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Thanks very much Bruce for a great month of blogging, which I've been enjoying.

I think you have suggested (toward the end) exactly what someone who denies moral responsibility (or perhaps "desert-based" moral responsibility should say: life is unjust, and perhaps it is better to move toward an overall less unjust situation, even though it involves some unavoidable injustice. Note that there is a parallel with distributive justice; actually, this is to be expected, as it makes sense that retributive and distributive justice should have some important parallels. The point in the context of distributive justice is that people are born with very different natural abilities (and into different families and social circumstances) and so forth, and we cannot negate these differences completely in a scheme of distributive justice (without hurting everyone). So life is unfair--life is unjust, and we just have to deal with that. I also think we have to accept the pervasive role of luck; in a sense I agree with Neil (and others) about the pervasiveness of luck, but disagree about the significance or implications of this fact. But no doubt more to come next month.

Bruce: a question about what you are suggesting. It would seem that someone who hasn't (yet) committed a crime might be dangerous to others--on your approach, is preventative or preemptive detention appropriate? Once one moves away from the moral responsibility system and toward the approach you sketch, why restrict oneself to those who have actually committed crimes?


In law school I wrote an article called "The Inevitability of a Medicalized Society." The article explains that, right now, we're living in the Behavior Modification Dark Ages (BMDA). The article defended a no-free-will view, and the associated rejection of punishment, as Pereboom and Josh Greene have - in contrast to Dennett's view that society will always take on responsibility and embrace punishment.

An analogy makes the point: chemotherapy is not intended to make cancer patients suffer. Chemotherapy is intended to cure cancer. But, as a side effect, chemotherapy makes cancer patients suffer - because it's the best we can do right now.

Deterring crime in a post-moral-responsibility world would be like chemotherapy. It would cause criminals, or potential criminals, to suffer. But it would only do so because, like chemotherapy, it's the best we can do right now. Not because the criminals are responsible or "wicked," but because they are "sick," as Darwin wrote in his notebooks. In fact, if you think of criminal people as simply having a certain kind of mental illness (as I think we should), then the chemotherapy analogy becomes even more apt and helpful.

The upshot is that, while we're in the BMDA, deterrence would look a lot like punishment. To a naive outside observer, chemotherapy can look like punishment (and feel like punishment). But it is not punishment, and certainly is not intended to be punishment. One day we will cure cancer, and one day will cure crime. We will genetically program people to be law abiding, instead of criminals, or we will predict crime early enough to prevent it, or we will protect people well enough that even when crime happens, it's harmless (among other things). These developments will happen whether we welcome them or not, whether they frighten us or not. And, once we finally cure cancer and cure crime, we won't need chemotherapy any more, and we won't need guns, and jails, and police any more. But, until that day, deterrence, and quarantine, are going to look a lot like punishment.

Richard Dawkins makes a similar point here:

I'm always glad to have Dawkins on my side! His argument here is, to my knowledge, perhaps the simplest and most persuasive one against free will (or moral responsibility).

Thanks for all your great posts Bruce! I hope we see you on this blog for a long time.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like the big difference between you and Dennett boils down to what you and he consider to be fundamental concerning fairness.

For you, the fundamental claim is that it is unfair to hold people moral responsible if they are not the ultimate source of their actions. Your views on the unfairness of punishment follow from this claim.

For Dennett, the fundamental claim is that it is fair to punish people like Madoff who pass a certain threshold of "take charge responsibility" capacities. And his understanding of the conditions for moral responsibility follow from this claim.

My question is: do you think that your claim is more legitimately regarded as fundamental than his? If so, why? And if not, then why think it's objectively true that no one deserves to be punished?

Hi Bruce,

One way of justifying punishment is via moral responsibility. If people can be MR for the stuff they do, then they can for this reason deserve certain treatment in virtue of being MR for some of that stuff, and, when the stuff in question is a crime, they can be due punishment. So, on this line of thinking, no MR, no justified punishment.

But surely this is only one way of justifying punishment (even if it is a commonly asserted one). There's versions of deterrence theory, quarantine models, fairness models that would only require opportunities to avoid (in some sense to be specified). While some of these accounts might partially depend on features of one's *rejection* of MR, they don't obviously depend on MR itself. So just by ruling out 'deserving things in virtue of being MR' one hasn't yet ruled out justified punishment.

On the flip side, one can separate MR and punishment going the other way, so long as there are reasons, as I think there are, to reject our contemporary system of punishment as unjustified even given the possibility of MR. This is roughly the view I hold. I think MR is possible and that we are MR for most of what we do. But I don't think it follows from this that punishing people as we do is thereby justified. I don't even think it follows that punishment simpliciter is justified. Supposing that S is blameworthy for x implies S deserves blame for x, it doesn't yet imply that punishment is a form of blame so deserved.

