Two Types of Responsibility



I’ve recently been listening to the podcast, Very Bad Wizards.  In their first two episodes, the co-hosts, David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers, discuss free will and moral responsibility.

Despite holding determinism true and libertarian free will as false, the hosts maintains that individuals should still be held morally responsible for their acts. In later episodes, Sam Harris takes on this apparent contradiction.

This podcast with Harris becomes even more bewildering as Pizarro and Sommers both agree that certain natural occurrences which modify one’s behavior, such as a brain tumor, would absolve individuals of responsibility, whereas other natural occurrences, such as the alignment of cosmic radiation would not.  They ultimately defend this inconsistency by resorting to their intuitions, arguing that they simply feel that certain people should be blamed and held responsible.

I had an urge to yell at my phone, as I generally agreed with both of them, and was pretty confident they too generally agreed. And yet they couldn’t seem to find solid footing to reach this agreement.

As I hope to argue, the problem with this debate, and one’s like it, are that there are two different types of responsibility.  Unfortunately, language is imperfect and ideas are often conflated when two similar constructs are used interchangeably.

The first type of responsibility is what might be defined as ‘libertarian responsibility.’ Simply stated, this is the type of responsibility that would come from libertarian free will. In a deterministic world without libertarian free will, libertarian responsibility is impossible.  The person who punches you, should not be held ‘libertarian responsible’ regardless of why, as there was no opportunity to do otherwise.  Libertarian responsibility follows logically from the basic premises that all matter obeys laws of cause an effect (and/or randomness) and that behavior is the function of matter (e.g. the brain and body).  It would seem that Harris, Pizarro, and Sommers all would agree that individuals shouldn’t be held responsible in this sense.

The second type of responsibility is what might be defined as ‘emotional responsibility.’  Simply stated, this is the intuitive feeling that one feels when someone is culpable for an act and subsequently one feels that they deserves to be punished (or rewarded).’Emotional responsibility’ is felt and ascribed regardless of whether you believe there is no libertarian free will.

The feeling that someone is ‘responsible’ corresponds with the perception of whether the act was intentional / it represented a dispositional element of one’s character. This view coincides with ideas of virtue ethics, which emphasizes one’s character over specific acts.

For example, the person who gets shoved or trips and unintentionally hits your drink out of your hand, is not held to be as ‘responsible’ as the person who purposefully knocks a drink out of your hand. Particularly in that second example, if the drink caused a stain on the shirt that needed to be dry-cleaned, the blame and responsibility ought to fall on that person.  Even if you acknowledge that this person had no ultimate, libertarian free will in the action, the person was still (emotionally) ‘responsible’ for it.  In other words, one could acknowledge that it was the near infinite series of causes and effects since the dawn of the Universe that ultimately led to the knocking of the drink out of one’s hand, but one can’t ask the Universe to pay for the dry-cleaning.

To provide another example.  Despite being a determinist and holding libertarian free will to be false, I still often regret my decisions and dwell on counterfactuals.  If I logically conclude that I could have only acted in one way then there’s no reason to regret anything; and yet I do.  I’m human and I’m going to emotionally and intuitively react to things; the ’emotional responsibility’ argument acknowledges this fact.

As a final example, consider being hit by an apple – either by a tree or by a person.

In the tree example, you were hit by an apple, by a near infinite series of causes and effects that eventually led you standing under the tree at the exact moment the apple fell.

In the person throwing example, you were hit by an apple, also by a near infinite series of causes and effects that eventually led you to be standing near a person, at the exact moment he threw an apple at you.

In both cases, the tree and the person are ‘responsible’ in the same deterministic manner. Neither have free will in that sense. But, nonetheless, you are going to hold the person ’emotionally responsible’ in a different manner than you would the tree.  Similarly, if being hit by the apple resulted in an injury, one would feel justified, and ought to feel justified, in seeking some level of reparations or justice from the person; whereas one would not feel justified in seeking reparations from the tree, or even the owner of the tree.

Lastly, the argument doesn’t necessarily require a consequentialist, utilitarian argument, although one does exist. As I noted briefly above, and will discuss briefly below, intentional actions are a reliable indicator of personality and future actions.  ‘Punishment’, through any means, may serve as a deterrence, a protection of future acts, and ideally, rehabilitation.  From a consequentialist viewpoint, holding people ‘emotionally responsible’ helps to promote greater societal well-being by deterring negative actions, protecting society from harmful people, and/or attempting to rehabilitate them to become better people. If Harris had an assistant and then learned that the assistant was stealing from him, he would have to acknowledge that the assistant wasn’t (libertarian) responsible for his actions and yet he would hold the assistant (emotionally) responsible and fire him.  One cannnot adequately navigate through life without hold people responsible for their actions.

