Moral responsibility is an assignment of a duty or obligation to behave in a 'good' manner and refrain from behaving in a 'bad' manner. From a philosophical standpoint, the rationale behind 'good' and 'bad' is a subject for ethics and metaethics. Stent provides four conditions for assigning moral responsibility, among them the "duties and obligations devolving from moral, legal, or ritual imperatives". In everyday life, obligation in this context is distinguished in part from milder demands for conformity like etiquette by the intense and insistent social pressure brought to bear upon those who deviate or threaten to deviate. From an anthropological or sociological standpoint, the specifics of what is 'good' or 'bad', and the ways of enforcing acceptable behavior, vary considerably from one group to another.
- "Social learning theorists...feel that the learning of moral rules is not culturally invariant, but is, rather, critically related to particular learning environments and to the distinctive normative code of the society in question. The major influences on moral development are what B.F. Skinner calls "contingencies of reinforcement"...culturally variable factors that explain why different peoples acquire different types of moral orientations."
- "The study of ethics is concerned not only with identification of societal values but with thinking logically about ethical challenges and developing practical approaches to moral problem solving. Other disciplines also are concerned with discovering society's moral precepts. For example, sociology and anthropology each study cultural norms."
A large part of the philosophical discussion of 'moral responsibility' is focused upon the logical implications (as distinct from the ascertainable facts, such as they may be) of whether or not humans actually are able to control their actions to some or another extent. Resolution of that issue is the philosophical subject of free will, a continuing debate that began millennia ago and seems destined to continue indefinitely. It is known that humans' control over their actions is limited in some circumstances, and there is debate over the role of moral responsibility where there is only curtailed agency.
Another facet of the philosophical discussion is the emotions attached to 'moral responsibility', which are considered by some to be the litmus test for an invocation of 'moral responsibility'.
Adopting the view that 'moral responsibility' ascribes "duties and obligations to a person that devolve from moral, legal, or ritual imperatives", moral philosophy is a key to much that is so attributed. The implications of anthropology or sociology for moral philosophy largely fall under the topic of moral relativism. According to Gowans, moral relativism concerns two broad categories:
- Descriptive Moral Relativism: As a matter of empirical fact, there are deep and widespread moral disagreements across different societies, and these disagreements are much more significant than whatever agreements there may be.
The last claim about the significance of disagreement is controversial, but the first claim is not. The other form of moral relativism is:
- Metaethical Moral Relativism: The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.
This position can be contrasted with moral objectivism, the view "that moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute or universal sense, that some of them are true, and that people sometimes are justified in accepting true moral judgments (and rejecting false ones) on the basis of evidence available to any reasonable and well-informed person."
Although a great deal is written about moral responsibility, a surprising number of authors do not define the term, and focus upon emotional responses. The term 'moral sentiments' refers to reactions stemming from our approval and disapproval of persons' virtues and vices and their character traits, and they can be calm or violent, reasoned or instinctive.
Some authors do not define 'moral responsibility' itself, but rely for its identification upon exactly these visceral responses. Peter F. Strawson holds that moral responsibility is in its entirety reducible to these reactions. "Holding [a person] responsible is as natural and basic to human life as friendship, ..., and antipathy. It rests on needs and concerns that are not so much to be justified as acknowledged." However, according to Bruce Waller, justification plays a role:
- "As I use the phrase..."moral responsibility" is the essential (necessary, if not sufficient) condition for justified blame and punishment."
He quotes Michael McKenna as stating:
- "what most everyone is hunting for ... is the sort of moral responsibility that is desert entailing, the kind the makes blaming and punishing as well as praising and rewarding justified."
and he also quotes Randolph Clarke as saying:
- "If any agent is truly responsible...that fact provides us with a specific type of justification for ...praise or blame, with finite rewards or punishments. To be a morally responsible human agent is to be truly deserving of these sorts of responses, and deserving in a way that no agent is that is not morally responsible."
This last excerpt is quoted by K.E. Boxer as well.
