Responsibility Is Near

We are more willing to let folks off the hook because “my atoms or my brain made me do it” in far than near mode:

A deterministic universe [is one] in which “Every decision is completely caused by what happened before the decision—given the past, each decision has to happen the way that it does.” … One group of participants was asked whether it is possible for anyone to be morally responsible for their actions in such a universe. These participants tended to say that it is not possible to be morally responsible in that universe. That question about moral responsibility is, of course, pitched at an abstract level.

Another group of participants was presented instead with a concrete case of a man who killed his family. That provoked a much different response. When presented with a concrete case of man performing a reprehensible action, people tended to say that the man was fully morally responsible for his actions, even when set in a deterministic universe. Indeed, concrete cases of bad behavior lead people to attribute responsibility, even when the action is caused by a neurological disorder. …

People are pulled in different directions because different mental mechanisms are implicated in different conditions. (more)

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  • Hendy

    Interesting — my skim didn’t reveal how participants were chosen, but if they are an average distribution of Americans… they probably haven’t thought through how morality works if determinism holds. Thus, the findings seem unsurprising (but that could absolutely be a case of hindsight bias).

    Given a “cold” and abstract theory — “If nothing can change the given string of events that has been bound to happen from the beginning of time, do you think Mr. Jones is responsible for his actions?” — participants will say no. They are probably operating on the fact that they perhaps don’t think determinism is true, but if it were… there would be no morality.

    Faced with a “near” example of potential actions, like Mr. Jones killing a loved one… my guess is that participants fall back on 1) attachment to loved ones being very real/concrete and 2) intuitions about how morality should work, even if they were momentarily able to decide that no morality would exist given determinism a short time ago.

    Probably not much different than the trolley problem. Killing one to save five is fantastically logical until the one is your wife (assuming a satisfying marriage…).

  • Sana

    Could someone explain how morality and determinism are linked? I’ve never understood how the necessity of something happening (determinism) affects whether or not it should happen (morality).

    • The argument is since ought implies can (you can say someone ought to do something only if he can do it), and if everything is determined then a person “can” only do what she does in fact do.

      This claim can lead to a rather tedious debate about the meaning of “can.” I don’t find the argument itself convincing (despite being convinced there is no “morality”). But even if morality’s existence in some sense survives determinism, determinism does seem to preclude one of the classical *justifications* for punishment: that the person “deserves” it. If morality can exist without _blame_, then it isn’t precluded by determinism.

      I discuss the implications of determinism for morality in a series starting here:

      • Underachiever

        I have never understood this argument. If the perpetrators of a crime do not have free will, then presumably, neither do the people judging them. If the criminal cannot be held responsible for their actions, neither can the jurors; therefore, no one should have any qualm about judging every criminal harshly.

        *This argument assumes that the point of the justice system is retribution instead of what is best for society, which could be harsh sentencing for all criminals to act as a deterrent irrespective of what is just for the individual.

      • Konkvistador


        I think we would still avoid “unfair” punishment to some extent because of risk aversion.

    • richard silliker

      They are not linked. The relationship is vicarious.

  • Hendy

    @Sana: just google around for things like “determinism and free will”, “morality and determinism and free will” and the like. A massive amount of literature has been written on this subject — it is quite a debated topic. Here’s some quick results:

    Nutshell: if you have no choice over what you do (determinism is true), can you be held responsible for your actions (do they have a moral value)?

  • You’re right; People ARE pulled in different directions because different mental mechanisms are implicated in different conditions. This is why coaching is important to many individuals so they can gain positive insight on their life’s goals.

  • MPS

    It strikes me that our legal system is not more clearly structured around what is justice in a deterministic world. Given that we live in a deterministic world.

    I don’t think it even makes sense, to say that my actions are not in principle predictable, given full knowledge of my DNA and all my life experiences, up to perhaps random noise. However I don’t see how that alleviates my responsibility for my actions. I am the thing with my DNA and my experiences, that’s what I am and that’s why I’m responsible for the actions that arise from the convergence of these things.

    And likewise there is cause to execute justice, because knowledge of the consequences of actions is among the things gained by my experiences that inform my actions.

    • Semel

      @MPS: I agree with your last paragraph. Regardless of whether people are morally responsible — that is, can be blameworthy — the practical argument for holding people responsible requires only that they respond to incentives. In other words, it would be useful to hold a mindless machine responsible for its actions if the machine heeded the threat of punishment.

  • MichaelG

    People watch movies and care about the story and characters. A movie is completely determined (already on the reel). Also, the people are actors, not “real”. So why should we care? But we do.

  • Pingback: Experimental Philosophy and the Problem of Free Will… « The United Persons()

  • Didn’t the introduction of the man who killed his family, basically changing the results to the question on moral responsibility, prove past stimuli have a strong effect on our actions? Those people were changed, their minds changed, based on that externality. Sounds like they proved themselves wrong.