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Justin, how do we count kinds of control or measure control's robustness? I'd put my view this way: however we imagine agency, it doesn't seem to me that responsibility can be any greater than it can be in a deterministic world.

I'm not sure I'd deny that moral responsibility is fully robust. Might I put my position this way: fully robust responsibility doesn't warrant great venom or vengefulness?

If someone says that responsibility is rather thin, and another says it is very robust, they might or might not really disagree. I guess we could tell only by getting them to say more about which responses they think are fitting responses to responsible agents, and perhaps what the fittingness comes to. I'd like to see more of this.

Randy, I'm not sure how to answer your question about control in every case, but I think, for example, that John is on to something when he (together with Mark Ravizza) distinguishes between guidance control and regulative control. The latter is measured in terms of greater or lesser responsiveness to reasons, whereas the latter might be measured in terms of greater or lesser opportunity to do otherwise.

So on your view great venom or vengefulness is simply uncalled for, no matter how much (or what kinds of) control we have. Is that right?

Ooops. I clearly meant to say that the former (i.e., guidance control) is measured in terms of greater or lesser responsiveness to reasons, whereas the latter (i.e. regulative control) might be measured in terms of greater or lesser opportunity to do otherwise.


My point is about supervenience. I do not deny that certain internventions later would be significant--and my theory seeks to capture that intuition. On my account, moral responsibility requires that the mechanism that issues in the behavior be the agent's own.

But what I was saying is that a claim that Diana's intentions matter seems to commit one to the following kind of possibility: two individuals can be exactly the same throughout their lives, have the same genetic constitutions, and have everything that happens to them be exactly the same (after the initial genetic endowment), but differ in their moral responsibility. This is what I find implausible.

Speaking of vastly underappreciated papers, the last main section (I think) of my “Manipulation, Moral Responsibility, and Bullet Biting” (Journal of Ethics 2013: 167-84) is a reply to John Fischer’s response to the zygote argument. (OK, I’m going back to blogging on Big Questions Online.)

Thanks, Al. It is hard to keep up with the refutations of my work! Also, there is another thoughtful and challenging critical discussion of my ANALYSIS paper in Patrick Todd, "Defending (a modified) version of the Zygote Argument," in Phil. Studies.

Despite the firepower and distinction of my critics, I'm venturing the prediction that these won't be the last words on the subject!

Since we're mentioning vastly underappreciated papers, may I mention all of mine?

Does any of us have a paper we regard as sufficiently appreciated? Never mind overappreciated; I don't suppose we'll confess to that.

Justin, I agree, the distinction between guidance control and regulative control seems clear. I don't think it makes a difference with regard to responsibility, though. I guess I agree with John on that!

I appreciate all of your comments, even if I haven't sufficiently appreciated your papers. I'll work on it.

By the way, I'm completely sure that most philosophers think that at least some (if not much) of their work is under-appreciated. Also, just to make sure people see this, when I introduced the term "under appreciated" in CAPS, I followed it with "ha/ha". The "ha/ha" seems to have been elided in subsequent references to this idea!!

It is kind of interesting to me how much passion (and perhaps stubbornness) seems to go into the literature surrounding the Initial Design and Manipulation Arguments. Otherwise somewhat calm folks get positively worked up about these. I do think we can learn a lot from these kinds of arguments; for example, I've been arguing for a long time that we need a historical, rather than a time-slice, account of moral responsibility in part because of manipulation worries. I look forward to thinking more about the Zygote Argument, the Four-Case Argument, and related arguments. They are certainly among the most worrisome challenges to compatbilism; and arguably they also provide a similar challenge to libertarianism.

I recall that when Randy came to UCR many years ago to discuss his book, I asked him whether, given that he had abandoned Agent-Causal Libertarianism, he was prepared to come all the way to the LIGHT (ha/ha) [I guess I've been thinking too much about Near-Death Experiences] and accept compatibilism. He said that the main obstacle to his doing so was manipulation worries. I recall agreeing that they are (as I wrote above) among the most pressing challenges to compatibilism. I still do, and I think the work of Al Mele, Derk Pereboom, and Patrick Todd (and others) have helped to make the challenges sharper.

