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.