Why is it that when people are asked whether they believe that one's response is either determined
or a product of one's own free will the majority will lean on the side of determinism, but when those
same people are asked if they believe that one should be held totally responsible for everything one
does, the majority leans on the side of agreement? Isn't that contradictory, and what might account
One easy fix to the free will problem, which enjoys continued popularity amongst the more hard
headed (and generally clean shaven) analytic philosophers is the view that the attribution of
responsibility is fully consistent with the belief that our actions are the product of our physical state at
the moment of our birth, and all the things we have experienced and that have happened to us since
that time. I chose to respond to your letter today, but my choice was already on the cards — barring
an inexplicable lapse in the laws of physics — 49 years ago as I lay bawling in my hospital cot,
alongside the couple of dozen or so other infants that had been produced by the baby factory that
week. What kind of choice is that? And how can I be praised, or blamed, for making it?
Here's how the answer goes:
Rewarding people for actions which we approve of, or punishing people for actions which we
disapprove of has a useful function.But reward and punishment do not always work. The promise of
a reward is not going to deter the bank clerk from handing over the money when there is a gun
pointed at her head. The threat of punishment sadly does not deter the kleptomaniac. Every human
action is the effect of prior causes, but not all causes are the same. Only if the cause of an action is
an agent's own choice, unconstrained by factors impeding their ability to make a rational choice, are
we justified in calling them 'responsible' for that action, and treating them accordingly.
The best refutation of this picture is F.H. Bradley's example (in Ethical Studies1876, Essay 1) of the
master of hounds who gives his dogs a good thrashing before they go out on a hunt, just to show
who's boss. If punishment is something that either works or doesn't work, if it is simply a matter of
pressing levers to encourage good behaviour, then there would be nothing wrong in 'punishing' an
innocent person if we thought it would causethem to behave in the future in the way we wanted them
to behave. — What's missing from this picture is the idea that punishment should only be given to
those who deserveit. The problem is that if every action we do is the result of causes going back to
our birth, then it seems that no punishment (and no reward either) is ever deserved.
You can look for more subtle ways of sorting out suitable cases for praise or punishment. So long as
the talk is about selecting from different varieties of 'cause and effect', such moves seem pointless
The obvious alternative is not much better. If my decision to answer this question today was not
determined by my prior states, then it is hard to see why that should deserve praise. To adapt another
example from Bradley, say a friend offers to let you use an A-graded essay she wrote two years ago
at another College to hand in as your own work. You refuse. She expresses surprise. You respond
angrily, 'You should have known me better than that!' Knowing your upright character, she ought to
have predictedthat you would act in the way that you did.
My response would be to escape this dichotomy altogether by refusing to see the relationship of
person to person in cause and effect terms. The humanworld, the world of persons in relation, is not
the world of physics, even though what you and I are ultimately made of is nothing but physical stuff.
When we engage with one another as persons we are interacting on an altogether different level,
where one talks of reason and justification, right and wrong, freedom and responsibility. To see the
world in these terms is part of what it means to be human, to inhabit the human world.