On Free Will V: Moral Responsibility

The last and arguably most important question of free will, one that is closely intertwined with the nature of choice, is the issue of moral responsibility. What is it that makes us responsible for what we do?

Most traditional views, especially dualist views, hold that for a person to be morally responsible for an action they commit, they must have been able to choose a different course of action at the time. This belief is commonly held, but has rarely been examined. In this, the final part of my free will series, I will challenge this assumption, and propose a new basis for human moral responsibility. Acting in a moral way, I argue, does not require the capability to have done otherwise.

How can this be so? Daniel Dennett draws attention to a famous counterexample: the Protestant Martin Luther, who when pressured to recant his religious beliefs, supposedly replied, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

Luther claimed… that his conscience made it impossible for him to recant. He might, of course, have been wrong… But even if he was – perhaps especially if he was – his declaration is testimony to the fact that we simply do not exempt someone from blame or praise for an act because we think he could do no other. Whatever Luther was doing, he was not trying to duck responsibility. (Elbow Room, p.133).

As Dennett points out, a great deal of acting ethically consists of making ourselves unable psychologically to commit evil acts. For example, I find the idea of torture abhorrent, and I know via introspection that I would never agree to torture an innocent person for money. If presented with such an offer, I would invariably refuse it; I am unable to do otherwise. Similarly, I would hope that I am the kind of person who, if I saw someone in urgent need – such as someone choking in a restaurant – I would be compelled to help them; my conscience would give me no choice. Does that mean that these decisions are no longer a matter of moral responsibility on my part? I do not think that a reasonable person would say so. Being moral, in this view, consists of making a series of free choices to make oneself into the kind of person one is. We are moral agents not in spite of, but because of the fact that we could not have done otherwise.

Some may assert that this view denies us true freedom, since it implies that there were never really any alternative courses of action open to us in any circumstance, but I do not think so. Given the exact circumstances we were faced with, we could not have done otherwise, but that is irrelevant, since that exact set of circumstances will never recur. What is relevant is whether you would act the same way in similar circumstances – because that is the question that tells others about your character and enables them to assign praise or blame accordingly.

In light of this, I must admit that my earlier statements were too strong. I can think of some (highly unlikely) circumstances where I would be compelled to torture an innocent person for money – for example, if that money were needed to pay the ransom of some despot who would otherwise destroy the planet. Similarly, if the person I saw choking in a restaurant happened to be a suicide bomber, I would not help them, since doing so would only give them a chance to set off their explosives. Even for any reasonable, moral person (such as yourself, dear reader), there is doubtless some bizarre conjunction of circumstances that could compel you to commit a crime, but that is not the issue and says nothing about your moral character. The issue is whether you are the sort of person who could or would have done otherwise under most circumstances, and this view can also answer that question in the affirmative.

To put it another way: the existence of alternatives arises from the fact that, for any situation that does occur, there are (due to micro-indeterminism) an enormous number of very similar situations that could have occurred. And due to the vast complexity of our possible actions and our fundamental unpredictability, we might have acted differently in any of those similar situations if they had come to pass. A person’s moral responsibility in a given situation is determined by “averaging out” their likely actions in all similar circumstances. If they would in most cases have done otherwise than they did, then their actual choice can be considered a fluke and should not be used to judge their character. On the other hand, if in most similar circumstances they would have done the same, then that act speaks to the kind of person they are, and accordingly they can be said to bear moral responsibility for it, whether for the better or for the worse.

The traditional dualist view of free will – that people could have done otherwise under the very same circumstances – is something that has never made sense to me. Consider its implications for a moment. Imagine that this view is correct, and whatever a person does, they could have done otherwise. If some godlike being put them in exactly the same circumstances twice, down to the specific microstate of their brain, they could do something different. The question is then, if no fact about the world or about themselves caused them to choose as they did, then what did cause that?

It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results. If that is the case, then advocates of the traditional picture of free will are saying, in effect, that they want to be insane. They want their decisions to be determined by no reason, no circumstance, no fact about the world, about their character, or about their own process of moral reasoning. But if that is the case, there is only one possible conclusion: their decisions are not really chosen at all, but are instead random. And randomness is not free will.

