Free Will and Moral Responsibility

1 January 2017

Instead, we wish to address a more preliminary matter. In the first part of this introduction, our aim is to say something about what we mean when we say that someone is morally responsible. It is surely important to clarify this before addressing any further substantive issues because, if we don’t clarify the meaning of this key term, there remains a significant danger that different participants in the debate about the possibility of moral responsibility will simply ‘talk past each other’.

This suggests that in order to conduct a fruitful debate participants need firstly to agree on the nature of their subject-matter and, perhaps, to disambiguate different dimensions of the debate that arise if the term ‘moral responsibility’ has different connotations. In the second part of the introduction, we will discuss a neglected Wittgensteinian perspective on the notions of freedom and responsibility, a perspective that may help to clarify some of the confusion that arises when we ask what it means to say that a person is free or responsible.

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1. The Meaning of Responsibility

Before proceeding to ask whether people are, in fact, ever morally responsible, it seems that an important preliminary matter needs to be settled. That is, we need to ask what we mean when we say that a person is x Introduction morally responsible. As will quickly become clear, settling this preliminary matter is, in fact, much harder than it first seems. Many of the controversies concerning the possibility of responsibility emerge even when we try to say just what ‘responsibility’ means. Let’s start with a claim that seems relatively uncontroversial.

We will simply assume that ‘person A is responsible’ is a normative claim. That is to say, it is a claim to the effect that it is appropriate to hold A responsible in certain circumstances (circumstances, for example, where A has acted wrongly and where no mitigating, justifying, or excusing factors are present). However, this account of the meaning of ‘A is responsible’ raises at least two further issues. Firstly, we need to say more about what it means to hold someone responsible and, secondly, we need to say more about the nature and basis of the norms that govern appropriate responsibility attribution.

It is important to keep in mind that our goal, in clarifying these two questions, should not be to settle any question regarding whether people are, in fact, ever morally responsible. Rather, we want to settle the terms of this debate before it begins. To this extent, we need sufficiently neutral accounts both of the nature of responsibility attribution and of its normative basis so that we don’t beg any substantive questions before debate has even begun. As we will try to show, however, this is a rather elusive goal. The only neutral account of the nature of responsibility attribution renders the normative question deeply controversial.

And the only neutral account of the normative basis of responsibility attribution renders the nature of responsibility attribution deeply controversial. Holding Responsible There appear to be two plausible contending views regarding the nature of responsibility attribution. On cognitivist accounts, holding A responsible fundamentally involves believing something to be true of A, while on noncognitivist accounts, holding A responsible essentially involves holding some conative attitude towards A. (Cognitivists may, of course, argue that responsibility attribution is also usually associated with some conative attitude.

However, they will maintain that it is possible to hold someone responsible without holding such conative attitudes. Similarly for noncognitivist accounts, mutatis mutandis. ) Non-cognitivism appears to provide the most successful neutral basis on which to premise the debate concerning the possibility of responsibility. This is because there seems little room for debate concerning the conative attitudes that characterize normal responsibility Nick Trakakis and Daniel Cohen xi attribution.

In particular, few would disagree that responsibility attribution is strongly associated with the ‘reactive attitudes’ identified by P.F. Strawson, i. e. , resentment, indignation, anger and so on. 1 If one wishes to argue, however, that the reactive attitudes, while prevalent, are inessential to responsibility attribution, it is much harder to locate any common ground concerning the beliefs that are essential to responsibility attribution. One may suggest, for instance, that to hold A responsible is to believe that she is the source of some bad behaviour.

Deep controversies quickly emerge on this view, however. One might take sourcehood to involve a psychological claim, for instance that A ‘really wanted’ to act wrongly. However, others might object that any such glib psychological account fails to explain why it is fair to blame A for the wrongdoing (see Smilansky’s contribution). One might object, in this vein, that any such psychological story is unable to show that an agent really is the source of her having certain desires or values (see McKenna’s contribution), and that sourcehood thus requires some more obscure metaphysical basis (e. g. , agent-causation). Alternatively, one may suggest that sourcehood involves some impossible requirement such as that an agent was self-created. On this view, holding someone responsible is essentially impossible.

Our goal is to account for the meaning of responsibility in neutral terms so as to provide a basis for constructive debate about the conditions (and the very possibility) of responsibility. It appears, however, that the cognitivist view of responsibility attribution quickly leads to debates that already beg these important questions before debate has even begun! This suggests that the best theory-neutral account of the meaning of responsibility must explain holding responsible in non-cognitivist terms.

