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Against Moral Responsibility

Against Moral Responsibility

Bruce N. Waller
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Against Moral Responsibility
    Book Description:

    In Against Moral Responsibility, Bruce Waller launches a spirited attack on a system that is profoundly entrenched in our society and its institutions, deeply rooted in our emotions, and vigorously defended by philosophers from ancient times to the present. Waller argues that, despite the creative defenses of it by contemporary thinkers, moral responsibility cannot survive in our naturalistic-scientific system. The scientific understanding of human behavior and the causes that shape human character, he contends, leaves no room for moral responsibility.Waller argues that moral responsibility in all its forms -- including criminal justice, distributive justice, and all claims of just deserts -- is fundamentally unfair and harmful and that its abolition will be liberating and beneficial. What we really want -- natural human free will, moral judgments, meaningful human relationships, creative abilities -- would survive and flourish without moral responsibility. In the course of his argument, Waller examines the origins of the basic belief in moral responsibility, proposes a naturalistic understanding of free will, offers a detailed argument against moral responsibility and critiques arguments in favor of it, gives a general account of what a world without moral responsibility would look like, and examines the social and psychological aspects of abolishing moral responsibility. Waller not only mounts a vigorous, and philosophically rigorous, attack on the moral responsibility system, but also celebrates the benefits that would result from its total abolition.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29894-0
    Subjects: Philosophy, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. 1 Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 1-18)

    T. S. Eliot (1943, 37) speaks of “what was believed in as the most reliable—and therefore the fittest for renunciation.” Eliot could have been describing moral responsibility. It is believed in fervently. As Cicero (44 BCE/1923, 119) noted, philosophers are willing to entertain almost any hypothesis: “There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.” But even philosophers find it difficult to contemplate the renunciation of moral responsibility. Peter van Inwagen is typical: “I have listened to philosophers who deny the existence of moral responsibility. I cannot take them seriously” (1983, 207). And Peter Strawson insisted that...

  5. 2 The Basic Argument against Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 19-42)

    The best account of moral responsibility was given more than five centuries ago by a young Italian nobleman, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. In his “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” Pico della Mirandola explained the origins of the uniquely human miraculous capacity for moral responsibility. In the process of creation, God gave special characteristics to every realm of His great cosmos, but when His work was finished, God “longed for someone to reflect on the plan of so great a creation, to love its beauty, and to admire its magnitude,” so He created humans for that role. But all...

  6. 3 Rescuing Free Will from Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 43-58)

    As noted in the first chapter, many philosophers regard the denial of moral responsibility as nonsense, but if denying moral responsibility is nonsense, denying moral responsibility while endorsing free will is “nonsense on stilts.” In an earlier work (Waller 1990), I sketched a case against moral responsibility, and was not surprised that the rejection of moral responsibility would be regarded with skepticism, but I also suggested that free will could survive the demise of moral responsibility, and that was typically thought to be ludicrous: one reviewer (Hocutt 1992) suggested that the title of the book—Freedom without Responsibility—was more...

  7. 4 Hierarchical Free Will and Natural Authenticity
    (pp. 59-74)

    It is not difficult to give an account of how open alternatives contribute to natural free will, but it has proved very difficult indeed to develop a naturalistic account of open alternatives that supports moral responsibility (though Robert Kane, Carl Ginet, and Randolph Clarke—among others—have made heroic efforts). Those difficulties have pushed many philosophers toward a new account of free will: an account that does not require choices among open alternatives, but focuses instead on choices that are one’sownchoices. In this approach, the focus moves from alternatives to authenticity. The question is not whether I could...

  8. 5 Moral Responsibility in the Gaps
    (pp. 75-102)

    Pico della Mirandola was perfectly comfortable with miracles: the bigger the better. After all, if you accept the idea of almighty God miraculously creating the cosmos in all its splendor, then you aren’t likely to flinch at allowing humans to miraculously create themselves. But the centuries rolled by, and scientists from William Harvey and Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin and B. F. Skinner expanded our naturalistic understanding of humans and our world, and as naturalistic explanations waxed, enthusiasm for miracles waned. Rather than full-scale unlimited creation of the self—with the open possibilities ranging from bestial to divine—the self-defining...

  9. 6 Taking Responsibility
    (pp. 103-114)

    While some try to discover moral responsibility in small corners not yet explored by science, there is another defense of moral responsibility that is more aggressive. Rather than trying tofindresponsibility in some scientifically inaccessible niche, these bold spiritstakeresponsibility. Consider this claim by Harry Frankfurt: “To the extent that a person identifies himself with the springs of his actions, he takes responsibility for those actions and acquires moral responsibility for them; moreover, the question of how the actions and his identifications with their springs is caused is irrelevant to the questions of whether he performs the actions...

  10. 7 Responsibility for the Self You Make
    (pp. 115-132)

    Chapter 6 rejected taking responsibility as grounds for moral responsibility: taking responsibility is generally good and psychologically healthy, but the responsibility taken is not moral responsibility, and even strong identification with one’s own authentic character cannot support claims of blame and just deserts. But some moral responsibility advocates have gone further, arguing that you don’t just take moral responsibility for the character you happen to have; rather, you gain moral responsibility for yourself because you make yourself.

    The notion that we are morally responsible because we make ourselves has long been appealing. As noted in chapter 2, Pico della Mirandola’s...

