Symposium Introduction

I want to begin by expressing how excited and thankful I am to have been able to help bring about this discussion of Bruce Waller’s wonderful book, The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. One of the reasons I think that Waller’s book is so important and deserving of wider attention is because it tackles the question of moral responsibility from a different angle than most work on the subject. Its core aim is not to examine whether we can be genuinely morally responsible for our choices and actions (Waller has argued compellingly for skepticism about moral responsibility in other work). Rather, in this book Waller grapples with the question of why we are so committed to what he calls the “moral responsibility system” in the first place. Waller makes the case that our commitment to moral responsibility is much stronger than any of the many different (and often conflicting) arguments in favor of it, developing a kind of error theory to diagnose our stubborn insistence on clinging to what (in Waller’s view) is ultimately a harmful and dehumanizing set of practices and beliefs. Waller makes a powerful case, and thus his begins a conversation that is essential for all who are interested in these issues, whether we are ultimately inclined to accept his conclusions or not.

In the first essay in this symposium, Gregg Caruso, himself also a prolific and powerful advocate for moral responsibility skepticism, finds much to agree with in Waller’s book. Caruso offers some additional empirical support for key parts of Waller’s account, particularly his view of the role that the “strike back” emotion plays in maintaining our moral responsibility beliefs and practices. Caruso also presses a significant point of disagreement with Waller’s project – the question of the existence of free will. Waller defends a rather novel view, claiming that while we should be skeptics about moral responsibility, we should nonetheless retain the idea of free will. Caruso disagrees, arguing that on the most natural understanding of what “free will” means, it should be tossed aside along with our belief in moral responsibility.

In the second essay, Farah Focquaert also finds some significant points of agreement with Waller. She provides a critical discussion of his account of free will – agreeing with Waller that there is no sharp distinction between our human capacities and the capacities of animals when talking about freedom (which Focquaert agrees comes in degrees), but also arguing that there is a distinction between that and what should be properly called “free will”. In this, Focquaert defends a view similar to Caruso’s, arguing that the term “free will” should be preserved for the kind of capacity that could ground genuine moral responsibility. Focquaert’s essay also offers some important cautionary notes, especially regarding mental health treatment as an alternative to retributive punishment. She warns of the potential for mistreatment and stigmatization of “patients” in the kind of system that might replace punishment, and also discusses the very real danger of “false positives” in testing and diagnosing in such a system.

The third essay is my own contribution to the symposium. In it, I focus on part of Waller’s diagnosis of our stubborn attachment to moral responsibility – the powerful cultural forces that keep the moral responsibility system in place. A significant part of Waller’s case draws on comparing highly individualistic “neoliberal” societies like ours to “social democratic corporatist” cultures, e.g. social democratic societies like Sweden and Finland, that place less emphasis on retributive punishment (among other key differences). In Waller’s view such social democratic societies have moved, at least to some degree, away from the moral responsibility system (with good results). I suggest an alternative interpretation – that such societies possess a fully robust moral responsibility system that is simply, in certain key respects (in particular the commitment to punishment), different from ours. In support of this interpretation, I suggest a way of understanding moral responsibility that might eschew punishment entirely.

The fourth essay is from John Lemos, who offers a strong defense of the moral responsibility system from a libertarian viewpoint. Lemos presses a number of serious worries for a system that would continue the practice of criminal punishment (as Waller says we must) while at the same time holding that nobody truly deserves to be punished. In particular, Lemos argues that continuing to punish people while admitting that they don’t deserve to be punished opens the door to punishing (more than we already do) people who have committed no crimes. This is a kind of objection that Waller anticipates and attempts to handle in the book, in particular by arguing that it is in fact the moral responsibility system itself that leads to the punishment of innocent people. Lemos offers an alternative diagnosis in terms of the “strike back” emotion, which he argues is distinct from (and in fact potentially suppressed by) the belief in moral responsibility.

Saul Smilansky offers a reply to moral responsibility skeptics like Waller developed in the same spirit as Waller’s own project, aiming to continue the “unconventional” debate that Waller has begun – thus making it a fitting choice as the closing essay for this symposium. Smilansky suggests four “error theory”-like explanations of why skeptics are inclined to be so strongly opposed to the moral responsibility system. These include the “assumption of monism” (the assumption that the compatibility question has either an “all yes” or “all no” answer), the inclination to perfectionism (setting the bar for moral responsibility extremely high), and the prevalence of optimism (the tendency to believe that rejecting the moral responsibility system would have overwhelmingly positive results).

As a final note, I want to take a moment to express my deep gratitude to Bruce and to all of the panelists for their wonderful contributions to this symposium, and for their incredible generosity with their time (Bruce especially, who provided thoughtful and insightful replies to every one of our essays). When I was asked to organize this symposium, the first task that befell me was choosing a book – something current, and something that was truly deserving of wider attention and critical discussion. There is, of course, no shortage of excellent recent work in philosophy that deserves greater attention than it has received, so this ought to have been a daunting task. But for me, it was very simple. Bruce’s fantastic book, which I had recently read and which had been occupying my thoughts, immediately sprang to mind as the perfect choice. I thought the only true challenge would be getting someone as renowned (and undoubtedly incredibly busy) as Bruce to agree to come on board with a project like this, but even that proved to be quite easy. Bruce graciously agreed without hesitation, and also kindly suggested a number of other excellent potential panelists I might invite to be part of the discussion. Gregg, Saul, Farah, and John were the first I invited, and they all quickly and enthusiastically accepted, thus confirming something I have long believed – that philosophers who work on free will and moral responsibility are without question the kindest and most generous sub-group of philosophers that exist.

Gregg Caruso

Response

Moral Responsibility and the Strike-Back Emotion

In The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility, Bruce Waller sets out to explain why the belief in individual moral responsibility is so strong. He begins by pointing out that there is a strange disconnect between the strength of philosophical arguments in support of moral responsibility and the strength of philosophical belief in moral responsibility. While the many arguments in favor of moral responsibility are inventive, subtle, and fascinating, Waller points out that even the most ardent supporters of moral responsibility acknowledge that the arguments in its favor are far from conclusive; and some of the least confident concerning the arguments for moral responsibility—such as Van Inwagen—are most confident of the truth of moral responsibility. Thus, argues Waller, whatever the verdict on the strength of philosophical arguments for moral responsibility, it is clear that belief in moral responsibility—whether among philosophers or the folk—is based on something other than philosophical reasons.

He goes on to argue that there are several sources for the strong belief in moral responsibility, but the following four are particularly influential: First, moral responsibility is based in a powerful “strike-back” emotion that we share with other animals. Second, there is a deep-rooted “belief in a just world”—a belief that, according to Waller, most philosophers reject when they consciously consider it, but which has a deep nonconscious influence on what we regard as just treatment and which provides subtle (but mistaken) support for belief in moral responsibility. Third, there is a pervasive moral responsibility system—extending over criminal justice as well as “common sense”—that makes the truth of moral responsibility seem obvious, and makes challenges to moral responsibility seem incoherent. Finally, there is the enormous confidence we have in the power of reason, which mistakenly leads us to believe that our conscious, rational, and critically reflective selves are constantly guiding our behavior in accordance with our deep values.

In these comments, I would like to discuss the many points of agreement I have with Waller, providing along the way additional fuel for his skeptical fire (i.e., his moral responsibility skepticism and his skeptical analysis of the source of our strong belief in moral responsibility). I will also discuss, however, my one main point of disagreement—i.e., his desire to preserve the conception of free will. Waller believes free will can “flourish” in the absence of moral responsibility (see ch. 8), while I maintain that the variety of free will that is of central philosophical and practical importance is the sort required for moral responsibility in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense of moral responsibility is set apart by the notion of basic desert and is purely backward-looking and non-consequentialist.1 Understood this way, the sort of free will at issue in the historical debate is a kind of power or ability an agent must possess in order to justify certain kinds of desert-based judgments, attitudes, or treatments in response to decisions or actions that the agent performed or failed to perform.

To begin, let me first acknowledge my agreement with Waller concerning the philosophical arguments for moral responsibility, which tend to be weaker than the corresponding belief philosophers have in moral responsibility. Consider, for example, Peter van Inwagen’s dogged, resolute, and (one may say) stubborn belief in moral responsibility. After having championed the consequence argument in favor of incompatibilism, van Inwagen proceeds to argue that we must reject determinism even though it means free will “remains a mystery,”2 since to “deny the free-will thesis is to deny the existence of moral responsibility, which would be absurd.”3 He then proceeds to argue that, if science were one day able to present us with compelling reasons for believing in determinism, “then, and only then, I think, should we become compatibilists”4—despite, of course, all his efforts defending the consequence argument.

Additional evidence of the kind of stubbornness Waller has in mind can be found among agent-causal libertarians—such as C. A. Campbell (1957), Richard Taylor (1963), and Roderick Chisholm (1982)—who are willing to embrace mysterious and “god-like” powers and abilities to preserve moral responsibility. Chisholm, for example, famously argued: “If we are responsible, and if what I have been trying to say is true, then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we really act, is a prime mover unmoved.”5 As Waller so eloquently and correctly points out: “When contemporary philosophers are willing to posit miracles in order to save moral responsibility, the philosophical belief in moral responsibility obviously runs deep and strong” (3).

Compatibilists, of course, reject miracles and propose accounts of moral responsibility consistent with our naturalistic (and even deterministic) worldview, yet they seldom provide justification for the moral responsibility system itself. In lieu of justifying the moral responsibility system, compatibilists typically take the system as given and instead focus on what attitudes, judgments, and treatments are justified from within the system. P. F. Strawson (1962) is a good example of this. His defense of the reactive attitudes takes our normal moral responsibility practices as given and proceeds from there to articulate special circumstances when it is acceptable not to hold someone morally responsible or to excuse them—e.g., when they are profoundly impaired by delusion or lack any moral capacity, either temporarily or permanently. In such circumstances, we adopt what Strawson calls the objective attitude. But according to Strawson and his followers, the denial of all moral responsibility is unacceptable, self-defeating, and/or impossible, since to permanently excuse everyone would entail that “nobody knows what he’s doing or that everybody’s behavior is unintelligible in terms of conscious purposes or that everybody lives in a world of delusion or that nobody has a moral sense.”6 The problem with this defense of moral responsibility, however, is that it takes for granted the very thing in need of justification. As Waller so eloquently explains:

If we start from the assumption of the moral responsibility system (assumptions that are so common and deep that they are difficult to escape), then the denial of moral responsibility is absurd and self-defeating. But the universal denial of moral responsibility does not start from the assumption that under normal circumstances we are morally responsible, and it does not proceed from that starting point to enlarge and extend the range of excuses to cover everyone (so that everyone is profoundly flawed). That is indeed a path to absurdity. Rather, those who reject moral responsibility reject the basic system which starts from the assumption that all minimally competent persons (all who reach the plateau level) are morally responsible. For those who deny moral responsibility, it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible, no matter how reasonable, competent, self-efficacious, strong-willed, and clear-sighted that person may be. (103)

This, of course, is because the basic challenge to the moral responsibility system presented by skeptics7 does not accept the rules of that system.

Since I agree with Waller that belief in moral responsibility is stronger than the philosophical arguments presented in their favor—either because those arguments are scientifically implausible (as in the case of agent causation), or they beg the question (as in the case of Strawson and his followers), or they end up “changing the subjection” (see Waller’s discussion in ch. 2)—in searching for the roots of the belief in moral responsibility, we must dig deeper than philosophical arguments. I also agree with Waller that the source of the strong belief in moral responsibility stems in large part from (a) our “strike-back” emotion, (b) the deep rooted belief in a just world, (c) the pervasiveness of the moral responsibility system that makes the truth of moral responsibility seem obvious, and (d) our overconfidence in the powers of reason.

Since I have already discussed the connection between just world belief and beliefs about free will, moral responsibility, and just deserts at great length elsewhere,8 and since my (brief) comments on Strawson above have already highlighted the power of the moral responsibility system to obfuscate the fundamental question regarding the justification of the system itself, I will limit my focus here to Waller’s discussion of the “strike-back” emotion.

It is important to acknowledge that human beings share a powerful strike-back emotion with other animals. When we are wronged, and when we observe another being wronged, we feel a strong and immediate urge to strike back. According to Waller, this strike-back emotion is one of the main sources of our strong belief in moral responsibility:

The deepest roots of our commitment to moral responsibility are in powerful emotions, rather than reason. There are many sources for the stubborn belief in moral responsibility, and some are quite subtle. But the most basic source has the subtlety of a barroom brawl, a back-country feud, or rats locked in a frenzied death struggle: the strike-back desire when we are harmed. (39)

He goes on to add:

The vengeance motive is powerful, revenge is sweet, and retribution feels righteous. The desire to strike back, to take arms against a sea of troubles, to take revenge: this is not only a powerful desire, but one that feels morally justified. We like to punish, and we are willing to sacrifice in order to do so (Fehr and Gachter 2002; Haidt 2012, 178–79). (39)

This emotional source of our belief in moral responsibility is strong, pervasive, and (I would argue) often counterproductive with regard to achieving certain desired ends such as future safety, reconciliation, and moral formation.9

Neil Levy, for example, does an excellent job articulating how our moral emotions tend to fuel retributive impulses, which in turn often leads to excessively punitive forms of punishment:

Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who “free-ride,” taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices—ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society. (2016)

Crude indeed! As Waller notes: “Looking carefully at the strike-back emotion we share with rats and chimps prompts doubts of its legitimacy as a foundation for our moral thoughts” (43). When we do look carefully, what we find is that the powerful strike-back emotion overwhelms careful reflection—the kind of careful reflection that is required if we wish to adopt more effective and humane policies regarding punishment.

This is not to say, of course, that our moral emotions are always bad or that we should wish to eliminate them completely. Waller correctly points out that in certain circumstances anger provides an important ethical need (45–51)—e.g., exhibiting the right emotion when someone I love is seriously wronged. In fact, there are many emotions we do not wish to eliminate, but that we do not always regard as reliable guides to behavior. These considerations lead Waller to conclude:

Thus as a moral responsibility abolitionist I feel anger at cruel acts, and do not think it desirable to eliminate such emotions (to put it badly, I am glad I feel such angry emotions); but that is consistent with believing that it would be wrong to use those emotions as guides to behavior or as justification for the system of moral responsibility. (49)

On these points, I agree. But I would like to recommend two helpful supplements to Waller’s account.

First, like Waller, I acknowledge that the emotional reactions associated with the desire to strike back are natural, but at the same time challenge the claim that they are justified. Consider, once again, the reactive attitudes of resentment, indignation, blame, and moral anger. Since these reactive attitudes can cause harm, they would be appropriate only if it is fair that the agent be subject to them in the sense that she deserves them. We can say, then, that an agent is accountable for her action when she deserves, in the basic desert sense, to be praised or blamed for what she did—i.e., she deserves certain kinds of desert-based judgments, attitudes, or treatments in response to decisions or actions she performed or failed to perform, and these judgments, attitudes, or treatments are justified on purely backward-looking grounds and do not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

The version of free will skepticism I defend, which includes a skepticism about moral responsibility (more on this in a moment), maintains that agents are never morally responsible in the basic desert sense, and hence expression of resentment, indignation, and moral anger involves doxastic irrationality (at least to the extent it is accompanied by the belief that its target deserves to be its recipient). Of course one could ask, as surely a Strawsonian would, “But can we ever really relinquish these reactive attitudes? And would it be desirable if we could?” In response, I would first say that the moral anger associated with the reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation is often corrosive to our interpersonal relationships and to our social policies.10 Like Pereboom,11 I contend that the expression of these reactive attitudes are often suboptimal as modes of communication in relationships relative to alternative attitudes available to us—e.g., feeling hurt, or shocked, or disappointed.

On the question of whether it is possible to relinquish these reactive attitudes, my answer begins by first distinguishing between what Shaun Nichols calls narrow-profile emotional responses and wide-profile responses.12 It is this distinction that I offer up as a supplement to Waller’s account. Narrow-profile emotional responses are local or immediate emotional reactions to a situation. Wide-profile responses are not immediate and can involve rational reflection. I believe it is perfectly consistent for a free will skeptic to maintain that expressions of resentment and indignation are irrational and still acknowledge that there may be certain types and degrees of resentment and indignation that are beyond our power to affect. If, for example, some serious moral wrong were done to my wife and daughter, I doubt I would be able to keep myself from some degree of narrow-profile, immediate resentment (nor, as Waller points out, would I be judged kindly if I did). Nevertheless, in wide-profile cases, we do have the ability to diminish or even eliminate resentment and indignation, or at least disavow it in the sense of rejecting any force it might be thought to have in justifying harmful reactions and policies.13 And since the wide-profile emotional reactions are most important when it comes to public policy—waging war, criminal sentencing, justifying punishment, etc.—I do believe philosophical arguments against moral responsibility can change our practices and reactions.

My second supplement to Waller’s account draws on recent empirical work in social psychology, which indicates that how we assign responsibility is correlated with prior judgments of what counts as being morally bad, which are in turn dependent upon other, larger, social and cultural factors.14 Take, for example, Mark Alicke’s culpable control model of blame. It proposes that our desire to blame someone intrudes on our assessments of that person’s ability to control his or her thoughts or behavior.15 As Valerie Hardcastle describes:

Deciding that someone is responsible for an act, which is taken to be the conclusion of a judgment, is actually part of our psychological process of assessing blame. If we start with a spontaneous negative reaction, then that can lead to our hypothesizing that the source of the action is blameworthy as well as to an active desire to blame that source. This desire, in turn, skews our interpretations of the available evidence such that it supports our blame hypothesis. We highlight evidence that indicates negligence, recklessness, impure motives, or a faulty character, and we ignore evidence that suggests otherwise. In other words, instead of dispassionately judging whether someone is responsible, we validate our spontaneous reaction of blameworthiness.16

In fact, as Hardcastle cites, data suggests that we often exaggerate a person’s actual or potential control over an event to justify our blame judgment and we will even change the threshold of how much control is required for a blame judgment.17

A recent set of studies by Cory Clark and his colleagues (2014), for example, found that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to blame and hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. Across five studies they found evidence that greater belief in free will is due to heightened punitive motivations. In one study, for instance, an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, presumably due to heightened punitive motivations. In a second study, they found that the prevalence of immoral behavior, as measured by crime and homicide rates, predicted free will belief on a country level. These findings suggest that our desire to blame and hold others morally responsible comes first and drives our belief in free will, rather than the other way around.

Other researchers have found that our judgment on whether an action was done on purpose or not is influenced by our moral evaluation of the outcome of certain actions—i.e., whether we morally like or dislike it.18 Additional findings have found an asymmetric understanding of the moral nature of our own actions and those of others, such that we judge our own actions and motivations as more moral than those of the average person.19 As Maureen Sie describes:

In cases of other people acting in morally wrong ways we tend to explain those wrongdoings in terms of the agent’s lack of virtue or morally bad character traits. We focus on those elements that allow us to blame agents for their moral wrongdoings. On the other hand, in cases where we ourselves act in morally reprehensible ways we tend to focus on exceptional elements of our situation, emphasizing the lack of room to do otherwise.20

These empirical findings help support Waller’s argument concerning the role the strike-back emotion plays in our moral responsibility beliefs and practices. It appears that our moral responsibility practices are often driven, possibly primarily driven, by our desire to blame, punish, and strike back at moral transgressors, rather than, and often in lieu of, our more rational and objective judgments about free will, control, and moral responsibility.

Keeping in mind, then, that I share with Waller both his long-standing skepticism about moral responsibility and his analysis of why the belief in moral responsibility is so stubborn, I will now turn to our one point of substantive disagreement: whether or not the concept of free will should be preserved. While I completely agree with Waller that backward-looking moral responsibility, praise and blame, and the reactive attitudes of resentment, indignation, guilt, and righteous anger cannot be justified in a naturalist world devoid of miracles, I see no justification for, or benefit in, preserving his restorative notion of free will. In both The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility (ch. 6) and in his new book, Restorative Free Will, Waller argues that free will can flourish in the absence of moral responsibility. Since I have recently criticized this aspect of Waller’s account elsewhere,21 I will keep my comments here brief.

On Waller’s account, free will amounts to the ability to discriminate among and evaluate alternatives and the ability to adjust the level of behavioral variability to environmental conditions. I contend that this conception of free will makes the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists a moot point since no one in the debate denies that we have the kinds of abilities discussed by Waller. The question most philosophers are interested in—the question that is of central philosophical and practical importance in the free will debate—is whether these abilities are enough to justify certain kinds of desert-based judgments, attitudes, or treatments in response to decisions or actions that an agent performed or failed to perform. On this point, Waller and I both agree that the answer is no. It’s hard to see how Waller’s conception of restorative free will—divorced as it is from moral responsibility—helps resolve that debate, or frankly any other significant debate related to the historical problem of free will. Even if we grant Waller his restorative free will, it is difficult to think of anything of importance that follows from it regarding our everyday practices, judgments, and attitudes. By liberating free will from moral responsibility, Waller has seemingly liberated it from all of its philosophical and practical importance.

I have elsewhere argued that there are several distinct advantages to defining free will in terms of the control in action required for basic desert moral responsibility:22 (a) it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to—i.e., it doesn’t exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for compatibilists, libertarians, and free will skeptics to adopt; (b) it captures the practical importance of the debate; (c) it fits with the commonsense (i.e., folk) understanding of these concepts; and, perhaps most importantly, (d) rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate. Waller’s conception of free will, it seems to me, fails to have any of these virtues.23 I therefore encourage my good friend to follow me down the “sinful path of free will eliminativism.”24

Let me end with some final thoughts. No one has influenced my thinking on moral responsibility more than Bruce Waller. For that I owe him a great debt. Like Waller, I believe we should “destroy moral responsibility, drive a stake in its heart, and bury it at the crossroads.”25 But given how strong and stubborn the belief in moral responsibility is, this will not be easy. Furthermore, Waller’s desire to preserve free will, contrary to his good intentions, may actually be standing in the way of achieving that end. Jasmine Carey and Delroy Paulhus (2013) have recently found that where belief in free will is strongest we tend to find increased retributive moral judgments. More specifically, they found that free will believers were more likely to call for harsher criminal punishment in a number of hypothetical scenarios. Shariff et al. (2014) have reported similar findings. In one study Shariff and his colleagues found that people with weaker free will beliefs endorsed less retributive attitudes regarding punishment of criminals, yet their consequentialist attitudes were unaffected. In a different study they found that experimentally diminishing free will belief through anti-free-will arguments diminished retributive punishment, suggesting a causal relationship. This research provides prima facie support for thinking that the folk concept of free will is linked with moral responsibility and, more specifically, retributivist judgments. If Waller wants to reduce the latter, as I know he does, his free will preservationism may be counterproductive.

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Strawson, Galen. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962) 1–25. Reprinted in Free Will, edited by G. Watson, 59–80. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Taylor, Richard. Metaphysics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Van Inwagen, Peter. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983.

———. “Free Will Remains a Mystery.” In Philosophical Perspectives 14: Action and Freedom, edited by J. Tomberlin, 1–19. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Waller, Bruce. Against Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

———. Restorative Free Will: Back to the Biological Base. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2016.

———. The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.


  1. See Pereboom, Living Without Free Will; Pereboom, Free Will, Agency, and Meaning; see also Caruso and Morris, Compatibilism and Retributive Desert.

  2. Van Inwagen, Essay on Free Will; Van Inwagen, “Free Will Remains a Mystery.”

  3. Van Inwagen, Essay on Free Will, 223.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self,” 32.

  6. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” in Free Will, 74.

  7. E.g., Waller (Against Moral Responsibility; Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility), Pereboom (Living Without Free Will; Free Will, Agency, and Meaning), Levy (Hard Luck), G. Strawson (Freedom and Belief), and myself (Caruso, Free Will and Consciousness).

  8. Caruso, “(Un)just Deserts”; Caruso, “Dark Side of Free Will”; Caruso, “Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications”; see also Carey and Paulhus, “Worldview Implication”; Nadelhoffer and Tocchetto, “Potential Dark Side.”

  9. See Pereboom, Free Will.

  10. See Caruso, “Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications”; Caruso, “Free Will Skepticism and Criminal Behavior.”

  11. Pereboom, Living Without Free Will; Pereboom, Free Will.

  12. Nichols, “After Incompatibilism”; see also Pereboom, Free Will.

  13. See Pereboom, Free Will.

  14. See Hardcastle, “Neuroscience of Criminality.”

  15. Alicke, “Cupable Control”; Alicke, “Blaming Badly”; Alicke et al., “Causation”; Alicke et al., “Culpable Control.”

  16. Hardcastle, “Neuroscience of Criminality.”

  17. Alicke et al., “Causation”; see also Alicke, “Evidential and Extra-Evidential Evaluations”; Clark et al., “Free to Punish”; Everett et al., Free to Blame?; Berg and Vidmar, “Authoritarianism”; Eften, “Effect of Physical Appearance”; Lagnado and Channon, “Judgments of Cause and Blame”; Lerner and Miller, “Just World Research”; Lerner et al., “Deserving”; Neimeth and Sosis, “Simulated Jury”; Schlenker, Impression Management; Snyder et al., Excuses; Sosis, “Internal-External Control.”

  18. Nadelhoffer, “Bad Acts.”

  19. Epley, 2000.

  20. Sie, “Free Will, an Illusion?,” 283.

  21. Caruso, review of Restorative Free Will.

  22. See Caruso and Morris, Compatibilism and Retributive Desert Moral Responsibility.

  23. See Caruso, review of Restorative Free Will.

  24. Waller, Restorative Free Will, x.

  25. Ibid., viii.

  • Bruce Waller

    Bruce Waller

    Reply

    Response to Gregg Caruso

    Gregg Caruso is an innovative and insightful leader in the campaign against moral responsibility, and his knowledge of the relevant psychological literature is remarkable: no matter how diligently I try to keep current with that research, Gregg invariably stays ahead of me; and I am grateful not only for his kind words, but also for discovering several excellent studies that I had missed. Gregg and I agree on just about everything, and where we disagree the differences are over details of how best to protect and promote the principles on which we agree.

    Still, we do have some disagreements over details. Sometimes small differences can eventually grow into deep schisms (as the history of most major religions amply demonstrates). That is not the case here. Gregg makes very valuable additions to my account of why belief in moral responsibility remains so stubborn, and he makes that account much stronger and richer. I enthusiastically endorse the “supplements” he discusses: they are strong additional arguments and empirical evidence against the moral responsibility system. And while I have some doubts about the quarantine/therapy model as a replacement for the retributive system (including the concerns noted by Farah), I certainly agree that it is a great improvement; and Gregg’s strong emphasis on the public health element of that model seems to me a major improvement in the overall model, and a wonderful way of pushing inquiries deeper into the causes of harmful behavior (and it is precisely those valuable deeper inquiries that belief in moral responsibility tends to block). Gregg (and Derk Pereboom, with whom Gregg has worked closely and whose work I also admire) want to talk about forward-looking moral responsibility, as opposed to the retrospective or backward-looking version found in retributive / just deserts models; while I think we are better off rejecting all talk of moral responsibility whatsoever, and instead talking directly about when reward (positive reinforcement) and punishment are useful and when (especially punishment) they are not. In similar fashion, I want to keep the idea of free will (though certainly not miracle-working varieties of libertarian free will) while Gregg wants to abandon talk about free will altogether. These are not insignificant differences, but they are small differences compared to the basic points of agreement: we both reject traditional libertarian free will, and we fervently reject all claims of just deserts and any form of moral responsibility that would justify such claims.

    So, the question of free will. Free will was around long before philosophers and theologians twisted it into dysfunctional knots in an effort to make it support moral responsibility. In fact, it was around long before the appearance of philosophers. For that matter, free will was thriving long before the primate evolutionary branch added a strange twig that eventually grew into the human species. Free will is very valuable to humans. Not in the distorted versions philosophers and theologians concocted for the support of moral responsibility, but that unfortunate development was a comparatively recent mistake. As good naturalists, firmly committed to biological evolution, we should expect that something as valuable as free will did not suddenly spring up with the appearance of humans (much less with the appearance of philosophers), but instead exists in many species. When we look closely, that is precisely what we find. Unfortunately, there are two enormous barriers to looking closely. One is the belief in human uniqueness, coupled with the notion that it is free will that makes humans unique. Even such innovative and insightful philosophers as Harry Frankfurt and John Martin Fischer insist that free will sets humans uniquely apart from all other species.1 Once we pierce through the thick fog of belief in human uniqueness, we hit the second barrier: there is a deeply entrenched philosophical assumption that free will and moral responsibility are inseparably linked, and so if nonhuman animals have free will, they must also be morally responsible. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my, would be morally responsible; not to mention wombats and wildebeests. But that is absurd, so other animals cannot have free will. True, it is absurd; but that is because it is absurd to attribute moral responsibility to any animal, humans included. Or rather, it is absurd to attribute moral responsibility to any animal, unless we believe in gods and miracles, where moral responsibility is perfectly at home; but if we have miracles, then there is no reason god could not grant moral responsibility to any species she chooses—according to Pico della Mirandola (1496/1948), God just happened to choose humans for that honor. Once we scale those larger barriers, then finding free will in animals other than humans is easy; in fact, the larger problem is finding animals that do not have at least a rudimentary form of free will.2 And when we observe free will writ large in the behavioral capacities of other species, we can gain a much clearer picture of how free will works in the human species—and we can begin to clear away the confusions and distortions generated by trying to make free will carry the naturalistically impossible burden of moral responsibility.

    Here is where I have a rare disagreement with Farah. She wants to keep the libertarian version of free will distinctly separate from the compatibilist version of free will—and in maintaining that distinction, she is in the company of most philosophers (whether than means she has fallen in with bad company is a question I leave to others). But if we take a larger perspective on natural animal free will, we discover that natural beneficial free will requires both the libertarian element of open alternatives and the compatibilist element of control or authenticity. The problem is that both sides have tried to make their own special element of free will (open alternatives or effective control) perform the entire function of free will (without any help from the other element), and—to make matters even worse—they have tried to make their dismembered accounts of free will carry the crushing weight of moral responsibility. The problem is similar to the story of the blind men touching the elephant, with one man touching the tail and insisting the elephant is basically like a rope, while another touches an ear and claims that the elephant is entirely in the form of a fan. Except it’s worse, for the free will elephant being touched by the libertarians and the compatibilists is a broken-down elephant that is burdened with moral responsibility.

    Free will does not require absolute options: open alternatives that are chosen independently of all conditioned preferences and situational influences. Such first cause3 or “contra-causal”4 choices may be appropriate for gods, but human animals are not gods. We do not need choices disconnected from the contingencies of our environment and from our needs and interests and preferences. Like other animals that evolved in and must survive in this changing world, we need options that are closely tied to changing environmental and personal contingencies.

