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Future being: greetings from the Past! I bring you salutations from a former time, when people deserved to be blamed for raping innocent victims, an deserved to be praised for caring about others and sacrificing for them. Yes, these are admittedly quaint and no doubt anachronistic ideas. But please understand that we are backwards, or at least behind here in CA--at least 17 hours or so. Believe it or not, some of us troglodytes even surf (but not me)--but I've heard that your fancy futuristic society also has some surfers. Very cool, dude!

Really, thanks for this--well, very cool--post, Neil. I can't help but one: I was amused that you claim "there has been a sudden increase in the number of skeptics recently (as well as Bruce, Derk, Galen and me, Michael Zimmerman has clearly identified himself as a skeptic in his recent book). Ha! So I guess an increase of one counts as a "sudden increase in the number of skeptics..." Because the rest of you guys have been skeptics for awhile, no? The position certainly is not a new one, and it is obviously an important one. Whether there is a sudden increase in its popularity is unclear to me; and if there were, this wouldn't really matter to me. Not much of an X-phi guy here (remember: I'm mired 17 hours in the past...)

I think the sources of skepticism about moral responsibility are variegated. There's no single explanation. But if one's primary motivation is dissatisfaction with--or even disgust about--our actual penal system (which I completely share), then I think this is problematic. As an analogy, what if someone rejected Catholic doctrine about free will--say, Aquinas's solution to the problem of foreknowlege [putting God outside of time] because of a disgust over the Catholic priests' sexual abuse scandals throughout the world. Wouldn't the proper reply be to point out that the human institution of the church is flawed--deeply flawed--but that this doesn't in itself imply anything about the theological issues. Why not say the same or a similar thing about the relationship between the deeply flawed human penal (NO PUN INTENDED HERE!) institutions and skepticism about moral responsibility?

I suppose someone might worry that the Catholic doctrines entail or make very probable human institutions that would be objectionable. I certainly think this is possible, and that it (if true) would be a strike against the doctrines. Similarly, if non-skepticism about moral responsibility entailed or made probable objectional human penal institutions, this would be a strike against non-skepticism. But I am not convinced that non-skeptical human beings couldn't come up with much better penal institutions--clearly, we have a moral obligation to do this. Our non-skepticism should help to motivate us here.

As Stephen Daedelus said in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, "The past is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awake". (Hmm... maybe it was Ulysses--one of those books.) And admittedly it is difficult. I doubt that we'll ever make up those 17 hours. But allow me one final missive from the Dark Ages: awesome post, Dude!

Have we spoken to Sam about his misbehavior or is it his first offense? If he has been admonished, did he seem to understand the seriousness of the matter? Has Sam struggled with self-control in other contexts?

An individual is responsible for his behavior just in case it has been brought about by a free exercise of his will, entailing rational forethought and self-control. The basic idea here is deliberately causing things to happen, starting with a free choice. I'm not sure that any 8 year old is up to all that. Thus, were I to admonish him it would definitely be for "forward looking reasons."

Why is it permissible, then, to discount the essential interests of those who are HLR? Is my unwillingness to apply this notion to little Sam based on concern over his future or simply the fact that, according to my own, more substantive definition of MR, he doesn't yet have it in him to act in a blameworthy manner?

Is not my definition indeed the basis of even Arpaly's notion of MR? How can I consider someone "morally flawed" unless I believe that under his own steam, without being caused to act by anyone or anything else, he deliberately set out to harm others and/or himself? By the same token, what could justify me in discounting a person's essential interests except the thought that his wrongdoing is the effect of an exercise of LFW? For if it is not, we ARE talking luck, Neil: the outcome of a long process the genesis of which was well beyond his control.

I do think, then, that you have created something of a straw man. I can think of plenty of scenarios in which I would be skeptical of HLR yet willing to apply my own notion. To wit: A bullying victim works up the courage to physically challenge one of his tormentors. A fight ensues in which both are slightly hurt. Fighting is wrong, he knew that yet deliberately choose that option over others he could have exercised. But it is his first offense, so even though I blame him for resorting to violence, I'm unwilling as the principal to deny him the opportunity to play the trombone in this evening's recital, believing that it would be detrimental to his musicianship, which I take to be an important part of his future. I let him off with a stern warning.

As a Roman Catholic, I see FWS/MRS as just one more modernist, Nietzsche inspired attack upon the Holy Mother Church, which has become in recent years a most convenient whipping boy indeed.

I also agree with Mark that much MRS is based on the not unjustified belief that Capitalism as currently practice is simply unfair, that the widespread poverty it heartlessly countenances is a huge part of our crime problem. Still, we can control ourselves- no one is a criminal of necessity- so that punishment even of the disadvantaged is justified.

Crisply clear post Neil, and thank you for participating in Thomas' simply wonderful series.

