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Gregg D. Caruso Ph.D.
Gregg D. Caruso Ph.D.
Free Will

Moral Responsibility and the Strike Back Emotion

Where does the belief in moral responsibility come from?

Where does the belief in moral responsibility come from? Some philosophers, myself included, maintain that there is a strange disconnect between the strength of philosophical arguments in support of moral responsibility and the strength of philosophical belief in moral responsibility. While the many arguments in favor of moral responsibility are inventive, subtle, and fascinating, even the most ardent supporters of moral responsibility acknowledge that the arguments in its favor are far from conclusive; and some of the least confident concerning the arguments for moral responsibility—such as philosopher Peter Van Inwagen who believes free will must “remain a mystery,” but since it is needed for moral responsibility we must have it nonetheless—are most confident of the truth of moral responsibility. It would seem, then, that whatever the verdict on the strength of philosophical arguments for moral responsibility, it is clear that belief in moral responsibility—whether among ordinary folk or philosophers—is based on something other than philosophical reasons.

One likely source of the strong belief in moral responsibility is the strike back emotion we share with other animals. I do not contend that this is the only source—in fact, I believe there are several sources of the strong belief in moral responsibility, including the deep rooted belief in a just world, the pervasiveness of the moral responsibility system that makes the truth of moral responsibility seem obvious, and our overconfidence in the powers of reason (see Waller 2015). But it is important to acknowledge that human beings share a powerful strike back emotion with other animals. When we are wronged, and when we observe another being wronged, we feel a strong and immediate urge to strike back. According to philosopher Bruce Waller at Youngstown State University, this strike back emotion is one of the main sources of our strong belief in moral responsibility:

The deepest roots of our commitment to moral responsibility are in powerful emotions, rather than reason. There are many sources for the stubborn belief in moral responsibility, and some are quite subtle. But the most basic source has the subtlety of a barroom brawl, a back-country feud, or rats locked in a frenzied death struggle: the strike-back desire when we are harmed. (2015: 39)

He goes on to add:

The vengeance motive is powerful, revenge is sweet, and retribution feels righteous. The desire to strike back, to take arms against a sea of troubles, to take revenge: this is not only a powerful desire, but one that feels morally justified. We like to punish, and we are willing to sacrifice in order to do so (Fehr and Gachter 2002; Haidt 2012, 178-179). (2015: 39)

This emotional source of our belief in moral responsibility is strong, pervasive, and—when examined carefully—often counterproductive from the perspective of our other desired ends, such as future safety, reconciliation, and moral formation.

Philosopher Neil Levy, in a recent article over at Aeon, explains how our moral emotions tend to fuel retributive impulses, which in turn often leads to excessively punitive forms of punishment:

Human beings are a punitive species. Perhaps because we are social animals, and require the cooperation of others to achieve our goals, we are strongly disposed to punish those who take advantage of us. Those who ‘free-ride’, taking benefits to which they are not entitled, are subject to exclusion, the imposition of fines or harsher penalties. Wrongdoing arouses strong emotions in us, whether it is done to us, or to others. Our indignation and resentment have fuelled a dizzying variety of punitive practices – ostracism, branding, beheading, quartering, fining, and very many more. The details vary from place to place and time to culture but punishment has been a human universal, because it has been in our evolutionary interests. However, those evolutionary impulses are crude guides to how we should deal with offenders in contemporary society. (2016)

Crude indeed! As Waller notes: “Looking carefully at the strike-back emotion we share with rats and chimps prompts doubts of its legitimacy as a foundation for our moral thoughts” (2015: 43). When we do look carefully, what we find is that the powerful strike-back emotion overwhelms careful reflection—the kind of careful reflection that is required if we wish to adopt more humane and effective policies regarding punishment.

This is not to say, of course, that our moral emotions are always bad or that we should wish to eliminate them completely. In certain circumstances anger provides an important ethical need—e.g., exhibiting the right emotion when someone I love is seriously wronged. In fact, there are many emotions we do not wish to eliminate, but that we do not always regard as reliable guides to behavior. I acknowledge, then, that the emotional reactions associated with the desire to strike back are natural, but at the same time I wish to challenge the claim that they are justified. Consider, for example, the reactive attitudes of resentment, indignation, blame, and moral anger. Since these reactive attitudes can cause harm, they would be appropriate only if it is fair that the agent be subject to them in the sense that she deserves them. We can say, then, that an agent is accountable for her action when she deserves, in the basic desert sense, to be praised or blamed for what she did—i.e., she deserves certain kinds of desert-based judgments, attitudes, or treatments in response to decisions or actions she performed or failed to perform, and these judgments, attitudes, or treatments are justified on purely backward-looking grounds and do not appeal to consequentialist or forward-looking considerations, such as future protection, future reconciliation, or future moral formation.