    Open alternatives are of great value to any species that lives and forages in a changing environment, and our need for open alternatives runs deep. As Tiger, Hanley, and Hernandez note:

    The phylogenetic perspective suggests that the probability of survival is higher for species that prefer choosing, and therefore this preference has been selected throughout our evolutionary history. For example, an animal that forages for multiple fruits in several areas would be more likely to survive a harsh season than an animal that forages for one fruit in a single area. The ontogenetic perspective suggests that individual organisms have experienced that choosing results in an improvement of some form, and therefore this preference has been selected from a personal history of improved outcomes associated with choosing. That is, choosing rarely results in selections among identical options. . . . Rather, a choice is usually between items of discrepant value, with the opportunity to choose ensuring procurement of the more valuable one.5

    The second essential element of free will is control; but this is not absolute control, the fixed control of perfect reason6 that locks us into the one true path; nor is it the total singular “authenticity” of doing it “my way” favored by Fischer (2006) and Frankfurt (1969 and 1971). Rather, we want control that enables us to consider alternatives, place them in some workable order, and control our own choices effectively in accordance with our preferences in changing circumstances.

    Open natural alternatives and effective control are both fundamental elements of free will. As Brembs states:

    It is not coincidence that ecologists are very familiar with . . . the exploration/exploitation dilemma . . . : every animal, every species continuously faces the choice between staying and efficiently exploiting a well-known, but finite resource and leaving to find a new, undiscovered, potentially much richer, but uncertain resource. Efficiency (or optimality) always has to be traded off with flexibility in evolution, on many, if not all, levels of organization.7

    Free will requires the capacity for exploration of alternatives together with the ability to effectively control and efficiently make use of valuable resources and opportunities. Evolution created free will; philosophers merely distorted our understanding of it.

    When we understand the natural free will that we share with other animals, then the importance of free will—and of an accurate rather than a distorted view of free will—becomes clear. Gregg states that

    on Waller’s account, free will amounts to the ability to discriminate among and evaluate alternatives and the ability to adjust the level of behavioral variability to environmental conditions. I contend that this conception of free will makes the dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists a moot point since no one in the debate denies that we have the kinds of abilities discussed by Waller.

    But there are people in the debate who deny that free will requires these abilities, and others who misrepresent those abilities. After all, Frankfurt believes that the “willing addict” and the “happy slave”—who are deprived of all alternative paths—can still have free will; and Fischer maintains that so long as I walk down my path “my way,” then I can have free will though I cannot deviate from the single path nor vary in any way my manner of walking down it. For Susan Wolf, genuine free will actually requires that we walk down the single narrow path of the True and Good, and any deviations from that track undermine our free will. And of course on the libertarian side, there are those who insist that free will requires not merely options but miraculous first-cause self-making choices. Caruso claims that “by liberating free will from moral responsibility, Waller has seemingly liberated it from all of its philosophical and practical importance.” But there is great philosophical importance in understanding that an adequate account of free will requires elements of both libertarian views and compatibilist views, and that properly (naturally) understood they form an essentially cooperative rather than adversarial relationship. And there is also great practical importance: we recognize that free will is an important element of our psychological well-being, and the mundane exercise of free will is of vital importance to that well-being. That will make an enormous difference to assembly line workers deprived of alternatives and control, to impoverished persons who lack the resources to explore options and exercise control, and to residents of long-term care facilities who are denied the fundamentally important options of and control over when to socialize and when to be alone, what time to get up, what time to eat their meals and with whom, when to take a bath, when to go to bed. The debilitating effects of such deprivations have been well-documented by psychological researchers such as Judith Rodin (1986); and understanding the mundane day-to-day importance of natural free will is a vital step toward correcting such problems. Whatever one’s conclusions concerning moral responsibility, a better undistorted understanding of natural animal free will is an important step.

    Finally, Gregg worries that defending free will “may actually be standing in the way” of eliminating moral responsibility, and he cites a study indicating that the strongest believers in free will are also the strongest advocates of harsh retributive punishments. That is not a surprising result. Though some experimental philosophy research might challenge this claim, it seems likely that most of those free will believers believe in a godlike power of self-creating choice; and that special miracle-working free will is what justifies harsh punishments by just gods, just authorities, and just parents (who emulate God in visiting harsh punishments on their erring children). The problem is not their belief in free will, but their belief in an implausible—and perhaps incoherent—miracle-working version of free will. On the other hand, loss of free will is scary—and scary for good natural reasons. When people understand that they can have all the free will they actually need and value when moral responsibility is dead and buried, and that—along the lines that Farah suggests—we can better enhance free will when we understand its natural structure, then people may find the rejection of moral responsibility liberating and empowering rather than frightening. Losing free will is scary; rather than agreeing that it is a cost of rejecting moral responsibility, we should emphasize that liberating free will from the impossible burden of carrying moral responsibility gives us a much better understanding of free will, and genuine opportunities (as Farah notes) to enhance it.

    References

    Brembs, Björn. “Towards a Scientific Concept of Free Will as a Biological Trait: Spontaneous Actions and Decision-Making in Invertebrates.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2010) 1–10.

    Campbell, C. A. On Selfhood and Godhood. London: Allen & Unwin, 1957.

    Chisholm, Roderick. “Human Freedom and the Self.” Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas, 1964. Reprinted in Free Will, edited by Gary Watson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    Fischer, John Martin. “Compatibilism.” In Four Views on Free Will, by John Martin Fischer et al. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

    ———. My Way: Essays on Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Frankfurt, Harry G. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.” Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969) 829–39.

    ———. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971) 5–20.

    Maye, A., et al. “Order in Spontaneous Behavior.” PloS one 2 (2007) e443.

    Pico della Mirandola, Giovanni. “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” 1486. Translated by Paul O. Kristeller. In The Renaissance Philosophy of Man, edited by Ernst Cassirer et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

    Rodin, Judith. “Aging and Health: Effects of the Sense of Control.” Science 233 (1986) 1271–76.

    Tiger, J. H., et al. “An Evaluation of the Value of Choice with Preschool Children.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 39 (2006) 1–16.


    1. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will,” 6; Fischer, “Compatibilism,” 44.

    2. Maye et al., “Order in Spontaneous Behavior.”

    3. Chisholm, “Human Freedom and the Self.”

    4. Campbell, On Selfhood and Godhood.

    5. Tiger et al., “Evaluation of the Value of Choice,” 15.

    6. Susan Wolf 1990.

    7. Brembs, “Towards a Scientific Concept of Free Will,” 2.

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      Thank You!

      I would like to thank Syndicate and Ryan Lake for organizing this symposium on Bruce Waller’s excellent book! Bruce has been an inspiration and a good friend for many years. I’m honored to take part and have the opportunity to (a) express my gratitude for Waller’s ground-breaking work on moral responsibility skepticism, and (b) press him on our one area of disagreement–his desire to preserve the notion of “free will.” As Waller says, we “agree on just about everything, and where we disagree the differences are over details of how best to protect and promote the principles on which we agree.”

      I will post again shortly on some of the points Waller makes in his reply to me. Until then, readers should feel free to jump in.

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      Preservationism vs. Eliminativism

      Hi Bruce,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and very kind set of replies. Much appreciated.

      To jump right in, I still want to press you on your free will preservationism and your account of “restorative free will.” As I state in my piece, and have argued elsewhere (Caruso and Morris 2016), the reason I favor a conception of “free will” that defines it as the control in action needed for basic desert moral responsibility is that it has a number of advantages. I maintain that: (a) it provides a neutral definition that virtually all parties can agree to—i.e., it doesn’t exclude from the outset various conceptions of free will that are available for compatibilists, libertarians, and free will skeptics to adopt; (b) it captures the practical importance of the debate; (c) it fits with the commonsense (i.e., folk) understanding of these concepts; and, perhaps most importantly, (d) rejecting this understanding of free will makes it difficult to understand the nature of the substantive disputes that are driving the free will debate.

      I know you disagree but I would like to press you on this for a moment.With regard to the four points above, I would argue that my more traditional definition of free will has an advantage over your restorative account. (a) It is unclear to me that your restorative free will provides a neutral definition that all parties would agree to at the outset. Libertarians, for example, would argue that it is too weak. Compatibilists may also object that we should not extend free will downward on the phylogenetic scale as you do. I see this as a drawback since we should strive to start the debate off in as neutral terms as possible. (b) Your notion of free will–devoid of any connection to moral responsibility–leaves out a great deal of the practical importance of the traditional debate. I wonder then what we are really preserving. Why not simply use a different term for what you care about? How about “autonomy” or degrees of “control”? Why insist that we should call this “Free Will”? Especially given that free will has, as you acknowledge, long been linked to moral responsibility? (c) I would argue (contra your claims to the contrary) that your conception of free will is a revisionist one. This, in itself, is not a bad thing but it needs to be defended. Manuel Vargas, for example, defends a revisionist account–as does, in my opinion, Denial Dennett. Both of them, however, provide normative arguments for the need to preserve our moral responsibility practices. That avenue, of course, is not open to you–since, like me, you want to drive a stake in the heart of the moral responsibility system. How then do you then justify your revisionism? (c) This does not seem to be the kind of free will ordinary folk take to be important to intuitions about moral responsibility, praise and blame, punishment and reward, etc. Experiments in x-phi (as well as our legal institutions) reveal that we generally conceive of free will and moral responsibility as linked. Why not scrap both rather than run the risk of having the law and ordinary folk smuggle in what I know you do not want them to smuggle in–some notion of just deserts! (d) It’s hard for me to see how your conception of restorative free will will solve or line up with the traditional disputes in the literature.

      Of course our disagreement is more about definitions than anything else, since we both agree retributivism, the reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation are not justified, etc. are not justified!

      My second question would be, how do you set the referent of “free will” on your account? It does not seem to me that you are using a descriptive account of reference–since I think you would agree many of the platitudes and descriptions related to free will in our folk psychological theories are bound up with moral responsibility. It also does not seem to me that you are employing a causal-historical account of references–but I could be mistaken. Do you have any views on this question?

      Lastly, you maintain that your conception of restorative free will preserves the best features of libertarianism and compatibility–i.e., “open alternative” and “control.” Of course, though, you do not mean *real* metaphysically open alternatives–since you say only Gods have/need that; we are not gods! This brings me to my last question: How is your conception of “open alternative” any different than a traditional compatibility account? This is not what libertarians mean by open alternatives, so I’m confused how this preserves what is best of libertarian accounts? Yes, when animals are foregoing for food they may change up their patterns, but this is way different than what libertarians have in mind.

      I know we are both on the same side of the main issues 😉 My concern would be your desire to preserve some notion of “free will” will stand in the way of true reform when it comes to criminal punishment, moral blame, etc. I would prefer the route that highlights that free will and moral responsibility skeptics can still talk about degrees of autonomy and control but that these do not bring along with them justification of basic desert.

    • Farah Focquaert

      Farah Focquaert

      Reply

      Freedom versus free will

      Dear Gregg and Bruce,

      Why not describe these degrees of autonomy and control as degrees of freedom? In my view, freedom and free will are very different matters.

      Cheers,
      Farah.

    • John Lemos

      John Lemos

      Reply

      Reply by John Lemos

      I think Farah makes an interesting point. Perhaps, Bruce should not call the human capacity to explore alternative courses of action — a capacity we share with many nonhuman animals — “free will”; rather, it could be called “freedom” or, as Waller has labeled it elsewhere, “autonomy,” as in his very interesting book, The Natural Selection of Autonomy (1998). As Caruoso notes, the term “free will” is so tightly connected with issues of moral responsibility and just deserts that it may create confusion to hold on to this term as a label for this power to pursue alternative pathways.

      At the same time, Bruce, I see that you want to hold on to this notion of free will or autonomy as the power of pursuing alternative paths, because (1) we clearly have it — that is, we don’t act like the Sphex wasp in rigidly programmed ways — and (2) there are moral benefits to acknowledging that we have such a capacity. Regarding the latter, such autonomy is adaptive and serves our well-being. Thus, threats to our autonomy are not welcome for good reasons. Further, I take it you think we should respect the autonomy of persons for this reason; that is, because we value it as an essential element in our well-being. Maybe I misunderstand you, but I do take it that this is your view.

      While I think this approach can ground some level of respect for the autonomy of persons, I wonder if it generates enough respect for it. I’m concerned that on your view I should only respect the autonomy of others as a means to serving their well-being. But when their well-being is better served by violating their autonomy, I’m justified in such violation. This might give justification for objectionable paternalistic behaviors. Whereas if we could preserve a “thicker” conception of human freedom, perhaps of the kind which justifies moral responsibility, we could provide the basis of a view in which human beings have a special and dignity and worth that makes paternalistic intrusions much more difficult to justify. Or, Bruce, am I wrong here. Can the conception of autonomy you defend provide as much protection against paternalism as, say, a Kantian would want?

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      What is in a name?

      I am open to Farah’s recommendation. I just think it’s important not to use the notion of “free will” to pick out what Bruce wants to preserve for the reasons I explained. I know Bruce has written up a longer set of replies but has had difficulty posting them. Once he is able to get them up, I will reply more fully.

    • Ryan Lake

      Ryan Lake

      Reply

      Stuck in the middle

      I’m really enjoying this discussion so far, thanks everyone. I find myself a bit stuck in the middle on this issue. On the one hand, as someone who leans towards compatibilism, I find Bruce’s conception of free will as a “non-miraculous” ability to navigate and explore different possibilities and exercise self-control appealing, and am pretty happy to talk about free will that way. But then, it seems to me that to the extent we have such abilities it makes sense to also start talking about moral responsibility (which I also don’t think requires anything miraculous). So I’m also in a way with Farah and Gregg in wanting to draw a close connection between free will and moral responsibility. I also share some concerns similar to John’s about a conception of free will (or freedom or autonomy, or whatever we want to call it) that falls short of justifying moral responsibility. Anyway, I am very much looking forward to Bruce’s replies when he is able to get them posted!

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Reply to Gregg and Farah

      Special thanks to Syndicate and Ryan Lake for making this symposium possible, and to all the marvelous people who are participating and posing such tough questions and making such insightful comments. This is a quick and inadequate response to the challenging queries posed by Gregg. Starting with the last one: Gregg suggests that if we reject an account of free will as providing the justification of moral responsibility we will find it difficult to understand the substantive disputes driving the free will debate. Certainly the question of moral responsibility is one of those substantive issues – but important as it is, it is by no means the only important philosophical question concerning free will. For William James and William Barrett – and Solomon, incidentally, in Ecclesiastes – the key issue is whether there is any possibility of originality and genuine freshness; and Gregg has written an excellent article on how we can have genuine originality and creativity in a determined universe. My impression has always been that Robert Kane – though he is certainly interested in moral responsibility – does not regard that as the most important result from his proposed account of free will. Dennett is concerned that we need an account of free will that keeps us from vanishing away, and frees us of fears of “bugbears”. Dostoyevsky is less concerned with an account of free will that justifies moral responsibility than with an account that avoids mechanism. So there are more facets to the free will question than exclusively the question of moral responsibility. And I fear that if we casually discard free will along with moral responsibility, we make it more difficult for people to reject moral responsibility, because they fear they are losing other things as well – such as the possibility of originality.
      Second, the claim that the moral responsibility supporting account “fits with the commonsense understanding,” as indicated by some X-phi studies. While I admire and enjoy those studies, I’m by no means sure that the “folk” concept of free will is sufficiently clear and developed that we can draw very clear conclusions about it. For one thing, the folk (and not a few psychological experimenters) often confuse determinism with fatalism (and present fatalism as a form of learned helplessness); and the folk perhaps do not have a clear picture of bypassing. But in any case, even if the folk (and as Gregg mentions, the legal system) concept of free will links it with moral responsibility, it is not clear what that shows. The folk understanding of natural selection links it with purposiveness, because some theologians (and some social Darwinist conservatives) have promoted that linkage; and if the folk link free will with moral responsibility, that is because that has been heavily promoted by our legal system as well as by many religious traditions, not to mention some conservative political forces. In my view, that is symptomatic of the deep problem, not data we should treat as a starting point for analysis. Linking this with the first query, it is true that the restorative free will account does not provide a neutral definition to which all parties would agree; but the assumption that free will must support moral responsibility also carries a good deal of baggage – and dictates some answers that I think should be subjected to further scrutiny. I want to give an account of how a good natural biological understanding of free will was kidnaped and distorted and forced into the service of moral responsibility and just deserts. If free will is to be regarded as inseparable from moral responsibility, then that inquiry cannot get started.
      If we treat free will as the natural support system for moral responsibility, we cannot see what went fundamentally wrong with the philosophical accounts of free will when free will was forced into the role of supporting moral responsibility. When we distorted free will to make it support moral responsibility, we made free will into something miraculous that could justify punitive measures because the person punished is self-made or self-chosen: you made your own bad character, there is no deeper inquiry possible into why you have that character (it was a first cause miracle), and so you justly deserve punishment. But of course the compatibilists rejected such miracles – and because open alternatives now had the odor of miracles, the compatibilists were in desperate search for an account of just deserts that made no use whatsoever of any open alternatives. The result is Susan Wolf’s insistence on real freedom being the freedom to follow the one true path and never deviate (an asymmetrical freedom with an asymmetrical moral responsibility), and Harry Frankfurt’s willing addict who cannot do otherwise but is still morally responsible – with the result that the slave who struggles to be free does not have free will, while the slave who is so beaten down into learned helplessness that he embraces his cruel servitude has now gained free will. That is a view of free will that I reject – it is neither biologically nor philosophically plausible, and I am NOT a compatibilist. Both the libertarian (with the need for alternatives) and the compatibilist (with the importance of control) have noted something very important about free will; and that is why my account of free will is NOT revisionist: it celebrates what is fundamental to both libertarians and compatibilists, and explains why BOTH alternatives and control are necessary, and claims that if we approach these from a biological perspective – and quit insisting on human uniqueness, and quit trying to make free will carry the impossible burden of moral responsibility — then we can see the real free will that both compatibilists and libertarians can appreciate and that has great importance for foraging animals like ourselves, and continues to have great importance when moral responsibility is buried at the cross roads with a stake driven through its heart.
      When seen from this perspective, we can agree with Farah that freedom and free will are very different matters, but we can also see how they are connected and we can make serious inquiries into promoting greater degrees of freedom. We can see, for example, why “benign neglect” and negative freedom is an inadequate understanding of freedom, because in order for animals like ourselves to have real free will we require genuine opportunities to make choices and exercise effective control, and that requires extensive support and the right sort of social system. So free will and freedom are indeed different; but we cannot understand what is really essential for freedom until we understand the real nature of free will. Finally, if we want people to give up moral responsibility, it is very important that we reassure them that they will still have all the free will that animals such as ourselves can possibly need – so it is linking free will with moral responsibility that makes it more difficult to rid the world of moral responsibility.
      Sorry; did not mean to rave on at such length. I don’t believe in blame, but if anyone should be blamed, it should be Gregg for raising such interesting questions. And that is a genuinely sincere apology – and thus a knock down counterexample to Saul Smilansky’s claim that those who deny moral responsibility cannot sincerely apologize.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Reply to Gregg and Farah

      Special thanks to Syndicate and Ryan Lake for making this symposium possible, and to all the marvelous people who are participating and posing such tough questions and making such insightful comments. This is a quick and inadequate response to the challenging queries posed by Gregg. Starting with the last one: Gregg suggests that if we reject an account of free will as providing the justification of moral responsibility we will find it difficult to understand the substantive disputes driving the free will debate. Certainly the question of moral responsibility is one of those substantive issues – but important as it is, it is by no means the only important philosophical question concerning free will. For William James and William Barrett – and Solomon, incidentally, in Ecclesiastes – the key issue is whether there is any possibility of originality and genuine freshness; and Gregg has written an excellent article on how we can have genuine originality and creativity in a determined universe. My impression has always been that Robert Kane – though he is certainly interested in moral responsibility – does not regard that as the most important result from his proposed account of free will. Dennett is concerned that we need an account of free will that keeps us from vanishing away, and frees us of fears of “bugbears”. Dostoyevsky is less concerned with an account of free will that justifies moral responsibility than with an account that avoids mechanism. So there are more facets to the free will question than exclusively the question of moral responsibility. And I fear that if we casually discard free will along with moral responsibility, we make it more difficult for people to reject moral responsibility, because they fear they are losing other things as well – such as the possibility of originality.
      Second, the claim that the moral responsibility supporting account “fits with the commonsense understanding,” as indicated by some X-phi studies. While I admire and enjoy those studies, I’m by no means sure that the “folk” concept of free will is sufficiently clear and developed that we can draw very clear conclusions about it. For one thing, the folk (and not a few psychological experimenters) often confuse determinism with fatalism (and present fatalism as a form of learned helplessness); and the folk perhaps do not have a clear picture of bypassing. But in any case, even if the folk (and as Gregg mentions, the legal system) concept of free will links it with moral responsibility, it is not clear what that shows. The folk understanding of natural selection links it with purposiveness, because some theologians (and some social Darwinist conservatives) have promoted that linkage; and if the folk link free will with moral responsibility, that is because that has been heavily promoted by our legal system as well as by many religious traditions, not to mention some conservative political forces. In my view, that is symptomatic of the deep problem, not data we should treat as a starting point for analysis. Linking this with the first query, it is true that the restorative free will account does not provide a neutral definition to which all parties would agree; but the assumption that free will must support moral responsibility also carries a good deal of baggage – and dictates some answers that I think should be subjected to further scrutiny. I want to give an account of how a good natural biological understanding of free will was kidnaped and distorted and forced into the service of moral responsibility and just deserts. If free will is to be regarded as inseparable from moral responsibility, then that inquiry cannot get started.
      If we treat free will as the natural support system for moral responsibility, we cannot see what went fundamentally wrong with the philosophical accounts of free will when free will was forced into the role of supporting moral responsibility. When we distorted free will to make it support moral responsibility, we made free will into something miraculous that could justify punitive measures because the person punished is self-made or self-chosen: you made your own bad character, there is no deeper inquiry possible into why you have that character (it was a first cause miracle), and so you justly deserve punishment. But of course the compatibilists rejected such miracles – and because open alternatives now had the odor of miracles, the compatibilists were in desperate search for an account of just deserts that made no use whatsoever of any open alternatives. The result is Susan Wolf’s insistence on real freedom being the freedom to follow the one true path and never deviate (an asymmetrical freedom with an asymmetrical moral responsibility), and Harry Frankfurt’s willing addict who cannot do otherwise but is still morally responsible – with the result that the slave who struggles to be free does not have free will, while the slave who is so beaten down into learned helplessness that he embraces his cruel servitude has now gained free will. That is a view of free will that I reject – it is neither biologically nor philosophically plausible, and I am NOT a compatibilist. Both the libertarian (with the need for alternatives) and the compatibilist (with the importance of control) have noted something very important about free will; and that is why my account of free will is NOT revisionist: it celebrates what is fundamental to both libertarians and compatibilists, and explains why BOTH alternatives and control are necessary, and claims that if we approach these from a biological perspective – and quit insisting on human uniqueness, and quit trying to make free will carry the impossible burden of moral responsibility — then we can see the real free will that both compatibilists and libertarians can appreciate and that has great importance for foraging animals like ourselves, and continues to have great importance when moral responsibility is buried at the cross roads with a stake driven through its heart.
      When seen from this perspective, we can agree with Farah that freedom and free will are very different matters, but we can also see how they are connected and we can make serious inquiries into promoting greater degrees of freedom. We can see, for example, why “benign neglect” and negative freedom is an inadequate understanding of freedom, because in order for animals like ourselves to have real free will we require genuine opportunities to make choices and exercise effective control, and that requires extensive support and the right sort of social system. So free will and freedom are indeed different; but we cannot understand what is really essential for freedom until we understand the real nature of free will. Finally, if we want people to give up moral responsibility, it is very important that we reassure them that they will still have all the free will that animals such as ourselves can possibly need – so it is linking free will with moral responsibility that makes it more difficult to rid the world of moral responsibility.
      Sorry; did not mean to rave on at such length. I don’t believe in blame, but if anyone should be blamed, it should be Gregg for raising such interesting questions. And that is a genuinely sincere apology – and thus a knock down counterexample to Saul Smilansky’s claim that those who deny moral responsibility cannot sincerely apologize.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Reply to John

      John makes some points that are quite important, and some of them I have tried to address in the earlier post (I had trouble posting it, and then to make up for being slow I posted that response twice; oh well, I trust that no one will blame me for my flawed posting behavior). Anyway, on the paternalism issue, that’s a very important question; Michael Corrado, brilliant emeritus law professor at Chapel Hill, has written some superb stuff on that issue, and that is the very question on which he is currently working, and I have learned much from him. Paternalism is indeed debilitating (as we see by the damaging results when applied to the elderly, especially in long term care facilities). But I don’t think denying moral responsibility poses a special danger of paternalism. We can offer programs of self-control, addiction therapy, education, critical thinking, meaningful employment opportunities, decent housing, protection from noxious environmental factors, without being paternalistic: people could choose what they do and do not want. My sense is that there is a much greater danger of “benign neglect” than of invasive paternalism in our society. Of course when we are offering programs to those who are being held in coercive detainment (whether “quarantine” or prison) then the dangers are exacerbated — a point Farah has emphasized very effectively. In responding to Gregg and Farah, I claimed that free will continues to have great importance independently of any concern about moral responsibility; I know that you (and Bob Kane) are both interested in saving moral responsibility, but it has always seemed to me when I read both your work and Bob’s that there are other concerns that are equally — or perhaps more — important, and that we would need to protect something like free will (and damn it, I still want to call it free will) even if we renounced moral responsibility. One example is the concern to protect against paternalistic interference. Would you agree that even without moral responsibility, “free will” remains very important to preserve? I admire Robert Kane’s work tremendously, but I know you have read his work very carefully indeed: do you think Bob would agree?

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Response to Ryan

      Ryan, my profound thanks for setting this up, and with such a congenial and impressive group; my apologies for being such a posting klutz. While it is true that free will has become closely associated with moral responsibility over the years, just because the moral responsibility advocates endeavored to monopolize the notion of free will, chained it to their oars in order to propel their cruel moral responsibility galley, and twisted our good natural animal free will into something distorted and almost unrecognizable, that is no reason to abandon natural animal free will to such a cruel fate. I call upon all persons of good will to FREE free will from its moral responsibility shackles, and return it to its wholesome natural habitat, where it can flourish freed from the impossible burden of moral responsibility.

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      Free Will Belief and Increased Punitiveness

      Bruce, thank you for your very thoughtful replies! As always, you have given me a lot to think about. I am reluctant to continue pushing you on your free will preservationism, especially since we agree on just about everything else. That said, my concern does relate to our shared goal of driving a stake in the heart of moral responsibility–and with it just deserts, and retributivism.

      A number of recent studies have found that where belief in free will is highest, we find increased punitiveness (see, e.g., Carey and Paulhus 2013; Shariff et al. 2013; Westlake and Paulhus 2007; Krueger et al. 2014). In fact, empirical work has confirmed that weakening free will beliefs, either in general or by offering evidence of an individual’s diminished decisional capacity, leads to less punitiveness (Shariff et al. 2013; Aspinwall, Brown, and Tabery 2012; Monterosso, Royzman, and Schwartz 2005; Pizarro, Uhlmann, and Salovey 2003). Since one of the things I worry about most is retributivism and excessive punitiveness, I fear that keeping the language of free will alive will confuse matters and make it more difficult to combat the former. Especially if that language continues to function as it currently does (including how it functions in the context of legal punishment). I know you disagree but I’m not sure how we can resolve this dispute other than to see what works best empirically. I think we want the same goal but simply disagree on how to achieve it. I believe adopting free will skepticism (along with moral responsibility skepticism) works best–as long as free will skeptics make it clear that the kind of control and autonomy you also want to preserve is left unaffected.

      Turning to your claim that restorative free will preserves the best features of libertarianism and compatibility–i.e., “open alternative” and “control”–I would like to reiterate a question I asked earlier. What exactly does “open alternatives” mean here? Of course you do not mean *real* metaphysically open alternatives–-since you say only Gods have/need that and we are not gods! How, then, does your conception of “open alternatives” differ from what compatibilists have in mind”? Your conception of “open alternatives” is not what libertarians mean, so I’m confused how this preserves what is best of libertarian accounts? Yes, when animals are foregoing for food they may change up their patterns, but this is way different than what libertarians have in mind. I guess my challenge is to ask, why isn’t this just a watered down compatibilist conception of free will, minus moral responsibility and the privileging of humans? How is it libertarian at all?

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Reply to Gregg on open alternatives and free will

      Gregg,
      Those are indeed interesting studies, and I don’t doubt their accuracy. However, there is a confounding variable. The people with the strongest belief in free will are also the people with the strongest belief in moral responsibility, because under the baleful influence of the moral responsibility advocates (who claim that free will is the sufficient condition for moral responsibility) almost everyone who believes strongly in free will also believes in moral responsibility (and special powers of self-making). Believe me, I KNOW how rare it is to find someone who rejects moral responsibility while believing in free will. So it is not the belief in free will that actually leads to a more retributive/punitive outlook, but the mistaken conception of free will and the mistaken linkage of free will with moral responsibility.

      On the question of open alternatives, indeed they are not like the traditional libertarian absolute open alternatives (such as those espoused by C. A. Campbell); rather, they are the open alternatives favored by white-footed mice and chimpanzees and humans and (some recent research suggests) by fruit flies; they are the open alternatives that allow us to respond effectively to CHANGING environments and contingencies — including the commuter’s valuable open alternative paths to work (in case of road construction), the foraging animal’s open alternative food sources (in case of paths blocked by predators), and the long-term care resident’s open alternatives for meal times. Nothing exotic about them; as many have noted, animals that favor such open alternatives are more likely to survive than are those with no options when food sources become scarce. The problems started when those who wanted to establish just deserts and moral responsibility (in a just world) took the natural animal preference for open alternatives and apotheosized it into a power of choice that transcends all changing contingencies.

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      Final Thoughts

      Bruce, since our week is coming to an end and Farah’s article will be posted soon, I would like to thank you for your gracious exchange. There is not a nicer person in all of philosophy! I would also like to conclude with a few final thoughts:

      (1) First, I would like to reiterate how great your book is. No one has done more than you (and perhaps Derk Pereboom) to point out the dangers of the moral responsibility system and why it is not justified. This books adds another layer to your overall account and helps diagnose why the belief is so stubborn. On this front, we are in total agreement and the bulk of my comments were meant to add some additional fuel to your skeptical fire.

      (2) While we still disagree on whether it is worthwhile to preserve the notion of free will, I feel that here too we are not that far apart. It’s not like the kind of free will you want to preserve is going to be enough to ground the control in action needed for basic desert moral responsibility. It seems that we have more of a terminological dispute–or perhaps a pragmatic dispute about what will work best in terms of helping people relinquish their belief in just deserts and moral responsibility.