I very much think your reply to Eddy's case is on the right track. We have no option to holding children responsible in some sense, and the formative forward-looking sense seems right. Of course children, at least younger children, are usually held harmless in any fully-fledged FW-related sense of MR anyway, since even believers in strong LFW think that it is only in a formative stage itself then. In that sense young children are walking, talking, and sometimes taunting subjects of compatibilist-leaning MR for very practical reasons.

I think however that other practical reasons drive us to treat at least some adult criminals with HL-R. The over-arching practical reasons are ones of general deterrence--not so much retribution or even specific deterrence of the criminal. There must be some system that deprives at least the worst criminals (defined by crimes) of many essential interests (I really like your definition of HL-R BTW) so that people generally have at least some reasons to quell their worst impulses. I'm aware that such deterrence has been shown to be ineffective in curtailing crime--Prohibition in the US has to be the poster-child of that kind of failure (because people couldn't think of drinking as a crime)--but as has been pointed out here about funishment, without some means of discouraging people generally to commit crimes, criminal justice practically would become a joke. I think it takes involving what you call "essential interests" to send a message that can be at all effective. Even tough-minded compatibilist Clockwork Orange MR could do that, and without imposing retribution; people would "get" that re-programming could be very unpleasant for the course of one's life. (And "unpleasant" is pretty relative--Amy Winehouse didn't want to got to rehab, no, no, no--but it might have been preferable to her real-life end.)

As to your second question, which I've commented on here and in personal correspondence with you, the US criminal justice system is indeed a mess, and especially with regard to classic mens rea concerns that include questions of MR as related to FW. I won't rehearse all that. I do think that popular skepticism about "deep" MR of the LFW variety has risen since the Hinckley trial, but mostly of course that's knee-jerk reaction to tangible consequences (his hospitalization instead of imprisonment) attributed to intangible psychological concepts that exonerated him. I don't see how more reflective academic-types have been influenced by all that. I have to admit that reading Richard Double in particular first shifted my thinking to be much more skeptic-friendly about FW, and even pondering anti-realism about morality as well.

Thanks for getting us started with a fascinating post Neil (I'm nervous about having to follow you next month). There's lots to say about cases like Sam (from now on, let's assume Sam is a fictional character based only loosely on true stories!). Let me just push one question for now.

Can't we treat "essential interests" as coming in a wide range of degrees (of both kind and quantity) such that it's plausible to think that Sam deserves to have his counted for (a little) less in the distribution of benefits and burdens? I'm pretty sure Sam would say his essential interests are being counted for less if he is deprived the chance to watch his favorite show or required to do extra chores (more than his siblings) or (fictional!) smacked upside the head. Here we could get into refined moral theory to discern an in-principle distinction between essential interests (not being physically harmed, which might account for our intuition that hitting children is never justified) and non-essential interests. But I'm dubious. Having to do some of one's siblings chores seems to involve a small redistribution of burdens that would otherwise be unfair to Sam.

Even if my goals in punishing Sam are primarily forward-looking, I'm bringing him into the moral community in part by introducing an essentially backwards-looking notion of responsibility and desert. I suppose one could describe what we (and every other parent and teacher) are doing as introducing children to a sort of fiction. But it seems more plausible to me to describe it as introducing them by degrees into a responsibility system--and yes, one that needs lots of fixing.

In practical terms, what kind of punishment would count as one that set back someone's essential interests (and therefore only be deserved if one was morally responsible)? Would 5 years in prison do that? 1 year? 6 months? A hefty fine? What if the prison has education opportunities and a voluntary job placement program to prevent recidivism after release? Depending on your threshold for essential interests setbacks, you could be a lot closer to compatibilism than skepticism—at least in practice.

"I think the sources of skepticism about moral responsibility are variegated. There's no single explanation."


You're looking at it backwards. There is indeed a single explanation for MR Skepticism: It doesn't make any god damn sense to blame people for actions which they could not have avoided (i.e. logic). Perhaps the implications of that fact are "variegated."

Actually, I’d flip that statement and wonder at all the various sources of non-skepticism (religious, intuitions, status quo, etc.)

I don't have time to respond to all comments right now (I need to catch a plane: off to give a paper on Michael McKenna's response to the skeptic). I just want to make a clarificatory remark in response to Eddy and Tamler. By the (perhaps ill-chosen) phrase "essential interests" I had in mind our interests in being able to pursue a range of worthwhile lives. Insofar as harsh treatment impacts detectably on that, it would not be justified by this criterion. So a lot of things pass muster: making Sam do chores or even smacking him may pass muster. Then again, they may not: are there detectable ill-effects? Even imprisonment could conceivably pass muster: if the person is an addict and imprisonment is likely to lead to treatment and a subsequent increase in their range of options (note that the sentence must be short enough to allow time for pursuing a worthwhile life). The basic idea is that treatments may not be pleasant, but they leave the person no worse off than previously as measured by their capacity to pursue worthwhile lives. Actually existing prisons in the US and almost all other developed societies would not pass muster, given that people come out of them psychologically scarred and given the stigma attached to imprisonment. I'd like to hear from skeptics too (not to mention any names or put pressure on anyone who may think they have a right to be a bystander given they have just finished a stint as featured author). Is the kind of treatment allowed too harsh? I think it isn't because of the essentially forward-looking constraint on it. The feature most attractive of deontological theories of punishment is that they put an upper ceiling on harshness: my suggestion has this attractive feature too.

