act in a way that makes us morally responsible for our actions). I defend a very unusual position in the free will debate, which I won’t get into now. But one feature it shares with some others (a relatively small minority) is that it holds that we don’t have free will, in the sense defined, and therefore we are not morally responsible for our actions (or for anything else). In this post, I want to address a common criticism of my argument, and of other arguments for the same conclusion. The criticism, roughly, is this: you are arguing for a radical revision of our beliefs and our practices: the overturning of a central component of our conception of ourselves and one another. But arguments for radical revisions of common sense must meet higher standards than arguments for less radical conclusions. As the stakes go up, so do the argumentative standards.

We need to distinguish two different ways in which the stakes might go up: theoretical and practical. Suppose I argue for the view that the world only exists as long as it is being observed in some manner. That would constitute a pretty radical revision of our common sense view. But it would be an entirely theoretical revision: it wouldn’t any difference to how we go about dealing with the world. On the other hand, an argument for the view that the Norse gods are the only true gods would constitute both a theoretical and a practical revision in common sense. We would rationally be required to act differently (to sacrifice to Odin, perhaps).

Clearly, holding that agents are never morally responsible constitutes both a theoretical and a practical revision to common sense. Now it would seem that the second kind of revision is more important; the stakes going up going practically has a more significant impact on the argumentative standards than the stakes going up theoretically. So far as theory alone is concerned, we ought to follow where the argument leads, no matter how radical the revision in our former beliefs. 

So we need to concentrate on the practical reforms required by accepting the claim that people are never morally responsible. What would the costs be of giving up the idea of moral responsibility? The obvious place to start is with the criminal justice system. People often object that we can’t just throw open the doors of the prisons or allow people ‘to get away with murder’. But scepticism about moral responsibility does not commit anyone to either of these courses of action. Punishment has four different possible justifications: deterrence, rehabilitation, public protection and retribution. Only the last is directly threatened by moral responsibility scepticism: we can still lock up people to deter others, to protect the public and to give them the skills they need to live without harming others. We are not committed to closing the prisons or shutting down the courts. However, we are committed to doing things differently. Most prisons around the world are far harsher than can be justified if people don’t deserve to be treated badly in consequence of committing crimes. In fact, many prisons are far harsher than can be justified on any remotely plausible theory of moral responsibility, but there is little doubt that scepticism about moral responsibility would require us to treat prisoners far better than rival views. We would have no justification for making life behind bars any more uncomfortable than would be justified by deterrence,rehabilitation and public protection. Now, there is strong evidence that the probability of being detected has a deterrent effect, and  reasonable evidence that length of sentence has a deterrent effect with regard to some crimes, but the evidence suggests that harshness of treatment in prison actually increases recidivism without having an effect on deterrence. Might it be more expensive to keep inmates in decent conditions than in harsh? Perhaps in the short term, but there are likely to be benefits. The most effective way of preventing crime is by giving people a stake in society: treating them decently while they are incarcerated, together with giving them genuine skills and opportunities, is likely the best way to reduce recidivism. We might be able to incarcerate people for shorter times (we can certainly incarcerate far fewer people), thereby saving money while reaping social and economic benefits. Moral responsibility scepticism may indeed require significant alterations in our criminal justice system, but these alterations are at least as likely to be beneficial as costly. More empirical work on this question is needed, but one possible upshot is that we can turn the criticism back on those who make it: given the costs of continuing to believe in moral responsibility, aren’t arguments for retaining the concept required to meet higher standards than those for scepticism?

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10 Comment on this post

  1. I noticed that your focus is on the appropriateness of punishment for bad acts. You could include the appropriateness of public opprobrium as a response to unethical conduct. Blameworthiness is just another word for reason to put the malefactor in a bad position as a result of bad conduct.

    Once you distinguish between reason to be punished and sin, and cast away the latter, you need no longer worry about free will. Ethics/morals becomes another way of talking about regulation of human interaction (probably only in the context of a particular culture) and perhaps the background conditions for evaluating positive law. The rightness or wrongness of an act can be spoken of without worrying about “personal responsibility” for the choice of conduct.

    I suppose you still have room for a concept of “desert” in the sense that it is right to reward or harm persons for conduct under certain conditions (e.g. that it actually caused harm or …?).

  2. Neil, I would be interested understand how you are using concepts involving what we are “required” to do in the absence of any explicit concept of moral responsibility. Doesn’t the one depend on the other?

  3. Dennis, since I understand free will as the property that makes people deserve better or worse treatment, dispensing with sin leaves the problem (‘is there something that corresponds to free will?’) intact. The problem is just the same as the problem ‘do people ever deserve to be treated better or worse on account of what they have done/though/believed?’ It is a different question to the one ‘are we ever justified in treating people in ways they don’t like?’, to which the answer is obviously yes (think of the infectious disease sufferer, like Typhoid Mary: we may restrain her, whether or not we can punish her).