Fischer does not adopt 'justification' but rationality. He holds that "An agent is morally responsible for an action insofar as he is rationally accessible to certain kinds of attitudes and activities as a result of performing the action." Although he elaborates upon what constitutes a "rational candidate" (primarily an argument that a rational candidate does not have to have the 'freedom to do otherwise'), he does not focus upon which agents "ought to be praised or blamed (and to what extent) for their actions".
Richard Double suggests that there is no one thing denoted by 'moral responsibility', that the term is "merely honorific and subjective" and cannot be "counted as [a candidate] among the class of real entities". He bases what he calls this nonrealist view upon the huge variety of factors "pragmatic, ideological, conventional, aesthetic, psychological, and/or idiosyncratic" and all fundamentally "non-objectively grounded" that enter a decision about 'moral responsibility', and suggests that no form of words captures the "deep senses" of the term, its "visceral" emotional source.
It can be questioned whether a definition based upon the triggering of emotional reactions gets to the root of the matter when the same action moves some enormously, even to violence, while leaving others unmoved. The appeal simply to 'praise', 'blame' and the like fails to distinguish the circumstances where these reactions are a 'moral' response from other cases where society expresses its support or disapproval, and so a full discussion has to go beyond introducing the word 'moral' to identify the differences. Eshleman comments: "the concept of moral responsibility as accountability is an inherently social notion, and to hold someone responsible is to address a fellow member of the moral community." One might surmise that the foundation supporting the emotional reactions of praise and blame is the solidarity felt with one's "fellow member[s] of the moral community", what Williams calls the "Aristotelian Account", part of which is our ability "to participate in forms of mutual accountability, whereby we inculcate and to some extent enforce shared standards of action".
- See also: Mind-body problem
One can separate the actual deliberations involved in moral responsibility, as described by Hart, for example, from the implementation of these considerations, which may indeed involve the various feelings and inputs identified by many as integral to the concept of 'moral responsibility'. According to Greene and Cohen, "Most people's view of the mind is implicitly dualist...the view that mind and brain are separate interacting entities, that non-physical mental entities have observable physical effects." According to Ratner: "Culture produces the mind; brain circuitry does not.”
Just what is the division between the mind-brain roles: how is thought divided between the non-physical mind and the physical brain? Immanuel Kant took the view in his Critique of Pure Reason and Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone that humankind had a 'will' that itself was exempt from the 'laws of nature'. He divided reality into two realms, the noumenal realm where humans could themselves cause things, and the phenomenal realm where the laws of nature applied, which in his day were thought to be entirely deterministic. According to Velasquez:
- "[According to Kant] we sometimes have to look at ourselves as physical objects, particularly when we try to explain our actions in terms of the laws of science...But we sometimes also have to look at ourselves as free conscious beings, particularly when we try to understand ourselves as beings who act in the world."
- "Many writers today agree with Kant. The philosopher/psychologist Steven Pinker, for example writes the following:
- 'Science and morality are separate spheres of reasoning...[more of this quote is provided]'
- Here Pinker is agreeing with Kant. ... So are we free or determined? Are we responsible agents or passive victims? Was Darrow right? Or was Sartre right? Or were both right as Kant and Pinker suggest?"
Kant introduced two kinds of will, the Wille capable of moral reasoning, and a second, the Willkür, that takes the deliberations of the Wille into account, but makes the final choice between an individual's impulses, which choice might follow the dictates of moral responsibility, or not.
- "It is only through the distinction between Wille and Willkür that Kant can make plausible that we are affected by our inclinations, but not determined by them."
Something close to this viewpoint, although not so dramatic a division, can be found in Wallace, who divides his book Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments into "two main parts". "One is an account of what it is to hold people morally responsible, in terms of the moral sentiments. The other is an account of the conditions of moral agency, in terms of the rational power to grasp moral reasons and to control one's behavior in the light of them."
