Moral Responsibility and Punishment …

Jerry Coyne is talking about free will again. I’ve left a comment there that I’ve left in substance before, but really can’t figure out how it works in his view. Jerry Coyne thinks that we have responsibility and culpability even though we don’t have free will, but argues that we don’t have moral responsibility or culpability because we don’t have free will. But, to me, the reason that determinism challenges moral responsibility has always been because it challenges responsibility, not because it challenges morality per se. So, to me, to concede that we’d still have responsibility — and how we have that is still an open question — but that there is still a problem with moral responsibility is difficult for me to understand, and I haven’t seen Coyne defend it anywhere in any way that makes sense to me … although he or someone else can point me to a post on that in case I’ve missed it.

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here, although it is relevant because I think Coyne is making the same mistake that I’ll outline in a minute. In another post, Coyne links to this review of a book by Bruce Waller. Waller says, essentially, that we do have free will but we still don’t have moral responsibility. I haven’t read the book, but skimmed the review and the replies, and what struck me was that the discussion is all about punishment and blame, as if you can talk about only that and be talking about moral responsibility. Waller’s main thesis, it seems to me, is to argue that punishment — either in general or specifically in moral situations — isn’t fair, and if it isn’t fair to blame or punish someone then the system of moral responsibility — as Waller refers to it — is wrong.

The problem is that this seems to be judging moral responsibility by what we can do with it and generally do with it, not by what it really is. At its heart, moral responsibility encompasses two ideas:

1) The action in question has some kind of moral implication or value to it.
2) A moral agent is responsible for the action in a way that preserves the moral implication. Meaning that they are a) reasonably responsible for the action and b) are responsible in a way that means that the moral implication follows from or attaches to their own moral agency.

That’s it. There’s nothing there that says anything about blame or praise, reward or punishment. The action has a moral implication and a moral agent is responsible for that action. So, if that’s what moral responsibility is, then we can’t talk about punishment or blame and how unfair or problematic they are and say anything really interesting about moral responsibility. So why do so many people think we can?

If we want people to act morally or not to act immorally, the most reasonable and effective approach is to reward moral actions and punish immoral ones, giving people a reason to act morally and not to act immorally. So, in a society, you are almost always going to move from moral responsibility to praise or blame, which are nothing more than saying that someone’s action is worthy of reward or punishment. So, in a sense, it is natural to think of moral responsibility as being about praise or blame, because we tend to move from responsibility — in all cases — to praise or blame, and from praise or blame to reward or punishment. But this isn’t what responsibility, itself, is about.

Think about it this way. If someone asks you who is responsible for that pile of snow at the end of the driveway, your first inclination will be to think that they are asking because they want to blame or praise the person who did it. But if you tell them and they just say “Ah”, and if you ask them if they want to praise or blame the person who did it they say “Neither. I just want to know.” you’re likely to be confused. But if we look at this closer, you’re not confused because you don’t understand how someone can be held responsible for something without them being praised or blamed, but rather that you don’t understand why that person would care about why that person was responsible for it if they weren’t going to praise or blame them for it. And it’s hard to come up with a reason for someone to care about responsibility if they weren’t going to praise or blame. But we can easily all understand that even if the action is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy, if that pile of snow being there is just a place to put snow just like pretty much all others, the person is still responsible for that pile of snow being there; it’s just that most people don’t really care about who is responsible unless they want to praise or blame.

This, then, is where the confusion sets in; punishment is conflated with responsibility in general and moral responsibility specifically. This is why, I think, Coyne saves reward and punishment and asks what’s left for morality to do. This is why Waller and Dennett talk about punishment and punishment systems and think they are saying something about moral responsibility. But they aren’t. We decide to reward and punish certain actions that we deem a person responsible for because it benefits us to, but that’s not what it means to be responsible for something. We could eliminate punishment and reward entirely and still have responsibility. And while some may protest that it isn’t interesting to do that, I’d say that it’s only uninteresting from a behavioural modification viewpoint, but not necessarily from a moral or philosophical viewpoint. At the very least, it would stop us from arguing against punishment and thinking that we’ve actually argued against responsibility in those cases.


One Response to “Moral Responsibility and Punishment …”

  1. What does “moral” add? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] (I talk more about this here.) […]

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