As John Perry notes in his pre-show post, some philosophers think that if determinism is true, then there is no freedom, and, consequently, no moral responsibility. Other philosophers, the compatibilists, try to find a way to reconcile freedom and determinism. The goal of such attempted reconciliations is often to find enough room for freedom to support moral responsibility. Such philosophers worry a lot about figuring out just what sort of freedom is necessary to support ascriptions of moral responsibility and then they try to show that that kind or degree of freedom is thoroughly compatible with the truth of determinism. But I want to suggest in this pre-show post that just maybe the connection between freedom and responsibility has been oversold. Maybe the two John's will talk me out of this view during the episode. We'll see.
Suppose you are a Martian Anthropologist, on a scientific expedition to planet Earth. Your goal is to understand the alien Earthling practice of holding people morally responsible for their actions. There are no such practices on the planet Mars. Let's grant for the moment that your advanced Martian Science has once and for all established the truth of determinism or its functional equivalent. (If the fundamental laws turn out to be indeterministic, the fundamental problem about freedom and responsibility still don't go away.) There are many things you might want to know. You might want to know exactly what one human is responding to in another human being when the first holds the second responsible for an action. You might want to investigate the things people say to one another to justify their ascriptions of moral responsibility. You might eventually get around to examining weighty tomes of human philosophy, theology, psychology, anthropology in which humans theorize and investigate their own practices of ascribing moral responsibility to one another. But because you are really interested in understanding from bottom up what people actually do, you'll put the trip to the library off until the very end. You belong out in the field where the practice actually happens, with your observations uncorrupted by centuries of possibly false and misguided theorizing.
So what do you find, when you look in the field, at what people are actually doing when they make ascriptions of moral responsibility? To what about an action, or about the will behind the action, are people actually responding when they hold another responsible? What you find is something like the following. As a first pass, it appears that a person holds another responsible for her actions when the person performed the action knowingly and willingly. You notice pretty early on that when the actor is forced or coerced into the relevant action by either another person or by an external impersonal force, people typically withhold or withdraw ascriptions of responsibility. You notice that others just on the occasion of their acting were looking the wrong way, or were trying to do something good that inadvertently went bad somehow in a way that did not depend on their care or lack of care. On such occasions, they are not held responsible, at least not fully. You also notice a more systematic set of cases. Becasue Earthling neuroscience is still so backwards, some people are stuck with abnormal or malfunctioning brains. You notice that earthlings are reticent to hold at least some such people responsible -- though you wonder about their consistency in this regard. For example, you find that some people have pathological inabilities to control their impulses. And you find that others are less likely to hold them responsible when they discover such pathologies. You find that others who are not held responsible are subject to severe delusions and have very limited abilities to make their beliefs track reality. Finally, you also find that the very young and immature are often not held fully responsible, though as they mature the extent to which they are held responsible gradually increases.
With this first level data in hand, you look deeper into what distinguishes normal mature "intact" cognizers and agents, who typically are held responsible for their actions from the broken or immature ones that typically are not. You develop a rich psychological theory of the workings of the mature intact human brain, in particular of mature, intact human cognition and volition. You think you have a good idea of what distinguishes the responsible from those who are not liable to be held responsible. Your theory, by the way, is entirely consistent with the deterministic fundamental theory of nature that Martian Science has already developed. Human knowing, willing, deliberating are for you causal processes governed by causal laws and you now understand those laws and processes fully. But that's unsurprising, since you have not ever been exposed to the relentless debates among Earthling thinkers. You are just a good scientist investigating a phenomenon that you come across in the natural world. Why should you even suspect that there is a question about determinism to be considered here?
Now, finally, just to round out your investigation, you start to attend to the philosophical, theological, and everyday lore that surrounds ascriptions of moral responsibility. Much to your amazement, you find that these earthling philosophers and theologians have been debating the basis of their own practice of holding people responsible for centuries. And you find that they are still in the midst of very divisive debates with no real consensus in sight. You find, for example, that many philosophers think that the truth of determinism would undermine all freedom and all responsibility. You find that others disagree. What startles you is that in your full theory of mature intact human volition and cognition the question of freedom vs determinism never needed to come up. You found nothing in the actual practice that seemed to depend on whether human beings are "free" in some metaphysically deep sense. So you are puzzled. You investigate a little further. You find that at least some of the philosophers and theologians seem to be asking a different question from the one you were asking. They seem not so much to be debating what people actually respond to in their actual practice of holding people responsible but to be asking whether anyone ever "deserves" to be held responsible, whether we are ever "justified" in holding another responsible. And at least some of them think that the question of whether determinism is true is crucial to answering that question.
So you go back and look again at how people justify, when challenged, their ascriptions of responsibility. Much to your surprise, you discover that although they can talk the lingo of the philosophers and theologians, what they really do when challenged is to point to the exercise of mature in tact cognitive and volitional capacities of the sort you've already developed a rich theory of. Since the issue of freedom vs determinism played no role there, you wonder what the issue of freedom vs determinism really has got to do with this. As a good Martian anthropologist, you decide you need more time. You need to take a much longer look at the development of human intellectual culture, especially at how these have shaped humans own reflection on their own natures and their own practices.
You call to Martian Science Academy for help. You are going to be at this a lot longer than you ever imagined. And you need some help. You begin by tuning into Philosophy Talk