A couple of quick comments. The first thing is that the claim that those who would justify incarceration on consequentialist grounds are committed to punishment of the innocent needs careful handling before it can be used as a stick to beat the sceptic. First, the sceptic can point out (as Bruce does) that the proposal is not "we should punish the innocent" but "we should punish far fewer innocents than currently". Phrased like that, it doesn't sound so bad. Second, everyone is already committed to thinking we should punish the innocent; at least everyone who thinks that we ought to punish at all. We all accept that in the best-desgined system some of the people who are punished are going to be innocent, since there is no way to ensure that only the guilty are punished. Whether it is morally worse to punish someone we know to be innocent compared to knowing that we punish the innocent will depend on whether the intention/foresight distinction does the moral work people commonly think.

Following up on Matt's comments, though, one powerful line of argument available to the opponent of scepticism is to say that agents are responsible just in case *blame* is warranted, so it muddies the waters to focus on punishment. Michael McKenna pushes this line in his recent book, which should be required reading for everyone in this debate. I get the feeling you are much more concerned with punishment than with blame, Bruce. If that's right, we might want an even finer-grained taxonomy than you suggest: non-scepticism about free will, non-scepticism about some aspects of moral responsibility, combined with scepticism about punishment (it is worth noting, though, that McKenna's account of blame does involve the imposition of harm, so I am not willing to accept this combination of positions).

Bruce--first, thank you for a month of thoughtful posts and comments. And I echo your gratitude to Thomas for this series (which has apparently inspired other blogs as to follow suit).

While I do not think that luck swallows everything, it does gulp down a glutton's share. Even if LFW existed, luck of birth, endowments, circumstances and such would present (I think) insuperable problems for retributive justice otherwise justified by that view. So even the existence of retributive-friendly FW can't underwrite ideally just applications of MR across all cases.

In the face of the great challenge of luck--even enhanced by the absence of LFW in our actual world (which I strongly believe is the case)--what are our options? (i) Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, at least as far as MR is concerned, and face tough questions about a criminal justice system; (ii) adopt (semi-)compatibilism/illusionism of some sort and provide justification for MR in the face of daunting luck challenges; (iii) take luck as given and adjust expectations of MR according to reasonable pragmatic assessments of how assignable individual MR serves a greater good. I strongly believe that any option (ii) is supervenient on option (iii), which I think is the only one that directly addresses how values guide our metaphysical predilections. I'm still working all this out in my own mind, and I apologize for any incredulous stares it might elicit.

Hi all. I hope the following is pertinent.

In my limited experience, this is a fairly widespread view: some people are bad people; bad people reveal or realize their badness by freely doing bad things (though people who are bad in different ways might tend to do different bad things); when someone does a bad thing, we make an effort to check that it really reveals their nature (e.g. that they were of sound mind), but if they don't have an excuse, it is appropriate to treat them as a bad person; bad people deserve punishment just for being bad people; claims like 'X deserves punishment for doing Y' mean something like 'X is bad in a way that is revealed/realised by X's doing Y, and X deserves punishment for being bad in that way'.

I don't hold that view, and I don't think it is often made explicit, but people talk and act as if they hold something like it. If it is correct, though, it may be perfectly right and just to punish people who are not responsible for their actions, as long as they have the sort of control required for their actions to reveal their natures. And if it really is widespread, that might help to explain why the abolition of punishment is harder to sell than the impossibility of moral responsibility (the latter isn't popular, but it gets taken more seriously).

Also, even if no-one deserves punishment, that doesn't mean they deserve not to be punished. If neither punishment nor its absence is deserved, it might still be acceptable to punish people. It might even be valuable. It might, yet further, be required as a matter of justice. (This is exactly what makes room for e.g. consequentialist justifications of punishment.) It's just that punishing an act is no longer justified by the moral wrongness of the act.

It seems strange to deny desert and then complain that punishment is "fundamentally unfair". What does that mean if not that you think people deserve not to be punished?

One might be against punishment (conceived of as the intentional infliction of harm) for reasons other than the belief that the person lacks moral responsibility, as Matt says. One might simply think that one should never inflict foreseeable harm on another person.

However that one is against punishment (for whatever reason) does not necessarily mean one does not think it right to lock individuals up on occasion. If one thinks (like Socrates) that if J does evil to others then that is terrible *for J* then preventing J doing evil to others is best for J. If J needs to be locked up to prevent him doing evil to others then locking up J is best for J. If one is genuinely concerned for J one will also seek to educate him, provide him with counselling, etc. whilst incarcerated and upon release.

One would nto provide him with five star hotel treatment because this is likely to have the reverse effect – making him and other more likely to offend (ie do evil to others), which is bad for them and for others. (It is also likely in practice to lead them to be more resented by society which is also bad for them, which would also be one reason why sentences would still be of a reasonable length - and so that he will be accepted back into society as someone who has ‘paid his debt to society’).

One would release him once there were reasonable grounds for thinking he would not reoffend (thereby harming himself and others) were he released. The more serious the offence the deeper the character defect revealed and thus the longer his ‘re-education’ is likely to be. Some are so deeply damaged that they are unlikely ever to change sufficiently to be safe to release.

One would never incarcerate an innocent person – for doing so is not good *for him*. (Thus the foregoing view is different to the consequentialist view where individuals are punished/incarcerated to benefit others).

