In this essay I will be attempting to see if a person can only be morally responsible for what they have done if they could have done otherwise. I will take a look at each view that impacts the conclusion to this answer, and then set out my own answer to this question.

When we speak of moral responsibility the concept of freedom and free-will inevitably crops up. We speak of an agent performing actions, actions which this agent has chosen. Which then makes this agent not only a choosing agent of action, but also a moral agent. If an agent can act by choice, they also gain a moral responsibility to act in a moral way. For example: the baby who stretches its arm and hits its parent in the face is not committing to the intention of hitting the parent. It is accidentally causing harm, and because of this, the baby is not a morally responsible agent. But merely an agent who has caused an event of negative connotations. However, when this baby grows into an adult, and becomes an acting agent and moral agent this adult is held responsible for choosing to hit their parents. However, if this moral agent did exactly what the baby did and accidentally hit a parent, we would be inclined to punish it for carelessness. (1) Meaning we still hold the agent responsible for accidents because mature adults have an awareness that each action (intentional or not) is potentially dangerous. Thus, the agent should be inclined to act in a careful manner. And when they don’t, we punish them.

From this stems the assumption that all agents have moral responsibility, and what gives these agents moral responsibility is the fact that the agent could of done otherwise: so the adult who hits its parent could of selected to have not done so; thus choosing to hit their parent could have been avoided. The ability of an agent to do otherwise is known as free-will, and the Libertarian view is that free-will exists. Therefore every agent could do other than what they indeed did do. Meaning that when an agent commits a crime or immoral act they could have simply chosen not to: because of this the Libertarian view is that an agent must be punished for its transgressions, and this usually takes the form of the retribution theory. That is to say that what is done must be repaid: a murder is repaid with a life imprisonment or execution. So, as can be seen for a Libertarian we can only have moral responsibility if the agent has free-will and could of done otherwise.

This Libertarian view is put into conflict by the deterministic view. The deterministic view is that the universe is a place of cause and effect. Thus every action has an effect (even if that is the failure to have an effect, which of course is still an effect), while every action can be traced back to a previous cause which caused this action to be made. The deterministic world view means that all of the moral agents choices are decided by their past, and everything else that made everything else what is happening now happen. (2) This is complicated because some determinists think that this means that freedom and free-will are impossible. (3) While others think that freedom and free-will can still exist in a deterministic world view. (4) While the classic determinist view is that if we knew everything that could be known, then free-will and freedom would be shown for the absurdities they are. (5)

The idea that free-will and determinism are incompatible ideas is called incompatibilism. Most Libertarians and Determinists are incompatibilists in the sense that they think that the other position is non-sense. The problem here is that a Libertarian can say that moral responsibility exists because free-will does. While a hard determinists needs to use another thing to replace freedom and free-will in order to keep moral responsibility.

The idea that free-will and determinism are not incompatible is called compatibilism. A compatibilist argues that in a determined universe we still have freedom, and what they mean by freedom is that an agent will make a choice that they desire to make. (6) They would have made a different choice if they indeed desired to make the different choice. So for a compatibilist freedom is merely the fact an agent acts on its most desirable desires. Meaning we do actually do as we please. However, the Libertarian argues that saying that an agent would have done otherwise if they had indeed had a desire to do otherwise is not a genuine sense of choice, and is just another way of saying everything is determined. (7) Including your desires, and the choice based off of your desires. There is also a view called semi-compatibilism which argues that while freedom (alternative possibilities) is not required for a determinist to maintain moral responsibly. (8)

An interesting and unique take on these arguments above is that of Susan Wolf in her essay Asymmetrical freedom. (9) Within this essay she argues that both good and evil are asymmetrically treated when it comes to moral responsibility in practical terms. What she means by this is that when we come to make moral judgements we seem to think that an agent who chooses evil is corrupted and punishable, and thus morally responsible. While the agent who does evil but doesn’t choose to do it, and thus is a determined form of evil is either insane or simply a victim of some prior cause that makes this person unable to do otherwise. Thus the determined form of evil can be imprisoned for the safety of society, but to blame this agent strikes us as somewhat unjust. While when it comes to goodness, a moral agent who chooses to do good is obviously not a bad thing, but real goodness stems from an agent who cannot do otherwise. That is to say that the agent who is determined to do good without choice is truly good. An example helps: if a child was drowning in a pond and the morally good agent sees it and stops to make the choice, thus thinking about what is possible and then chooses to save the child; this agent is somewhat absurd when compared to the one who upon seeing the child instantly runs over to save it. In this sense the determined good agent is purely good, when compared to that of the selected good agent. Using this same example but with evil we begin to see Wolf’s point: if the determined evil agent sees the child drowning and ignores it because of past events and apathy (built out of a bad childhood, or mental illness let’s say), then while the agent has performed a negative action, we can still understand why and not take them as fully to blame. (10) Yet, when an evil person of free choice makes the choice not to save the child when the agent could of done otherwise, and more importantly can conceive of doing otherwise than the evil action; then this agent’s morality is appalling, and this can be justly punished for being morally responsible for not saving the child.

