What Is Moral Responsibility?

Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.

- George Bernard Shaw, "Maxims for Revolutionists", Man and Superman (1903).

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What is moral responsibility and when do we have it? Gideon Rosen addresses this question in the latest episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Listen to Gideon Rosen on Moral Responsibility

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Often we think not. For example, research now suggests that the brain’s frontal lobes, which are crucial for self-control, are not yet mature in adolescents. This finding has helped shape attitudes about whether young people are fully responsible for their actions. In 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional, its decision explicitly took into consideration that “parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.”

Similar reasoning is often applied to behavior arising from chemical imbalances in the brain. It is possible, when the facts emerge, that the case of James E. Holmes, the suspect in the Colorado shootings, will spark debate about neurotransmitters and culpability.

Whatever the merit of such cases, it’s worth stressing an important point: as a general matter, it is always true that our brains “made us do it.” Each of our behaviors is always associated with a brain state. If we view every new scientific finding about brain involvement in human behavior as a sign that the behavior was not under the individual’s control, the very notion of responsibility will be threatened. So it is imperative that we think clearly about when brain science frees someone from blame — and when it doesn’t...

Continue reading Monterosso and Schwartz's article: Did Your Brain Make You Do It?

Further Reading

...Philosophical reflection on moral responsibility has a long history. One reason for this persistent interest is the way the topic seems connected with our conception of ourselves as ‘persons.’[3] Many have held that one distinct feature of persons is their status as morally responsible agents, a status resting—some have proposed—on a special kind of control that only they can exercise. Many who view persons in this way have wondered whether their special status is threatened if certain other claims about our universe are true. For example, can a person be morally responsible for her behavior if that behavior can be explained solely by reference to physical states of the universe and the laws governing changes in those physical states, or solely by reference to the existence of a sovereign God who guides the world along a divinely ordained path? Concerns of this sort have often motivated reflection on moral responsibility...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Moral Responsibility by Andrew Eshleman

Bonus Webcomic

A Dialogue on Compatibilism - Existential Comics

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