Role of free will
According to Sam Harris:
- "The belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of 'sin' and our commitment to retributive justice. The US Supreme Court has called free will a "universal and persistent" foundation for our system of law, distinct from 'a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with he underlying precepts of our criminal justice system' (United States v. Grayson, 1978)"
This judgment is an enforcement of 'moral responsibility' based upon the common view of the origins of 'moral responsibility' in the capacity of humankind to control their own actions, at least to some degree. However, Harris and many others have devised arguments they are convinced make the idea of holding people responsible for their acts makes sense even if it turns out they have no control over their actions, that is, there is no free will or, alternatively, free will is not a relevant consideration.
Generally, it is also held by those with this 'no free will' view that a consequence of having no control or only limited control makes a retributive or punitive dealing with transgressions inappropriate. For example, one might be incarcerated to protect society from your dangerous proclivities, but not as punishment either because, after all, you really could not have chosen to do otherwise, or because punishment is ineffective.
A more confusing claim also is made that rehabilitation of transgressors might be possible. Although one can well understand from within this 'no free will' viewpoint that some 'reprogramming' of individuals could be successful by conditioning the subject's environment to produce the appropriate predetermined result, it is not clear how a decision to introduce such programs could be divorced from the ability of someone or some group to make the decision to implement such a plan, which is a choice that seems to contradict a claim that no autonomy of humankind is possible. Any attempt to push this implementation further up some decision tree seems to avoid a requirement for autonomy only at the expense of an infinite regress.
Harris suggests "judgements of responsibility depend upon the overall complexion of one's mind"..."Degrees of guilt can still be judged by reference to the facts of a case: the personality of the accused, his prior offenses, his patterns of association with others ....If a person's actions seem to have been entirely out of character this might influence our view..."
That is, one is held responsible for one's character. Is this to place decisions in various categories, in the manner described by David Hume? Hume adopts the view that moral judgments are determined by character, which can decide an individual's actions:
- "Where [actions] proceed not from some cause in the characters and dispositions of the persons who perform them, they...can neither redound to his honor, if good, nor infamy, if evil...the person is not responsible for the [action]...as it proceed from nothing in him that is durable or constant."
If we are to endorse the 'no free will' viewpoint, on the other hand, we cannot suggest that even though any particular decision may be decided by outside forces, one does have control over the more deliberative, long-term trends of one's life that shape one's character. If one allows free will, however, the possibility exists for just such a differentiation of decisions. Hume himself accepted the ability to make decisions, and was not a believer in the governing power of causality at all, thinking it was just a convenient invention of the human mind to help to organize one's experience.
Further examination of these issues leads one to consider the subjective-objective dichotomy.
How does the law interpret 'moral responsibility', and how does that view impact the philosophy of 'moral responsibility'? As stated by Cane, some discount any contribution of the law:
- "Law and legal concepts often seem artificial and contrived,...consisting of arbitrary rules...By contrast, ‘morality’ is seen as ‘natural’ and, at its best, the product of calm, rational and principled reflection on the nature of the world and the place of human beings in it. According to this account, morality is in some sense prior to and independent of social practices in general, and of legal practices in particular. Whereas law is necessarily a social phenomenon, a matter of convention and practice, morality is ultimately non-conventional and critical, providing ultimate standards for the ethical assessment of law and other social practices."
Cane does not subscribe to this view, but suggests that the view of the law upon moral responsibility has bearing outside the law as well:
- "It seems worthwhile...to allow of the possibility that legal concepts embody social practices and understandings that exist outside the law; and that by studying legal concepts that have counterparts outside the law, we might learn something about those extra-legal social practices... [There is] no reason to ignore the law in seeking to understand widely used normative concepts."
Cane suggests that a realistic formulation of responsibility has a social basis that cannot be ignored, and that is also the foundation of a legal system.
This view also is supported by Kutz:
- "The claim that responses are warranted by governing social norms necessarily implies some social relativism....social norms define the nature of the act in question and they regulate the appropriate response".
