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Moral Responsibility in a Deterministic Universe

Moral Responsibility in a Deterministic Universe

by Ray Bradford  

Philosopher Daniel Dennett provides a sufficient definition of determinism on page one of his book Elbow Room when he states, “All physical events are caused and determined by the sum total of all previous events.” When people conceive of the choices they must navigate in everyday life, they appear to implicitly assume such an outlook on the universe--after all, choosing between alternatives only proves meaningful if one deterministically expects certain choices to result in certain consequences. Yet the application of determinism to human behavior itself elicits overwhelming hostility. A primary criticism tends to center on the issue of moral responsibility. Critics often argue with a mixture of disbelief and indignation that the concession of a deterministic universe (from which human behavior is not exempt) would entail the breakdown of morality and personal responsibility. They contend that if humans lack the capacity to act otherwise given a set of initial conditions in the universe, morality loses its basis of rationality and its raison d’être. They not only find such a world preposterous, but they imagine society would spontaneously disintegrate into anarchy as individuals justify their unbridled selfishness with “I could not have done otherwise.”

While the apocalyptic vision advanced by many critics of determinism has surface appeal, it rests on two faulty assumptions regarding the nature of morality and personal responsibility. First, it assumes that conceding a deterministic universe would allow us to abandon our morally reactive attitudes. As the philosopher P.F. Strawson argues in “Freedom and Resentment,” it suggests that adopting a theoretical stance on the nature of the universe could result in the suspension of our participation in interpersonal relationships and the morally reactive attitudes that accompany such relationships. Second, arguing that determinism eliminates the rationality of moral responsibility incorrectly assumes that “morality” does not possess a free-floating rationale independent of the truth of determinism. Strawson and Dennett observe how morality is both rational as a socially efficacious policy and as the rational culmination of natural selection within a cooperative system. Thus, a more thorough inspection of alarmist responses to determinism reveals that a deterministic universe can achieve compatibility with concepts of moral and personal responsibility.

Any discussion on the bearing of determinism upon issues of moral and personal responsibility first requires an adequate understanding of determinism and its distinction from fatalism. Dennett’s definition of determinism adequately captures the viewpoint as, “All physical events are caused and determined by the sum total of all previous events.” Human behavior, as with all other causal sequences in the universe, is a function of antecedent states and causes. Popular misconception often interprets this viewpoint as the position that all our behaviors, including me writing this paper, are the direct one-to-one result of our genetic composition. While such a position is one form of determinism, genetic determinism, it is not the most widely accepted version. By and large, determinism instead suggests that human behavior results from an incredibly complex function of inherited genetic predisposition, environmental and cultural influences, and prior responses to, and interpretations of, environmental influences (learning). However, the theory holds that given an initial set of conditions external and internal to the mind, only one “choice” or behavior will result. Thus, given any set of actual initial conditions in this world (as opposed to slightly different “possible worlds”), any person’s “choice” could not have been otherwise.

While easy to confuse, determinism carries a subtle but significant distinction from fatalism. Fatalism suggests that certain events will occur regardless of how humans act. This is a significantly different conclusion than determinism. Dennett aptly sketches the distinction in his interview with Reason magazine, “Fatalism is the idea that something’s going to happen to you no matter what you do. Determinism is the idea that what you do depends. What happens depends on what you do, what you do depends on what you know, what you know depends on what you’re caused to know, and so forth--but still, what you do matters. There’s a big difference between that and fatalism. Fatalism is determinism with you left out.”

When considered in the context of both everyday conceptions of the universe and in terms of daily “choices,” most people appear to already accept deterministic principles. When making a “choice” between a high-fat meal and a low-fat meal, we may “choose” the low-fat meal because we assume that it will result in smaller amounts of undesirable substances entering the body. With “choice” in the context of interpersonal relationships, we may “choose” to tell a white lie over the truth because of the way we expect our friends to respond. In both these frameworks, we already concede a deterministic universe. We assume that certain events (or choices) will result in causally determined consequences (e.g., slimness or appeasing friends). So why does the idea of determinism operating on “choices” and human behavior itself meet so much resistance?

One explanation for the heated opposition determinism often receives may lie in its conflict with the traditional decision-making model of “forking paths” typically utilized in religious conceptions of free will or agency. According to the traditional model of “choice,” a person’s future branches out from a single past into a “garden of forking paths.” Regulative control exists over a locus of freely-willed choices that emerge from a single cause or set of causes. A person acts of his or her own free will in selecting between alternative paths--he or she could have acted otherwise. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] This obviously conflicts with the premise of determinism, since determinism contends that only one future (effect) can emerge from a specific set of antecedent conditions in this actual world--if the causal sequence replayed itself one million times with the exact same starting conditions, the person would never have “chosen” otherwise.

