Incompatibilism and the transfer of non-responsibility


Arguments for the incompatibility of determinism and moral responsibility sometimes make use of various transfer of non-responsibility principles. These principles purport to specify conditions in which lack of moral responsibility is transmitted to the consequences of things for which people are not morally responsible. In this paper, after developing what I take to be the most serious objections to extant principles of this sort, I identify and defend a new transfer of non-responsibility principle that is immune to these and other objections. This new principle says, roughly, that if you are not morally responsible for any of the circumstances that led to a particular outcome, and if you are not morally responsible for those circumstances leading to that outcome, then you are not morally responsible for the outcome either. After defending this principle against a number of objections, I use it to argue for the conclusion that no one is even partly morally responsible for anything, if determinism is true.

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  1. 1.

    See van Inwagen (1980, 1983, pp. 182–188).

  2. 2.

    See van Inwagen (1983, p. 16) for a structurally similar argument concerning free will.

  3. 3.

    In his presentation of the direct argument, van Inwagen uses Np instead of NRp, where “Np” abbreviates “p, and no one is, or ever has been, even partly responsible for the fact that p.” It has become common practice in discussions of the direct argument to use NRp instead of Np because elsewhere in van Inwagen’s work Np has a different reading as part of an argument for the incompatibility of determinism and the freedom to do otherwise. As far as I can tell, nothing of substance turns on these differences in presentation.

  4. 4.

    See van Inwagen (1983, pp. 186–187).

  5. 5.

    See Ravizza (1994) and Fischer and Ravizza (1998, ch. 6) for the early overdetermination cases. For attempts to provide counterexamples to rule B that do not involve overdetermination, see Shabo (2010a) and Widerker (2002).

  6. 6.

    Fischer and Ravizza (1998, p. 166). Following Fischer and Ravizza, I use “causal pathways” to refer both to existing causal sequences that actually causally contribute to an outcome, as well as to existing sequences that do not causally contribute to the outcome but would have if they had been allowed to reach completion.

  7. 7.

    Both Shabo (2010a) and Widerker (2002) offer counterexamples to rule B that, unlike Double Dose, do not involve any form of overdetermination. However, none of their cases yield counterexamples to the following temporally restricted version of the principle: NR (p ⊃ q), NRq ⊢ NRq, for all p and q such that the state of affairs described by p obtains prior to the state of affairs described by q. In Widerker’s examples, the state of affairs described by p obtains after the state of affairs described by q, and in Shabo’s example, the two states of affairs obtain simultaneously. Notice, however, that Double Dose yields a counterexample to this temporally restricted version of rule B as well. Let p be “Earl ingests the second deadly substance at 11:54,” and let q be “Earl dies at 11:59 or thereabouts.” No one is even partly morally responsible for p, nor is anyone even partly morally responsible for the fact that p implies q. However, contrary to what the temporally restricted version of rule B implies, it does not follow that no one is even partly morally responsible for the fact that q, since Kathy is at least partly morally responsible for the fact that q (where, again, q is the proposition “Earl dies at 11:59 or thereabouts”).

  8. 8.

    This is the main difference between Double Dose and other two-path cases thought to be counterexamples to rule B (e.g., those suggested by Fischer and Ravizza). In those other cases, the second causal sequence is already up and running before the featured agent comes on the scene, which could lead some defenders of rule B to conclude that it was already settled prior to the agent’s action that the relevant outcome would obtain. But if it was already settled prior to the agent’s action that the relevant outcome would obtain, defenders of rule B could argue that the agent is not morally responsible for that outcome. Whatever merit this objection has, it does not apply to the argument against rule B based on cases like Double Dose, for as we have seen, it was not settled in advance that Earl would die before noon. Rather, it was Kathy’s free action that settled the matter of whether Earl would die before noon.

  9. 9.

    Kathy is derivatively responsible for the fact that Earl dies before noon, as her responsibility for that fact derives from her responsibility for poisoning Earl at 11:49. Examples like Double Dose are therefore not counterexamples to rule B, if that principle is restricted to non-derivative responsibility (cf. Widerker 2002, p. 319). Moreover, I cannot think of any case that would provide a clear, uncontroversial counterexample to the principle once we add this restriction to the temporal restriction mentioned in note 8. It could perhaps be argued that the Frankfurt-style cases would provide counterexamples even to that restricted version of rule B. Perhaps they would, though I am skeptical. In any event, there is sufficient controversy over the Frankfurt-style cases that I doubt whether appealing to them in this context is likely to shed any light on whether the restricted version of rule B is valid.

  10. 10.

    Warfield restricts the principle to cases where “the truth-maker for q obtains after the truth-maker for p” (1996, p. 224, n. 2).

  11. 11.

    Warfield makes this claim in the context of arguing that the lone premise of his direct argument is strictly equivalent to the conjunction of the two premises of van Inwagen’s argument.