Proper responses soon!

'It's strange to hear those advantages thrown away so casually for the sake of petty intuitions and the base instincts of disgust, vengeance, and most unforgivably of pride--gained from having “chosen” to be good. Those are the only excuses (I refuse to call them arguments) I have seen so far for the maintenance of desert entailing MR.'

'You're looking at it backwards. There is indeed a single explanation for MR Skepticism: It doesn't make any god damn sense to blame people for actions which they could not have avoided (i.e. logic).'


A plea for intellectual humility:

You talk around here as if you personally have conclusively established both PAP and a version of Determinism strong enough to conflict with it, not to mention refuted Conditionalism. I for one have posted cogent defenses of Agent Causalism that you've never even addressed.

To add insult to injury. you then act as if you have access to the deepest recesses of every human heart. You are just dead certain that those of us who posit LFW are vengeful megalomaniacs.

But I take no pride in the fact that I control my will, for such power is a gift from my Creator. Nor am I willing to take credit for what little good I have been able to wring from its exercise: 'without Me you can do nothing.' I certainly don't think that I'm better than anyone else, only finding comfort in the words 'Forgive me Lord, a sinner.' How, then, could I even THINK of condemning others for their faults? The Corporal Works of Mercy require me instead to visit the imprisoned, which, of course, I haven't done. So let's just say that when it comes to the sovereign nature of my will I stand in awe of God's majesty, obliged forever to lovingly sing His praise.

As promised, something approaching a proper response, in the order in which comments appeared.

John, I'm no surfer. In fact, I have been quite successful in avoiding summer completely for 7 years now. California and Melbourne have many things in common, including weather that is too warm (for a reasonable person). Perhaps a belief in moral responsibility is a product of an overheated imagination? My skepticism coincides pretty well with my permanent winter.

My sense is that in the past 5 years we have seen more skepticism among philosophers with an AOC/AOS in agency than previously. That's what I meant by an increase. It doesn't reach significance, so there may be no deep explanation (or the explanation may be trivial: say fashion). As an introspection skeptic (yes, that too) I believe that we may lack access to the proximate causes of our beliefs. I agree that if skepticism is a response to the harshness of the criminal justice systems in our countries (ours is a lot better than yours, but not good) that's a worry, though of course it affects justification, not truth.

Robert, I intended HLR as a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. So your counterexamples don't worry me. I don't think we are ever required to treat people worse.I'm not sure what you're getting at with the strawman claim. I don't intend the argument to do anything more than help with Eddy's hard line reply. I certainly am not arguing that if Sam can't be blamed, no one can (at least, I don't take myself to have established that here: you don't get out of having to read the book!). An aside on your response to Brent. I don't know what his motivations are, but I am a compatibilist: I don't think free will is incompatible with causal determinism.

Alan, your comment brings out an important motivation for HLR. You think we can justify harsh treatment on consequentialist grounds alone. If that's right, we need a way to limit the harshness of the treatment. There is a big empirical question in the background: what motivates people to commit crimes? In particular, what can be achieved through social justice initiatives alone? I believe that the available data suggests - I wouldn't put it more strongly than that - that reducing the harshness of punishment could, in the actual world, reduce crime (obviously if it were done in the right way). Spending money on the disadvantaged, perhaps especially those who have been involved in crime, might do even more. That's another reason HLR is necessary, not sufficient. Moral justification is a comparative affair, and if we can achieve much better outcomes by (in effect) rewarding criminals, we should do so.

In the UK, there has been a sudden rise in successful use of the NGRI defence. Part of the reason is that for the first time outcomes for those acquitted are better than those for those convicted: in the past, those placed in institutions has much longer sentences than those convicted. Just some evidence that things don't have to get worse!

Brent, by "motivations" I'm looking for psychological stories, not justifications. I believe skepticism is true, but that belief is compatible with thinking that I have been led there by any number of routes, some of which are truth-tracking and some which are not (so far as I can tell, I was actually led to skepticism by a kind of generalisation of worries about the epistemic condition: before I was a skeptic, I wrote a number of papers arguing that the condition was not satisfied by agents in a variety of circumstances).

Thankyou, Neil, for that excellent summary of my position in Bruce's last thread. I'm pleased that I was able to make myself clear, and present a position worthy of discussion.