Given that the skeptic’s position is to reject basic desert, it precludes any view on which punishment is justified by virtue of being basically deserved. But as the other respondents are pointing out, this leaves open a number of other justifications for punishment, including those according to which punishment is deserved, but not basically deserved. One such view specifies that the aspect of our practice that presupposes that agents are morally responsible in the basic desert sense should be retained, not because we are in fact morally responsible in this sense, but because doing so stands to bring about very good, if not the best, results (Dan Dennett and Manuel Vargas have made remarks that suggest this position). One might, for example, endorse a practice consequentialism according to which we compare the consequences of the competing candidates for moral practice, and we then see that current practice, which involves moral justifications that appeal to basic desert, turns out to be the best one. I think that what Bruce says in his 1990 book counts against this specific proposal – it would involve our thinking and acting as if we are morally responsible in a sense in which we are admittedly not. But other justifications of punishment, and some that claim that punishment is deserved, don’t involve retaining the presupposition of basic desert. Ben Vilhauer proposes a view like this in his forthcoming "Persons, Punishment, and Free Will Skepticism," Philosophical Studies. I oppose any such view, but this requires arguments other than those that support free will skepticism. To make a long story short, I don’t see why we couldn’t deal with the most difficult cases with a combination of incapacitation justified by analogy with quarantine and rehabilitation.

On Saul Smilansky challenge, I agree with Neil Levy’s (2012) response. First, the free will skeptic rejects basic desert, and so no basic desert requirement to compensate those who are preventatively detained will be in effect. The details of the skeptic’s reply to Smilansky’s objection depend on which general moral theory she thinks can be defended. My own predilection is to endorse an axiological moral theory which includes better consequences as valuable, where morally fundamental rights being honored and not violated count among the good consequences. Neil correctly points out that a consequentialist of this sort has a good response to Smilansky: “A consequentialist who is a moral responsibility skeptic will naturally hold that no one should be treated any worse than is needed to bring about the best consequences, with all agents’ welfare – including the welfare of criminals – taken into account.” So first, the preventatively detained would not be treated worse than needed to protect against the danger they pose. In addition, the right to live a fulfilling life is in play and weighs heavily, and we would thus have a serious moral interest in providing those who are preventatively detained with the requisite opportunities and conditions. On the issue of cost, providing these sorts of opportunities may add expense to our system for dealing with criminal behavior, but not the expense required to provide all of those detained with “five-star hotel” accommodations.

Moreover, as Neil argues, “rejecting the notion that some agents deserve punishment opens the way for us to adopt policies that respond to crime at much lower costs, economically, socially and morally. In his impressive book, When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton 2009), Mark Kleiman proposes and discusses many such less costly non-retributive policies that are now available and practical, and he advances arguments that adopting them instead of what we (the USA is his focus) have in place would lead to significantly beneficial consequences. On the more distant future, Kip may well be right.

I'm tempted to think that a young version of P.F. Strawson would just re-write "Freedom and Resentment" in response to these sorts of claims. Blame is a response that is constitutive of human social life, given how we interact and what we are. And blame, as I recently heard Gideon Rosen say, wants the blamed person to suffer, and wants them to recognize that they are suffering because of what they did.

In my view, the best route into the justification for punishment does not begin with a conceptual analysis of "moral responsibility". It begins with the first-personal experience of being wronged, and with the second-personal experience of sympathizing with the wronged. It seems to me as though Prof. Waller will simply have to be a kind of error-theorist about these forms of experience and about the judgments contained within them. Yet, this, I think, will raise questions about the *authority* of the theory, about its right to dictate terms to those who experience wrongs on a daily basis.

Advance warning -- this is going to be a bit of a rant.

One of the (many) things that disturbs me about this thread is the apparent assumption that moral responsibility is only for criminals. The string "reward" appears exactly once (as of when I started writing) and the word "praise" not at all -- there is no defence of the claim that rewarding people for their good works is unjust.

Not only that, but our moral responsibility practices pervade our lives. Yes, it applies to murderers, but also to people who leave their dirty dishes in the lunch room sink, and also to people who pick up litter they find on woodland trails and dispose of it properly when they leave. Moral responsibility plays a role in our own decisions regarding our own actions -- encouraging people to believe that they're not MR for what they do is encouraging them to do the things they want to do but know are wrong. Kip's world may sound like a utopia to some, but it looks like a distopia to me(*).

When I read the debate it becomes clear that what everyone's upset about is the US "justice system". People want to replace the US system with something more efficient and humane. A very laudable goal, and I wish you luck. But you don't really want to eliminate moral responsibility. What you want is a system of responsibility that's *more* *moral*. The problem is not that it's wrong to hold people responsible for what they do; it's that what the American people are doing in the name of moral responsibility is morally objectionable. (Do you think that Scandinavia has done away with moral responsibility?)

