Moral Responsibility, Voluntary Control, and Intentional Action


Many theorists writing about moral responsibility accept that voluntary control is necessary for responsibility. Call such theorists volitionists. Recently, volitionism has been called into question by theorists I call nonvolitionists. Yet neither volitionists nor nonvolitionists have carefully articulated a clear volitionist thesis, nor have they sufficiently explained the concept of voluntary control that somehow seems connected to volitionism. I argue that attempts to explain the volitionist thesis, voluntary control, and their relation are more problematic than have previously been recognized. Instead, I recommend understanding volitionism in terms of intentional actions and omissions. This understanding has several benefits. It clarifies the debate and its parameters, it avoids the problematic notion of voluntary control while relying on the clearer notion of intentional action, and it highlights that the debate between volitionists and nonvolitionists essentially concerns the nature and scope of obligations. As a result, understanding volitionism in terms of intentional actions and omissions can help breathe new life into the volitionist debate.

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  1. 1.

    For similar “forgetting cases”, see Smith 2005: 236 and Clarke 2014: 164.

  2. 2.

    One might argue that this tension is merely apparent by appealing to a tracing strategy. I discuss that strategy below in 1.1.

  3. 3.

    Levy’s goal is not merely to criticize nonvolitionism, so this is not intended as a criticism of Levy’s work or methodology.

  4. 4.

    Clarke 2014 seems skeptical of tracing’s ability to explain responsibility for certain omissions, and Vargas 2005 raises general worries for tracing. Fischer and Tognazzini 2009 defend tracing against Vargas’s worries.

  5. 5.

    Some volitionists might claim that we are neither derivatively nor directly responsible for many or any of these nonvoluntary items. If Ryland is not voluntarily insensitive, and if she is not derivatively responsible for her insensitivity in virtue of her past voluntary behavior, then she is not responsible at all for the insensitivity. Nevertheless, this insensitivity is still bad (see Levy 2005). Notice, however, that if tracing fails often for a number of nonvoluntary items for which we typically hold agents responsible, volitionists who favor tracing must accept that we are responsible for much less than we originally thought.

  6. 6.

    See Levy and McKenna 2009: 118. The metaphysical status of this distinction in responsibility is unclear, as writers refer to kinds, senses, or faces. I intend to be noncommittal on this issue but use “kind” for consistency.

  7. 7.

    Here Smith references considerations in the ethics of blame, such as whether the blamer has the moral standing to blame (see Smith 2007 and Coates and Tognazzini 2012).

  8. 8.

    I set aside sanctions, which unlike the reactive attitudes, aim to cause suffering in another. Since the reactive attitudes may be felt and expressed without any such intention, they are importantly different from sanctions. Perhaps one can understand the sort of responsibility with which I am concerned as accountability, given accountability’s connection with the reactive attitudes. Some might protest that accountability concerns obligations, and one cannot be obligated to have attitudes, so accountability cannot be the kind of responsibility at issue. I return to this point below in section 5.

  9. 9.

    I will leave aside the issue of morally neutral actions here that concerned Smith 2008 above. I will also focus on whether an agent is blameworthy for some item, but not on whether the agent should be blamed for the item.

  10. 10.

    Because she focuses on responsibility for attitudes, Smith describes volitionist approaches to responsibility for attitudes. I am concerned with more than attitudes, so Smith’s characterization of different volitionist views does not match my own, but the spirit is the same. I set aside Smith’s endorsement views, as what I say regarding exercised capacity views will likely also apply to endorsement views. Additionally, I focus on capacity views rather than Smith’s voluntary control views because I am interested in retrospective responsibility.

  11. 11.

    I use the variable x here and throughout to stand for actions, omissions, attitudes, and consequences.

  12. 12.

    Note that VT1c includes all the items VT1e does, because if S exercised direct voluntary control over x, then x was susceptible to S’s direct voluntary control.

  13. 13.

    The way I have characterized direct and derivative responsibility leaves open that one might be both directly and derivatively responsible for some item, such as one’s voluntary actions. Alternatively, one might think that agents can only exercise direct voluntary control over their choices, not their chosen actions, so perhaps direct voluntary control is limited to choices. For more on direct control, see Mele 2017. Here I leave it open that agents might exercise direct voluntary control over both the choice to A as well as over A-ing itself.

  14. 14.

    I will understand “meaning” and “intending” to be equivalent.

  15. 15.

    Similarly, Pamela Hieronymi notes that if one includes in the class of ‘the voluntary’ “not only voluntary activities but also those things that are the (possible) result of such activity” (2008: 358, n. 1), believing can be the result of voluntary activity. But those who debate the voluntariness of believing are not thinking of this extended sense.

  16. 16.

    VCi is too weak. Recall Ted, the drunk driver. He exercised his direct voluntary control in drinking alcohol. But Ted did not drink and then drive as a means to successfully hit a pedestrian. Nevertheless, it seems that Ted’s hitting the pedestrian was within his indirect voluntary control.

  17. 17.

    I owe this counterexample to Randy Clarke.

  18. 18.

    For more detail see van Inwagen 1983: 114–121.

  19. 19.

    It seems that any conception of voluntary control that begins with such items will fail to capture vital mental actions as within our voluntary control. Hieronymi’s account of the voluntary also seems to rule out choice for similar reasons (2008: 366).

