Freedom Without Responsibility

Tom Clark
Book Title: 
Freedom Without Responsibility
Book Author: 
Bruce Waller

Philosopher Bruce Waller's book Freedom Without Responsibility is an excellent, engaging exposition of what Waller calls "no-fault naturalism" and its real-world consequences.

Although it's been 14 years since publication, philosopher Bruce Waller's book Freedom Without Responsibility still stands as one of the more visionary and progressive contributions to the literature on naturalism and free will. True, the title is a bit disconcerting, connoting as it does that everything's permitted; in the next (much needed, perhaps paper) edition it could be changed to "Freedom Without Ultimate Responsibility," since that's what Waller is really getting at. So don't be deterred - if you can find it, this is an excellent, engaging exposition of what Waller calls "no-fault naturalism" and its real-world consequences, which are considerable. It rivals Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul in its unflinching naturalism, but goes further in arguing for significant revisions in our attitudes and social practices. It's clearly written, with most technicalities relegated to endnotes, and the examples and thought experiments nicely illustrate the arguments.

The responsibility at issue - what we're without, according to Waller - is a specific sort of moral responsibility, that which depends on having contra-causal freedom or free will. If it existed, such freedom would make us ultimately responsible, since we'd originate our behavior in some crucial sense independently of non-self factors. But since under naturalism we are not libertarian, contra-causal agents, we don't bear such ultimate responsibility for our acts. And since we aren't morally responsible in this sense, we aren't deeply deserving of praise, punishment, or other sorts of special treatment usually thought appropriate for contra-causal agents.

Waller draws out the implications of denying this sort of moral responsibility, taking care to defuse some common fears and correct common misunderstandings. Although we don't have contra-causal freedom, we are nevertheless free in the important sense that our actions ordinarily flow from our character and motives - we are proximately autonomous beings. And we have, or take, certain important kinds of responsibility - for instance the role responsibility of carrying out the duties of various roles, e.g., mother, teacher, employee, boss, etc. Nor do moral judgments disappear on this understanding of ourselves: we can be morally bad (or good) without being ultimately morally responsible for being bad. But Waller rightly argues that dropping the essentially supernatural notion of libertarian free will and the cognate sense of moral responsibility does have significant implications for such things as punishment (retribution can no longer be sustained) and for social equality (no one deeply deserves to be rich or poor). Abandoning ultimate responsibility in favor of no-fault naturalism is both fairer and more efficient in shaping virtuous behavior and societies.

Throughout the book are perspicuous replies to many compatibilist philosophers (e.g., Harry Frankfurt, Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Glover, George Sher and Jonathan Bennett), those who try to reconcile the idea that we deeply deserve praise and punishment with our being fully natural creatures. Waller points out that these naturalist-compatibilists tend to block full consideration of the causal story in order to portray human agents as deserving originators of behavior, not proximate causes. They insist that the buck stops with the (fully caused) person, and that we are thus liable as morally responsible agents for the full measure of credit and blame ordinarily thought to be deserved by self-made selves. But Waller presses the obvious question: why is it fair to praise and blame fully caused persons for the way they are, and for their actions, given that their character, motives, and thus behavior are completely shaped by factors ultimately beyond their control?

Compatibilists might reply that it's fair to praise and blame simply as a matter of behavior control, that we can naturalize moral desert as part of a consequentialist ethical framework that guides goodness, as Steven Morse puts it. True, people are ultimately the way they are due to factors beyond their control, but as rationally responsive agents, praise and blame work to encourage naturalistic self-control and responsible behavior. But crucially, this is not what most compatibilists mean by fairness or desert, since for the most part they countenance categorically deontological, non-consequentialist rationales for praise and blame. That is, their compatibilist moral responsibility still entails what moral responsibility did under the notion of supernatural contra-causal free will: being liable for praise and blame independent of whatever consequences might ensue. But this seems unfair and unjust, given that compatibilists agree that the contra-causal agent doesn't exist.

By questioning standard compatibilist accounts of moral responsibility in the light of no-fault naturalism, Waller isn't giving us a get-out-of-jail-free card. We may not be responsible in the sense of deserving rewards and sanctions independent of consequences, but of course we must still deal with morally bad agents. However, the way we deal with them is strongly conditioned by the realization that they are not self-created, that there is a sufficient causal explanation for who and how they are, should we care to investigate. This leads to more humane, non-retributivist, and effective approaches to preventing crime and immorality.

Waller's book is replete with examples of how a scientific understanding of human behavior, including Skinnerian behavior analysis, enables us to maximize our personal freedoms and our effectiveness as natural agents. At the same time, it induces us to question many of our standard assumptions about moral desert, blame, credit and accountability in ways that are likely to produce a less punitive, more equitable society. In fact, this brief review only scratches the surface of what Waller has to offer, both philosophically and practically.

We might not, as Waller implies we should, necessarily drop all talk of moral responsibility as naturalistically incoherent, since there are perhaps naturalized conceptions of both morality and responsibility that, when combined, produce a naturalistically tenable idea of moral responsibility. Such responsibility would be strictly consequentialist, non-retributive, non-ultimate and, importantly, would take a wider perspective of the agent in her environmental and genetic context. From this perspective, moral agents exist and can be held responsible, but in ways that take full account of their antecedents, which is to say non-punitively, if at all possible, and remedially, if appropriate. It also means that instead of focusing strictly on agents as putative originators, our responsibility practices too would widen to take on the many conditions that shape agents to begin with (e.g., the criminal justice system would expand its mission and join up with other agencies to become a crime prevention system). Waller's book is a well-written call to arms that should get us moving in this direction, whether or not we decide to talk about moral responsibility. It deserves (naturalistically) a wide reading, and for that to happen it needs reprinting, soon.

TWC, November 2005

Bruce Waller is author of several other books, including The Natural Selection of Autonomy, reviewed here, more recently Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues, and forthcoming, You Decide! Current Debates in Philosophy (Longman Publishing).