Kutz (p. 557) says: "The retributivist's exclusive focus upon an agent's intentional state and actions dictates that...the response warranted by desert is thus univocal, dependent upon facts about the agent rather than the agent's relation to others.".
As Hart puts it:
- "[Responsibility] is a social concept and logically dependent upon accepted rules of conduct. It is fundamentally not descriptive, but ascriptive in character; and it is [not to be defined] by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions whether physical or psychological."
- "Moral responsibility denotes the relation that obtains between an action performed by a person and the duties and obligations of that person...moral responsibility is an ascriptive concept, which attributes duties and obligations to a person that devolve from moral, legal, or ritual imperatives"
This ascriptive legal approach to 'moral responsibility' does not directly address the fundamental issues of whether the social norms underlying the law are well founded either empirically or philosophically, but identifies that the law formalizes a society's conception of 'moral responsibility' and to what it attaches. As with moral relativism, the underlying connection is to the mores of a selected group, which may or may not have a universal basis outside the views of any particular group. Assessment of the legal machinery has, in return, implications for the societal beliefs underlying it.
Philosophy deals with clarification of language and argument, and not with science. However, neuroscience has assembled many examples where hidden processes of the brain affect the conscious mind, and decision making. This developing perspective affects the value we place upon individual philosophical positions on 'moral responsibility'.
At least for the present, the separation of the role of the individual's will from other circumstances (genes, accidents of upbringing or history, and so forth), defies our capabilities, both personally and societally. This information affects our interpretation of events, our cultural norms, and eventually our laws. According to some, emphasis should turn from praise and blame toward a focus on exploring recidivism and society's ability to rehabilitate and to predict recurrence of dangerous behavior.
- David Shoemaker (Feb 13, 2012). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Personal Identity and Ethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition).
- Geoff Sayre-McCord (Jan 26, 2012). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Metaethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition).
- Gunther Siegmund Stent (2002). Paradoxes of free will. American Philosophical Society, p. 97. ISBN 0871699265.
- HLA Hart (2012). The Concept of Law, 3rd. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199644705. Reprint of 1961 edition with introduction by Leslie Greene.
- Richard W. Wilson (1981). “Moral rules”, A. Kleinman, T.Y. Lin, eds: Normal and Abnormal Behavior in Chinese Culture. Springer, pp. 119-120. ISBN 9027711046. The reference is to BF Skinner (2002). Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Reprint of Knopf 1971 ed. Hackett Publishing, p. 128. ISBN 1603844163.
- Howard H. Kendler (2008). “Nature's search for human values”, Amoral thoughts about morality, 2nd ed. Charles C Thomas, pp. 27 ff. ISBN 0398077924.
- John Henry Morgan (2005). Naturally Good: A Behavioral History of Moral Development from Charles Darwin to E.O. Wilson. Cloverdale Press. ISBN 1929569130.
- Donald Carper, John McKinsey, Bill West (2007). “The nature of ethical inquiry”, Understanding the law, 5th ed. Cengage Learning, p. 28. ISBN 111179801X.
- Manuel Vargas (2013). Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility. Oxford University Press, p. 10. ISBN 0191655775. “[There are] other legitimate worries one can have about responsibility. For example, one could be worried about the consequences of reductionism of the mental (including whether our minds do anything, or whether they are epiphenomenal byproducts of more basic causal processes). Alternately, one might be worried that specific results in some or another science (usually, neurology but sometimes psychology) show that we lack some crucial power necessary for moral responsibility....”
- Peter Cane (2002). Responsibility in Law and Morality. Hart Publishing, p. 4. ISBN 1841133213. “A common argument in the philosophical literature is that the essence of responsibility is to be found in what it means to be a human agent and to have free will...There is disagreement amongst philosophers about what freedom means, about whether human beings are free in the relevant sense, and about the relevance of freedom to responsibility...Nevertheless, both in law and "morality" we regularly hold people responsible, and treat people in certain ways on the basis of our judgments of responsibility."”
