Why Compatibilists Must Be Internalists


Some compatibilists are internalists (or structuralists). On their view, whether an agent is morally responsible for an action depends only on her psychological structure at that time (and not, say, on how she came to have that structure). Other compatibilists are externalists (or historicists). On their view, an agent’s history (how she came to be a certain way) can make a difference as to whether or not she is morally responsible. In response to worries about manipulation, some internalists have claimed that compatibilism requires internalism. Recently, Alfred Mele has argued that this internalist response is untenable. The aim of this paper is to vindicate the claim that compatibilism requires internalism, showing where Mele’s argument goes wrong along the way.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper, I am concerned with direct (or non-derivative) moral responsibility. Since everyone should agree that there is a distinction between direct and indirect moral responsibility, and since this distinction is a historical one, everyone should think that, in cases of indirect moral responsibility, whether or not an agent is morally responsible can depend on non-structural features of an agent. For more on this point, see McKenna (2012: 156).

  2. 2.

    It is worth noting that this disagreement is not an in-house debate among compatibilists (though it is often discussed as though it were): even incompatibilist accounts of moral responsibility (i.e., libertarian accounts) may be divided into internalist and externalist camps. That said, I will limit my focus to compatibilist accounts here.

  3. 3.

    One difference worth noting is that Frankfurt seems to have cases of mid-life manipulation in mind (what Mele calls “radical reversals”), whereas Watson is imagining that the powerful being sets the world in motion (which would be a case of what Mele calls “original design”). I agree with Mele that there is an important asymmetry between such cases, and I’ll return to this point in Sect. 5.

  4. 4.

    As an anonymous reviewer points out, Mele’s description of the case suggests that Beth lacks the ability to do otherwise than kill George, and while this would not matter to some compatibilists (namely semicompatibilists), it may make a difference to others, namely those who think that an agent is (directly) morally responsible for something only if the agent could have done otherwise. For compatibilists of the latter stripe, we may modify the case, stipulating that Beth is causally determined to kill George (because of her manipulation) but nevertheless retained that ability to do otherwise in any compatibilist-friendly sense one prefers.

  5. 5.

    For more on “original-design” cases, see Mele’s discussion of his “zygote argument” in Mele (2006: 184–195; 2016: 71–72; and 2019: 83–84).

  6. 6.

    Moreover, on his account, she is just as morally responsible for killing George as Chuck is when he commits the same crime. Here I disagree with Frankfurt, for reasons that will become clear in the following sections of the paper.

  7. 7.

    This is one of two of what Mele (2019: 95) calls “weak branches” of the line of thought expressed by Frankfurt, Watson, and also Double (1991). The other branch is what Double seems to have in mind when he says that “the internalistic view is implicit in compatibilism” and that “compatibilism has not a chance of plausibility without [internalism], since otherwise the incompatibilist abhorrence of determinism will destroy it” (Double 1991: 56–57), which Mele interprets as “the idea that if manipulation of the sort involved in my radical reversal stories were to get an agent off the hook, it would do so only if it includes deterministic causation of crucial psychological events or states, in which case determinism would be the real culprit” (Mele 2016: 81). But, as Mele persuasively argues, there can be parallel cases of indeterministic manipulation that produce the same result, so this branch of the line of thought that compatibilism requires internalism is unsuccessful. For Mele’s argument, see Mele (2016: 75–76) and the works cited there.

  8. 8.

    Cf. Fischer (1985: 256), who distinguishes between the content of moral responsibility (what someone is morally responsible for) and the extent (or degree) of moral responsibility. Zimmerman (2002) uses this distinction in an attempt to solve certain problems of moral luck.

  9. 9.

    I take moral responsibility itself to come in degrees, but some theorists, such as Fischer and Ravizza (1998), take moral responsibility to be an on/off and not a scalar concept. Even so, Fischer and Ravizza admit that praiseworthiness and blameworthiness may admit of degrees. My basic response to Mele will work equally well on this alternative conceptual framework, but I stick with my own preferred framework for simplicity’s sake.