  11. 8 The Illusory Benefits of Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 133-152)

    When all else fails, the advocates of moral responsibility fall back on practical usefulness. As Daniel Dennett recommends: “Instead of investigating, endlessly, in an attempt todiscoverwhether or not a particular trait is of someone’s making—instead of trying to assay exactly to what degree a particular self is self-made—we simplyholdpeople responsible for their conduct (within limits we take care not to examine too closely). And we are rewarded for adopting this strategy by the higher proportion of ‘responsible’ behavior we thereby inculcate” (1984, 164). Perhaps we can’t give a satisfactory theoretical justification for moral responsibility,...

  12. 9 Character-Fault and Blame-Fault
    (pp. 153-178)

    Recall the case of the willing drug addict, Robert. Examining the process that leaves Robert deeply devoted to his drug addiction leaves no doubt that Robert is profoundly addicted and that the addiction is his own, but simultaneously, as we understand the powerful addiction that deprives Robert step by step of all other hopes and affections, such an understanding erodes the foundation for Robert’s moral responsibility. Robert is profoundly addicted, and the flaw is deep within Robert; that he is morally responsible for that flaw is a different claim altogether. (Of course, some may still conclude that when Robert becomes...

  13. 10 What Does Not Follow from the Denial of Moral Responsibility: Living Morally without Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 179-202)

    It is widely believed that moral responsibility is a necessary condition for moral judgments and moral evaluations and moral acts. Peter van Inwagen takes that position:

    I have listened to philosophers who deny the existence of moral responsibility. I cannot take them seriously. I know a philosopher who has written a paper in which he denies the reality of moral responsibility. And yet this same philosopher, when certain of his books were stolen, said, “That was ashoddything to do!” But no one can consistently say that a certain act was a shoddy thing to doandsay that...

  14. 11 The Moral Responsibility System
    (pp. 203-220)

    Moral responsibility has a powerful hold on our intuitions, our common sense, our legal system, and our philosophical reflections. The moral responsibility system is locked in place by our retributive emotions, our central institutions, and our philosophical axioms. It is celebrated in song and story, from Shakespeare’s dramas to Western movies. Small wonder, then, that many people find it almost impossible to contemplate its rejection, and many philosophers believe that no one can actually deny moral responsibility: Peter van Inwagen (1983) states that although he knows some philosophers who claim to deny moral responsibility, he has “a hard time taking...

  15. 12 Begging the Question for Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 221-238)

    The previous chapter examined systemic arguments against the rejection of moral responsibility: the universal rejection of moral responsibility (as seen from within the moral responsibility system) must be based on universal incompetence or “excuse-extensionism,” which generates absurdities. But there are also systemic moral responsibility arguments thatstartfrom the assumption that normally we are morally responsible and then argue that because in our natural nonmiraculous world people can meet the requirements for moral responsibility, the system itself is therefore naturalistically justified. That type of argument goes like this: we have in place a system for holding people morally responsible, with...

  16. 13 Does Moral Responsibility Promote Respect?
    (pp. 239-256)

    In addition to the arguments discussed in the previous two chapters, there are other arguments that stem from the systemic assumption of moral responsibility. Theelitismargument is also based on the assumption—made within the moral responsibility system—that anyone not held morally responsible must be categorized as profoundlyflawedand thusexcused. The most impressive version of the elitism argument is offered by the legal theorist and philosopher Michael Moore, as part of his argument against the moral legitimacy of feeling sympathy for those who commit criminal acts. According to Moore, those who feel sympathy for the disadvantaged...

  17. 14 Creative Authorship without Ultimate Responsibility
    (pp. 257-276)

    When we give up belief in moral responsibility, we must give up the belief that blame and punishment can be justly deserved, which is a great benefit—or so I claim in the following chapters. But even if one is convinced that rejection of justly deserved blame and punishment is a gain, a strong sense may remain that loss ofultimate responsibilityis a grievous loss. Two philosophers who are among the most profound and insightful proponents of moral responsibility—Robert Kane and Saul Smilansky—would certainly feel the loss. They might respond, “Set aside the whole question of blame...

  18. 15 A World without Moral Responsibility
    (pp. 277-304)

    Many are reluctant to contemplate the abolition of moral responsibility, and one source of that reluctance may be fear of the unknown. For better or worse, we have been wedded to the moral responsibility system for a very long time. It is frightening to consider a world without the practices and institutions of moral responsibility. This chapter is an effort to allay some of those fears.

    What would our world look like without moral responsibility? In many respects, not so different: certainly not as disastrously different as many have supposed. We would still make free choices, moral judgments, and sincere...

  19. 16 Is It Possible to Eliminate Moral Responsibility?
    (pp. 305-324)

    Champions of moral responsibility can hardly survey the current scene with satisfaction. If Lakatos’s (1970) notion of a “degenerative research program” has any application in philosophy, then the defense of moral responsibility must be its poster child. The sense of desperation in the efforts to shore up moral responsibility is almost palpable, and the enormous variety of distinctly different and conflicting proposals for supporting moral responsibility is powerful evidence of that desperation. The existentialists invoke magical phrases—we responsible persons are “being-for-itself”—to proudly insist that we make wondrous choices independent of all constraints and conditions. More cautious libertarians offer...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 325-328)
  21. References
    (pp. 329-346)
  22. Index
    (pp. 347-352)