Saturday, September 18, 2010

Moral responsibility and free will

In my last post, I mentioned that some people say that a person can be held morally responsible for their actions if and only if they perform those actions freely, by which we mean they could have done otherwise than they did:

(T3)  For any person x who performs an action A,
x can be held morally responsible for A = iff
x could have done other than A,
given the same history.

This might be too strong. I'm not sure, but maybe. I'm thinking about cases where we have a very strong impulse to do something bad --- e.g., if someone held a gun to my head and made me smash your favorite porcelain plates, or if I stole your favorite porcelain plates so I could sell them and feed my crack addiction.

In these cases, someone could say:

'Look, you're still free there, because you could have done otherwise. You could have opted to be shot instead of smashing those plates, and you could have opted to suffer withdrawal instead of stealing those plates'.

Okay, sure. I'll grant that. After all, I'm assuming for the moment that an agent acts freely if they could have done otherwise. So these would be cases of 'free acts' in that sense. 

Still, would I be morally responsible for these actions? Probably not in the first case. (Unless I said something to you like this: 'I did it at gunpoint, man! You can't hold me responsible for destroying those plates that I hate so much'.)

I guess I'm saying that there might be cases where the accused had the choice to do otherwise than they did (and so were 'free' in that sense), but yet are not morally responsible for doing what they did. So I'm not sure I'd buy T3, which says that 'moral responsibility' and 'free action' extend to exactly the same cases.  

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