I took a philosophy class called Free Will and Moral Responsibility and this was my own personal conclusion to the debate over the existence of free will and the subsequent existence of moral responsibility…
Disclaimer: I am by no means a philosopher of any sort.
Responsibility in Determinism
The debate over the existence of free will continues to be a topic of great discussion. There are supporters of determinism, compatibilism, and libertarianism and these camps of thought will always exist. The next challenge is to determine if moral responsibility exists in each of these camps, some of them, or even none of them. Determinism might be considered the most difficult stance to find moral responsibility within. The lack of free will, choice, the ability to do otherwise creates a problem when it comes to moral responsibility. However, this lack of free will does not mean that moral responsibility is an impossibility. It is not whether or not a person is determined or not that allows responsibility to exist or not exist, it is the presence or absence of rationality that allows responsibility to exist.
The first step in building the argument for moral responsibility within the bounds of hard determinism is to define the reality that is meant by hard determinism. A reality that is determined is completely devoid of any form of free will. There is no ability to do otherwise. Hard determinism declares that every event is caused by events previous to it and by the laws of nature. Every single event, large or miniscule is caused. This universal causation means that true free will cannot exist. It seems difficult to find moral responsibility within these strict bounds if the ability to make your own will does not exist. The next step in the puzzle is rationality.
Rationality means to act by reason in accordance to reality. Reality is the determined world described above. This definition means that no matter what kind of reality exists, if something acts by reason within it, then that something is rational. To act by reason requires the ability to use higher order thought. Higher order thought includes a few aspects. One of these aspects is the ability to string processes of logic together consistently and regularly. If a person can make a series of evaluations based on reason and logic, then they are capable of being rational. Another aspect of higher order thought is the advanced brainpower and level of development that humans have compared to other earthly creatures. Due to the advanced brain functioning that humans have they can be rational and not simply act on impulse or instinct. A third aspect of higher order thought and rationality is computational power. The ability to weight multiple inputs and analyze them in a way to come to a conclusion is essential to being a rational being.
A necessary condition of moral responsibility is the ability to be rational. For this an example will illustrate this concept more clearly. An extreme case will be considered, murder. A person of normal mental capacity and ability uses a firearm to take the life of another person. It is not natural to place the responsibility on the firearm. The firearm cannot be held responsible for the murder because it is an inanimate object that is clearly not capable of acting in a rational manner. It lacks the higher brainpower, the ability to reason, and computational capabilities that are required for rationality. It is however, natural to place the moral responsibility in the hands of the shooter. This person was of normal mental capacity and ability, which means that they were capable of acting in a rational manner and met all of the requirements of rationality and therefore it is accepted that they are given the responsibility. These judgments of responsibility and lack of responsibility for the shooter and the firearm respectively, are agreeable and accepted statements. Responsibility, even in a determined world, can be applied relatively clearly in these straightforward cases and most would agree with the judgments made.
A major objection that would be made to this argument would be as follows. If its not up to the agent to be rational or not, due to the reality of determinism, then how can the agent be held responsible. This is a valid objection that must be addressed. The claim that because rationality is not agent caused, responsibility is non existent brings the point back to the definition of reality. If the reality is a determined one, and an agent is capable of acting by reason, using computational power, and has advanced brain capacity means that rationality exists. This rationality may be determined but that does not negate the fact that it is rationality. In this sense, humans are set apart from other organisms. Humans have advanced capabilities that allow them to act not solely on instinct and impulse as lower organisms do. This means then that humans can be held responsible, even in a determined reality.
Another objection to this argument that could be made is that rationality could be due to luck. This objection tries to find a loophole in which to escape from moral responsibility. It is a question that must be answered. Whether or not an agents moral responsibility is affected by luck depends upon the effect the luck has on the rationality of the agent. If the luck has no effect on the agent’s ability to think and act rationally, then the agent is still responsible for his or her actions. Perhaps an example will bring to light this concept. For this a bank robbery will be considered. A bank robber storms into a bank, approaches the teller and demands the money from the vault. The responsibility of the teller for giving the robber the money or not will be examined. In scenario one, the bank robber will be armed with a handgun. The bank robber holds the gun up to the teller and demands the money. Now, if the teller gives the robber the money, is the teller responsible for giving the robber the money. The teller is an able minded person capable of rational thought. This means that up to this point the teller can be responsible. The handgun however likely will affect the thought processes of the teller and the teller will give the robber the money. In this case, even though the teller was rational, responsibility is not placed. In scenario two, the bank robber will be armed with a candy bar. The bank robber holds the candy bar up to the teller and demands the money. Again the teller is an able minded individual capable of rational thought, meaning that the teller can be held responsible. The candy bar will not affect the teller’s ability to think and act rationally, so if the teller gives the robber the money, the teller can be held responsible. In the first case, the teller was unlucky in the fact that the robber had a gun. In the second case, the teller may have been fortunate that the robber only had a candy bar. The conclusion to this idea, is that the affect that the influence has on the persons ability to act rationally is what determines if responsibility is warranted or not. It is not the luck of the circumstances or the power of the influences themselves that affect responsibility. It is rather the affect that they have on the agent’s ability to act rationally. If a person of normal mental capacity and ability is in a situation in which nothing affects their rationality, they will always be responsible. When the same person is in a situation in which their ability to be rational is affected, responsibility may not be warranted.
The existence of moral responsibility within the bounds of determinism is a concept that seems difficult and even impossible at the surface. Whether or not moral responsibility truly does exist within determinism will perpetually be debated and a concise answer may never be found, but the application of rationality to the debate seems to provide an avenue for responsibility. Rationality, even in a wholly determined reality, can provide a route in which moral responsibility can be reached. That route may be filled with curves and bumps along the way, but responsibility can be found, even through this imperfect route.