    Nice question, Peter. Here’s why I think we should say that we are required to do things, even though I am sceptic about moral responsibility. We are rationally required to- equivalently, we are, whether we know it or not, committed to – do things just in virtue of having certain beliefs. If I believe that ‘when it is raining, I should carry an umbrella’ and I also believe ‘it is raining’, I am required to believe that I should carry an umbrella. But I am not blameworthy if I fail to have this belief (just irrational). I think there are normative requirements too: I am not blameworthy if I treat people worse than they deserve, but I am immoral,

  4. Thanks Neil, I had a somewhat similar debate with Roger Crisp on “is morality flimflam” (1 April). I certainly agree that we are required to believe and perhaps even do certain things in order to be “rational”; I’m less convinced that it makes sense to talk about what is “immoral” if there is no moral responsibility.

    A related question, which emerged in the discussion with Roger, is whether these kind of “meta-ethical” issues have a practical effect on people’s behaviour. Roger thought not, but I’m inclined to think this is true only in the short term. The position I was taking was that free-will is a matter of perspective: it has no place in a scientific understanding of human behaviour, but seems essential in the context of discources on morality, policy or other forms of decision-making. I thought that rather than looking for a (purely) rational basis for moral concepts we should regard them as a matter of choice, and that doing so may help us to be more tolerant of divergent views, and effective in forging consensus on moral issues.

  5. Neil: I agree with you, given the way I wrote the post. My take on that “property” that makes people “deserve” better or worse treatment is that the term, “deserve” is ambiguous. One can deserve punishment because that person is “bad” (sinful), making “free will” important since responsibility for doing wrong depends on the agent’s free choice; or one can deserve punishment because it is reasonable to use punishment to socialize that person, or it is reasonable to use punishment to use the agent to socialize others or reinforce their socialization. In this latter use of “deserve”,it doesn’t matter that the actor was “bad” or that the actor “chose to do” the bad thing, but rather only that the actor did the thing under circumstances that makes the punishment socially useful. So, for example, we have exceptions to punishment in the latter depending on the sensibilities of the population and its sense of justice, because such exceptions maintain the legitimacy of the exercise of power to punish and because they avoid conflicts with the value system and ethics that the punisher wants to promote.

    If you do away with sin or “badness” then you don’t need free will. That’s fine because the concept is wierd in that it involved uncaused decision making which is, at the same time, not random but “on purpose”. Free will makes social science impossible, and probably makes human interaction based on expectations about what others will do crazy.

  6. Dennis, who says that the concept of free will is the concept of uncaused decision making? I don’t know of any philosopher who believes that. Almost all philosophers think that free will is some naturalistically respectable property; most doubt that it even requires indeterministic causation. Surveys asking ordinary people show that they have mixed views; there is at least a strong case for saying that ordinary people think that free will is naturalistically respectable.

  7. Neil:

    How does one decide what to do? I think the decision is guided by experience, cultural norms and physical properties of the decider at the time of decision. What is there that makes the decision free? Of course, the decision is uniquely that person’s, but that is because that person is (as far as we can tell, given the primitiveness of data collection and processing) uniquely that person’s, but that doesn’t indicate that the decision wasn’t determined. I confess that I have no idea of what a ” naturalistically respectable property” is; I only deal in terms of cause and effect, and I can not imagine any decision that is not determined (and predictable if the predictor had adequate data and data processing equipment) by what that person is and what that person has experienced. Free will is something quite different. It assumes that the willing person can decide something on his/her own, independently of any cultural influences or physical constraints and only because of that person’s free mind. I think Nietsche is fun to read but that’s all. The will to power is built-in.

  8. Why do you insist that free will “assumes that the willing person can decide something on his/her own, independently of any cultural influences or physical constraints and only because of that person’s free mind”. No philosopher I am aware believes that. Hume thought (roughly) a decision was free if it was not coerced or compelled; more recent philosophers have thought that it requires rationality and flexibility of response. Some philosophers (a minority) think it requires indeterministic causation; such causation is, of course, very likely to exist. Ordinary people, when their intuitions are probed, don’t require anything as odd as what you think free will assumes. When they are asked directly what makes a decision free, they gives answers like Hume’s. Bertan Malle’s recent paper on this question is subtitled “The Need to Study, Not Speculate About People’s Folk Concept of Free Will”. It is available here:

  9. What is the opposite of “coerced or compelled”? I think you are blending free will with determinism, which is just fine with me. But, I repeat myself, I think.

  10. Sorry… in my last post I forgot to note that the function of the concepts, coercion or compulsion is really to locate the “ownership” of the act being considered as a basis for condemnation or punishment. A determinist and a person believing in free will would both use those terms in roughly the same way, with the latter focusing on absolution or not-blaming and the former looking at the proper object of social action (punishment or obloquy or both)

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