      (3) In terms of moving beyond our disagreement over “free will,” I would recommend two different approaches to adjudicating our conflict. I wonder if you are open to these? (a) In your last set of comments, you seem to acknowledge that it is virtually impossible to find someone who rejects moral responsibility but still believes in free will. Given this, it seem the burden is on you to establish that this is due (perhaps completely) to a confusion on the part of ordinary folk. You would have to establish, perhaps empirically, that one could successively disavow the folk of one belief while leaving the other completely intact. Perhaps we can research this together and devise some studies? (b) I would also recommend that this debate mirrors similar debates in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science over how to fix the referent of certain technical terms. For instance, if one is adopting a restrictive descriptivism, the question arises: how much can a concept bend before it breaks? The term “whale” for example was originally meant to refer to a large type of fish. Once it was discovered that whales are not fish but mammals, a revision was made and the term was preserved. Hence, a causal historical approach (rather than a descriptivist approach) was adopted. In other contexts, however, we typically opt for restrictive descriptivism and eliminativism–e.g., “witches” “phlogiston” and “vital forces.” Current debates over “race” and certain folk psychological categories in the philosophy of mind are also often about how to determine the reference of technical concepts. I have argued elsewhere, that on *either* a restrictive descriptivism or a causal-historical approach, we should favor elimintativism. I take it, you would need to argue for a descriptivist account that allows for many of our folk psychological platitudes to be mistaken but the term still refer. Is that your general take? Or are you adopting a causal-historical approach? If the later, what is involved in the original baptism? Perhaps we can agree that a more detailed discussion of the role of reference in the free will debate is needed.

      Thanks again Bruce! You are model for all of us.

      Drinks on me in Ghent,
      Gregg

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Another response to Gregg

      Many thanks for the comments, and the very challenging questions and ideas. We are indeed in very close agreement on almost all points — and particularly on the most important ones. Frankly, if the cost of eliminating moral responsibility had to be paid in giving up speaking of “free will,” I should happily pay the price. You’re right, I think our difference on that is pragmatic: what will facilitate the ending of moral responsibility. On what sets the meaning of “free will,” I’m more on the descriptive side — but that’s a very complicated question indeed, because there has been such a long and complex history of talking about free will (Michael Frede’s work on free will in ancient thought — in Aristotle, the stoics, etc. — suggests accounts of free will very different indeed from those currently favored). Again, great discussion, thanks for the very generous comments; looking forward to Farah’s posts: her work on these questions in relation to the criminal justice/prison system has been very valuable for me, and I expect to learn a great deal more from her discussion.

Farah Focquaert

Response

On the Impossibility of Justifying the Moral Responsibility System

The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility is easily one of the best philosophy books I have read and it may even be the best. Waller’s writings are erudite, sharp and immensely important in a time where individuality and harshness are omnipresent. The book is a must read for anyone who is convinced that philosophy is not just about asking critical questions, but also about getting at the truth of things that matter. Inflicting (serious) harm on others without a proper justification matters whether it concerns perpetrators harming victims or the criminal justice system harming offenders and forensic patients. Questioning retributive punishment in the face of challenging criticisms is an integral part of the free will skepticism position and Waller’s book adds much to this challenging philosophical debate.

In his excellent book Waller carefully explains that one of the reasons why compatibilist thinkers like Daniel Dennett argue that we should hold on to our current practices of attributing praise and blame is the worry that “the steady march of scientific understanding will erode away all the space required for free will and moral responsibility” (176). We will have nothing left. As we understand more and more about individual’s formative histories, we will have more and more excuses available to argue away all attributions of competency and human agency. We will be left with a system that denies moral responsibility based on the recognition of “universal flaws and a universal denial of individual competency.” (179) We will undermine personal agency, personal strength and all human achievements thereby creating a world of non-competent automatons. Without moral responsibility, philosophers fear our emotional lives will be impoverished, morality will be lost, and harsh and uncontrollable forms of “therapy” will replace punishment.

If this would follow from a free will skeptic approach to human behavior and decision-making it is troublesome indeed. In his book, Waller decisively argues that there is no reason to hold these views. Waller strongly rejects what he previously coined the “excuse-extensionist model”: the idea that the denial of moral responsibility implies or necessitates a universal extension of competence-destroying excuses.1 He correctly identifies that the denial of moral responsibility entails that no individual is morally responsible in a desert-based manner no matter how much or little competency that individual possesses. No matter how much or little capacity for human agency that individual possesses. The book confronts us with the implications of taking moral responsibility skepticism seriously: We can use our scientific understanding of human behavior to identify whether or not an individual has the capacity for take-charge responsibility, but not (desert-based) moral responsibility. Waller describes take-charge responsibility as “the sort of responsibility we can have for a project, a role, or enterprise; or to extend it further, the sort of responsibility we can claim for our own decision and our own lives” (182). It is about managing one’s own life, making one’s own decisions and following one’s own path. Hence, it seems, without freedom one cannot exercise take-charge responsibility.

Although Waller is a fervent denier of moral responsibility, he does present an account of freedom / free will. Waller rejects the idea of free will as a uniquely human capacity or power that is distinct from the capacities or powers that nonhuman animals possess and explains it in a naturalistic sense. I agree that it makes no sense to draw a line between humans and nonhuman animals when faced with Waller’s understanding of free will. However, his understanding of free will seems different from the way in which free will skeptics, hard incompatibilists and libertarians typically understand free will (i.e., contra-causal). In my view, there is a difference between free will, as for example discussed by Sam Harris (2012) and Caruso (2013, 2016) and freedom, as for example defended by compatibilists such as Daniel Dennett (1978, 2003) and Fischer and Ravizza (1998). Free will skeptics argue that the relevant question is whether an offender could have acted differently in precisely those circumstances with precisely the powers and limitations he or she actually had. Could he or she actually have acted differently? Free will in this sense entails being the sole author of one’s behavior and implies that one could genuinely have acted otherwise (as also defined by Waller in his earlier writings)2 Free will skeptics hold that this is the kind of free will that is needed to attribute “moral guilt” and to justify retributive punishment and it is entirely different from compatibilist freedom.

Compatibilist freedom distinguishes between individuals with and without normal capacities for moral decision-making and human agency within a deterministic worldview. Such a difference is normatively relevant and may be scientifically identifiable. However, if agents with and without these capacities are considered inhabitants of a world in which behavior is fully determined by antecedent factors, can it ever be justified to purposively inflict harm on offenders on the ground that they acted freely? There is a huge difference between feeling (appropriately) in charge of one’s actions on the one hand, and having the (contra-causal) capacity to make a different choice at a given moment in time if faced with exactly the same formative history on the other hand. Whereas compatibilists are willing to use such freedom as the basis of moral responsibility attributions, free will skeptics argue that this capacity cannot justify desert-based moral responsibility or a concept of legal responsibility and punishment drawing upon desert.

It therefore makes sense to draw a distinction between free will and freedom, or between free will and free behavior. Individuals can be free to a greater or lesser extent in the sense of having greater or lesser capacities for (moral) agency, reason-responsiveness, rational deliberation and behavior, self-control, self-governance, etc. (all interrelated concepts). Nonhuman animals can be free to a greater or lesser extent in line with the species-typical display and possession of their behavioral capacities. Waller seems to understand free will as “not being hampered from performing species-typical behavior,” which is essentially how many compatibilist understand free will, or rather, freedom. It tracks Wakefield’s understanding of “normality” with respect to psychiatric disorders in humans.3 That kind of free will (i.e., freedom) does not undermine the moral responsibility system because it can operate from within the moral responsibility system. It is the contra-causal notion or rather, its absence, that undermines the moral responsibility system that Waller fiercely rejects. If contra-causal free will does not exist, and it does not, then it is fundamentally unfair to hold individuals morally responsible and retributively punish wrongdoers even if society cannot or should not completely eliminate punishment. Hence, it seems that two very distinct notions of free will are doing the conceptual work in Waller’s book: the free will skeptic notion of free will that leads to the rejection of (desert-based) moral responsibility and the compatibilist notion of freedom that allows for the preservation of take-charge responsibility. If these two notions are kept separate, it might make Waller’s line of reasoning even more convincing.

Freedom exists in gradations and refers to psychological capacities that can be described by our existing scientific knowledge. Compatibilist thinkers typically understand freedom as a backward-looking notion. Individuals with a normal capacity for moral decision-making and behavior are considered free and therefore morally responsible for their behavior. Free will skeptics may also attribute some notion of freedom to individuals, but their understanding of freedom will be forward-looking. Forward-looking freedom, human agency and take-charge responsibility are interrelated concepts within a free will skeptic account. Having or lacking human agency and a capacity for take-charge responsibility implies having or lacking the freedom to change one’s future behavior if given the means to do so. Whether individuals possess or lack normal capacities for human agency and take-charge responsibility is therefore important with respect to rehabilitation and leading a crime-free life. These capacities are based on cognitive, motivational and emotional processes that can be enhanced to a greater or lesser extent if found to be lacking or impaired in a given individual. The latter is the goal of moral enhancement, which can be achieved by traditional means such as education and moral upbringing or potentially by biomedical means. As individuals, we do not have the free will to act differently at a given moment in time, but we do possess the freedom or take-charge responsibility to change our future behavior provided adequate means to accomplish such changes are provided. Such means can focus on changing the environment by addressing structural impediments to leading a crime-free life (e.g., addressing poverty, addiction, unemployment, incarceration) or on changing the individual in question (i.e., restoring or enhancing an individuals’ decision-making capacities and behavior through behavioral and/or neurobiological interventions).4

If better formative histories allow for a morally better world, we clearly have strong reasons to focus on changing our societies and perhaps our genetic and biological make-up for the better. However, one could also argue that forward-looking notions of freedom are as unintelligible as backward-looking notions of freedom since all behavior is determined. Hence, whether or not our society moves towards a morally better world or a less violent world, as for example Pinker (2011) has argued, is not up to us. Can we truly make sense of a forward-looking notion of freedom if contra-causal free will and desert-based moral responsibility are lost? Can you intelligibly preserve forward-looking freedom without backward-looking freedom? Perhaps only if we acknowledge that it is just as much an illusion as backward-looking notions.

Waller wants us to discard our existing “moral responsibility system” and urges us to look for a better and more productive system. I agree with Waller. One thing that might be important to highlight is the need to be very cautious when considering the idea that prevention and/or rehabilitation measures are “better” than (retributive) punishment, especially with respect to forensic mental health treatment. The risk of undesirable ethical, social and legal consequences such as the deliberate misuse of treatment programs for social control purposes needs to be taken seriously.5 Individuals receiving a psychiatric label run the risk of being stigmatized, may experience fear of rejection and mistreatment, and may be subject to discrimination and prejudice. Experiences like these make individuals prone to the development of low self-esteem and the internalization of self-blame which may prevent successful treatment outcomes in the long run. Moreover, the risk of false positives inherent to medical diagnoses in general and psychiatric diagnoses in particular urges us to be very careful when focusing on (early) detection, prevention and rehabilitation.6 We should be mindful that certain behaviors are easily misclassified as behavioral indications of an underlying disorder while in reality being expressions of normal variation in personality traits and behaviors. The risk of false positives is especially worrisome when faced with children and adolescents living in low socioeconomic, deprived neighborhoods and attending schools with high-delinquency rates. Behavior that reflects normal survival and coping strategies in such environments may be misunderstood as exemplifying underlying disorders.

For Waller, denying moral responsibility is about recognizing that our desire for retribution is a guide to unjust behavior. In his view, the entire system of moral responsibility is flawed and in violation of basic principles of fairness. If we recognize this, then we can pave the road towards a better society. While blame and retributive punishment are lost, moral evaluation and the identification of wrong behavior as morally bad behavior remains available to us. From a broader societal and criminal justice perspective, the extent to which humans display take-charge responsibility and how this can give rise to morally good rather than morally bad behavior, is crucial. Forward-looking freedom implies that human behavior is malleable and that continuous efforts to achieve more morally good behavior are worthwhile.

References

Caruso, G. D., ed. Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Plymouth, UK: Lexington, 2013.

———. “Free Will Skepticism and Criminal Behavior: A Public Health-Quarantine Model.” Southwest Philosophy Review 32:1 (2016).

Dennett, D. Elbow Room. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978.

———. Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking, 2003.

Fischer, J. M., and M. Ravizza. Responsibility and Control. A Theory of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Focquaert, F. “Mandatory Neurotechnological Treatment: Ethical Issues.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 35:1 (2014) 59–72.

Glenn, A. L., et al. “Prediction of Antisocial Behavior: Review and Ethical Issues.” In Handbook of Neuroethics, edited by Jens Clausen and Neil Levy, 1689–701. Dordrecht: Springer, 2015.

Harris, S. Free Will. New York: Free Press, 2012.

Hörskotter, D., et al. “Early Prevention of Antisocial Behavior (ASB): A Comparative Ethical Analysis of Psychosocial and Biomedical Approaches.” BioSocieties 9:1 (2014) 60–83.

Pinker, S. The Better Angels of Our Nature. A History of Violence and Humanity. London: Penguin, 2011.

Wakefield, J. C. “Diagnostic Issues and Controversies in DSM-5: Return of the False Positives Problem.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 12 (2016) 16.1–16.28.

Waller, B. N. “Denying Responsibility Without Making Excuses.” American Philosophical Quarterly 43:1 (2006) 81–90.

———. The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.


  1. Waller, “Denying Responsibility Without Making Excuses,” 81.

  2. See Waller, “Denying Responsibility Without Making Excuses.”

  3. Wakefield, “Diagnostic Issues.”

  4. Focquaert, “Mandatory Neurotechnological Treatment.”

  5. Horskötter et al., “Early Prevention.”

  6. Glenn et al., “Prediction of Antisocial Behavior”; Wakefield, “Diagnostic Issues.”

  • Bruce Waller

    Bruce Waller

    Reply

    Response to Farah Focquaert

    I was delighted to learn that Farah found something helpful in reading The Stubborn System, since that can serve as partial payment for the enormous benefits I have gained from reading her work. Farah’s knowledge of philosophy, neuroscience, and criminal justice offers new and insightful perspectives on some very important practical and philosophical questions.

    In responding to Farah’s valuable comments, there are three distinct areas that I will emphasize. The first (occurring last in her essay, primarily in the penultimate paragraph) concerns important cautions in the use of therapy in forensic environments; the second (occurring just before the paragraph on cautions) focuses on the types of therapy/rehabilitation that can legitimately be employed in criminal justice settings. On both of those points, I completely agree with Farah, and learned from her insights. I will only emphasize the importance of her cautions, and elaborate on a couple of points. The third concerns her comments on free will (and the distinction between free will and freedom); here I don’t really disagree with Farah, but would prefer to approach the issue from a different angle. The distinction she draws is important, but (by my lights) for somewhat different reasons than those Farah emphasizes. Since this touches on my weird insistence (noted by Saul) that we should cherish free will while repudiating moral responsibility, it will also shade over into some of my response to Gregg Caruso’s comments (concerning practically the only issue on which we disagree).

    I have great admiration for the work of Derk Pereboom and Gregg Caruso in developing a contemporary version of the rehabilitative/therapy/quarantine model (particularly their emphasis on the public health elements of that model). But I think ultimately—uncomfortable as it is—we are better off saying: yes, we must punish; punishment is not just; and while we can and should make huge steps toward making punishment less harsh, less destructive, and less extensive (and offer more opportunities for genuine rehabilitation during the course of punishment, as we find in places like Norway’s Bastoy Island prison), we cannot make punishment just (Saul Smilansky’s reductio argument seems to me utterly convincing on that score) and we cannot eliminate it. There are some serious perils in therapeutic models, and Farah sounds a clear and very important warning concerning those dangers; we must be

    very cautious when considering the idea that prevention and/or rehabilitation measures are “better” than (retributive) punishment, especially with respect to forensic mental health treatment. The risk of undesirable ethical, social, and legal consequences such as the deliberate misuse of treatment programs for social control purposes needs to be taken very seriously. Individuals receiving a psychiatric label run the risk of being stigmatized, may experience fear of rejection and mistreatment, and may be subject to discrimination and prejudice. Experiences like these make individuals prone to the development of low self-esteem and the internalization of self-blame which may prevent successful treatment outcomes in the long run. Moreover, the risk of false positives inherent to medical diagnoses in general and psychiatric diagnoses in particular urges us to be very careful. . . . The risk of false positives is especially worrisome when faced with children and adolescents living in low socioeconomic, deprived neighborhoods and attending schools with high-delinquency rates.

    I cannot improve on Farah’s cautionary remarks, but I would like to add to and emphasize them. There may indeed be (as Farah notes) special danger of being “subject to discrimination and prejudice” for those given a psychiatric label in forensic settings, since those who are subject to prejudice are already more likely to wind up in the clutches of the criminal justice system. There are other special dangers that exacerbate the perils that Farah so effectively describes. The prison industry is big business, especially in the United States; not only the disgraceful private prison industry, but also the enormous profits made by supplying prisons (and both of these encourage major lobbying efforts to keep the prison population at outrageously high levels). Another enormous and high-profit sector is Big Pharma: the pharmaceutical industry. No doubt the pharmaceutical industry has produced many valuable drugs, but its record for integrity is severely blemished: there is a long and ugly history of illegally promoting “off-label” use of approved drugs for purposes that have not been tested and for which the drugs are often ineffective or even harmful; “repackaging” popular drugs that are no longer under patent, and bribing doctors to prescribe the much more expensive brand name drugs rather than the equally effective generics; the use of research contracts that give drug companies the right to veto publication of results (and thus hide research studies that show a drug to be ineffective or even dangerous); creating bogus “diseases” that demand pharmaceutical treatment; and other abuses described by (among many others) Dr. Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. At this point Big Pharma has only a limited US prison market, since US imprisonment policies favor warehousing rather than treating or rehabilitating prisoners (notwithstanding the fact that a very large percentage of US prisoners suffer from serious psychiatric disorders). But offer the drug companies a “captive clientele” of well over a million customers, all of whom are “fully insured” for their drug treatments, and the dangers of unleashing this powerful, profit-hungry, and often unscrupulous force on prisoners—for their “own good”—is a serious peril indeed. What prison authorities in the United States are often seeking—sometimes in the guise of rehabilitation—are ways of making prisoners more easily managed and acquiescent and passive; and while the drugs offered by pharmaceutical manufacturers often do not live up to their hype and their promises, providing drugs that promote passive acquiescence is an area of unquestioned success.

    Pharmaceutical perils are not the only dangers that could creep in under the cover of “rehabilitative therapy.” The notorious “boot camps” promoted to “rehabilitate” adolescents and young adults—often through brutal “tough love” measures, sometimes ending in death—were aimed at shaping residents to follow orders without questioning, dress neatly, show up on time, and be grateful for poorly paid dead-end jobs. If Derk and Gregg were in control of the US prison system—and had the power to control the many corporations that are making big bucks from massive incarceration, as well as the many corporations (especially pharmaceutical companies) that would see a therapy orientation as a possible open door for their products, then I would have few worries about such perils; but between populist punitivism promoted by opportunistic politicians and the enormous power of the prison and pharmaceutical industries, Farah is right to be concerned. We do need good therapy and rehabilitation programs—the “nothing works” movement was a perfidious disaster—but we also need to honestly confront the fact that punishment is inescapable and unjust; and we should never become comfortable with that disturbing truth.

    The second very important contribution from Farah is her brief but insightful account of what sorts of rehabilitation/therapy programs are legitimate, and which programs are not. As she notes, genuine rehabilitation involves strengthening the capacities and opportunities and abilities of those rehabilitated:

    Having or lacking human agency and a capacity for take-charge responsibility implies having or lacking the freedom to change one’s future behavior if given the means to do so. Whether individuals possess or lack normal capacities for human agency and take-charge responsibility is therefore important with respect to rehabilitation and leading a crime-free life. These capacities are based on cognitive, motivational and emotional processes that can be enhanced to a greater or lesser extent if found to be lacking or impaired in a given individual.

    There is a genuine danger of “rehabilitating” people to acquiesce in their permanently disadvantaged positions in an unjust society: precisely the sort of “rehabilitation” that was promised by many of the US boot camp facilities. Instead, we must limit rehabilitation to programs that actually enhance the strengths of those who are rehabilitated: strengths that they themselves regard as positive, and that enrich their lives whatever their goals. These are strengths of self-control and self-efficacy, the strengths that enable persons to effectively exercise take-control responsibility for their own lives and choices.

    Third, in discussing free will Focquaert draws a distinction between free will and free behavior, with the former being a libertarian contra-causal free will (involving very special or even miraculous choice-making powers) and the latter the “compatibilist notion of freedom that allows for the preservation of take-charge responsibility.” The former is the free will that supports moral responsibility, that Gregg Caruso (2012) attacks quite forcefully, and that Gregg and Farah and I all reject. The latter is the compatibilist account of free will, that—as Gregg, Farah, and I again agree—cannot support claims of moral responsibility, and that Gregg and Farah insist should not be called free will at all, but should instead be characterized as “free behavior.” And Farah gently admonishes me for failing to adequately distinguish libertarian free will from compatibilist free behavior: “If these two notions are kept separate, it might make Waller’s line of reasoning even more convincing.” At the risk of being churlish and recalcitrant in response to this kind recommendation, here I must part ways with my friends. Even worse, rather that keeping libertarian free will and compatibilist free behavior separate, I believe that our best natural account of free will must incorporate elements of both. But that is a discussion that will be taken up in response to Gregg, since it is an issue we have fussed over for some time. In any case, I do not believe that our disagreement on this issue is deep, but more a matter of emphasis. And obviously there is much more to celebrate than to dispute in Farah’s marvelous commentary.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Seconding Farah’s Vitally Important Concerns

      My only response to Farah’s last comment is to celebrate it. Her emphasis on the distinction between moral enhancement and forensic measures, and on the genuine dangers involved in treatment programs in the inherently coercive environment of confinement settings, is very important indeed. Even those who are honestly committed to improving the welfare and well-being of offenders may easily overstep important boundaries protecting the rights — and capacities — of those treated; and it is very important to remember that many of those who propose “moral improvement” programs have had very different motives indeed (motives that are more retributive than therapeutic). Certainly Richard Nixon believed that Martin Luther King would have been a great candidate for “moral improvement” while imprisoned; and Nelson Mandela was classified as a terrorist by the U.S. until 2008, and would have been in need of moral improvement had he fallen into the hands of U.S. authorities. What the present administration would consider “moral improvement” — and the methods it might approve to achieve such goals — is a frightening reminder that not all who will be in charge of “treatment” programs are people of understanding and good will; and we need to take very seriously indeed the sorts of restrictions and distinctions that Farah examines so effectively.

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      Great Exchange!

      Sorry for jumping in late, but fascinating discussion! I agree with much of what has been said by both Farah and Bruce. I acknowledge Farah’s concerns over rehabilitation and the supplements added by Bruce. I believe Derk and I have begun to address these concerns (see Pereboom and Caruso, forthcoming), but it still needs more attention. Like Farah and Bruce, I favor rehabilitative methods that appeal to and strengthen the reasons-responsiveness of agents. The more difficult cases, however, arise for those who are not reasons-responsive. I’m hoping to work with Farah soon on a paper about this very issue for a forthcoming Handbook on Philosophy and Public Policy.

    • Gregg Caruso

      Gregg Caruso

      Reply

      P.S…

      P.S. I still think Bruce should abandon the concept of free will 😉

    • Farah Focquaert

      Farah Focquaert

      Reply

      Some thoughts… in reply to Bruce and Gregg.

      I agree with Gregg, that Bruce, Gregg and me are not that far apart in our views on (desert-based) free will, and I also think that we have a terminological-pragmatic dispute rather than a theoretical dispute on the nature of (desert-based) free will.

      I agree with Bruce that it is of great philosophical importance to understand that take-charge responsibility implies elements of both libertarian and compatibilist views, and maybe I am indeed mistaken in drawing a sharp line between libertarian free will and compatibilist freedom, since that implies that take-charge responsibility has no need for the libertarian element of open alternatives (in a non-miraculous way) – and take-charge responsibility makes little sense without open alternatives. Take-charge responsibility cannot be taken seriously unless the future is within our causal reach. As Bruce writes, “we want control that enables us to consider alternatives, place them in some workable order, and control our own choices effectively in accordance with our preferences in changing circumstances”. However, whether and how we weigh alternatives, and which preferences we have under changing circumstances, and which choices we make is ultimately not ‘up to us’. It is the experiential feeling of having that kind of control that we need in life, because having that experiential feeling implies that we feel ‘in charge’, implies that we will have a more positive outlook at life, and consequently live a more successful and perhaps less deviant life. It implies that if we are given the tools to lead a crime-free life, we will be better at doing so if we feel ‘in charge’ and if our future behavior is subsequently (more) in line with our rational preferences (which implies that we have more degrees of freedom or autonomy compared to individuals that are not able to change their future behavior in line with their rational preferences). If given the tools to change your behavior, people will often be able to behave differently provided they have the right mindset – so there are open alternatives and feeling ‘in charge’ is crucial.

      I am inclined to agree with Bruce that we need open alternatives, but I want to stress that free will skeptics cannot hold that I can control those alternatives in any meaningful sense. We fare better if we have the feeling of being able to change our future behavior and succeed to behave in line with our rational preferences. It is the feeling of take-charge responsibility that does the work and contributes towards a world with less crime. Having the feeling of ‘being in charge’ is very important in forensic psychiatry and I think we need to refer to degrees of freedom (being more or less ‘in charge’) and take-charge responsibility to reduce recidivism (rather than to induce moral guilt). I am not sure we need the concept of ‘free will’, and I am worried about the deep connection that free will and moral responsibility continue to have (both in the academic debate and the wider society). For the development of our moral decision-making capacities, psychological research suggests that we need concepts such as remorse and guilt to instill a conscience that guides us towards morally better behavior. However, (developmental) research also shows that stigma, self-blame and shame are counterproductive and increase rather than decrease deviant behavior. If a belief in free will contributes to stigma, self-blame and shame, this is potentially very problematic.

Ryan Lake

Response

Moral Responsibility Without Punishment

In his insightful and powerfully argued book The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility, Bruce Waller takes on a novel task. Rather than directly arguing for the abolition of moral responsibility (as many have done, and as Waller himself has done admirably elsewhere1), Waller’s primary aim in this book is to diagnose the stubborn persistence of the belief in moral responsibility. Why does the belief in moral responsibility remain so deeply entrenched, even among philosophers who recognize and have thought carefully about threats to it—threats like the possibility of causal determinism, the pervasiveness of moral luck, and the limits of human reason? In this essay, I will focus on challenging one aspect of Waller’s answer—his appeal to the powerful cultural forces that keep the moral responsibility system in place. Waller makes a compelling and empirically informed case that individualistic neoliberal societies (like ours) remain committed to moral responsibility in part because of the drive to blame and punish individual wrongdoers. Waller contrasts our society with social democratic societies that he argues have moved (at least to some degree) away from the moral responsibility system, with positive results. However, I will argue that there is a viable alternative explanation—that rather than having moved away from moral responsibility, social democratic societies instead possess a robust moral responsibility system that is, in certain key respects, simply different from ours. I will support the plausibility of this claim in part by arguing for the possibility of a moral responsibility system that eschews punishment entirely.

I. Defining Moral Responsibility

One should, of course, always define one’s terms up front. What exactly is it that we’re talking about in the debate over moral responsibility? Waller is very clear about what he has in mind. In his view, the question of moral responsibility is closely connected to the justice of punishment (and rewards). As he puts it, “The basic question that motivates concerns about moral responsibility has not changed: Is it just, is it fair, to punish people for their wrongdoing, and give special rewards for virtuous acts?” (9). Waller cites a number of other philosophers (running the spectrum from skeptics to strong defenders of moral responsibility) who define the question of moral responsibility similarly. As he cites Michael McKenna, “What most everyone is hunting for . . . is the sort of moral responsibility that is desert entailing, the kind that makes blaming and punishing as well as praising and rewarding justified.”2 And as he cites Galen Strawson, “Responsibility and desert of such a kind that it can exist if and only if punishment and reward can be fair or just without having any pragmatic justification.”3 And so on.

However, I think we should avoid defining moral responsibility in terms of punishment. An attractive definition that is more neutral with regards to the question of punishment, while retaining basic desert, is offered by Neil Levy (also a moral responsibility skeptic): “An agent is morally responsible for an action or an omission if the fact that they have performed that action, in the circumstances and manner in which they acted, is relevant to how they may permissibly be treated when it comes to the distribution of benefits and burdens.”4 Moral responsibility should involve some notion of basic desert, yes (lest we run afoul of the error of “redefining responsibility” that Waller discusses)—but basic desert needn’t be understood in terms of punishment. As I will argue shortly, one can in fact defend moral responsibility while abandoning the commitment to punishment entirely.

II. Neoliberalism, Social Democracy, and Responsibility

But first, I will turn to a brief summary of the aspect of Waller’s book that I want to press on—Waller’s claim that highly individualistic neoliberal societies are characterized by their strong commitment to the moral responsibility system, and that this commitment to moral responsibility is to blame for many of the shortcomings of neoliberal societies (shortcomings that are becoming widely recognized even within neoliberal societies). Waller argues that this commitment gives rise to a range of policies (economic policies, criminal justice policies, etc.)—and our commitment to these policies, in turn, help keep the moral responsibility system in place. Here is how Waller characterizes the individualistic neoliberal society (drawing on the work of researchers like criminologists Michael Cavadino and James Dignan5):

Neoliberal culture is characterized by a minimal welfare system (and those supported by that system are often stigmatized), few restrictions on the market, extreme differences in wealth, severe punitive measures which isolate wrongdoers from the rest of society, the existence of groups and communities that are effectively marginalized from the larger society (typically by poverty), and a strong belief in the ideal of individuals as self-sufficient and self-made. (209)

The United States and the UK are provided as paradigmatic examples of this kind of society. Neoliberal societies are contrasted most strongly with “social democratic corporatist” cultures like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. As Waller describes it:

These countries are characterized by generous welfare support, which is regarded as a basic right of all members of the society. Income differentials are small, and social rights and social inclusion are strong values. The imprisonment rate in social democratic corporatist cultures is very low (England imprisons at a rate double that of Sweden and Finland, while the United States—the world leader—imprisons at a rate ten times higher); and punitive measures in social democratic corporatist cultures emphasize inclusion, rehabilitation, and restoration of wrongdoers into society, with strong emphasis on the rights of prisoners as continuing members of the community. (210)

In Waller’s view, what (at least primarily) explains these differences in approaches to issues like criminal justice, social welfare, and economics is the degree to which different societies are committed to the moral responsibility system. Neoliberal societies focus on individual moral responsibility (for crimes, for financial success or failure, etc.), whereas social democratic societies “acknowledge the powerful and ubiquitous influence of social factors on every person’s development” (211). In acknowledging this, social democratic societies show (in Waller’s view) a lesser degree of commitment to the belief in moral responsibility; they are more willing to see failed individuals (criminals, the poor, the uneducated, etc.) as victims of social factors (and perhaps other factors as well), not truly morally responsible for their lot in life. If one acknowledges that things like extreme economic inequality, mass incarceration in effective prison systems, and poorer educational outcomes are serious problems for neoliberal societies (as we should), and that less individualistic social democratic societies perform much better than we do on all of these measures, then it appears that Waller has provided a strong case for the pragmatic benefits of abandoning the moral responsibility system—if only we could bring ourselves to do so.