The version of free will skepticism I have defended elsewhere (here, here, here, and here) maintains that agents are never morally responsible in the basic desert sense, and hence expression of resentment, indignation, and moral anger involves doxastic irrationality—at least to the extent it is accompanied by the belief that its target deserves to be its recipient. Of course one could ask, as surely a Strawsonian would, “But can we ever really relinquish these reactive attitudes? And would it be desirable if we could?” In response to the latter question, I would say that the moral anger associated with the reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation is often corrosive to our interpersonal relationships and to our social policies (see here). Like my fellow free will skeptic Derk Pereboom (2001, 2014), I contend that the expression of these reactive attitudes are often suboptimal as modes of communication in relationships relative to alternative attitudes available to us—e.g., feeling hurt, or shocked, or disappointed.

On the question of whether it is possible to relinquish these reactive attitudes, my answer begins by first distinguishing between what philosopher Shaun Nichols calls narrow-profile emotional responses and wide-profile responses (Nichols 2007; see also Pereboom 2014). Narrow-profile emotional responses are local or immediate emotional reactions to a situation. Wide-profile responses are not immediate and can involve rational reflection. I believe it is perfectly consistent for a free will skeptic to maintain that expressions of resentment and indignation are irrational and still acknowledge that there may be certain types and degrees of resentment and indignation that are beyond our power to affect. If, for example, some serious moral wrong were done to my wife and daughter, I doubt I would be able to keep myself from some degree of narrow-profile, immediate resentment (nor would I be judged kindly if I did). Nevertheless, in wide-profile cases, we do have the ability to diminish or even eliminate resentment and indignation, or at least disavow it in the sense of rejecting any force it might be thought to have in justifying harmful reactions and policies (see Pereboom 2014). And since the wide-profile emotional reactions are most important when it comes to public policy—waging war, criminal sentencing, justifying punishment, etc.—I do believe philosophical arguments against moral responsibility can change our practices and reactions.

Let me turn now to recent empirical work in social psychology that indicates that how we assign responsibility is correlated with prior judgments of what counts as being morally bad, which are in turn dependent upon other, larger, social and cultural factors (see Hardcastle, forthcoming). Take, for example, psychologist Mark Alicke’s culpable control model of blame. It proposes that our desire to blame someone intrudes on our assessments of that person’s ability to control his or her thoughts or behavior. As Valerie Hardcastle describes:

Deciding that someone is responsible for an act, which is taken to be the conclusion of a judgment, is actually part of our psychological process of assessing blame. If we start with a spontaneous negative reaction, then that can lead to our hypothesizing that the source of the action is blameworthy as well as to an active desire to blame that source. This desire, in turn, skews our interpretations of the available evidence such that it supports our blame hypothesis. We highlight evidence that indicates negligence, recklessness, impure motives, or a faulty character, and we ignore evidence that suggests otherwise. In other words, instead of dispassionately judging whether someone is responsible, we validate our spontaneous reaction of blameworthiness. (forthcoming)

In fact, data suggests that we often exaggerate a person’s actual or potential control over an event to justify our blame judgment and we will even change the threshold of how much control is required for a blame judgment (Alicke et al. 2008; see also Alicke 1994; Clark et al. 2014; Everett et al., forthcoming; Berg and Vidmar 1975; Eften 1974; Lagnado and Channon 2008; Lerner and Miller 1978; Lerner et al. 1976; Neimeth and Sosis 1973; Schlenker 1980; Snyder et al. 1983; Sosis 1974).

A recent set of studies by Cory Clark and her colleagues (2014), for example, found that a key factor promoting belief in free will is a fundamental desire to blame and hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. Across five studies they found evidence that greater belief in free will is due to heightened punitive motivations. In one study, for instance, an ostensibly real classroom cheating incident led to increased free will beliefs, presumably due to heightened punitive motivations. In a second study, they found that the prevalence of immoral behavior, as measured by crime and homicide rates, predicted free will belief on a country level. These findings suggest that our desire to blame and hold others morally responsible comes first and drives our belief in free will, rather than the other way around.

Other researchers have found that our judgment on whether an action was done on purpose or not is influenced by our moral evaluation of the outcome of certain actions—i.e., whether we morally like or dislike it (Nadelhoffer 2006). Additional findings have found an asymmetric understanding of the moral nature of our own actions and those of others, such that we judge our own actions and motivations as more moral than those of the average person (Epley 2000). As Dutch philosopher Maureen Sie describes:

In cases of other people acting in morally wrong ways we tend to explain those wrongdoings in terms of the agent’s lack of virtue or morally bad character traits. We focus on those elements that allow us to blame agents for their moral wrongdoings. On the other hand, in cases where we ourselves act in morally reprehensible ways we tend to focus on exceptional elements of our situation, emphasizing the lack of room to do otherwise. (2013: 283)

These empirical findings help support the claim that the strike back emotion plays an important role in our moral responsibility beliefs and practices. It appears that our moral responsibility practices are often driven, possibly primarily driven, by our desire to blame, punish, and strike back at moral transgressors, rather than, and often in lieu of, our more rational and objective judgments about free will, control, and moral responsibility.


Acknowledgement: This post includes material excerpted from my forthcoming article, “Moral Responsibility and the Strike Back Emotion: Comments on Bruce Waller’s The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility” which is scheduled to appear as part of a book symposium at Syndicate Philosophy.


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About the Author
Gregg D. Caruso Ph.D.

Gregg D. Caruso, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at SUNY Corning and the co-director of the Justice without Retribution Network housed at the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom.

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