The concept of moral responsibility has had an extensive and persistent history. It refers to the worthiness of a particular reaction ( Praise, blame, reward or punishment ) offered to a particular act or omission and the person responsible for having performed it.
In finding the notion of worthiness and appropriateness, there are conditions that must be considered which moral responsibility can be applied under. These conditions are connected with our perception of ourselves as persons. An average human adult seems to represent as the typical model for a responsible agent assigned to praise or blame. But what grants them this status? What separates them from other beings to be held morally responsible for their actions or traits? In Nicomachean Ethics III 1-5, Aristotle elucidates the criteria for being a moral agent, worthy and subject to responsibility ascriptions on the basis of their actions and/or traits of character; Specifically one able to make decisions and one that has performed the action voluntarily. According to Aristotle an action or trait must satisfy two conditions to qualify as voluntarily; Firstly the action or trait must have originated from the agents and not imposed externally. In other words the agents must have “Control” over performing a particular action or possessing a particular trait. Secondly agents must have “Awareness” over their actions and traits and what they may bring about. The two competing interpretations of Aristotelian concept of praise and blame and its appropriateness, summarises in merit based in which does the agent deserve such reactions offered to them? and the consequentialist view, referring to praise or blame brining about a desired consequence; for example a desired change in the agent or their behaviour. Therefore by these accounts considered, to what extend can moral agents be held morally responsible for their actions?
The capability of an agent’s reflection on situations, formulating intentions and executing that action generates the competing and controversial debates on the notions of “determinism” and “free will”.
Hard determinism is the view that in a universe governed by natural laws, all events including an agent’s actions are caused by antecedent states of affairs. in other words, every event is casually inevitable and could not have been otherwise such that nothing other than what does occur could occur. Even though agents might believe their decisions are made freely, decisions are thoughts and thoughts are a mental state. Mental states come from the brain. Brains are part of the biological system and biological systems are part of the physical world. And the physical world is just deterministic. This topic poses a threat to moral responsibility by undermining an agent’s control and free will. In Theological determinism actions and events are identified as god’s will and his nature and human choice and deliberation seems to be otiose. One would challenge the validity of this statement with the response that god’s sovereignty is responsible for all the evil since agents are no longer free and cannot do anything other than god’s will. Whereas Scientific determinism identifies the combined relevant causality of the universe and laws of nature.In which it is still the case that events are determined but occurrence or existence of them still depends on our deliberations, choices and actions.
On the contrary, in the Principle of Alternate Possibilities, free will stands as a form of capacity in which rational agents are able to choose a course of action amongst other alternatives. Meaning that moral agents are self-determined, have control over their decisions and actions; That they are not pre-determined by fate, gods or by a natural casual determinism. Considering the distinct role of freewill in the topic of moral responsibility, it isn’t appropriate to subject an agent’s actions to praise or blame, if it was not an action of their own freewill. Freewill liberationists have adapted this idea to defend moral responsibility of an agent, against the threats of randomness and chance. For example, Thomas Hobbes suggests that a free agent with a free will, consist of no external factors affecting agent’s will: “A free agent is he that can do as he will, and forbear as he will, and that liberty is the absence of external impediments.” Hobbes describes freewill as ” the power of acting or not acting”. However some philosophers might argue against the soundness of this statement. When distinguishing the difference between free acting and free will, it is realised that an agent might posses the ability to make a will freely but be unable to implement it (failing to act freely). Therefore it is acknowledged that “acting with freewill “, refers back to acting in utilisation of freewill. Nonetheless, the ambiguity of the “freewill” concept still remains unexplained. What exactly is referred to as free? In consideration to what has been mentioned so far, is it the action or the will which is free of external implementation?
John Locke’s interpretation of freewill in chapter XXI, Of Power, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding provides an explanation to this premise. Locke warns of an unintelligible and confusing concept in which many philosophers have mistakenly mulled the notion of “free” and “will” together into “freewill”. He argues what is meant by free will, is not that the”will” is free because “will” is a determination, but it is the mind which is free. Only because the adjective “free” does not apply to the “will” but to the agent, which is determined by the mind and determines the action.
Harry Frankfurt on the other hand, centralises his studies on the premise “will” and provides a hierarchical theory, called a “structuralist” or “mesh” description of the will. According to this influential view, an agent’s “will” consist of various levels of desires and volitions.1st order desires which are desires to do a particular action, (X’s desire to eat an apple). 2nd order desires are desires to have a 1st order desire, (X’s desire to wanting to eat an apple instead of a bag of crisps) and so on. However some desires don’t ever result in action; For example when an agent has conflicting desires. But those desires that move the agent all the way into action, become volitions. He continues to prove that “an agent has free will if she is able to have the sort of will she wants to have”. In other words free will consists of having 2nd order volitions.Although many philosophers may argue that Frankfurt’s hierarchical views of the will are problematic. If it is possible to identify the volitions and to explain what causes an agent to act, then you are in other words, reinforced the position that actions are caused and therefore determinism is true.
In relation to moral responsibility and arguments provided above, one’s overall account wether its a merit base or consequentialist view, will strongly influence their opinion on the appropriateness of praise and blame.
The merit-based ideologists tend to lean towards incompatiblism. Providing the premise that if an agent is to be praised or blamed for something, they would have had to perform a special form of control over it. (the ability to both perform or not to perform). Meaning that free will is required for moral responsibility and determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.
Frankfurt cases disproves the statement above with series of signifyicant logical experiments. His argument is that despite the principle of alternate possibility’s idea of the ability to do otherwise, dent necessarily make it possible for an agent to do otherwise. He suggests an alternate way to defend the combatibility of casual determinism and moral responsibility simply by rejecting the first premise of the free will argument. He believes that his point is that an agent’s theoretical ability to do otherwise, doesn’t necessarily make it possible to do otherwise. His significant examples involve intituitve agents who are still responsible for their actions even in the absence of free will. Also with the rise of quantum physics, it has become more clear that what we do isn’t necessarily exempt from external factors. However there is also something different about human action and some causes come from within agents; and that determinism poses no threat to free will and moral responsibility. The consequentialist ideologists, traditionally tend to believe that determinism and free will are compatible subjects in moral responsibility.For example according to John Martin Fischer, agents are still morally responsible for their actions and decisions in the absence of free will and free will is not required for moral responsibility. He believes the control needed for free will is inhibited by the notions of casual determinism, but not for moral responsibility. In other words the argument he is trying to make is that “the control needed for moral responsibility is weaker than the control needed for free will”. Since praise or blame can still affect ones behaviour in a deterministic world.