Determinist supporters draw comparison to other causal relationships to elucidate their criticism of the “garden of forking paths” model of free will and decision making. The loci necessitated for multiple effects to potentially emerge from a single cause or set of causes seem to violate the relationships we observe with all other causal sequences in the universe. It is difficult to imagine the kicking of a soccer ball having alternative effects other than that of the ball moving from your foot toward the direction you kick it. Moreover, even taking into account the phenomenal complexity of the human capacity for reason, it does not seem very plausible that the deterministic, causal relationships that existed in the universe for billions of years would suddenly suspend themselves to accommodate the relatively recent development of the brain’s nerve clusters.

One option pursued by defenders of the forking paths model of decision making involves focusing on the randomness or indeterminacy involved in obtaining multiple potential effects from a given cause. Libertarian philosopher Robert Kane attempts to locate this indeterminacy on the quantum level. He argues that the mind essentially harnesses the existence of quantum indeterminacy and uses it to generate alternative paths. Many philosophers and physicists, including Einstein, have argued that describing quantum mechanics as indeterminate may ignore a critical, deterministic, hidden variable. However, even if quantum indeterminacy were conceded as ontological for the sake of argument, Kane’s argument still has a large burden to truly support the forking paths model. As Dennett points out, how can random resolutions of quantum-level events provide people with any control over their behaviors? Behavior arguably occurs on a much more macro-level where Newtonian physics apply. Moreover, while the movement of an individual particle on a quantum level may be ontologically indeterminate, its distributions prove easily predictable--hardly a strong starting point for the argument that indeterminacy can percolate up to alternative paths.

The difficulties that the forking paths model of choice faces under a deterministic universe may illuminate much of the opposition to determinism. After all, typical concepts of free agency or free will in our society tend to stem from choice models similar to the “garden of forking paths.” Without such a framework for interpreting “choice” and responsibility, alarmists may fear that a deterministic universe cannot accommodate morality or provide any rationale for personal responsibility. Since most religious concepts of morality derive themselves from selecting “rightly” or “wrongly” from a forking paths model, an emotional or metaphysical drive may fuel the ferocity of opposition to determinism. Simply stated, how can a person be held responsible for the path he or she is taking if it was never selected from alternative choices? Thus, while accepting a deterministic universe and eliminating the concept of alternative paths proves problematic for the concepts of moral responsibility involved in religious judgments and theological conceptions of man, the work of two philosophers, P.F. Strawson and Daniel Dennett, suggests that on a practical level, moral and personal responsibility can survive and thrive in a deterministic world. In fact, personal responsibility not only remains viable in a deterministic universe, but morality also maintains a free-floating rationale independent of deterministic principles.

In his essay “Freedom and Resentment,” the philosopher P.F. Strawson provides strong rebuttal for the claim that moral responsibility would evaporate in a deterministic universe. Strawson takes a unique approach to the conflict by challenging the assumption that a theoretical question of determinism could pragmatically alter the reactive attitudes we undergo as part of the human experience. Strawson focuses on what he describes as “personal reactive attitudes” that include feelings of anger or resentment in response to another individual’s demonstration of ill will. He takes great length to show when they do and do not arise in the course of human behavior, and to demonstrate that human existence without such attitudes would be largely inconceivable.

According to Strawson, when we find ourselves knowingly wronged by another individual who exhibits both awareness of the wrongdoing and a normal psychological state, we react with “morally reactive attitudes” of anger or resentment. In contrast, when someone wrongs us under the pretense that “he didn’t realize what he was doing” or “she was not herself at the moment,” or if the perpetrator possesses psychological abnormalities (compulsions, moral underdevelopment in the case of children), we tend to suspend our personal reactive attitudes and take what Strawson calls an “objective attitude” toward the individual. We discuss the ways the individual should be managed or directed most efficaciously. Occasionally we demonstrate such attitudes with fellow human beings in normal psychological states as well. Adopting an objective attitude toward “normal” individuals usually results from either intellectual curiosity or the desire to “avoid the strains of involvement.” On the pragmatic level, Strawson sees the claim that determinism would destroy the basis for moral responsibility as tantamount to claiming that a theoretical conviction of determinism would cause us to abandon personal reactive attitudes altogether in favor of objective attitudes.

Strawson finds this conclusion that we could abandon our personal reactive attitudes practically inconceivable. He summarizes his position aptly with the statement, “The human commitment to participation in ordinary inter-personal relationships is, I think, too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world that, in it, there were no longer any such things as inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them; and being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings that is in question.”