The Normative Basis of Responsibility Attribution Recall that, for the purposes of this discussion, we have assumed a normative account of responsibility according to which ‘A is responsible’ means ‘it is appropriate to hold A responsible in certain conditions’. Having addressed how best to interpret what ‘holding A responsible’ might mean, without begging any important questions, we need now to turn to a second question raised by the normative account: when exactly is it appropriate to hold someone responsible? In other words, what are the norms that govern appropriate responsibility attribution?

Again, there are two plausible contending views: appropriateness may be explained either in terms of practical norms (taking ‘holding responsible’ to be analogous xii Introduction to the performance of an action) or by way of doxastic norms (taking ‘holding responsible’ to be analogous to the formation of a belief). Again, only on one of these accounts—the doxastic view—is it possible to offer an appropriately uncontroversial explanation of the norms implicit in responsibility attribution. On the doxastic view, one ought to hold A responsible if and only if it is true that A is responsible.

On this view, the normative basis of responsibility attribution straightforwardly derives from the normativity of belief. It is clear that the doxastic account presupposes the cognitivist view discussed earlier, according to which holding A responsible involves believing something about her. Given this view of the nature of responsibility attribution, the normative question— concerning when responsibility attribution is appropriate—has a straightforward answer. Unfortunately, as we saw, there is no uncontroversial way to account for the truth-conditions of ‘A is responsible’, on the cognitivist assumption that it involves belief.

So, despite the advantages of the doxastic view in providing a neutral account of the normative basis of responsibility attribution, this view at the same time precludes us from obtaining a neutral view regarding the nature of responsibility attribution (i. e. , the truth-conditions for the belief that A is responsible. ) Might we find an account of the normative basis of responsibility attribution that is consistent with the preferable non-cognitivist view outlined earlier? This would have to involve an alternative view, according to which responsibility attribution is justified in virtue of practical norms.

However, if responsibility attribution is governed by practical norms, then things are much less straightforward. One may suggest that the relevant practical norms are just moral norms, so that ‘A is responsible’ states something like: ‘It is morally obligatory (or, perhaps, permissible) to hold A responsible’. This view may appear immediately problematic because the appropriateness of responsibility attribution will now depend on further questions that are deeply controversial (for instance, questions concerning the debate between consequentialism and nonconsequentialism; see Vargas’ contribution).

A more fundamental worry arises concerning the methodological appropriateness of appealing to moral norms. One may argue, for instance, that the nature of moral obligation, itself, depends on the foundations of responsibility, which is, of course, the question at issue. Haji (in his contribution) argues that the best metaphysical basis of responsibility (i. e. , event-causal libertarianism) renders moral obligation essentially lucky.

This suggests that there would be something viciously circular in explaining the meaning of responsibility Nick Trakakis and Daniel Cohen xiii n terms of some claim about our moral obligations. (See also Trakakis’ contribution. ) To avoid these worries, one may appeal to practical norms that appear to be more fundamental than any particular moral system. For instance, R. J. Wallace offers a normative account of responsibility that appeals to fairness. 5 This is meant to provide a normative basis for responsibility that remains neutral on more substantive moral issues. (See also Smilansky’s contribution. ) Clearly, however, appealing to practical norms launches us into further debates that already beg the question at issue.

Again, such an account seems ill-suited for the purpose of setting up a neutral definitional framework on which to premise further debate. A Dilemma Our aim has been to find some neutral definition of responsibility to enable further non-question-begging debates about the possibility and conditions of responsibility. It seems that this goal gives rise to a tricky dilemma. The best theory-neutral account of holding responsible is the non-cognitivist account. However, this account appears incompatible with the best theory-neutral account of the norms that govern responsibility attribution—the doxastic account.

The doxastic account, in turn, seems compatible only with the most problematic account of holding responsible—the cognitivist account. This is a puzzling result. Even though responsibility clearly gives rise to very complex issues, it is surprising that it is not possible even to define the terms of the debate without deep controversy. The worry thus remains that debates about the possibility and conditions of responsibility are essentially question-begging, insofar as different participants to the debate conceive of its key terms differently.

Must we conclude, then, that different people and different theorists are indeed talking past each other when they debate about the possibility of responsible action? This, of course, would be a depressingly deflationist conclusion. There is a possible way out, however, that is rarely canvassed. If the question concerns the meaning of ‘responsibility’, one might suggest that there are, perhaps, other ways to settle things. In particular, isn’t the meaning of a term determined by our use of the term? (Or, at least, isn’t use a good guide to meaning?

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