Consequentialism seems to justify punishment to maximize total utility. What about deontology, virtue ethics, etc? Can they justify punishment? And how would that work in the absence of free will?

  • Hmm, you might want to parse this some. By "free will," do you mean a Frankfurt mesh or "the principle of alternative possibilities" (or something else)? Also, since you add that (?) to "popular opinion," I was wondering if you might indicate where you're getting this "popular opinion" from? Nov 12, 2021 at 22:20
  • @KristianBerry By "free will" I mean the ability to choose otherwise. And by "popular opinion", I mean most of the people I have seen only use consequentialism to defend morality in a world without free will. I've never seen them use non-consequentialist moral theories.
    – ActualCry
    Nov 12, 2021 at 22:26
  • There's no absolute logical overlap between believing in a theory of the existence or nonexistence of free will, and believing in a certain type of moral theory. But regarding subtypes: Kantian deontology is impossible without strong free will; Bernard Williams talked of moral residue that even free will (if we had it) would not safeguard us from (and he was more an anti-theorist, I suppose). So at the level of generality your question is at, we could probably just contrive various reconciliations (at will!). Nov 12, 2021 at 22:34
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    You can't blame people for not being virtuous or not following their duty without libertarian free will, but you can still observe that they act contrary to virtue or duty (whatever those are), and pronounce moral judgment about this fact. You can also say that they ought to act virtuously or dutifuly. So there is no fundamental problem with moral and free will. Some particular theories might differ, like for example if one stated that people need free will to understand their duty (maybe Kantian deontology, not sure).
    – armand
    Nov 13, 2021 at 1:32
  • Apples are not just fruits ... could they be dogs? Mar 23, 2023 at 4:06

3 Answers 3


To read the full article, you'd need JSTOR access. But if you search "deontology without free will" (on Google), you get a quote from the article's interior:

... there are also varieties of deontology and virtue ethics that do not require appeals to free will. It is probably obvious that utilitarians need not appeal ...

I assume that the latter ellipsis covers something like "to free will, either."

From a Rawlsian point of view, if theories of the existence/nonexistence of free will are too convoluted or controversial to undergird publicly accessible moral standards, then Rawlsian ethics doesn't require that one adopt a settled judgment on this score, either. (On the other hand, Rawls in A Theory of Justice says that the parties in the original position are equipped with knowledge of general psychological facts; I imagine that having free will would be an important psychological fact to know about! Moreover, since as he also says in AToJ that considered judgments/intuitions are admissible supports for our moral beliefs, then there is space for someone with the intuition that free will is required for morality, to otherwise then go on to be a Rawlsian, too.)


Virtue ethics does not depend on free will, it just depends on there being a least-wrong action, and a least-wrong reason for taking that action, and the intentional realization of both.


Moral theory depends on the concept of free will. To be a moral agent means to be able to choose between mutually exclusive actions, which cannot happen if one does not have at least constrained forms of free will.

This is as true of consequentialism as of any other moral theory, and I'm uncertain who would suggest otherwise. The entire point of consequentialism is that one ought to examine the potential consequences of one's owns actions and choose actions that that have good outcomes (or at least minimize the harm to others). If one cannot choose, then contemplating consequences is a futile exercise.

  • I suppose they mean that you can justify punishment in utilitarianism (it maximizes happiness) without 'moral responsibility', in a way you cannot with other theories. probably more complicated than that
    – user65174
    Mar 23, 2023 at 0:43

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