  10. 10.

    For discussion of little agents, see Mele (2006: 129–133).

  11. 11.

    This term was introduced by Nagel (1979: 28).

  12. 12.

    As an anonymous reviewer has encouraged me to highlight, I am offering a new response to cases of radical reversal. Whereas Frankfurt would say that Beth is just as morally responsible as Chuck, and whereas Mele would say that Beth is not morally responsible at all, my view is that Beth is a little bit morally responsible but not nearly as morally responsible as Chuck.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to Neal Tognazzini for raising this objection. For more on the distinction between scope/content of moral responsibility (and control), on the one hand, and degree of moral responsibility (and control), on the other, see Fischer (1985) and Zimmerman (2002). And for an attempt to use this distinction in defense of internalist (structuralist) compatibilist views, see McKenna (2012).

  14. 14.

    See Cyr (Forthcoming).

  15. 15.

    This argument is based on the main argument of Cyr (Forthcoming).

  16. 16.

    While I do say that compatibilists should accept the second premise (along with the first) and thus endorse internalism, I do not mean to suggest that my thesis is really only that compatibilists should be internalists. What I did mean to suggest is that, whereas the first premise follows straightforwardly from compatibilism, there is an independent argument for the second premise, which I provide below and believe is sound. Unless it is unsound, compatibilists must be internalists. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to clarify.

  17. 17.

    The argument is in the same spirit as Watson’s argument too, and I agree with Watson’s claim that there is no relevant difference between ordinary determined agents and agents who are the product of super-powerful designers.

  18. 18.

    As Neal Tognazzini points out, the implication that Beth’s degree of moral responsibility is similar to that of a young child’s makes my view sound much more like an externalist view than an internalist one. My view certainly differs from typical internalist views (like Frankfurt’s) in that I take Beth’s moral responsibility to be significantly mitigated by her manipulation, but the view is nevertheless an internalist one, given its commitment to the non-historicity of the fact of moral responsibility. Moreover, one advantage of my view over views like Frankfurt’s is that it is consistent with the soundness of the argument of this paper but also accommodates some of what is attractive about externalism (especially that Beth’s moral responsibility seems importantly different from Chuck’s).

  19. 19.

    Note that Watson, in the quotation considered above, only discussed “designed” agents and not those who undergo mid-life reversals. Without more information, I’m not sure whether he’d side with Frankfurt or accept my asymmetric treatment of the two types of cases.

  20. 20.

    Again, see Mele’s discussion of his “zygote argument” in Mele (2006: 184–195; 2016: 71–72; 2019: 83–84).

  21. 21.

    On my view, there is no relevant difference between an original design scenario and an ordinary causally deterministic scenario. For an alternative view, according to which the effective intentions of the designer make the original design scenario relevantly different from ordinary determinism, see Waller (2014). It is worth noting that many compatibilists, including McKenna (2008), Fischer (2011), and Sartorio (2016) do not think the intentions of another agent makes a relevant difference.

  22. 22.

    My view also differs from that of Barnes (2016), and one way to see the difference is by considering his case of Patty. Patty is similar to Beth in several key respects except that, instead of her change in character being due to manipulation, it is due to a “spontaneous neural evolution that is explainable in entirely naturalistic terms” (Barnes 2016: 2320). On Barnes’s view, Patty is clearly morally responsible, and presumably just as morally responsible as is Chuck (though this is not made explicit, and perhaps Barnes does not accept it). While my view would agree about Patty’s being morally responsible, it also implies that she is only morally responsible to a slight degree.


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Thanks to Al Mele for discussing the main argument of this paper, and thanks to Gabriel De Marco, Neal Tognazzini, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the paper.

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Correspondence to Taylor W. Cyr.

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Cyr, T.W. Why Compatibilists Must Be Internalists. J Ethics 23, 473–484 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-019-09306-1

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  • Compatibilism
  • Externalism
  • Internalism
  • Alfred Mele
  • Moral responsibility