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David Levy’s Essay

NCH London | July 1, 2020

‘Are we morally responsible for actions, even if they are ultimately caused by factors out of our control?’

David Levy


From the practice of personal vengeance in Homeric Greece to the castigating justice systems of today, moral responsibility remains an entrenched and often employed concept. Therefore, it is not only of philosophical interest whether we are morally responsible for our uncontrollable actions but it is also of great practical importance. If moral responsibility were to be illusory, it would necessitate the reconsideration of our political, economic and social institutions. For the purposes of this essay, I will define “morally responsible” as deserving either praise or blame for acting in accordance with or neglecting one’s moral obligations respectively. I will take “action” to be that which an agent (S) does with the intention of doing so. “Factors out of our control” could be an allusion to extrinsic causation – namely – causal determinism. It seems that causal determinism – henceforth considered determinism – circumscribes what we colloquially consider to be “factors out of our control”. It reduces both social and evolutionary influence into a causative chain, ridding the concept of agential causa sui. Succinctly, the deterministic thesis purports that all action is determined by antecedent causes. Due to the restricted length of this essay, I will consider “factors outside of our control” to be synonymous with determinism. I will assess whether the deterministic thesis affects the notion of whether an agent can be praised or blamed for an action.



Formalised argument for the ‘Leeway Incompatibalist’ position:

(1) S is morally responsible for X iff S has a moral obligation (Y) to do X

(2) If S has Y it necessary entails that S can do X

(3) If S has Y it necessarily entails that S can do ~X

(4) S can choose to do X ∨ ~X iff S is free

(5) To be free is to be able to have done otherwise

(6) From (1-5) it follows that to be morally responsible S must be able to have done otherwise.

(7) Under Determinism, S could not have done otherwise


(C) S cannot be morally responsible if Determinism is true


The ‘Leeway Incompatibalist’ position (PAP) disputes the consistency of moral responsibility with actions caused by uncontrollable factors. Simply, in a deterministic universe, one could not satisfy (4-5), the action would be necessary. S could not choose between bringing about X and ~X. Although I would aver its insufficiency, the PAP seems prima facie attractive. On going to the shops and buying apples, it ostensibly follows that – to be free to choose – X could have chosen oranges. Therefore, intuitively, (5) seems to be an adequate premise. However, upon forensic analysis, Harry Frankfurt proposes a ‘thought-experiment’ to conclude that both (5) and, by extension, (6) are specious premises. Suppose a world in which causal determinism does not obtain (P 1 ) where S shoots Y and he could have done otherwise. Under the Leeway Incompatibalist account, it necessarily follows that S is morally responsible for the shooting of Y – it satisfies (1-6). However, now suppose a counterfactual – which contains the same relevant factors as before (P 2 ) – in which there exists C (who occupies an off-stage presence). C – at point of S’s hesitation – would force S (in a cognitively manipulative sense) to shoot Y. Notwithstanding, S shoots Y without hesitation . The relevant factors in P 1 and P 2 are the same: the presence of C can only be considered relevant if he were to act. Therefore, we can consider S, in P 1 and P 2 , morally responsible. However, here arises a difficulty – in P 1 , X could have done otherwise; in P 2 , S could not have done otherwise. Thus, PAP does not follow; it seems deductively the case that S in P 1 and P 2 would be morally responsible – the situations are relevantly parallel. But, under PAP, that is necessarily not the case. Therefore, we ought to conclude that the condition of “Alternate Possibilities” – (5) – cannot be considered a constituent of being morally responsible.

Even if I were to concede Frankfurt Cases redundant, I would still hold that premise (2) and (3) are inadequate. (2-3) is a generalised version of the Kantian axiom, “ought implies can”. Its formalisation is as such where p is some action and OB is obligated to;

OB(p) → ♢p

Upon the assumption that "♢" is in reference to logical possibility, the Kantian axiom is weakened greatly. On this, it seems I am justified in saying that “S is obligated to absolve the entire world of [absolute] poverty”. This is logically sufficient as in some possible world X could absolve the world of poverty: there is no logical contradiction present. Notwithstanding, to suggest this to be a justifiable axiom seems intuitively indefensible. This hugely mitigates the prima facie appeal to the axiom. Further, “OB(p) → ♢p” is even subject to intuitive issues when one contends that “♢” is in reference to ability, such that “ought implies can” means one can have moral obligations to do p if and only if they are able to do it in this world. Say S borrowed X’s car and he is obligated to return it. Unfortunately, S crashes the car and does not have the money to repair it, therefore he is unable to return it. Under the Kantian axiom, we see the absolution of his obligation, he is no longer obligated to return the car. The argument follows as such;

OB(r), ~♢r, ~OB(r).

