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I look forward to reading the book. If Tom’s excellent review is any indication, it outlines nicely what could be seen as the standard position of philosophical MR skepticism. We can finally move the discussion beyond scientists misinterpreting experiments!

To start somewhere (there really are so many excellent points), Tom’s summary of Waller’s characterization of the compatibilist stance is, I think, real a threat to the integrity of the compatibilist position:

“...compatibilists are basically begging the question against moral responsibility; they take for granted the longstanding, culturally embedded presumption that of course agents are morally responsible and deserving of punishment. Their justifications therefore operate within the moral responsibility system, picking out characteristics of agents that supposedly make them morally responsible in contrast to agents that aren’t. As a result, skepticism about the system itself is in short supply.[3] But if the presumption of moral responsibility is not taken for granted, Waller argues that it’s difficult to justify on any deeper grounds.”

What I think Waller is getting at, is the fact that there is a certain “of course”-ness in the way most compatibilists approach moral responsibility. For us skeptics, it’s hard to shake the feeling that compatiblists arrive at their position by the following thought process: “I can’t very well imagine a world without MR. Though MR itself does seem rather ridiculous. Ah, well; let’s see how we can get there anyway.” (probably while tapping their fingers together sinisterly)


Ha! I was amused by your characterization of mr-compatibilists as "probably tapping their fingers together sinisterly". Yes, we are a sinister bunch!

I was also amused by your analysis of a book that you haven't read! Very cool at least to acknowledge that point--I wonder about certain reviewers sometimes...

But is it sinister to suppose that it would be a major loss if we couldn't have central features of human interpersonal relationships as we know them? That is, Peter Strawson famously argued that moral responsibility is a set of attitudes and practices that constitute the fabric of human interpersonal relationships. These include love, respect, gratitude, indignation, and so forth, and also ancillary attitudes and practices.

Of course, many (including his son, Galen) have criticized Strawson on various grounds. I will be presenting a critique also at Neal Tognazzini's Peter Strawson Conference at William and Mary this fall. But still I think there is something deeply important, and compelling, about pointing to the costs of giving up moral responsibility.

I very much look forward to reading Bruce Waller's book. (I'll resist praising it until I've read it, though--bad habit of mine, sorry.) In general, I am inclined to think that theory-selection is a matter of a holistic evaluation--a kind of philosophical cost-benefit analysis, weighting the pros and cons of the view in question. I don't think this approach is guilty of "begging the question", but I acknowledge that these issues are delicate.

Many thanks for giving special notice to Tom Clark's very thorough and insightful review of AGAINST MORAL RESPONSIBILITY. And thanks to Brent for his kind remarks. I can understand why he would have a view having read only the Tom's review; the review is so extensive and careful that I have a better understanding of the book myself after working through the review. I agree with John's remarks concerning the risks of denying moral responsibility (though obviously I think the risks can be dealt with, and the harms of holding onto moral responsibility far outweigh the risks). Together with Al Mele and Bob Kane and Saul Smilansky (and many others), John has been particularly insightful on the nature of those risks, and the subtle implications of such a large change in perspective. If, for example, giving up moral responsibility meant giving up any sense of control, I would side with Saul and campaign to preserve the illusion of moral responsibility: psychologists such as Martin Seligman, Judith Rodin, and Al Bandura have made very clear the disastrous psychological effects of losing a sense of control. I don't think that's an implication of denying MR; to the contrary, I think we can enhance not only the sense of control but actual control without MR (not only the very important guidance control which John so clearly elucidates, but even some elements of regulative control). The danger which P.F. Strawson sees (and which John notes) seems to me to be based on the notion that we would be giving up MR because we are all deeply defective -- and that would be disastrous. But when the entire SYSTEM of MR is rejected, that is not because we are all defective. John is not morally responsible, notwithstanding the fact that he is wonderfully deliberative, self-controlled, strongly self-efficacious, and has a powerful sense of internal locus-of-control. But in any case, I think the difficult issues come when we try to determine precisely what is left when we genuinely deny all moral responsibility; and I look forward to John's further careful analyses of those implications. Thomas, thanks also for suggesting a name for this strange view that celebrates (compatibilist) free will while denying moral responsibility: Reverse Semi-Compatibilism is excellent. My only problem with it (other than the fact that it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue) is that it makes the view the direct opposite of John's; and in fact, I think that our views are much closer than that would indicate (while John wants to hold onto a very limited MR, he has been among the most insightful in noting the problems and dangers posed by moral responsibility). If any of the Flickers of Freedom crowd can suggest a better name for this view, I would be deeply grateful (actually, Saul Smilansky claims that on my view, I cannot be genuinely grateful -- and while I disagree, Saul is usually right; in any case I would FEEL deeply grateful). One of my colleagues suggested I christen the view SRM, standing for "stark raving madness"; a younger colleague -- more inclined to texting --suggested LOL. So believe me, I'm open to new suggestions.


