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In The Stone column on the New York Times Site, there is an article about the issue of moral responsibility, in light of the notion that we are what we are because of such factors as genetics, environment, or perhaps determinism and/or chance. In the end the author stoically concludes, that despite it all in some sense we can choose to take responsibility for our actions. While I respect the author's sense of duty, can we fairly extend that same responsibility to other people? For example, could there still be any defense of punishment that isn't consequentalist. For that matter how can any nonconsequentialist ethical theory hold up against this argument?

July 24, 2010

Response from Gordon Marino on July 25, 2010
Given the premises, I can't think of anything but a consequentialist defense of punishment or "correction." I also believe that that some of the arguments around this issue provide an opportunity for reflection on our powerful attachment to the rhetoric of "taking responsibility."We do not hear enough about our responsibility as a nation to create communities that nurture a sense of morality and connection with others. Many only want to talk about personal responsibility and it is often with a punitive edge. There might be other terms in which to couch the issue of moral striving.
Response from Eddy Nahmias on July 27, 2010

Given your question, you may be interested in a discussion of Strawson's NYTimes article at the free will/moral responsibility blog, Flickers of Freedom, here.

There's also a discussion on retribution and punishment (and psychopaths) at the blog here.

You'll see in these discussions that there are plenty of philosophers (called compatibilists) who think that free will and moral responsibility are possible even if determinism is true, and who reject Strawson's argument against the possibility of freedom and responsibility. These compatibilists will generally say that retributive punishment is justified, though they might also think that punishing (or treating) criminals for consequentialist reasons (such as deterrence and rehabilitation) is also important.

My own view is that we can have free will and moral responsibility (determinism is irrelevant to this issue), but that we have less than we think (because the sciences of the mind are showing that we have less self-knowledge and conscious control than we think). So, I think retributive punishment can be justified, but usually criminals deserve less of this sort of punishment than our system doles out. We should put more emphasis on the forward-looking purposes of punishment (or, if you wish, call it quarantine and rehabilitation).


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