I'd like to answer your first question, and clarify my position on your second. For the first, I'd say that your reply does leave a substantive notion of moral responsibility -- primarily because I think you have misidentified what MR is. For the second, I'd say skepticism's a misreaction (rather than an overreaction) to an egregious criminal justice system -- the goal on both sides is to replace something bad with something much better, and I don't see that as an overreaction at all.

For MR, I'd like to make an analogy with legal responsibility. Suppose someone is legally required to submit a form LR-1050 every year by the 20th of March. Then he has a legal responsibility to do so. Changing the penalty for failure to do so (say from $10,000 fine to 2 months in jail) does not change his LR at all -- it remains what it was, and the failure conditions remain the same. The penalty is not part of his LR; it is his "legal desert".

Similarly (I'd say), changing HL to HLR is not changing MR at all; rather it is specifying a range of desert associated with the same MR -- same rules and same failure conditions. If someone took the position that there is HL but no HLR, then all they'd be saying is that no one deserves to have their *essential* interests counted for less (or more), but for lesser interests it can happen. That's not a claim about the offender's responsibility; it's about desert -- which is just another way of talking about the responders' options -- what they may or may not do in response to an offence. It is the responders who are responsible for that reaction, and the rules of desert that say what we can do to those who react inappropriately.

And thus my objection to some aspects of the justice system is not that criminals are not responsible for their actions, but that they don't deserve the treatment they're getting. And that position in no way prevents me from saying that it's OK that this woman slapped that man for groping her in the subway, because he deserved it (= her reaction was appropriate to his offence ==> she does not deserve to be punished for it). I don't think your argument touches this (IMO substantive) notion of MR.

Finally, I'd like to draw your attention to what I think is an important distinction -- the difference between "respond to" and "respond the way we do". We do respond to Sam for backward looking reasons -- what he did, and the circumstances under which he did it. We (ideally) choose our response for forward-looking reasons -- e.g. what's the best way of socializing Sam (and others) to try harder to avoid such actions -- within the bounds of morality (what he deserves).

I like the idea of a new wave of moral responsibility skeptics, including our remarkable host, Thomas; and my explanation for the phenomenon is that it is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and henceforth love will steer the stars. But I fear John may be right (John is forever bringing up difficult problems for us skeptics) and the wave is more like a trickle. In fact, it may be worse than that: Tamler recently lost the faith, apparently (or so he says in one of the Wizard interviews), and so the high tide of moral responsibility skepticism may now be ebbing. But with Neil posting such great stuff, I live in hope of a skeptical resurgence. (By the by, I hate calling it moral responsibility skepticism; it sounds like a pessimistic view; and William James notwithstanding, the denial of MR certainly does not seem to me pessimistic; I prefer to call it moral responsibility abolitionism, thinking that would have a more positive connotation; but is there another term, perhaps more neutral, that we could use?)

By all means, we ought to consider not only the relation between MR and punitive measures, but also the relation between MR and reward. And just as (by my lights) belief in MR leads to bad punitive practices, the same belief supports bad reward practices as well. It’s no accident that the US is “an outlier here, compared to every other advanced democracy”; it is also, for the same comparison group, equally an outlier in the enormous disparity of wealth in the society, with not only the worst social support system for the poorest (including not even health care for many) but also the greatest concentration of enormous wealth for a very few; and add to that the fact that the U.S. is also – of that group – the country in which there is the least opportunity for social mobility among those starting in the lower socioeconomic groups. The same extreme allegiance to moral responsibility is a major source of both the extremes of wealth and the extremes of punishment. Furthermore, both trends accelerated at the same time that the Reagan revolution took hold in the U.S.; and similar trends began operating as the Thatcher revolution developed in the UK. OK, I know that John and Mike and Mark and Eddy and Alan and the other wonderful MR supporters on this board despise the “rugged individualism” form of MR that promotes both excessive wealth inequities as well as grossly excessive punitive measures; but doesn’t it raise serious concerns that the more profound and dedicated the belief in MR, the more these policies flourish; and as we find weaker belief in MR (and greater acknowledgment of the fact that all of us are shaped by social factors at least many of which were not under our control) we get much more equitable societies with much less severe punitive measures?