Of course, that doesn't mean I don't think they can be answered. The answers won't be absolutely decisive--but that shouldn't be expected. One's acceptance of a theory of moral responsibility will be the result of a holistic philosophical cost-benefit analysis. The in-principle possibility of Initial Design is a cost I am willing to pay--but more on that in future work, I hope.

Randy, congratulations on the book; great topic for Flickers; no one examines the subtle nuances of these issues with more care and precision than you, which is why I’m eager to read the new book. Your claim that knowing the history of Ernie in great detail mitigates your response to Ernie’s egregious behavior is most interesting (though I have never known you to be hard-hearted at any time in your history). And that seems to me the key issue between you and John Fischer: you want to embrace the mitigation, while John rejects mitigation lest he plunge down the slippery slope to (horrors) complete denial of moral responsibility (Patrick Todd’s paper on this point is very insightful, as John notes). On this, it seems to me that John is exactly right: once we acknowledge that all the details are caused – as determinism claims – then that includes one’s reason responsiveness and one’s affirmation of living all the details of my life “my way”; and if we accept any degree of mitigation, then there is no stopping point in the determinist system. (I would prefer to call it a “slippery ascension” rather than a slippery slope, because it seems to me that once one takes a step along that path one is propelled to the delightful world in which the vile elements of moral responsibility are eliminated; come on, John, take that step, the water’s fine.) Incidentally, it seems to me that the reason the justice system is so reluctant to admit mitigation (only in capital punishment cases) is because people in that system share John's concern. But I digress; the point is that Randy believes he has found a way of stopping the slide/ascension, short of the total denial of moral responsibility; and John believes that the path is so slippery that there is no stopping. Is that the key reason why these two great philosophical voices cannot sing in harmony?

Although I think that vengeful and venomous responses to manipulated Ernie, and any that involve the supposition of basic desert, are ruled out, plenty of what’s involved in our practice of holding morally responsible is unaffected. I argue that several forward-looking aspects of the practice, those that aim at protection, reconciliation, and moral formation, are unaffected. And Randy and Dana have pointed out to me that in the case of blame those aims have backward-looking aspects as well – it’s important that the agent in fact acted badly, and in the case of reconciliation addressing the nature of the immoral action is crucial. Moreover, these forward-looking goals may often demand a tough-minded response. And since these aspects of the practice are compatible with causal determination, I’m committed to the claim that they are appropriate for manipulated Ernie, and for Plum in each of the manipulation cases. So for these largely forward-looking aspects, the hard-line response is the right one.

I've been thinking more about "a plausible supervenience principle: one's moral responsibility supervenes on the actual story of one's life." How much individualism does that principle commit us to?

Ernie lives in a world where goddesses frequently turn humans into puppets, or sometimes instead carefully design a human to reason his own way into doing what the goddess wants. But even in the latter sort of case, the goddess is highly interventionist in temperament. She will gladly run roughshod over human freedom to get the actions she wants. Knowing that the world is so goddess-governed, Ernie's society has decided not to punish the goddess-damned, wisely seeing that to do so would be utterly pointless. The damned never swerve from mayhem, no matter how many good reasons society may give them to do so.

Bernie lives in a world where goddesses, when they take an interest in humans, are completely respectful of human agency. They never design a human but with high reasons-responsiveness, and they never thwart a person's will once he has been created. Knowing their theological situation, Bernie's society does not regard goddess activity as a valid excuse for any human action. They wisely see that reward and punishment regularly work on the goddess-created, indeed they work far better than on mundane naturally-created humans.

Does this difference in social contexts count as a difference in "the actual story of a life"? If so, the principle is OK. If not, not.


