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Essay Question No.

3
Determinism states that given a specified state of events at time T1, the state of
events at all future times T1+x are fixed according to natural law. Simply put,
causal determinism states that every event is caused by a string of antecedent
factors. As intuitively the idea of determinism is incompatible with free will the
question arises; what of moral responsibility? Philosophy has, as a major pursuit,
attempted to address moral responsibility within the framework of determinism
and in this essay I will explore contributions to the debate including primarily the
works of van Inwagen, Strawson and Frankfurt. I hold that determinism is
incompatible with moral responsibility and that the latter requires a kind of
freedom not allowed for by determinism.
Central to this issue is an appropriate definition of moral responsibility. This is
separated from causal responsibility in that the latter implies causal attribution
while the former requires moral accountability. For example, say Robert suffered
an epileptic seizure while holding a crowbar and involuntarily killed a passerby.
He would not be held morally accountable in the same way if he had killed the
passerby in order to take his money. In a sense then we can define moral
responsibility as a state whereby the agent is deserving of moral sentiments for
an action or omission. A moral agent is defined in that he can be deserving of
such sentiments1. An intuitive condition of being a moral agent in a particular
circumstance is that the outcome must be 'up to us'. This premise is the basis of
van Inwagen's Consequence Argument2 for the incompatibility of determinism
and free will. Adapted to the issue at hand, this line of reasoning states that;
P1: We can only be morally responsible for acts that are up to us
P2: If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of
nature and events in the remote past
P3: The laws of nature and the events of the remote past are not up to us
P4: Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are
not up to us

1 Ekstrom, L W (2000). Free Will. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press


2 van Inwagen, P., 1983, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

C: Determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible


As 'up to us' can be understood as 'we might have done otherwise' a
Compatibilist approach is to attack Premise 1 in showing situations in which
agents might possess moral responsibility although they could not have done
otherwise3. Such an approach from a Compatibilist perspective is preferred as
the classical Compatibilist argument, as set forth by Hume, alters definitions of
moral freedom and relates responsibility only with attribution of action to
individual will, determined or not4. In his landmark paper "Alternate Possibilities
and Moral Responsibility" Frankfurt sets out to disprove the intuitive truth of 'up
to us', codified in his original paper as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities.
PAP: a person is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have
done otherwise.
In Frankfurt-type cases we are presented with a scenario whereby an individual
facing two options is placed with a 'controller in the wings' who is able to coerce
the agent into choosing a particular option. However the key feature is that
should the agent choose the particular option of his own accord then the
controller will not intervene5.
For example, Jones is choosing to vote either for Gillard or Abbott. Black would
like Jones to vote for Abbott and, should Jones show a sign of voting for Gillard
(which in Fischer's versions of such cases can extend to Black's monitoring of
triggering events, such as blushing, prior to the decision), Black would intervene.
However Jones votes for Abbott of his own accord and Black never has to
exercise coercion. As such;
P1: Jones votes for Abbott independent of Black
3 Eshleman, Andrew, "Moral Responsibility", The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/moral-responsibility/>.
4 Russell, Paul, "Hume on Free Will", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/hume-freewill/>
5 Frankfurt, H. (2003). Responsibility and Alternative Possibilites. In: Widerker D.
and McKenna M. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. Aldershot:
Ashgate. p17-26

P2: Jones is responsible for voting for Abbott


P3: However Jones could not have voted for Gillard
C: Therefore PAP is false
This strategy is appealing and has spawned much debate over Frankfurt-style
cases however there are certain objections that must be addressed. I will present
a line of argument referred to by Fischer as the 'flicker-of-freedom" strategy 6.
In every Frankfurt style case the controller (i.e. Black) will only intervene should
the subject (Jones) display an inclination to do otherwise. At some point in the
causal chain prior to intervention the subject must attempt and 'will' the
alternate possibility. As such he has the choice between two quite separate
causal sequences: (a) in which he acts of his own accord and (b) in which he
necessitates the controller's involvement. As an analogy, I may choose to arrive
at the Coombs Building either by going via Melville Hall or the Chifley Library.
While I may not, in a Frankfurt style case, impact the outcome of my arriving at
the Coombs Building I may still choose or rather 'will' two alternate sequences of
action. Fischer maintains that he does not have a 'knockout' argument against
such a strategy and responds by arguing that alternative possibilities in
themselves do not provide moral responsibility, rather they must be sufficiently
robust. He finds this robustness located in the counterfactual sequence and
argues further that if the counterfactual sequence is unfree then its existence is
irrelevant to the agent's responsibility7. This line of argument I find unconvincing
and, as echoed in Mackie's work, it does not change the fact that the agent had
the initial choice between the factual and counterfactual sequence. I would
further posit that sufficient robustness is located in the choice itself as a
relational property to the counterfactual sequence 8.
6 Fischer, J M. (2003). Responsibility and Alternative Possibilites. In: Widerker D.
and McKenna M. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. Aldershot:
Ashgate. p27-52
7 Fischer, J M. (2003). Responsibility and Alternative Possibilites. In: Widerker D.
and McKenna M. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. Aldershot:
Ashgate. p27-52
8 Mackie, D. (2000). Fischer on Alternative Possibilities and Responsibility. In: van den
Beld, T Moral Responsibility and Ontology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. p89102

