Determinism and Moral Responsibility

Determinism and Moral Responsibility March 8, 2019

Free will and determinism have been back on the blog menu over the last week or so. One commenter (Michael) asked me about morality/moral responsibility and determinism. I’ve written about this before and this piece is broadly taken from a previous blog article with a few additions.

The term “moral responsibility” is an interesting one in the context of moral philosophy and free will and determinism. The question is often raised as to whether we can have moral responsibility given a single path through life. If we do not have libertarian free will (the real and conscious ability to do otherwise in a given situation), then what does this say about having moral responsibility (MR)? I have in many pieces, chapters and in my first book (with sound health this year, I want to rewrite, update and improve that book!), set out the philosophical impossibility and incoherence of libertarian free will. Let’s take its non-existence as a given.

What, then, is moral responsibility? My contention is that whilst “moral” and “responsibility” make sense and have a use on their own, as separate terms, together, they produce something that is problematic, or at least is actually something other than a what people often think.

Agents can be moral even in a deterministic (or adequately deterministic, given potential quantum randomness) universe. In the same way that a person can have the properties of being beautiful, as a value of aesthetics, given a deterministic reality, so too can they be moral. Whatever your preferred moral value system, you can still look at the actions of an agent and ascribe moral value to them. At least, that is how I see it. Even given the single potential output to an agent’s actions, given self-awareness, intention and reflective practice, they qualify as moral agents. That person Z is a good person because they intentionally did Y, which produced intended good consequences (under consequentialism, for example).

What about (moral) responsibility? This term is too often conflated with or confused with causal responsibility. In other words, when we look at someone and say “they are responsible for X”, or “it was their fault” or something similar, what we are often meaning is “they played a necessary causal role in bringing about X”.

Of course, causal responsibility is somewhat different to moral responsibility, and given any rigorous analysis can be seen to map back to the Big Bang or similar, and there are many problems associated with too simplistic an understanding of it. As I wrote in Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?:DidGodCreatetheUniverse

Smith is driving along the road over the speed limit. He is tired due to a heavy work schedule and a deadline which meant a lack of sleep the night before and is late for a meeting. One of his favourite songs comes on the radio and he starts singing along to it. On the pavement (sidewalk) a drunk man falls over into a bin which the Borough Council had just put in place to improve the cleanliness of the town. The bin is knocked off its stand and rolls into the road. Smith sees the bin late as his attention is distracted. He swerves, to avoid it. At the same time, a boy is trying to cross the road without looking. Smith is swerving into him and has to reverse his swerve significantly the other way, hitting a pothole in the poorly maintained road. This sends the car out of his control and onto the pavement. Jones, who had been walking by, slips on some soapy water draining from the carwash he is walking past. Whilst Jones is picking himself up, Smith’s car mounts the pavement, hits Jones, and kills him instantly. What is the cause of Jones’ death?

This is a very difficult, but standard causal question. The universe is not an isolation of one cause and one effect. It is a matrix of cause and effect with each effect being causal further down in something like the continuum. One could say that the impact of the car on Jones’ head kills him. But even then, at what nanosecond of impact, what degree of the force killed him? This is arbitrarily cutting off the causal continuum at 1, half or quarter of a second before the effect (Jones’ death). Having said that, the cause could be said to be the lack of oxygen to the brain, or the destruction of his vital organs. We could also accuse the bin, the drunk or anything else as being a cause, because without each of these, the final effect would not have taken place.[i]

As a result, I would posit that the cause of Jones’ death is one long continuum which cannot be arbitrarily sliced up temporally.[ii] As such, it stretches back to, say, the Big Bang—the start of the causal chain. In terms of free will, we call this the causal circumstance. Because the universe is one big causal soup, I would claim that any effect would be the makeup of the universe at any one point, like a snapshot. This makeup that leads to any given effect cannot be sliced up arbitrarily but is the entire connected matrix of ‘causes and effect’ (for want of a better term) since the Big Bang.

In other words, there is only one cause. The universe at the Big Bang (or similar).

If I am picking up a cup of tea to drink from it now, then we could just look at a few seconds before this as to the cause. Perhaps it was just my intention. But how about the notion that my parents introduced me to tea, and all those instances of tea drinking which came from that that now enforce my intentions? What if tea had not evolved? What if my grandparents had not given birth to my parents, and them to me? What if humanity had not evolved? What if the Earth had not harboured life? Without all of these, I would not have picked up my cup of tea. They are all relevant (and all the bits in between, and connecting them to other parts of the matrix) to my drinking tea now.

[i] Personally, I find JL Mackie’s INUS conditions (insufficient but non-redundant parts of a condition which is itself unnecessary but sufficient for the occurrence of the effect) an interesting concept within the discipline of causality.

[ii] One could run down a rabbit hole here in assessing (partial) moral responsibility in light of being part of a causal chain, as can be seen in the work of determinists and compatibilists in the free will debate.

In light of this, Wikipedia defines MR as:

In philosophy, moral responsibility is the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission, in accordance with one’s moral obligations.[1][2] Deciding what (if anything) counts as “morally obligatory” is a principal concern of ethics.