You say “I think there is something deeply important, and compelling, about pointing to the costs of giving up moral responsibility.” And what about the costs of NOT giving up MR if we aren’t in fact morally responsible? Surely you agree that holding innocent people morally responsible is infinitely more tragic (evil, actually) than losing some vague aspect of interpersonal relationships. With the stakes so high (condemning innocent people to unjust retribution), mustn’t a philosopher who uses “a kind of philosophical cost-benefit analysis” actually insist that MR is an illusion until proven otherwise?


Since I believe in a holistic methodology whereby one considers all the (important) costs and benefits of a view, of course I would wish to give full weight to skeptical worries about free will and also moral responsibility. Actually, I don't think it follows from the use of such a methodology that one must begin with the view that "MR is an illusion until proven otherwise". But certainly one has to take seriously the thoughts that, although it seems that we are free, we might not be; and although it seems that we are morally responsible, we might not be. In my work, I give a lot of attention to these skeptical worries, taking seriously the Consequence Argument, the Luck Argument, and Strawson's skepticism (just for starters). But I know I could do a better job here, and I agree that one cannot simply start with the assumption that we are morally responsible, come what may.

Brent, I think John's point is that you can't determine whether we are "in fact" morally responsible without also assessing the costs and benefits of giving it up. If your method is something like wide reflective equilibrium, then it seems that John's right. And I don't even think the issue is all that delicate--what other method can we possibly use for determining the facts about moral responsibility? equilibrium? Of course, whether WRE would lead us to preserve moral responsibility is a separate question. This makes Bruce's work even more important since his arguments about the benefits of denying MR would also support the substantive case for skepticism.

Talmer -- Why couldn’t you determine whether we are in fact MR without assessing costs and benefits? While it is true that the BENEFITS of giving up MR are vast (pretty near the best thing humanity could do), the only necessary argument against MR is of course its own sheer incoherence and lack of supporting evidence, regardless of costs and benefits.

Now, in regards to costs and benefits (though again, this has nothing to do with whether we do, in fact, have MR) I am so convinced that giving up MR would vastly improve the state of things, that if we eventually discover for certain that we DO in fact have MR, I would advocate pretending that we didn’t. Is this the opposite view to pessimistic MR skepticism?

John – I still insist that the default stance must be “MR is an illusion until proven otherwise.” Absolutely. Additionally, anyone trying to hoist the discussion beyond the parameters of this default skepticism, has an enormous burden of proof. Here are some of the obstacles that I can think of:

1) The fact that no advancement in science or thinking in any field, throughout the whole stretch of human history, has ever caused someone to edge TOWARDS a belief in MR. Not one. And you wouldn’t need me to point out the unyielding tide of evidence pushing us always away from it.

2) Humanity has an embarrassing track record for claiming some sort of specialness. MR is just another attempt to establish some difference between us and turtles. In fact, as turtles have just as much reprieve from mechanism and determinism (and or indeterminism) as we do, I see no good reason why compatibilists wouldn’t be forced to commit to turtle MR as well.

3) The fact that we have a clear biological/evolutionary incentive to believe in MR. Occam’s razor is useful here. What is more likely? That we are the only things in the universe that have this magical property that defies logic and evidence; or, that it makes survival sense to punish group members for threatening our reproductive fitness.

4) And finally (if anyone’s made it this far down), the idea of MR is the single most destructive idea in history. It has been the root cause or accomplice to every major man made catastrophe, ever.

Apologies for the rambling. I think I’ve forgotten my point. Something about why “there is no MR until proven otherwise” should be the default position. I know some of my rhetoric sounds overdramatic, amateurishly earnest and, ahem, lacking in scholarly restraint/focus, but I stand by the numbered points completely. After all, if compatibilists are wrong, and I think there is a good chance that they are, then they are unwitting defenders of unconscionable injustice and suffering, both past and future. If that is the case, I think we’d all be justified in being a little more earnest.

Brent, you seem to think of moral responsibility like it's some sort of entity--like white horses or unicorns. We can determine whether those things exist without assessing costs and benefits. But the question of whether someone can deserve blame even if they're not ultimately responsible for who they are isn't like that. It's a normative question about when it's fair or appropriate to blame someone. You don't have to attribute a magical property to anyone to believe in moral responsibility. You just have to think it's fair to blame someone if they meet certain naturally realizable conditions (like they deliberated, they intended to perform the action etc.) Where's the magic in that?