Thanks, as always, for the kind words.
You write that I should eschew the "vile elements" of moral responsibility. I take it you mean the retributive reactive attitudes, but I'm not sure. It turns out that Derk and I are very close in terms of where we end up, although we might conceptualize matters somewhat differently. Randy used the term "razor thin," and that perhaps characterizes my diffeence with Derk too.

Here's what I'm wondering: How do you think we ought to respond say to the Boston Marathon bomber, assuming that he was sane (met the basic conditions for sanity) and also assuming that he's guilty of the bombings? What are the appropriate attitudes we as a society should have, and his victims should have? Presumably, you would think we should sequester the bomber. But what kind of attitudes would be appropriate?

This would be helpful for me to know--thanks.

In the end I find all of this very difficult--I am perhaps less certain of my own views that would be suggested by some of my rhetoric.

Bruce, I think the creation case can help one correct an inflated view of what moral responsibility comes to (if one has an inflated view to begin with). Once we make the correction, I'd hope that you might find the notion less objectionable!

I think mitigation in the legal system is a very different matter. It generally concerns severity of punishment. My focus in the post is more on attitudes.

Derk, I agree that several forward-looking considerations bear on what our overt responses to wrongdoers ought to be. But as you said, I think that some backward-looking considerations are crucial. I think that Hart makes a persuasive case for this with respect to punishment in "Prolegomenon to the Principles of Punishment." He points out, for example, that even if in rare circumstances we ought to punish an innocent person, there is a backward-looking consideration that is being outweighed, and thus one that counts. Similarly, some principle of proportionality carries weight, even if it can be outweighed by consequentialist considerations.

Perhaps these points bear on Paul's cases.

John, I wouldn't like to prescribe attitudes to the bomber's victims. But we aren't always at our best after very disturbing experiences, and what we feel on such occasions doesn't carry automatic authority.

I think in some ways I am very close to the views that are (almost entirely) shared by you, Randy, and Derk concerning retributive attitudes; or at least I hope so; I fear that if I differ profoundly from all three of you, it could only be because I am entirely lost to virtue. What should our attitude be toward the Boston bomber? I would guess that all of us feel a visceral moral loathing for him and for his acts, and a deep desire that he should suffer for what he did. I would worry about anyone who did not have such deep retributive feelings. (Tamler, I think, regards that as sufficient for justifying the legitimacy of moral responsibility and providing justification for retributive punishment of such villains; and his analysis is marvelous, but at that point I disagree with him.) I suspect that – given our animal nature, and the depth of our retributive emotions – these emotions are inseparable from a judgment that what the person did was terribly wrong. But I don’t think those emotions are good guides to what is really fair and just (especially in response to profoundly disturbing events, as Randy notes), and they are not good guides for our behavior (the idea that we have strong emotions that we do not want to eliminate but that we do not believe are good guides to behavior is surely not a strange one; concupiscence springs to mind). They are not good guides to behavior, because (by my strange lights) claims of moral responsibility cannot be justified, and retributive punishment is always wrong. Derk, of course, is brilliant at showing how much of our current belief system -- and even our justice system -- we can preserve when we deny moral responsibility. But I’m not sure the preservation will be quite as easy or as complete as he suggests. Comparing those who commit terrible wrongs with carriers of disease who need to be quarantined seems to me a dangerous step; no doubt some people who commit terrible wrongs are insane (a lot more than we acknowledge); but by no means all. And even if we think simply in terms of isolating those vicious but sane persons for the protection of society, that will still be – as Dan Dennett has convinced me, to my sorrow – a form of punishment, and possibly severe punishment. The right attitude is to bite the bullet, and acknowledge that we cannot totally avoid the use of punishment, and that the people we punish do NOT justly deserve such punishment. Given our deep (and largely nonconscious) belief in a just world (a belief researched by psychologists such as Melvin Lerner and Adrian Furnham), that places us in a very uncomfortable position: we must participate in unjust practices of punishment. That cognitive dissonance can be (somewhat) resolved in two ways: by establishing the truth of moral responsibility and thus the justice of punishment, or by doing everything in our power to reduce the necessity and the pain of punishment. The latter does not imply that we must go all the way over to Saul Smilansky’s “funishment,” but that’s another story; the former means that we should study more carefully the deeper causes shaping people for bad behavior, and try to change them (and when we too easily conclude that this person “justly deserves punishment,” there is a strong tendency to stop looking any deeper, and suppose we have solved the problem; but the severe punishment we will visit upon the Boston bomber will do noting to solve the deeper problems that led to his behavior, and will lead others to similar sorts of behavior). Looking deeper into the underlying causes of behavior does have an influence on our belief that the wrongdoer justly deserves punishment (that’s why Gary Watson’s study of Robert Harris, and the examination of Ernie and his close relatives by Al and Randy, are so important); and that is one reason we are often so reluctant to make those examinations, when we are strongly motivated to inflict severe punishment. Sorry to be so long winded, John, but you are entirely to blame: you posed a damned hard question.
Randy, I agree that legal mitigation is a different category; but isn’t the mitigating emotional effect one of the main reasons for examining causal history? (and one of the reasons we ban it from the courts.) OK, I do like your version of moral responsibility much more than most; but I’m not quite clear about what elements of traditional moral responsibility remain; when we punish (as we sometimes must) will we still believe that the punishment is justly deserved?