Neil, I know you are generous by nature; but don’t give away too much to the MR advocates: your arguments in HARD LUCK make very clear (by my lights) why no one, including Sam, justly deserves any form of punishment whatsoever. Even if we think it is “appropriate to deprive Sam of candy or a trip to the cinema because of what he has done,” that does not imply that he justly deserves such treatment (we MIGHT decide that this is essential for making Sam a better person, but it will not follow that he justly deserves even the mild punishment); and better than depriving him of a trip to the cinema, we would gain more by examining the source of the problem and trying to deal with that, rather than turning too easily to punitive measures. Maybe Mom and Dad need to spend some special time with Sam; he doesn’t justly deserve such beneficial treatment either, of course; but the point is, once we get away from the insistence on blame, we can start looking for better solutions. On this issue: Alan, we may not be able to avoid some punitive deterrent measures; but if that’s the case, I don’t see why we must conclude that those who suffer such unavoidable punishment justly deserve such punishment and must be considered morally responsible. So I think Eddy and Tamler are right, that once you start down that road, you are “introducing them by degrees into a moral responsibility system”; and that’s a system to which us “skeptics” would prefer that the next generation not be introduced. Agreed, both Neil’s approach and deontological approaches may place an upper limit on punitive measures (though Kant’s deontological approach raised that upper limit to encompass capital punishment); but if we really want to curtail the excessive use of punishment, aren’t we likely to do a better job by acknowledging that no one actually deserves it ever?

Robert, I cannot understand why we would not consider Robert Harris (the notorious murderer) genuinely flawed – he deliberately commits brutal murders -- though we do not believe he is MR for his flaws. I know that it is more a part of the Protestant tradition, but there is a long tradition in some parts of Christianity of maintaining that God (for His inscrutable purposes) makes some people incorrigibly evil, and they could not have been otherwise – they certainly do not have LFW – but they are nonetheless genuinely morally bad (Lorenzo Valla takes this view, in his dialogue on free will, which I have always liked very much).

OK, Neil, sorry about the length of the comment, but it’s a fascinating question, and one of deep importance to me. That will teach you not to give subtle encouragement to my comments (though of course you don’t deserve the punitive result of such a verbose comment). I have been looking forward to your posts, and obviously my eager anticipation was more than justified.


HLR doesn't work as a necessary condition either, which was the point of my Principal example: I was willing to hold the student in question responsible for reacting violently to being bullied even though I was not prepared to disregard his 'essential interests' in how I handled the situation. In general I can think of plenty of situations where I would be inclined to be lenient towards those I consider blameworthy, being unwilling to give them exactly what they deserve for fear of hurting them for life. Come to think of it, in Roman Catholic soteriology, God, in his infinite Mercy, takes precisely this stance towards fallen Man.

Greetings, again, from the Dark Ages. (The Dark Ages are to be distinguished from the "Derk Ages", in which desert-based responsibility practices are a thing of the past.)

So it must be common practice for non-skeptics to adduce apparently egregious examples of moral wrondoing and request a reply from skeptics: what do you say about Hitler, and so forth. At the risk of being redundant or at least unininteresting, I'd be interested in skeptics' thoughts about the following ruminations.

I've been thinking a bit about the bombings at the Boston Marathon. They were particularly cruel and heinous, I think, in part (but certainly not only) because the goal was to "maim"--to wreck the legs of people who love to run (among other terrible goals). The younger bomber was evidently known for being just a normal, ordinary kind of guy among his friends at UMass, Dartmouth, where he is/was a student. And both of them obviously engaged in detailed and effective planning of the whole thing (although, mysteriously, not much planning seemed to go into the escape).

I've been thinking a lot about the stuggles of the families who lost loved ones and those of the people who were crippled and otherwise maimed and hurt--as well as their families. Is it just obvious that no one could deserve to be punished for causing--deliberately and voluntarily--causing such horrendous suffering? Maybe I'm just way off-base here, but it just doesn't seem so crazy to think that this is possible--that the bomber who is alive deserves to be punished, and punished severely, for what he has done. Would anyone really tell a family member of someone who was killed, or someone who was crippled: "It is of course very, very sad that this all happened, but the old ideas about deserving punishment have been shown to be based on inadequate metaphysical bases. We understand your natural tendency to want to "strike back" at those who have caused this suffering, but please understand that this is, although perhaps a deep part of human nature, not a noble or in the end warranted kind of view".

Wouldn't it be despicable to say that? And wouldn't it be implausible to think it?

It is beyond obvious, John, that such cruel, twisted creatures deserve to be severely punished, hurt badly even. (You probably remember Bernard Shaw posing a similar question to Dukakis during one of '88 presidential debates.) Could there be a more powerful reductio of MRS? No putative MR skeptic would be willing to publicly state his position, except in an academic setting. Thus, MRS is false. QED.

When I pressed Tamler Sommers during his HD period about schadenfreude regarding A-Rod, he just shrugged his shoulders and admitted to hypocrisy. (That was a fun night Tamler, if you read this, with Seth and Al Mele in Pullman or Moscow; I was never quite sure which one I was in.) I suspect something similar is going on with the current crop of MR skeptics. Is that a mark against their position? To me an unlivable philosophy must be false. Tamler didn't think so.

