One of this week’s readings by philosopher Galen Strawson has had me tying myself in knots trying to work out why I’m so averse to the concept of ‘true’ moral responsibility. I’ll try to explain why.

Strawson's overarching argument (referred to as the Basic Argument) is that in order to have true or ultimate moral responsibility our actions need to be causa sui (something like being of self-originating cause, though the Oxford definition also references god). Because we are the sum of genetics and nurture we are not ultimately the cause of our actions and therefore we cannot have true moral responsibility.

The first premise of Strawson’s “more natural form” of his argument seems simple enough to accept:

(1) It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and it is undeniable that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any [way] responsible (morally or otherwise) (p7)

It does seem undeniable that we are a combination of genetic factors and learned behaviour of societal and interpersonal norms (nurture) during our formative years. That said, in the non-philosophical view of the world, legal systems typically allow that our parents or caregivers are responsible for us until a certain age at which point we are then deemed to be responsible for our own actions. In my understanding of the ‘true’ conditional applied by Strawson to moral responsibility, there is no point where we actually become responsible because our actions are always predetermined by our earlier formation, which we are not responsible for (this is where we end up in premise 4).

Premises 2-4 of Strawson’s same argument (p7) refer to our ability to “change” as a requirement for creating self-determination, and this is where he loses me. Intuitively, at some point in our lives, most people, whether by some evolutionary drive or imprinting of societal norms, take ownership of the responsibility for their individual actions. That does not imply that a change in that person has or needs to have occurred, merely that we have it in our nature to accept that responsibility is part of our way of being. So I can accept that in Strawson’s determination ‘true’ moral responsibility cannot be said to have been achieved through this line of thinking, however that implies that ‘true’ moral responsibility cannot exist. On the other hand we are left with the responsibility we deem ourselves to have by being predisposed to take ownership of our individual actions through heredity and nurture. So is there really a difference between a ‘true’ moral responsibility that doesn’t seem to exist and moral responsibility that we affect by virtue of heredity and nurture?

I'm reminded of a quote of Thomas Nagel's from "The Absurd":

If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.

If there's no reason to believe anything matters, then we are left to create whatever meaning we want in the world. We have through heredity, nurture, societal evolution and many other factors created societies in which we do take responsibility for our actions, and so the only responsibility that we can have is that which we have created partly in order to give our lives meaning.

Cover image: Greg Jeanneau