Moral Responsibility In a Deterministic World?

Current thinking suggests that all events have causes; whether a god created the universe, or an unstable energy source led to a “big bang”, the universe that exists, has a cause. Likewise, it seems absurd to suggest that this essay, or the decision to write it, was uncaused; it seems plausible to trace the origin of this essay to its cause, and just as plausible to recognise the antecedent factors, and prior causes for that cause, continued ad infinitum. However, this leads to determinism, which incompatibilists consider antithetical to any notion of moral responsibility. To be ‘morally responsible’ for an event is to be an appropriate subject for praise or blame based on a decision to act in a certain way, in a particular situation.The incompatibilists claim there is no sense in which we can be held morally responsible in a deterministic universe, because both species of incompatibilism accept the requirement for categorical free will in an account of moral responsibility. However, moral responsibility can be preserved; a compatibilist would argue that an agent doesn’t require such a strong form of freedom, and further, that moral responsibility actually requires determinism. A discussion of the incompatibilist positions and terms will be provided, and then the requirements for moral responsibility will be discussed, and libertarian concepts challenged, finally highlighting the compatibilist solution.

First, consider determinism. Determinism is the incompatibilist thesis that, given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future. However, it is also important to note that determinism is not the same as Fatalism, which suggests that certain events are ‘fated’, regardless of how humans act. In principle, determinism would allow, with all the relevant knowledge, a prediction of all the effects from any action, including human behaviour.

[I]f, as we say, determinism is true – then our actions, as physical events, must themselves be determined. […] [O]ur every deed and decision is the inexorable outcome, it seems, of physical forces acting at the moment, which in turn is the inexorable outcome of the forces acting an instant before, and so on, to the beginning of time.

The reasoning at work is just that of cause and effect, which is essential to the conduct of daily life. Determinism is largely assumed; if someone is deliberating between choices, then they are usually considering the options in light of the outcomes of each choice; they assume particular results to follow from those actions. If the world did not follow general laws, there would be much less capacity to deliberate on choices, because the outcomes would be more uncertain. The determinist, however, sees this progression of causes to effects to be incompatible with moral responsibility, because it sees determinism as undermining the required kind of freedom to act, and the required kind of ownership of action.

Libertarians agree that there is an incompatibility between moral responsibility and determinism; their response is, instead of denying responsibility, to claim that humans are free, in the important sense, and so determinism must be false. The kind of freedom and ownership of action required for incompatibilists is categorical; it requires the ability to have ‘done otherwise’ with the same input conditions, and the capacity to be the ultimate source of our actions. According to this view, people are free to choose from ‘a garden of forking paths’; we are sufficiently indetermined to allow us the capacity to choose between genuine options. If the clock could be reset, the exact same preconditions could have generated a completely different choice; this is the ‘principle of alternate possibilities’. Further, it is claimed that people, in spite of not having a choice of social environments or genetics are sufficiently originative; free choices and actions are ‘self-forming’, allowing ultimate responsibility. At least some choices in life must be free, with ‘no processes or forces at work’ before the choice that made it inevitable that it would be made in a particular way.

Two conditions are seen as required for moral responsibility; ‘control’ conditions which set out the requirements that an agent is are able to control their behaviour, and a ‘knowledge’ condition, which sets forward that an agent must know of the responsibility, and see the connection with their behaviour. To demonstrate these conditions, consider university study: it is widely known that in order to succeed at university study, a student must study and submit assignments; a lack of study is ‘known’ to cause particular effects (low grades, failures). Ostensibly, one enters university in order to succeed to some degree, so it seems that to enter university obligates one to study. These points fulfil the knowledge condition. However, if one didn’t know study was required, or didn’t realise their lack of study would have particular effects, then their responsibility would be diminished.

Additionally, a university student seems ‘obviously’ capable of a free, (and for libertarians,) undetermined choice between at least three options: To work hard, to do the bare minimum, or to do nothing. This is the expectation of ‘control’. Besides the causal outcome of each of these options, this student might receive praise for being ‘hard working’, ambivalence for doing the minimum, and blame for doing nothing. The ‘moral’ judgement which attaches appears to be based on which option was taken. However, if the same university student had a gun pointed at their head, with the order to refrain from their work, presumably they would not be an appropriate subject for blame, because they had ‘no other choice’. The outcome would simply be determined by their situation. Moral responsibility appears to depend on the capacity to choose between alternative options; an agent must be able to do otherwise. However, if Determinism is true, then no agent could do otherwise than they did.