Robert: Walter Stace famously used the ad homimen against hard incompatibilists--who may indeed sometimes use it on themselves, though I think more for self-reinforcement of how theoria might inform defective praxis--but clearly examples of such believers--the lives of Clarence Darrow and Albert Einstein and especially the Stoics attest to the overreach of such attacks. ("Stoic" now refers to their teachings about behavior--not the "porch"it originally referred to; the ancients were actually calling them "the porch-guys" after all.)

I appreciate your posts in part because you always see these things from an unapologetically declared firm world-view. And since yours is top-down as assuming LFW it always gives me a baseline for approaching all our FW/MR issues from that perspective. Furthermore, I was once in your camp, having trained for the ministry, attended seminary, but ultimately rejected that perspective for a naturalistic one. So I get what you say because I once got it--but just don't get it now.

That's made me very sensitive to the issue of world-view and FW/MR. But my shift in world-view has made me much more "bottom-up" about FW/MR issues. We can't ignore data about consciousness and decisions even as we engage in more abstract theory about these things. I take John's remarks about reacting to moral horror as real data, as I do Neil's study of non-conscious actions as related to blaming. I increasingly think that if we elevate prescriptive values over facts as dominant, then that is a distortion that does not give facts due weight in our reasoning (I argued this in another thread with respect to out concept of death). I think that facts and values have to achieve some sort of balanced equilibrium of reasoning, but allowing for some reasonable divergence on the value side as well. (So what "death" means to people can reasonably vary, but extremes can be discounted.) This is in part what is driving me to pragmatism about resolving these complex issues: what is reasonable about FW/MR fits within a fairly large but delimitable range of concepts that in some sense make equal sense as far as our practices are concerned. I'm still working on all this, but I have to say that this blog and its participants have been one of the most valuable things ever in forcing me to think harder.

The question John raises, and which Robert and Alan have chimed in on, is an interesting one. Our intuitions with regard to wrongdoing alters depedning on a variety of factors. The x-phi folk have spent some time exploring this issue: 'concrete' descriptions result in a willingness to blame when an 'abstract' description of the same case result in a willingness to withhold blame. I think the example John uses turns on the same kind of pivot: you may be convinced by your arguments in the privacy of your study, but now look at it from the perspective of the victims' families. Of course there is an obvious explanation of why one would not want to say such things to the families: it is defeasibly wrong to cause distress. There are many things that are true that we should not say, or should not say in certain circumstances. The more interesting question is whether one standpoint is epistemically privileged. It is quite plausible to think that deeply distressed people are not at their most lucid: it was considerations like these that motivated Locke to think that people ought not to be judges in cases that involve them intimately. We want more dispassionate judges, and that is some reason to think we ought not to adopt the victims' familiies perspective. As I think I mentioned in another thread, there is a little evidence that (a) people believe that 'justice' will make them feel better and (b) it actually makes them feel worse.

Robert, if you book the TED talk, I will deliver it. I have spruiked my line in every context I can including semi-academic contexts. The only reason I am not writing on the opinion pages of the NYT is that (for some inexplicable reason) they don't seem to want me,

Don't worry, Bruce: I am not backtracking. I am interested in whether HLR would meet with easier acceptance than my harder line view. The broader questions Bruce raises in his comment are usually ignored but might reasonably be thought of as the heart of the real debate: what is the locus of moral concern? Bruce suggests that there is a link between individualism and moral responsibility. I think that's exactly right: the atomising forces of the market make the isolated individual responsible for herself, independently of the social and cultural forces that actually make her what she is (Robert, perhaps I can provoke a modicum of fellow feeling here: I am here siding with Alasdair MacIntyre against Nietzsche). If you think, as I do, that the importance of individual agency is exaggerated (I have defended this in the context of debates over the extended mind) then it is less obvoius that the agent is the right focus of correction or reward.Thanks, Bruce, by the way, for reminding me that Thomas should be mentioned in the ranks of the skeptics. He is too self-effacting for his own good!

Mark and Robert: again, I am stipulating what I mean to avoid controversies over wha is the genuine meaning of "moral responsibility". I find it more natural to describe what you are calling, Mark, our moral *responsibilities*. But I want to avoid the debate: I am happy for you to describe the debate as about desert rather than moral responsibility if you like. Of course I agree that "desert" is centrally relevant: we agree that what is stake is what agents deserve on the basis of non-consequentialist considerations. I take your point about mis, rather than over-reaction.

'I take John's remarks about reacting to moral horror as real data, as I do Neil's study of non-conscious actions as related to blaming.'

But the fiends in question, Alan, were not operating 'non-consciously'- that, I believe, is part of what John is getting at when he brings up their desire (I have hard time even saying this) to maim athletes. May God have mercy on their souls, but there was malice aforethought in their hearts and such viciousness calls for the sternest possible response without crossing the line into cruel and unusual punishment. They knew what they were doing and should have known- whether they did or not- that it was evil. Nothing, certainly no political grievance, could justify what they did. Yet we know that they tried, as do ALL terrorists, to silence the 'moral law within', screaming at them 'Don't do it', by reciting ad nauseam convenient, rancorous half-truths about their foe, as if they are the only ones capable of moral purity. That self-serving conduct is just one more reason to believe that they were functioning at full mental capacity over the months leading up to their despicable decision.

