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The Threat of Effective Intentions to Moral Responsibility in the Zygote Argument


In Free Will and Luck, Mele presents a case of an agent Ernie, whose zygote was intentionally designed so that Ernie A-s in 30 years, bringing about a certain event E. Mele uses this case of original design to outline the zygote argument against compatibilism. In this paper I criticize the zygote argument. Unlike other compatibilists who have responded to the zygote argument, I contend that it is open to the compatibilist to accept premise one, that Ernie does not act freely and is not morally responsible for anything he does. I argue that compatibilists should deny premise two. Diana’s effective intention to create Ernie’s zygote such that Ernie A-s in 30 years and her intervention to bring about his A-ing mark a significant difference between Ernie and normal agents in a deterministic universe with regard to how their zygotes were created that affects whether those agents act freely and are morally responsible for so acting.

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  1. In the broader body of literature on moral responsibility, there are various conceptions according to which an agent may be morally responsible for A-ing. For instance, Fischer takes “morally responsible” to mean the agent is “an apt candidate for the reactive attitudes and moral praise and blame” (2007, 185), but it needn’t be the case that there is sufficient justification for the actual “application of such attitudes (and for moral praise and blame)” (2007, 185) to the agent. However, if the former is satisfied and it would be justified to do so, then she is morally responsible for A-ing in a thicker sense. My reading of premise one seems to track this thicker sense of moral responsibility. This version of the premise leaves open, of course, whether Ernie is an apt candidate of those attitudes. For similar distinctions among conceptions of moral responsibility (e.g., moral responsibility as attributability and moral responsibility as accountability), see Watson 1996 and Fischer and Tognazzini 2011.

  2. Similar to Fischer’s reply to Pereboom’s four-case manipulation argument (e.g., Pereboom 2007), in which Fischer contends, in essence, that Plum is morally responsible in a thin sense for A-ing but is not morally responsible in a thicker sense for A-ing in cases one and two (2007, 185), one may argue that the same is true of Ernie. As Fischer explains in his response to Pereboom, “the causal history of the motivational states issuing in the behavior is relevant to ascriptions of blameworthiness; whereas both moral responsibility and blameworthiness require certain sorts of causal histories, the precise historical conditions are different” (2007, 186). For those who take this line with regard to Ernie, “Denying Premise Two” will say a bit more about what sorts of causal histories make it inappropriate to (or at least lessen the degree to which one should) blame an agent, like Ernie, for his action. Note, however, that Fischer (2011) disagrees that this is the case with regard to premise 1 of the zygote argument. This seems odd, as the two agents–Plum in Case 2 and Ernie–are relevantly similar: Both agents are intentionally designed by another agent to have certain motivational states that lead them to perform some particular actions and furthermore do perform those actions because of that design. Hence, it seems that Fischer should amend his views on the two cases so that he judges either that both Plum 2 and Ernie are only morally responsible in the thin sense or that both Plum 2 and Ernie are morally responsible in the thicker sense.

  3. For instance, suppose that Sam wants to start a fight with Tom at the bar (since Tom has wronged him in some way) but knows that he may lose his nerve at the last minute. Sam knows that his friend George is always up for watching a fight and will do anything he can to instigate a fight when he sees an opportunity. So Sam makes sure that George is with him when he meets Tom at the bar. Sam, as expected, loses his nerve, but George does what he can to get Sam to fight Tom. Sam starts a fight with Tom.

  4. On a related note, thesis T is also consistent with denying that agents are responsible for their actions–particularly the first action—brought about by value engineering. Contrast, for example, “the value twins” of Chuck and Beth (Mele 2009a) or Ann and Beth cases (Mele 1995, 145).

  5. This example is a take on similar examples from Mele’s work that involve manipulators tempting agents to give in to urges and desires to consume something they have pledged to abstain from consuming (e.g., see Mele 2009a, 178).

  6. A more nuanced thesis than T is available to those who find some actions too fluky or unskilled to be intentional actions. For instance, imagine that Ernie’s zygote is created according to the details of a test-tube Ernie case with the following additional fact: The fertility specialist (who has the same knowledge of the state of the universe and laws of nature as Diana does) is very scatterbrained and doesn’t always pay attention to what she’s doing while creating zygotes, resulting in agents who do what she intends them to do only 5 % of the time. Thus, when Ernie’s zygote is constituted so that it is certain that he will A in 30 years in this case, there was only a 5 % chance that this would occur. Given the lack of the specialist’s skill due to her distractibility and track record, one could argue that the successful action of creating Ernie’s zygote so that he A-s in 30 years was too lucky an action to be an intentional action (For a discussion of lucky actions and intentional action, see, e.g., Mele and Moser 1994). Some might believe that only another agent’s effective intention that S A-s operating via an intentional action could erode S’s desert of blame (or praise) for A-ing. If so, such a person who is inclined towards this conception of intentional action might understand T so that the term “effective intention” in T is understood as the stronger version–inclusive of intentional action–as explicated in “Intuitions About Ernie”.