This seems terribly unintuitive: to me, S is not absolved of all form of obligation by virtue of crashing X’s car; if anything, his obligation is strengthened! Thus considering, it seems we can reject the PAP account on two fronts. It both fails by virtue of Frankfurt cases and due to the unintuitive consequences of the aforementioned Kantian axiom.



Formalised Strawsonian “Basic Argument” For the Impossibility of Moral Responsibility (Strawson, pp.12-14)

(1) S does X because of who S is

(2) To be morally responsible, S must be responsible for who they are (D)

(3) To be morally responsible, S would have to intentionally brought about (D) which is impossible

(4) If S were to bring about D intentionally, a nature N is needed in light of which S intentionally brought about D

(5) From (4), if you were truly responsible for D, you would have to be responsible for N

(6) To be responsible for N, S would have to have a nature L in light of which they intentionally brought about N

(7) (4-6) sets off an infinite regress

(C1) Therefore, considering the results of (4-6), (3) is correct

(C2) S can never be morally responsible for any action X


Under determinism, Galen Strawson would argue, S cannot control who they are; they cannot control D (to which I referred above). I’d argue that the foundational premises on which Strawson constructs his project are (1) and (2) and, as such, these are the premises on which I will focus. Strawson contends that it is in virtue of the intuitive value of (2) that we can accept it and, elsewhere, he does not propose an alternative justification.


However, it seems to me apparent that (2) is subject to intuitive paradox due to the phenomena of “Moral Luck”. Simply, (2) holds that moral responsibility necessarily stems from conscious action; Strawson is bound to the position that all responsibility ought to stem from control. However, our ascription of blame and, the strength of such ascription, is susceptible to lucky factors. Nagel’s conception of “Circumstantial Luck”, I think, best explicates this thesis. Suppose two agents (A and A*) would have aided the Nazis if they were in the same position. But, if the Nazis never came to power, they would have led moral lives. A was in Germany at the time and so helped the Nazis; A* was not and so did not help the Nazis. It seems intuitively apparent that A is far more morally responsible than A*. One would consider he who denies this to himself be morally destitute. There seems to exist a salient distinction – in terms of moral responsibility – between the two agents.

However, there exists an intuitive conflict. Nagel concludes that we also hold an intuition that we are responsible for only that which we can consider in the purview of our control, in line with Strawson. It seems intuitively fitting for responsibility to be predicated on an agents conscious contributions. Here we have established a conflict in contributory factors in moral responsibility. Considering what is in my view an unsolvable tension, one of Strawson’s foundational premises – namely (2) – is subject to an “impasse of intuition”. Thus considering, it seems to me unjustified for the Strawsonian account to continue to hold. Until the paradox of “Moral Luck” is solved which – considering recent findings in experimental philosophy – I imagine is unlikely, Strawson’s argument cannot be considered sufficient.



To conclude, both positions which I have evaluated above are – in my view – insufficient. It seems to me the case that any view of expressing the irreconcilability of determinism and moral responsibility – that I have encountered – fails. The most commonly propagated case (PAP) fails due to instances in which the criteria of the argument are fulfilled yet there remains an intuitive conflict as to whether the agent is responsible. Further, even if we were to concede that Frankfurt Cases were inadequate, the unintuitive entailments of the Kantian axiom (represented as (2) & (3)) also expose the Leeway Incompatibalist position to be deeply flawed. Moreover, I have analysed the Strawsonian contention of the impossibility of moral responsibility and have concluded that the dissemination of luck and its intuitive relevance into moral situation proves it to be a defective argument. As such, considering incompatibility is an active claim, the burden of proof remains on he who supposes their incompatibility. Considering I remain unconvinced by any such cases, I resign myself to the passive contention that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible.



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