However, in my view is not clear that the real difference between individualistic neoliberal societies and “social democratic corporatist” societies is the degree of commitment to the belief in moral responsibility. There is an alternate explanation that I think is plausible and worth considering—that the real difference between a neoliberal society like ours and social democratic societies is in fact simply a difference in attitudes regarding who should be held responsible. This shift in views about who is to be held responsible could, in turn, explain differences in attitudes towards policy.

Waller presents a strong case that neoliberal societies are very narrowly focused on holding only individuals accountable—for their educational successes and failures, for their financial successes and failures, for their criminal behaviors, and so on. The hypothesis I want us to consider is this: in a social democratic culture, the view of who is to be held responsible is simply much broader. The individual is still viewed as deserving some blame (and Waller acknowledges that individual blame still exists within social democratic cultures; he says, rightly, that no society has completely abandoned moral responsibility)—but the blame does not belong to the individual alone. The social democratic society has a much stronger commitment to collective moral responsibility—we all deserve blame for the failings of individual citizens, and it is our collective duty to try to rectify the situation.

In fact, there is evidence for the view I am suggesting to be found in some of the passages that Waller quotes from researchers who study the differences between our different kinds of cultures. For example, Waller quotes the criminologists Cavadino and Dignan: “Without going so far as to say that ‘society is to blame’ for all crime, there could nevertheless be a greater willingness to assume a degree of collective responsibility for the fact that an offence has been committed.”6 The possibility I am suggesting we consider is that perhaps the “greater appreciation of the influence of factors beyond individual control” that Waller argues exists in social democratic cultures does not signify a move away from moral responsibility, but rather simply a broader view of who should be regarded as morally responsible.

III. Pure Restitution

It seems to me that much of the plausibility of Waller’s case against moral responsibility stems from the (allegedly) close connection between moral responsibility and punishment. In this book and in earlier work, Waller has pointed to some successful real-world examples of programs that deemphasize individual punishment to improve results. One excellent example is the adoption of a program to improve commercial airline safety by changing the ways in which air traffic controllers were held accountable. Instead of singling out individual controllers for blame and punishment for mistakes (which gave controllers an incentive to hide errors to avoid punishment), the new model encouraged workers to report errors and potential sources of error in the system. This approach drastically improved commercial airline safety, reducing fatalities 83 percent over the course of a decade.7

Waller puts examples like this to good use to make a compelling case that shifting away from individual blame, and especially from individual punishment, can have good effects when done properly. The claim I am challenging is this: that insofar as these systems do move away from individual blame—and in particular from individual punishment—that they thereby have also moved away from moral responsibility. Suppose we consider the limiting case; suppose we could find a way to abolish punishment entirely (something even Waller is skeptical about), and do so in a way that would produce good overall outcomes (as good as or better than any system that contains punishment). Would doing so necessarily mean abandoning moral responsibility as well? In my view, it is a mistake to think so. One can consistently, at least in principle, defend moral responsibility in a basic desert sense while wholly abandoning any commitment to punishment. For the sake of space, I can’t attempt a full defense of this claim here. But I want to point out that in the philosophical literature on moral justifications of criminal punishment, there are some who advocate for the abandonment of punishment (in particular legal punishment, but in principle the same idea could be extended to other areas)—and do so without abandoning the commitment to moral responsibility.

One way to do this is to advocate for a system that has been called “pure restitution” as an alternative to punishment.8 Let me say just a little bit about what that idea involves. The aim of pure restitution is not retributive—the goal is not to make transgressors suffer as punishment for their crimes. Rather, the function of a pure restitution system is to compel transgressors to make restitution to those who have been harmed by their transgressions (this can include both direct and indirect victims of a crime), with the goal of restoring the victims to their rightful prior level of well-being (or at least getting them as close to that state as is possible). The pure restitution model fits nicely with “restorative justice” practices (which Waller mentions), but can also involve practices that in some ways resemble current punitive practices. For example, to restore both direct and indirect victims of a violent crime to their rightful prior level of safety and security, it might be necessary for the offender to be incarcerated, or monitored, etc. But pure restitution is still distinct from punishment, because its aim is different—the aim is not to make the offender suffer. The aim is to make the offender “pay” what is “owed” to the victim. By analogy, if we compel a debtor to repay a debt, it may be said that in the process we cause harm (a harm that would be similar to a punitive fine)—but the aim is in no way retributive (or at least it needn’t be). The aim is ultimately restorative—and so forcing someone to repay a debt that they rightfully owe is still distinct from punishment.

This is an extremely cursory sketch of the pure restitution system; I can’t do it full justice in the space I have here. For the sake of brevity, I will restrict myself to a couple points that are particularly salient for my purposes. First, the pure restitution model, although it forgoes punishment, does not forgo moral responsibility. On the contrary, it depends on it. As Boonin describes it, one of the necessary conditions for justifiable compelled restitution is that an agent must be morally responsible for the harm that she has caused. If her moral responsibility for her harmful action is mitigated (if she is suffering a severe psychological disorder, say), then she is not responsible for making reparations (how we deal with her then may be something more like the “quarantine” model of criminal justice that some recent skeptics have defended9).

A second relevant point is that while restitution is committed to moral responsibility, it also places a heavy emphasis on outcomes, in particular outcomes for the victims of crimes. This allows more room to accommodate what Waller (in my view rightly) characterizes as some of the respective advantages of social democratic societies over neoliberal societies, and of less punitive systems over more punitive systems. Take Waller’s air traffic controller example. In a system of pure restitution, we would be committed to doing whatever works best to avoid putting passengers (the potential victims) at unnecessary risk. From the standpoint of pure restitution, if inflicting harms on individual air traffic controllers for errors is ineffective at achieving this goal, then it shouldn’t be done. As restitutionists, our aim is to do whatever produces the best outcome for victims (including potential victims—people who are put at unnecessary risk of harm). We can say that while still holding air traffic controllers morally responsible—in particular, by holding them morally responsible for reporting errors, making them responsible for doing their part to make the system as a whole work as effectively as possible, etc.

IV. Conclusion

Waller’s book is a tremendous contribution to the debate over free will and moral responsibility. Waller’s arguments (both in this book and in his earlier work) have forced me to reconsider some of my own views, especially about the value and necessity of institutions like punishment. While I remain (stubbornly?) committed to the existence of moral responsibility, my view of the kind of moral responsibility system that can be justified has shifted as a result of thinking through Waller’s arguments (as well as the arguments of other powerful moral responsibility skeptics). For that I am grateful, and I am excited to learn more from him in his responses to all of the essays in this symposium.

 

References

Barnett, Randy E. “Restitution: A New Paradigm of Criminal Justice.” Ethics 87:4 (1977) 279–301.

Boonin, David. The Problem of Punishment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Caruso, Gregg D. “Free Will Skepticism and Criminal Behavior: A Public Health-Quarantine Model.” Southwest Philosophy Review 32:1 (2016) 25–48.

Cavadino, Michael, and James Dignan. “Penal Policy and Political Economy.” Criminology and Criminal Justice 6:4 (2006) 435–56.

———. Penal Systems: A Comparative Approach. London: Sage, 2006.

Levy, Neil. Consciousness and Moral Responsibility. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

McKenna, Michael. “Compatibilism & Desert: Critical Comments on Four Views on Free Will.” Philosophical Studies 144:1 (2009) 3–13.

Pereboom, Derk. Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Strawson, Galen. “The Bounds of Freedom.” In The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert H. Kane, 441–60. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Waller, Bruce N. Against Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

———. The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.


  1. See Waller, Against Moral Responsibility.

  2. McKenna, “Compatibilism & Desert,” 12.

  3. Strawson, “Bounds of Freedom,” 452.

  4. Levy, Consciousness and Moral Responsibility, 2.

  5. Cavadino and Dignan, “Penal Policy and Political Economy.”

  6. Cavadino and Dignan, Penal Systems, 26.

  7. Waller, Against Moral Responsibility, 288.

  8. See, e.g., Barnett, “Restitution,” and Boonin, Problem of Punishment.

  9. See, e.g., Pereboom, Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life, and Caruso, “Free Will Skepticism.”

  • Bruce Waller

    Bruce Waller

    Reply

    Response to Ryan Lake

    First, very special thanks to Ryan, not only for his kind words but for his work in organizing this symposium. For several years I have read and admired and benefitted from the work of Ryan, Farah, Gregg, John, and Saul—in the case of John and Saul, it is more like several decades—and a chance to discuss these issues with such a congenial and insightful group is very special. So I am deeply grateful to Ryan, and to all who are participating. Those of us who deny moral responsibility can be sincerely and consistently grateful, and can also sincerely apologize: if only I could convince Saul Smilansky of that, I would consider my time on earth to have been well-spent.

    I’m not sure what to call my own view—back in 1990 I called it no-fault naturalism, which is catchy, but not quite accurate: I believe we can and do have faults, but we should not be blamed for those faults. Someone named it reverse semi-compatibilism: the reverse of John Martin Fischer’s semi-compatibilism, which rejects free will while insisting on moral responsibility. Still, I’m hoping to find a name more euphonious than reverse semi-compatibilism. Besides, my own views are not really the opposite of Fischer’s: while we are deeply split on the question of moral responsibility, I have great respect for his insights into the nature of free will (he rejects the libertarian version, not the compatibilist), although I think his genuine insights are focused too narrowly on only one aspect of free will. But in some respects my views really are precisely the opposite of Ryan’s: he wants to eliminate punishment, but keep moral responsibility; while I want to eliminate moral responsibility, but I believe that we cannot eliminate punishment (I would like to eliminate punishment, but I don’t think it will be possible anytime soon, and perhaps never). Still, I don’t think Ryan and I are that far apart on these issues, so Ryan’s essay—like all of his papers—has given me much to ponder.

    Before examining the deeper issues, let me note that I agree with Ryan that we should not define moral responsibility strictly in terms of punishment: for one thing (as Saul notes, and I agree) if there is not justly deserved punishment, then neither is there justly deserved reward. Both may be useful, and both are probably essential: certainly reward—in the form of positive reinforcement, though its use should not be in accordance with just deserts principles (Waller 1989)—is essential and even desirable.

    Ryan proposes the intriguing idea of a system of moral responsibility that is still a system of moral responsibility but a quite different version of that system. He is not offering a revised or watered-down account of moral responsibility: what he champions is not “moral-responsibility-lite.” Instead, he is making a very plausible case for a more rigorous and empirically informed account of where the moral responsibility buck should actually stop: not with the individuals whom we normally blame and punish and hold morally responsible, but with the larger social and historical system that shapes individuals and their characters and their behavior. Ryan’s claim is a very attractive one, and one I endorse: If we are going to take moral responsibility seriously, then we must look deeper and broader at the actual causes and the more basic problems. Robert Harris was a brutal young man, a callous murderer who did terrible things; but rather than the narrow and shallow focus on Robert Harris, we should look deeper at the forces that shaped his horrific character and resulted in his awful acts: at the brutal dysfunctional family in which he grew up, at the school system where he was bullied and taunted and teased, at the juvenile detention system where he was grossly abused. And when we look deeper, we confront Pogo’s disturbing revelation: we have met the enemy, and he is us. If we want to blame, we should blame the system, rather than the individual shaped by the system; if there is to be moral responsibility, it should be collective moral responsibility rather than individual moral responsibility.

    That is a big improvement. Typically, stronger commitment to moral responsibility goes together with stronger commitment to individualism; and in extreme neoliberal societies such as the United States, extreme commitment to moral responsibility partners with “rugged individualism,” as Cavadino and Dignan note.1 That is not really surprising: moral responsibility was designed to justify punitive measures against individuals, and stronger commitment to moral responsibility tends to block deeper inquiry; so the moral responsibility buck stops with the individual, and that discourages deeper inquiry into the systemic causes of individual behavior. An emphasis on systems rather than atomic individuals is beneficial whether we are concerned with assembly line workers, air traffic control, hospital procedures, or the justice system.

    So if we want to keep moral responsibility, a systemic orientation to moral responsibility is much better than an individualistic orientation. But why keep moral responsibility at all, whether individual or collective? Certainly we need to understand the systemic factors that cause problems, and we can understand them better if we get beyond “blaming and shaming” individuals. But what is the benefit of retaining collective or systemic responsibility, as opposed to rejecting moral responsibility altogether? Collectively we made some serious mistakes (we instituted a harshly punitive prison system that destroyed families and communities and forced individuals deeper into the criminal system while brutalizing them and making them worse). But if we blame our society for such bad policies and social structures, does that enhance or inhibit deeper inquiry into the problems? If we as a society are morally responsible for the problem, then the inquiry can stop there (and must stop there if we are to preserve belief in moral responsibility); but if it stops there, we are likely to neglect deeper studies that might aid us in correcting our deep systemic problems: studies that would show why our policies are so bad (perhaps stemming from deep systemic racism that followed from efforts to sustain and justify slavery; or perhaps from some deep religious principles; or perhaps from a deep and largely nonconscious belief in a just world). Belief in moral responsibility—whether individual or collective—inhibits deeper inquiry; and deeper inquiry is precisely what we need to actually fix major social problems.

    Ryan favors the “pure restitution” system proposed by Randy Barnett some forty years ago, and more recently revised and defended in brilliant fashion by David Boonin. I’m not quite convinced that the “pure restitution” system can completely forgo punishment (I fear it still involves some elements of something very like punishment, even if it is not aimed at causing harm). But that’s a tough issue, and one (in a slightly different form) with which Michael Corrado is struggling in a book he is currently writing; and any issue that causes Corrado to struggle is a thorny issue indeed. So suppose we grant that pure restitution is not punishment. Boonin favors that model—or so it seems to me—because in his scrupulous study of the major efforts to find a just basis for punishment, he comes up empty. So because punishment is not just, we must avoid punishing (and we can avoid punishing; for after all—by the sacred principle of ought implies can—if we ought not-punish, then we can not-punish). It seems to me better to face the distressing fact that the world is not just, that there are things we ought to do that we cannot do, and that in our unjust world it will be necessary for us to punish, though the punishment that we must inflict never is and never could be justly deserved.

    But suppose that a pure restitution system can eliminate all necessity of punishment. Then Ryan poses his basic challenge:

    Suppose we could find a way to abolish punishment entirely. . . . Would doing so necessarily mean abandoning moral responsibility as well? In my view, it is a mistake to think so. One can consistently, at least in principle, defend moral responsibility in a basic desert sense while wholly abandoning any commitment to punishment.

    I agree with Ryan’s answer. We might have an amazing religious transformation, and believe that although some people are morally responsible and justly deserve punishment, we have all sinned and none of us is worthy of casting the first stone; and we do not look for God to do it for us, because our god is totally devoted to mercy rather than justice and never punishes. Or perhaps we evolve to be more like our cousins, the bonobos, and instead of punishing behavior that we regard as bad behavior for which the individual is morally responsible and justly deserves punishment, we instead indulge in a wild frenzy of group sex, and we discover that works better than punishment and is more fun besides. And so we could believe in moral responsibility while rejecting all punishment. But then, why should we want to preserve the belief in moral responsibility? Moral responsibility was created to deal with a basic problem: we have a just world governed by a just god, and in this just world we must punish; and so we require a means of making punishment just, and the just deserts of moral responsibility serves that function (furthermore, this just god metes out some horrific punishments, and they must also be just, and the old theological voluntarist line—justice is always and only what God wills—was wearing thin). So if we do not live in a just world, or punishment is not a necessity, then what function is left for moral responsibility? Perhaps moral responsibility would still serve to ennoble us, as Robert Kane sometimes seems to suggest; or maybe moral responsibility would provide special protection for our individual rights, as Saul maintains; or maybe we need moral responsibility to preserve our uniquely human special status. But I cannot see anything left for moral responsibility to do that cannot be done better by a strong commitment to the very different take-charge responsibility; and I see continuing problems with moral responsibility, in impeding deeper inquiry. It would be like keeping sails on a submarine: you could do so, but they no longer serve any function, and they impede progress.

    I agree with Ryan on the value of a systems as opposed to an individualistic approach, and I believe that the systems approach will prove to be an important element in the replacement of the obsolete moral responsibility system. But that requires total rejection of the moral responsibility system, without compromise. Ryan suggests that we could adopt the systems approach, but still save room for moral responsibility: we might not hold air traffic controllers morally responsible for making errors, but we might “hold them morally responsible for reporting errors.” When we stopped holding individuals morally responsible for making errors, we made dramatic improvements in our air traffic control system, because then we looked deeper into the causes of the errors, rather than blocking deeper inquiry by blaming the erroneous individual. If we have a problem with someone failing to report errors, blaming that individual will impede our inquiries into why that individual controller (and probably many other individual controllers) are failing to report errors. If we want to find the deeper causes and solve the problems, we should eliminate moral responsibility all the way down.

    References

    Cavadino, Michael, and James Dignan. “Penal Policy and Political Economy.” Criminology & Criminal Justice 6 (2006) 435–56.

    ———. Penal Systems: A Comparative Approach. London: Sage, 2006.

    Waller, Bruce N. “Denying Responsibility: The Difference It Makes.” Analysis 49 (1989) 44–47.


    1. “Penal Policy and Political Economy,” 448; Penal Systems, 26.

    • Ryan Lake

      Ryan Lake

      Reply

      Reply to Bruce

      I want to start by expressing my deep gratitude to Bruce, both for his generous comments about my work, and for his wonderful, insightful, and challenging contributions to the symposium (and indeed, the same goes for all of the participants in the symposium so far!). The discussions have been fantastic and very enjoyable, and I hope half as edifying for everyone else as they have been for me.

      As Bruce notes, we are in some significant respects on opposite sides of the free will and moral responsibility debate. For me, it is a great joy to interact with someone like Bruce, who, in spite of our differences, is always fair even when he is at his most critical, and who is fantastic at showing where the weak spots in opposing views lie. His response helps me to see some of the kinds of challenges that I need to answer and where my views need to be developed, or perhaps even ultimately revised. And it also makes me hopeful to see that, as far apart as I am from Bruce (as well as Gregg and Farah) about the justifiability of moral responsibility, there seems nonetheless to be a lot of common ground to be found at the practical level about some of the kinds of policies we should pursue and some of the kinds of reforms our own system badly needs.

      For the sake of brevity, I want to focus in particular on a couple of the important challenges that Bruce raises in his response to my essay. In the process, I hope to expand on and clarify my own views a bit, and suggest some possible ways that I think his challenges can be met. First, I am very happy that Bruce finds the idea of a moral responsibility system that moves away from extreme individualism to also hold groups and systems responsibility to be attractive. This is one of the areas where I think we have some important common ground. But this also raises a point I want to clarify – in saying that I favor holding groups responsible, I don’t thereby mean to say that we should abandon individual moral responsibility entirely. In my view, individual moral responsibility in a basic desert sense is still essential (for example, it is a key part of the “pure restitution” model of criminal justice that I find attractive). So in my view it’s not, as Bruce puts it, that “it should be collective moral responsibility rather than individual moral responsibility”. Instead, I would like to see collective moral responsibility *in addition to* individual moral responsibility.

      In other words, what I find indefensible (for many of the reasons that Bruce has powerfully and eloquently expressed, both in this book and elsewhere) is the kind of “rugged individualism” that attributes to individuals *sole* responsibility for their lots in life. A view of moral responsibility that moves beyond the individual and also holds the collective responsible can (and indeed must) recognize the substantial roles that social systems play in determining who we are and how things turn out for us. And it gives us strong reason to understand those causes as thoroughly as possible. So, I think it is possible to avoid Bruce’s legitimate worry that holding individuals morally responsible blocks investigation of the underlying causes and conditions of their behavior – it needn’t do so, as long as we can recognize that the individual isn’t solely responsible.

      The other point I want to discuss briefly is Bruce’s important fundamental challenge to anyone, like me, who wants to maintain any kind of moral responsibility system. Bruce asks, “why keep moral responsibility at all, whether individual or collective?” He goes on to develop the challenge in more detail:

      “Moral responsibility was created to deal with a basic problem: we have a just world governed by a just god, and in this just world we must punish; and so we require a means of making punishment just, and the just deserts of moral responsibility serves that function (furthermore, this just god metes out some horrific punishments, and they must also be just, and the old theological voluntarist line—justice is always and only what God wills—was wearing thin). So if we do not live in a just world, or punishment is not a necessity, then what function is left for moral responsibility?”

      Part of my response to this challenge is negative. I am skeptical of this explanation for why moral responsibility as such exists – though I do think it is a viable explanation for a lot of the peculiar features for *our* ruggedly individualistic, punishment focused version of the moral responsibility system (especially in conjunction with the “strike back” emotion that has been discussed extensively earlier in the Symposium). But the question remains (especially for someone like me who would be happy to do away with punishment entirely) – if moral responsibility doesn’t exist to make punishment just, then what is it for?

      This is a huge question, and in the space here I can only gesture at some answers. A big part of the answer for me is one that Bruce himself mentions – that moral responsibility can help to provide special protection for individual rights. While I agree with Bruce that the world is most certainly not just, I am nonetheless reluctant to embrace a system of criminal justice (whether it involves punishment, or pure restitution, or “quarantine”, etc) in the recognition that the harms that we deliberately inflict on others are not deserved. I worry that this would indeed create the danger of a serious erosion of individual rights. I share some of the worries that Farah raised in her discussion, and I also have concerns here are very much along the same lines as John Lemos discusses at length in his essay, so I’ll leave a more detailed discussion of this concern for a couple of days from now when John’s essay is up in the Symposium.

      Beyond that, I think that moral responsibility has an important role to play in our daily lives, outside of any kind of criminal justice system, especially in grounding and fostering many of the kinds of important reactive attitudes that comprise and enrich our personal relationships. In this, I embrace a broadly Strawsonian view of the nature and function of moral responsibility. While I have no doubts that moral responsibility skeptics like Bruce are quite sincere when they express attitudes like gratitude, I nonetheless worry that a widespread rejection of moral responsibility could erode and diminish such attitudes (and I do have concerns about how consistent we can be in maintaining at least some of those attitudes in light of moral responsibility skepticism). If I am right that we can separate the moral responsibility system itself from the harmful features that our version of it possesses, then I see no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and take that risk.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      More questions than answers

      Ryan, as always you raise excellent questions and important challenges, and I won’t pretend to have adequate answers; but I do have some questions for you and John and Saul — but I’ll place those last. Certainly we are in agreement on the problems with strong commitment to complete individual moral responsibility, and I particularly admire your profound insistence on the wrongness, the deep and terrible wrongness, of punishment. I don’t think we can eliminate it — a point that Saul makes very clear in his reductio argument — but we should never forget that it is a serious wrong, and we should not cease being deeply troubled when we must inflict punishment. I think that serious discomfort is one of the ways we protect against abuse and excessive punishment, and it provides motivation to make punishment minimal as well as rare. But we also need additional safeguards, for there are terrible dangers in the power to punish, and dangers from those who have that power, and we should set strict guidelines and limits and conditions (Michael Corrado’s work is very important in that regard). So I share and applaud Ryan’s deep concern with the dangers of punishment. But where we disagree is on the best ways of protecting against those dangers. It seems to me that there is strong evidence that belief in moral responsibility exacerbates the tendency toward harshness and excessiveness of punishment, and undercuts concern for protection of individual rights. I’m not sure that the idea of moral responsibility had its origins in the desire to find a way to make punishment JUST in what had come to be seen as a just world; but I think one could make a case for that claim (as I read Bernard Williams, that seems to be his view — and cultures that rejected belief in a just world seem to have much less concern with just deserts and moral responsibility). Aristotle had at least a rudimentary account of moral responsibility, but he also believed in a just world. It does seem to me that the big emphasis on individual moral responsibility begins when there is an idea of a JUST and omnipotent God Who metes out severe punishment; and people like Lorenzo Valla and Martin Luther struggle mightily with that problem, and can find no solution (Valla says we should stop raising the question, and Luther says we must rely on faith because it cannot be squared with reason). And then Pico comes along and says we create ourselves by our own choices (God gives that special godlike power to his favorite creatures) and that makes us morally responsible. Pico was a heretic, of course, but the idea took hold, and became a popular solution to a painful problem. So yes, it seems to me that the origin of our contemporary ideas about moral responsibility can be traced to efforts to make punishment justly deserved. But I don’t think that is the whole story about moral responsibility. As I noted in an earlier comment, I think Bob Kane and John Lemos have a concern for moral responsibility and “self-making” that goes far beyond concern for justifying punishment; certainly Saul does as well; and it seems to me that concerns of various sorts can be found in such diverse sources as Dan Dennett, Dostoyevsky, and William James — and of course also in Ryan, and, as he mentions, in Strawson. For Strawson, I think the concern derives from the fear that denying moral responsibility entails treating everyone as severely impaired and incompetent; and that is a misunderstanding of why Gregg and Derk and Neil Levy and myself — and Galen Strawson, as well — favor a universal denial of moral responsibility. But I don’t think that accounts for the concerns of Ryan and John and Saul, and my hope is that we can find ways to deal with those concerns without stressing individual moral responsibility (a hope that I think Ryan shares). Certainly it seems to me that our reactive attitudes can remain healthy and vigorous and rich in the absence of moral responsibility — for example, that we can recognize and condemn vile behavior (without blaming the source of the behavior), and we can recognize and sincerely regret our own flaws and bad behavior, and sincerely apologize for the harms we have caused — and we can do this BETTER and more willingly and just as sincerely and with greater likelihood of fixing the flaws — when we reject moral responsibility. But I still suspect that even if all that were granted (and that would be a substantial grant indeed), Ryan and John and Saul (and Robert Kane and William James) would still insist that something important is lost in the rejection of moral responsibility. So I am particularly grateful (SINCERELY grateful, damn it) to Ryan for raising that question, and eager to hear more from John and Saul on that issue.

John Lemos

Response

Waller, Responsibility Denial, and Punishing the Innocent

Bruce Waller’s The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility (2015) is an engaging, thoughtful, well-researched discussion of the pervasive belief in moral responsibility. Waller offers extensive discussion of why this belief is so common and why he thinks it would not be damaging to jettison it.  Indeed, he not only believes there would be no harm from widespread denial of moral responsibility, he argues that widespread rejection of belief in moral responsibility would be a benefit.  As we see in other works by Waller (1990, 1998, 2011), the argumentation in this book is very well-informed by both the philosophical literature and empirical research in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology.  Unlike Waller, I am not ready to reject the belief in moral responsibility.  I believe that we may well possess a kind of libertarian free will that can ground assertions of moral responsibility, and, like Robert Kane (1996, 2007, 2011) and Mark Balaguer (2010, 2014), I don’t believe this requires mystery and miracles.1  Furthermore, like Saul Smilansky (2000), I think that denial of moral responsibility is more problematic than Bruce Waller thinks it is.  In what follows, I will just develop one particular concern I have with jettisoning the belief in moral responsibility, namely the problems this raises with offering adequate protections of people who have committed no crimes – the problem of punishing the innocent.

In Bruce Waller’s book he argues that no persons are morally responsible for what they do.  Because of this he believes no one deserves punishment for their criminal conduct or wrongdoing.  Nonetheless, he believes that despite the injustice of punishment, we should continue to have a system of punishment, which includes imprisonment of dangerous, violent criminal offenders (Waller 2015, 194-196).  To be clear, Waller is very critical of many penal systems as they exist in the United States today and in many other countries.  He is opposed to the death penalty and harsh prison conditions, such as we see in modern day supermax prisons, and he thinks that many people are doing time in prisons that should instead be placed under house arrest. He also thinks more should be done to offer psychological treatment, counseling, and education for those criminals whom we must detain. According to Waller, to punish people is unjust to them as they do not deserve the harsh treatment which constitutes the punishment.  However, he believes that societies have the right to protect themselves from the harms caused by criminal behavior.  Thus, he sees the punishment of people who do not deserve their punishment as the choice between the lesser of two evils: (a) the allowing of continued suffering of members of society due to criminal conduct or (b) punishing a person who does not deserve to be punished.

According to Waller, to punish people is unjust to them as they do not deserve the harsh treatment which constitutes the punishment.  However, he believes that societies have the right to protect themselves from the harms caused by criminal behavior.  Thus, he sees the punishment of people who do not deserve their punishment as the choice between the lesser of two evils: (a) the allowing of continued suffering of members of society due to criminal conduct or (b) punishing a person who does not deserve to be punished. Waller believes that those punished do not deserve their punishment, but we should continue to punish criminals to protect other members of society.  I have significant concerns that when we jettison the belief in moral responsibility and we think that no one is deserving of punishment, we are then opening the door to a mode of thinking that would justify policies and practices that would lead to the punishing of more people who have committed no crimes.  As shown in Smilansky (1990), it can be plausibly argued that lowering the standards of evidence for criminal convictions would allow us to take more criminals off the streets and this would serve the greater good of society.  As it is now in the United States, criminal convictions require evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Because of this high evidentiary standard, many criminals avoid punishment.  If a lower standard of evidence were used, then more criminals would be convicted and punished.  This would benefit society by reducing the harms caused by crime, the fear of crime, insurance and policing costs, etc.

Waller believes that those punished do not deserve their punishment, but we should continue to punish criminals to protect other members of society.  I have significant concerns that when we jettison the belief in moral responsibility and we think that no one is deserving of punishment, we are then opening the door to a mode of thinking that would justify policies and practices that would lead to the punishing of more people who have committed no crimes.  As shown in Smilansky (1990), it can be plausibly argued that lowering the standards of evidence for criminal convictions would allow us to take more criminals off the streets and this would serve the greater good of society.  As it is now in the United States, criminal convictions require evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.  Because of this high evidentiary standard, many criminals avoid punishment.  If a lower standard of evidence were used, then more criminals would be convicted and punished.  This would benefit society by reducing the harms caused by crime, the fear of crime, insurance and policing costs, etc.The reason we don’t do this is because such a policy would lead to the conviction and sentencing of more innocent people and it is widely believed that it is a grave injustice to punish innocent people for crimes they did not commit.  The innocent are not morally responsible for the crime and so they do not deserve to suffer the punishment for it.  Thus, we require high standards of evidence for criminal convictions.

The reason we don’t do this is because such a policy would lead to the conviction and sentencing of more innocent people and it is widely believed that it is a grave injustice to punish innocent people for crimes they did not commit.  The innocent are not morally responsible for the crime and so they do not deserve to suffer the punishment for it.  Thus, we require high standards of evidence for criminal convictions.However, if, as Waller thinks, no persons are morally responsible for what they do, then no one deserves punishment.  Thus, is it is no more unjust to punish those who have not committed crimes than it is to punish those who have committed crimes.  This being the case and given the additional benefits to society which would arise from lowering the standards of evidence for criminal convictions, we would have little or no reason not to lower the standards of evidence.  In this way it can be argued that the belief that no persons are morally responsible easily leads to insufficient protection of the innocent.

However, if, as Waller thinks, no persons are morally responsible for what they do, then no one deserves punishment.  Thus, is it is no more unjust to punish those who have not committed crimes than it is to punish those who have committed crimes.  This being the case and given the additional benefits to society which would arise from lowering the standards of evidence for criminal convictions, we would have little or no reason not to lower the standards of evidence.  In this way it can be argued that the belief that no persons are morally responsible easily leads to insufficient protection of the innocent.