Brent, you might like to know I ask just the question you ask in my recent book: what about the costs of retaining the concept of moral responsibility?

Tamler. I think we ought to avoid conflating two ideas: is theory choice holistic? and is reflective equilibrium the way to go? RE (or WRE) is the right way to proceed only given constructivsm about moral responsibility. Which is your view (and that's not crazy). But even if we are not constructivists about moral responsibility, we could think of it as something that either exists or doesn't exist, and still think that the ascertaining the best theory is a holistic process. After all, that what's we do in science, whether or not we are scientific realists. I also think Brent is right in thinking that the costs of holding people morally responsible are systematically underestimated in these debates. It strikes me (reading Waller's book) that the people who cite the alleged benefits, from Hume to Vargas, do so in a pretty armchair way.


I agree that “moral responsibility” is not an entity such as a horse but it is still an entity that can be defined in some way. The cost/benefit analysis as to whether we should make “moral responsibility” into an entity/process, or sustain it as a socially constructed entity/process, does not change the factual questions of “What is moral responsibility? Is it real? And what is the structure of that reality?”

As far as moral responsibility is concerned there are several ways in which it does reach an entity-like status. One is in the brain/mind of humans who supposedly have it; there is some structure to the brain/mind at a specific time that correlates either with some eternal “responsibility” condition, or there is a brain/mind structure (and thus behavior) that a society is going to deem to be a “morally responsible” brain/mind and behavior as regards the tenets of that society.

Social constructions, such as marriage, also have socially real structures or entities; there are entity-like structures to institutions, relationships, and the interactions that this “society” will now engage in with this married unit (such as tax benefits).

A cost/benefit structure may help us decide if we wish to put in place the practice of “moral responsibility,” but under such conditions we recognize moral responsibility purely as a social construct; and, at least to me, that does not seem to be the position that most people place “moral responsibility” in. We know that marriage is a social construction; it may also accompany the already existent states of love and sexual attraction, etc., but the processes and advantages that are inferred by the institution of marriage are clearly accepted as socially constructed states; I believe. People do not confuse “marriage” with the state of being love. But with moral responsibility there is a double-edged sword under most analysis of the relationship: this individual is held to be moral responsible by society but also possesses the quality of moral responsibility. Both of these structures are “entities” so to speak; one is a social process and social structure and the other is a structure of the brain/mind of individuals. Both of those are entities or processes we can map out and distinguish their “reality.”

An example: Our social construction of “moral responsibility” may lay on top of the already existent brain/mind state of someone who is consciously shirking someone during a business deal; something which we hope to draw attention to and prevent by claiming such behavior as “morally culpable.” But there is clearly a difference between the social attribution of “moral responsibility” and the brain/mind state of “consciously shirking someone during a business deal.” Our present system draws on the obfuscation of the two parts to that process; and even encourages such feelings such that the “consciously shirking someone during a business deal” IS wrong; with the “be” verb eternalizing and essentializing a condition that is actually bare of any “moral” content, so to speak, into one with moral content. The “moral” part of the action is always a socially induced concept, even if “consciously shirking someone during a business deal” is consistently problematic to a functioning society. The creation of a secondary socially constructed concept, such as we deem you “morally responsible” for this act, does not change the structural entities of this brain/mind at the time of acting, except in the ways that any social relationships structure the brain/mind of individuals prior to that individual’s action.

Following Waller, I would say that the “quality” of being moral responsible is a socially constructed claim about certain states of brain/minds and that our present system is not a good system either for society as a whole or for individuals. Brent, I assume, would agree that we can socially claim that certain brain/mind states can be regarded as “morally responsible,” but is also pointing out that there is no inherency to the quality of those brain/mind states outside of social claims or structures. There is no non-socially-defined state of a person that adheres to a state of being “morally responsible,” and where people believe otherwise (most religious sins?) then moral responsibility is an illusion.

One of the confusing things about the arising of our moral discourses is that they have been laid upon structures of "natural guilt." The kind of emotional and psychological structures, like empathy, fairness, guilt, etc., that evolution encouraged in members of social groups, with such becoming even more complex in the case of humans. But I do think it makes sense to separate or postulate a separation between some kind of evolutionary psychological emotion as it regards a behavior and our present day societal claims and constructions of "moral responsibility," though responsibility practices work best when they intricately link the two.

I have not read Waller's new book yet, but from the reviews his part about what it means to self-identify as "morally responsible" also shows the complexity of social looping as people internalize discourses of moral responsibility. I take it he downplays how much such self-accepting of responsibility can actually deem one responsible, and that too seems like a good move if we are going to accept responsibility as some kind of constructed discourse. Though there is certainly a sense in which most of us play and accept the game of moral responsibility, there is also a sense in which most of us have little understanding of all the intricacies of this game that we reluctantly or agreeingly play. This includes a structuring of our selves and our feelings that push us to believe our intuitions about guilt and fairness are simply a given to the world, incapable of being structured differently.