An approach independent of PAP is found in Strawson's influential paper


Freedom and Resentment in which he seeks to reconcile both the Incompatibilist
and Compatibilist positions by addressing moral responsibility in terms of moral
sentiments usually held by people, termed 'reactive attitudes' 9. These attitudes
include resentment, anger, love gratitude etc. and Strawson, correctly, asserts
that in interpersonal relationships the agents hold such reactive attitudes by due
of ascribing moral responsibility. He also rightly asserts that the possession of
such attitudes is integral to humans and that individuals do not deal with others
exclusively with the "objective" attitude which is primarily an intellectual
assessment. He then deals with cases where we may suspend our reactive
attitudes and adopt the objective attitude. These can be summarised briefly as
falling under two conditions; (a) the excuse condition whereby the agent is not
held to be deserving of the reactive attitudes (or else the reactive attitudes are
mollified) as he was acting under abnormal conditions (stress, sleep deprivation
etc). This however does not detract the agent's moral status in our eyes. (b) The
exemption condition whereby we view the other as not deserving of the reactive
attitudes at all as we do not hold them morally responsible in cases where the
agent is abnormal (e.g. insane or a child). He then reasons that determinism, if
true, does not affect these reactive attitudes and so is compatible with moral
responsibility. The line of reasoning is summarised here:
P1: if determinism were true then all behaviour is equally determined
P2: if determinism is relevant to the suspension of our reactive attitudes then
this suspension must be extended universally.
P3: There are two pleas that usually result in the suspension of reactive
attitudes, the Excuse plea and the Exemption plea, and if these are the only two
pleas to suspension then determinism would imply that one or both of these are
universally valid.
P4: Determinism does not imply that either plea is valid as it does not state that
every action is accidental or free from will nor does it state that all people are
abnormal (an impossibility).
C: thus determinism is irrelevant to the suspension of our reactive attitudes
9 Strawson, P. F. 1993. Freedom and Resentment. Proceedings of the British
Academy 48 (1962):125. Reprinted in Fischer and Ravizza, 1993

This philosophical argument addresses some Incompatibilist concerns about a


merely pragmatic view of moral responsibility as espoused by some Compatibilist
positions however I feel it does not constitute a valid reason for the attribution of
moral responsibility. Strawson posits that these reactive attitudes are beyond the
scope of mere intellectualisation and are intuitively and emotionally held. On this
I agree but I would argue further that these intuitive attitudes are held due to an
equally overwhelming intuition of free will and moral freedom. As such, they hold
true only in the face of these intuitions and ascribe moral responsibility only on
such grounds. Further, the holding of reactive attitudes does not show in itself
that an agent is deserving of such moral status.
I posit that deep moral responsibility as equated with accountability is not
compatible with determinism as the latter does not allow for the agent to
possess the ability to genuinely choose or alter causal sequences. This I find to
be essential as accountability requires a degree of regulative control. The
challenge for the Incompatibilist is now to find an approach that is either able to
define a kind of libertarian 'contra-causal' freedom or else to reconcile moral
responsibility with indeterminism.

Bibliography
Ekstrom, L W (2000). Free Will. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press
Eshleman, Andrew, "Moral Responsibility", The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/moral-responsibility/>.
Fischer, J M. (2003). Responsibility and Alternative Possibilites. In: Widerker D.
and McKenna M. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. Aldershot:
Ashgate. p27-52
Frankfurt, H. (2003). Responsibility and Alternative Possibilites. In: Widerker D.
and McKenna M. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. Aldershot:
Ashgate. p17-26

Lippert-Rasmussen, K. (2000). Does Moral Responsibility Presuppose Alternate


Possibilites?. In: van den Beld, T Moral Responsibility and Ontology. Dordrecht:
Kluwer Academic Publishers. p89-102
Mackie, D. (2000). Fischer on Alternative Possibilities and Responsibility. In: van
den Beld, T Moral Responsibility and Ontology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic
Publishers. p89-102
McKenna, Michael, "Compatibilism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
(Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/>.
Strawson, Galen (1998, 2011). Free will. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia
of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved April 18, 2013, from
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Strawson, P. F. 1993. Freedom and Resentment. Proceedings of the British
Academy 48 (1962):125. Reprinted in Fischer and Ravizza, 1993
Russell, Paul, "Hume on Free Will", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall
2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/hume-freewill/>
van Inwagen, P., 1983, An Essay on Free Will, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Vihvelin, Kadri, "Arguments for Incompatibilism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of
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<http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/incompatibilismarguments/>.