Morally Responsible No More… What If?

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.

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2 thoughts on “Morally Responsible No More… What If?

  1. Understanding what a society would look like without the notion of responsibility is a very abstract thought. While Strawson’s argument that the increased value of moral responsibility would take a more prominent role in decision-making, I find it difficult to consider a functioning, cohesive, society without the intangible function of responsibility. Oftentimes, legal punishment is the most obvious deterrent for us to decide against making a particular decision. To consider a society without recognition of responsibility, it seems clear that our decision making would be driven more selfishly than the current status quo. I tend to agree with you in that while Strawson’s school of thought is interesting, it seems too idealistic to be applied on the broader scale of a society.

  2. Although I do agree that the idea of completely denying moral responsibility is radical, even crazy at initial glance, I think there is a possibility that we could consider his idea more significantly within our legal system without chaos ensuing. Although we currently base many of our laws upon the moral responsibility of an individual, in truth our legal system is in place to help maintain order. Removing moral responsibility does not necessarily hinder this. Judges could in theory make judgements according to what will be best for society, without considering the responsibility of an individual. It is good for society if people do not murder one another, thus by punishing those that murder, regardless of their responsibility, the judge would be helping further a society good. Our motivation to obey laws would perhaps be more selfish, however it is hard to determine if that isn’t so already. In all honesty, when I obey speeding laws it is to avoid getting a ticket, not because I feel morally responsible to go at forty miles an hour. Although I am not entirely sure if a no responsibility approach is the optimal way of running our legal system, it is certainly a possibility.

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