All of these arguments and positions are extremely important to philosophy and ethics. However, whether determinism or free-will are true or false are ultimately irreverent to our current understanding of morality simply because we cannot say if they are indeed true or false at this time. Because of this, responsibility must require something beyond merely choice for moral responsibility to have any practical application which isn’t based on assumption. Responsibly must require something in order to be taken on by the agent. What is this ‘something’: society? Structures of power? Laws? The state? Voluntariness? I think voluntariness alone can work to give the agent a moral responsibility. Although this is more complicated than simply the agent’s moral responsibility: but I will get to that later on.

So to concentrate on the concept of voluntariness for now: Voluntariness, even without free-will is possible. We merely need desires to do things, which leads us to use those desires when we do indeed do things. The agent’s actions are voluntary, and thus a product of them. Furthermore this makes the agent have a moral responsibility as this voluntariness stems from them and their desires and character. So, determined or not; the agent’s actions are their own, which retains moral responsibility. This is further complicated by the state, laws, and society. But, from this we must ask the pressing question: from where and whom did this voluntariness stem? The answer to this question is extremely complicated as the voluntariness of an agent stems from everything of which that agent stems from: parents, economic situation, birth location, family history, genetics and so on. This voluntariness is not only the agent’s, but its societies, and the power structures that it stems out of.

The structure of power is not held only by the state, but also by society and the individual. Power is not a sovereign figure, but a microcosm of structures and positions. Moral responsibility, therefore is not just a sovereign idea that must be forced, but a distribution and dissemination of responsibility across all structures, positions and people. Thus the state must take moral responsibility, as do the people within it for the society. (11) It is a complicated web of moral relationships, which all involved are morally responsible for. (12)

When it comes to moral responsibility and punishment, if man is treated like a malfunctioning body or machine, our view of man is shallow and damaging to all those within society, as well as to that individual himself/herself. Man is not merely a cog to serve the purpose of the whole of society; but, an individual entity. Although those who work against society (determined or not) should be held accountable for their voluntariness and moral responsibility which stems from it, they should not be held utterly accountable, when society itself played a part in said person’s ‘nature’. (13)

When we then consider the punishment system retribution theory and lex talionis (eye for an eye) laws are not reasonable when it is unclear whether free-will exists. (14) They fail to take into account that justice is not served when society has first served an injustice to the individual by corrupting said agent’s surroundings to make a positive morality difficult to live. (15) However, giving up the retribution theory does not mean we should stop punishing people. (16)

I earlier made the statement that: “I think voluntariness alone can work to give the agent a moral responsibility. Although this is more complicated than simply the agent’s moral responsibility.” What I meant by this complication was that society itself has a moral responsibility for the agent’s actions, while the individual agent does too. So as we can see even within a deterministic universe, you can be punished purely because you did it: but also that society itself should take responsibility for the fact they didn’t make it easier for this said person to make the better choice; if the criminal never considered otherwise, or was in a situation were doing otherwise is damaging to himself; why would he do otherwise? It would make him unreasonable, and being unreasonable is not a positive moral value taken on by society. And thus society must take some of the blame for having a society where to do good is difficult. (17) This person can be punished by being educated in a way that offers him the chance to do better and consider the other options. Furthermore, if free-will does not exist, then maybe free-won’t does. If that is the case then the above mentioned education could instil in said criminal a strong desire not to commit said acts. (18) So the agent may still have the desire to do a certain crime, but be able to snuff out that desire with the stronger desire of not wishing to commit any crime. While society itself must react to this criminal, and come to identify where this desire to commit said crime stems: they then could make proactive actions and solutions for people to avoid making those actions so easily without moral consideration. Instilling a sense of unity and solidarity would be a valid response: that this society is harmed by you and disappointed in you, but also disappointed in itself for not making you consider or even letting you conceive of not doing otherwise. (19) Thus, when we come to ask the question: is a person only morally responsible for what they have done, if they could have acted otherwise? The answer is a complicated, but an empathetic no. As I stated earlier: if society values reason, and the reasonable choice within that society is crime; then the criminal is a moral exemplar of reason, and thus to a degree: goodness. They are morally responsible for this crime either way, but so is society for the situation which resulted in said crime. (20) And considering whether free-will or determinism is true makes no difference to the fact that society as a whole is a huge determining factor to an agent’s moral development, it is hard to see how society isn’t far more to blame than any individual could ever be.