  7. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this case as a problem for T.

  8. This version of the Diana case evokes the debate over Divine foreknowledge and free will–whether God’s infallible foreknowledge of human agents’ behavior is compatible with those agents’ acting freely. Those who contend that the two are incompatible typically argue that God’s infallible foreknowledge necessitates agents’ actions and hence in virtue of being necessary the actions are not free. Unlike the Diana case, the conception of free will at issue in these discussions is libertarian free will. I will not detail that debate here (for an overview, see, e.g., Wyckoff 2010; Hasker 2011). However, in defending that Ernie is just as morally responsible in this case as his otherwise twin Bernie is, it is helpful to refer to a defense of a similar case to that of Diana’s merely deducing Ernie’s actions in Mele (1995). Mele argues that “adding a being who knows that the agent will engage in C does not strengthen the necessity of the agent’s so doing. The supposition that X’s knowing in advance what another being, Y, will do necessitates Y’s doing it rests on a modal fallacy. Necessarily, if X knows that Y will A, then Y will A; but this should not be confused with the distinct claim that if X knows that Y will A, then, necessarily, Y will A” (1995, 190).

  9. For instance, such a compatibilist can argue that the scope of Diana’s effective intention is so wide–dictates all of Ernie’s actions, psychological constitution, etc.–that his responsibility is mitigated to a degree of zero (i.e., deserves no blame or praise). This is also consistent with maintaining that I am still somewhat blameworthy for eating the Cadbury bar and Kirk is at least somewhat blameworthy for the killing, given that the relevant effective intentions in these cases don’t cast so wide a scope over the target agent’s actions–e.g., just affects my eating Cadbury now or Kirk’s killing this particular person.

  10. Of course, Fischer and Ravizza (1998) offer a much more detailed account of the criteria for an appropriately reasons-responsive mechanism: They contend that an agent is morally responsible for an action–satisfies the minimal threshold conditions to qualify as a appropriate target for the reactive attitudes—just when that action is the product of her own moderately reasons-responsive mechanism, where moderately reasons-responsiveness is understood in terms of a mechanism that is regularly reasons receptive and weakly reasons reactive. The details of their account, however, are not needed to argue the present point.

  11. Coates and Swenson (2012) note that some cases that feature degrees of moral responsibility will not depend on the degree to which the agent’s actual sequence mechanism has the capacity to act on the reasons for acting. These cases, they propose, can depend on the degree to which the mechanism recognizes a more or less intelligible pattern of reasons for acting (from a third-person perspective).

  12. Suppose that an otherwise twin of Anna, named Vanna, sees the same bracelet in Betty’s Boutique and wants the bracelet. While she is thinking that she will likely shoplift the item, her friend Britney tells Vanna the bracelet is so beautiful that Vanna really should just steal it. The nearest possible world Wp in which Vanna refrains from stealing is more dissimilar from the actual world than Wp for Anna is dissimilar from the actual world (See for related cases and a discussion of manipulation and degrees of moral responsibility).

  13. Notice as well that the cases used to motivate Coates and Swenson (2012)’s theory of degrees of moral responsibility make no explicit mention of whether determinism is true in the cases. I contend that if we create versions of the cases of Marcia and Thomas or Hanna and Anna with a similar indeterministic world as an indeterministic Ernie case, the theory and T* (or at least a version of T*) would produce the same verdicts regarding the ordering of degree of blame assigned to the pairs of agents.


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I would like to thank Alfred Mele, Stephen Kearns, John Fischer, Justin Coates, and two anonymous referees for their helpful comments and feedback.

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Correspondence to Robyn Repko Waller.

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Waller, R.R. The Threat of Effective Intentions to Moral Responsibility in the Zygote Argument. Philosophia 42, 209–222 (2014).

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  • Moral responsibility
  • Free will
  • Compatibilism
  • Alfred Mele
  • Intention
  • Zygote argument