Beyond the inconceivability Strawson finds in abandoning personal reactive attitudes, he sees nothing in the nature of determinism that would logically entail forfeiting them. For example, in the case of resentment, it does not follow from determinism that the causes that force us to abandon reactive attitudes would exist--that the perpetrator would “not realize what he was doing” or “not be herself.” Strawson additionally argues that what we consider morality lies in the “vicarious analogues” to personal reactive attitudes. We experience moral indignation or disapprobation on the part of wronged parties, or we feel guilt as a vicarious manifestation of the pain we have caused others. Such vicarious analogues rest on a demand for goodwill toward not only oneself (personal reactive attitudes), but also toward those on whose part vicarious feelings may be felt (humankind). Since our ability to exhibit personal reactive attitudes and their vicarious analogues are fundamentally interconnected, Strawson finds it equally inconceivable to imagine we could abandon them upon the acceptance of the thesis of determinism. For Strawson, personal reactive attitudes prove inextricably interwoven with both our interpersonal relationships and our pragmatic concepts of morality. Therefore, it follows naturally from Strawson’s arguments that it is inconceivable to imagine the truth of determinism consequentially resulting in the forfeiture of our concepts of moral responsibility.

While Strawson’s observations arguably appear simplistic in nature, they possess important implications and great significance to issues of determinism and moral responsibility. Strawson proposes a concept of morality independent from a forking paths model or traditional religious conceptions of free will. Instead, moral responsibility results from the personal reactive attitudes and their vicarious analogues that arise as a necessary function of interpersonal relationships. Strawson turns the focus to the naturalistic and suggests that morality emerges for the demand for goodwill from our cooperative society inherent in reactive attitudes. Stanford Encyclopedia echoes this significance with the comment, “Strawson invites us to see that the morally reactive attitudes that are the constitutive basis of our moral responsibility practices, as well as the interpersonal relations and expectations that give structure to these attitudes, are deeply interwoven with human life.” The message persists that excusing individuals in a society from moral responsibility is an issue independent from the theoretical truth of determinism, and therefore determinism’s theoretical truth cannot undermine it.

While Strawson’s arguments appear convincing, some critics may attempt to dispute their significance by stating that his contentions only argue the unavoidability of moral responsibility in a deterministic universe and say nothing of its rationality. These critics ask what the rationale behind such “moral responsibility” could be if people had no alternative courses of action. In response to these counterarguments, strong defense exists in Strawson’s writings. He notes that the question seems to miss the point entirely by failing to understand the inextricability of reactive attitudes from the human experience or the “natural human commitment to ordinary inter-personal attitudes.” As Strawson states, “This commitment is part of the general framework of human life, not something that can come up for review as particular cases can come up for review within this general framework.” Moreover, as Strawson also accurately observes, should we obtain a detached God’s-eye view with which to evaluate the rationality of our morally reactive attitudes, the criteria for evaluating their rationality would not be the truth of determinism, but rather their efficacy in improving or deteriorating the quality of the human condition.

The above counterargument and rebuttal not only provokes an important discussion of Strawson’s arguments, it also offers insight into a much larger issue of determinism and moral responsibility. The counterargument essentially claims that moral responsibility would have no meaning if we “could not have done otherwise under actual antecedent conditions” (if determinism holds true). According to such a viewpoint, moral responsibility requires the ability to do otherwise, and without such an ability, moral responsibility evaporates. As a result, if determinism were widely accepted, people would opt to resign themselves to fatalism (an entirely different premise, as previously discussed) or engage in an anarchic free-for-all under the guise that “I could not have done otherwise.” Such argumentation hinges on the faulty assumption that moral responsibility does not rest on a free-floating rationale consistent with selfishness and that it cannot or will not find motive to rationally exist independent of the truth of determinism.

An analysis of the work of philosopher Daniel Dennett and his claims in Freedom Evolves illustrates the free-floating rationale of what we call “moral responsibility” by observing its value in the natural selection of a cooperative system. Dennett essentially shows how “moral responsibility” plays into an organism’s self-interest within a cooperative system. As a starting point for his investigation, Dennett observes the results of a basic societal model in which individuals can accomplish greater tasks through cooperation with their peers. In noting the interaction between cooperators and defectors (the “selfish” freeloader), he observed that while, in theory, cooperation was the key to greater societal benefit, the freeloaders in the society would tend to overrun the cooperators. The reasons for this proved intuitively simple--individuals stood to profit by taking advantage of the work of cooperators and contributing little in return. As time wore on, society degenerated as defectors “polluted their own nest.” As their numbers grew, they competed over an increasingly smaller pie created by fewer exploitable cooperators. Those alarmed of determinism’s impact on moral responsibility envision exactly this societal response upon the widespread acceptance of determinism.

Dennett’s model changed radically when it included additional variables consistent with the behavior of more advanced organisms. Under such a model, cooperators tended to self-assemble into groups with similar characteristics. They avoided defectors and instead sought other cooperators with whom they could reap mutual gains. With the addition of a policing mechanism to the model such that cooperators in the community actively sought out and discouraged defector behavior, Dennett found himself well on the way to explaining how cooperation might prove naturally sustainable within a system. The work of contemporary biologists like William Hamilton actually found similar principles in play with cooperative insect behavior to seemingly support the veracity of Dennett’s model.