In his book Waller confronts this suggestion head on, arguing that it is false.  In doing so, he defends both a relevant weak thesis as well as a relevant strong thesis.  The weak thesis states that belief in moral responsibility does not discourage the punishment of the innocent; the strong thesis states that belief in moral responsibility actually contributes to the punishment of innocent people.He argues that the more a culture is committed to individual moral responsibility the more obsessed with punishing it becomes and the less concerned with

He argues that the more a culture is committed to individual moral responsibility the more obsessed with punishing it becomes and the less concerned with protection of the innocent.  Indeed, he contends that belief in moral responsibility is the wrong tool to use in protecting the innocent, “It’s not like using a sledgehammer to drive a nail; it’s more like using gasoline to put out a fire (2015, 223).”  Here Waller makes his strong thesis manifest; he regards the belief in individual moral responsibility as actively contributing to the punishment of innocent people.He notes that in the United States various legal and police tactics are commonly used which are known to be unreliable.  Due to the use of these tactics more innocent people are convicted and punished for crimes they did not commit, yet despite

He notes that in the United States various legal and police tactics are commonly used which are known to be unreliable.  Due to the use of these tactics more innocent people are convicted and punished for crimes they did not commit, yet despite this the government does nothing to stop the use of these tactics.  Among these tactics are: the use of the testimony of jailhouse informants; the use of faulty crime lab techniques; the use of often overworked and sometimes incompetent public defenders; the use of plea bargains; and the suspension of the right of habeas corpus in dealing with suspected terrorists in fighting the “war on terror” (2015, 224-228).  Waller notes that the United States is a country in which it is widely believed that people are morally responsible for their actions and yet in the United States these practices continue to be used while it is known that they lead to the conviction and punishment of many innocent people.  Thus, he concludes that belief in individual moral responsibility does not encourage protection of the innocent from punishment; rather, it actually promotes the punishment of the innocent.

In further support of his position, Waller talks about how the belief in individual moral responsibility makes us believe that criminals deserve to be punished and it makes us eager to see them punished.

When a crime is committed, there is a cry for “justice”; that is, a cry for the punishment of the person who committed the crime, and who clearly – because morally responsible – justly deserves to pay the price.  The more heinous the crime, the stronger the demand for just deserts.  That powerful demand overwhelms concern about whether the person charged is guilty…(Waller 2015, 228).

According to Waller, the belief in moral responsibility leads to belief in just desert and this makes us eager to see criminals punished.  However, he also believes this eagerness often “overwhelms concern about whether the person charged is guilty.”  In this way he thinks the belief in moral responsibility actually promotes punishing the innocent.

As noted above, Waller is defending both the strong thesis that belief in individual responsibility actually contributes to the punishment of the innocent and the weaker thesis that the belief in moral responsibility does not discourage punishment of the innocent.  In what follows, I will show that neither of these theses is well supported by Waller.

Concerning the stronger thesis that the belief in moral responsibility actually contributes to the punishment of the innocent, I would note that Waller provides no significant evidence for this.  He is quite correct that in the United States there is widespread belief in individual responsibility; and, sadly, in the U.S. the problematic use of jailhouse informants is widespread, as is the use of faulty crime lab techniques and the use of overworked and sometimes incompetent public defenders.  It is also true that plea bargains are commonly used and habeas corpus rights have been suspended in dealing with suspected terrorists.  It is true as well that these practices are known to contribute to the conviction and punishment of innocent people and the United States government has made little, or no, effort to change these things.  However, this simply is not evidence that the belief in individual moral responsibility contributes to the punishment of the innocent.  These points do nothing to establish a causal connection between belief in moral responsibility and the use of these practices which lead to the conviction and punishment of many innocent people.  All that we really have here is evidence that in the U.S. where belief in individual moral responsibility is common there is also widespread use of legal practices and crime detection techniques which increase the frequency with which innocent people are convicted and punished.  Such a correlation does not establish causation.

The closest Waller comes to making the case that in the U.S. belief in moral responsibility contributes to punishing of the innocent is when he says, “When a crime is committed there is a cry for ‘justice’; that is a cry for the punishment of the person who committed the crime and who – because morally responsible – justly deserves to pay the price (2015, 228).”  Here, instead of establishing the mere correlation between the prevalence of belief in moral responsibility and the punishing of the innocent, Waller suggests how he thinks the belief in moral responsibility actually contributes to the punishing of the innocent.  The basic idea is that the belief in moral responsibility makes us so strongly desire to see that justice be done by punishing the guilty that we fail to pay sufficient attention to whether those punished are in fact guilty.  The belief in moral responsibility grounds the belief that those who commit crimes should be made to suffer punishment and the latter belief fuels the desire to see that the guilty be punished.  Waller adds the “powerful demand [for just deserts] overwhelms concern about whether the person charged is guilty (2015, 228).”

Here, indeed, there is a causal story being told and not mere clarification of disturbing correlations  And Waller is clearly correct to assert that belief in moral responsibility leads to the belief that those guilty of crimes should be made to suffer punishment and this leads to the desire to see the guilty punished.  However, this by itself does not establish that the belief in moral responsibility contributes to the punishment of innocent people.  To get there one has to add in another factor as Waller does when he asserts that the demand for just deserts overwhelms concern that the charged is guilty.

Now it is true that sometimes people are so eager to see that someone get punished for a crime that they no longer sufficiently attend to or care whether the person punished is in fact guilty.  But when this happens people are not led by the desire that the person who committed the crime be punished; rather, as stated, they are led by the desire to see that someone be punished.  Strictly speaking, it is not the belief in moral responsibility and the consequent desire that those who commit crimes get their just deserts which leads to the punishment of the innocent.  Rather, it is the irrational urge to punish someone whether guilty or not that leads to this.

Nonetheless it still might be thought that what triggers this irrational urge to see that someone whether guilty or not be punished is ultimately the belief in moral responsibility.  The latter belief leads to the belief that someone deserves to pay for his crime.  In this way it could be said that the belief in moral responsibility causally contributes to the punishment of the innocent.  However, to argue in this fashion is highly problematic.  Perhaps it’s true that were it not for the belief in moral responsibility then no one would feel that someone deserves to pay for his crime.  But to then say that this belief encourages the punishment of the innocent doesn’t follow.  After all, one can believe in moral responsibility and remain steadfast in his commitment to seeing to it that only those who are clearly guilty of committing crimes should be punished.  So, the belief in moral responsibility is clearly not sufficient for the urge to punish the innocent.

At best the belief in moral responsibility may be one of the background beliefs that leads some people to end up punishing innocent people.  But this is a very weak claim.  Consider by analogy that were it not for the belief that Jews exist there would have been no Holocaust.  But do we want to establish some causal connection between this belief and the Holocaust?  Were it not for the belief that Jews exist, then I suppose the Holocaust would not have occurred.  However, to get from this belief to the occurrence of the Holocaust requires the addition of so many other factors that the causal link between the belief that Jews exist and the occurrence of the Holocaust is extremely minimal.  So, too, there is a lot more going on that leads to the punishment of the innocent than the belief in moral responsibility.  So much more in fact that the causal link between this belief and the punishment of the innocent is minimal.

It is not at all clear that the belief in moral responsibility triggers the irrational desire that someone – whether guilty or innocent – must be punished.  Interestingly, in his book Waller himself puts his own finger on a relevant rival account of how this irrational urge might arise.  In Ch.3 “The Strike-Back Roots of Moral Responsibility” he talks about how human beings have an urge to strike at others when they have been wronged or threatened in some way; and he says there is also empirical evidence of this in other animals.  He notes how oftentimes in human beings this urge to strike back when wronged or threatened is directed at those who’ve wronged us or threatened us, but just as often it is directed at others who pose no threat or who’ve done no wrong.  He notes how this tendency has been identified in nonhuman animals as well, and he talks about how being wronged or threatened creates damaging stress for us that we alleviate by lashing out at others whether they deserve it or not.

Contra Waller, what I want to suggest here is that the tendency of human beings to punish the innocent is more likely a product of this irrational urge to strike back which we share with nonhuman animals than it is a product of belief in moral responsibility.  When someone in our community has been harmed through crime, this creates stress in us as it does among other communal animals.  Suppose we cannot know for sure who has committed the wrong.  Even so, the stress is there along with the urge to strike back.  The urge is strong, and we want to satisfy it so strongly that we are willing to convict and punish someone without sufficient evidence of their guilt.  Notice that here the belief in moral responsibility doesn’t drive the punishment of the innocent.  Rather, it is the animal urge to strike back whether those we strike are guilty or not.

As noted Waller’s strong thesis is that the belief in moral responsibility contributes to the punishment of the innocent.  But much of what he says just shows that in the United States where belief in moral responsibility is common the innocent are frequently punished and in the United States many legal and police tactics known to contribute to the punishment of the innocent persist.  None of this shows that the belief in moral responsibility contributes to punishing the innocent.  When Waller does get around to forwarding a causal hypothesis on the issue, he suggests that the strong desire to see that someone be made to suffer for his wrongdoing overwhelms the careful consideration of whether the accused is guilty.  In this way he thinks the belief in moral responsibility contributes to the punishment of the innocent.  However, as I’ve shown not even this makes a convincing case that the belief in moral responsibility contributes to punishing the innocent.  Rather, as Waller himself argues, there is a common and powerful urge in human beings and even in many nonhuman species to strike back or lash out when one is wronged or threatened.  It may not be the belief in moral responsibility that leads to the punishment of the innocent, rather it may be this irrational urge which we share with nonhuman animal species.  This rival hypothesis is just as plausible as Waller’s hypothesis.  Thus, Waller gives us no good reason to think that belief in moral responsibility contributes to the punishment of the innocent.

Interestingly, I would note that if my rival hypothesis is correct then instead of contributing to the punishing of the innocent the belief in moral responsibility actually helps discourage the punishing of the innocent.  For suppose we do have this common and strong urge to strike back or lash out when harmed or threatened; and we are inclined to do this as it helps relieve our stress.  As Waller himself notes, many humans as well as many animals will lash out at the innocent to relieve their stress.  What I want to suggest is that if all of this is correct, then, rather than contributing to the punishing of the innocent, the belief in moral responsibility and recognizing it as the ground for just desert and justified punishment actually discourages the punishing of the innocent.  The belief in moral responsibility and the recognition that it is the basis for just desert may actually be what keeps many of us from lashing out at others in inappropriate ways.

Imagine that I’ve been treated badly at work by my boss.  I am stressed and I’d like to relieve this stress by striking back at him, but I know that would only make matters worse.  I come home stressed and my wife and children annoy me, and I want to lash out at them.  Perhaps what keeps me from doing so is my recognition that they are not morally responsible for any wrongdoing and, thus, deserve no harsh treatment.  Or imagine that I am a member of a jury dealing with a trial in the case of a terrible rape or murder, and I know that I and members of the jury and the broader community would love to see someone punished for this.  But remembering that people are morally responsible for their deeds and that only those morally responsible for bad deeds deserve to be punished, I am hesitant to convict the accused as the evidence of his guilt is insufficient.  Contra Waller, there is some pretty good reason to think that the belief in moral responsibility actually plays a significant role in discouraging the punishment of the innocent.

Let me remind the reader that Waller claims not only (1) that belief in moral responsibility does not discourage punishment of the innocent, but also (2) that belief in moral responsibility actually encourages the punishment of the innocent.  Much of what I have said in this section has been intended to undermine his case for (2), the stronger thesis; but the preceding paragraph contributes to the case against (1) – his weaker thesis.  In the preceding paragraph I suggest that belief in moral responsibility and recognizing its connection to justified punishment may actually be what keeps many of us from lashing out at innocent people in unjustified ways.

Waller will most likely reject this, as in his book he states, “One might logically suppose that those most insistent on moral responsibility and justified punishment would be most careful about finding the guilty party and being certain of that guilt; empirically, the opposite is the case (2015, 228).”  He thinks there’s too much empirical evidence against the hypothesis that belief in moral responsibility discourages the punishing of the innocent.  Again, if it did discourage this then why is it that in the United States where there is such a widespread and strong commitment to individual moral responsibility it is so common to find innocent people in prison and such a willingness to allow faulty legal and police tactics to persist when we know they often result in the punishment of the innocent?  According to Waller, if the belief in moral responsibility discouraged punishing the innocent, then this would not happen.

However, such a retort to my argument would be problematic.  Above I explain how it is that belief in moral responsibility and recognition of its connection to justified punishment serves as a corrective that keeps many people from lashing out at the innocent.  The mere fact that in the United States where belief in individual moral responsibility is common and yet many innocent people are punished and the government does nothing to stop the use of faulty tactics which lead to this is no evidence that the belief in moral responsibility does not discourage punishing the innocent.  Perhaps there would be even more punishment of the innocent if we didn’t believe that people are responsible.  Additionally, it is certainly possible that the belief in moral responsibility discourages the punishment of the innocent in the way I’ve suggested, while in the United States there are other values and beliefs at play that explains why it is nonetheless the case that many faulty legal and police tactics continue to be used and many innocent people get punished.

What I want to suggest is that while belief in moral responsibility is a corrective that discourages punishment of the innocent, other factors are at work in our society which leads us to engage in the use of legal and police tactics which are faulty and, thus, contribute to the punishment of the innocent.  While we value justice and only want to see the guilty punished for crimes, we also want to be secure in our persons and property.  This desire for safety and security against criminal threats can make us blind to the dangers posed by certain legal and police tactics that can lead to the punishment of innocent people.  Contributing to this blindness are systemic racism and classism.  Large segments of the population are not likely to be one of the accused innocent; the latter are more likely to be poor or nonwhite.  Thus, we are disinclined to be as concerned for those who will be unjustly punished.

Consider how Waller cites the United States government’s suspension of the right to habeas corpus in dealing with terror suspects as part of the war on terror.  He considers this as part of the evidence that belief in moral responsibility does not contribute to protection of the innocent.  But, as I have argued, the belief in moral responsibility may well contribute to protection of the innocent, while other causal factors may override this concern.  In the case of the war on terror, we are so concerned with our own security and safety and so little concerned with those who don’t look like us or speak our language or share our values that we are willing to overlook our concern for protecting the innocent.

In this essay I’ve tried to show that when philosophers, such as Waller, say that we lack moral responsibility in the basic desert sense and then they endorse the detention of violent criminals for the protection of society, they are forwarding a view that is morally problematic in significant respects.2  In particular, I have argued that such a view will have a very hard time explaining why we should not enact policies and procedures, such as lowering the evidentiary standards for criminal conviction, which would lead to the detention of more innocent people who have committed no crimes.  To enact policies and endorse procedures which we know will lead to more occasions in which innocent people are punished is to show insignificant concern for the dignity and worth of individual human beings.  As such, we should have deep moral reservations about the position of responsibility deniers who endorse the detention of violent criminals.

References

Balaguer, M. (2010).  Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem.  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

—-. (2014).  “Replies to McKenna, Pereboom, and Kane,” Philosophical Studies 169: 71-92.

Caruso, G.  2016.  “Free Will Skepticism and Criminal Behavior: A Public Health-Quarantine Model,” Southwest Philosophy Review 32 (1).

Kane, R.  1996.  The significance of free willNew York: Oxford University Press.

—-.  2007a. “Libertarianism.” In J.M. Fishcher, R. Kane, D. Pereboom, and M. Vargas, Four Views on Free Will.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp.5-43.

—-.  2011.  “Rethinking free will: new perspectives on an ancient problem.”  In R. Kane, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will.  New York: Oxford University Press, pp.381-404.

Lemos, J. (2007).  “Kanian Freedom and the Problem of Luck.”  Southern Journal of Philosophy 45: 515-532.

—-. (2011a). “Wanting, Willing, Trying and Kane’s Theory of Free Will.”  Dialectica 65: 31-48.

—-. (2011b). “Kane’s Libertarian Theory and Luck: A Reply to Griffith.”  Philosophia 39: 357-367.

—-. (2013).  “Hardheartedness and Libertarianism.”  Philo 16: 180-195.

—-. (2014). “Libertarianism and Free Determined Decisions.  Metaphilosophy 45: 675-688.

—-. (2015). “Self-forming Acts and the Grounds of Responsibility.”  Philosophia 43: 135-146.

—-. (under review).  “Moral Concerns About Responsibility Denial and the Quarantine of Violent Criminals.”

Pereboom, D. 2001.  Living Without Free Will.  (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

—-. 2014.  Free Will, Agency, and Meaning in Life.  (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Smilansky, S.  1990.  “Utilitarianism and the ‘Punishment’ of the Innocent: The General Problem.”  Analysis 50: 256-261.

—-.  2000.  Free Will and Illusion.  Oxford University Press.

Waller, B.  1990.  Freedom Without Responsibility.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

—-.  1998.  The Natural Selection of Autonomy. Albany: SUNY Press.

—-.  2011.  Against Moral Responsibility.  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

—-.  2015.  The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility.  (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

 

 


  1. [1] For some of my defenses and discussions of the libertarian view, see Lemos (2015, 2014, 2013, 2011a, 2011b, 2007.)

  2.  I should note here it is not just Waller that runs in to this problem.  Derk Pereboom (2001, 2014) and Gregg Carruso (2016) also deny that we are morally responsible and they too support the detention of violent criminals.  In my “Moral Concerns About Responsibility Denial and the Quarantine of Violent Criminals (under review),” I argue that their views suffer from the same problem.

  • Bruce Waller

    Bruce Waller

    Reply

    Response to John Lemos

    John Lemos is one of those special philosophers who is not only honest concerning the weak points in the views he favors, but is genuinely eager to expose the weakest points in his position to the sunshine of philosophical inquiry: he is truly more interested in getting philosophical issues right than in being right. That is a rare and wonderful philosophical trait, and one I associate especially with our mutual friend Robert Kane. Many of us strive for that level of clarity and insight into our own views and their weaknesses; but in the delightful rough and tumble world of philosophical debate, we are sorely tempted to put forward the strongest version of our own positions we can muster, and provide as much cover as we can for our vulnerabilities. Mea culpa. John seems immune to such temptations, which is an admirable philosophical quality indeed. On the other hand, his unblinkered honesty in revealing the weakest points when dealing with the positions he advocates also gives him a keen eye for spotting vulnerabilities in the views of those with whom he disagrees. And when one’s own view is the subject of that keen probing eye, John’s virtues do not seem quite so admirable. Nonetheless, John’s critique is especially welcome: for those of us who wish to utterly destroy moral responsibility, beat down its walls, and sow salt in its fields, it is very valuable to get a clear view of the weakest points in our campaign.

    John could no doubt develop a wide range of critical points against the moral responsibility abolitionist project, and he has done so in the course of several very enjoyable and enlightening conversations. But here he focuses on one, and it is a serious challenge indeed to the claims made in The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. That book, as Saul Smilansky makes clear, is aimed at not only answering the common charge that the denial of moral responsibility would undermine respect for basic rights and important protections (such as the protection of the innocent) and human dignity, but goes further in claiming that the strong belief in moral responsibility endangers such rights and protections; and while some philosophical argument is offered for that claim, it rests primarily on empirical investigation. It is precisely the plausibility of that empirical analysis that John challenges, and challenges vigorously, on two levels: first, the milder claim that moral responsibility does not protect rights and liberties; and then the stronger claim that moral responsibility threatens rights and liberties.

    The crux of John’s argument is that when we do away with moral responsibility, then “it is no more unjust to punish those who have not committed crimes than it is to punish those who have committed crimes.” Actually, I think it would be “more unjust to punish those who have not committed crimes” because we would be doing so arbitrarily, without the need or necessity to punish that person. In my view, punishment is sometimes necessary, but it is always unjust; but it does not follow that some injustices are not worse than others. It was unjust (though necessary) to lock up Robert Harris for our protection; it was a greater injustice to execute him, and it would be a greater injustice to lock up John Lemos (who poses no threat, except perhaps to moral responsibility abolitionists) than to lock up Robert Harris, who certainly did pose a threat. But leaving that aside, John continues with a further claim: “This being the case and given the additional benefits to society which would arise from lowering the standards of evidence for criminal convictions, we would have little or no reason not to lower the standards of evidence.” But I don’t see why that would follow. First, I think there would be few benefits and great harm from “lowering the standards of evidence for criminal convictions”: we would be causing harm to people we have no good reason to harm; we would greatly increase the fear of being punished arbitrarily due to a mistaken conviction; such punitive measures might well fuel deep resentment (and since those mistakenly locked up do not threaten us or need rehabilitative measures) there is no real benefit to subjecting them to punishment; and finally, we would lose or weaken some of the protections (protections we certainly need) against the excessive use of coercion by those in positions of power. But perhaps most important, if we sincerely believe that all punishment is unjust, that is not likely to encourage us to employ more punishment, but considerably less: there would be strong incentive to minimize our participation in what we acknowledge to be injustice.

    On one point that John mentions, I certainly should have been clearer: the connection between the “strike-back” motive and moral responsibility. I don’t think moral responsibility causes the strike-back desire (after all, that desire is found in many animals that have no conception of moral responsibility). Rather, the strike-back desire is the deep basis of the belief in moral responsibility: belief in moral responsibility was concocted to confer legitimacy on the satisfaction of primitive strike-back desires. John writes:

    Contra Waller, what I want to suggest here is that the tendency of human beings to punish the innocent is more likely a product of this irrational urge to strike back which we share with nonhuman animals than it is a product of belief in moral responsibility. . . . The urge is strong, and we want to satisfy it so strongly that we are willing to convict and punish someone without sufficient evidence of their guilt. Notice that here the belief in moral responsibility doesn’t drive the punishment of the innocent. Rather, it is the animal urge to strike back whether those we strike are guilty or not.

    The strike-back urge is strong, and—as the many studies of displaced aggression show—not very careful about what it targets. So ultimately the strike-back urge is the motive for harsh punitive measures, whether those punished are guilty or innocent. But it is belief in moral responsibility that makes this strike-back desire feel like justified righteous retribution, and adds fuel to the strike-back fire. And belief in moral responsibility and righteous retribution blocks the deeper deliberative inquiries that would mitigate our deep strike-back emotions1 and place constraints on the punitive passion. Those who believe strongly in individual moral responsibility and those who have much weaker or no commitment to moral responsibility certainly feel the strike-back motive with equal force. But evidence shows that in cultures where belief in moral responsibility is strongest, the strike-back motive is more often viewed as a legitimate guide to conduct (and the belief that someone justly deserves to suffer exacerbates the deep desire to inflict suffering by giving it the imprimatur of righteous retribution, and concerns with who is punished are often overwhelmed); whereas in cultures that have less commitment to moral responsibility, there is a tendency to look deeper at the causes of the source of pain, and that deliberative step tempers the strong strike-back desire and facilitates better control of that desire. Belief in moral responsibility legitimizes the strike-back desire, and may exacerbate it; but it does not cause the strike-back desire; instead, the strike-back desire is the deep basis of belief in moral responsibility.

    John makes an important point, to which I have given insufficient attention in my attacks on the moral responsibility system. As John states:

    As Waller himself notes, many humans as well as many animals will lash out at the innocent to relieve their stress. What I want to suggest is that if all of this is correct, then, rather than contributing to the punishing of the innocent, the belief in moral responsibility and recognizing it as the ground for just desert and justified punishment actually discourages the punishing of the innocent. The belief in moral responsibility and the recognition that it is the basis for just desert may actually be what keeps many of us from lashing out at others in inappropriate ways.

    The honor code was probably an improvement over indiscriminate violence. When you suffered harm under the honor code, you could certainly take it out on the innocent (an innocent friend or family member of the person who harmed you, for example), but you couldn’t just attack anyone handy; and moral responsibility is certainly an improvement over the honor code, placing still more restrictions—at least in principle—on who could be attacked in response to suffering. So in comparison to an honor culture, or a setting in which there are no restrictions whatsoever on who can be attacked when one is harmed, the moral responsibility system is better; and no doubt it has prevented some attacks on the innocent. But it has become obsolete, there are better systems available, and the moral responsibility culture stands in the way of such improvements. While moral responsibility is better than the honor system, and better than nothing, and while it prevents some harms, it is also the source of great harms; and with our better understanding of cultures and behavior, we can do better—and some societies are already doing much better, without strong belief in moral responsibility. At this point, those who have less commitment to moral responsibility are less likely to punish the innocent—and indeed, less likely to impose extremely harsh and massive levels of punishment.

    The key part of John’s argument starts here: “Concerning the stronger thesis that the belief in moral responsibility actually contributes to the punishment of the innocent, I would note that Waller provides no significant evidence for this.” I claim that at this point strong belief in moral responsibility is toxic, that it poses a substantial threat to respect for basic rights and liberties, and that it promotes (rather than prevents) punishment of the innocent; and certainly I cannot offer conclusive randomized control experimental proof of that claim. However, I do believe there is “significant evidence” for it. In some respects, the situation is similar to that posed by the difficulty in finding conclusive proof for the health hazards of smoking. We couldn’t run the ideal randomized control experiment to settle that issue: we could not randomly divide a large group of fifteen-year-old research subjects, and require the experimental group to smoke a pack a day while the control group uses no tobacco whatsoever. Aside from the ethical problems with such a study, we don’t have a workable placebo for cigarette smoking, and so the study could not be blind. Likewise, we cannot take two societies that are comparable in every respect except that our experimental society rejects moral responsibility while the control society favors it. Still, we were eventually able to provide powerful evidence that smoking is hazardous to health. Likewise I believe that we also have powerful evidence that belief in moral responsibility is hazardous to individual rights and liberties, and to protection of the innocent.

    The evidence can be found in three areas of comparison: large-scale cultural comparisons; comparisons of subcultures within larger cultures; and comparisons of changing cultures. Correlation does not prove causation, as John correctly notes; but systematic and consistent correlation, when we have eliminated as many confounding variables as possible, does give strong evidence of causation. When we found a consistent pattern of higher cancer levels in smokers, and higher levels of cancer among urban smokers than among urban nonsmokers, and higher levels of cancer among blue-collar smokers than among blue-collar nonsmokers, and higher levels of cancer among women that corresponded with the increasing number of women smoking, then we had significant proof that smoking was carcinogenic.

    First, consider the contrast between cultures with weak commitment to moral responsibility (such as the social democratic corporatist culture found in Norway) and cultures with strong commitment to moral responsibility (such as the neo-liberal US culture). The United States not only punishes at a much higher rate and much more severely (with supermax isolation and capital punishment) but also convicts the innocent at a frightening pace, using methods—lying jailhouse informants, harsh threats of very severe punishment if the defendant refuses to plead guilty to a lesser charge, grossly inadequate legal representation for the poor, a bail system that jails poor defendants for months or even years until their trial date, lies to suspects about nonexistent “incriminating evidence” to pressure them into accepting plea deals—that are regarded as grossly unfair and unethical in Norway (and in most European countries). Canada is considerably closer to the minimal moral responsibility position favored by social democratic corporatist cultures, and a case of mistaken conviction in Canada—established by DNA evidence—prompted a major inquiry into what went wrong leading to the conviction of this innocent man. When it was found that a major factor in the conviction was the perjured testimony of two jailhouse informants, the use of jailhouse informants was essentially banned in Canada. The hundreds of cases of wrongful conviction in the United States have prompted no such outrage and no such inquiry; the knowledge that many of those convictions of the innocent were based on the lies of jailhouse informants has not led to any reduction in the prosecutorial use of such obviously and grossly perjured testimony.

    Second, consider the contrasts within the United States. In Texas—where belief in moral responsibility and rugged individualism and harsh punishment reaches its apex—concern for protecting the innocent reaches its nadir. Capital defendants are systematically assigned “public defenders” who are notorious for alcohol abuse, and many of these “defenders” are subsequently disbarred; in some particularly notorious cases, counsel for the defense slept through much of the trial. The case of Cameron Todd Willingham—convicted and ultimately executed for the arson murder of his children—is a painful example. The evidence against Willingham was ridiculous, provided by “investigators” with little or no knowledge of the forensic investigation of arson, and by a jailhouse informant (who received a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony) who has since recanted his testimony. After his conviction, dozens of world-class experts investigated the case and concluded that the fire was clearly accidental in origin; but none of this mattered to Texas or Texas governor Rick Perry, and they proceeded to execute an innocent man: the death of the children was terrible, and someone had to be punished for it, and it didn’t much matter if that person was guilty or innocent.

    Third, consider what happens when a culture moves toward a stronger commitment to moral responsibility, as has occurred in England over the past few decades as it has moved steadily toward neo-liberalism. In England, the presumption of innocence was celebrated as the golden thread of British justice: no defendant was under any obligation to testify or answer questions or provide an alibi; the burden of proof rested entirely on the prosecution. But as the commitment to moral responsibility intensified, there was increasing concern that “too many guilty people are hiding behind the right to silence”; now, if a suspect or defendant refuses to answer questions, refuses to testify, and does not offer an alibi, the judge will instruct the jury that the failure to answer questions or offer testimony can be considered evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

    John does not deny these disturbing facts, but he suggests there may be other explanations for them. The key factor is not the difference in levels of commitment to moral responsibility, but instead the causal factors are differences in individualism, or classism, or racism; or it is not the belief in moral responsibility that accounts for the high levels of conviction of the innocent, but rather the “desire for safety and security against criminal threats can make us blind to the dangers posed by certain legal and police tactics that can lead to the punishment of innocent people.” But the desire for safety and security is universal, and cannot account for the dramatic difference. Certainly we find racism and classism in the United States, but we do not have a monopoly on either. In England classism remains strong, but at the same time the commitment to moral responsibility was growing stronger (under the increasing influence of neo-liberalism) the classism was becoming somewhat weaker. In the United States, while the “Reagan revolution” and the neo-liberal commitment to law and order and stronger self-reliance and deeper commitment to moral responsibility was growing stronger, racism—while certainly not disappearing—was becoming less powerful and pervasive. The United States has an extremely high level of conviction of the innocent. By my lights the most plausible explanation for that distressing phenomenon is the extremely strong and widespread commitment to moral responsibility found in the United States. The available evidence does not conclusively establish that causal relation; but it is strong enough to shift the burden of proof to those who believe moral responsibility protects the innocent.

    In the United States, high levels of bail imprison poor people for long periods before trial, lying jailhouse informants commit perjury in exchange for reduced charges, systemic lies to suspects are standard police procedure, bad forensics labs and methods are rampant, plea bargains are compelled with terrible threats, people remain in prison long after evidence has been found establishing their innocence, and we discover case after case of mistaken conviction: this is the protection of the innocent afforded by moral responsibility. Suppose before going to the beach I buy what is represented to be a powerful sunscreen, and slather it liberally over my body; after an hour of reading a trashy but engrossing crime novel, I suddenly discover that I am severely sunburned. I return to the sunscreen purveyor, complaining that using his product I was severely burned. “The sunscreen I sold you is very effective,” he assures me; “without that sunscreen, you would have burned even worse.” Even if I believe that could be true, I would want to find a better product. When it comes to moral responsibility, better products are now available.

    References

    Indermaur, David, et al. “A Matter of Judgment: The Effect of Information and Deliberation on Public Attitudes to Punishment.” Punishment & Society 14 (2012) 147–65.

