The Free Will Debate and Basic Desert

Abstract

A familiar claim in the free will debate is that the freedom in dispute between compatibilists and incompatibilists is limited to the type required for an agent to deserve blame for moral wrongdoing, and to deserve it in a sense that is basic. In this paper, I seek a rationale for this claim, offer an explanation of basic desert, and then argue that the free will debate can persist even when divorced from basic desert.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I restrict my attention to Scanlon’s view of responsibility set out in What We Owe to Each Other (1998). More recently, Scanlon has developed an intriguing desert thesis that differs from his earlier view (2008: 188–189). Nevertheless, the Scanlon of 1998 clearly counts as someone who, according to Pereboom, would be changing the subject in applying his account of responsibility to the free will problem.

  2. 2.

    For a thoughtful exploration of each way of developing a desert thesis, see Randolph Clarke (2013). Clarke focuses primarily on deserving to feel guilt and on the harm that characteristically accompanies it. McKenna (2012) also explores these issues.

  3. 3.

    This is how I understand Scanlon’s more recent account of desert (2008: 188–189; 2013).

  4. 4.

    This is similar to the retributivist thesis that Wallace rejects (see the quotation from Sect. 1).

  5. 5.

    Although it is an open question whether freedom is required. See, for example, Robert Adams’s paper “Involuntary Sins” (1985).

  6. 6.

    Other philosophers, like G. Strawson (1994), also operate under the assumption that we can discern from our moral responsibility practices a commitment to the notion of something like basic desert.

  7. 7.

    Note that Lenman does defend the thesis that a person can deserve to be blamed for wrongdoing. But on his view, the desert is not basic. It is, as Rawls (1971) might put it, a form of post-institutional desert. The desert itself as a normative basis for evaluating conduct is justified in more basic, contractualist terms.

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Acknowledgements

For helpful comments, I would like to thank Dana Nelkin, Derk Pereboom, Carolina Sartorio, and Manuel Vargas.

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Correspondence to Michael McKenna.

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McKenna, M. The Free Will Debate and Basic Desert. J Ethics 23, 241–255 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-019-09292-4

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Keywords

  • Free will
  • Moral responsibility
  • Blame
  • Desert