Jul 112014


A confusion that often arises in the free will debate is on the usage of the word “responsibility”. It seems there are multiple ways in which this word can be used.

For example, we might say: “since free will is an illusion,  the person that does action X isn’t responsible for such an action”.

But what exactly are we saying here? The problem with such a generalized statement is with the ambiguity of the word “responsibility”. It simply has different meanings, and only one applies to the sense of that sentence.

Someone could say that the person does X therefore the person is what is responsible for X. This is similar to saying the hurricane is responsible for tearing apart that house’s roof.  It’s just a way of pinpointing the “thing” that caused the roof to be torn apart. We could also say that the hurricane is “to blame” for the roof being destroyed. But there are multiple ways in which the word “blame” is used as well.

This definition is very different from what the responsibility word surrounding the free will debate is about.

For the free will debate when the “responsibility” word is used, it’s almost always used in the sense of ethical accountability and a “deserve” sense after the fact – rather than simply being the object that directly causes something. We hardly ever give ethical accountability to a rabid dog biting a person, though that dog is “responsible” for the bite. The dog may even have to be put down, but we often feel sorry for the dog. We don’t think the dog “deserves” being put down. It’s such a shame that the dog was bitten by a rabid animal which caused it to go rabid itself.

For people, however, we often use the word “responsibility” in a quite different way. When we say that the bank robber is responsible for his action, we are saying much more than the bank robber being the body that walked in and robbed the bank. Rather, we are saying something about the decision the bank robber made (to rob the bank of course – need that be said?). We are blaming the bank robber for making the decision he had. In turn, we are saying that the bank robber should have and could have, of his own accord, done differently. He shouldn’t have robbed the bank. He’s blameworthy.

But lets address the usage “the hurricane is responsible for tearing apart that house’s roof” because even though its not the same usage as ethical responsibility (we don’t hold hurricanes ethically responsible, only thinking entities), in itself it’s rather problematic if you get down to the root. You see, though the hurricane was the direct thing that tore the roof off of the house, something caused the hurricane. We might be able to say the ocean’s surface temperature caused the conditions of the hurricane, so technically that is “responsible” for the house roof. Or we might be able to say the sun overheating the water and atmosphere caused the ocean conditions which caused the hurricane, so that is what’s responsible for the roof. And we can go on and on to some conditions that would, on the surface, appear to have no relation to the hurricane and roof. The proverbial “butterfly flapping it’s wings” butterfly effect.

So in reality, the hurricane being “responsible” for the roof is sort of a misnomer. It’s simply the most direct thing we see.

But imagine Dr. Evil  builds a hurricane producing device, hits the switch on it, and the device causes the hurricane to form and tear the roof of the house. All of a sudden no one even tacks the word “responsibility” to the hurricane because there is a new cause in town. And even though that new cause comes prior to the hurricane, it’s the one that we’ll assign all of the responsibility to. Dr. Evil was responsible for the roofs damage! And not in the same way as the hurricane, but in this other way. He could have done otherwise but chose not to. He had the free will to be able to not make the machine, but rather he used his free will to make it instead.

It’s this type of responsibility that is incompatible with the lack of free will. That’s not to say we shouldn’t prevent Dr. Evil from doing such a thing again. And yes, we may need to incarcerate Dr. Evil (though knowing Dr. Evil he’s sure to escape). But we shouldn’t be doing so to get revenge on Dr. Evil. He needs to be locked away for the protection of others who don’t “deserve” his wrath. But I digress, this post isn’t about the criminal system, incarceration, rehabilitation, deterrence, retribution, and all of that. It’s simply pointing out the difference between the usages of the word responsibility and which one applies to the free will debate.

Another way the word responsibility is used (and I address this in my book), is in the sense of an ethical duty. If one feels they have a duty to act in such and such a way, this can be referred to as a “sense of responsibility”. The lack of free will does not, in any way, suggest that a person can’t hold a sense of responsibility or duty in this sense.  In fact such a sense of duty can come about causally, and is a very rational response. This does not imply, however, that if one ends up not aligning with such duty, that they are, after the fact,  “responsible” in the second sense of the word.

It’s common for people to conflate these different usages, so clarification of which meanings if used in the free will debate is crucial.

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

  8 Responses to “No Free Will and the Ambiguity of “Responsibility””

  1. It seems possible that revenge could be a purpose of even if a perpetrator could not have done other than he or she did. After all, perhaps victims of one’s villainy derive solace in the punishment apart from those derived from deterrence or incarceration. Such a purpose couldn’t be fairly be called “retribution”, however.

    • I’d suggest such curbing of the irrational psychology of those individuals would be fairly called retribution (that’s what retribution is for, the individuals that take solace in it).

