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Imagine someone who was born a pedophile. Their attraction to pre-pubescent children is out of their control. They never chose to be this way, and they are. Can they and their attraction still be immoral?

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Some thoughs on this question:

Different ethics have focused on different aspects of morality:

  • virtue ethics for example has focused on the character of a person,
  • duty ethics on choices and actions
  • etc.

So goodness and badness can be located at different levels. For instance, one can be said to have a good or bad character, or an action can be said to be good or bad. I think the main question in this context is to which extent it should be said that character traits which were not "chosen", but are given, can be good or bad.

However, Shoemaker in a book on responsibility for instance claims that there are different senses of the word "responsibility", and from my understanding not all imply that there was a choice. These senses are: "[...] responsibility as attributability (directed at character), answerability (directed at judgment), and accountability (directed at regard)" For instance, "attributability". (1), (2)

Furthermore, I also consider the discussion about compatilism relevant, as E Tam has mentioned. To me, it is intuitive that my character traits somehow define who I am, and that it is natural that they are evaluated (as good or bad) by others; even though at least some (or many) I have not chosen. However, these all-day evaluations must not always have the last word, but need to be reflected as well.

Finally, another level of responsibility arises once one considers the question to which extents personality traits can be consciously changed (e. g. by reflection, therapy etc.).


(1) David Shoemaker, "Responsibility from the Margins"

(2) https://kiej.georgetown.edu/david-shoemaker-responsibility-from-the-margins-oxford-university-press-2015/

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Kant famously said "Ought implies can", which means that morality only applies to agents with free will. The vast majority of philosophers accept this principle. On face value, this principle seems to imply that in a deterministic universe, where a person cannot choose their actions, there can be no morality. However, there is a position called compatibilism which argues that morality does exist in a deterministic universe because free will is different than intuitively thought of.

For example, Hume said that an agent has free will if their action is dependent on what their greatest desire is. In other words, if the agent desired to do some other action than what they actual did, the agent would have done that other action. This conception of free will allows desires to be the result from a deterministic process, thereby allowing morality to exist in a deterministic universe.

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  • Your last sentence seems to be a non-sequitur. The fact desires may result from deterministic processes does not necessarily lead to morality. If desires are determined, how can morality reasonably be attributed to them? Does compatibilism argue that moral responsibility can exist in a deterministic universe, or does it speak more about mere responsibility, in the sense of attribution alone (as in, an identifiable agent did something, but not with any moral agency)? Sep 30, 2022 at 13:27
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    Form the link in the post "Compatibilism is the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. Because free will is typically taken to be a necessary condition of moral responsibility, compatibilism is sometimes expressed as a thesis about the compatibility between moral responsibility and determinism."
    – E Tam
    Oct 2, 2022 at 20:32
  • Thanks for the citation. I'm surprised by that. Such an argument seems indisputably illogical unless morality is acknowledged as the mere experience of morality, and not as true moral agency. Oct 3, 2022 at 2:19

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