Dennett hoped to take the model a step further, however, to resemble the complexities of human interaction as opposed to that of simple-minded insect behavior. His results provide a startling explanation for how moral responsibility could not only evolve in a deterministic way, but also how “moral responsibility” might emerge naturally to correct for our tendency for short-sighted self-interest as organisms. Dennett’s results serve to challenge the assumption that in an acceptedly deterministic universe, we would cease to find incentive or rationale for the concept of “moral responsibility.”

Dennett turned to the idea of the prisoner’s dilemma, well-known to economists for its relevance to self-interest models. In the prisoner’s dilemma, two individuals suspected of committing a crime are caught, but there is not enough evidence to convict either unless one confesses. If neither confesses (they cooperate with each other), both will be set free. If one confesses (the defector) but the other does not, the individual who confesses will be set free while the other (the cooperator) receives a long jail sentence. If both confess, they will both go to jail for a shorter, but still significant amount of time (two defectors). Under this scenario, an efficacious and low-risk, short-term policy for a self-interested individual would entail confession. The individual would either receive no jail term or a short jail term (defecting) as opposed to the alternative of a no jail term or long jail term scenario (cooperating). An even more beneficial short-run strategy for the self-interested individual would involve convincing the other prisoner of your intentions to cooperate, but confessing instead (bluffing for self-interest). While these policies may have short-run benefits to the self-interested individual, they are obviously not optimal for the “society” (both individuals). Over the long haul, if the prisoners could develop a way to know they could count on one another to avoid confessing (by obtaining an ability to accurately distinguish other cooperators from bluffing defectors), they both stand to benefit significantly more than they would by pursuing their own short-sighted self-interests as defectors.

Dennett suggests that the prisoner’s dilemma contains critical implications for the development of moral responsibility through natural selection. An “arms race of rationality” occurs as the organisms that thrive are those that cooperate while simultaneously developing the most advanced mechanisms of convincing their peers of their ability to cooperate and detecting the presence of defectors masquerading as cooperators. Dennett goes on to say that our unadulterated inclinations have a bias toward short-term rewards at the expense of larger benefits down the road. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint of survival, since long-term benefits prove meaningless to a dead organism. Yet, as we have found with the prisoner’s dilemma, it is advantageous to us as organisms to pass up these smaller short-term gains for more sizable long-term ones--and convince others of our ability to do so. Thus, we have problems of both self-control and convincing our peers of our capacity for self-control, and it is from these grounds that moral responsibility emerges as the pinnacle of the arms race.
This pivotal point for Dennett reflects the fact that our long-term reward consists of a sterling reputation of “moral” character that we must sacrifice short-term benefits’ “temptation” to obtain. What we consider morally responsible behavior emerges as a self-control mechanism, since demonstrating self-control at individual points of temptation proves difficult with our bias toward myopic self-interest. Thus, we essentially co-opt our emotions into “moral responsibility” to control our own behavior with “broad brushstrokes.” Actually being good becomes the most cost-effective solution to the prisoner’s dilemma. As Robert Frank observes, “Moral sentiments may be viewed as a crude attempt to fine-tune the reward mechanism, to make it more sensitive to distant rewards in selected instances” (Dennett 214). Dennett views morality as a “costly merit badge” to display our cooperator status in an era when the arms race of rationality no longer allows us to wear a hat reading “cooperator” in order to reap the long-term benefits. Robert Frank drives home this principle in a manner relevant to our overall issues of determinism when he concludes, “We can imagine a population in which people with consciences fare better than those without.”

While cutting-edge attempts at locating the origins of morality through naturalistic processes and tools such as selection pressures remain works-in-progress seeking further empirical support to bolster their claims, the principles of such modeling endeavors harbor significance for issues of determinism’s relationship with moral responsibility. They suggest that the potential truth of macro-level determinism need not result in a loss of rationality for moral responsibility, and therefore its disintegration. When taken collectively, the arguments of both Strawson and Dennett provide moral and personal responsibility with a free-floating rationale and simultaneously allow the separation of such principles from the “garden of forking paths” model of choice. We can act no other way from a set of actual initial conditions and yet still talk rationally about morality and responsibility.

Works Cited
Bailey, Ronald. “Pulling Our Own Strings: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on
Determinism.” Reason. May 2003:
“Compatibilism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. April 2004:
Dennett, Daniel. Elbow Room: Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge, Mass:
MIT Press, 1984.
---. Freedom Evolves. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2004.
Strawson, P.F. "Freedom and Resentment." Proceedings of the British Academy 48, pp.