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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

On Moral Responsibility

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

I. Introduction

Moral responsibility is a concept that permeates our regulations, legal systems, and general manner of thinking. Punishments are often distributed for reasons that are purely ‘retributive’, based on the premise that people who do wrong should be punished, due to no reason other than the intrinsic value of punishment itself. Opposing this intuition, deterministic arguments against free will have always been a slightly uncomfortable, undesirable adversary.

The idea that human beings and the human mind are constituted of atoms, whose behaviour is largely externally determined, is hardly a novel concept, tracing its origin back to the Stoics and Epicureans. However, while each group believed in a form of compatibilism or partial determinism, it is unclear whether their position is analytically tenable.

Our genetic inheritance and the world in which we find ourselves more broadly can be considered as the role that external circumstances, over which we have little power, play in our lives. Their implications for moral responsibility can be divided into two further sub-questions:

1. To what extent do our broader circumstances influence our actions?

2. What effect does this level of influence have on our moral agency?

While the first question is primarily, although not entirely, empirical, the second is a metaphysical question of the constitution of moral responsibility.

In response to the first question, I propose that the uncontrolled circumstances of our situation wholly determine our decision-making and actions. In response to the second, rejecting compatibilism, I postulate that the external determination of our actions is incompatible with moral responsibility in a meaningful sense. These two propositions, in conjunction, have the ultimate effect of rendering free will untenable.

II. How Significant is the Role of Circumstance?

Much of the debate around the role of circumstance in our actions has revolved around the validity of determinism. Determinism can be defined quite simply as the position that all activity in the universe is the necessary, and the only possible result of prior activity.[2] Were determinism to be true, the impact of circumstance in our actions would be total, as our actions would be wholly determined by preceding activity.

Although determinism seems to be supported by classical Newtonian mechanics[3] and, particularly, special relativistic theory[4], there are strong reasons to doubt the wholly deterministic worldview of the type proposed by, for instance, David Hume.[5] 20th Century advances in quantum mechanics seem to imply that certain types of activity, such as radioactive decay, photon emission and absorption, and other quantum processes can only be described via a probabilistic theory of occurrence, not a direct causal one[6].

If such activity is indeed truly probabilistic, it would be the case that some activity in the universe is indeterminate, making, on a universal scale, determinism false.

However, this falsehood of determinism is not especially significant for determinism’s implications on moral agency. If quantum mechanics were indeed probabilistic, our actions still would likely be externally determined, even if not predetermined. Since we have no control over the partially random processes in quantum mechanics, such processes occupy a role that is analogous to the role of causation in determinism. In either case, our actions and decisions are dictated by the total state of affairs of the universe – both our internal genetic and biological structures and the world around us - in conjunction with the laws of physics. In a probabilistic view of quantum mechanics, the only relevant differentiator is that the clear predestination of causal laws of physics is eschewed in favour of probabilistic physics.

Since our actions are determined by the past activity of the universe, alongside the laws of physics, if we go back in time far enough, we could say the present is the result of activity in the universe at our birth, in conjunction with the (potentially probabilistic) laws of physics. As we have no influence over the state of the universe at our birth or the laws of physics, this would imply that our actions are entirely determined by factors outside of our control, resembling the classic determinist image of the causation of our actions.

It is worth noting that this image of physical determinism is dependent on a material mind. A non-corporeal mind, such as that found in Cartesian dualism,[7] would not necessarily be liable to the laws of physics as, not being reducible to the biology and physical activity of a brain, it would be unclear that the laws of physics operate on it.

A physical conception of the mind is more credible than a non-corporeal one, however, for a few reasons. Firstly, it clearly seems to be the case that physical changes do overwhelmingly affect the mind. The removal of the corpus callosum, the main bundle of nerves that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain, can in many cases be the preferable treatment for severe forms of epilepsy.[8] It is difficult to see how a physical alteration to the brain would affect the mind so significantly if the two were not related.

Likewise, the Libet experiment, later confirmed by similar experiments, found that when somebody was considering what button to press, given two choices, neurological activity indicating their decision could be detected in the motor cortex of the brain 300ms before they recognised their choice.[9] It is difficult to see this could be reconciled with Cartesian dualism, as, in such a metaphysical image of the mind, the mind is distinct from, and its decisions are not significantly dictated by, the brain.

Consequently, it does seem to be the case that circumstance, encompassing our physiology, biology, the laws of physics, and the external state of the universe, wholly determine our actions.