I like Derk's object of "an axiological moral theory which includes better consequences as valuable, where morally fundamental rights being honored and not violated count among the good consequences." But in that system there is still a fixed-point problem that needs to be solved. Forcing people to do things is violating their rights, and so needs to be justified. If it's justified by referring to the facts that compatibilists use in their definitions of moral responsibility, then you've essentially become a compatibilist who talks funny. A rose by any other name.... In order to justify a claim that you are dispensing with MR, you need to provide a system that doesn't rely on people's intentions, deliberations, beliefs, etc. In other words, you need to provide a system where the people you punish (or otherwise force to do things they don't want to) are people who are NOT morally-responsible-even-in-compatibilist-terms for doing anything wrong. And that sounds like a morally dubious proposition to me.

(*) Every-day life in the medicalized society:

-- You left your dirty dishes in the sink again.
-- Yeah, I forgot to take my washing-up pill.
-- You've forgotten it every day this week.
-- It gives me a headache.
-- So take an aspirin.
-- It upsets my stomach.
-- Tylenol? Ibuprofin?
-- Yeah, I'm kind of concerned about all the medications I'm taking.
-- Now you're just making excuses.
-- Why would I do that? It's a scientifically proven fact that I'm not morally responsible for anything I do.
-- *Argh!* Maybe they just need to make a pill to make you want to take your washing-up pill.
-- Or one to make you not mind me not washing up.

Good rant, Mark. We need a bit of ranting here once in a while (having said that, this has been a great series and thanks Bruce for your wonderful discussions).

Perhaps one way to flesh out the conflicting intuitions in this thread/debate (perhaps the whole damn shabang?) is whether one is inclined to work from the "bottom-up" or the "top-down".

Top-down: There's no way anyone could deserve to go to hell (or heaven) for all eternity for some finite action here on earth.
So, there's no way anyone could deserve to die for some finite action like murder.
So, there's no way anyone could deserve to spend life in a nasty jail for committing fraud.
So, there's no way anyone could really truly deserve anything...

Bottom-up: There's no way Sam (8 year old) doesn't deserve some blame for taunting his little sister for no good reason.
So, there's no way Becky (college student) doesn't deserve to be blamed (and perhaps expelled) for choosing to cheat on her paper.
So, there's no way Madoff doesn't deserve to go to jail for his coldly committed fraud.
So, there's no way the Cleveland kidnapper doesn't deserve to be treated very harshly (perhaps killed if one believes in that type of punishment) for his aweful crimes...

And one could do the same sort of thing with praise and reward, which as Mark points out, seems easier for the bottom-up view. As several people have pointed out, the problem often seems to be that "on the way up" we have a hard time figuring out how to translate deserving blame into a fair and effective punishment. But it seems problematic to work from the "top down" by using shared intuitions about the unfairness of our punishment system to motivate an argument for general skepticism about desert, blame, MR, and then perhaps also praise, free will, etc. (of course, I'm sure there are problems with trying the "bottom-up" strategy too.)

Quite by coincidence, I ran across the work of Hanna Pickard today (

She's explicitly interested in the punishment and clinical treatment of folks with personality disorders. She seems to defend a view which justifies holding them accountable but without blame. It is unclear how this extends definitively to their punishment.

I haven't read the work and so can't evaluate its merits, but it may be worth looking at for those interested in Bruce's question.

Thanks, Eddy. And thanks also to Bruce. I may not agree with much of what you write (heck, I disagree with most of what almost everyone here writes :-), but you exemplify all that`s good about this forum. It is a joy to come here and read cogent arguments presented in a polite and friendly manner, and to sometimes try my hand at providing the same. I truly hope that the rant wasn`t in any way offensive, but was read as it was intended -- as an entertaining way to present some reasonable counterpoint.

I think Neil's right here: there's definitely room to prize apart blame from punishment with respect to each one's relation to the overall rubric of moral responsibility. And I also agree with Neil that McKenna's work is quite important on this topic, as well as Neil's implied point that blame doesn't necessarily involve any harm (and I don't think it even regularly or predictably does so as a side effect). (Whew! That's too much agreement with Neil for one day.)

Actively blaming someone (to her face) may consist simply in a demand for robust acknowledgment of what she has done and how she has made the victim feel. This dramatic demand, in and of itself, may sting, but that's not necessarily harmful, and it may be the sting also included in simple truth-telling ("You call that a jump shot?") and so not implicating desert. Punishment is just a very different beast, then, on this understanding of blame.

On a not entirely unrelated matter, Tim Scanlon is talking about his views of responsibility and desert (and more) this week on PEA Soup, so I'm sure many of you will be interested:

Derk points out above that Bruce in his 1990 book points to a downside of adopting the view that we are morally responsible in a basic-desert involving sense: we would be acting as if we are when we are in fact not (assuming that we are not--this is something I don't agree with, but for the sake of argument I'm willing to accept.)

This is an important point. It is similar to what Susan Wolf has argued in her discussion of Peter Strawson. She argued that it is important to "live in accordance with the facts", so just adopting a convenient and comfortable view of ourselves as morally responsible (in a deep way) is not ok if it conflicts with the facts. Or, better, it is a significant cost, since we care deeply about living in accordance with the facts. For instance, I do not want to be deluded about the fidelity of my wife or the friendship of those who appear to be my good friends.

