Initial Design, Manipulation, and Moral Responsibility

Can we 'alter' a person's personality? Can we devise a system for making unwilling subjects into willing agents? How can [drugs] best be concealed in a normal or commonplace item, such as candy, cigarettes, liqueur, wines, coffee, tea, beer, gum, water, common medicines, Coke, toothpaste?

—From a 1951 CIA memo to its secret research project (Steven Kinzer, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control)


This is a critical notice of Alfred Mele’s, Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility. I agree with Mele that moral responsibility is a historical phenomenon, but give some considerations (based on analogous phenomena) in favor of a positive, rather than negative, historical condition for moral responsibility. I focus on Mele’s Zygote Argument, which is intended to present a challenge for compatibilism. I contend that the challenge can be met, and I offer an error theory of the appeal of the Zygote Argument.

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    I am very grateful to insightful and helpful comments by Massimo Renzo, Taylor Cyr, and Andrew Law.


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Fischer, J.M. Initial Design, Manipulation, and Moral Responsibility. Criminal Law, Philosophy (2021).

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