On moral responsibilty

Marvin writes in his recent post

[..]Rehabilitative penalties presume a person with free will. A person with free will autonomously chooses for themselves what they will do. Education, skills training, counseling, and post-release programs like Offender Aid and Restoration open up new and better possibilities for the prisoner upon release. The goal is a changed person, someone who will make appropriate choices of their own free will.


Before I respond to his claims, let us first dispense with matters definitions. In the SEP, they write

to be morally responsible for something, say an action, is to be worthy of a particular kind of reaction—praise, blame, or something akin to these—for having performed it

This is an interesting topic. It relates to the question of determinism and how in a deterministic world can a person be morally responsible.

Below is an argument against moral responsibility, by Galen Strawson, that says what I would have said better.

(1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any responsible (morally or otherwise).

(2) One cannot at any later stage of life hope to accede to true moral responsibility for the way one is by trying to change the way one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience.

For (3) both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience.

And (4) any further changes that one can bring about only after one has brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by heredity and previous experience.

(5) This may not be the whole story, for it may be that some changes in the way one is are traceable not to heredity and experience but to the influence of indeterministic or random factors.

But it is absurd to suppose that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is ex hypothesin no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is. The claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions. pdf

For further reading

Determinism, freewill and moral responsibility

Moral responsibility and determinism [ I just skimmed through this article]


About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

33 thoughts on “On moral responsibilty

  1. charlypriest says:

    I truly believe in self responsibility and if you brake it you own it and you face the consequences. I can name you numerous individuals that have come up in not the best of environments, that includes my father, where they didn´t have money for food, he was already working at age 8, crime was obviously there, and now he´s a succesful business person. While most of his Friends as well as his family members those would be my nut cases of uncles which I don´t have any contact with, well a bunch of those took, decided by themselves to take the wrong road. Life is all about choices and decisions, and I will give you that if you don´t have a stable household, or your parents are criminals , you live in poverty and you usually see the worst in humans that you will be more prone to get involved in not a very good life style, but that is a choice an individual makes. In my case, I had everything and I through it down the toilet and got into criminal activities and now back to being straight. So I have one person and one person to blame for my actions and that is me. For me, these excerpts is something a coward will say, a coward never takes responsibilty for his actions is always society or this or that. Also narcissist sociopaths have that trait by the way.
    So for me, you always have an option, you always can influence the situation in front of you, influence it for the best.


    • I have to respectfully disagree with you. Poverty is not always a result of criminal behavior. One cannot help illness and job loss as contributing factors to ones economic condition and struggles. If one has no job and lost that job as a result of health issues and cannot afford to pay because of no job- it’s a downward spiral and individual is stuck in their poverty. It is societal obligation to assist these individuals who cannot help themselves in these circumstances. Poverty has nothing to do with being immoral ir criminal.

      Liked by 1 person

      • charlypriest says:

        Maybe I didn´t express myself correctly, but that is exactly the point I made, citing the story of my father. So we actually agree to agree.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Easy to misinterpret meaning- my apologies. I may have read far into your comment because when you mentioned self help as to the answer to escaping poverty etc- I read that you meant it was the *only* way as well as the *self* to be the sole cause of the poverty (in terms of criminal behavior, actions, choices). But since you clarified I appreciate your time and further commentary and glad to have another fellow humanitarian in our midst ✌🏽️😎

          Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      It appears to me by your comment that you either think me a coward or a narcissist sociopath without attempting to refute the argument that you are not responsible for who you are and as inspired1 has said above, that a few people for one reason or another breaking from the norm isn’t an argument in favour of moral responsibility.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hariod Brawn says:

    Reactive conditioning – like a feedback loop – is how I see it OM. If, by chance or volitionally, one’s consciousness attends to the good, then some adheres within that conscious individual as new disposition; and the opposite applies too, if only to remain as a dormant artefact, an unrealised disposition. To talk about morals as if there were some objective referent to them, something extra to experience, and for which the imagined self has a responsibility, clouds the issue to my mind.


  3. john zande says:

    I’m often baffled by this subject, which I consider the cosmology of philosophy.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What’s important to remember is that it is the anomaly that sets the standard here. 500 people, say, grow up in horribly abusive, poor environments with no access to decent health care or education. 2 of them, some how, are able to connect to the world and/or people outside of this environment and become Donald Trump-like in their success. Thus, these 2 folks used the POWER of their WILL to free themselves from the chains of their lives and became rich folks with really fucked up hair. Therefor. the 498 people who did not escape their environment did so out of a weakness of WILL and/or character. They simply chose to stay where they are. Even though 2 out of 500 is, quite frankly, in no way the norm for this group, many look at it as proof that those living in horrendous conditions and get stuck in lives of petty crime and poverty remain there out of choice. The staggering number here is not the 2 folks getting out but the 498 who don’t. This is akin to the old “cigarettes don’t cause cancer cause my grandma smoked for 87 years and died at 98 of a bad disposition, not cancer,” argument. (This is actually true of my grandmother, Thor bless her cantankerous dead soul.) My grandmother was an anomaly, not the norm. The staggering fact is cigarette smoking kills most who take up the hobby. People who wish to feel they have POWER over this fact clamp onto anomalies like my grandmother as proof they won’t die from smoking. Foolish. We are not free of our environment or our genes.. Multiple factors make each of us who we are as individuals. Generalizing over anomalies and applying those generalizations to a whole group whilst not knowing the individual conditions, ALL of them, that go into making each person in that group who he or she is, is disingenuous. We, as individuals, crave control. We want to believe it is WE who control our lives. WE who have POWER over the conditions we’re in. But, if this were the true, 498 out 500 people born into horrendous poverty and abusive environments would exercise the POWER of their WILL to free themselves from those conditions and only 2 would fail trying to do so. This is not what happens. $Amen$
    P.S. Remember, a vote for Trump is a vote for sentient, billionaire, bigoted, misogynistic toupees across the galaxy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. shelldigger says:

    I agree with much of your sentiments Mak, as usual. And ISBD1 speaks very well today.