Of course, all our views have significant costs--mine included! But allow me to point out that us non-skpetics at least don't have *this* one.

Punishment has to with our reactive attitudes. If I train myself as a Hard Determinist to look at the RAHs of the world with pity based on a sense of unfairness of life, yet incarcerate them for the sake of public safety, that is not punishment. No blame no punishment. it would not be necessary to funish in order to eradicate the injustice entailed by the widespread belief in FW should it turn out erroneous. All it would take is the recognition of the moral innocence of those we must separate from society for posing a threat to our well-being as well as their own. Punishment brings with it opprobrium and a sense of moral superiority. There need no such high-mindedness in doing our duty to insure public safety. 'There but for the grace of God go I'.

Good news, David: we agree less than you think. I think that blame is at least typically harmful, and McKenna's account yields the same result (to blame, on his account, is inter alia to have one's relationships with the blamed impaired). In my book, I stipulated what I meant by moral responsibility: to hold someone morally responsible for something that is wrong is to hold that their interests count for less when it comes to the distribution of burdens, on backwards looking grounds (that leaves it completely open how much less, and of course does not require that we act to make the person worse off). I think that captures a very weak notion of moral responsibility that has typically been at issue in the debate. I don't hold it is the only legitimate one. I am quite happy to be non-sceptical about other kinds of moral responsibility (eg, Arpaly's version, according to which it is essentially a cognitive state). I am sure that that's not the main concept that has been at issue in the debate, but so long as we keep our senses of mr straight, that doesn't matter (a big problem in the literature is that people talk past one another because they don't keep senses straight). So - circling back to where I started and moderating my initial disagreement - I can accept that there are senses of "blame" that don't involve harm and I am quite prepared to accept that these senses don't fall to sceptical worries.

Mark Young,

You describe life in the medicalized society:

"-- You left your dirty dishes in the sink again.
-- Yeah, I forgot to take my washing-up pill.
-- You've forgotten it every day this week.
-- It gives me a headache.
-- So take an aspirin.
-- It upsets my stomach.
-- Tylenol? Ibuprofin?
-- Yeah, I'm kind of concerned about all the medications I'm taking.
-- Now you're just making excuses.
-- Why would I do that? It's a scientifically proven fact that I'm not morally responsible for anything I do.
-- *Argh!* Maybe they just need to make a pill to make you want to take your washing-up pill.
-- Or one to make you not mind me not washing up."

That sounds to me more like the Behavior Modification Dark Ages, not too different from the present time.

A truly medicalized society would be able to prevent almost anything we desire to prevent, using genetic engineering, pharmaceuticals, cultural programming, deterrence, prediction, and safety technology, etc. I think a much fairer portrait of a medicalized society (certainly a society more advanced than the one you describe) would sound like:

--Wow, you did the dishes today, just like I wanted you to. I gave you that one pill, one time long ago, and ever since then you have always done the dishes, and always been happy to do so. You are such a blessing in my life, thank you.

(I promise I will come back toward the main point of this thread by the end.)

//A truly medicalized society would be able to prevent almost anything we desire to prevent//

OK, but who is this "we"? Who exactly is it I'd be trusting with the keys to my mind? I'm not sure I'd trust myself with a mind control device, and you want me to give control (even partial control) to others? It doesn't sound like a good idea to me at all.

I'm sure you're familiar with the objection to moral relativism "If no one tho't that torturing innocents was wrong, would it still be wrong?" Your program makes the answer to that question very important. Not that I think we'd likely end up in a world where no one (not even the innocent being tortured) tho't that torture was wrong! But for lesser evils, I do indeed fear that they would become entrenched in a society where literally no one objects. For example, if this program had begun in the 1950s, we'd probably find that homosexuality had been "cured" -- no more homosexuals. Well, OK, if there are no homosexuals, then I guess discrimination against homosexuals wouldn't happen, so that's (um) good? But I would hope that you would find that prospect as troubling as I do. Maybe, too, the dark-skinned people of the world would have been prevented from being "uppity" -- made happy with their lower status in a world ruled by light-skinned people.

Well clearly you're not wanting *that*. The world you want would be a *good* world. But the fact is that the choices as to what is prevented and what is not have to be made by fallible people -- people who cannot see what all the consequences of their actions will be -- people who will fall victim to those consequences themselves -- and those consequences including altering minds in ways that could possibly undermine their will to correct those errors.

We should be *happy* that our conscious minds are not entirely in control of ourselves! Our baser urges may sometimes lead us into evil, but they also provide a stable foundation to help protect us from our own follies. I know that you want to get rid of the bad parts while leaving the good parts, but I doubt that it's actually possible, and I believe that, even if it is possible, it is highly unlikely to happen that way. Previous attempts at perfecting the human race have a dismal record.

