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The Illusion of Undermined Responsibility
Linköping University, Department of Culture and Communication, Arts and Humanities.
2010 (English)Conference paper (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Scepticism and consequentialist about moral responsibilityTwo features about our everyday practice of holding people responsible seem to tug in opposite directions. The first feature is that our attributions of moral responsibility for decisions, actions and outcomes as well as our practice of holding agents responsible are notoriously sensitive to sceptical arguments. Ordinarily, people take agents to be morally responsible for their actions and take them to deserve blame or sanctions for bad actions or praise and rewards for good deeds, without prior reflection on possible metaphysical prerequisites for moral responsibility. But they often come to see metaphysical considerations as highly relevant and find their confidence in moral responsibility shaken when introduced to regress arguments such as Galen Strawson’s “basic argument” or Peter van Inwagen’s “direct argument”, arguments from manipulation such as Derk Pereboom’s “four case argument”, or arguments from luck, such as Al Mele’s contrastive argument.

The second feature is that our practice of holding people responsible is largely driven by concerns about how motivational structures are affected by our holding or not holding people responsible for decisions and their outcomes. The most obvious sign of this concern is that people often motivate practices of holding people responsible with reference to what would happen in their absence: people would care less about values beyond their immediate interests, go lazy, engage in free-riding. Somewhat more subtly, it is clear that our reactive attitudes, expressed in our ways of holding agents responsible, are sensitive to the qualities of will of those agents. If we learn that an action was not the result of ill will, our tendency to hold the agent responsible for a bad outcome tends to be diminished, just as one would expect if the concern were to modify faulty motivational structures. Expressions of regret and guilt and thus willingness to change motivational and behavioural patterns tend to placate indignation or resentment. From an etiological perspective, it seems plausible that our species have reactive attitudes and engage in practices of holding each other responsible exactly because such reactions modify motivational structures and behaviours in ways that protect and promote values that we care about.

To the extent that our holding people responsible is motivated by the effects of holding people responsible, it is puzzling why it should be subject the sceptical concerns: neither of the sceptical arguments mentioned above seem to undermine the usefulness of holding people responsible. This is how the two features seem to tug in opposite directions.

In his influential paper “Freedom and Resentment”, Peter Strawson argued that we should let our practice of holding people responsible be deeply affected by neither of these concerns. Unlike “pessimists”, we should not be moved by sceptical, incompatibilist, concerns because they involved judging the practice from a metaphysical perspective foreign to the participatory stance to which our practices of holding people responsible belongs. Unlike “optimists”, we should not justify our practice with reference to its effects, because, again, such concerns are external to the practice itself, or at least leaves out concerns that are internal to the practice, concerns that are focused on how the action came but have no truck with consequences of holding the agent responsible—perhaps the agent is dead. In my paper, I argue that Strawson and some of his followers misrepresent the relation between sceptical arguments and our practice of holding responsible. As many of his critics have pointed out, the appeal of such arguments is very natural and almost unavoidable given the shape of the concept of moral responsibility that governs this practice. Unlike many of his critics, however, I will argue that our impression that the considerations invoked in such arguments diminish responsibility is nevertheless an illusion, comparable to other cognitive and perceptual illusions. Similarly, I will argue that Strawson misrepresents the role of “external” consequentialist concerns. It is correct that our attributions of moral responsibility are backward-looking, relying on information on how a decision, action or outcomes came about rather than on potential effects of holding the agent responsible for it. But it is also true that our judgments focus on backward-looking concerns because our practices of holding responsible is largely driven by forward-looking—consequentialist—concerns. The argument proceeds in three steps. The first is to make plausible an empirical theory about the concept of moral responsibility operative in our practices of holding people responsible and attributing desert. The second step is to explain why sceptical arguments have intuitive force given this structure. The third step is to present a plausible account of why a concept satisfying this empirical description is governing our judgments of moral responsibility as well as our practices of holding people responsible. The fourth step, finally, is to argue that intuitions resulting from sceptical arguments are best understood as illusory because they are insensitive to what our concept of moral responsibility has been designed to track.

*Björnsson, Gunnar and Persson, Karl, forthcoming: “The Explanatory Component of Moral Responsibility”, forthcoming in Noûs

*Björnsson, Gunnar and Persson, Karl, 2009: “Judgments of Moral Responsibility: A Unified Account”, Society for Philosophy and Psychology, 35th Annual Meeting 2009, available at

*Björnsson, Gunnar and Persson, Karl, ms: “Explaining Judgments of Moral Responsibility”, manuscript

*Björnsson, Gunnar, forthcoming: “Joint responsibility without individual control—the Explanation Hypothesis”, forthcoming in Compatibilist Responsibility: beyond free will and determinism, eds. Jeroen van den Hoven , Ibo van de Poel and Nicole Vincent

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
Free will, moral responsibility, Strawson, consequentialism, skepticism, illusion
National Category
URN: urn:nbn:se:liu:diva-63419OAI: diva2:379566
Strawsonian and Consequentialist Views on Personal Responsibility 15-16 October 2010 Rotterdam
Moral responsibility as explanation
Available from: 2010-12-17 Created: 2010-12-17 Last updated: 2010-12-18

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