    I have to wonder though how is it, what is it, that makes these anomalous individuals capable of becoming better people than they were born into? Is there room in the determinist approach to allow for a person to turn their lives around and change their ways? I am rather curious because I kinda sorta resemble one of these anomalies… I had nothing, poor white boy with no future, but found a way to better myself. I am certainly a different person today than I was say 30 years ago. People can drag themselves out of the gutter and make their way to a better place. What is it in these people that makes them anomalies?


    • I’m only speaking well today cause I took a break from drinking for several minutes to write my replies. Thanks for noticing, though. “I have to wonder though how is it, what is it, that makes these anomalous individuals capable of becoming better people than they were born into?” You’d have to study and speak with them. Best if you could observe them from birth on up to see what differences were presented to them. The problem here is, why the fuck are we wasting time talking about anomalies when the vast majority of people DO NOT escape the confines of who, what and where they are? Most importantly, what can be done to help the quality of life for the vast majority of us and help end the vast majority of human suffering for all? I find the over emphasis on anomalies to be greatly unhelpful in this endeavor. Such discussions rapidly become an unending spin cycle in which the water is never, ever fully drained from the laundry.

      Liked by 1 person

      • shelldigger says:

        Interesting, though I am still curious. 🙂

        I agree much time and effort can be spent on unnecessary fluff. But still people can and do change. Some of them at least. It is within the human abilities, to find or make a better place for themsleves. Are they anaomalies or is that potential within us all, and few get over the hump?

        I have seen where lotto winners who had nothing, and became multi million dollar winners overnight. They lived it up, the $$ was gone, and they were right back where they started. So despite winning a fucking lottery, and having all the possibilities available, they were unable to better themselves.

        On the other hand (and I realise I am spinning the laundry by now) some people come out of poverty stricken lives and put their heads down, bust their asses, until one day they look up and see they have a better life. may not be perfect, but much better than where they started.

        There are as usual many data points in between. But there is definately something going on there.


        • makagutu says:

          tell me my shelldigger friend, what did it for you? Maybe we can start from there


          • shelldigger says:

            I can tell you that when you have very little, and you are stuck in a poverty situation, it becomes a weight you carry with you. You look around and see people living in nice places, driving nice cars, and seemingly living the life. You, with nothing, wonder how they got there.

            You go to the store, and you can tell in a smallish town, the word is out that your family is poor. You can see the long look down their noses, judging you. You can feel it when you walk into a room. Things weren’t always like this, it was more a low spot in life that lasted for several years…

            I always knew I was a better person than I was being given credit for. Just because we were poor at the time did not mean we were not decent people.

            But, the thing is opportunities seem miles away. The weight is a heavy one to carry, and hope becomes buried under despair.

            The difference for me was desire and knowledge. I knew I was capable. I had the desire to do better. What I needed was opportunity.

            Opportunity came with being in the right place at the right time. My neighbor at the time was a go getter. There was a thriving industry right in the county we lived in. It was harvesting freshwater mussels from the Tn. River. He had a boat rigged out for two divers, and supplied all of the gear neede to do the job. He hired guys to work for him on a 50/50 basis. I got a knock on the door one day and he wanted to know if I wanted a job. Having already had a little experience with a form of harvesting shells known as toe digging, I knew the real money was in diving. I took the job.

            I took to it like a duck to water. It became my opportunity. I made enough money over time to buy my own rig. Starting a piece at a time I built my own diving boat. Next thing ya know I looked up from 30 years of busting my ass and I have a family, a home on 5 acres, a nice car to drive, and a chronic back.

            There ya go 🙂


          • makagutu says:

            There are two things; something about you and opportunity. There are a lot more other people I believe who were in your situation but didn’t turn out the same.
            And I think luck/ fortune favours each one in some way.


          • I traded my luck for some freewill once. I got ripped off! The will didn’t work, and now I’m shit outta luck, too. 🙂


          • makagutu says:

            You can sell your will


          • No one wants it. It’s used.


    • makagutu says:

      my first answer would be that is what they were. that whereas the conditions were shitty, there was something in their mental and genetic make-up that made it possible for them to break off


  6. Mak, I didn’t know you were Jesus! Awesome, bro! Toss a miracle my wat, will ta? 🙂 Have a nice day. Oh, you’d better be careful of that rail you supposedly fell off of. Someone might trip over it.


  7. koppieop says:

    I am trying hard to understand this matter, and would therefore refer to
    @shelldigger: …Opportunity came with being in the right place at the right time….
    My question is: if you had NOT been in the right place at the right time, would you nonetheless have been able to obtain what you desired? Was it your free will to be in the right place at the right moment?


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