Are there any theories of moral responsibility that don't require free will?

Sam Harris rejects the notion of free will and attempts to construct some form of moral calculus, but "The Moral Landscape" didn't sound very convincing to me exactly because the notion of responsibility wasn't there, it was all about optimization of multidimensional functions. (Disclaimer Or may be I missed/forgot the responsibility and need to reread the book).

Are there other attempts to formulate the responsibility without appeal to free will?

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    Responsibility in a general sense seems to require free will, or the freedom to have chosen otherwise. If you have the freedom of choice, whatever decision you make is your responsibility as you were the causal agent behind the action. If you don't have the freedom of choice, if whatever action you take is determined by prior occurrences, then it doesn't seem to make sense to hold you morally responsible for you actions. However, in light of this understanding it still makes sense to hold people responsible for their actions insofar as they are the proximate cause of their actions. (cont.)
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 8:13
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    This is why even determinists would want people arrested for crimes (regardless of whether they are morally responsible for those crimes) because it's important for them to not be a cause for future negative actions. In that way responsibility is still very much important. Unfortunately, I didn't read that particular book of Harris' but I doubt he would disagree with me.
    – stoicfury
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 8:15
  • Yes, the moral responsibility requires free will, in the mainstream ethics - just like life would seem to require water and abundance of carbon. But I'm curious if there's some fringe - or may be well forgotten - schools of thought that come up with moral responsibility without asserting free will.
    – artm
    Commented Nov 25, 2012 at 8:48
  • Does 'moral responsibility' imply choosing one set of 'behaviors' instead of 'other' 'accessible' sets of behavior for certain consciously ascribed to ideas of 'just' actions? If so how could this be accomplished without some kind of 'choice'?
    – user128932
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 4:43

5 Answers 5


Daniel Dennett (among others) advocates a type of moral responsibility with only as much free will as you can get with determinism or determinism + unwilled randomness (more or less compatible with Sam Harris' assumptions).

There's a pretty good summary post Moral Responsibility in a Deterministic Universe by Bradford on it.

In brief, the argument ends up redefining terms somewhat while claiming that this is what we actually mean anyway (or is good enough): you, as a complex information-processing agent, are said to be responsible for those actions that you have computed to be the ones you want to take (with provisos for being subject to decisions made by others).

  • Thanks. Ricardo suggests him too, I guess I gotta start with Dennett. Could you suggest any particular book of his that deals with ethics?
    – artm
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 7:52
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    @artm - I can't recall which one of his works I encountered his argument most forcefully, but I'm pretty sure it was a book. Maybe Freedom Evolves? You're as likely to track it down with Google, Amazon, and whatnot, as I am.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 27, 2012 at 22:51
  • thanks, I'm putting it on my reading list. Via Ricardo's quotes I've also added Dennett's 'Elbow Room'.
    – artm
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 7:43

“Are there other attempts to formulate the responsibility without appeal to free will?”

Yes, from Daniel Dennett

Wikipedia and further readings summary:

Determinism does not rule out moral responsibility.

In determinism all physical events are caused and determined by the sum total of all previous events. If people are determined to act as they do, then what about personal responsibility? How can we hold people responsible and punish them for their behaviors if they have no choice in how they behave? We hold people responsible for their actions because we know from historical experience that this is an effective means to make people behave in a socially acceptable way. Holding people responsible only works when people respond to the state of affairs by controlling their behavior so as to avoid punishment. People who break the rules set by society and get punished may be behaving in deterministic ways, but if people don't respond to the threat of punishment, people would behave even worse. This is a totally utilitarian approach to the issue of moral responsibility. Is it moral to punish people behaving in deterministic ways? Yes, people have the right to create rules and enforcing them. We would be worse off if we did not do so, an argument for utility. Moral sentiments may be viewed as a reward mechanism, to make someone more sensitive to distant rewards and punishments.

If people do not have real behavioral choices, why not collapse into fatalism? People who lose the feeling that they can plan and execute alternative behaviors tend to stop struggling for survival and become fatalistic. Evolution has designed us to feel that our effort of planning pays off, that we control what we do. Free will is merely the ability to choose among available options. The ability to have all options available is not free will but omnipotence. Humans are not able to kill everyone by simply wishing it; does the lack of this ability mean that humans do not have free will?