You and I both know subjectively what it means to make plans, the quale of decision making, as it were. If such mental activity is not paradigmatically conscious, then we have another case of a contrastive term losing its meaning (a la 'unselfish in the debate of the possibility of altruism). And, as I have asked before, why should we trust others to tell us what's going on in our own minds?

"Bruce suggests that there is a link between individualism and moral responsibility. I think that's exactly right: the atomising forces of the market make the isolated individual responsible for herself, independently of the social and cultural forces that actually make her what she is . . . If you think, as I do, that the importance of individual agency is exaggerated (I have defended this in the context of debates over the extended mind) then it is less obvious that the agent is the right focus of correction or reward."

"[T]he atomising forces of the market make the isolated individual responsible for herself, independently of the social and cultural forces that actually make her what she is" is perhaps one of the best holistic and concise expressions of the effect of liberal political philosophy since the Enlightenment on how we treat matters of justice in Anglo-American philosophy that I have ever read. Well said Neil, with "market" appropriately parsed across socio-economic-normative connected realms of that tradition. I could not agree with you more on the exaggerated emphasis on personal agency to exclusion of the balance of social goods. Who I am is so obviously is a function of whom I'm among that matters of individual agency cannot be divorced from social and cultural context even if the metaphysics of individual choice is some necessary condition for MR.

Robert: I was merely citing two types of data I think relevant to do "bottom-up" work on these issues. I didn't mean to imply that the perpetrators of the Boston bombings were not conscious of their intentions or acts. Of course they were.

What I wonder about is imposing on them or anyone whether a ceteris paribus metaphysical picture of decision-making genuinely isolates their "proper" MR role as agents. That's all.

Neil, you write: "We want more dispassionate judges, and that is some reason to think we ought not to adopt the victims' families' perspective."

I get your point (and we certainly don't want victims to be judges), but it's worth pointing out that the U.S. legal system does adopt the victim's and/or family's perspective at sentencing (I'd be curious whether other legal systems do this). This seems to me to be a valuable feature of our system. Once juries (or judges) have established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, they are able to listen to the pain of the victims (or perhaps their forgiveness) as they consider what punishment is appropriate, and the victims can feel as if they are part of the process (Tamler will likely have something to add about the importance of this).

I share John's intuition that telling (or expecting) victims that those who perpetrated crimes against them do not deserve retribution would be a detrimental consequence of hard incompatibilism (and, in my view, would be inappropriate so long as the criminals satisfied relevant compatibilist conditions).

Furthermore, though I don't know the history or sociology (I'd love to hear more details), I doubt that the more lenient criminal justice system in some European countries (and Australia?) has resulted from skepticism about free will or moral responsibility/basic desert. Rather, I suspect it derives more from: (a) a plausible view that many criminals are *less* responsible than we might have thought, because they possess, or had the opportunity to exercise, to a diminished degree the relevant capacities for control and knowledge (i.e., free will); and/or
(b) a plausible view that the retributive punishments of most legal systems are excessive and often counter-productive relative to forward-looking aims of punishment.

Neil: I'd say that his "responsibilities" are the obligations he labours under; what he is (or may be) "responsible for" is his failure to meet those responsibilities.

And I think you should take Bruce's warning about giving too much away to MR seriously. If Eddy's remarks have convinced you that you need to move from HL to HLR, then you have essentially admitted that HL moral responsibility may exist -- answering your own first question implicitly.


Other legal systems do indeed bring in the victim's voice. In Australia, there is often a "victim's impact statement" entered into evidence prior to sentencing. It may be important for the victim to feel a part of the process (then again, it may not: as I mentioned above, there is evidence that feeling that one has played a role in punishing reduces subjective well-being, though people think it has the opposite effect; ie, they think they would be less happy were the opportunity to punish removed from them. But the data available has only an indirect relevance to realworld sentencing).

Quite independently of overall skepticism - at least my worries predate my skepticism - I am fiercely opposed to this It is part of an increase in more punitive approaches that has arisen in many parts of the world, largely as a result of the fact that right wing parties have found that generating outrage about sentencing is a very effective way of increasing their vote share. As part of the same movement, there has been a move to mandatory minimum terms, taking discretion away from judges as well as indefinite sentences for serious sex offenders. I am opposed for many reasons. For one thing, it introduces a new element of moral luck into proceedings: a gets a lighter sentence than b because a's parents are less punitive than b's. For another, it is inequitable: a's parents may be more articulate than b's, because they are better educated, or a might have had a brighter future because a went to better schools.