III. How does circumstance affect our moral agency?

Having established the overwhelming influence of circumstance on our decision-making, it remains an open question whether we can still have free will or moral responsibility. It is a reasonable starting point to suggest that, to be held morally responsible for taking action A instead of action B, we need to be able to do B instead of A. If we can’t, it makes little sense to attribute either positive desert (praise) or negative desert (criticism) upon an agent for their action, since they never had any alternatives open to them. To castigate or praise somebody for not selecting action B is vacuous if choosing action B was never even a possibility. This is a reframing of the simple Kantian maxim ‘ought implies can.’[10]

Equally, it seems that any action taken by an agent must be taken in some way from factors within their power or control, as having alternative actions is meaningless if the way one arbitrates between them is random chance or caprice.

For incompatibilists, the external determination of our actions implies we cannot reasonably do otherwise for reasons stemming from the will, as we are compelled to take our actions by factors external to ourselves.

This notion is contested by classic compatibilist arguments, argued in different forms by Hobbes, Hume or Ayer, based on simple conditional analysis, which can be expressed as follows:

An agent S can choose otherwise if and only if, were S to desire or prefer to choose otherwise, then S would choose otherwise.

Conditional analysis revolves around the fact that, regardless of whether they were externally determined or not, our preferences and desires still belong to us and, consequently, represent areas of personal decision-making for which we can be judged and held morally responsible.

There are several issues with this notion. Most importantly, conditional analysis fails to note how we often have little control over what we desire. A person who, due to their biological and social makeup, was so afraid of entering the ocean that it was physically impossible for them to do so cannot be meaningfully said to be free to enter the ocean. Their possible decisions would be bounded by factors (their innate dispositions, for instance) entirely outside of their control. However, somewhat quizzically, conditional analysis would suggest they are free to go swimming, a clear false positive when considering which actions the agent is able to take.

More broadly, it is unclear that individuals can have control over any of their preferences. If somebody chose to murder somebody, for instance, and their action was entirely determined by the state of affairs at the time of their birth and the laws of physics, their action would be entirely determined by factors over which they do not have power. Without power over the actions one takes, it does not seem somebody can meaningfully be blamed for their actions.

Using an example similar to Frankfurt, we may, for instance, suggest that somebody should not be blamed for their actions if they had a neurological chip in their brain which compelled them to choose to, for instance, murder somebody else.[12] This is because they would have little power over the choice they made, which arise from factors external to the will. A similar criticism of conditional analysis can be made whereby, without power over the choices they make, (due to, for instance, them being externally determined) it makes little sense to suggest somebody can freely choose their actions or be held morally responsible for them.

A modified form of categorical analysis presents an alternative to conditional analysis, and can be expressed as follows:

An agent S can choose or do otherwise than A at time t only if it was possible, holding fixed everything up to t, that S, due to factors within their power, choose or do otherwise than A at time t

Such a form of categorical analysis does not create a false positive in cases of phobias, as it realises the influence of circumstance. Likewise, it does not experience the same problems as conditional analysis in ascribing responsibility without power over ones choices. Consequently, categorical analysis provides a preferable definition of the ability to do otherwise to conditional analysis.

Unlike conditional analysis, whose image of choice is wholly compatible with our actions being externally determined, categorical analysis is incompatible with the external determination of our actions. This is because, since we have no power over the laws of physics or the state of affairs at the time of our birth, and they, together, determine our actions, we have little power to choose particular actions and thus have little ability to choose particular alternatives over others.

Some argue compatibilism can be vindicated by rejecting the notion we need to be able to do otherwise for moral agency. Of particular interest is Frankfurt’s ‘brain-chip’ thought experiment against the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP).

Frankfurt posits the intuition pump of a person, X, with a brain chip surgically implanted in their brain. X is planning to kill another person, Y. If they do not, the chip would activate and force them to kill Y anyways. Due to the chip, X would have no alternatives to killing Y, yet, if they of their own volition killed person Y instead of being compelled to do so by the chip, our intuitions would seem to hold them morally responsible.[16]

To some Frankfurt’s thought experiment, defeats the PAP and implies that we do not need alternatives for moral responsibility. However, this notion is not especially strong. Frankfurt’s intuition pump is built on the notion that we have metaphysical freedom, even if not always circumstantial freedom. For Frankfurt, even in cases where we cannot do otherwise, we should be able to choose otherwise.

However, external determination calls metaphysical freedom into doubt, due to an agent potentially not having power over the factors contributing to their choice. This makes Frankfurt-style arguments largely ineffective and circular for discussions of a loss of metaphysical moral agency. This implies that we still do need alternatives for moral responsibility, as initially supposed.

IV. Conclusion

Even with quantum indeterminacy considered, the operation of the laws of physics, in conjunction with our external and internal physical world, implies that our actions are determined by factors over which we have no power. To meaningfully be held responsible for an action, alternatives to the action in question must be possible. A modified version of categorical analysis, considering our power to take alternate actions, provides the best basis for moral responsibility, but is incompatible with our actions being externally determined, as such determination eliminates ultimate power over our actions. I thus conclude that we cannot be meaningfully held ultimately responsible for our choices.


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