Free will

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 05, 2024, from

4. Moral responsibility

Two main questions are raised by the pessimists’ arguments. First, is it really true that one needs to be self-creating or causa sui in some way, in order to be truly or ultimately responsible for what one does, as step (2) of the pessimists’ argument asserts? Addressing this question will be delayed until §6, because a more basic question arises: What notion of responsibility is being appealed to in this argument? What exactly is this ’ultimate’ responsibility that we are held to believe in, in spite of Nietzsche’s scorn? And if we do believe in it, what makes us believe in it?

One dramatic way to characterize the notion of ultimate responsibility is by reference to the story of heaven and hell: ’ultimate’ moral responsibility is responsibility of such a kind that, if we have it, it makes sense to propose that it could be just to punish some of us with torment in hell and reward others with bliss in heaven. It makes sense because what we do is absolutely up to us. The words ’makes sense’ are stressed because one certainly does not have to believe in the story of heaven and hell in order to understand the notion of ultimate responsibility that it is used to illustrate. Nor does one have to believe in the story of heaven and hell in order to believe in ultimate responsibility (many atheists have believed in it). One does not have to have heard of it.

The story is useful because it illustrates the kind of absolute or ultimate responsibility that many have supposed – and do suppose – themselves to have. It becomes particularly vivid when one is specifically concerned with moral responsibility, and with questions of desert; but it serves equally well to illustrate the sense of radical freedom and responsibility that may be had by a self-conscious agent that has no concept of morality. And one does not have to refer to the story of heaven and hell in order to describe the sorts of everyday situation that seem to be primarily influential in giving rise to our belief in ultimate responsibility. Suppose you set off for a shop on the eve of a national holiday, intending to buy a cake with your last ten pound note. Everything is closing down. There is one cake left; it costs ten pounds. On the steps of the shop someone is shaking an Oxfam tin. You stop, and it seems completely clear to you that it is entirely up to you what you do next. That is, it seems clear to you that you are truly, radically free to choose, in such a way that you will be ultimately responsible for whatever you do choose. You can put the money in the tin, or go in and buy the cake, or just walk away. (You are not only completely free to choose. You are not free not to choose.)

Standing there, you may believe that determinism is true. You may believe that in five minutes’ time you will be able to look back on the situation and say, of what you will by then have done, ’It was determined that I should do that’. But even if you do believe this, it does not seem to undermine your current sense of the absoluteness of your freedom, and of your moral responsibility for your choice.

One diagnosis of this phenomenon is that one cannot really believe that determinism is true, in such situations of choice, and cannot help thinking that the falsity of determinism might make freedom possible. But the feeling of ultimate responsibility seems to remain inescapable even if one does not think this, and even if one has been convinced by the entirely general argument against ultimate responsibility given in §3. Suppose one accepts that no one can be in any way causa sui, and yet that one would have to be causa sui (in certain crucial mental respects) in order to be ultimately responsible for one’s actions. This does not seem to have any impact on one’s sense of one’s radical freedom and responsibility, as one stands there, wondering what to do. One’s radical responsibility seems to stem simply from the fact that one is fully conscious of one’s situation, and knows that one can choose, and believes that one action is morally better than the other. This seems to be immediately enough to confer full and ultimate responsibility. And yet it cannot really do so, according to the pessimists. For whatever one actually does, one will do what one does because of the way one is, and the way one is is something for which one neither is nor can be responsible, however self-consciously aware of one’s situation one is.

The example of the cake may be artificial, but similar situations of choice occur regularly in human life. They are the experiential rock on which the belief in ultimate responsibility is founded. The belief often takes the form of belief in specifically moral, desert-implying responsibility. But, as noted, an agent could have a sense of ultimate responsibility without possessing any conception of morality, and there is an interesting intermediate case: an agent could have an irrepressible experience of ultimate responsibility, and believe in objective moral right and wrong, while still denying the coherence of the notion of desert.

Citing this article:
Strawson, Galen. Moral responsibility. Free will, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-V014-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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