- Peter F Strawson (2008). “Chapter 1: Freedom and resentment §5”, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays. Routledge, pp. 14 ff. ISBN 0415448506. Summarized in Derk Pereboom (2005). “Chapter 21: Living without free will: the case for hard incompatibilism”, Robert Kane, ed: The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford University Press, p. 483.
- Richard Double (1990). The Non-Reality of Free Will. Oxford University Press, p. 5. ISBN 0195362330.
- John Martin Fischer (2006). “Chapter 3: Responsiveness and moral responsibility”, My Way : Essays on Moral Responsibility. Oxford University Press, p. 63. ISBN 0195346289.
- HLA Hart (May 23, 1949). "The ascription of responsibility and rights". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series 49: pp. 171-194. On line version found at (1961) “Ascription of responsibility”, Herbert Morris, ed: Freedom and Responsibility: Readings in Philosophy and Law. Stanford University Press, pp. 143 ff. ISBN 0804700672.
- Chris Gowans (Dec 9, 2008). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Moral Relativism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition).
- Rachel Cohon (Aug 27, 2010). Edward N. Zalta ,ed:Hume's Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition).
- Derk Pereboom (2005). “Chapter 21: Living without free will: the case for hard incompatibilism; §4: Personal relationships”, Robert Kane, ed: The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford University Press, p. 483.
- In a discussion of Peter F. Strawson's views: Gary Watson (2003). “Introduction; Freedom and blame”, Free will. Oxford University Press, p. 16. ISBN 019925494X.
- Bruce Waller (2011). Against Moral Responsibility. MIT Press, p. 2. ISBN 0262016591.
- Michael McKenna (May 2009). "Compatibilism & desert: critical comments on four views on free will". Philosophical Studies 144 (1): pp. 3-13.
- Randolf Clarke (September 2005). "On an Argument for the Impossibility of Moral Responsibility". Midwest Studies in Philosophy 29 (1): pp. 13-24. DOI:10.1111/j.1475-4975.2005.00103.x. Research Blogging.
- KE Boxer (2013). Rethinking Responsibility. Oxford University Press, p.35. ISBN 0199695326.
- Garrath Williams (2004). Praise and blame. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “What sense we should give to these ideas of culpability or desert, and what is necessary for us to think of a person as responsible: these are the central issues...” Also found in Garrath Williams (Spring 2004). "Two approaches to moral responsibility". Richmond Journal of Philosophy 6.
- Andrew Eshleman (Nov 18, 2009). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Moral Responsibility. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition).
- Joshua Greene, Jonathan Cohen (2004). "For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything". Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 359: 1775-1785. DOI:10.1098/rstb.2004.1546. Research Blogging.
- Carl Ratner (2011). Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind. Oxford University Press, p. 96. ISBN 0199706298.
- Manuel Velasquez (2012). “§3.7: Is freedom real?”, Philosophy, 12th. Cengage Learning, p. 211. ISBN 1133612105.
- Steven Pinker (2009). “Standard equipment”, How the mind works. WW Norton & Co, p. 55. ISBN 0393069737. “A human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free agent, depending on the purpose of the discussion, just as he is also an insurance salesman, a dental patient, and two hundred pounds of ballast on a commuter airplane, depending on the purpose of the discussion. (p. 56)”
Velasquez refers to Clarence Darrow and Jean Paul Sartre. In his defense of murderers Leopold and Loeb, Darrow suggested that they weren't to be held responsible as neither was "his own father; he was not his own mother; he was not his own grandparents."1 In contrast, Sartre viewed determinism as a way to distance ourselves from our decisions by a retreat into abstraction that denies the reality of choice.2
- 1Clarence Darrow. Arthur Weinberg, ed: Attorney for the Damned: Clarence Darrow in the Courtroom, p. 65.
- 2Joseph S. Catalano. A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness, p. 75.
