Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?

I saw that Brian Auten of Apologetics 315 linked to this post by J. Warner Wallace.


When examining the causes for an event (such as a death) we can separate them into two categories: event causation and agent causation (prior physical events cause things to happen and free agents cause things to happen). It’s important to recognize that free agents alone have the freedom to act or respond without a prior physical causal event. Physical objects, like dominoes, cannot cause themselves to fall over; they require a prior event to cause them to fall. But you and I have the ability to cause the first domino to fall as a simple matter of choice (we don’t need a prior event to cause this action). You can’t blame a car for running over a victim; the car is simply a physical object subject to a series of physical processes, none of which can be held morally culpable. But we can blame thedriver of the car for driving the car over the victim. The driver is a free agent, and we recognize that his choices are just that: free choices. The driver is not like the car. His choice is not simply the result of a series of purely physical processes, like dominoes falling. He had the freedom to choose otherwise, and this is why we seek to arrest and prosecute him.

Our recognition of the moral culpability of the driver (rather than the car) is an admission that materialism (physicalism) fails to explain who we are as humans. Consider the following argument:

No Physical System is a Free Agent
Physical systems are either “determined” (one event necessarily following the other) or “random”

Therefore No Physical System Has Moral Responsibility
Moral responsibility requires moral freedom of choice

Human Beings DO Have Moral Responsibility
We recognize that each of us has the responsibility and choice to act morally, and indeed, we seek to hold each other legally accountable for each other’s free-will choices

Therefore, Human Beings Are NOT Simply Physical Systems
Our recognition of moral responsibility and our efforts to hold each other accountable are irrational and unwarranted if humans are merely physical systems

If we, as humans, are only physical systems (merely matter), we ought to stop trying to hold each other accountable for misbehavior. In fact, there can be no misbehavior if we are only physical brains and bodies; there can only be behavior. Our actions have no moral content at all unless we truly have the freedom to choose and the ability to break the bondage of physical event causation.

I finally learned what the “Twinkie defense” was by reading that post. It’s worth it for that reason alone.

This quote by JWW reminded me of a famous chapter in Theodore Dalrymple’s famous book “Life at the Bottom”, in which he explains the worldview of the lower classes in Britain. The chapter is called “The Knife Went In“, and it shows how people in the underclass describe their crimes in a way that completely minimizes their own free choices and their own responsibilities.

Take a look:

It is a mistake to suppose that all men, or at least all Englishmen, want to be free. On the contrary, if freedom entails responsibility, many of them want none of it. They would happily exchange their liberty for a modest (if illusory) security. Even those who claim to cherish their freedom are rather less enthusiastic about taking the consequences of their actions. The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong.

In the past few decades, a peculiar and distinctive psychology has emerged in England. Gone are the civility, sturdy independence, and admirable stoicism that carried the English through the war years. It has been replaced by a constant whine of excuses, complaint, and special pleading. The collapse of the British character has been as swift and complete as the collapse of British power.

Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. Implicitly, they disagree with Bacon’s famous dictum that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands.” Instead, they experience themselves as putty in the hands of fate.

It is instructive to listen to the language they use to describe their lives. The language of prisoners in particular teaches much about the dishonest fatalism with which people seek to explain themselves to others, especially when those others are in a position to help them in some way. As a doctor who sees patients in a prison once or twice a week, I am fascinated by prisoners’ use of the passive mood and other modes of speech that are supposed to indicate their helplessness. They describe themselves as the marionettes of happenstance.

Not long ago, a murderer entered my room in the prison shortly after his arrest to seek a prescription for the methadone to which he was addicted. I told him that I would prescribe a reducing dose, and that within a relatively short time my prescription would cease. I would not prescribe a maintenance dose for a man with a life sentence.

“Yes,” he said, “it’s just my luck to be here on this charge.”

Luck? He had already served a dozen prison sentences, many of them for violence, and on the night in question had carried a knife with him, which he must have known from experience that he was inclined to use. But it was the victim of the stabbing who was the real author of the killer’s action: if he hadn’t been there, he wouldn’t have been stabbed.

My murderer was by no means alone in explaining his deed as due to circumstances beyond his control. As it happens, there are three stabbers (two of them unto death) at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. “The knife went in,” they said when pressed to recover their allegedly lost memories of the deed.

The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently. That the long-hated victims were sought out, and the knives carried to the scene of the crimes, was as nothing compared with the willpower possessed by the inanimate knives themselves, which determined the unfortunate outcome.