     


    1. [1] Indermaur et al., “Matter of Judgment.”

    • John Lemos

      John Lemos

      Reply

      My Response to Waller

      Let me begin by thanking Ryan Lake for inviting me to be a part of this symposium. I’ve enjoyed the discussions so far, and I am looking forward to more of it. Also, let me thank Bruce Waller for his friendship, his many fine philosophical works over the years, and his comments on my response to his recent book, The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. Bruce and I disagree on many issues, but I have always enjoyed studying his work as it is always so clear, thoughtful, and engaging.

      One of the central points I was trying to make in my response to Waller is that if we believe no one is morally responsible for their actions, then we may too easily be led to embrace policies that will not provide enough protection for innocent people who’ve committed no crimes. Now, why is this? First, like Waller, I believe that even if no one is morally responsible and thus no one deserves punishment, we will still need a system of criminal detention/punishment for dangerous, violent criminal offenders. Waller believes that, while undeserved, the detention of dangerous criminal offenders is justified to protect society. He is right that if no one deserves punishment then the detention of criminals must be grounded in society’s right to self-protection. However, the problem is that traditionally the reason why society’s right to self-protection does not allow punishing the innocent is because people are presumed to be morally responsible for their actions, meaning that only those who’ve committed crimes and deserve punishment should be punished. To punish those who’ve committed no crimes is unjust, since they don’t deserve it.

      But, now, if we believe no one is morally responsible, then criminal offenders don’t deserve punishment any more than law-abiding citizens. Yet, we still believe that the right to self-protection justifies detaining certain people for the protection of society. Again, we’ve traditionally thought that only offenders deserve detention, so only they should be detained. But if we now say that no one deserves it while acknowledging that some folks must be detained to protect society, then the question arises anew as to whom to detain. Should it only be offenders? Or should we detain some non-offenders too?

      Invoking an argument from Saul Smilansky (1990), I maintained that if no one is regarded as morally responsible and deserving of punishment and if the point of punishment is the protection of society, then there may be good reason to lower the standards of evidence for criminal convictions. This would enable society to convict and detain/punish more dangerous criminals, offering more protection. At the same time, lowering the standards of evidence would mean that some more innocent people would be convicted of crimes they didn’t commit than are currently being convicted using a higher standard of evidence.

      Notice here that fans of Waller’s view cannot object to this on the ground that it is unjust to punish those who’ve committed no crimes since they don’t deserve it. For on his view no one deserves detention/punishment. It is also unjust to detain criminal offenders, but we do so anyway to protect society. Further, if no one is morally responsible and deserving of anything, then I don’t see what the reason is for not lowering the evidentiary standards to provide for better protection even if it means some more innocent people will be detained.

      Now in the third paragraph of his reply to my comments, Waller objects that it is more unjust to punish those who’ve committed no crimes than it is to punish those who have. Since we shouldn’t increase the amount of injustice more than is necessary, we shouldn’t then enact policies, such as lowering the standards of evidence for criminal conviction, which will lead to the punishment of more innocent people. But here we must ask why it is more unjust to punish those who’ve committed no crimes. Since no one is morally responsible, it cannot reasonably be argued that they deserve it any less than those who’ve committed crimes. Waller suggests it is more unjust to punish the innocent “because we would be doing so arbitrarily, without the need or necessity to punish that person.” But on my argument the proposal is to lower the standards of evidence to provide more protection from crime. Admittedly, some more innocent people will be convicted and punished, but a lot more criminals will be convicted and punished. The need is to protect society better and the conviction and punishment of noncriminals here will not be arbitrary, for they will have been found guilty in a court of law using a lower standard of evidence, such as the simple preponderance of evidence used in civil cases.

      Later, in the same paragraph Waller says, “But perhaps most important, if we sincerely believe that all punishment is unjust, that is not likely to encourage us to employ more punishment, but considerably less: there would be strong incentive to minimize our participation in what we acknowledge to be injustice.” He doesn’t think it reasonable to believe his view could lead to a lowering of evidentiary standards for criminal conviction. His view is that all punishment is unjust. Since we should avoid injustice as much as possible then in protecting society we should do so while seeking to convict and punish fewer persons not more of them.

      Here I will make a couple of comments. First, yes, it’s true that we should seek to minimize injustice. But this is what lowering the standards of evidence for criminal conviction would be designed to do. Criminal conduct is perpetrated on people who don’t deserve to be beaten, raped, murdered, robbed from, etc. This is unjust. By lowering the standards of evidence, more criminals would be convicted and removed from society, reducing the number of injustices caused by their crimes. Second, the point of detention/punishment is to protect society. On Waller’s view, no one deserves punishment. To insist on using a higher bar of evidence to help insure that only actual criminals are detained in our attempt to protect society could itself be seen as a kind of unjustified discrimination against the criminals of society. Why should they be the only one’s singled out for detention in a society’s self-protection program, if better protection would involve using a lower bar of evidence? After all, they are no more deserving of punishment than anyone else. Couldn’t it be seen as discrimination against the criminal element of society to be so concerned with detaining only those we have the highest evidence for believing to be criminals?

      Now, in the comments above and in my original response to Waller’s book, I make the argument that the “no responsibility” thesis may help justify the endorsement of policies which do not provide enough protection of the innocent. Waller argues at length in his book that such is not the case. In doing so, he is led to discuss what he calls “strike-back” emotions. The strike-back emotion is a powerful urge making us want to lash out at others when we ourselves or our family or community members have been wronged. This emotion can lead us to lash out at others who haven’t done anything wrong. Waller also thinks that, when combined with our strike-back emotions, the belief in moral responsibility makes us more willing to punish the innocent.

      As I said in my initial response to Waller, I find this odd. It seems to me that the belief in moral responsibility would temper the strike-back emotions. After all, because of our capacity for moral responsibility, only those responsible for wrongdoing deserve punishment. Thus, bearing this in mind, I should be reluctant to lash out at others until I know they are responsible for what I perceive as wrongdoing. It seems to me that recognizing that we are morally responsible beings who should only be treated harshly or punished if deserving of it would lead us to be cautious, punishing only those whom we know to be guilty.

      But Waller disagrees, noting that in the United States, where the belief in individual responsibility is commonplace, the punishment of the innocent and excessive punishment for lesser crimes are also commonplace. In contrast, he notes that in countries where there is less of a sense of individual responsibility, societies are less punitive and fewer innocent people are punished. Waller thinks these facts suggest our belief in moral responsibility leads to excessive punishments and the punishment of the innocent.

      As Waller notes, I’ve argued that perhaps it is not our belief in moral responsibility which leads to these horrible results but that it is an overzealous desire to reduce crime combined with classism and racism. Having read Ryan Lake’s response to Waller, I’m now inclined to think that our individualism probably contributes to our being an excessively punitive society too. Not enough of us in the United States take into account the role of social, cultural, economic, and biological factors that play a role in shaping our character before passing judgment on others.

      Maybe Waller is right that it is the belief in moral responsibility that’s the source of the problem, but I remain unconvinced. He mentions that the desire for safety and security cannot help explain the excessively punitive culture in the United States, since all cultures desire safety and security. But, at the same time, not all cultures are as violent and crime-ridden as ours, and this may play a role in explaining why it is that in the U.S. we are so inclined to excess when it comes to punishment. He also mentions that in the United States more excessive punitive measures increased in the Reagan era, while racism was becoming “less powerful and pervasive.” I suppose overt racism of the kind we see at Klan rallies was on the decline, but I suspect that to this day there remain significant amounts of unintentional, non-overt racism that makes us unsympathetic with and unintentionally biased against those we don’t identify with racially, religiously, culturally, etc. This too can play a significant role in explaining our tendency in the U.S. to be overly punitive and too quick to convict based on shoddy evidence. Thus, keeping in mind that the United States is a more violent country with higher crime rates and more racially diverse and more committed to individualism, as Ryan Lake notes, then it may be that these are the more likely sources of our being overly punitive than our belief in moral responsibility.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Further response to John Lemos

      If one MUST have opposition to one’s views — and gee whiz, I had hoped that by now there would have been a mass conversion to rejection of moral responsibility — one could hardly hope for an opponent as fair, congenial, and insightful as John Lemos. John raises many important issues, but one of the most important is the question of protection of the innocent from prosecution and imprisonment, and whether problems would become worse if we abandon moral responsibility. It is true that (when we totally abandon belief in moral responsibility) then no one just deserves punishment — and that includes no one justly deserving quarantine, or any other form of detention or (as Michael Corrado prefers) correction. We should never lose sight of — nor sugarcoat — the deeply disturbing fact that detention of ANYONE is ALWAYS UNJUST; though it may be unavoidable (and “justified” though never just). That necessity forces us to confront the painful fact that we do NOT live in a just world, and we must sometimes be involved in injustice. I think that the painful recognition of that fact will push us to minimize the use of any form of punishment, and seek better ways of preventing behavior that we now must deal with through detention. John shares the fear felt by Saul, that without a strong distinction between innocent and guilty, there will be greater erosion of protections against punishing those who have not committed crimes. John emphasizes this point, suggesting that — to protect against crimes by criminals — we might be more willing to lower the standards of evidence in order to lock away more of those who will otherwise commit crimes, even at the cost of wrongly convicting more people who did not and would not commit crimes — after all, there is no real difference between the innocent and the perpetrator. But without moral responsibility, the need to protect against the police power of the state remains very important, and I see no reason to suppose that we would have less concern about such dangers, and so would still need strong restrictions against punishing people who have not violated the law. But more importantly, in the absence of belief in moral responsibility we could take more effective measures to reduce the harms suffered by criminal behavior. In particular, we would be able to look much harder and deeper at the real causes of criminal behavior and fix them (rather than insisting that it is strictly the INDIVIDUAL who is at fault). Furthermore, if we want to study a society that locks up innocent individuals in enormous numbers, we should look at the society — the U.S. — that has the greatest commitment to moral responsibility. DNA testing has freed hundreds of people (many from death row) who were wrongly convicted, and there are obviously thousands more where no such evidence is available; but that does not cause outrage over convicting the innocent. We know that jailhouse informants provide perjured testimony EVERY DAY in courts all over the U.S., leading to wrongful convictions (of those freed by DNA evidence, about half had been convicted on the basis of jailhouse informant testimony, which everyone in the U.S. justice system knows full well is perjured testimony bought in exchange for reduced charges). In Canada, an inquiry into the wrongful conviction of Thomas Sophonow — using perjured jailhouse informant testimony — caused such outrage that the use of such testimony was almost completely banned; in the moral responsibility U.S., hundreds of such wrongful convictions have not caused outrage, and jailhouse informant testimony continues to be widely used. Under the U.S. bail bond system (Farah and Saul may be amazed at this, since the U.S. and the Philippines are the only countries in the world employing this system) people charged with crimes can be released on bail if they have sufficient monetary resources to post bail; if not, they remain in jail until their trial comes up — often for over a year — though they have not been convicted of any crime; and then the District Attorney can offer a “plea bargain” that includes credit for “time served” if they will plead guilty (and threatens with very severe charges if the person demands a trial — commonly known as the “trial tax”) — and so many innocent people plead guilty for crimes they did not commit. Maybe if we dropped belief in moral responsibility, we would imprison more innocent people — but imprisoning more innocent people than the U.S. currently imprisons (with our strong moral responsibility commitment) would be a challenge. Also, if we did away with moral responsibility, that would enhance our ability to look much harder and deeper for the causes of crime (the great virtue of Gregg’s public health model); because belief in moral responsibility tends to block such inquiries. With libertarian models, there must be a point at which the person makes an ULTIMATE choice, where no deeper causal inquiry is possible (for example, the FIRST CAUSE favored by Chisholm or the special CREATIVE ACT of Campbell); while compatibilists insist there must be a LIMIT on inquiry (Adina Roskies describes it as a point at which we say “the buck stops here”; Fischer says we must play the cards dealt us, and inquiring deeper is symptomatic of metaphysical megalomania; others speak of the “plateau of moral responsibility,” and when those who reach that plateau act, then they are acting competently and no further inquiry is needed). When we reject moral responsibility, we can seek without limits the deeper causes of undesirable behavior; and we can find them, and fix them — so we have better ways of preventing crime than wholesale incarceration. And when we look for those causes, we find factors that are closely associated with the strong belief in moral responsibility. We know that one of the major predictors of crime in a society is the degree of difference between the haves and the have nots; and cultures committed to moral responsibility tend to have greater disparities. That is no accident. In moral responsibility societies, we are all — to a substantial degree — “self-made men”; and so if we are rich, we are receiving our just deserts, and owe nothing to anyone; and those who are poor are also receiving their just deserts, and taking from the wealthy to meet their needs is doubly wrong: it deprives both the wealthy and the poor of their just deserts. John suggests that it may not be strong belief in moral responsibility that causes the high crime rate, but the high rate of individualism and classism; but those are not independent variables. Strong belief in moral responsibility — as in neoliberal cultures — promotes individualism and classism.

      I have a question for John. Suppose that you became convinced that denying moral responsibility would decrease crime, reduce radical individualism, reduce classism, and lead to stronger commitment to providing genuine support and opportunity for the worst off in our society. In that case, you would surely favor dropping moral responsibility. But I have a sense that both you and Bob Kane, as well as Saul, would do so regretfully: you would still think that something important is lost. Am I right? And could you give me a clearer sense of what that loss would be?

      Again, many thanks for a very insightful and stimulating reply.

    • John Lemos

      John Lemos

      Reply

      Another Response to Waller

      At the end of his most recent reply to me, Waller writes:

      “I have a question for John. Suppose that you became convinced that denying moral responsibility would decrease crime, reduce radical individualism, reduce classism, and lead to stronger commitment to providing genuine support and opportunity for the worst off in our society. In that case, you would surely favor dropping moral responsibility. But I have a sense that both you and Bob Kane, as well as Saul, would do so regretfully: you would still think that something important is lost. Am I right? And could you give me a clearer sense of what that loss would be?”

      Waller wants to know why I would regretfully favor dropping moral responsibility if (a big “if”) I believed it would reduce crime, individualism, classism, etc. I am not sure what all the sources of my regret on this would be. But, here is one of them. Consider what the proper response to the achievement of excellence would be in a world without moral responsibility. There you are having written a great novel, composed a great work of music, solved important scientific problems, etc. In doing so, you have made great sacrifices of time and energy and risked the pains of failure, etc. when you could have been doing all kinds of other things that are not as hard and quite fun in their own right, such as spending your days fishing in the mornings and drinking at Sloppy Joe’s in the evenings, etc. Now, if there is no moral responsibility, what would be the proper response to your great accomplishment gained through significant effort and sacrifice be? It seems to me it would simply be a “Lucky you.”

      If no one is morally responsible for what they do, then persons who work hard to produce great things while risking failure and making great sacrifices to do so are just lucky to have such daring and intellect and perseverance. As such, we don’t really owe them our thanks or praise. Rather, if they are producing something of value that the rest of us enjoy, then we should feel lucky our society has produced such individuals but we shouldn’t feel that we owe them any thanks or praise or reward. After all, we could have achieved the same things had we had their genes or their upbringing or some combination thereof.

      Besides this concern, I have others as well. For instance, while I think that even if no one was morally responsible we could still make sense of certain aspects of morality, I am concerned that there are other important aspects which we could not preserve. Even if no one is morally responsible, we could still make assessments of the virtues and vices of persons. A person can be just or unjust or kind or malicious, etc. whether he is morally responsible for being such. But at the same time, it seems to me that there are certain things which we ought and ought not to do. I am not convinced that we can make sense of obligation, if we lack the kind of free will that makes us morally responsible. But a lot more would need to be said on this front than I can go into here, and I really haven’t thought this issue through enough myself.

      One last thing, I hope you and the other participants understand that I agree very much with your claims about the very problematic nature of the criminal justice system in the United States. In your work, you and Caruso and others have drawn attention to many horrific aspects of the American criminal justice system. But I think that even if we believe in libertarian free will, we can see the injustices of our criminal justice system for what they are and encourage reforms. Even if we have libertarian free will, it doesn’t mean we have total control over how our lives turn out. Libertarians can acknowledge that one’s genetic and environmental conditions have a hand in shaping the direction in which a person’s life goes. But the libertarian also has to acknowledge that this is not the whole story and that often times the path of our lives is shaped in significant respects by the free willed choices we make. Additionally, I think by acknowledging that we have the kind of free will which makes us morally responsible and which grounds claims of desert we need to be more careful not less careful in assessing the evidence for criminal convictions and sentencing. By acknowledging that people have the capacity for moral responsibility we can better understand just how horrible it is to punish the innocent, since they truly are undeserving in a way that many of the guilty are not.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Thanks to John

      John, many thanks for answering my question. For some who favor the libertarian view, I think it may be basically a way of giving a patina of respectability to a desire for vengeance; for others, it may be a desire to claim they did everything on their own and owe nothing to anyone (witness the response to the Elizabeth Warren/Barack Obama assertion in 2012 that if you are successful, you had lots of help). But I have always thought that you and Bob Kane and Saul have very different motives, and I appreciate you elucidating them.

      I also appreciate that you and Bob and Saul — and others who insist on moral responsibility, including some compatibilists such as Dennett — are just as disgusted by the U.S. Justice system as I am, and its odious excesses and injustices. We may differ on what we regard as the best way to fix the system, but not on the terrible wrongs that need fixing.

      Your concern for what might be lost in the way of obligation (without moral responsibility) is very interesting, and in the extensive discussion of these issues I don’t remember that being proposed as a problem. I would love to hear more about that, it sounds like something you have been thinking about; if you work out even a very rough draft on that, would very much enjoy reading it. Thanks again for the response.

    • Ryan Lake

      Ryan Lake

      Reply

      A Hard Question

      Thanks to both of you for this discussion. I’m gaining a lot from this, and it’s giving me a lot to consider. I really appreciate Bruce’s question – it gets to the core of what’s at stake in the debate over moral responsibility, and it’s something that I think needs a lot more thought and discussion. I’ve been pondering it the last few days since Bruce raised the same question to me, and I’ve found it’s very difficult to articulate exactly what would drive my own sense that something important would be lost, even if I were convinced that giving up moral responsibility would have all of the benefits that Bruce and others suggest.

      For that reason I also really appreciate John’s response to the question. Although I am inclined to agree with Bruce, Derk, and others that we could still make sense of moral obligation even if we gave up on moral responsibility, I am very sympathetic to the first part of his answer – I think it gets at something essential. I fear that certain attitudes, both self and other-directed (John’s example of thankfulness and praise, and related self-directed attitudes like pride, are perfect examples) would have to be lost – or if they were maintained, would have to be maintained in a significantly diminished form.

      One way to think about this that makes the point vivid to me is to consider arguments like Derk Pereboom’s four-case argument. The point of that argument, as I understand it, is that there is no morally significant difference between being thoroughly manipulated by an outside agent (like an evil neuroscientist who has the ability to program and control your every thought and action) and being causally determined by the laws of physics and distant earlier states of the universe. This is a point of view that I think most incompatibilists share, including skeptics (including Bruce I believe, but if I am misremembering or misconstruing your views then please forgive me) – that being causally determined is very much like being coercively manipulated, and that reflecting on the lack of moral responsibility of the latter sort of person should help us to see how the former sort also lacks moral responsibility.

      As a compatibilist I reject this comparison, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument that it’s apt. Suppose we really are analogous to thoroughly manipulated agents. Then we can ask the question – to what extent could or should we really be thankful to, or proud of, someone who was, say, programmed by a neuroscientist to work hard at doing the sorts of things John talks about – producing great works of art, or solving important problems, etc? I think we would have to give John’s answer – the proper attitude there would be just be “lucky you”, and not much more. And the same seems to go for self-directed attitudes; if I really came to see myself as analogous to the person who has been programmed by a neuroscientist, then it is hard to see how any real sense of pride for my accomplishments (or regret for my failings) could or should persist. And that seems to me like a huge loss, even if it turned out that abandoning moral responsibility would have wonderful consequences for society.

Saul Smilanksy

Response

Unconventional Arguments in the Free Will Debate

In The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility, Bruce Waller continues his efforts to defend what I have called a “happy hard determinist” interpretation of the implications of the absence of libertarian free will, with respect to moral responsibility.1 Uniquely, Waller accepts compatibilist interpretations of free will, but argues that they do not suffice for moral responsibility and desert. I include his view among the “happy” hard determinists because the picture he draws of life without belief in moral responsibility (and the concomitant notions) is distinctly optimistic: living without the “system of moral responsibility” would be, all things considered, much better than living as we currently do with this system.

A striking feature of The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility is its efforts at providing an “error theory” (ET) as to why belief in moral responsibility persists, despite (as he claims) the paucity of philosophical grounding for such belief.2 As Waller puts it, “It is clear that the commitment to moral responsibility is stronger—among philosophers and the folk—than the arguments in its favor could justify. So what are the other factors that make belief in the moral responsibility system so robust and resilient?” (vii; my emphasis). Such “other factors” is what I propose to focus on in this brief essay. The “unconventional weapons” of philosophical debate involve error theories but go beyond them, to ad hominem considerations more broadly.

The legitimacy and importance of such “error-theory”-like arguments (on all sides), or more broadly “unconventional” argumentation, is a difficult and under-discussed topic. A minimalist interpretation would see it as merely being helpful for one’s own side. So many smart people oppose our view, that giving a different (psychological, social, mistake-involving) explanation of why they continue to do so helps to put “our side” at ease, and “rally the troops.” More ambitiously, ET-like arguments can be “softening” arguments: once you see them, one might come to believe that one needs to be more skeptical, to rethink, and at least consider more seriously the case of those opposed to you. And most ambitiously, these arguments might serve as knock-down arguments, as game-changers, in themselves: once you see ET explanation X for belief B, you come to realize that it is X, and not the purported arguments for B, that is doing the work and getting people to believe in B.

There are in any case not many knock-down arguments in philosophy, and one might be very skeptical of the possibility of uncovering them here. However, the alternative nature of ET-like arguments actually plays in their favor. Consider the analogy of a typical psychoanalytic explanation. One did or said something, holding oneself to have done so for certain good reasons. Then comes a Freudian type of insight, and (if one accepts it), changes the game at a stroke. What was actually happening in, say, one’s interaction with a friend, one comes to believe, is not at all what one thought, but rather something very different—an unconscious “transference” or engagement with a long dead parent, say. However, in the philosophical context it is probably mostly the second, “softening” function that we can hope for, from these unconventional arguments. On the assumption that one finds great merit in one’s philosophical arguments, it is unlikely that a “debunking,” alternative explanation will have knock-out effectiveness. Yet this middle of the road function suffices to make these type of arguments worth making and considering.

I do not have the space here to explore Waller’s purported ET-type explanations, their force, and the extent to which they ought to lead believers in moral responsibility to reconsider their views. What I will do here, rather telegraphically, is to raise four issues that I consider important, on the other side of the debate: namely, four “error theory”-like explanations of why people such as Waller deny moral responsibility, and deny the overwhelmingly negative effects of an abandonment of belief in moral responsibility, despite (what I consider to be) the weakness of their arguments. So this will not be a direct engagement with Waller’s arguments, but an attempt to contribute to the sort of “unconventional” debate he has opened in this book.

1. Monism

A prevalent error in the free will debate is to think of the compatibility question, the question whether free will and moral responsibility are compatible with determinism (or with the absence of libertarian free will—LFW—irrespective of determinism) as either-or. Either we say Yes, and are then compatibilists, or No, and then we are hard determinists. However, as I pointed out a generation ago,3 this is a mistake. There might be and, in fact, there probably are forms of free will and moral responsibility that are compatible, and some that are not. Compatibilist distinctions track free will and moral responsibility (or their absence), and so people can be free and responsible or not to various degrees, even in a world without LFW. Yet, ultimately, in such a world no one could have the sort of control that LFW was supposed to give, and everything we do is an “unfolding of the given,” beyond our control. Both levels matter. In some contexts one is dominant, and sometimes both are important. The truth is neither is 100 percent compatibilist nor 100 percent incompatibilist but a combination that incorporates, in part, both sets of insights. I will not repeat the case for compatibility-dualism here;4 the point is that “compatibility monism” has had a misleading and very important effect on the debate.

When first hearing about the free will problem, people tend intuitively to pick a side on the compatibility question, and then almost invariably stay there. Since they also tacitly assume the “Assumption of Monism,” and feel that to give up some ground would risk giving up everything, they then largely psychologically shut out the case for their opponents’ position. The “monism” is not only a philosophical mistake (not seeing that compatibility-dualism is possible) but, in practice, a highly salient psychological bias, which connects to our natural myopic inclinations to see only the side of any debate that appeals to us, and dismiss the opposite side. This does not of course affect only hard determinists.5 Since we need not be “monists,” and can combine the insights of both sides, overcoming this harmful bias is crucial.

2. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a common psychological trait. In the free will context it is widely prevalent among hard determinists, who deny free will (Waller is an exception here) and moral responsibility, because they set the bar for these extremely high. As they present it, if we cannot completely create ourselves, or be deserving in the strongest sense, or altogether avoid luck, then we simply lack free will and moral responsibility. Substantial philosophical disagreement here would confront hard determinists with compatibilist (or compatibility-dualist) claims for moderation. There is a significant difference between those operating under severely constraining irrational phobias and normal people, in their capacity to function freely and responsibly. Being cured by a deterministic process of therapy makes you freer and with a greater capacity for responsibility. There is likewise an important difference between a child and an adult, in their capacity to take responsibility and behave responsibly. This will not reach libertarian proportions, and as I have often argued that as well often matters (e.g., in the importance of the ultimate injustice involved in severe punishment). But if one allows one’s three-year-old into one’s car with the key in the ignition and he wrecks the car, then the child is in no significant way responsible, while a similar scenario with a twenty-year-old is very different. One can expect, hold to account, and blame one’s older child in morally defensible ways, but not the younger. By setting the philosophical bar unreasonably high, hard determinism blurs such crucial distinctions; and misrepresents moral and personal life. Hard determinists make moral responsibility impossible, and then find that it does not exist. But this is in large measure psychological perfectionism, rather than anything that has sufficient justification philosophically.

3. Optimism

I have written a paper decrying the prevalence of unreasonable optimism on all sides of the free will debate.6 Optimism is a very important feature in hard determinist discourse, and particularly of course with “happy hard determinists” such as Waller. We have strong indications that most people hold tacit libertarian beliefs, yet their abandonment is cheered upon, with a radical optimism making typical hard determinists feel that everything, somehow, will be for the best—and indeed that a rosy future awaits us if we would only give up on the belief in moral responsibility and desert. People will continue to appreciate and respect themselves and others, even if they come to believe that each and every action was long predetermined and not ultimately within their control. They will continue to take seriously the importance of innocence (in the traditional sense) and be averse to risking the punishment of the innocent when useful, even if they fully incorporate the hard determinist belief that, morally, the guilty are no more so than the innocent. People will continue to hold themselves to the highest moral standards in their behavior and not allow themselves to succumb to temptations, even once they come to believe that whatever they do, they will have a complete exonerating retrospective excuse from blame and responsibility.7 To me this all seems incredible, and at best under-justified by the arguments. A systematic, inherent psychological over-optimistic inclination carries much of the explanatory weight.

4. One’s Beliefs and One’s Life

A fourth “unconventional” sort of argument claims that one’s actual life reactions and practices suggest that one does not really or fully believe what one claims to believe. Spinoza famously said that even those who write essays in praise of modesty, invariably remember to put their name under the heading. Van Inwagen tells how a moral responsibility denier said, when some of his books were stolen, that that was a shoddy thing to do (quoted by Waller at p. 31). P. F. Strawson’s famous “Freedom and Resentment” is, in part, based upon a related insight that a full and normal human life seems to require free will and moral responsibility.8 Libertarianism and compatibilism have a wealth of resources for making distinctions among people, and justifying commonplace reactions and practices. Hard determinism is much poorer. This opens the adherents of this position to unique difficulties. As before, I cannot enter into detailed illustrations. But it seems to me that self-and-other-reflection will be quick to show how difficult it is to be a hard determinist, how even hard determinists are not really living up to their claims (and not due to akrasia) and, in any case, how implausible all this makes “happy hard determinism” in particular. When a hard determinist seeks a babysitter for her children, it seems unlikely that deep inside she is not seeking someone who will hold herself accountable, believe herself responsible, and fear blame if things go wrong. And when she reflects on the efforts and sacrifices of people whom she loves, it is doubtful whether she really thinks that a hard determinist picture would not make a huge difference to her appreciation and love; or to the way those loved ones see themselves and their merits.

To conclude. In The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility, Bruce Waller puts at center stage arguments of a type that I have called “unconventional”—not typical philosophical justifications of one’s position, but alternative explanations of the stubbornness of the erroneous beliefs of his opponents, more psychological and sociological than philosophical. There are some risks involved in turning in such directions,9 yet I believe that this is an important project. In order to understand ourselves and our philosophy, we need to be made conscious of influential forces that are not strictly philosophical. I briefly raised four arguments that seek to challenge the hard determinist on Waller’s own unconventional playing field. I claim that hard determinists are typically overly defensive rather than seeing that their insights can be true without excluding those of their opponents (“monism”); that they are perfectionists who set the bar for free will and moral responsibility too high; that they are unreasonably optimistic as to the effect of the widespread acceptance of hard determinism; and do not convincingly live up to their declared beliefs. These four points invite Waller and other hard determinists to an “unconventional” debate.10

References

Mackie, J. L. Ethics. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977.

Smilansky, Saul. “Compatibilism: The Argument from Shallowness.” Philosophical Studies 115 (2003) 257–82.

———. “Does the Free Will Debate Rest on a Mistake?” Philosophical Papers 22 (1993) 173–88.

———. Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

———. “Free Will and Respect for Persons.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 29 (2005) 248–61.

———. “Free Will: Some Bad News.” In Action, Ethics and Responsibility, edited by Joseph Keim Campbell et al. Silverstein. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.

Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” In Free Will, edited by Gary Watson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Waller, Bruce. The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015.


  1. What actually matters is not determinism but the absence of a robust form of libertarian free will. Whether indeterminism prevails on some subatomic level would not matter if libertarian free will and the sort of transcendence coupled with control which it is supposed to allow does not exist. My presentation here relies on the traditional term of hard determinism as the view that denies the existence of free will, moral responsibility, and desert.

  2. The notion of the “error theory” was first introduced by J. L. Mackie in Ethics (1977).

  3. Smilansky, “Does the Free Will Debate Rest on a Mistake?”; further developed in Smilansky, Free Will and Illusion, part 1.

  4. Cf. Smilansky, Free Will and Illusion; Smilansky, “Free Will and Respect for Persons.”

  5. See Smilansky, “Compatibilism,” for the way I apply it against compatibilism.

  6. Smilansky, “Free Will: Some Bad News.”

  7. The “Present Danger of the Future Retrospective Excuse,” in Smilansky, Free Will and Illusion, 153.

  8. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment.”

  9. See Smilansky, “Free Will: Some Bad News.”

  10. I am grateful for the invitation to participate in this symposium, and to Iddo Landau and Ryan Lake, for helpful comments.

