Home > Determinism, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind > Moral Responsibility vs. Moral Judgment

Moral Responsibility vs. Moral Judgment

This post can also be found here at the Florida Student Philosophy Blog. In what follows I would like to first address why I do not believe human beings are morally responsible for their behavior in the manner commonly thought necessary, and second posit that the moral responsibility of human beings is not necessary for possessing judgments as to what actions are right or wrong. For ease of conversation, and to keep the topic centered on morality instead of determinism vs. agency, I would like to presuppose the truth of determinism. This is not to make my stance de facto correct, rather to guide any critiques to be against determinist moral theory instead of determinism in general. I understand there are few who accept determinism, but I do see the conversation of agency and determinism as being separate to considerations of what morality and moral responsibility would look like if determinism is true. One need not affirm determinism to argue for the consistency of a view within that framework.

Moral Responsibility

Below is a general outline of my position on moral responsibility, upon which I will then expand: (1) One conception of moral responsibility entails that the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP). According to Frankfurt, the PAP claims that “a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.” (2) The truth of determinism, on the common reading, would mean that every outcome that obtains is the only outcome that could have obtained given the state of the universe and the laws governing that universe. (3) This would mean that, if determinism is true, it is never the case that I could have acted other than how I have. (4) On this account, I cannot ever be morally responsible for my actions because I cannot ever do otherwise. In “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” Frankfurt introduces the concept of a counterfactual intervener and gives a thought experiment (which will not be reproduced here) that calls for the revision of the PAP to say that “a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise.” Frankfurt believes this allows for moral responsibility as well as determinism in certain special cases. While this iteration of the PAP is certainly an improvement, I believe it is slightly misleading, especially depending on how causal reduction is explained. For I can claim that I possessed 100, well-deliberated reasons for acting in a certain way and that I am morally responsible because my actions did not obtain in that way simply because it was determined. However, this is exactly what universal causal determinism entails; all of the 100 reasons I can summon, including all desires, motivations, etc. to act in such a way are only so because of the state of the universe and due to its laws, etc. So, at the immediate level it might seem in all cases (except for coercion) that if I have so many reasons, or even one, for making a specific choice then I am morally responsible for that choice because there were more elements at work than just my inability to do otherwise; I wanted to perform just that action and no other action for a specific set of reasons. However, this is undermined by the determination of those desires, motivations, etc. that lead to the formulation of those reasons. For this reason it would seem that, even with the reformulated PAP, if determinism is the case then it can never been that I did something not only because I could not have done otherwise. I do not mean this to be a knockdown argument against counterfactual intervener scenarios, I only mean to draw attention to the difficulties associated with the definition, since I do not understand what it would mean for there to be other, non-determined, reasons for behavior such that determination of my behavior was not the sole “reason” for my acting that way. In this way I do not think that Frankfurt’s point undermines my postulation that if determinism is true, we are not morally responsible for our actions if, to be morally responsible, we require alternate possibilities.

Moral Judgments

As for moral judgments, my position is similar to Honderich and Smilansky in that I do not believe the removal of our moral responsibility necessitates the destruction of what is right and what is wrong. While I agree with their position, and offer an example in #7, I believe there is also an alternate way of viewing this problem that accounts for both metaphysical notions of right and wrong as well as relative definitions. (5) If we do not have moral responsibility in this sense, some have claimed that moral judgments about right and wrong must also be tossed out. As the criticism goes, there can be no morality if there is no one to be held morally responsible. (6) However, removal of our ability to be morally responsible does not appear to necessitate the disappearance of moral judgments themselves. (7) For example, if killing another person regardless of motivation is considered morally wrong, the determination of my behavior such that I could not have done otherwise but to murder does not necessitate that murder itself can still be classified as wrong. The first of my own examples I would like to offer concerns metaphysical notions of right or wrong, i.e. those that stem from some enduring truth or stem from an enduring metaphysical entity (God). If, by edict of God, murder is considered morally wrong, then regardless of whether human beings can be held morally responsible for any murder they commit, it is still the case that murder is wrong. All that has changed is that human beings cannot be blamed for instances of murder; their actions can still be considered morally wrong. In a metaphysical model where God created the universe, it is conceivable in some iterations that God would be morally responsible, since one could argue that God would need to have the ability to do otherwise, even if he never would. In a relative moral system, where we define right and wrong based on cultural and societal norms, this would still be the case. So, as a society, we agree for whatever reason that murdering another person is wrong, it would still be the case that murdering is considered wrong whether anyone can be held morally responsible for any murders they commit. In this way, there must be a distinction made between moral responsibility and morality itself. I am dimly aware, by way of Derk Pereboom’s response, that Haji believes moral judgements concern “ought” statements, i.e. claiming murder is wrong is the same as claiming that ”one ought not murder other human beings” and that the nature of “ought” judgments requires the possibility that it be in one’s power to do otherwise. I am not so positive that “ought” statements are the case for every moral claim. It is certainly possible that, given the nature of morality itself, it must be possible to formulate an “ought” statement for any given moral judgment, i.e. “it is morally wrong to eat ripe fruit” must be able to be expressed as “one ought not to eat ripe fruit” but I am skeptical of the idea that “ought” statements require the ability to do otherwise for them to exist.


On this explanation it seems at least plausibly consistent for me to hold the view that determinism is true, we are not morally responsible for our behavior in that we cannot do otherwise, and that our lack of moral responsibility does not necessitate a lack of moral judgments regarding right and wrong. Again, I welcome any and all questions or criticisms, though I am less interested in discussing why it is that I affirm determinism in this post, although I am certainly open to doing so in a different post. I thank you all for the opportunity to strengthen my understanding of the problem as well as to make my views as internally consistent as possible.

  1. March 15, 2011 at 4:05 PM

    Great post. Perhaps if my knowledge of the topics at hand were more nuanced, I would have criticisms or feedback. Alas, I do not. Great post. Thanks for sharing and making your thoughts internally consistent.

    • March 16, 2011 at 3:29 PM

      Thanks Nick! I hope to be able to address other definitions of moral responsibility in the future.

  1. August 1, 2011 at 3:43 PM

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