Alfred Xue

What is moral responsibility? Being morally responsible is equated by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to being worthy of a particular kind of reaction. Such a definition is hardly rigorous or well-defined, but nevertheless establishes that responsibility implies accountability, which in turn implies not only causality, but more importantly, the ability to create an alternative. Thus when a baseball breaks a window, we do not hold the window responsible, for it had no ability to create an alternative. Neither do we hold the baseball nor the bat morally responsible, for neither had a choice but to follow the laws of physics. The question then, is whether we hold the human wielding the bat to be morally responsible.

To address the moral responsibility of the baseball player, we must first evaluate whether a human has the ability to choose an alternative – a free will, if you will – or if one is forever bound to a set path – just as the baseball and the bat are. When speaking to the prisoners in the Cook County Jail, Clarence Darrow noted “You could not help it any more than we outside can help taking the positions that we take.” This is the fundamental idea of determinism – that there is no alternative to the path that can be taken. The Stanford Encyclopedia defines determinism as follows, “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” At first, a deterministic framework seems to contradict with any essence of free will. I argue that we do not operate under a deterministic framework, and thus do have the capacity to execute, or at least exist within the illusion of, free will.

To say that we exist within a deterministic framework equates to saying that the future can be predicted. Newton postulated that with a powerful enough computer, the universe could be simulated and thus the future predicted. However, discoveries in quantum mechanics in the last century indicate that Newton’s computer was an impossibility. Newton’s computer necessarily requires that every particle could be described precisely. However, quantum mechanics, specifically the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, indicates that particles behave as probability waves and are inherently indeterminsitic.  Thus it is impossible to predict the future with absolute certainty.

For the next part of our discussion we must first understand what it means to be an agent. We argue that an agent is an indivisible entity that has the ability to select from multiple alternatives. Just as a biologist cannot study the functions of the human body by evaluating individual cells in a vacuum, we too cannot evaluate the moral responsibilities of an agent by decomposing it. Thus we assume that the human agent is inherently indivisible, and that an agent is a cohesive unit. Even if we can describe the actions of the agent as a set of neurological reactions, such impulses must be disregarded when we discuss the prescription of moral responsibility because they are within the body of the agent and thus mechanisms of the decision rather than external causes.

Next we establish that at least an illusion of free will must exist. Remember earlier that we concluded it is impossible to predict the future with absolute certainty. Because the human agent does not have a predetermined future – or at least it cannot know if it has a predetermined future –his/her decision stems from his/her own rationalization, and cannot be attributed to “fate.” So long as the agent believes that it is making a decision – even if the decision is impulsive in nature – it becomes responsible for its actions.  Gazzangia writes, “brain determinism has no relevance to the concept of personal responsibility.” Because the human agent is forced to make a decision within the scope of competing alternatives, the agent then becomes responsible for the consequences of that action as compared to the consequences of the alternative. That is, even if the agent was predestined to select one of the competing alternatives, the process of deliberation is sufficient for the agent to become morally responsible for the action. Because the agent deliberated and concluded, that is, even if the deliberation can be expressed as a set of mechanical processes, the deliberation is sufficient to justify a reaction, whether positive or negative, against the agent. Thus, the baseball player actively made the decision to hit the ball with the bat – and is thus morally responsible for the consequences. But what if the baseball player hit the ball instinctively – would he/her still be morally responsible for his/her actions?

To evaluate this idea – the idea hat even impulsive decisions must still be held accountable – we look towards Dante’s Inferno. A common theme among the dwellers of hell is that they fail to recognize their own influence on their fate. Instead, they project their predicament onto external factors, failing to reconcile with their own responsibility. It is logical that Dante would desire to punish those who fail to admit guilt – the man who fails to the implications of his choices and his ability to select alternatives is the most likely to commit morally irresponsible actions. For example, in canto five, Francesca de Rimini, one of the souls trapped in hell, claims that “Love, which pardons no one loved form loving in return, seized me for his beauty so strongly that, as you see, it still does not abandon me. Love let us on to one death” (103-106).

Dante description of this level of hell revolves around an inferno whirlwind with the captives forever caught within it, fighting to free themselves but to no avail.  This is what Dante views as their greatest sin – not the action that they commit, but their refusal to acknowledge their responsibility of it. Francesca attributes her adulterous actions to Love, expressing that “Love… seized this one for the lovely person that was taken from me.” Francesca attempts to justify her adulterous actions by claiming that her actions were not of her own, and that she was possessed by Love. Though Dante himself sympathizes with her, it is clear that the arbitrator of justice does not. Similarly, the actions of people that appear coerced are easier to sympathize with, but that does not abolish their moral responsibility. Francesca perceives that her actions were driven by Love, but the reality is that it was driven by her refusal to refuse Love. The consensus in moral law is that an agent is not responsible for his or her inaction – but that consensus cannot be applied to Francesca because her refusal to engage with herself and projection of causality to Love is the decision that triggers and justifies her adulterous actions. Thus, through Francesca’s inability to reconcile with her actions, we observe that it is invalid to externalize the blame for individual actions, even if the action is impulsive by nature.

Similarly, while the baseball player could attempt to externalize his actions, it would be inconceivably difficult for him to find a valid justification for removing himself the responsibility of breaking the window.   No such attempts would hold up in a court of law whose foundation is moral responsibility. Thus we see that when we view the baseball player as an agent, he is morally responsible for his actions, regardless of the existence of free will and regardless of the impulsive nature of his actions.

Recent debate has shifted towards argumentation of the existence of free will in a deterministic world. However, it turns out that the answer to that question has little philosophical implications. So long as an agent exists – that is an indivisible entity that can choose from a series of alternatives, such entity is morally responsible for the actions it takes, for the process of deliberation upon those alternatives creates judgement. Thus while we do not know whether a human truly has free will or not, we do know that it at least has the illusion of one, which sufficiently gives cause for the human to be morally responsible.

Works Cited

Dante, Alighieri, Robert M. Durling, and Ronald L. Martinez. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.

Gazzaniga, Michael S. “The Chronicle Review.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicle, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2013.