Parfit on Free Will, Desert, and the Fairness of Punishment


In his recent monumental book On What Matters, Derek Parfit argues for a hard determinist view that rejects free will-based moral responsibility and desert. This rejection of desert is necessary for his main aim in the book, the overall reconciliation of normative ethics. In Appendix E of his book, however, Parfit claims that it is possible to mete out fair punishment. Parfit’s position on punishment here seems to be inconsistent with his hard determinism. I argue that Parfit is mistaken here, in a way that leads him to unjustified optimism about the possibility of fair penalization. Insofar as we take the free will problem seriously, we cannot reconcile a belief in the absence of desert with a belief in the fairness of penalization.

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  1. 1.

    What actually matters is not determinism but the absence of a robust form of libertarian free will. Whether indeterminism prevails on some sub-atomic level would not matter if libertarian free will and the sort of transcendence coupled with control it is supposed to allow does not exist. Parfit would agree with this. My presentation here relies on the traditional term of hard determinism as the view that denies the existence of free will, moral responsibility, and desert (in either a libertarian or compatibilist sense).

  2. 2.

    It is not clear whether Parfit can speak of indignation here because the notion of indignation is a reactive attitude which involves viewing the other person as responsible and deserving blame (see eg., Strawson 2003). If people can be a target of my indignation, it becomes unclear why they may not deserve blame and punishment. But I will not pursue this further.

  3. 3.

    I am a “dualist” on the compatibility question, and believe that we need to attempt to combine the partial but true insights of both compatibilism and hard determinism (see Smilansky 2000, 2005). On my view, it is possible to give weight to the sort of agency-based fairness concerns that Parfit expresses, but that is because I allow some role to compatibilism. My focus here is the inconsistency between Parfit’s hard determinism and his optimism about the agency-based fairness of punishment.

  4. 4.

    There are several other difficulties with the idea of punishment as the restoration of a social balance. A particularly salient one here is the often noted fact that many, if not most, criminals have in fact been at the wrong end of social bargains, and even if they were to keep the spoils of their crime and never be punished, the balance would still be tilted against them. Parfit himself notices this at the end of his discussion.

  5. 5.

    This also raises the question of the status of the initial agreement to join the bargain, namely, whether it can be sufficiently free under hard determinism to create any obligation upon the parties, but I do not need to develop this line of objection here.

  6. 6.

    I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this special issue. Versions of the paper were discussed in the free will blog Flickers of Freedom in November 2012; and at the Society for Applied Philosophy annual conference, in Zurich, in June 2013; and I am grateful to discussants on both occasions. I am very grateful to Zohar Geva, Amihud Gilead, Iddo Landau, Tal Manor, Ariel Meirav, Tamler Sommers, Daniel Statman, Galen Strawson, and Rivka Weinberg, for helpful comments on drafts of the paper.


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Smilansky, S. Parfit on Free Will, Desert, and the Fairness of Punishment. J Ethics 20, 139–148 (2016).

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  • Desert
  • Fairness
  • Free will
  • Moral responsibility
  • Parfit, Derek
  • Punishment