By Patrick Mayer
Among philosophers who work on the topic of moral responsibility there is widespread agreement with the claim that when we debate over the nature and existence of moral responsibility we are not talking about punishment. To say that someone is morally responsible for a bad action is not to say that she ought to be punished for it, nor does saying that moral responsibility is a fiction imply that you think punishment is illegitimate. Moral responsibility is about praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. You are morally responsible for some action iff it is either appropriate to praise you, appropriate to blame or would have been so had the action been morally significant in one way or another.
In this paper ‘Incompatibilism’ will be the name of the view that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism. So according to Incompatibilism it is never appropriate to praise or blame someone. Why? Different incompatibilists will give you different answers. One might answer by saying that it is a conceptual or linguistic fact that blameworthiness is incompatible with determinism. An example would be saying that the definition of ‘blameworthy’ or the concept of blameworthiness contains within it a claim that for an agent to be blameworthy for X it must have been possible for the agent to do something other than X. On this way of thinking about incompatibilism if someone believes that determinism is true and they believe that someone is blameworthy then they accept contradictory claims and are therefore irrational.
Another way to answer the question is to say not that believing someone blameworthy would be inconsistent with a belief in determinism but to say that to blame someone would be unfair if determinism were true. This second way to answer I will call ‘Fairness Incompatibilism.’ There are advantages to adopting Fairness Incompatibilism. One, and probably the historically most important reason, is that by adopting Fairness Incompatibilism one can answer a criticism made by P.F. Strawson against incompatibilism. Strawson claims that the practice of reacting emotionally to people, a practice many have treated as equivalent to blaming and praising, stands in no need of an external metaphysical justification. This is meant to rule out the demand, made by incompatibilists, that morally responsible agents have a form of agency that implies indeterminism. But considerations of fairness are internal to the practice of reacting emotionally to people, and so if the case for incompatibilism is made by appeal to the concept of fairness then whether Strawson’s claim about the immunity of our practice from purely metaphysical considerations, incompatibilism can still go through. Another motivation for accepting Fairness Incompatibilism is that many have the intuition that if determinism is true then when we blame people we are doing something wrong to them, treating them in a way they do not deserve.
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