Ultimately, Emotional responsibility rests on intuitions and emotions in the same way that other emotions do. For example, if you find out that your partner cheated on you, you will feel jealousy, anger, perhaps sadness.  As in the regret example, you might hold determinism to be true and realise that there was no other action that your partner could have taken.  And yet, this will not prevent you from feeling jealousy or anger – and similarly will not prevent you from holding your partner and perhaps their ‘lover’ as morally responsible.

With this distinction of two forms of responsibility being made, it is now possible to reconcile the initial views.  Harris was concerned with libertarian responsibility, logically positing that it’s just “Tumors all the way down.” On the other hand, Sommers and Pizarro were primarily concerned with ‘emotional responsibility’ and thus examples in which brain tumors or curable diseases that caused malevolent behavior were argued to result in less responsibility compared to situations in which brain tumors or curable diseases were not a cause.


This above example provides a window into this disconnect.  Harris jumped  ‘all the way down’ in a single leap from the tumor ’cause’ to the cosmic rays ’cause’, and subsequently overshot Sommers’ emotional intuitions.  Instead, if Harris had slowly moved through these intuitions, unpacking weaker and weaker causes (e.g. tumor vs. side-effect of a pharmaceutical, vs. learning that your wife was cheating on you vs. lack of sleep, etc.), they may have been able to get to the heart of the disagreement.

As noted, the difference between the two types of responsibility is that ’emotional responsibility’ is important insofar as actions predicts a person’s character; and character matters because it predicts future behavior.  We hold people differently responsible between the tumor and cosmic ray example because we intuitively (and arguably rightly) feel that the two causes differ in how much they can affect a person’s character.  If a cosmic ray is what made the difference between a particular malevolent act or not, then one is just another cosmic ray away from another harmful act.  It is generally accurate to presume that this person is dispositionally quite malevolent. However, notice how the intuition changes, if the cosmic ray was responsible for causing a tumor that eventually leads to the personality change.

And this is where relying on intuition becomes a problem.  Intuitions are moderated by a number of facts, norms, etc. A person who both feels that homosexuality is wrong and that it is a ‘choice’ will also likely feel that the person is responsible for their actions or even their thoughts, and subsequently deserve punishment.  This intuition has changed for many individuals, but the question remains: How are we to know which intuitions of responsibility should be held and which intuitions will eventually be dismissed?

Lastly, It is not only moral responsibility that needs to be considered.  It should be noted that most examples/thought experiments  tend to focus on harmful scenarios where intuitions are both highly primed and generally tend to be consistent among people.  But yet, all actions run into the problem of two types of responsibility – good and bad.

Consider how we treat a doctor, professor, or athlete compared to a janitor, taxi-driver or fast-food worker.  Anyone who holds determinism to be true must accept that the only reason that these people are the way they are are due to a long chain of causes and effects. Even if we allow for some form of libertarian free will, we all know that a person born into a stable, high income household will have many more opportunities than someone born into a chaotic, impoverished one; and this doesn’t even begin to consider genetic differences.  Anyone in a ‘good place in their life’ is simply the recipient of a ‘good’ set of causes and effects.

And yet in the same way, we hold people responsible for their lot in life.  Who should get the promotion, the person who did a good job or the person who did a bad job?  Who should get accepted into the University, the person with the high grades or the low grades? Just as in the moral responsibility examples – two things can be true at the same time.  We can acknowledge that doing a good/bad job, getting good/bad grades, doing something moral/immoral etc. is simply the result of a long chain of causes and effects (libertarian responsibility, or specifically the lack thereof), while at the same time hold people responsible and reward/punish them for their actions (emotional responsibility). If Harris had two employees, one of which needed to be let go – he would undoubtedly keep the one that worked considerably harder and better than the other, despite acknowledging that they were not ultimately responsible for the differences in their ability and effort.

The importance of acknowledging these two differences has important consequentalist repercussions.  For example, there’s a strong belief that individuals should be able to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and yet we know that systemic forces make this particularly difficult. Changing the belief that an individual and their subsequent actions are simply the product of their experiences and their genetics should motivate us to improve the system to one in which all individuals can flourish.  But reward and punishment are important experiences that are vital for learning and modifying behavior and so holding people responsible is important;  We just have to know exactly what is meant by responsibility.






3 thoughts on “Two Types of Responsibility

  1. chandlerklebs April 1, 2016 / 1:32 am

    Yes, this gets really confusing. For me personally, even the sense of emotional responsibility has gone away since becoming a determinist. Clearly I still don’t want to associate with a person who intentionally punches me but it’s not out of a feeling that they deserve it.

    It’s sad that the hosts just defend their position on emotion. That’s typically what happens typically when some information happens that we don’t like because we fear it’s implications. Few people are willing to admit our lack of responsibility because they fear that we need this illusion for survival.

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