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Summarize and Critically Evaluate Galen Strawson’s View That Free Will and Moral Responsibility Are Impossible. Does Being Truly Free and Responsible Require the Kind of Self-Creation That Strawson Says It Requires?

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‘Free will’ is the conventional name of a topic that is best discussed without reference to the will. It is a topic in metaphysics and ethics as much as in the philosophy of mind. Its central questions are ‘What is it to act (or choose) freely?’, and ‘What is it to be morally responsible for one’s actions (or choices)?’ These two questions are closely connected, for it seems clear that freedom of action is a necessary condition of moral responsibility, even if it is not sufficient.

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Skepticism about moral responsibility, or what is more commonly referred to as moral responsibility skepticism, refers to a family of views that all take seriously the possibility that human beings are never morally responsible for their actions in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise. Some moral responsibility skeptics wholly reject this notion of moral responsibility because they believe it to be incoherent or impossible. Others maintain that, though possible, our best philosophical and scientific theories about the world provide strong and compelling reasons for adopting skepticism about moral responsibility. What all varieties of moral responsibility skepticism share, however, is the belief that the justification needed to ground basic desert moral responsibility and the practices associated with it—such as backward-looking praise and blame, punishment and reward (including retributive punishment), and the reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation—is not met

Versions of moral responsibility skepticism have historically been defended. Critics of these views tend to focus both on the arguments for skepticism about moral responsibility and on the implications of such views. They worry that adopting such a view would have dire consequences for our interpersonal relationships, society, morality, meaning, and the law. They fear, for instance, that relinquishing belief in moral responsibility would undermine morality, leave us unable to adequately deal with criminal behavior, increase anti-social conduct, and destroy meaning in life.

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A few other general observations about the concept of moral responsibility are in order before introducing particular conceptions of it. In everyday speech, one often hears references to people’s “moral responsibility” where the point is to indicate that a person has some duty or obligation—some responsibility—to which that person is required, by some standard, to attend. In this sense, we say, for example, that a lawyer has a responsibility (to behave in certain ways, according to certain standards) to his client. This entry, however, is concerned not with accounts that specify people’s responsibilities in the sense of duties and obligations, but rather with accounts of whether a person bears the right relation to her own actions, and their consequences, so as to be properly held accountable for them. (Unfortunately, this entry does not include discussion of some important topics related to moral responsibility, such as responsibility for omissions (see Clarke 2014, Fischer & Ravizza 1998)

Moral responsibility should also be distinguished from causal responsibility. Causation is a complicated topic, but it is often fairly clear that a person is causally responsible for—that is, she is the (or a) salient cause of—some occurrence or outcome. However, the powers and capacities that are required for moral responsibility are not identical with an agent’s causal powers, so we cannot infer moral responsibility from an assignment of causal responsibility. Young children, for example, can cause outcomes while failing to fulfill the requirements for general moral responsibility, in which case it will not be appropriate to judge them morally responsible for, or to hold them morally responsible for, the outcomes for which they may be causally responsible.

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All in all, the claim, then, is not that people cannot change the way they are. They can, in certain respects (which tend to be exaggerated by North Americans and underestimated, perhaps, by Europeans). The claim is only that people cannot be supposed to change themselves in such a way as to be or become truly or ultimately morally responsible for the way they are, and hence for their actions.

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Clarke, Randolph, 2003, Libertarian Accounts of Free Will, New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/019515987X.001.0001

Strawson, P. F., 1962 [1993], “Freedom and Resentment”, in Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1–25. Reprinted Fischer and Ravizza 1993b: 45–66.

Talbert, Matthew, 2012, “Moral Competence, Moral Blame, and Protest”, The Journal of Ethics, 16(1): 89–109. doi:10.1007/s10892-011-9112-4

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