  • Bruce Waller

    Bruce Waller

    Reply

    Response to Saul Smilansky

    No one argues about philosophical issues more joyously and generously than Saul Smilansky, and no one writes about those issues with more style and insight. Though I disagree with his conclusions in Free Will and Illusion, that is a book to which I have returned many times to gain better understanding of the basic issues and connections. And while I also disagree with “Hard Determinism and Punishment: A Practical Reductio,” that is a remarkable paper for bringing so many tough basic questions firmly into focus.

    One of the things I admire most about Saul Smilansky’s work is his capacity for recognizing the underlying structure of systems, the key interconnected parts as well as the basic assumptions, and the less obvious connections as well as distinctions among systems. When Saul turns his keen analytic skills to the systemic rejection of moral responsibility, he describes several basic assumptions made by those who champion such rejection. The first of those assumptions is monism, in which we assume we must take a stand on one side or the other, with nothing in-between. Smilansky embraces the possibility of more forms and levels of free will and moral responsibility, some of which may be compatible and some incompatible. In some important respects I think Saul’s point is an excellent one: in the long free will debate between libertarians and compatibilists, most people on both sides have insisted that their distinctive element of free will—authenticity and control for the compatibilists, choice among open alternatives for the libertarians—is the whole story of free will. As a result, they have exaggerated and distorted both control and open alternatives, trying to make each do the work that requires both. But that is a point that will be discussed further—if still too briefly—in the response to Caruso (and it is the main topic of Restorative Free Will).

    The second deep assumption Smilansky explores is perfectionism. He argues that those who reject moral responsibility “set the bar too high,” requiring an impossible self-creation for moral responsibility. As a result: “Hard determinists make moral responsibility impossible, and then find that it does not exist. But this is in large measure psychological perfectionism, rather than anything that has sufficient justification philosophically.” But it was not hard determinists who set the bar too high; rather, those who favor a moral responsibility that will make punishment justly deserved (whether the punishment meted out by mortals or deities) set themselves an impossible task. Or rather, they set an impossible task for our naturalistic world view. It was by no means an impossible task when the idea of moral responsibility was originally proposed—because with God (and the miraculous powers God grants to his favorite creation) all things are possible. Moral responsibility requires a point at which deeper inquiry ends—a point made by Adina Roskies (2012) in her defense of moral responsibility—and establishing that stopping point requires either a miracle-working first cause or a stipulated and ultimately arbitrary insistence that deeper inquiry must halt. Moral responsibility is naturalistically impossible, but that is not because hard determinists set the bar too high; rather, hard determinists simply noted that no one could clear the bar without a miraculous boost.

    In discussing the third basic assumption—of strong optimism among hard determinists —Saul classifies me as a “happy hard determinist,” with some qualifications (that he notes). Actually, I have some doubts about determinism (and I don’t think the rejection of moral responsibility should be based on determinism, but on naturalism). Also “hard determinism” usually applies to those who reject both free will and moral responsibility, and I am a fierce supporter of natural free will (that’s what gets me in trouble with my friend Gregg Caruso). But with those qualifications in mind—which Saul acknowledges—I am indeed a “happy hard determinist”; that is to say, I am quite optimistic about the implications of denying moral responsibility: I believe that the world and human society would be much better if everyone stopped believing in moral responsibility. So in that sense I am a happy hard determinist, as Saul uses the phrase. However—to borrow a phrase from Alan Greenspan—I am not an irrationally exuberant hard determinist. I don’t think that if we all reject moral responsibility then peace will guide the planets, love will steer the stars, and the Age of Aquarius will be dawning. Without moral responsibility the world would be much improved, but it would still be far from perfect, and it would not be a just world. Sadly, for the foreseeable future, we would still require some punishment—though the punishment would be much less severe and much less common. And that punishment would be unjust, and we would be involved in the imposition of unjust punishment. When we renounce moral responsibility, that will not eliminate the need for some forms of punishment; but we would stop believing that the punishment we must impose is justly deserved, and that—by my lights—would be a major step forward: it would push us to look hard at the deeper causes of behavior, and seek ways of fixing the root causes rather than merely punishing those corrupted or drawn astray by those causal influences.

    Saul insists that moral responsibility provides protections. Perhaps it should; maybe in some ideal Kantian cosmos it would; but in the actual world of human social animals, it does not. Rather than affording protection, belief in moral responsibility adds fuel to our natural strike-back motivation. Rather than protecting the innocent and preserving basic human rights, belief in moral responsibility—as a matter of empirical fact—undercuts those rights and increases the threat to the innocent. That claim runs directly counter to philosophical orthodoxy, and it is one of the main claims of both Against Moral Responsibility and The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility. I can’t repeat those arguments here, but they come under vigorous attack from John Lemos, and I’ll try to answer his insightful critique in my response to him.

    Finally, Saul takes up the deep assumptions that can be discerned in the “actual life reactions and practices” of those who claim to reject moral responsibility, but perhaps do not actually do so in their daily lives. The failure to live up to hard determinist principle is a good thing, Saul insists, because “a full and normal human life seems to require free will and moral responsibility.” I agree that natural free will is essential for living a full human life; but moral responsibility is another matter. Of course if denial of moral responsibility were based—as P. F. Strawson (1962) supposes it to be—on belief that everyone is so flawed and demented that they fail to meet the competence standard for being morally responsible. Then denial of moral responsibility would make living “a full and normal human life” quite impossible. But that is based on the deep assumption that moral responsibility is the default position, and one is exempted from moral responsibility only when one is substantially impaired. That is the “excuse-extensionist” view of the denial of moral responsibility, and not the view of those who reject the moral responsibility system altogether.

    In Free Will and Illusion, Smilansky writes that “the very absence of libertarian free will . . . is shattering to those who realize it and have ethical and personal depth” (190) and part of the reason is the loss of basic rich moral responsibility; so my ethical and personal shallowness may be the source of my blindness. Nonetheless, it seems to me that understanding the deeper causes of character and behavior does nothing to compromise either admiration or gratitude. All parties to this discussion are aware of the profound biological causes at work in producing a mother’s deep love and devotion to her children; but that causal knowledge in no way reduces or demeans the wonderful nature of that love, nor the gratitude one feels for the sacrifices and love and acts of kindness bestowed by a loving mother. Smilansky suggests that for hard determinists, the emotion evoked is “some sentiment akin to gratitude,”1 but not quite the real thing; but it is difficult to see why understanding that a mother’s love is rooted in biology rather than incoherent first-cause choice should turn our gratitude into pseudo-gratitude.

    On the same topic, Saul claims that “when a hard determinist seeks a babysitter for her children, it seems unlikely that deep inside she is not seeking someone who will hold herself accountable, believe herself responsible, and fear blame if things go wrong.” Certainly I would want a babysitter who has a firm and well-founded belief in her own take-charge responsibility; but I would not want my babysitter—or my surgeon, or my air traffic controller, or my baker or candlestick maker—motivated by fear of blame. So long as we tried to motivate air traffic controllers by fear of blame, we made few improvements in air traffic safety. “Harmless” mistakes that should have revealed system flaws were covered up by controllers who feared blame and shame; so the problems were never corrected, and remained in the system until a tragic accident was impossible to cover up. When that happened, we blamed the controller, and put a new controller in place to work in the same flawed system, with the same result. This is not to say that we can completely eliminate punishment; but a system that eliminates blame and minimizes punishment and instead emphasizes group connectedness and the importance of everyone’s contribution and commitment is a much more efficient system with fewer errors and much less use of punitive measures. I want a baby sitter who makes sincere efforts because she is committed to doing well at a job she finds worthwhile; not because she fears punishment.

    Denial of moral responsibility is not the solution for all our problems, but it would be a giant step in the right direction. And while I deny that Saul Smilansky is morally responsible for his engaging and provocative essay, I greatly admire the depth and inventiveness of his work, and I am—so far as my shallowness allows—profoundly grateful for his generous and insightful comments. And finally—in hopes, probably vain, of getting the last word in our ongoing debate—I sincerely apologize for any misconstrual of his arguments, though I deserve no blame whatsoever for my mistakes.

    References

    Roskies, Adina. “Don’t Panic: Self-Authorship without Obscure Metaphysics.” Philosophical Perspectives 26 (2012) 323–42.

    Smilansky, Saul. Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

    ———. “Hard Determinism and Punishment: A Practical Reductio.” Law and Philosophy 30 (2011) 353–67.

    Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” Proceedings of the British Academy 36 (1962).


    1. Free Will and Illusion, 240.

    • Saul Smilanksy

      Saul Smilanksy

      Reply

      Gratitude

      It is a pleasure and an honor to join this splendid discussion. I apologize for being a bit late. I am grateful to Ryan for the invitation, and of course to Bruce for his truly kind and generous words in reply to my response to his book. I will reciprocate as we philosophers do, by continuing to try and make ever greater trouble. As Ryan said at the start, we are fortunate in our community of free will philosophers. And Bruce Waller is as always a true gentleman and a caring, lovely human being.

      All this is not only good in itself, but of particular importance in this context. The free will issue is important and – here not all of you will agree – both depressing and dangerous, bad news. So it seems to be particularly helpful that we can feel that we are working together, in the light of standards of personal decency and intellectual honesty. There is an expression in Hebrew, “Leshem Shamayim,” which literally says “For the sake of heaven.” Our inquiries I feel are conducted in this spirit, not for the sake of triumphs of ego or reputation. And it is even more important to feel this if engaging in the sort of problematic discussion that Bruce engages in his book and I do in my response (and in some previous writing), what I have called here “Unconventional arguments.” In particular, where one seeks not only to show philosophical weaknesses in one’s opponents arguments and analysis but to offer alternative explanations for their views, “error theories” lying behind their mistakes. The readiness to engage in this by also taking and not only giving is a mark of intellectual honesty and largeness of spirit.

      Bruce says a lot, and I cannot engage with it all. In this first post, I will discuss the attractiveness of ditching moral responsibility, desert and blame/praise in one of the topics he takes up, reactive attitudes, focusing on gratitude.

      I think that there is a striking difference in the ways Bruce deals with the two issues of reactive attitudes like gratitude, and with punishment, which I will discuss in my second post. In response to my charge that there is a great deal that we lose, both emotionally and in terms of value, if we opt for living without the assumption of moral responsibility, Bruce does not deny the importance of e.g. gratitude, but simply thinks that we can get it all without assuming moral responsibility. As he says “Nonetheless, it seems to me that understanding the deeper causes of character and behavior does nothing to compromise either admiration or gratitude. All parties to this discussion are aware of the profound biological causes at work in producing a mother’s deep love and devotion to her children; but that causal knowledge in no way reduces or demeans the wonderful nature of that love, nor the gratitude one feels for the sacrifices and love and acts of kindness bestowed by a loving mother”.

      This seems to me a mistake. Of course, there is a biological origin and some built-in biological basis for the efforts and sacrifices of mothers. This does not always do the job; sometimes there are depression-related reactions after birth that make things difficult, and contrary inclinations that need to be overcome through decision and willpower. And of course, there are huge differences among mothers, in their commitment, devotion, efforts and sacrifices. In any case, viewing such efforts and sacrifices without assuming choice-based and desert-generating moral responsibility makes things very different. This we can see by reflecting on the ungrateful daughter, say, of such an unusually effortful and sacrificing mother. A believer in moral responsibility and desert will say things such as that the mother daily chose to make the efforts and sacrifices, did much more than was expected of her, was truly devoted, always tried to do the best she could, and so on, and hence deserves gratitude. The ungrateful daughter is thus at fault, is blameworthy for not giving the mother what she deserves. She is not giving her her due credit, is not appreciating her unusual efforts, is not properly respecting her.

      But what can Bruce say? Surely, much less. The mother operated as she was built, an “unfolding of the given” to use an expression I have found useful. Under hard determinist views, some mothers are negligent and abusive, others are loving and even heroic; neither type is morally responsible for their performance, and neither is deserving of appreciation in the true, credit giving sense. If one is born to the first type of mother then one is merely unlucky, if to the second, lucky, but while one is likely to find oneself with feelings of resentment or gratitude, they are merely mistakes, for on a deep view all mothers are just the same, from the point of view of the hard determinist. If gratitude is not deserved, then ingratitude can hardly be such a grave fault as we normally feel that it is. And indeed the typical form of gratitude that is based upon appreciation of agency and effort begins to seem dubious. There is an equality of value as it were among all mothers – the heroic one is not to be particularly appreciated and thanked. No one, after all, deserves blame nor praise, however one engages in the world as a mother. It is great to have a wonderful mother, but there is no inherent moral credit-meriting value that one attains from succeeding to be such a person, and the mother isn’t really more deserving of gratitude than a highly deficient one. Gratitude that is related to and follows from an evaluation and appreciation of this motherly performance in responsibility-based and desert generating terms makes no sense, to the hard determinist. As elsewhere, with gratitude (and the charge of ingratitude) hard determinists are living with meagre resources.

      Now, one could think that perhaps Bruce can fall back on a Strawsonian-like trust that whatever we may come to believe our reactions cannot change; or perhaps even that there is no need for any cognitive basis for reactions in the first place. But besides putting himself in company he typically wants to keep a distance from, surely, philosophically, this is very different than what we who think that moral responsibility matters believe in.

      Bruce’s views that a hard determinist interpretation does not change anything concerning gratitude is so implausible that it invites the sort of engagement in what I called “unconventional arguments” and in particular the search for an “error” theory, that he engages in in his book. My charge that hard determinists “put the bar too high” out of perfectionism applies to him in other cases, but not here, for here he puts the bar very low. But my other points, and in particular the idea of unreasonable optimism, seem to apply.

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Further thoughts on Saul and gratitude

      Saul Smilansky does, as he notes, continue to make more trouble. Indeed, probably more than anyone else, his work has troubled my thoughts for many years, posing very tough challenges indeed — such as in his profound “Hard Determinism and Punishment” paper. Everyone who follows this discussion will be well acquainted with that paper, and with his classic FREE WILL AND ILLUSION, and his other work; but I want to mention in passing a couple of essays he published last year that some of you may have missed, and that I regard as among his very best work (and extremely insightful on the problem of punishment): “Parfit on Free Will, Desert, and the Fairness of Punishment,” in Vol. 20 of THE JOURNAL OF ETHICS; and “Pereboom on Punishment: Funishment, Innocence, Motivation, and Other Difficulties,” in CRIMINAL LAW AND PHILOSOPHY. The papers discuss the work of Parfit and Pereboom, and very insightfully, but they go far beyond that in their examination of the problem of punishment. I am eager to read Saul’s next post, because his work on the problem of punishment — in the papers noted, and elsewhere — has had a huge impact on my thought on that subject (Saul will probably conclude that the impact sent my thought careening in the wrong direction, but that’s a discussion for another day).

      Though Saul does make a lot of trouble, he is also kind and generous. I have on rare occasions been characterized as caring, but I do not ever recall being described as lovely — and I shall cherish the description, and am profoundly grateful for the kind remarks. But of course gratitude is what our discussion is all about; it does seem to me that I can be genuinely grateful for Saul’s kindness, but I don’t want to beg that question — at least not quite so obviously.

      So I totally deny moral responsibility — I do not believe that anyone every justly deserves reward or punishment, blame or praise, or any other form of “just deserts” — but I claim to feel genuine gratitude. If this involves a mistake, there are a couple of possibilities. First, it might be that I am confused about what the feeling of gratitude really is: I suppose that I feel gratitude, but — perhaps because I have severely damaged my reactive sentiments by my long denial of moral responsibility — I am now incapable of feeling gratitude, and am actually feeling something else. Second, I might genuinely feel full gratitude, but fail to recognize that such a feeling entails ascribing moral responsibility to the object of my gratitude. I gather than Saul thinks the latter is the case. In support of his claim, he offers the example of the ungrateful daughter of an unusually effortful and sacrificing mother, who deserves the gratitude of her daughter. Saul says that the believer in moral responsibility will say that “the ungrateful daughter is thus at fault, is blameworthy for not giving the mother what she deserves.” There is much that Saul says here with which I would agree (in fact, I think the reason I find Saul’s work so provocative is that we do have large areas of agreement, so the points of disagreement are particularly troubling). I think that the mother is wonderful, and virtuous to a high degree; and I agree that the daughter is at fault for not showing gratitude (“blameworthy” is ambiguous — in any case, I do not think that the daughter deserves blame for her moral fault; but I do think she is morally flawed). When someone exerts great effort in doing us a kindness, then we SHOULD be grateful: gratitude is the appropriate response; it is not a matter of the kind person justly DESERVING gratitude. I can recognize that my mother is ultimately lucky to be such a wonderful giving person while deeply appreciating the fact that she IS such a person and that she has exerted enormous effort on MY behalf and that failure to appreciate such kindness would show a deep emotional and moral inadequacy. If I fail to recognize and appreciate the moral worth of some stranger who does something especially kind for another stranger, then I have a moral flaw; but if I fail to recognize and appreciate the moral worth of someone who has done such a kindness to ME, that reveals a more profound level of moral blindness. Such gratitude is vitally important to our moral lives and our personal relations, and its absence is certainly a moral flaw; but the flawed person does not justly deserve blame for such a deep character flaw. We should have sincere gratitude for kindness toward us, just as our affection for our children should be sincere — someone who lacks such a capacity is morally flawed, though (when we look carefully at the causes for why this person is incapable of such affection) we recognize that he does not justly deserve blame for this deep flaw. If I feel that I must show gratitude to my mother because she justly deserves it, that seems to make such gratitude a matter of duty, something demanded by rule; and that would seem to cheapen the gratitude.

      No one justly deserves anything, including gratitude; but gratitude may still be morally appropriate; and that depends not on just deserts, but on the nature of our moral lives and relationships. If someone does a special kindness for another, and the recipient of the kindness feels no sense of gratitude, that indicates a flaw in the person The reactive attitudes are indeed essential to our moral lives; but that no more requires moral responsibility than it requires that I believe Donald Trump is morally responsible in order to be morally appalled at his conduct, or to believe that Nelson Mandela is morally responsible in order to be morally delighted by his character. We are emotional social animals, and if we don’t feel these things when the relation is very very close, then there is a serious gap in our moral makeup. But these important moral relationships and judgments do not depend on belief in moral responsibility — that would seem to intellectualize them to an implausible degree. Kant would not want us to FEEL gratitude; but that is not a plausible account of the moral lives of social animals like ourselves. Is something lost when we deny that we OWE gratitude? It does not seem so to me. For a Kantian, certainly something would be lost. But I feel gratitude to those who have helped me, and it seems an additional — and implausible — step to say that they DESERVE my gratitude; and a step I don’t need in order to feel such gratitude. Gratitude is morally appropriate, but not because it is justly deserved.

      Perhaps the real source of our disagreement is found when Saul compares a negligent and abusive mother with a “loving and even heroic” mother, and consider what we would think if we believed that neither was morally responsible fro her virtuous or vicious character and behavior. “If one is born to the first type of mother then one is merely unlucky, if to the second, lucky, but while one is likely to find oneself with feelings of resentment or gratitude, they are merely mistakes, for on a deep view all mothers are just the same, from the point of view of the hard determinist.” Certainly “all mothers are just the same” in terms of moral responsibility, since no one is morally responsible; but taking away moral responsibility does not eliminate all moral judgments and evaluations. The abusive mother really is morally bad, and the loving and heroic mother is genuinely good; neither is morally responsible for her virtues or vices, but that does not change the fact that one really is vicious and the other virtuous, and we can be fully aware of that very important difference. My hope is that when we understand the causes that shaped the vicious mother we will not blame her; but that will not change our recognition that her character is genuinely bad. And it is important that we understand that it is bad, so that we will take steps to prevent other mothers from becoming abusive. (And I agree with Saul’s penultimate paragraph: the position he describes there is not a position I would favor, for I do think that our attitudes can change — and indeed I think that one advantage of denying moral responsibility is that it can and does have an impact on attitudes: If we stop believing that people justly deserve punishment, we will have a different attitude toward people and punishment; but we will keep our vitally important reactive attitudes toward the wrongness of various kinds of behavior.)

      This reply is no doubt excessive in length; but it is not because I want to refute Saul, but because I am struggling to discover exactly where our disagreement lies, when I always feel when reading Saul’s brilliant work that I am learning so much, and that there is a deep core of basic agreement. I would be very happy (not to say grateful) to have others help me better understand the important issues Saul raises, and exactly where our differences lie.

    • Ryan Lake

      Ryan Lake

      Reply

      Gratitude and Manipulation

      Bruce and Saul, I want to once again express my deep gratitude to both of you – I’m enjoying this exchange a great deal, and gaining so much from it.

      I again find myself a bit torn; on the one hand, I feel the force of Saul’s claim that gratitude (in the fullest sense) towards a person we judge lacking moral responsibility for his character/actions doesn’t make much sense. On the other hand, I am very much inclined to agree with Bruce’s claim that very often we are all quite aware of the fact that our character and actions are deeply rooted in causes outside of our control (like the biological roots of motherly love) without that awareness diminishing attitudes like gratitude in any way. Of course, I am also inclined towards compatibilism, which is one way of resolving this tension – I can agree with Saul that attitudes like gratitude require moral responsibility, and still feel that full gratitude towards the biologically determined mother is appropriate, because I don’t view that kind of determinism as undermining the claim that she truly *deserves* that gratitude.

      To make the issue regarding the connection between moral responsibility and attitudes like gratitude clear, it helps me to think about the kind of case I raised in my post on John’s essay – the case of extreme manipulation. In extreme manipulation cases I think we all agree that moral responsibility is undermined. So, imagine a friend who has gone far beyond what friendship requires, to make a great sacrifice on your behalf – the kind of sacrifice we would normally think warrants deep gratitude. But then imagine that you learn that your friend only made the sacrifice because of the character she was programmed to have by a powerful neuroscientist who was able to control her every thought and desire. In this kind of case, where the lack of moral responsibility is especially vivid, it seems to me that any real feeling of gratitude would, and should, vanish, or at least be severely diminished. I might still remain *happy* that my friend has the character that she does, but once it is vivid to me that she no longer deserves any kind of credit for her actions (due to the interventions of the neuroscientist), I wind up in Saul’s camp – I think that (real) gratitude has to go.

      Now one way to avoid this conclusion is to say that there is some sort of fundamental difference between mere determinism and manipulation – and that this difference explains why gratitude continues to makes sense in the deterministic case, but does not in the manipulation case. As someone inclined towards compatibilism, this is exactly what I want to say* – but this seems like a difficult move for skeptical incompatibilists to make (especially those incompatibilists and skeptics who have relied on close comparisons between manipulation cases and cases of ordinary determinism to support their views).

      In any case, I would like to raise the question (especially for Bruce, but also for Saul and anyone else who would like to chime in) – does it make sense to feel gratitude (in its fullest, deepest sense) to someone who has been thoroughly manipulated?

      * And of course, I also want to say that there are differences between the two kinds of cases in terms of moral responsibility (and that this is *why* there are differences in the kinds of reactive attitudes that are warranted) – but that’s another huge conversation!

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Response to Ryan

      Ryan, thanks for pushing this discussion further — and for starting it in the first place! — and for focusing the question and my thoughts more effectively than I was able to do in my response to Saul. I think the manipulative neuroscientist is close kin to those frightening creatures in Dennett’s “rogues gallery” (described in ELBOW ROOM): when we think of a manipulative neuroscientist programming the loving mother — or a “peremptory puppeteer” or God — then we are not sure that the mother is really contributing anything to our welfare. Perhaps she is merely the channel through which the “nefarious neuroscientist” operates, and any gratitude that is appropriate should go to the neuroscientist. But the loving mother was not the product of anyone’s design; and even if she were she would now be a genuinely loving person who has her own motives and who genuinely cares for the well-being of her children (that is, she is not “bypassed” in those behaviors, but is a genuinely loving mother, with her own character and desires that cause her to act generously). Of course we are all shaped by forces that we did not choose or control — not by omnipotent neuroscientists or deities, but by genetics and environment — including the loving mother. The loving mother is ultimately LUCKY to have such a warm and loving character, but that does not alter the fact that she genuinely has that character and acts from her own wishes to provide loving care. That seems altogether enough for me to feel genuine gratitude toward her, whatever I may conclude about her moral responsibility and just deserts. If the loving mother were designed by a neuroscientist or a deity — and she is designed to be genuinely loving and caring — then I have no trouble feeling gratitude for her loving care. If the loving care is instead that of a puppet, then I would feel gratitude to whomever is pulling the strings (and I would not attribute genuine love or care to that puppet). I would like to modify our environment — eliminate lead poisoning, improve the social environment — in such a manner that it shapes more loving mothers and fewer abusive mothers; and (like Gregg with his work on “public health”) I think that is possible, and more likely if we do away with moral responsibility and look without limits at the causes of character and behavior. But if we successfully modify the environment in ways that result in a much higher percentage of loving mothers, I don’t see why that should undercut the sincere gratitude of their children to those loving mothers.

    • Ryan Lake

      Ryan Lake

      Reply

      Thanks Bruce

      Thanks for the answer, Bruce! I agree that there is an important difference between someone who is a mere puppet and other forms of hypothetical manipulation. I had in mind (and I should have been clearer) a kind of case where the mother IS a person with a warm and loving character (she’s not a mere puppet being controlled from moment to moment), but where every last minute detail of her character has nonetheless been carefully crafted by an outside agent. There’s a lot more I’d like to say, but I don’t want to derail the conversation too much on the topic of manipulators, and I want to give Saul (and anyone else) a chance to chime in. And I am looking forward to Saul’s post on punishment!

    • Bruce Waller

      Bruce Waller

      Reply

      Further reply to Ryan

      Ryan, I fear I might have been unfair to your concern. I didn’t mean to focus too much on pure puppets. If I learned that you had been totally designed by an outside manipulator — but the design did not bypass you, and you were still reflective, making choices, evaluating arguments — then I would still regard you as free (and it would not lessen your moral responsibility, because you cannot have less than zero moral responsibility). If you were not bypassed, and you still exercised powers of reflection and choice — even though I believe the reflection and choice are determined — the manipulator would have little idea of how you would ultimately choose, unless the manipulator were omniscient: the programmers of the best chess playing computers cannot begin to predict what move they will make, and you and your decisions are far more complex than any chess playing computer. From my perspective, all of us are totally shaped by “outside manipulators” in the form of DNA and environmental conditioning, but that does not make us less free. I don’t think the real concern is with “outside manipulation,” but with the source of such manipulation Purposeful manipulators often manipulate for nefarious purposes (we see it in propaganda and fake news); and if anyone had the sort of manipulative power you describe, that would be very frightening indeed: the potential for abuse would be enormous. When nature makes us, nature is not a manipulator with ulterior motives. So even if I still regarded you as free, I would find the manipulation deeply disturbing: I would fear such power even if the manipulator were benevolent: powerful manipulators rarely remain benevolent, and in any case the manipulative powers would be likely to fall into dangerous hands.

    • Saul Smilanksy

      Saul Smilanksy

      Reply

      Reply to Bruce Waller 2nd Post

      A bit more on gratitude, in response to Bruce. Gratitude is, first, an example of a major reactive attitude, and thus a test case for the view of “Happy hard determinists” like Bruce that pretty much all that is worthwhile can be maintained without believing in moral responsibility. But second, I consider gratitude hugely important for a worthwhile life. A world without true responsibility-assuming gratitude is cold and deficient in value. To go through life feeling merely happy or unhappy that others serve your purposes, but not really appreciative of their efforts on your behalf, is a very different matter than what we expect of considerate, sensitive-to-others people; and indeed in extremity this borders on psychopathy. There is a threat here to one’s virtue (isn’t gratitude a virtue?), with a loss to all concerned including the agent. And from the opposite direction, to live without the appreciation and gratitude of others in the stronger sense under discussion is very sad indeed – not to be really seen, to be taken for granted, not to be really appreciated and respected. This is not only about emotions, but value – a world without responsibility-assuming gratitude is highly deficient compared to our MR-assuming one.

      The difficulty is that a major form of gratitude starts to become dubious if we cease to believe in moral responsibility. We can perfectly well continue to be grateful THAT certain states of affairs exist, but being grateful TO a person becomes questionable. According to hard determinism, the person, after all, merely operated as it was molded, by forces beyond its control; it couldn’t have done otherwise and deserves no credit for whatever its efforts and contributions might have been.

      As Ryan notes, compatibilists have things to say here, but Bruce doesn’t want to cross the road into compatibilism. Another alternative is the Strawsonian “Reactive-naturalism” which rejects the need and perhaps even the sense of giving justification beyond the reactive attitudes themselves. Bruce and I share the rejection of that element of P.F. Strawson’s position which rejects the possibility of change. But Bruce seems to me to rush too quickly to reject Strawson’s idea that our attitudes are justificatorily self-sufficient. Going with Strawson here would indeed not be free of dangers, for after all Strawson says the same thing about gratitude and resentment, and Bruce wants to fight resentments and the associated punitive responses. Yet without compatibilism and without Strawsonianism, it is not clear whether he has many resources left to defend robust gratitude-for-hard-determinists.

      I think that it is easy to miss this if one is an engaged, positive, feeling human being, who grew up under common-sense (moral responsibility-based) assumptions and socialization. I found an amusing example of this recently. At the University of Haifa where I teach, a while ago some of the convenience machines began to have the ability to speak… when I inserted a coin, the machine – in addition to giving me a bottle of water and change – also said, in Hebrew, “Thank you”. To my embarrassment, I found myself instinctively saying back, the first few times, “You’re welcome”. Rightly feeling like an idiot, I worked on myself and now have safely stopped being polite to useful machines… (technological progress may soon make things more difficult in this direction). But the problem is that it isn’t clear how Bruce can avoid such an “objective” stance (as Strawson would call it) as I began to take towards the machine, from seeming as the rational response also to MR-lacking human beings.

      There are really two problems here: one is pragmatic and empirical: in a nutshell, how much change can there be? If people follow Bruce and others skeptical of any sense of free will-based moral responsibility, will they actually lose confidence in the basis for gratitude, in a way that will seriously dent the emotional tone and the value of many human relationships? And furthermore, what effects might the decline of gratitude have on motivation to do good? (How eager would one be to go out of one’s way for those one knows will not be appreciative and grateful?) Humanity used to be grateful to e.g. the elements and created corresponding gods, till gradually that has begun to seem too silly. A hard determinist interpretation of determinism (or indeed of the absence of libertarian free will irrespective of determinism), when applied to gratitude, risks affecting the quality of life and sense of value of many. Bruce seems to me too complacent here.

      A second problem is conceptual and philosophical rather than empirical: does it even make sense to speak of certain important senses of gratitude under hard determinist assumptions? And aren’t those threatened senses terribly important? I think that my example of the ungrateful daughter in the earlier post shows the difficulty. When we first hear about the case of a long-devoted, lovingly sacrificial mother who has done all she could for her daughter for many years and at significant cost, we naturally see her as deserving gratitude. If the daughter is ungrateful, it is natural to see her as missing something very important, as being at fault, and lacking the necessary virtues. We naturally feel indignation for the mother, and a great pity that after all that she has done, she fails to be appreciated. The daughter almost seems inhuman in her coldness. However, as far as I can see, on a meager Wallerian hard determinist diet concerning moral responsibility, the philosophy seems to be on the side of the daughter.