1. ‘[I]gnorance is not necessarily an acceptable or valid excuse.’ – Alvin I. Goldman. A theory of human action. Chapter seven: Ability, excuses, and constraint. 2. Excuses. (Princeton university press, 1970.) Page 213.
2. ‘In daily life when we say someone is free we never mean “free from causation”—we always assume that events have causes, and nobody in practical life is an indeterminist unless she has been corrupted by bad philosophy.’ – John, Hospers. An introduction to philosophical analysis. 5, What is and what must be. Freedom and necessity. 4. Determinism and freedom. Determinism as incompatible with freedom. (Routledge, fourth edition, 2007.) Page 159.
3. ‘We all bring different back-grounds, histories, experiences, and temperaments to every situation; and it is naïve to think that people have free will simply because they act differently in similar circumstance. If we know enough about their pasts to really explain why McVeigh, Harris, and Klebold did what they did, we would see that any persons who were exactly like them (not merely similar) would have acted as they did in these circumstances. If this were not true, we would not be able to truly explain why they did what they did rather than something else.’ – Robert Kane. A contemporary introduction to free will. Chapter 7, Is free will possible? Hard determinists and other skeptics. 1. Oklahoma city and Columbine. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 69.
4. ‘[D]eterminism does not imply that all our actions are done out of ignorance or by accident or with some other such excuse of exempting condition. So, determinism does not imply that no one is ever responsible for his or her actions.’ – Robert Kane. A contemporary introduction to free will. Chapter 10, Reactive attitude theories. 1. Freedom and resentment: P.F. Strawson. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 108.
5. ‘If I knew absolutely everything there is to know, then I would know that there are very good reasons for every apparently ‘free’ decision I make. The fact that I can be indecisive, or that I think I am making a completely free choice, simply reflects my ignorance.’ – Mel Thompson. Teach yourself: Philosophy of mind. 07, free will and action. Freedom as an illusion. (Of the teach yourself series,, 2003.) Page 130.
6. ‘Freedom is nothing more than an unobstructed will – unobstructed will being of course understood by Hobbes as nothing more than unobstructed desire.’ – Thomas Pink. Free will: a very short introduction. Chapter 4, Nature. (Oxford university press, 2004.) Page 65.
7. ‘I could have done otherwise if my desires had been different, but since which desires I have is not up to me, it is not really true that I could have done otherwise. The alternatives were not open to me.’ – Carlos J. Moya. The philosophy of action: an introduction. 14, Agency and physical determinism. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.) Page 159.
8. ‘Reflections on Frankfurt examples among other considerations convince Fischer that responsibility does not require alternatives possibilities and so responsibility is compatible with determinism. Hence the name “semi-compatibilism” that Fischer gives to his view: responsibility is compatible with determinism, but freedom (in the sense that requires alternative possibilities) is not compatible with determinism.’ – Robert Kane. A contemporary introduction to free will. Chapter 10, Reactive attitude theories. 5. Semi-compatibilism. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 115.
9. Susan Wolf. Asymmetrical freedom. Taken from the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Mar., 1980), pp. 151-166.
10. ‘In light of this, it seems that this man shouldn’t be blamed for an action we know to be wrong. For if we had had his childhood, we wouldn’t have known it either. Yet this agent seems to have as much control over his life as we are apt to have over ours: he would have done otherwise, if he had tried. He would have tried to do otherwise, if he had chosen. And he would have chosen to do otherwise, if he had had reason. It is because he couldn’t have had reason that this agent should not be blamed.’ – Susan Wolf. Asymmetrical freedom. Taken from the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Mar., 1980), page 160.
11. ‘A man’s will may not be his own even when he is not moved by the will of another.’ – Ted Honderich. Essays on freedom of action. Coercion and moral responsibility by Harry G. Frankfurt. (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.) Page 77.
12. Paul Kelly, Rod Dacombe, John Farndon, A.S. Hodson, Jesper Johnsøn, Niall Kishtainy, James Meadway, Anca Pusca and Marcus Weeks. The politics book. Post-war politics. 1945-present. Michel Foucault (1926-1984), We need to “cut off the king’s head”. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2013.) Pages 310-311.
13. Will Buckingham, Douglas Burnam, Clive Hill, Peter J King, John Marenbon and Marcus Weeks. The philosophy book. Contemporary philosophy (1950-present.) Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Man is an invention of recent date. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2011.) Pages 302-303.
14. ‘”An eye for an eye” is the motto of the retribution theory. But if persons lacked free will, they would not be ultimately blameworthy for their actions and therefore punishment would not be truly deserved. So if hard determinism or hard incompatibilism were true, the retribution theory of punishment would have to be given up.
But Honderich insists that giving up the retribution theory does not mean we have to stop punishing criminals.’ – Robert Kane. A contemporary introduction to free will. Chapter 7, Is free will possible? Hard determinists and other skeptics. 4. Living without free will: crime and punishment. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 75.
15. The failure of the prison system and failing the inmates: Paul Rabinow. The Foucault reader: an introduction to Foucault’s thought. Disciplines and Sciences of the individual. Illegalities and delinquency. (Penguin books, 1991.) Pages 226-234.
16. ‘There are other justifications for punishment that remain valid even if free will is rejected. The most common of these alternative justifications is deterrence.’ – Robert Kane. A contemporary introduction to free will. Chapter 7, Is free will possible? Hard determinists and other skeptics. 4. Living without free will: crime and punishment. (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 75.
17. ‘It requires as well that the world cooperate in such a way that our most fundamental selves have the opportunity to develop into the selves they ought to be.’ – Susan Wolf. Asymmetrical freedom. Taken from the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Mar., 1980), page 160.
18. In 1985 a Scientist named Libet performed an experiment to test what exactly what willing in action is: ‘He had noticed that sometimes his subjects said they had aborted their movement just before it happened. So he carried out another experiment to test this and showed that in these cases the RP began as normal, but then flattened out and disappeared about 200 milliseconds before the action was due to happen. From this he argued for the existence of a ‘conscious veto’. Consciousness could not initiate the wrist flexion, he said, but it could act to prevent it. In other words, although we do not have free will, we do have ‘free won’t’.’ – Susan Blackmore, Consciousness: a very short introduction. Chapter 6, Conscious will. Do we have free will? (Oxford university press, 2005.) Page 89.
19. ‘If the man knows that this action of gratifying his lust would lead immediately to his own execution, he then discovers, perhaps unwittingly, the possibility to act otherwise.’ – Pamela Sue Anderson & Jordan Bell. Kant and theology. Chapter 2, ‘Moral religion’ for Theologians. Practical reasoning, freedom and autonomy: critical distinctions. (T&T Clark International, 2010.) Page 41.
20. ‘Since the world for him was not suitably cooperating, his reason cannot attain its appropriate goal.’ – Susan Wolf. Asymmetrical freedom. Taken from the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Mar., 1980), page 160.

