6 minute read


The First Condition: Freedom

A common assumption is that, to be responsible (personally, retrospectively, morally, and basically) for something, one must enjoy freedom of will or action. Just what the relevant sort of freedom consists of is controversial, but the central idea is that one's behavior must be within one's control.

There is a venerable argument to the effect that this condition of responsibility is impossible to satisfy, and hence that responsibility is never incurred. The argument involves the thesis of determinism (roughly, the view that every event has a cause) and may be put as follows:

1. If determinism is true, no one is ever in control of what happens.

2. If determinism is false, no one is ever in control of what happens.

3. Determinism is either true or false.


4. No one is ever in control of what happens.

5. One is responsible for what happens only if one is in control of it.


6. No one is ever responsible for what happens.

Premise 5 states the precondition for responsibility that is at issue. Premise 3 is taken to be a logical truth. The rationale for premise 1 is this: if something is caused to happen, then it is, under the circumstances, inevitable; and if it is inevitable, then no one is in control of it. The rationale for premise 2 is this: if something occurs uncaused, then it occurs at random and if it occurs at random, then no one is in control of it.

Some philosophers have accepted this argument, but it is surely hard to do so. (Others, such as Immanuel Kant [1724–1804], have insisted that the idea that individuals never act freely is, practically speaking, impossible to accept.) Among those who have rejected the argument, some have done so by explicitly disputing one or another of its premises. So-called compatibilists deny the first premise; their number includes such major historical figures as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), David Hume (1711–1776), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). So-called libertarians deny the second premise; among major historical figures, perhaps the most uncompromising proponent of this view was Thomas Reid (1710–1796), although both Aristotle and Kant also flirted with it at times.

More recently, premise 5 has been challenged. Robert Adams has argued that certain sins, for which one is to blame, are involuntary and hence such that one is not free with respect to them. Examples include the vices of bigotry, cowardice, cruelty, and so on, where these are understood not as a matter of behaving in a certain way (something that may well be under one's control) but of being a certain way, that is, of having certain inclinations, desires, or beliefs (something that may well not be under one's control). Adams's point is that, whether or not these phenomena are under one's control, one is certainly to blame for them.

One way to resist Adams's conclusion is to deny that the phenomena in question are never under one's control. Aristotle took this tack, claiming that, even if individuals have now reached a point in their lives at which certain of their virtuous or vicious traits are beyond their control (not in terms of acting on them, but in terms of ridding ourselves of them or of acquiring them), still there was a time when they could have acted in such a way as to prevent their having them (if they are vices they now have) or to produce them in themselves (if they are virtues they now lack). Another way to resist Adams's conclusion is to acknowledge that individuals may be to praise or blame in some way for such traits, but to deny that such praise or blame constitutes an attribution of responsibility. (Peter Abelard [1079–1142] at times suggested this position.)

Another challenge to premise 5 involves granting the traditional idea that responsibility requires freedom but denying the traditional idea that freedom requires control. Harry Frankfurt has recently pressed this line of thought, urging that the inability to behave differently does not compromise the freedom required for responsibility when this inability does not serve to explain one's behavior. His discussion of this issue has generated a vigorous, subtle, and often complex debate.

An argument similar to, but also importantly different from, the argument concerning determinism has lately garnered considerable attention. The argument ends, as before, with the inference of 6 from premises 4 and 5. The difference lies in the beginning. Now the claim is that 4 (the proposition that no one is ever in control of what happens) is true, not because of any general considerations concerning determinism, but simply because of the fact that luck cannot be eliminated from people's lives. In support of this contention, cases of the following sort are commonly cited: Alf shoots at Bert and kills him. Charlie shoots in like fashion at Dave but, because a bird happens to get in the way of the bullet, fails even to wound him. This case serves to dramatize the fact that, in all one's actions, what one succeeds in doing is in large measure not up to the individual but, as it is often put, up to nature. Or again, it may be that what saves Dave is not a passing bird that intercepts Charlie's bullet but a sudden sneeze that prevents Charlie from even firing his gun. The more one thinks about it (independently of any question of determinism), the more one sees that luck permeates people's lives, eroding the control over, and thereby the responsibility for, their actions that they like to think they have.

The force of such considerations is keenly debated. In light of them, some philosophers appear willing to forgo attributions of responsibility. Others seek to preserve such attributions by rejecting (once again) the traditional idea that responsibility requires control. Still others seek to preserve such attributions by pointing out that lack of complete control over what happens need not amount to lack of any control.

Finally, just what sort of freedom or control might be thought necessary for responsibility has been a subject of some controversy. Some philosophers propose a fairly thin account, involving one's being in some sense the source of one's actions. Others propose richer accounts, involving some form of autonomy or of responsiveness to reasons. Whatever the proper account may be, it is important to note a distinction between two types of freedom, each of which may initially appear necessary for responsibility. This distinction can best be drawn by means of a familiar example. Suppose that Emma goes into a bank, points a gun at Fiona, the teller, and orders her to hand over all the money in her till. Fiona complies. Two questions arise: did Fiona freely hand over the money and is she responsible for doing so? One's initial inclination may well be to answer "No" to both. One may be tempted to add that the negative response to the first question is the ground for the negative response to the second. But on reflection this may seem mistaken. Although there certainly seems to be a sense in which Fiona did not act freely (for she was strongly coerced to do what she did), there is also clearly a sense in which it seems she did act freely; she had a choice in the situation (albeit an unpleasant one) and, one may assume, she made the right choice. Indeed, in light of this, it may well be appropriate to praise her for acting as she did, and this would seem to imply that she is responsible for her conduct after all. It thus seems that the sort of freedom necessary for responsibility (if, indeed, any sort of freedom is necessary) is that which Fiona exemplified rather than that which she failed to exemplify.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusResponsibility - The First Condition: Freedom, The Second Condition: Mentality, Bibliography