      Thanks for stopping bye. :)

      • Thank you for your considerable contribution to the discourse on free will and determinism :-). I think your conception of retribution does not comport with its general usage; in fact, in your system, the concept of retribution only makes sense as an irrational relic of human psychology. Typically,retribution is considered punishment commensurate with the moral status of a wrongdoer regarding bad acts. Consequently, the wrongdoer, not their victims, is the one evaluated in determining proper retribution. This is why harsh treatment of someone who was insane and senselessly committed a heinous act would not serve the purposes of retribution, even if the surrounding community would gain closure or some other psychic benefit from such a punishment.

        Given your beliefs, that the causally determinate nature of human action makes it insensible to morally judge wrongdoers (correct me if I’ve mischaracterized), the notion of retribution is insensible except as a relic of irrational psychology, and could not be a proper final purpose of punishment. The indulgence of this irrational psychology, or the consideration of any other psychic benefits derived from punishment, considers not the wrongdoer, but rather other parties, and consequently would not serve the purposes of retribution (an irrational concept, in your view). It would make more sense to call this purpose something else: closure, for instance.

        • Good thoughts. I’m suggesting retribution that is “punishment commensurate with the moral status of a wrongdoer regarding bad acts” is equally as problematic (since they could not have been, of their own accord, otherwise than immoral at that time). The only rational use of punishment (without free will) is to prevent or deter future happenings (from both the wrongdoer and others that might act similarly). If the purpose (of punishing) is for some other reason that doesn’t have to do with causally aligning future outcomes, it falls into the irrational concept line. That includes punishment for the sake of solacing the victim or family/friends of the victim (the irrational relic of human psychology).

          • Thank you. The point I was making was semantic: you seem to wish to salvage the word “retribution”, under a different meaning; I think it makes more sense to retain its original usage and contend that, given the empirical (indeed, perhaps metaphysical) realities, it cannot exist. Consider compatibilist and incompatibilist determinists. Both agree on a mechanistic world in which the future states of the world proceed inexorably from the present physical state of the world. The latter of these camps, counting yourself among them, believe that to continue asserting the existence of “free will”, morphs free will into a concept that lacks a crucial quality: the actual possibility of divergent choices.

            The incompatibilist chooses to deny the existence of free will given our empirical circumstances rather than pervert the concept of free will into a concept that does not resemble its normal usage, which is quite sensible. There is a similarly sensible choice regarding the concept of retribution. Given the history and pervasive use of “retribution” in its irrational matter, keep its accepted definition and maintain that, like “free will”, it is a concept that cannot survive reasoned scrutiny, let alone serve as a purpose of punishment.

            Regarding solace and closure: although this as a purpose of punishment addresses emotions which are upshots of irrational cognitive states (that the wrongdoer morally deserves punishment), this does not necessarily imply that the consideration of these emotions is irrational. Parents who sneak through their houses wrapping gifts in the early morning of December 25 act to preserve the illusion of Santa Claus. The joy and wonder they seek to create in their children is enabled by the childrens’ irrational beliefs, yet it seems strange to call parents’ exploitation thereof irrational. Likewise, crafting policy around promoting human psychic well-being, which might include the consideration of solace and closure for victims, is not inherently an irrational goal even though it addresses emotions or desires which might flow from irrational cognitive states. Although something seems wrong about punishing a wrongdoer purely for psychic benefits to the victim or the surrounding community, this conclusion requires additional moral premises.

          • I think I’m using the common usage of retribution. I’m rather suggesting that retributive punishment should never occur. I don’t want to change the semantic of retribution to something else.

            “Parents who sneak through their houses wrapping gifts in the early morning of December 25 act to preserve the illusion of Santa Claus. The joy and wonder they seek to create in their children is enabled by the childrens’ irrational beliefs, yet it seems strange to call parents’ exploitation thereof irrational.”

            I think a distinction needs to be made between benign irrationality (which for the “most part” is what the Santa Clause thing is – though some would contend that such lies to a child are problematic…but for the sake of this discussion we’ll suggest not) and harmful irrationality. Yes, it could be fun to stroke the imagination of a child with an imaginary tooth-fairy that gives them money, but if or some psychological reason a person thought it fun to harm another person for irrational reasons, the assessment is one that needs to be more strict in regards to displaying the irrational cognitive state that surrounds it. We don’t craft policy around promoting irrational human psychic well-being at the expense of an undeserving other (which is the problem with retribution). 😉

  2. I’m starting to understand the different uses of responsibility. The hurricane is responsible(the visible cause) for tearing apart the house, but it’s not morally responsible(You sinful hurricane! You deserve to burn in hell!). They are two entirely different meanings and I’m not sure how to explain this to other people without a long conversation.

    • Exactly, I find when talking to compatibilists – we tend to talk past each other because of words like this. For that reason it’s very important to clarify meanings. :-)

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