Responsibility and the new Scepticism


Prof. Dr. Paul Russell (Lund University/University of British Columbia)
Wednesday March 11 20.00-21.30
Stadscampus Universiteit Antwerpen
Room S.C.002

Abstract:  The philosophical debate about responsibility over the past several centuries has been largely focused on “the problem of free will” and the question of whether determinism is or is not compatible with agents being free in a manner that is required for moral responsibility. Throughout this period the genuine sceptic, who denies that human agents are morally responsible, has for the most part served as a “stalking horse” for non-sceptical views of either a compatibilist or libertarian nature. Few have embraced or defended genuine scepticism about moral responsibility. Over the past few decades, however, this situation has changed dramatically. In recent years a number of influential and prominent figures in philosophy (and beyond) have advanced arguments in support of the sceptical conclusion. In this paper I will consider two of the most important of these arguments, which I will refer to under the banner of “the new scepticism”.

The first of these is Galen Strawson’s “Basic Argument”, which arrives at the conclusion that moral responsibility is impossible. The second argument is found in Derk Pereboom’s account of “Hard Incompatibilism”, which claims that we (humans) lack the sort of free will that is required for the kind of moral responsibility “that has been at issue in the historical debate” (i.e. the basic desert sense). Both these statements of the new scepticism, I argue, involve crucial ambiguities in the presentation of their arguments and in the conclusions that they derive from them. The fundamental difficulty that they both face concerns the way in which they address or fail to address the issue of pluralism about the (concept) of moral responsibility. When these ambiguities are uncovered the new sceptic confronts a serious dilemma. Either the new sceptic is not entitled to endorse a genuine, unqualified scepticism of any kind, in which case its conclusion turns out to be much less bold and radical than its presentation suggests. Alternatively, if the new sceptic is understood as defending a bolder and more radical form of scepticism, then their arguments fall well short of establishing the more extreme conclusion. On either reading, the new sceptic fails to deliver an unqualified, extreme sceptical conclusion of the kind that it is widely taken to support.