Most people, I suspect, would have no objection to the idea that their good deeds arise inevitably from their character, that they are the sort of person who could not have done other than the right thing in that circumstance. But when they do something wrong, they want to believe that it was a momentary lapse of judgment, a fluke – that they could have done otherwise, that this wrong act is not reflective of the kind of person they really are.

But this picture, appealing as it may be, is not a consistent theory of morality but rather an expression of wishful thinking. The compatibilist picture of free will denies people such a convenient excuse: the bad acts we do are not flukes, but rather reflections of our character just as the good ones are. If we wish to prevent them from recurring, then it is up to us to make choices that change our character (see Part IV), so that we are no longer the kind of person who would do such things. But in exchange for this burden of responsibility, this picture of free will brings good news: your good acts were not just random flukes either, but extensions of your character. You chose to do them because you are the kind of person who does such things. Is this not a positive view of ourselves?

With that, we come to one final, thoroughly practical issue: the role of blame and punishment in moral responsibility. A naive view of my argument would hold that assigning blame or credit for people’s conduct is pointless, because after all, whatever a person did, they could not have done otherwise, so why hold them responsible for their behavior?

This view has it precisely backwards. Punishment and praise play a very important role in my version of free will, the same role they play in the traditional view, in fact; I merely hold that the justification for doing this has to be slightly altered. I propose that we hold people responsible for their behavior because that is how they actually become responsible.

Recall the discussion from Part III, where I cautioned readers to recognize the distinction between fatalism and compatibilism. Fatalism holds that the future will occur as it does regardless of our choices, compatibilism that it will occur as it does because of our choices. A similar principle is at work here. A naive, and incorrect, view of my account would hold that it is pointless to blame or praise people because they will act the same way anyway; the correct view is that blaming or praising people is one of the causal factors affecting their behavior, and can therefore lead them to make different choices than they otherwise would have. There will always be some saintly souls who will do the right thing because it is the right thing, needing no external inducement, but it is neither necessary nor practical to hold all of humanity to this lofty standard at this point in history.

There are some important provisos to this view to keep in mind. I wrote elsewhere that it would be a poor moral system that could only keep people in line with reward and punishment, rather than teaching them to value the good for its own sake, and I do not recant that view. Nor do I believe that any act which society condones is necessarily good or that any act which it condemns is necessarily bad. Rather, I believe that the notion of societal praise or blame should be used as a stepping stone to true moral responsibility, not as the be-all and end-all of it. As a parallel, I believe that all people should accept science as the only reliable way to learn empirical truths, but it would be foolish to try to persuade them of that with purely philosophical arguments, without laying out the evidence that science works. Similarly, once we have accustomed people to the idea that actions have consequences, we can use this as a jumping-off point to lead them to the recognition that they should act based on the natural consequences of their actions – the suffering or happiness they produce – guided ultimately by personal conscience, not rules imposed from outside.

Other posts in this series:

Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
Atlas Shrugged: Sixteen Tons
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
ISIS Is Bleeding Human History
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.stopthatcrow.blogspot.com Jeff G

    I just posted on freewill over at my site here:


    I also think that a constructivist account of responsibility holds the most promise, but I wish you could have fleshed out your ideas a little more, especially this sentence:

    “I propose that we hold people responsible for their behavior because that is how they actually become responsible.”

    Obviously the Libertarian Freewill-ist isn’t going to think that this is good enough. They think that it is simply a counterfeit responsibility which isn’t real.

  • Unbeliever

    I was recently discussing a person’s capacity to do good with my 6-year-old son. I explained to him that, at his age, he usually does the right thing to gain my approval or avoid punishment, but that is not what being a good person is about. Doing good for it’s own sake, regardless of any positive of negative consequences, is my definition of proper behavior. I told him that a person’s character can best be judged by what they do when no one is looking. I choose to not murder people not because I might go to jail if I do; I refrain from murder because I believe it to be wrong, whether I get caught or not.

    I’ve always been amazed by theists who insist that belief in god is necessary to moral behavior. It assumes that without a sky-daddy to spank you for doing something bad or give you a reward for doing something good, there are no reasons to do what is right and refrain from what is wrong. I find this to be somewhat frightening. Are all theists just murdering, stealing, raping, child-molesters without the positive or negative feedback of their religion? And, if so, how does that make them any more mature than my 6-year-old, who acts according to the consequences and not his conscience.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I confess, I’m a bit surprised there haven’t been more comments on this post – I was actually expecting it to be the most controversial one of the series. ;) But who knows, maybe I’ve convinced my readers – I wouldn’t complain about that.