      This predicament leads me here, as elsewhere, towards skepticism about “Happy hard determinism”, with the accompanying eagerness for radical change in our beliefs, reactions and practices. Positively, it leads me towards a form of conservatism, an effort to salvage what we can from compatibilism, and Illusionism on free will and moral responsibility. But this is not the place to focus on my views; rather, I think that for Bruce gratitude poses a major threat inherent in his views, that he has not sufficiently recognized.

Michelle Ciurria

Response

Moral Responsibility from a Social Feminist Epistemology Perspective

First, I would like to thank Bruce and all of the commentators for their engaging comments. I found all of the positions compelling in their own way. This is a wonderful platform for discussing responsibility.

I originally found myself on the side of eliminativism (during my PhD), in light of research in social psychology and cognitive science showing that we have less control and shallower character than we tend to think. But I could not break away from my concerns about epistemic injustice and the expressive role that praise and blame play, and could play, in our social imaginary (our shared set of epistemic resources and relationships). I came to the conclusion that, although moral responsibility is deployed in discriminatory ways in our culture—ways that harm and oppress historically disadvantaged groups—it is possible to reorient and reimagine our reactive attitudes, and deploy them in more healing and liberating ways.

In light of this, I’ve written responses to some of Bruce’s comments (and some other people’s comments as well), which bring to the fore concerns about social and epistemic injustice, and show how expressions of blame and praise can function in our discursive environment to repair and resist systems of oppression.

Thank you all so much for the interesting and enlightening discussion! I hope you will take my comments in the spirit of collegiality and cooperation in which they are intended.

Origin story: Just world theory

Bruce describes moral responsibility as a system created by human beings “to deal with a basic problem: we have a just world governed by a just god, and in this just world we must punish.” But I see moral responsibility as designed to deal with exactly the opposite problem: we have an unjust world governed primarily by white men—the people who created and reinforced our current moral practices and the social imaginary in which these practices operate; and in this unjust world we must blame and praise, punish and reward people according to principles that promote social justice and correct imbalances of power.

By ‘social imaginary’ I mean “the shared modes of representing and relating, which are prior to… particular beliefs and affects” (Medina 2012), and this epistemic background is infused with implicit biases that harm historically disadvantaged groups. Miranda Fricker calls this state of affairs “epistemic injustice” (2007). Although these biases have well-known implications for epistemic responsibility—that is, responsibility for our beliefs and attitudes—they also have implications for moral responsibility—specifically, our moral beliefs and attitudes. In conditions of epistemic injustice (as I argued in my recent post on ‘Flickers of Freedom’), the responsibility system is systematically distorted in ways that disadvantage and discredit marginalized groups, who are therefore unfairly blamed and punished, and lack the reputational power to defend themselves against false accusations; while privileged social groups are given too much credit and praise, and are therefore not held accountable for perpetuating myths that bolster their unearned privileges.

I would describe the ‘origin story’ for responsibility very differently than Bruce, in a way somewhat akin to Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, which ascribes mainstream morality to a Master Class that deems its own members to be good, while deeming members of perceived outgroups to be bad. That is, the Master Class institutionalized and systematized their own outgroup bias, to the extent that it became invisible to them and took on the appearance of objective fact. According to Nietzsche, Christians then appropriated Master Morality and turned it on its head, construing (certain) historically disenfranchised group as morally superior to the socially privileged. (They also believed that this moral order was sanctioned by god, but the genealogical description provides a naturalistic explanation that renders theistic appeals moot).

Nietzsche did not discuss how, within Christianity, perceived outgroup members such as women and racialized minorities (and the many other intersectionalities) were dehumanized and systematically excluded from the system of morality. These were the unrecognized slaves internal to ‘Slave Morality.’ In recent years, theorists have pointed out that these social demographics are still very much excluded from, or marginalized within, Western social practices and relations—including, on scrutiny, the responsibility system—and this calls for a collective reappraisal of that system. In particular, we need to scrutinize the historic myths and stereotypes embedded in the social imaginary, which prevent us from accurately judging people’s credibility and moral standing on unbiased grounds, consistent with social justice.

Bruce, of course, denies that there is such a thing as a ‘fair’ or ‘just’ responsibility attribution; but presumably he would admit that there is such a thing as a fair and just society. Social feminist epistemologists and other theorists who work primarily on social justice argue that our responsibility system—indeed, all of our social practices—should promote social justice, and are justified to the extent that they play this role. A fair responsibility attribution, then, is simply one that facilities justice.

There is nothing mystical or metaphysically weird about the notion of a just moral attribution in this sense, just as there is nothing mystical or metaphysically weird about the notion of a just society. ‘Justice,’ whether used to describe a complete social order or a nested set of social practices, is naturalistic and controlled by human beings.

Systemic factors & collective responsibility

Bruce concedes in response to Ryan that we should focus more on collective agency as opposed to individual agency, but he takes this point to be compatible with responsibility eliminativism. Indeed, he thinks that belief in responsibility prevents us from inquiring into the deeper systemic causes of individual behaviour. This is parallel to the situationist claim (Doris 1998, Harman 1999) that ‘characterological explanations’ deter us from inquiring into the situational and systemic causes of human behaviour, which are allegedly more explanatorily potent and ecologically valid.

A more charitable way of interpreting the situationist challenge, however, is to see it as a reminder that we are highly susceptible to The Fundamental Attribution Error, which is a tendency to favour ‘internal’ explanations of other people’s behaviour, to the neglect of relevant ‘external’ or social factors. This claim implies that we should be more sensitive to situational/social explanatory factors, not (necessarily) that characterological and other ‘internal’ types of explanation are otiose. That is, it leaves open the possibility of “two-ply” explanations that include both moral/characterological/psychological dimensions and situational dimensions (Slote 2009: 288). As Michael Slote points out, when we describe a marble’s disposition to roll down a slope, we can appeal to external properties such as the angle of the slope and the force of gravity, as well as internal properties such as the sphericity and solidity of the marble (287). So too with human behaviour: neurophysiological constructs like ‘responsible agency’ (as it is typically described) admit of internal (psychological, neurocognitive, physiological) analyses as well as external (social, interpersonal) analyses. A robust explanation would include both ‘plies.’

In a similar vein, social feminist epistemologists like Helen Logino (2007) and Sandra Harding (2015) hold that there are multiple levels of explanation for any phenomenon, and that the epistemic value of an explanation is determined in part by our shared pragmatic goals. (This claim is justified in part by the underdetermination of theories by evidence). What are our pragmatic goals in constructing a model of human agency? Arguably, one of our goals should be to enhance people’s responsiveness to evidence of social injustice, to promote social justice and cooperation. If so, then a capacity for moral responsibility (howsoever cognitively specified) can be part of a valid model of human agency. This ‘internal’ level of explanation is compatible with a ‘situational’ level of explanation, where the latter identifies systemic factors (such as salient features of the social imaginary and social structures) that interact with our capacity for responsibility in various ways, both inculpating and exculpating. White ignorance (as described by Charles Mills) might be inculpating—that is, it might impute blame—for instance, when it enables a white person to rationalize his unearned white privileges and ignore countervailing reasons. This is what Fricker refers to as “motivated irrationality”—a kind of irrationality that is motivated by the person’s active investment in systems of oppression.

I will not provide a more extensive defense of this sense of responsible agency, but I think it is important to note that there is a prodigious literature that uses the terms ‘responsibility’ and ‘responsible agency’ in a perfectly intelligible sense and in ways mean to promote social justice and resist oppression. I am not convinced that these uses of responsibility are detrimental to society and should be eliminated.

A good collectivist model of responsibility, which leaves room for individual responsibility, is offered by Ann Cudd (2006). Cudd says that the justice system must dispense with the “individual actor thesis,” which “claims that crimes are committed by one person against another,” as well as the “level field hypothesis,” which holds that “criminal offenses are an upset in the existing balance of power between people” (210). The conjunction of these theses implies that men and women are equally situated, and men’s harms to women as a group are equal to women’s harms to men as a group. By dropping these faulty assumptions, we can change rape laws to introduce harsher sentences for rape, insofar as we can acknowledge that (1) women are a vulnerable social group that deserves extra protection, and (2) rape harms not only individual women, but women as a group.

Cudd’s collectivist position, in other words, increases individual liability for rape committed by a man against a woman, in light of systemic factors that affect the social meaning and consequences of this type of crime. The same logic extends to moral responsibility, viz., men who rape women deserve more individual blame because their action increases women’s vulnerability and harms women as a group.

It is far from obvious that collectivist explanations support, much less necessitate, eliminativism about responsibility. On the contrary, feminists and critical race theorists have by and large taken collectivist analyses to support a revisionary approach to responsibility (as well as legal liability) that maintains some notion of responsibility, but scrutinizes the biases embedded in our shared responsibility practices which harm historically disadvantaged groups. The assumption that responsibility exists is needed to identify those who are responsible for systemic discrimination and hold them accountable, while giving credit to active resisters.

In light of this, I would amend Ryan’s contention that “we all deserve blame for the failings of individual citizens, and it is our collective duty to try to rectify the situation” (Lake), to the more situated claim that members of privileged groups generally (though not always—it depends on the individual) deserve more blame and less credit than they typically receive, while members of disadvantaged groups generally (though not always) deserve less blame and more credit. The privileged have a special duty to rectify social injustice because they are disproportionately responsible for systems of oppression, and they also tend to have more access to epistemic resources (e.g., education), material resources, and reputational power, which they could (if they wanted) use to build coalitions and chained actions of resistance.

I believe that by changing our assumptions about who is responsible for what, we can promote social justice without dispensing with responsibility altogether. Indeed, revising and redirecting responsibility may be the more profitable course of action

The gap between criminal sanctions and nothing

Bruce and Gregg both seem to want to eliminate moral responsibility and focus on using criminal sanctions to contain or deter harmful behaviour, but I worry that this leaves a (fairly big) gap in which, when criminal sanctions are not licensed or enforced by the law, we have no way of sanctioning antisocial behaviours and promoting prosocial behaviours. This is what moral responsibility is supposed to do: hold people accountable for day-to-day harms that do not fall under the law.

Bruce argues that we should eliminate moral responsibility because belief in (retributive) responsibility supports limited market restrictions, economic disparities, a punitive justice system, and the other ills associated with neoliberal economics and the United States in general. He also seems to reject a consequentialist approach to responsibility, and instead defends a ‘take-charge’ model, which seems to reject moral responsibility in favour of (non-moral) self-efficacy.

Gregg offers a revisionary account of responsibility on which criminal sanctions should be allocated on the basis of a public health-quarantine model, which aims to promote the classic medical ethics principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. On this model, we would impose the least restrictive sanctions possible on “dangerous criminals” as well as those who commit “low-level” crimes (2016: 29-40). The public health-quarantine model also has implications for distributive justice, in that it implies that resources should be distributed according to medical ethics principles. This would shrink material inequality.

It is not clear to me whether Gregg is an eliminativist about moral responsibility or a revisionist who believes that moral responsibility attributions (praise, blame, etc.) should also be governed by medical ethical principles. If the latter, I am very amenable to his proposal. If, on the other hand, he is an eliminativist and is proposing a theory of criminal and social justice only, then I have concerns that are relevant to both his view and Bruce’s.

The main worry is that, while the criminal justice system is equipped to deal with some of the most egregious harms—like murder—(and unfortunately, in some jurisdictions, criminalizes benign actions like possessing small amounts of marijuana)—the law does not regulate the more banal (i.e., familiar, day-today) harms that many people face. For instance, although it is a hate crime in the U.S. to injure or threaten a member of a protected group on the basis of the person’s demographic attributes, it is not a crime to commit any of the innumerable ‘microaggressions,’ acts of casual misogyny and racism, and subtle as well as not-so-subtle exclusions that affect members of marginalized groups on a daily basis. If Bruce and Gregg want to shrink the prison system, then surely they would not want to criminalize these commonplace moral infractions; but if they are responsibility eliminativists, they also would not want us to hold people responsible for these banal harms.

We also cannot forget that the justice system does not treat everyone fairly. For instance, date rape is a criminal offense on paper, but most date rapists are never convicted. On some estimates, 94-98% of total rapists go free—including stereotypical ‘stranger rapists,’ who are the easiest to prosecute due to the greater availability of forensic evidence (Kim 2012). This means that women have very little legal protection against rape—in effect, we have to protect ourselves. Since most rapists are never prosecuted, the criminal justice system is neither a deterrent against rape, nor an effective ‘quarantine’ measure. This is another gap where moral responsibility would be useful: if we can’t prosecute rapists, we can at least censure and avoid them.

I’m not denying that we should fix the criminal justice system, but some harms will never be criminalized, and others will not be enforced in our lifetime. What do we do in the meantime?

This is where I see moral responsibility playing a role. When we blame people for ‘banal’ harms and un-prosecutable crimes, we express our disapproval to that type of behaviour. This kind of expression might be valuable in and of itself. As Barbara Houston observes, when we express blame we thereby “assert the correct relative value of the wrongdoer and the victim” and declare our affiliation with the victim and the victim’s social group (in cases of discrimination or group-related harms) (1992: 139). It is also notable that blaming takes on different meanings in just societies compared to unjust societies: in conditions of systemic injustice (like ours), failing to express blame can imply (i.e., be interpreted as) acceptance or condoning of the harmful act (Houston 1999: 138). The opposite of condoning is active resistance, which is often expressed in blaming attitudes and reactions, as well as in social justice movements that reconceptualise the role of blame and praise in our culture and deploy these attitudes in new ways. In our current social imaginary, there is a default presumption that rape survivors are to blame because they incite their rapist (on account of their appearance, attire, status, prior sexual history, or relation to the rapist), whereas rapists are either ‘ordinary men’ with innate, irrepressible (heterosexual) sex drives, or pathological cases. In either case, they are not seen as responsible for committing rape—women are blamed for being ‘too sexy.’

Similarly, racialized minorities are seen as more dangerous than privileged social groups, and therefore are more likely to be blamed for innocent behaviours. This is illustrated in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ where Tom Robison is accused of rape against a backdrop of pernicious stereotypes about black men and white women. While we could (in principle) eliminate blame and praise, it is not clear that this discursive strategy would be more salutary than redirecting blame onto those who abuse their unearned privileges and perpetuate harmful myths about who deserves what. Marina Benjamin (2017) recently noted that when we treat rape as pathological—which was the default assumption in the mid-20th century—we promote a mysoginistic, racist social script on which men—especially white men—cannot control their sexual appetites in the presence of women, and therefore, rape perpetrated by a man on a woman is excusable. The evidence, however, shows that rape is not pathological: rapists respond to sanctions and rewards. This explains why 14.9% of male college students in the U.S. between 1985 and 1998 self-identified as rapists, whereas 23% of those in China and 60.7% of those in New Guinea currently do. These differential statistics owe to changing attitudes about rape, including, I believe, changing attitudes about who bears the responsibility for rape.

I am suggesting, in effect, that expressions of blame and praise are a component part of the social imaginary, and when they are used in counter-discursive ways (to combat prejudiced assumptions), they can be “epistemic counterpoints” to these myths, and conducive to social justice (Medina 2012: 269). Insofar as they play this role in our epistemic ecology, they are—in a very natural and non-mystical sense—justified.

One might object here that it suffices to identify the underlying causes of prejudice; we don’t also need to blame/praise individual actors and groups. But sociological and collectivist analyses—though useful—do not suffice to protect vulnerable individuals and groups from harm. To see this, compare the function of the responsibility system to the function of the criminal justice system.

One of the functions of the criminal justice system—according to Gregg, the main function—is to ‘quarantine’ dangerous criminals. As we saw, some crimes are un-prosecutable or very difficult to prosecute, and other harms are not crimes. What is our response to these harms? The responsibility system can, I believe, function in an analogous way to the criminal justice system, to identify and ‘quarantine’ harmful agents who are not subject to criminal sanctions. It can do this via familiar social mechanisms such as criticizing, resisting, and excluding dangerous un-convictable offenders. The responsibility system can also function simply to identify harmful groups and identify resisters, and help resisters protest the actions of oppressive groups.

This version of responsibility has a consequentialist bent, but it does not preclude retributive blame—it permits retributive blame only insofar as this attitude facilitates social justice objectives. Maybe Bruce is right that retributive blame is harmful on balance, but this leaves open the possibility that token instances of retributive blame can be justified (in the naturalistic sense of the word), and that non-retributive types of blame can also be justified. Bruce’s view also says nothing about the justifiability of praise, which may or may not be ‘desert based,’ but is certainly not retributive. It seems quite possible to get ride of retributivism without getting rid of responsibility in some other sense—unless something in human psychology prevents this. But if human psychology prevents anything, it would seem to be a thoroughgoing practical rejection of blame, as Strawson argues (1962). It is hard to imagine a world where we don’t blame people for injustice and praise people for resisting. It may be easier to redirect responsibility than extirpating it from human psychology.

Take-charge responsibility: Not necessarily a good thing!

Bruce proposes an alternative to moral (strike-back) responsibility, which he calls ‘take-charge responsibility.’ Take-charge responsibility is “the kind of responsibility we can have for a project, a role, or enterprise; or, to extend it further, the sort of responsibility we can claim for our own decision and our lives” (182). Notably, take-charge responsibility is not morally valenced—it appears to be a kind of (morally neutral) self-efficacy.

The issue I have with non-moral take-charge responsibility is that it is not necessarily a good thing (objectively speaking), although Bruce describes it as a positive good—something to be valued and promoted. Yet it is not hard to imagine scenarios in which take-charge responsibility is antithetical to social justice. Suppose, for instance, that Don is a businessperson as well as a malignant narcissist, and is very efficient at harming others for personal gain. Don has developed an exceptional degree of self-control, cognitive ability, and self-confidence (imagine), and he has also inherited a fortune from his late father. Don is also a white cisgendered male. Don uses his take-charge capacities, together with his wealth and his reputation power, to systematically lie and deceive people, objectify women, profit from illegal business transactions by counter-suing plaintiffs, threatening litigants, settling cases out of court, and making other ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ and seedy backroom deals, to preserve his privilege. Eventually he even obtains a well-regarded public office. In someone like Don, take-charge responsibility is not a valuable capacity—at least, not from the perspective of social justice. It would be much better if Don were lazy, ineffectual, and terrible as carrying out his antisocial plans.

This example is meant to show that take-charge responsibility in and of itself does not facilitate social justice; it is only socially beneficial when it operates in the service of pro-social aims. When combined with a distorted moral psychology, take-charge responsibility is positively harmful. Notably, if we combine take-charge responsibility with moral sensitivity, this dual capacity looks a lot like moral responsibility, in the familiar sense of moral reasons-responsiveness (see Fischer 2006, 2012). Morally reasons-responsive agents have take-charge responsibility (self-control, self-confidence, cognitive ability, etc.) plus moral sensitivity. Agents who lack self-efficacy have motivational deficits, while agents who lack moral sensitivity have moral-recognitional deficits. That is, neither capacity on its own is as valuable as the two combined. Indeed, self-efficacy by itself can be dangerous.

Now, people with moral reasons-responsiveness are also generally taken to be apt targets of praise and blame, inasmuch as praise and blame foster and reinforce this suite of capacities. On consequentialist models like Manual Vargas’ (and perhaps Gregg’s?), responsibility attributions function to enhance the reasons-responsiveness of minimally responsive agents, and this is what justifies these attitudes.

Curiously, it seems as if take-charge responsibility would also need external reinforcements to come into existence and evolve into a durable human capability, since complex human capabilities are not innate—they are shaped by social pressures, inducements, and relationships. The capacity to speak grammatically, for example, does not develop in children who do not engage in conversations with others. Self-efficacy would seem to require similar social supports. What are these social supports? Presumably, some form of non-moral praising and blaming attitudes. Bruce should be committed then, at a minimum, to non-moral praise and blame.

Now, if we think that take-charge responsibility should ideally function in conjunction with moral sensitivity, then we also need to posit moral blame and moral praise, to foster this additional relational capability. The idea that human capabilities require social incentives and disincentives is a given in developmental psychology, so the idea that praise and blame are developmentally useful should be fairly uncontroversial.  If we want to encourage moral sensitivity, then moral praise and blame may also be developmentally useful. This is true not only for children, but also for adults, since we are sensitive to social influences throughout our entire lives.

Shared end, different means

In spite of my objections, I am happy to say that Bruce and I are mostly in agreement! We are both concerned first and foremost with promoting social justice, and we agree that the responsibility system as we know it is deeply unjust. Our only point of disagreement is about the best means of accomplishing our shared goal.  Fortunately, our efforts are largely complementary insofar as they both draw attention, in different ways, to sources of social injustice. I can say the same about everyone who contributed to this symposium. Thank you all for the illuminating discussion!

  • Bruce Waller

    Bruce Waller

    Reply

    Response to Michelle

    Many thanks for your generous and insightful comments. I agree that you and I are mostly in agreement, and our disagreements concern means rather than ends, and I am delighted to think of you as an important ally in the struggle for social justice. I think that the moral responsibility system is an enormous impediment to the pursuit of social justice, while you maintain that – somewhat modified – it can be of benefit. Because you and I agree on so much, your critique is very helpful in going to the heart of some very tough issues and challenges. I have gained much greater understanding from the wonderful symposium Ryan set up, precisely because there is so much with which to agree even with those participants – John, Saul, and maybe Ryan — whose views I ultimately reject, and they develop their arguments so clearly and graciously; and with those participants with whom I am in greatest accord – Farah and Gregg – any points of disagreement soon lead to very challenging questions.

    Since we agree on very basic values, I will appeal to those values in trying to convince you that you can save all that you want to save when moral responsibility is rejected, and that moral responsibility causes enormous harm and injustice and modifications of moral responsibility may cause less harm but will still cause harm, and in striving for social justice the total elimination of moral responsibility is a vitally important step. Before getting to your tougher challenges, let me address a couple of comparatively minor issues. On the origins of moral responsibility, I don’t worry all that much about that issue. I believe my account of the origins of the moral responsibility system is largely correct (though I hesitate to claim it as my own account, since it draws heavily on the work of Bernard Williams). Certainly I agree with your major point – we have an unjust world governed primarily by white men, and we need to find ways to change it. I don’t think that blame and shame and moral responsibility are a good tool for that purpose; but we agree on the problem. And on “take-charge responsibility” (the basic idea is borrowed from H. L. A. Hart) you are quite correct that it is “not necessarily a good thing”; indeed, some who have strong powers of take-charge responsibility will no doubt abuse those powers (Donald Trump might be a good example). But exercising take-charge responsibility is generally a healthy process that combats helplessness and depression (Judith Rodin’s research on the benefits of nurturing “take-charge responsibility” in long-term care facilities is superb on this). I emphasize take-charge responsibility not because I believe that everyone who exercises it will do so well, but because many suppose that denying moral responsibility implies that one cannot take forceful action and exercise control – and that would be a result of losing take-charge responsibility, not the result of denying moral responsibility. Women and oppressed minorities and the poor and the elderly have too often been denied opportunities to exercise and develop strong take-charge responsibility, and that has caused enormous problems of lethargy, helplessness, depression; and that is a problem we should struggle to correct; and denying moral responsibility seems to me to open the best path for enhancing take-charge responsibility (for one thing, the fear of being blamed for mistakes is one of the powerful impediments to effectively exercising take-charge responsibility). Having take-charge responsibility is vitally important to our physical and mental health (again, as Rodin emphasizes); but just as people can grossly misuse their physical strength and vigor to harm others, so they can also cause harm when they exercise take-charge responsibility – and your example of Don is a good case.

    OK, here we get to some grittier issues. I will state my view baldly, and hope that no one takes it out of context: I do not believe that rapists justly deserve to be punished. I agree with you, completely, that rape is a terrible crime, a brutalizing crime that harms not only the specific victim but indeed all women; it is not a crime of sexual passion, but of brutality and cruelty, and involves a brutal attempt at demeaning the victim and, again, all women. It is a terrible, vile wrong. In the moral responsibility society in which we live, I favor harsh punishments for rapists. Even in a society that rejects moral responsibility – the society for which I long – I believe we would find it necessary to punish rapists, even though they do not justly deserve to be punished; but then, I believe that in our unjust world there are times when we cannot avoid participation in injustice, and punishment of those who commit violent crimes may well be an injustice that we cannot entirely eliminate in the foreseeable future. In our actual society, with our strong commitment to moral responsibility and just deserts, certainly I believe we should severely punish rapists. Here’s a case that I have used in a couple of places, because it has special significance for me. I grew up in the brutal apartheid society of the deep South, where blacks were often convicted and sent to Angola (or other horrific prison facilities) on trumped up charges, when their real crime was refusal to buckle under; and crimes by whites against blacks – ranging from theft to rape to murder – were almost never prosecuted. In 1963 Robert Chambliss bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four girls and injuring 22 others. There was overwhelming evidence of his guilt: he had been involved in several prior bombings, and he was well-known for his use of bombs against civil rights workers, not to mention strong forensics evidence; but for over a decade there were no charges against him. Finally, years later in 1977, he was prosecuted, and at last was found guilty and sent to prison. I celebrated. It meant that finally black people had some legal protection against brutal crimes, and their basic rights would be at least somewhat respected, and that there was recognition that this was a terrible wrong and a terrible crime. So in that context, absolutely I wanted him found guilty and punished: within the moral responsibility system, it was good that he was finally found morally responsible and blamed and punished. But I would prefer a system that does not blame even horrible people like the brutal racist murderer Robert Chambliss. We should certainly acknowledge and emphasize that what he did was egregiously wrong; but when we hold him morally responsible and blame him, there is a sense that the problem is solved. It was not solved. The deeper problems that shaped Robert Chambliss, and that remained in place to sustain deep racist sentiments, were not addressed. It would have been much better to look deeper and try to understand what caused Chambliss to become such a terrible person, and try to change those conditions so that others would not be shaped as racists. But if Chambliss is morally responsible, then (as Adina Roskies puts it) the “buck stops there,” and must stop there; for deeper inquiries soon reveal deeper causes that bring the moral responsibility of Chambliss into question. It is precisely those deeper inquiries that you and I believe are essential in changing a profoundly unjust society; and moral responsibility impedes rather than facilitates such deeper inquiries. We should certainly recognize that Chambliss is a very bad person who did morally egregious things, and I would worry about anyone who did not feel deep anger at what Chambliss did; but blaming Chambliss, and believing he justly deserves punishment, is a further issue, and goes in the wrong direction. As awful as Chambliss is, he is a symptom rather than the source of the problem; and when we insist that he is morally responsible, we stop – or at best impede – the inquiry into the deeper sources of racism (and who benefits from it, what forces hold it in place, what larger pattern does it support). You worry, legitimately, that we must be able to vigorously condemn racism and sexism; and certainly we must; but holding people morally responsible is not the best way of doing that, and it has very unfortunate side effects.

    Even in a society that rejects moral responsibility, I fear we would still have to punish Robert Chambliss – by isolating him, against his wishes, to prevent further violent crimes. (My friends Gregg Caruso and Michael Corrado would prefer not to call it punishment, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that it is – unjust – punishment, but that’s a question for another day.) But if we recognize that Chambliss is not morally responsible, we will keep the punitive measures to a minimum, and we will seek out better ways of reshaping both individuals and society.

    Also in the moral responsibility system, there is a strong tendency to count people as somehow “self-made” (for otherwise we cannot make sense of holding them morally responsible), and that promotes the idea that those who are successful are justly deserving of their success, and those who are not successful also are receiving their just deserts. And that holds power structures in place, and makes it more difficult to challenge them.

    We do have to punish and reward (and I believe that like punishment, reward is also necessary; but under the influence of moral responsibility, we reward in ways that are grossly unfair and are often counterproductive); from my perspective, the big problem is not with punishment and reward, which can be useful, and probably cannot be eliminated (and we don’t want to eliminate reward in any case); rather, the problem is in belief that punishment and reward are justly deserved. You make some very insightful points concerning the need for mild social sanctions that do not reach the level of criminal punishment. I agree that these are often (not always) valuable, and probably cannot be eliminated. Paula Hieronymi has written about such mild social sanctions, and their value, and her analysis is subtle and valuable. But she concludes that recognizing the legitimacy and value of such sanctions implies that we must also believe that they are justly deserved, and that is another issue altogether. It may be that they are justified, for the benefit of society and perhaps for the benefit of the person sanctioned; but that no more makes them justly deserved than supposing that the child who burns her fingers – and benefits from that painful lesson – justly deserved to suffer a painful burn.

    Yes, we do need sanctions; but we do not need moral responsibility, not in standard or revised form. We can do everything we want to do without moral responsibility; and with moral responsibility, we block the deeper understanding necessary for accomplishing real changes to our unjust system. From my perspective (John Lemos disagrees) it is no accident that cultures (like the neoliberal U.S.) that emphasize belief in moral responsibility also celebrate “rugged individualism” and belief that the wealthy and powerful are gaining their just deserts and the impoverished and those lacking in power are likewise receiving their just deserts (and do not deserve support or help); and that cultures that hold minimum belief in moral responsibility are much more egalitarian and are more strongly committed to the rights of all persons. To best understand the oppressive forces at work in our society, we should not view society through the darkened lens of moral responsibility.

    You suggest that it is difficult to imagine a world without blame and moral responsibility, and suggest that it is perhaps an ineradicable element of our psychological nature. On this I think we do disagree. It is difficult to imagine a world without blame because the U.S. and the UK are both neoliberal cultures deeply immersed in blame; but when sociologists examine other cultures (such as the social democratic corporatist cultures) they find much less inclination to blame. In the American colonies of New England, there was deep rejection of moral responsibility (on religious grounds), though of course they still punished. And if Bernard Williams is correct, the ancient Greeks generally rejected belief in a just world and had at most a very attenuated notion of moral responsibility and just deserts. And psychologists tell us that as we understand more about the causes of behavior and reflect on those causes, the tendency to blame is ameliorated if not eliminated (the work of Hannah Pickard along these lines is excellent).

    One last point (I have gone on much too long already, but you raised very interesting issues): One reason so many rapists are not successfully prosecuted is that (according to researchers on belief in a just world) people are strongly tempted to believe that anyone who suffers such a horrific wrong must have done something to justly deserve it (otherwise there would be terrible injustice in the world, and I and my loved ones would be vulnerable even if we are good); and so it is easy for juries to believe that the victim “led him on,” “brought this on herself,” etc. And of course belief in a just world is closely connected with strong belief in moral responsibility. So that in itself seems a strong reason to doubt the positive nature of the moral responsibility system.

    So, we agree on the goals, but disagree on the best tools for achieving those goals. Moral responsibility, no matter how we clean it up, seems to me a destructive tool, promoting precisely those attitudes we want to change, and impeding our understanding of the deeper causes we need to fix. But Saul and John and Bob Kane and many other wonderful people would agree with your view on this, so you are certainly in good company, and the issue is a vexed one. In any case, my sincere gratitude (assuming I can feel such gratitude, which Saul doubts) for a remarkably stimulating commentary.

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