The compatibilist responds to these issues. Firstly, It can be argued that even without the capacity to do otherwise, an agent can still be held morally responsible for their actions. Consider ‘Frankfurt’ examples; these examples highlight that even without alternative options, we would still hold people morally responsible for their actions. Consider the aforementioned university student; Imagine the student was unknowingly implanted with a computer chip that allowed a mad scientist to control their actions. The mad scientist doesn’t want the student to do their work; while sure that the student will follow their lazy nature, the chip is insurance. If the student decided to do their study after all, the chip would activate, causing the student to change their mind. However, the chip never gets activated – this student chooses not to study. Even though the student didn’t have any other choice, this student still appears morally responsible for their actions; the capacity to ‘choose otherwise’ must not be a sufficient one.

Additionally, the idea of a ‘free choice’ in the sense of an ‘undetermined’ choice is not really going to do the work that a libertarian wants. If a choice is undetermined, in the strong way a libertarian holds it to be, then this choice will be little more than chance, and not the controlled decision we expect for moral responsibility. Responsible decisions are made based on the information at hand, with an understanding of the situation, and an agents’ place in it; if a choice was made without reference to an individuals goals, history and knowledge, then there is no reason to expect a random event to present the moral choice.

The Libertarians can take this further, with their ‘origination’ requirement; perhaps if undetermined choices cannot alone satisfy for responsibility, then perhaps the notion of ultimate origination will. According to Kane, a person develops their character through ‘self-forming’ choices, which give them grounding to be the ‘ultimate originator’ of their actions, giving them complete control over choices made from that ‘self-formation’. However, the compatibilist would argue against the capacity for origination; the kind of control which this demands is inexplicable, tantamount to a miracle.

Libertarian views on the requirements for moral responsibility are incoherent, and, according to Stace, are actually simply based on a ‘semantic problem’. Free will is required for moral responsibility, but free will is not what the incompatibilists claim. Free doesn’t mean undetermined, the opposite of free isn’t determined, it is ‘constrained’. Consider this current essay. Surely there is freedom to choose to continue reading, or choose to stop. Presumably there are no external constraints or internal compulsions, and therefore the decision is completely your own, whether this is a deterministic universe or not. The fact that all actions have causes does not imply coercion; a free act comes from psychological states in the agent. This means moral responsibility remains open because actions are free if they are voluntary, that is, where they stem from the individual, and their beliefs and wants, rather than coercion from outside.
The agent could have performed a different action if they chose to, and so their choice determines their moral responsibility, even if antecedent conditions would need to be different in order to make a different choice.

Since moral responsibility requires knowledge, of both the situation, and the agent’s place in it, and a degree of control over the action, then moral responsibility can be preserved in a deterministic universe. Free action does not require the incompatibilist version of freedom, which shows in the account above as insufficient, incoherent, and even impossible; it only requires the capacity to act in accordance with the knowledge requirement, and according to voluntary acts stemming from the individual.


3 responses to “Moral Responsibility In a Deterministic World?

  • Rebecca Glasencnik

    This essay (to me) is rubbish – it was written very quickly, because I wasn’t going to bother submitting it, but then found out that I had to submit something, or fail the unit… Got a good mark for it though 🙂

  • weventer

    When you talk of causes, you imply problematic infinite regression. I prefer to think of determinism in a metaphysical paradigm rather than the material gun-to-head example (which in my opinion is overused and a poor argument). However, you’re on the right track; determinism can be seen as ‘fate’ loading the gun of morals and human behaviour firing that gun. I am a believer of free-will and an existentialist to the bone which is why discuss free-will in a metaphysical paradigm. Check out my post on free-will perhaps we can develop this conversation further. I’d like to hear your take on my views.

    • Rebecca Glasencnik

      There is a distinct (and usually overlooked) difference between fatalism (which I think you’re heading towards?) and determinism. Our actions do have effects on the world.

      I would actually prefer to get rid of the ‘gun to head’ argument completely – because that is still a choice – may be a difficult one, but a choice between the rock and a hard place is still a choice. I don’t expect people to martyr themselves – but often we humans claim to be in situations where there was ‘no other choice’ when there actually were many others (but of course, I think the choices we actually make have been determined by our historical position…)

      I am still undecided exactly where I fit in the freewill/determinism debate – I guess I fit with compatibilists, simply because I think the libertarian idea of free will is not actually possible. I would LIKE to believe in the ‘garden of forking paths’ model – and agree, it ‘fits’ with the ordinary concept of free choice – but I think the actual consequences of that argument are incapable of any form of proof, and don’t fit with our other ordinary concepts. If you have to posit uncaused events, or ‘random swerves’ – that doesn’t provide a libertarian with the capacity for moral responsibility (which is usually what they want it for…)

      I do however, like the idea of existentialist free will.

All constructive criticism is welcome! What do you think? What could I do better? Reading suggestions are welcome too!

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