Separating Free from Will and Responsibility from Punishment, Whether Retributive or Consequential

The Separability of Free Will and Moral Responsibility

We propose four Degrees of Separation:

  1. The Separation of “Free” from “Will”
  2. The Separation of “Responsibility” from “Moral Responsibility”
  3. The Separation of “Free Will” from “Moral Responsibility”
  4. The Separation of “Free Will and Moral Responsibility” from “Punishment” – both Retributive and Consequentialist

We must separate the concept “free” from the concept of “will” in order to better understand “free will,” as John Locke recommended we do to avoid verbal confusion. He said, “I think the question is not proper, whether the will be free, but whether a man be free.” 
(Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XXI, Of Power, s.21)

We must also separate “moral responsibility” from ordinary “responsibility” or simple accountability. If our intentions and decisions caused an action, we are responsible for it, but moral responsibility requires that the action has moral consequences. Immanuel Kant and the modern free willist Robert Kane think that only moral decisions can be free decisions. We think that is an “ethical fallacy.” Most free decisions and consequent actions do not involve moral responsibility.

Free will is a scientific question. Moral responsibility is a social and cultural question.

Compatibilists have blurred and confused this important distinction in order to give their moral beliefs a more substantial foundation than they deserve.

We must go even further to clarify the relationship between free will and moral responsibility. Some philosophers, e.g., John Martin Fischer, deflect direct discussion of free will and study it only as the “control condition for moral responsibility.” Others, e.g., Daniel Dennett, argue that free will IS moral responsibility, and it is the only “free will worth wanting.” Fischer and Dennett at least agree that moral responsibility exists.

By contrast, many other thinkers, e.g., Galen Strawson, Derek Pereboom, and Saul Smilansky, argue that moral responsibility does not exist. It is just an illusion, along with free will and consciousness.

Finally, we explore the connection between moral responsibility and punishment,  both backward-looking retributive punishment (revenge or restitution) and forward-looking consequentialism (re-education and rehabilitation).

Liberal and humanitarian thinkers who see that retributive punishment is sometimes cruel and unproductive should not try to argue that punishment is not “deserved” because free will does not exist.

They have excellent reasons for preferring rehabilitation and education to vengeance.

Naturalists argue that humans are just a form of animal and that we lack free will because animals do. The idea that there is no free will in animals, that they are completely determined, was the old religious argument that God had given man the gift of free will. The new version is that animals lack moral responsibility, which is now being questioned in many sociobiological studies.

Whether man – and higher animals too – have free will is an empirical scientific question. Whether they have moral responsibility is a social and cultural question.

To make it depend on arguments against vengeance and retributive punishment is to get the cart before the horse.

Equating free will with moral responsibility, then to use spurious arguments to deny free will, and thus to deny moral responsibility – in order to oppose punishment – is fine humanism but poor philosophy, and terrible science.

We must separate both free will and moral responsibility from “punishment,” whether retributive or consequentialist.