No Escape from Moral Responsibility

Harvard’s Bob Doyle submits that people have free will in an indeterministic universe (read: agency) because if in the face of some random event an agent can make a choice, then s/he is responsible for that choice. I believe he is mischaracterising or misinterpreting the situation. I’ve composited an illustration to show where he and I interpret the random event differently. I’ve linked and cued the video to where he makes the statement I am reacting to.

The illustration depicts three event chains. My interpretation of Bob’s case is at the top followed by that of a Deterministic universe, followed by that of an indeterministic universe. At the bottom of the illustration is an index running from t-2 to t2, representing time, where t0 represents now, a decision point.


Let’s set the table with the simplest narrative—Determinism. Here, every event that occurs was known since the beginning of time. Every state is the result of past events in a causal chain. Nothing can happen that isn’t caused by a prior event. This is the motion picture we just haven’t seen yet. But anyone who has already seen it can spoil the ending because it’s already known without a doubt.

Regarding the illustration, event t-2 causes t-1 that causes t0 all the way to t2 and beyond.

No Escape from Moral Responsibiliy Chart

Bob Doyle, an Interpretation

Although Bob’s case is an interpretation of Indeterminism, let’s consider his position first. Then I’ll suggest where he’s gone astray.

As with the other cases, Bob’s transition from t-2 to t-1 is Deterministic and uncontested. The difference starts where t-1 transitions to t0. In Bob’s world, a random or perhaps a probabilistic event occurs given the agent to make a choice not having been previously determined. Referring to the illustration, because of this event, the agent chooses yes and embarks on the top chosen path, even if the subsequent path is again determined. Bob argues that at t0, the agent has free will, or if we focus our language, is responsible for the decision. By definition, this means that whatever path might be embarked had our agent chosen the lower path will never be known. And that has made all the difference.


Herein lies the rub. As with the prior two event chains, we arrive at t0, as with Bob’s scenario, we encounter a probabilistic (random, stochastic, aleatory, indeterministic) event. It does not follow that this event confers agential responsibility.

For example—not a moral consideration—, the random event involves the outcome of a match by their favourite sports team—or perhaps s/he’s won at Lotto—, our agent had no say in the outcome of the event. From the agent’s perspective—considering the illustration—s/he remains on a path. S/he can wish s/he rooted for the other team or had chosen a different number or ticket, but she had no choice.

To anticipate Bob’s response, perhaps she had won and now chooses to quit her job or take holiday. This should have been predictable knowing our agent’s disposition, character, and propensities. At no point did the agent actually possess even a modicum of agency.

Freedom & Creativity

I don’t know much about Bob or his work, but earlier in the video clip he discusses freedom and creativity. My sense is that he interprets creativity as a sort of emergent property that manifests at the moment. I fundamentally disagree with this assertion. The notion reminds me of Hume’s position that unicorns are simply the mental merger of horses and horns. This is not creation so much as a remix.

Later in the video, Bob clarifies that if something randomly pops into our heads and we make a different decision because of it, this is free will. My counterargument is that he is misusing the term random. An unknown origin does not necessarily mean randomly manifest.


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