I doubt that the motivations for less punitive systems, such as those we see in Norway (shortest average sentences in the world and lowest levels of recidivism in the world) are motivated by skepticism about free will. Whether, like my worries about the epistemic condition, they might gradually broaden (under the pressure of rational consistency) to lead to skepticism is an interesting question. Right now, the tide of opinion seems to be flowing the other way.

Neil, this is a great topic, with wonderful comments. I completely agree with you about the victim impact statements, for exactly the reasons you state. In a different system – for example, a restorative justice system – it might well be a different matter; there the concern about “restoring” the victim is not about increasing punishment, but about genuinely helping the victim and also about restoring the offender to the community. Concern for the victim of crime is certainly legitimate, indeed mandatory; however, it should not be used as a means of ratcheting up punishment. But I gather that Tamler has a different take on victim impact statements, and I would really like to know more about his views on this subject.

Concerning John’s powerful example of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the fact (also emphasized by Eddy and Robert) that we would not want to tell the victims and their families that the bomber does not deserve severe punishment. Having grown up in the deep South of the U.S., during the civil rights struggle, there was a bombing that I still remember with terrible clarity: the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church in which four young girls were killed, and many others injured. There was powerful evidence that the person behind the bombing was Robert Chambliss, who was almost certainly behind the firebombing of the houses of several black families in Alabama who were active in the civil rights movement. The investigation was closed in 1968, and no charges were filed. But finally in the 70’s the case was reopened, and Chambliss was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment (he died in prison some years later). I remember the conviction of Chambliss, and the excitement and joy of that conviction. I wanted Chambliss to be convicted and imprisoned. I’m STILL glad he was convicted, and I’m glad he went to prison with a life sentence. That is true, even though I do not believe that Robert Chambliss – a particularly vile, hate-filled, and vicious man, who committed horrific crimes – justly deserved to be punished. But it was nonetheless very important to convict and imprison Chambliss, because until that time the “justice” system in the deep South (dominated by racist sheriffs and all-white juries) treated crimes against blacks by whites as not really crimes at all. And if one said: Chambliss does not justly deserve to be convicted (as many whites in the South did say) the meaning was: crimes against blacks are irrelevant, they don’t matter, blacks are not due any consideration or protection. So as long as we stay within our system of justice, to say that this competent person who committed this brutal act does NOT deserve punishment means: the persons injured don’t really count. Within that system, if we say to the victims of the Boston bomber: The person who harmed you and your loved ones does not deserve punishment, the message is: you don’t count, your suffering doesn’t count, there is nothing wrong with harming you. When I reject moral responsibility, it is because I reject the system of moral responsibility: I believe that when we look deeper at how people like Robert Chambliss were shaped, it is not fair to punish them for their egregious deeds and their egregious character; and that we are better off studying and trying to understand how that character was shaped rather than focusing on punishment of the individual. I do not believe that there is any realistic scenario under which John or Eddy or Robert could be induced to plant a bomb designed to kill innocent marathon runners or innocent young girls in a Birmingham church; Robert Chambliss was (as Robert puts it) “cruel and twisted.” That is one reason I think it is so important to struggle to understand what causes such behavior, and how to prevent it. Blaming Robert Chambliss was the easy part; fixing the pervasive and vicious racist system that produced Chambliss was a much harder problem, and one on which we should have worked much harder and better.

Eddy and Neil, the question of cultural influence on beliefs about free will and on harshness of punishment is a very interesting one; and it seems to me that there is some evidence that cultural differences in views about free will really do make a difference. The neoliberal system (which we find in the U.S., and which has spread from the U.S. into the U.K. and Australia and Canada and even New Zealand) is one of extreme belief in individual powers of libertarian free will: your success or your failure is almost entirely your own choice and your own doing, and you deserve the reward or punishment (think of the “you didn’t make that” controversy during the ’12 presidential election). In contrast, the social democratic corporatist culture (in Sweden and Norway) has a very different orientation, with less emphasis on individual powers and more focus on social influences and the need to provide support in order to enhance genuine opportunity. So perhaps there are genuine differences between the way free will is understood in the U.S. (with its rugged individualism, that Neil describes so well) and the way it is understood in Norway; and that difference makes a big difference in their respective prison systems as well as their social support systems.

Prof. Waller,

You would agree that the flaws in question are 'character flaws.' But a character is not something that can be imposed; it must be developed over time by an agent, one free choice at a time. Otherwise to say someone is seriously flawed is like an NBA coach noting that a player is too short or too slow to play in the league. I'm not sure that sans LFW we have anything approaching an agent- someone who causes things to happen on his own- let along a creature involved in self-making,

As for God hardening hearts, I can presently do no better than proffer Eleanore Stump's masterful essay on the subject, the gist of which is God only hardens those who are hardening themselves, merely accelerating the process for his own ineffable reasons.

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