  20. 20.

    I understand acts of will and willings to be equivalent but use “acts of will” for stylistic reasons.

  21. 21.

    These are conditions (iii) and (iv) (1994: 63).

  22. 22.

    As I mentioned above, I understand choosing and deciding to be equivalent.

  23. 23.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this concern and pressing me to say more on this point.

  24. 24.

    Though I focus on Mele 2003’s view, many theorists besides Mele endorse this claim, including Kane 1996: 24 and McCann 1998: 163.

  25. 25.

    Joshua Shepherd raises an important challenge for understanding practical deciding as an intentional action by highlighting a difference between the intentions involved in overt intentional actions as compared to the intentions involved in decisions. The intentions relevant to overt intentional actions “initiate, sustain, and guide action” (2015: 337). One simply matches one’s behavior with the content of the intention. But as Shepherd points out, the intentions relevant to practical decisions do not seem able to play this sort of role, as the intentions involved in decisions are open-ended, lacking specific content. Rather than intending to decide to A, one simply intends to decide what to do. But if the intention involved in a decision lacks the specific sort of content that one is supposed to match with one’s behavior, it’s unclear how the agent can have the relevant guidance and thus control over a specific decision such that we can call it an intentional action (337). In light of Shepherd’s challenge, one might think that decisions are not intentional actions after all, but perhaps are nonactional instead.

    Shepherd does not specify the sort of control with which he is concerned, but I am happy to once again set aside detailed talk of control and adopt Shepherd’s own solution to this problem. Shepherd points out that the momentary intention formation of a decision is “an active expression of an agent’s skilled deliberative activity…that results from the causal work of a relevant intention, in conjunction with the agent’s attentional attunement to relevant features of the deliberative situation” (348). This, Shepherd says, is in contrast with nonactionally acquired intentions, which are not similarly connected to intentions to decide what to do and need not involve attention. Thus there are important differences between nonactionally acquired intentions and the intention formation of decisions, and these differences are sufficient to show that decisions are indeed intentional actions.

  26. 26.

    This case comes from Clarke 2014: 164 ff.

  27. 27.

    Michael Zimmerman explicitly endorses the view that one is directly responsible only for one’s volitions (1988: 40). While many volitionists may find Zimmerman’s view too restrictive, Zimmerman would likely see VT2c as unhelpful given how broad it is.

  28. 28.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing me to say more to address this concern.

  29. 29.

    See, for instance, Henderson 1966, Zimmerman 1996, and Henne et al. 2016.

  30. 30.

    Thanks to Robert Wallace for this insight and for useful discussion.

  31. 31.

    To clarify, I am not suggesting that understanding the volitionist theses in terms of intentional actions and omissions is the only way to achieve this upshot or that we must understand volitionism in this way to see that obligation is a useful path to explore in advancing the debate. One purpose for understanding volitionism in terms of intentional actions and omissions is clarity, but another contingent benefit is that the disagreement regarding the scope of obligation becomes clearer. This is in part because we begin to think about the debate in a different, yet related way. Thus, even if one rejects VT2e and c, one may nevertheless agree that the nature and scope of obligation is the key point of disagreement between volitionists and nonvolitionists. Conversely, one may disagree that turning to obligation is a worthwhile avenue forward, yet agree that VT2e and c sharpen and clarify the boundaries of the volitionist debate. Here, I am arguing both for a different understanding of the volitionist theses and for a new way forward in the debate. While these two projects are not linked by necessity, the former nudges us toward the latter, and having the clearer distinctions in mind as we discuss the nature and scope of obligation will provide a more promising discussion. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for urging me to say more on this point.

  32. 32.

    Notice that Watson discusses only conduct or behavior; the idea that one could be obligated simply to have certain attitudes or to be certain ways is absent from this understanding of accountability.

  33. 33.

    It is important that we keep in mind that the moral responses volitionists and nonvolitionists discuss are “key elements of our actual moral practices—aretaic appraisals; feelings of disappointment, resentment, or indignation; modifications for our attitudes and actions in response to perceived relational impairments; explicit acts of reproach or censure” (Smith 2012: 588). If we up the ante significantly, Smith says, such that we understand “‘being morally responsible for X’ as ‘being a legitimate target of eternal damnation or reward on the basis of X’” our understanding of responsibility might change (588). So the responses warranted might, at some point, affect our understanding of moral responsibility, but in this discussion, they will not. Such a strong response is not at issue here, and it is not clear that many theorists working on free will or moral responsibility really mean to rely on responsibility that warrants eternal punishment (Clarke 2005: 20–22). Perhaps this is because no sort of obligation violation could merit such responses.

  34. 34.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for raising this worry.


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Thanks to Randolph Clarke, Alfred Mele, and Daniel Miller for helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper. For productive conversations, thanks also to John Schwenkler, Robert Wallace, and those in attendance for a presentation of a portion of this paper at the 2016 Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Finally, thanks to an anonymous referee for thoughtful questions and objections on a previous draft of the paper.

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Correspondence to Kyle G. Fritz.

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Fritz, K.G. Moral Responsibility, Voluntary Control, and Intentional Action. Philosophia 46, 831–855 (2018).

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  • Moral responsibility
  • Voluntary control
  • Intentional action
  • Omissions
  • Volitionism
  • Obligation