– Anderson, Pamela Sue & Bell, Jordan. Kant and theology. (T&T Clark International, 2010.)
– Blackmore, Susan. Consciousness: a very short introduction. (Oxford university press, 2005.)
– Buckingham, Will. Burnam, Douglas. Hill, Clive. King, Peter J. Marenbon, John. Weeks, Marcus. The philosophy book. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2011.)
– Danto, Arthur C.. Analytical philosophy of action. (Cambridge university press, 1973.)
– Goldman, Alvin I.. A theory of human action. (Princeton university press, 1970.)
– Gutting, Gary. Foucault: a very short introduction. (Oxford university press, 2005.)
– Honderich, Ted. Essays on freedom of action. (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.)
– Honderich, Ted. How free are you? The determinism problem. (Oxford university press, 1993.)
– Hospers, John. An introduction to philosophical analysis. (Routledge, fourth edition, 2007.)
– Kane, Robert. A contemporary introduction to free will. (Oxford university press, 2005.)
– Kelly, Paul. Dacombe, Rob. Farndon, John. Hodson, A.S.. Johnsøn, Jesper. Kishtainy, Niall. Meadway, James. Pusca, Anca. Weeks, Marcus. The politics book. (Dorling Kindersley limited, 2013.)
– Moya, Carlos J.. The philosophy of action: an introduction. (Basil Blackwell Ltd, Polity press, 1990.)
– Pink, Thomas. Free will: a very short introduction. (Oxford university press, 2004.)
– Rabinow, Paul. The Foucault reader: an introduction to Foucault’s thought. (Penguin books, 1991.)
– Scruton, Roger. Spinoza: a very short introduction. (Oxford university press, 2002.)
– Smith, Quentin & Oaklander, L. Nathan. Time, Change and Freedom: an introduction to metaphysics. (Routledge, 1999 reprint of the 1995 first publication.)
– Spinoza, Benedict de. Ethics. (Penguin classics, Penguin books, 1996.)
– Thompson, Mel. Teach yourself: Philosophy of mind. (Of the teach yourself series,, 2003.)
– Wolf, Susan. Asymmetrical freedom. Taken from the Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Mar., 1980), pp. 151-166.

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