And the problem is not *just* that in trying to bring high-flying bankers down to earth that we will deny ourselves the sky. Allowing ourselves that level of control over the hearts and minds of our children will stifle moral development. It's obvious (to me) that we live in a morally better world than our ancestors did. Moral development proceeds by variation in moral codes -- not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is a change. Variation in moral codes is good. The whole premise of the medicalized society is that we can perfect society in a top-down way. I don't believe it.

And to bring it back toward the point of the thread (tho' not all the way back), in the medicalized society, you will either have no one with the will to object to treatment (a prospect I find scary), or you will have people who can and do object to the treatment. When someone objects to the treatment that's proposed for them, on what basis do we decide whether to force that person to take the treatment? If that basis does not closely resemble compatibilist conceptions of moral responsibility, then I say that you're making the world more evil than it needs to be -- forcing competent innocents to do things they don't want to.

In regards to the implausibility of costly "funishment", it seems to me that people are underestimating the resources we would have at our disposal in a world without MR. The rejection of MR also entails that the rich don't deserve their fortunes, and that the resources of the world could therefore be pooled and redistributed in anyway necessary to promote fairness and happiness.

Secondly, the 5 star resort is a rather unimaginative solution to what funishment requires. Perhaps physical and mental pleasure can be achieved by less involved, more cost efficient, or even simulated ways.

John, thanks for the kind words; and for the very tough question on “preventive detention”: If those who deny moral responsibility can justify the unjust punishment of those who have committed violent crimes, what about incarcerating those who are likely to commit crimes? Actually, I think that question raises a problem for everyone, whether or not we believe in the legitimacy of moral responsibility. If you knew – prior to their crimes – that Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer would be serial killers, and the only way of preventing their multiple murders was to lock them up, would you be justified in doing so? Whatever your beliefs concerning moral responsibility, it is difficult to suppose that they justly deserve “preventive detention”; but it is also difficult to imagine that it would be morally acceptable to leave them free to commit the crimes we know they will commit. So I don’t think this is a special problem for those who deny MR. But it certainly is a problem; here’s a tentative response. First, I don’t think it is a “real” issue: if we had reached a point of psychological knowledge such that we could reliably predict who would commit violent crimes, we would also have knowledge about how to change the conditions to prevent people from becoming violent, and positively reshape those who would commit such violent acts (not by some Clockwork Orange process, but rather by helping them develop better self-control, teaching them alternative positive behaviors, dealing with their anger issues, etc.). Furthermore, so long as we don’t have such reliable means of prediction, there will remain a significant difference between preventive detention and detention of those who have committed crimes: we have important information about the second group that we do not have about the first, namely that they are indeed capable of violent behavior against other persons. Second, even if a strict consequentialist accounting indicated that “preventive detention” was likely to result in reduced violent crime (something analogous to that seems to be the view of “selective incapacitation” advocates like James Q. Wilson – and I don’t find it empirically plausible), for those who reject strict consequentialist/utilitarian views it would not follow that we can legitimately practice preventive detention (since that would conflict with a strong commitment to individual freedom, and then the question is which is a stronger value in this circumstance). Since my own views on ethics are not consequentialist (they are a mishmash of Adam Smith, Annette Baier, Jonathan Bennett, Herbert Feigl – Herbert Feigl? Yes, Herbert Feigl – Jonathan Haidt, and Tamler Sommers – his insightful views on “intuition groups” in Relative Justice; obviously my views on ethics are not entirely coherent, but they are not utilitarian), I don’t think that providing a better overall result would necessarily justify preventive detention. Damn, that was a long-winded answer; but it was a tough question.

Kip, there’s a great deal I like in your comments; but I’m reluctant to take that approach, the great value of psychological studies notwithstanding. I don’t like the idea of treating all crime as “mental illness,” for a couple of reasons. First, it always conjures up Clockwork Orange images, which are often used to bludgeon us moral responsibility abolitionists. Second, it is based on what seems to me an “excuse-extensionism,” that starts within the assumptions of the moral responsibility system, and then extends “excuses” to everyone; and that seems to me implausible grounds for the denial of moral responsibility, and it seems to lead to P. F. Strawson’s objection: if we reject moral responsibility on the basis of “excuses” and treat everyone as flawed, then we must treat everyone in an “objective” manner, and eliminate “participant reactive attitudes,” and that is a result that might follow from excuse-extensionism but not from other arguments against moral responsibility (such as those developed by Derk and Neil). But the details of a “medicalized society” (in your second post) are a bit obscure to me; in any case, I do think we have gone much too far in some of the ways we “medicalize” society, particularly when it comes to “maladies” such as grief and shyness.