  • Thanks. Where does this quote come from?
    – artm
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 7:49
  • For the most part, Wikipedia Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 10:01
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    That is not how religion defines omnipotence.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 9:05
  • @NeilMeyer The philosophical sense that you can find In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, is more relevant here than the possible definition of a possible religious thinker of a possible "religion". Commented Apr 23, 2013 at 12:48
  • I do not understand the sentence "How can we hold people responsible and punish them for their behaviors if they have no choice in how they behave?" If people have no choice in how they behave, that includes whether they punish other people for their behaviors. There is no point in asking how we can hold people responsible since we have no choice in whether or not we do so. Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 1:54

Kant gives an independent account of moral responsibility when he derives the categorical imperative (CI) from the concept of duty. From there he says it implies freedom only if morality entails freedom. This is in the grounding of metaphysics of morals and is a different reading given in the critique of practical reason, so i will bracket that. Kant in his critique is a system builder so develops the idea of freedom as autonomy and its connection with the CI. However, the derivation of CI does not depend on his ideas of freedom nor neumona/phenomena distinction. If you think we do not need to be free to have obligations, then freedom can be dispensed with. What cannot be dispensed with is the idea of "universal law legislation." A maxim "obligates" bc it is formulated as a command with the conception of an ought as a universal and necessary rule. You might want to read how we form synthetic aprori judgements from the critique of pure reason. I will summarize that a rule (a uniformity) is reproduced by an act of the imagination from the ends to the means in a necessary connexion under a unitary consciousness. We are law givers. Since laws are universal they obligate all rational agents bc they, using reason, will come to the same universal and necessary judgements as any one rational agent does. If that law is necessary (a law is merely a necessary rule) then its not merely suggestive out but a mandatory ought; Its not that u "may" follow it but u "must" follow it. you see i have made no reference to freedom at all. if morality is just obligation, as it is for kant and not excellence, then he has given a system of morality independent of freedom.


The question of free will is irrelevant when considering one's responsibility for their actions.

If you saw a rock falling on somebody's head, you would no doubt take two actions:

  1. Inquire where it came from, why it fell and make sure it does not happen again, possibly by physically holding the remaining rocks with a net or adding some barriers in the way to prevent people from accessing the danger area, or at least be warned (prevention of reiteration).

  2. Assist the injured person if they are still alive, or at least signal the accident to make sure the body is properly taken care of, the family informed (mitigation of consequences).

Let's climb an echelon in the scale of consciousness: what if a stray dog bit you unprovoked during a walk ? Without supposing the dog is acting in free will (most people don't, it might be, but we will see it's irrelevant) you would probably take the necessary steps to your protection by keeping it away from you in the future, putting it in cage or killing it. After all, this stray dog bit you, it might do it again on your next walk, and you would be fully justified in not wanting it anywhere near you. You could also tame it, to make sure it does not do it again. You would also surely proceed to mitigate the damage as described above.

Now what if someone committed a crime against you, like punching you unprovoked or robbing you ? The same steps of preventing reiteration and mitigation do apply, wether this person did it freely or not.

This person has shown a disposition to wrong you once, they might do it again. Even me who haven't been wronged but saw it happen, i might think that this person would wrong me too if they had the occasion. We would be fully justified in not wanting this person near us in the future, or wanting their behaviour to be corrected in some way.

As for mitigation, contrary to the rock or the dog, this person can understand the damage they done, be reasoned with and then be required to help in the mitigation. For exemple in the case they injured you, they might be required to pay for all or part of the damage caused. Damage has been done, and someone will have to bear it. The default possibility is you, the victim, bears it (no mitigation, or mitigation by your own means only), otherwise the wrongdoer could bear part of it, or someone else. You, me or the other people in society have done nothing to hurt you, and it would be unfair to require us to pay for the mitigation (we still could participate as a courtesy, but forcing us is unfair). On the contrary, since someone has to pay, it seems fair that the person who did the damage is penalized for repairing it. The penalty of sacrificing part of their income or available time to repair the damage will also participate in preventing reiteration.

So as you can see, without mobilizing the idea that the culprit acted in free will, we are justified in requiring their isolation and/or re-education (jail for immediate isolation, community service or a fine can make them think twice before recidivism, education while in prison can help reinsert them in society, etc) and their participation in repairing the damage they caused. To the contrary, if we assume they did not decide freely to wrong us, but they were determined to do it by their disposition or the circumstances, we can conclude that they are all the more likely to do the same thing again if left in the same disposition or circumstances.

Here I concentrated on criminal cases, but the same reasoning can easily be applied to more petty offenses: if my friend hurt my feelings and is likely to do it again because he shows no remorse, am i not justified in preventing future hurting by breaking up him and looking for better friends? If racist uncle Joe ruins the mood at each Christmas eve, am i not justified in protecting my fun by not inviting him anymore?

We don't need to mobilize the notion that an individual freely chose their path of action to punish them and/or ask for reparation if we consider their action went against out interest. It is to say, we don't need the idea of libertarian free will to hold them responsible of their actions. To the contrary, free will would suggest that, would they be facing similar conditions, they would be free to not do again what they did, and then punition makes no sense, just ask them politely to be nicer.

Addendum: the idea that free will is necessary for responsibility is often followed by the argument that "we need free will to hold people responsible, so no free will no justice system, therefore free will must exist". It is a very bad argument. I think I have shown its premise is false, also even if it was valid, it is an appeal to consequences. One's desire to hold people accountable has no bearing on the fact that we have free will or not. Facts don't care for our feelings.


Are there any theories of moral responsibility that is COMPATIBLE with free will?

Moral is a motivation engine. You SHOULD DO something because you want to get into paradise/you need to obey mather/any other reason. And reason's don't like the thing any close to concept of FREE will

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