Thank you very much for your very thoughtful sketch of what you take to be the appropriate response to the Boston bomber. I'll think more about it.

One thing I'd like to note. You write: "but the severe punishment we will visit upon the Boston bomber will do not[h]ing to solve the deeper problems that led to his behavior, and will lead others to similar sorts of behavior."
This, in conjunction what what you wrote about Robert Harris, inclines to me point out the following. I *do* think we should all be quite ambivalent about a case such as that of Robert Harris, given the specific circumstances of his birth, childhood, and upbringing. But why suppose that everyone who behaves significantly badly, and does terrible things, will have had such a experiences (or similar ones)? It is important to keep in mind that many will indeed have had problematic past experiences, but I'm supposing that most are not *as bad* as, or indeed not nearly as bad as, Robert Harris's. Do we really know what the "deeper problems that led to the Boston bomber's behavior" were?? I don't frankly know? Childhood abuse/trauma?--but we don't yet have any evidence of that, do we? Political grievances? But who does not feel that there are significant injustices in the world?

Now this is not to say that we shouldn't focus considerable attention on seeking to understand the precursors of violent (and other) behavior. And I agree that when those precursors are of certain sorts, that *does* call into question, or at least suggest mitigation, of our responsibility attitudes and practices. But can we extraopolate from these special circumstances to all cases, or all cases under causal determinism?

From Michael McKenna

Hi Randy and the rest of the Flicker crowd:

This is an excellent post and equally excellent exchange. I am sorry I am coming to the conversation so late. Forgive me if I am repeating points others have already raised, but allow me please to make just a few observations.

First, note Randy that in your original post you first say that reflecting on Ernie’s backstory drains your response of the venom or vengeance that might otherwise be there, and that this is warranted. But then in the next paragraph, you contend that if we who take a hard-line accept premise two, our responses to offenders should be *less* venomous and vengeful. Of course, there is no direct contradiction here, but the second expression is at least consistent with *some* amount of venom and vengeance being warranted. With some qualification, I myself am inclined to embrace your second formulation. To this extent, I am inclined to agree with your basic insight.

As for that qualification, I guess I would also like to say that I have worries about trading in these discussions by using terms like ‘venom’ and ‘vengence’. My reasons are similar to those regarding the contention that a desert thesis for blameworthiness should be about a wrongdoer’s deserved suffering. ‘Suffer’ invokes all sorts of connotations, and so can easily lead to people talking past each other. I think a more neutral rendering in terms of deserving *harm* (which can come in all sorts of degrees of strength) is more useful. So, in this context, I guess I would say that learning of Ernie’s backstory leads me to be less inclined to a response that would be as harmful as it might were I unaware of it—and that this is warranted. I would say the same about Robert Harris. But I would want to retain firmly my conviction, along with folks like John Fischer, that some sort of harmful response would remain fitting—so long as relevant compatibilist sufficient conditions for freedom remain intact.