To say that some phenomenon is "socially constructed" is not (thereby) to say that it is an illusion! If by "socially constructed" you mean that we articulate the concept and conditions for moral responsibility using something like the reflective equilibrium methodology, then I agree that morally responsibility is (in this sense) "socially constructed". That doesn't make it an illusion, nor does it imply that moral responsibility is guilty until proven innocent!

Neil, given the title of your book, I am sure I’ll have to get at it at some point. What an excellent way to phrase the important point: “the costs of holding people morally responsible are systematically underestimated in these debates” This, exactly.

Talmer, “magical” is perhaps too kind to MR. At least unicorns, magical though they are, can be imagined. You can picture with great detail the composite parts that make up a unicorn. So, in a way, I think your intuition that MR is fundamentally different from things that simply don’t exist is a good one. MR is worse than non existent, it is impossible. It’s more four sided triangle than unicorn.

And if MR DID exist, which again is quite impossible, it better damn well be a provable physical entity. Surely you wouldn’t suggest using a non-provable, non-physically verifiable characteristic to decide a person's fate. In fact, doesn’t the very non-physically-verifiable nature of MR preclude it from deciding life changing implementations of justice? (Absurd side note: courts of law, whose main purpose is to asses MR, would probably have to toss out the flimsy evidence for MR’s existence) If compatibilists are so ready to rely on non-physically-verifiable explanations for MR, they might just as well be libertarians, god forbid.

As for your last point:

“You just have to think it's fair to blame someone if they meet certain naturally realizable conditions (like they deliberated, they intended to perform the action etc.) Where's the magic in that?”

I’ve never understood the obviousness of these "naturally realizable conditions", or why they are so readily believed to neutralize the threat to MR posed by determinism. Deliberations, actions originating from a person’s character, higher order desires, etc… all of the classic compatibilist slights of hand (magic tricks? to stay with the theme). Now why would a determined deliberation cause someone to be any more responsible than a determined seizure? Both behaviors are caused by electrical activity in the brain originating either from causal chains stretching back to the beginning of time or causal chains stretching back a completely random unknowable amount of time. Even if the deliberator deliberated carefully for an entire day, even if his action was a perfect reflection of his character, even if the act was aligned with his highest order desire, he is no more responsible for that act in a determined universe (or undetermined universe) than someone in an epileptic fit.


I didn’t call “moral responsibility,” or better still, the practice of moral responsibility, an illusion. On one hand “moral responsibility” seems too multifaceted to claim the whole thing to be illusory.

I believe that the only part of it we can claim to be an illusion is if someone believes that a claim of moral responsibility or a feeling of guilt aligns with some eternal structuring of the world; that the facts of morality rest outside social delineating of morality. If one believes that a “wrong” is more than just a social wrong and is wrong in some deeper sense that may be an illusion.

The states of our brain/mind and the structures of society revolving around moral responsibility cannot be illusions, I agree there; those types of things are not even in the realm of illusion.

When Bobo the chimp sees his friend Koko steal his reward for Bobo’s behavior, and feels slighted, and the committee of chimps agrees that he has been slighted and punishes Koko, what has happened are moral claims having to do with the natural structure of the chimps' psychologies and then with social structures and responses as regards the curtailing of behavior. The only thing there that even makes sense to call an illusion is if Bobo also believes that his being wronged was a “natural” wrong or Koko’s behavior lined up with some Platonic realm of immorality.

How prevalent is the latter belief is a matter of contention; it seems to me the reifying of social structures and the non-critical reflection of our natural structures does encourage many people to believe in such. The feeling of unfettered, unstructured conscious (free) choice and the overriding emotional structures that accompany those choice-making processes, along with the structuring of that phenomenology by social conditions and ambiguous language (“It is Wrong to steal Suzy’s toy.”), also cements such beliefs about the absolute wrongness of actions in many people’s understanding of moral claims.


Although I am no compatibilist, your treatment of the view in this thread seems rather brusk. Even if determinism is true, we often act intentionally and for reasons, after careful deliberation, etc. Sometimes the actions we perform express malice, concern, or indifference on our part. Now, there's a world of difference morally and otherwise between intentional behavior of that sort and the behavior of turtles or an epileptic fit. So why shouldn't we hold determined agents responsible for at least some of what they do? An argument that compatibilism is false is needed.


I'm very much looking forward to reading the book.

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