    Obviously the Libertarian Freewill-ist isn’t going to think that this is good enough. They think that it is simply a counterfeit responsibility which isn’t real.

    I have no doubt that they would say that, just as theists have told me that self-chosen meaning is not “real” meaning. But in both cases, I would argue that it is a distinction without a difference. If I find something meaningful, then ipso facto, it is meaningful. Similarly, if a person chooses to act or refrain from acting because they are aware that they will be held responsible for it, then they are responsible. In neither case is there a magical missing ingredient.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think, Adam, that this post here is the logical conclusion of your previous posts; that using their logic one must arrive here. So, the controversy is going to focus on your building blocks, not the final result.

    As for convincing people, I’m not really sure. I expected more feedback too; mostly positive, or at least aknowledging an understanding. I personally do not really agree with your assessment, but that is simply because I view it as something that CAN’T be argued one way or another in any convincing manner, not that your view is specifically wrong. I think free will is something one can’t assail; to claim that free will is nothing more than the outcome of given forces is meaningless, because it means if you are right, then there is no such thing as “right”, as all distinctions are merely a matter of input and output, not decisions. Convincing means nothing anymore; it’s simply stimuli.

    I’ve always compared it to the metaphysical argument about how all the world could be an illusion, and you would never be able to know the difference. If that’s true, then what’s the point? Nothing is gained, and it can never be proven anyway, so what has been accomplished? Nothing. It is simply a thought game doing nothing and arriving nowhere. So, I view these two as issues not worth regarding, and although I have followed the discourse simply for curiousity of the outcome, I don’t find it convincing of much, because of my own peculiar outlook.

  • Philip Thomas

    no, all theists are not “just murdering, stealing, raping child molesters without the positive or negative feedback of the religion”. That suggestion could easily insult some theists…

    For one thing, most theists do not get much positive or negative feedback from their religion during their current life. For another, many theists claim to act in good ways because they “love God”: your son may at some point start doing good because he loves you and knows its what you want, never mind your feedback: this is a step between fear and the high morality. A small number of theists believe in a Universal Moral Code which rules God (or the gods) as well as them and they act according to their understanding of their code. One may also cite Univeralist theists, who believe everyone will go to Heaven but don’t(in most cases) take this as a licence for evil…

    More empirically, if this was a valid view of theists, one would expect that when a theist became an atheist he would go and committ said crimes: not all the time, because maybe atheism can provide an alternative structure, but some of the times.

    As a side note, is spanking one’s children really necessary?

  • keddaw

    I am a materialist and do not believe in free will, but I do think that, given your post III, that it is possible that someone could have acted differently in exactly the same situation. If quantum effects really happen at the brain level then it is completely plausible that given the exact situation twice someone could react differently.

    “the role of blame and punishment in moral responsibility”
    Punishment should play no part in the legal system. It does, but it is immoral. This is not to say open the prison gates though. Remember there are three reasons for locking people up:


    Protection of the rest of the population

    Prevention: by showing that an act has a reaction you discourage other people from committing that act.

    The last two of these reasons still hold if we remove punishment. I would remove punishment from this list not (solely) for the reason that I do not believe in free will, but more because punishment involves society effectively taking pleasure in hurting someone else, even as they say “it’s for your own good” or “this will hurt me more than it hurts you”. Rehabilitation, prevention of future crimes and the discouragement of others from committing crimes should be the aim of society when dealing with people who commit crime.

  • Dion Lohman

    Problem is: your examples are highly artificial; we find character within confrontation with extraordinary and difficult circumstances, and we are often ashamed at how we have acted (or failed to act). We simply cant have that information for the most part, because life isn’t an experiment, and it has no control group. We can never truly test if we could have done otherwise…

    As to the question as to whether there is good without the possibility of evil, since we have this one way flow of life building and dissipating like storms run wild, we would have to test that theory with similar circumstance criteria: I have acted in the past in completely opposite directions morally when confronted with the same circumstances. Only problem is, the more precise we are (or the more prejudiced), the less any two situations look like one another, morally or otherwise…