- Marion Smiley (2009). Moral Responsibility and the Boundaries of Community: Power and Accountability from a Pragmatic Point of View. University of Chicago Press, pp. 84-86. ISBN 0226763250.
- The views of Henry Allison as presented by: Corinna Mieth, Jacob Rosenthal (2006). “"Freedom must be presupposed as a property of the will of all rational beings"”, Christoph Horn, Dieter Schönecker, eds: Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: A commentary. Walter de Gruyter, p. 271. ISBN 3110177072.
- R Jay Wallace (1994). Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments. Harvard University Press, p. 2, p. 48. ISBN 0674766229.
- Sam Harris (2012). Free Will. Simon and Schuster, p. 49. ISBN 1451683472.
- One argument as to the role for our intuitive sense of engaging in decision making is that deliberation is needed to clarify among the various hypothetical and unexercisable choices just what is the nature of the available determined choice. See Derk Pereboom (2001). “Chapter 5: The contours of hard incompatibilism: Agency”, Living without Free Will. Cambridge University Press, p. 137. ISBN 1139428705. “For deliberation does not require that more than one option be causally possible, but rather only that more than one option be epistemically possible...”
- Derk Pereboom (2001). Living without Free Will. Cambridge University Press, p. 178. ISBN 1139428705. “My view is similar to Menninger's insofar as we both advocate the idea that protection of society and rehabilitation be the primary aims for criminology. [footnote 25]”
- Various ways to accommodate rehabilitation are discussed by: Manuel Vargas (2013). “Chapter 21: How to solve the problem of free will”, Paul Russell, Oisin Deery, eds: The Philosophy of Free Will: Essential Readings from the Contemporary Debates. Oxford University Press, pp. 400 ff. ISBN 0199733392.
- Bruce Waller (2011). Against Moral Responsibility. MIT Press, p. 40. ISBN 0262016591. “The moral responsibility system...should be replaced by a system that ...will open paths to individual and social progress.”
- We have this seemingly ambiguous observation: Sam Harris (2012). Free Will. Simon and Schuster, p. 38. ISBN 1451683472. “You can, for instance, purge your house of all sweets, making it very unlikely that you will eat dessert later in the evening — but you cannot know why you were able to submit to such a framework today when you weren't yesterday...You can change your life, and yourself, through effort and discipline — but you have whatever capacity for effort and discipline you have in this moment...You are either lucky in this department or you aren't — and you cannot make your own luck.”
- From Hume's Treatise on Human Understanding as quoted by Robert Kane (1998). The significance of free will, Paperback. Oxford University Press, p. 54. ISBN 0195126564.
- Gale Strawson (June 26, 1998). Luck Swallows Everything. Naturalism.Org. Center for Naturalism. “There has to be, but cannot be, a starting point in the series of acts that bring it about that one has a certain nature” originally an article in the Times Literary Supplement.
- According to Hume, causation is on weak grounds: "Once we realize that ‘A must bring about B’ is tantamount merely to ‘Due to their constant conjunction, we are psychologically certain that B will follow A’, then we are left with a very weak notion of necessity." CM Lorkowski (November 7, 2010). David Hume: Causation. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Peter Cane (2002). Responsibility in Law and Morality. Hart Publishing, p. 2. ISBN 1841133213.
- Peter Cane (2002). Responsibility in Law and Morality. Hart Publishing, p. 14. ISBN 1841133213.
- Christopher Kutz (2004). “Chapter 14: Responsibility”, The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law. Oxford University Press, pp. 548-587. ISBN 019927097X.
- Gunther Siegmund Stent (2002). Paradoxes of free will. American Philosophical Society, p. 95. ISBN 0871699265.
- Douglas Bernheim, Antonio Rangel (December 2005). "From neuroscience to public policy: a new economic view of addiction". Swedish Economic Policy Review 12 (2).
- David Eagleman, Mark A Correro, Jyotpal Singh (2010). "Why neuroscience matters for rational drug policy". Minn. J.L. Sci. & Tech. 11 (1): 7-26.