Philosophers refer to people who have moral responsibility for an action as moral agents. Agents have the capability to reflect upon their situation, to form intentions about how they will act, and then to carry out that action. The notion of free will has become an important issue in the debate on whether individuals are ever morally responsible for their actions and, if so, in what sense. Incompatibilists regard determinism as at odds with free will, whereas compatibilists think the two can coexist.

The key here, then, is praise and blame. We can see these ideals in terms of pragmatic consequentialism. It is useful to praise and blame people, even given determinism, because doing do has uses for society and brings about such and such an outcome.

However, do agents themselves really deserve praise and blame, per se? Well, this is controversial. I would say not, in light of something John Rawls called the “Natural Lottery”. We might congratulate Ian Thorpe for winning olympic swimming medals because, you know, he deserved it. Well done, Thorpe, you tried really hard, and worked for them. However, he was born with the right-sized body and body potential (flipper-size feet), with the biological potential for willpower and delayed gratification, with parents dedicated to giving him those opportunities as a child, and so on and so forth. You add all of these causal variables up, and we end up merely praising the way the universe has played out.

In other words, praiseworthiness and blameworthiness make little sense in a hard incompatibilist (where LFW and determinism are incompatible) world.

Derk Pereboom has set this out in his superb book Living Without Free Will. He states (p. 139-142):

The feature of our ordinary conception of ourselves that would most obviously be undermined if hard incompatibilism were true is our belief that people are typically praiseworthy when they perform morally exemplary actions, and that they are typically blameworthy when they perform actions that are morally wrong. To be blameworthy is to deserve blame just because one has chosen to do wrong. Hard incompatibilism rules out one’s ever deserving blame just for choosing to act wrongly, for such choices are always alien-deterministic events, or truly random events, or partially random events….

It has at times been suggested that if we can never be praiseworthy or blameworthy for our actions, then all of morality collapses. For judgments of moral obligation would not survive, and it wouldn’t make sense to call certain actions right and others wrong. Spinoza, for example, intimates that judgments of moral responsibility and those of right and wrong are undermined at once; he remarks that because human beings mistakenly “believe that they are free, the following abstract notions came into being: – praise, blame, right, wrong.” In opposition to a view of this sort, Honderich maintains that although determinism is in his distinctive sense incompatible with retributive attitudes, since these attitudes typically presuppose that agents causally originate actions, determinism is not incompatible with judgments of right and wrong, goodness, and badness. In a similar vein, Smilansky contends that it is difficult to see why denying moral responsibility should entail rejecting these other moral notions. His scheme divides morality into two distinct components. The first concerns what “morally ought to be done (or not done),” and the second, agents’ blameworthiness or praiseworthiness for their actions. In Smilansky’s view, ordinarily moral agents have both components in mind when contemplating what to do. Hard determinism undermines the second component. But, he argues, it does not thereby undermine the first as well. I am sympathetic with views such as Honderich’s and Smilanksy’s, although their defense will have to contend with an important objection, as we shall now see.

Goodness, I could quote his whole book. Suffice to say that he expresses some great arguments that show that we do not have MR, but we can still be seen as moral agents. Indeed, there is much to gain from an incompatibilist understanding of the universe, and not much to lose from dropping ideas of MR.

For me, as mentioned earlier, morality is very much like aesthetics as a subjective value system. I might walk into a gallery and see a painting and ascribe an aesthetic value to it based on my own subjective understanding and appreciation of aesthetics. In the same way, I might see a person or a behaviour and ascribe a moral value to it from my own subjective understanding of morality. Even if there is some form of objective reality, I’m always going to be using my own moral value system to evaluate an action or a person. My moral value system may or may not align with that objective system, but it is impossible for me to know that for sure. This is very similar to Kant’s ding an sich – we can’t know a thing-in-itself and always have a phenomenal appreciation in our subjective minds of everything. Morality included.

In this way, we can be moral in a deterministic world. Although I may reject “moral responsibility” as an incoherent idea, it doesn’t stop “morality” being meaningful.

But some, it’s not easy, and it runs against our human psyche.

Pereboom concludes (p.212-213):

Living without a conception of our choices and actions as freely willed in the sense required for moral responsibility does not come naturally to us. Our psychologies and our patterns of behavior presuppose that our choices and actions are free in this sense. Nevertheless, not only are there good arguments against this belief, but also, despite our initially apprehensive reactions to hard incompatibilism, believing it would not have disastrous consequences, and indeed it promises significant benefits for human life. Hard incompatibilism would not undermine the purpose in life that our projects can provide. Neither would it hinder the possibility of the good interpersonal relationships fundamental to our happiness. Acceptance of hard incompatibilism rather holds out the promise of greater equanimity by reducing the anger that hinders fulfillment. Far from threatening meaning in life, hard incompatibilism can help us achieve the conditions required for flourishing, for it can assist in releasing us from the harmful passions that contribute so much to human distress. If we did in fact relinquish our presumption of free will and moral responsibility, then, perhaps surprisingly, our lives might well be better for it.

It is, however, worth stating the very important point that what I have been talking about here is descriptive morality and the properties somebody or action might have as being moral. However, this is separate and different to the idea of normative morality. When we talk about what people ought to do, what they should do, then this is a different sphere of moral philosophy and moral language. I will talk about determinism and moral oughts in a second piece on this matter.


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