  12. 12.

    An interesting side note: if rules A and B are both valid, then rule C is provably valid. Here is the proof:

    1. NRp and NRq assumption
    2. □ (p ⊃ (q ⊃ (p & q))) logical truth
    3. NR (p ⊃ (q ⊃ (p & q))) from 2 by rule A
    4. NR (q ⊃ (p & q)) from 1 and 3 by rule B
    5. NR (p & q) from 1 and 4 by rule B
  13. 13.

    McKenna (2008) notes that the sorts of cases to which van Inwagen and others typically appeal in an effort motivate their preferred transfer of non-responsibility principle (cases like Snakebite, e.g.) are about responsibility for outcomes, not intentional actions. Notice that I too have appealed to outcome cases. McKenna goes on to argue that unless incompatibilists can produce confirming instances of their preferred transfer principle that involve normal human agency (cases in which a causal path passes from some antecedent set of circumstances, through ordinary deliberation, to some voluntary action), they will have failed to show that the principle is universally valid, as they will have failed to show that the relevant principle is applicable to the cases that really matter. For a response to McKenna that is right on the money, see Schnall and Widerker (2012). They point out that the sorts of confirming cases McKenna insists incompatibilists must produce are easy to come by, and that, even if they were not, this would not undermine attempts to motivate the relevant transfer of non-responsibility principle using outcome cases. As they observe, the point of citing such examples is not to generalize from specific cases to the conclusion that the relevant transfer principle is valid. Rather, the point of the examples is to “elicit a certain logical and conceptual intuition. We realize, through reflecting on an example like Snakebite, that if its premisses are true, the conclusion must be true as well, and that therefore, [rule B], which encapsulates this intuition, must be valid” (p. 32). While Schnall and Widerker focus on rule B, their defense of that rule applies, mutatis mutandis, to Transfer NR* as well.

  14. 14.

    Although I cannot develop the point at length here, it is worth noting that, as far as I can tell, other alleged counterexamples to the likes of rule B (e.g., those suggested by Shabo 2010a; Widerker 2002) pose no threat to Transfer NR*.

  15. 15.

    See especially McKenna (2001, pp. 45–46).

  16. 16.

    Shabo (2010b, 2011) also defends versions of Transfer NR-o.

  17. 17.

    For further discussion of these and related issues, see Shabo (2011).

  18. 18.

    See especially Stump (2002, pp. 40–42).

  19. 19.

    See, e.g., Fischer (2006, pp. 166–167).

  20. 20.

    See, e.g., McKenna (2008, p. 379).

  21. 21.

    Where p is a conjunction, I stipulate that “S is not even partly morally responsible for the fact that p” is to be understood as “S is not even partly morally responsible for p or for any conjunct of p”.

  22. 22.

    Kearns (2011) challenges rules A and A*, as does Hermes (2014). A co-author and I take up these challenges in future work. For now I should like to point out that even if rule A* is invalid, the new direct argument can be reformulated without it. Let “→” stand for entailment. Now consider the following variation on rule B*

    • B**: NRS (Cp → p), NRSCp ⊢ NRSp

    If B* is valid, there can be little doubt that B** is also valid. Using B** the new direct argument can be reformulated without appealing to rule A*:

    0. Determinism is true assumption for conditional proof
    1. (Cα → α) formal consequence of 0
    2. NRJones (Cα → α) premise
    3. NRJones Cα premise
    4. NRJones α from 2 and 3 by rule B**

    Step 1 is equivalent to step 1 in the text. Without appealing to rule A*, we cannot derive step 2 from step 1. Nevertheless, step 2 remains highly plausible. That one state of affairs is the logical consequence of another just does not seem like the sort of fact for which a person could be to praise or blame. The upshot of all this is that even if rule A* is invalid, I think this would do little if anything to undercut the appeal of the new direct argument.

  23. 23.

    The argument of this paragraph is inspired by that of Widerker (2002).

  24. 24.

    Widerker’s claim that compatibilists about determinism and moral responsibility reject the assumption that determinism precludes the freedom to do otherwise is too broad, for not all compatibilists reject that assumption. A semi-compatibilist, someone who holds that determinism is compatible with responsibility even if it is not compatible with the freedom to do otherwise, need not reject the assumption and, indeed, some semi-compatibilists accept it.


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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at SUNY-Fredonia and at the the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My thanks to audiences on those occasions for helpful feedback. I'm also grateful to EJ Coffman, Michael McKenna, and Randy Clarke for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of the paper, and to Stephen Kearns for helping me think through some of the details of the argument.

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Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

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Capes, J.A. Incompatibilism and the transfer of non-responsibility. Philos Stud 173, 1477–1495 (2016).

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  • Moral responsibility
  • Determinism
  • Incompatibilism
  • Transfer of non-responsibility
  • The direct argument