Tamler, thanks for the kind words; I’m addicted to Flickers, and I’m afraid you’ll have me here for as long as I’m breathing. I think you’re right about the difference between Dennett and myself on this question (it seems to me that is what Dennett’s “plateau” of moral responsibility really is, a plateau of effective take-charge responsibility); and for Dennett (as I understand his complex view) so long as we have that capacity, we are capable of playing the “moral responsibility game” and are generally happy to do so (playing has great advantages), and the game may not be perfect but it is still the best game in town. Since I have long admired Dennett’s wonderful work in bringing psychological studies deep into our understanding of free will (and I particularly like his views linking free will with control), I like to think that my views are really not that different from Dennett’s. But on your specific question, do I think that my claim is more legitimately fundamental than Dennett’s: well, yes, I do. I think that claims of moral responsibility run aground on very basic notions of fairness (and for those of us in that “intuition group,” as you very clearly describe it, that is as fundamental as it gets). But of course not everyone is in that group: George Sher, for example, regards moral responsibility as more fundamental than fairness, and because he believes there is a conflict between moral responsibility and fairness he renounces fairness.

Matt, you raise an excellent point concerning ways of justifying imprisonment: we could adopt deterrence and quarantine models, for example. But if we justify imprisonment on those grounds, it still seems to me that e are justifying a form of punishment (certainly under the deterrence model; and even under the quarantine model, it still seems like punishment – unless we go to a strict medical model, and that’s a model that makes me queasy). Concerning the work of Hanna Pickard, I like a lot of what she says; but I think her work would benefit from reading some philosophers – John Fischer and Gary Watson and Tim Scanlon spring to mind, but there are many others who also do a superb job of looking at the various distinctions she is considering.

Neil, those are great comments; which is another reason I am eagerly anticipating next month’s discussions. Your suggested reply to the skeptic – punish far fewer, and we’re already doing it – is wonderful. You are absolutely right about the complex issues raised in regard to blame (and about the importance of McKenna’s book); but in regards to the proposed fine-grain taxonomy, given the remarkable variety of contemporary views concerning the nature of blame, and the relation of blame to punishment, and whether blame is itself a type of punishment, I suspect that the taxonomy would have to be fine-grained indeed. (If we count Gary Watson’s “attribution responsibility” as a type of moral responsibility, then I’m fine with that; but that’s about as far as I would go.) And in your Monday post, I applaud your point concerning the confusions surrounding how we speak of “blame” and “moral responsibility”; perhaps we do need a much more detailed taxonomy to keep these discussions from arguing past one another.

Alan, I like your sorting out of the options; I’m happy with (i), but then I see much more positive results from the abandonment of MR than most folks can envision (which is why Saul calls me a happy hard determinist).

CJ, you raise excellent points. The “self-disclosure” view of moral responsibility is an interesting one, and has many worthy champions; but I’ve never been able to understand why it establishes moral responsibility, rather than simply that someone is genuinely bad. Robert Harris is truly a bad person, as his acts make manifest; that he is morally responsible for being a bad person seems to me a very different question. And I do think that people deserve not to be punished; that’s why this whole issue is really troubling to me, since I don’t see any possibility that we shall in the foreseeable future be able to do away with all punishment (at least punishment in the sense of imprisonment, to protect others); and I don’t like the idea of punishing people who don’t deserve it. (But as Neil says, on my view we already do that; and by questioning the notion of just deserts, perhaps we’ll do less.)

Dan, I love your idea; I sincerely wish I could believe it; it would solve all my problems: We are locking up people for their own good, because Plato is right that allowing them to cause harm is actually very bad for them. But Plato’s view (at least according to Bernard Williams, as I understand him) is one of the traditional views that are premised on deep belief in a just world; and I just can’t believe our world is just.

Derk, I agree that Neil’s points are excellent on why the MR skeptic would offer a much better program for dealing with violent offenders; and getting past the commitment to “just deserts” is an important step in opening the way to the sorts of programs proposed by Kleiman (and some of which are being tried in places like Norway). The point you emphasize seems to me of the first importance: there are alternative approaches for dealing with offenders, other than Supermax prisons and Five-star resorts.

Nick, I would agree that concern for the wronged is of the first importance; but I don’t think the MR system does much to support that concern; particularly because the MR system is not the best way of preventing and minimizing such wrongs; and the problems of the victims are generally ignored. Though the restorative justice system has some difficulties, one of its great virtues is taking very seriously the genuine harm caused to the victim, and how to best repair that harm (as well repairing the harm to the community).

Mark, You are right, of course, that the question of reward and praise is just as important as the question of blame and punishment; and I think they must be examined together. It’s just that the posting was already so damned long, and the whole question of reward is just as complicated as the question of punishment. Certainly we must have some reward (positive reinforcement) for behavior; without it, we get lethargy, and at the extreme, learned helplessness. And the reward has to be connected with the behavior (otherwise it is counterproductive). But with reward and praise, it seems to me that the MR system applies them in what is often a counterproductive manner (the lazy person who finally makes a minimal effort, but whose effort is far below your vigorous effort, receives no reward, and the fledgling effort-making is extinguished; while your effort, while still substantial, is well below your usual high standards, and rewarding you – as you “justly deserve” – will reinforce a subpar level of effort). You raise lots of very important issues: I don’t think Scandinavia has done away with MR, but they have a much different and weaker commitment to it than is found in the US and the UK; and it seems to me that they are moving in the direction of eliminating belief in MR (though that may be a long path indeed). And I do want to reform the US system, which almost all of us regard as abominable; but a particularly powerful commitment to individual moral responsibility seems to me part of what makes the US system so bad (MR in the strong sense of “rugged individualism”). And I don’t see why I cannot keep beliefs, deliberations, and intentions while eliminating MR (perhaps if you are rejecting MR on the grounds that everyone is demented, OK; but that seems to me the wrong path to denying MR). And I agree with Eddy: a bit of ranting is always welcome; but as rants go, this was quite a mild one, and certainly not offensive: You should see me when the New Orleans Saints are called for pass interference, or Tamler when a Red Sox batter is called out on strikes.

