Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Author: Chelsea Haramia
Category: Ethics, Metaphysics
Word Count: 1000

You probably shouldn’t steal. Common sense tells us that stealing is wrong. But sometimes stealing seems less wrong, or not wrong at all, after we discover the cause of the stealing behavior. For example, if the fact that your family is starving causes you to steal a loaf of bread, many would say that you are not as blameworthy as someone who steals out of greed or spite. And imagine a kleptomaniac who cannot control her stealing behavior. We probably shouldn’t blame her for those actions (though we might encourage her to consult a therapist about her condition).

But why shouldn’t we blame the kleptomaniac? That is to say, how are we justified in holding the kleptomaniac morally responsible? One good reason not to blame the kleptomaniac is that she cannot help her behavior. She possesses a psychological problem that is out of her control. That’s why some defendants are acquitted on grounds of insanity. If you are not in control of your actions, you are not responsible for those actions.

But what if every one of our actions is actually out of our control? That is, what if only seems as if we have the freedom to choose between actions, but we are in fact as undeserving of blame as, say, the severely mentally ill?

There are many philosophically interesting answers to this question, and they deal with some famous and famously difficult problems surrounding the concept of free will. The concept of free will brings with it the idea that at least some of our choices are ours alone— we are fully in control of them, and therefore we are fully responsible for them. Free will is the basis for moral responsibility, or so many have argued.

Philosophers commonly say that ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ What does this mean? To justifiably tell someone that she (morally) ought to do something, it would also have to be the case that she can do that thing. Suppose I tell you that you ought to cure cancer. If you did cure cancer, you could prevent large amounts of suffering and many premature deaths. It would be a really good thing. Nonetheless, given that, in all likelihood, it would be impossible for you to cure cancer, it seems absurd to say that you have a moral responsibility to do so, or that you ought to. Importantly, then, you are not blameworthy for your failure to cure cancer. It seems that we are only justified in blaming (or praising) people for their actions—or believing that they are responsible for their actions—when they are able to freely choose one action over others. As we have seen, this freedom is the subject of extensive philosophical analysis, but our everyday sense of moral responsibility hangs in the balance.1

Praising someone for what they did.
Praising someone for what they did.

1. Libertarian Free Will

Those who claim that we have libertarian free will argue that we make free choices when it is possible that we could have done otherwise than what we actually did.2 When this condition obtains, we are justified in blaming (or praising) the person who made the choice, i.e., holding that person morally responsible for the action.

The idea that we possess free in this sense will has a lot of intuitive force behind it, but philosophers have struggled with the question of what could allow for free will in the face of concerns about the causal laws of the world.

2. Hard Determinism

Hard determinists appeal to the causal laws of the world in order to challenge the claim that we have free will, in the sense of ‘free will’ that both they and libertarians accept. Everything that happens can be fully explained by the causal history of what happened before. Though it seems as if we have choices, it is always the case that, for any choice we are faced with, only one of the seemingly available paths will ultimately be taken, and the other paths were never truly available: we cannot do otherwise.3 To suggest that we have free will is to suggest that we are somehow outside of and unaffected by the causal chain of events—that we can be the sole source of our actions—and the hard determinist argues that this is unsupported by facts about how the world works.4

3. Compatibilism

The hard determinist may then find this to be proof that moral responsibility is an illusion, or she may attempt to retain a viable sense of moral responsibility in the face of determinism. Compatibilists argue for the latter: they claim that determinism and moral responsibility are actually compatible.5 By appealing to claims about an agent’s internal states, compatibilists argue that people can be held responsible when they are acting according to certain sorts of dispositions, e.g., their own beliefs and desires. And others have pointed out that we still have strong intuitions of responsibility even about cases that are explicitly deterministic.6

4. Revisionism/Illusionism

The power of these intuitions of responsibility cause some hard determinists to argue for a revisionist approach. They accept that appeals to moral responsibility are theoretically unjustified, but they nonetheless assert that we are pragmatically justified in accepting the illusion that people actually have moral responsibility, because practices of praising and blaming are still useful, and abandoning them could lead to chaos.7

5. Incompatibilism

Finally, there are those who maintain that determinism and moral responsibility are utterly incompatible. Importantly, both hard determinists and libertarians about free will may hold this view. The libertarian can then tout this incompatibility as a virtue of his view. If the two really are incompatible, then only libertarian free will allows us to retain our very commonsense intuitions of moral responsibility.8 The hard determinist will bite the bullet and claim that, if the two really are incompatible, we are being intellectually dishonest by maintaining practices of moral responsibility, given that we can always trace the causes of an action to something that is ultimately fully outside of the control of the agent.9

This is an ancient philosophical problem that has given rise to an expanding and ever more nuanced set of views. But we can all agree that anyone who grapples with the problem of free will must also take seriously questions of moral responsibility.


See Jonah Nagashima’s Free Will and Free Choice for more philosophical analysis of freedom of the will, and for the metaphysical details underlying some of the views discussed here.

See Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) for more information on libertarian free will.

Some interpretations of quantum-mechanical results suggest that the outcomes of some measurements are indeterministic, but it is difficult to argue that (1) decisions are quantum-mechanical measurements and (2) wholly random events count as “free” choices.

See Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature (translated by H.D. Robinson, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970) or Galen Strawson’s “The Bounds of Freedom” (in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002) for more information on the determinist position.

See Daniel Dennet’s “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?” (in Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2002) or John Martin Fischer’s “Compatibilism” (in Four Views on Free Will. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the compatibilist position.

These are commonly referred to as “Frankfurt-style cases,” made famous in Harry Frankfurt’s “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” (in the Journal of Philosophy 66: 829-39, 1969). See also John Martin Fischer’s “Frankfurt-style Examples, Responsibility and Semi-Compatibilism” (in Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2002).

See Saul Smilansky’s “Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusionism” (in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002) and Manuel Vargas’ “Revisionism” (in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the revisionist position.

See Peter van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) for more information on the libertarian incompatibilist.

See Derk Pereboom’s “Hard Incompatibilism” (in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the determinist incompatibilist position, also known as “hard incompatibilism” or “hard determinism.”

Related Essays

Free Will and Free Choice by Jonah Nagashima

Praise and Blame by Daniel Miller

Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility by Rachel Bourbaki

Manipulation and Moral Responsibility by Taylor W. Cyr

Theories of Punishment by Travis Joseph Rodgers

About the Author

Chelsea Haramia is an associate professor of philosophy at Spring Hill College. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy from CU Boulder, a graduate certificate in gender and women’s studies from CU Boulder, and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently interested in metaethics, population and procreation ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, and feminist philosophy. She once did sixteen backflips in a row, but these days she mostly practices mental gymnastics. 

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