Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism? by Wintery Knight

Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?

I saw that Brian Auten of Apologetics 315 linked to this post by J. Warner Wallace.


When examining the causes for an event (such as a death) we can separate them into two categories: event causation and agent causation (prior physical events cause things to happen and free agents cause things to happen). It’s important to recognize that free agents alone have the freedom to act or respond without a prior physical causal event. Physical objects, like dominoes, cannot cause themselves to fall over; they require a prior event to cause them to fall. But you and I have the ability to cause the first domino to fall as a simple matter of choice (we don’t need a prior event to cause this action). You can’t blame a car for running over a victim; the car is simply a physical object subject to a series of physical processes, none of which can be held morally culpable. But we can blame thedriver of the car for driving the car over the victim. The driver is a free agent, and we recognize that his choices are just that: free choices. The driver is not like the car. His choice is not simply the result of a series of purely physical processes, like dominoes falling. He had the freedom to choose otherwise, and this is why we seek to arrest and prosecute him.

Our recognition of the moral culpability of the driver (rather than the car) is an admission that materialism (physicalism) fails to explain who we are as humans. Consider the following argument:

No Physical System is a Free Agent
Physical systems are either “determined” (one event necessarily following the other) or “random”

Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice

Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility
We recognize that each of us has the responsibility and choice to act morally, and indeed, we seek to hold each other legally accountable for each other’s free-will choices

Therefore, Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems
Our recognition of moral responsibility and our efforts to hold each other accountable are irrational and unwarranted if humans are merely physical systems

If we, as humans, are only physical systems (merely matter), we ought to stop trying to hold each other accountable for misbehavior. In fact, there can be no misbehavior if we are only physical brains and bodies; there can only be behavior. Our actions have no moral content at all unless we truly have the freedom to choose and the ability to break the bondage of physical event causation.

I finally learned what the “Twinkie defense” was by reading that post. It’s worth it for that reason alone.

This quote by JWW reminded me of a famous chapter in Theodore Dalrymple’s famous book “Life at the Bottom”, in which he explains the worldview of the lower classes in Britain. The chapter is called “The Knife Went In“, and it shows how people in the underclass describe their crimes in a way that completely minimizes their own free choices and their own responsibilities.

Take a look:

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

I wonder how much the secularism and atheism of the Britain academics has now seeped down to the lower classes and caused them to view themselves as lumps of meat or animals, rather than responsible free agents. Britain is the country of Charles Darwin and the idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. If you believe that you are an animal who evolved by accident in an accidental universe, then you don’t believe in free will, moral choices or moral obligations. The funniest thing in the world to me is how atheists go about their lives helping themselves to moral language that is not grounded by their worldview. Like parrots who have been trained to talk about the stock market. There is no realm of objective moral values and duties on atheism, so why are they using moral language and making moral judgments? On their view right and wrong are just social customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and human actions are biologically determined anyway. There are no choices. There is no responsibility the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism

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