Eddy, thanks for your thanks; I do think that whether one starts from the “top” or the “bottom” makes a big difference (which is one reason why Derk’s Four Cases argument has prompted such interesting debate and discussion). I would prefer to characterize this as whether one looks deep (at the sorts of “luck” factors that shape our basic characters, as Neil points them out), or shallow (at our immediate desire to strike back at those who cause harm). But perhaps not everyone on this board would regard that as a perfectly fair and evenhanded way of presenting the problem (nor would I; I was tempted by the opportunity to take a jab, and I have very little resistance to temptation; not that I deserve blame for my flawed character).

David, as you note, this whole question of whether blame constitutes some form of punishment (it does, after all, often sting) is one of the toughest. Angela Smith has some very interesting work on that; and your own work (in Ethics a couple of years ago, on attributability and accountability) is a remarkably careful study of some of those issues (the discussion of accountability/answerability is wonderful). Thanks for pointing out the Scanlon discussion at Peasoup; Scanlon is another who has looked very hard at those connections, and his elucidation of his current views in the Peasoup discussion is very helpful, particularly on the relation between blame and punishment.

John, on yesterday’s post: the MR skeptic can live “in accordance with the facts” by refusing to believe that malefactors justly deserve punishment (even though we must punish them). So I agree that your view may have significant costs; but the MR skepticism view has only benefits!!

Robert, I’m not sure I follow you; I suspect not, since I think I agree with your comment. In particular, I like avoiding the “opprobrium and sense of moral superiority,” which seems to me to get in the way of developing programs to prevent people becoming violent, and instead encourage them to work productively within the society. And “There but for the grace of God go I” has always seemed a wonderful principle (though I would probably change it to “there but for some fortunate environmental contingencies”).

Mark, just saw your last comment, and I have a meeting in just a moment, so will respond next time (response will obviously take more than a moment). Brent, I'm not sure that we really have to turn to funishment if we deny MR, even if we have the resources to do so (and Saul makes some good points on why funishment might be counterproductive). But on redistributing the wealth, right on, Brother.

Thanks to all; these have been fantastically helpful comments.


It is simply a fact that the human brain, as it's currently built, is not maximized for rational/pro social behavior. Those things are merely happy accidents of the evolution of a social species which are *sometimes* reinfoced (always inffeciently) by cultural norms and moralities.

The novelty of a medicalized society is to take the reigns of our species from arbitrary evolutionary forces (which have no loyalty to morality) and maximize the brain for rational/pro social behavior, rather than for reproductive and survival fitness.

While there are obvious dangers inherent to genetic engineering, to not recognize that method as the "end game" and the only permanent solution to the problems of human nature, betrays what I feel to be an unjustified mistrust of science.


I think that we might be on the same page here, but just in case we are only talking past each other, please allow me to clarify.

Punishment means we blame the wrongdoer. If we incarcerate sans opprobrium, without a sense of righteous indignation, truly believing that the offender doesn't 'have it coming'- nay, deeply regretting that 'it has come to this'- something else altogether is going: call it enforced separation. We don't have to proceed to the extreme of funishment to make this necessary arrangement workable and fair. Since you don't quite go along with my religious sentiments, I'll try a lyric to underscore this attitude: 'There ain't no good guy, there ain't no bad guy; there's only you and me and we just disagree.'

BTW, many theologians maintain that not even God really punishes those he sends to Hell. Respecting their unwillingness to worship Him, He (regretfully?) sends them away.

Robert: being from Manitowoc for over half my professional life, the home of Jim Krueger, the lyricist of Dave Mason's "We Just Disagree"--"there ain't no good guys, there ain't no bad guys, there's only you and me and we just disagree" I have to say that that lyric is best used for moral expressivism, as I did in my doctoral prelims at UT--Knoxville with the small addition "we just disagree--in attitude". I did this before even applying for my job at UW--Manitowoc--which is where I ironically ended up never even knowing that such a place existed. (Neil's emphasis on luck cuts so many different ways!) So I'd say that lyric is more about subjectivism than mere disagreement. For the record I'm just playing with a theme here, and not being really critical of your use.

On the other hand I wonder if emotivism is consistent with a rational pragmatic use of punishment, where emotive egoism is mitigated by some larger pragmatic social concerns, which also might be implemented in circumstances of FW skepticism/hard incompatibilism, so that pragmatic reasons are preeminent over any others (much argument needed), then perhaps some axiological account that is pragmatism-friendly might win the day.

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