Now, philosophers like Patrick Todd have invoked an observation like yours as grounds to suggest that (wimpy?) compatibilists like me are starting a slide down a slippery slope if we go this route, a slope that is as good as conceding defeat. It’s a provocative idea, but I don’t agree. I think here we can make sense of mitigation relative to some stronger conception of freedom and responsibility which is such that, if that stronger sort of freedom and responsibility were possible, the sort that remains for Ernie would be a lesser sort. Of course, it might well be that the stronger sort is after all metaphysically impossible (think Galen Strawson) or metaphysically possible but simply unobtainable at a world like ours for empirical reasons (think Derk Pereboom). Nevertheless, when we make judgments about Ernie and have attendant responses to him (without knowing of his backstory), it might well be that the responses we have and our sense of their fittingness is at least partially informed by this stronger notion. Vividly imaging Ernie’s history and internalizing the truth of an assumption like premise 2 can in this way get us to see that we need to ratchet down the severity of our responses and our judgments about their warrant.

Michael, agreed, it isn't entirely clear what I'm getting at with 'venomous' and 'vengeful'. Perhaps the way to clarify the issue is to spell out in some detail what kinds of responses are appropriate to agents who are responsible, and what kind of appropriateness is in play.

Regarding suffering and harm, if the latter is construed as involving an act of harming, then a desert thesis involving the former might lie closer to hand. My next post will take up this issue.

I'm on the road until Sat. evening; will start a new post then. In the meantime, I'll continue publishing your comments on this one.

John,I agree that the Boston bomber is probably not insane, nor did he experience the horrific conditions that Robert Harris did; and we agree that it is important to look more closely at the backgrounds/history of those like that young man in order to understand what motivated him (and how to prevent such motivations in others). I think it is more plausible that when we look VERY closely at his history, we'll find factors that he did not control that shaped his profoundly flawed character, and that make it unfair to hold him morally responsible in the "strong" or severe sense that Randy worries about (on this, I don't think I could improve on Neil Levy's arguments). And I think that's the key point on which we disagree -- but admiring your work as I do, I like to think that the disagreements are small, though they may have larger implications. Michael, could you help me out on one point: Is it your view that once we start down the slippery slope of mitigation, that we will ultimately undermine the strong retributive moral responsibility that Randy is discussing, but will retain other elements (such as believing that what the Boston bomber did was very bad, and that his character is very bad, even though he does not justly deserve retributive punishment). Exactly what happens when we consider mitigation of retributive moral responsibility is a very interesting question, and though as Randy notes the legal area of mitigation is a rather different question, I think they are still closely related -- and this has been a huge area of discussion in the law journals, in relation to the question of capital punishment mitigation. Randy, this has been a great topic (I would hardly have expected anything less.)

Hi Bruce, Thanks for your question. I can see why you ask. Sorry I wasn’t clearer. I hope this helps: I mean to be discussing what Randy is discussing. Adopting Randy’s terminology (for the moment), I am claiming that learning of Ernie’s history warrants lessening of the venom and vengeance in a response that one might otherwise think is fitting for Ernie. That is consistent with thinking *some* sort of harmful response (with some amount of venom and vengeance) *is* fitting. Moreover, I am open to understanding that relation of fittingness in terms of what Pereboom and others would call basic desert. Would this be sufficient for what you call “strong retributive moral responsibility”? If so, then I would say that the sort of mitigation that I am granting is called for by reflecting on Ernie’s case (or a case like Pereboom’s Case 2) does not ultimately undermine strong retributive moral responsibility.

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