What if Strawson is right? What if we as human beings aren’t entirely responsible for the actions we take and the consequences they bring about? Furthermore, how would society function according to a different moral code, one lacking a degree of responsibility? According to Strawson, it comes down to how we are and what we choose.
The notion that we are not morally responsible for how we act follows from the fact that we cannot be responsible for how we are: “True self-determination is impossible because it requires the actual completion of an infinite series of choices of principles of choice” (Strawson, 7). There is always a precedent; we are, in essence, “as a result of heredity and early experience” (7), and we cannot change or consciously construct these intrinsic qualities—nor are we responsible for them, for they exist outside the realm of our control.
Because responsibility is a concept so heavily engrained in everyday life, it’s hard to envision how a lack thereof would change my personal way of thinking. I can only imagine that right would be no different from wrong, matters of propriety and social conventions would cease to exist, and individuals in our society would be entirely selfish, not considering why, or how, their actions affect others. We would be entirely autonomous, but in the worst way possible.
For the legal system, a society sans moral responsibility would be one of lawful discontent. The law could not use responsibility to accuse, blame, or credit; there would no longer be a standard with which to judge causality or culpability. Thankfully, matters of choice prevail and prevent us from the impossibility of moral responsibility that Strawson so staunchly supports: “Large and small, morally significant or morally neutral, such situations of choice occur regularly in human life… They are the fundamental source of our inability to give up belief in true or ultimate moral responsibility” (10). The fact that we have the freedom to choose makes us feel responsible for the choices that we do make.
While Strawson’s argument for the impossibility of moral responsibility makes sense, a society and legal system lacking responsibility would not be conducive to a normal, productive culture. Instead, how we are and what we choose ultimately define the scope of our responsibility, an idea that even Strawson concedes to: “We tend to feel that our explicit self-conscious awareness of ourselves as agents who are able to deliberate about what to do, in situations of choice, suffices to constitute us as morally responsible” (16). Because we have the free will to make choices, the impossibility of moral responsibility that Strawson stands behind does not hold true today.