I wonder how much the secularism and atheism of the Britain academics has now seeped down to the lower classes and caused them to view themselves as lumps of meat or animals, rather than responsible free agents. Britain is the country of Charles Darwin and the idea of unguided Darwinian evolution. If you believe that you are an animal who evolved by accident in an accidental universe, then you don’t believe in free will, moral choices or moral obligations. The funniest thing in the world to me is how atheists go about their lives helping themselves to moral language that is not grounded by their worldview. Like parrots who have been trained to talk about the stock market. There is no realm of objective moral values and duties on atheism, so why are they using moral language and making moral judgments? On their view right and wrong are just social customs and conventions that vary by time and place, and human actions are biologically determined anyway. There are no choices. There is no responsibility.

You can read the whole Dalrymple book for free online, and I’ve linked to all the chapters in this one post.

10 thoughts on “Is the concept of moral responsibility compatible with physicalism / materialism?”

  1. It is also interesting that they ascribe intellectual responsibility to themselves. Alvin Plantinga argues that the conjunction of naturalism and evolution precludes such epistemic responsibility, and thus, precludes there being sufficient justification for a person to believe in naturalism and evolution simultaneously. If both atheism and evolution were true, no one could know it, since their cognitive equipment would arise for adaptive advantages (feeding, fleeing, fighting, reproducing), which is quite different from being aimed at producing true belief.


    1. Sorry, to be more precise, Plantinga argues that naturalism + evolution excludes the possibility that we can trust the reliability of our cognitive faculties. That is distinct from epistemic responsibility itself. And of course, the argument doesn’t apply to theistic evolution, as Plantinga notes.


  2. This view of criminals, the poor, and people in general as helpless victims of circumstance is very prevalent in our society today. Especially among the liberals. I suppose that is why liberals blame guns for gun violence. They see the shooters as passive bystanders that are not responsible for their crimes. Thus, the gun must have shot the victims. Fixing the problem is then as easy as getting rid of guns so that the guns can’t shoot anyone else.

    They do the same thing with abortion. A woman who gets unexpectedly pregnant didn’t deserve that, in their view. She did nothing to deserve this intrusion into her life. Never mind that she consented to sex and that sex makes babies. She’s just a victim and should not be held responsible for something she didn’t plan on. Thus, she has every right to kill the baby who is “forcing” this responsibility on her and “using” her body. Funny that they attribute evil motives to the unborn baby, but consider the adult woman simply a victim of chance and not responsible for the existence of the baby.

    They do this with the poor as well. These people, according to liberals, had no responsibility in the matter and are simply victims of happenstance and should be given money taken from those who have plenty (also by happenstance – wealth or poverty is just good luck or bad luck). This makes things fair, in their minds since no one deserves to have wealth or deserves to be poor – it’s all just luck.

    All of these views are due to a mindset that says that people aren’t responsible for their choices.


    1. You’re right, it’s the same attitude that you see with abortion. It’s like they think the normal outcome of sex is feelings of pleasure and not babies, and if a baby comes along, then they are the victims of “circumstances” and can do anything including murder in order to avoid being made unhappy by the needs of that baby.


      1. I just had a thought. Naturalists usually agree that nature is good right? It’s also likely that those same naturalists would agree that the freedom to choose is good right? What is the naturalistic function of sex? To reproduce. Yet, these naturalists want to get rid of the naturalistic outcome of sexual activity. So does that mean the non-natural freedom to choose (because freedom to choose isn’t naturalism) trump naturalism? Would that make naturalism deficient? Or would the naturalist answer that our species is the stronger species by being able to stop outcome of nature via abortion? Which is good? Nature or the freedom to choose? I don’t think the naturalist can say both are good because they’re incompatible I would think.


      2. Yes, the pro-abortion crowd sees getting pregnant as akin to being struck by lightning…impossible to predict and totally undeserved (not to mention that they seem to think pregnancy is the absolute worst thing that could befall a woman). They totally ignore the fact that pregnancy is a direct result of having sex.

        I debate against abortion a lot on facebook and I get the same tired arguments all the time. Their favorite is that “consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy.” I keep pointing out that consent to sex IS consent to pregnancy because pregnancy is a natural consequence of sex. There’s a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Just as jumping off a building is consent to hitting the ground and drinking large amounts of alcohol is consent to getting drunk (because that’s what happens when you do those things), consent to sex is consent to pregnancy. That argument drives them bonkers and they begin foaming at the mouth and screaming insults at that point (which is kind of fun to “watch” since I know it’s only because they can’t argue with my logic)…or they change the subject.

        But the whole “logic” behind the abortion mindset is that they think they have a right not to be held responsible for their choices. They have this idea that sex is not supposed to be a big deal. It’s not supposed to have life-changing consequences. It’s just a fun activity with no strings attached. So when a woman gets pregnant, that’s just unfair and is infringing on her “right” to do as she pleases. Pointing out the rights of the baby and the fact that the mother is responsible for the child she chose to create through her actions is something they don’t seem to comprehend because the idea of taking responsibility for one’s actions is so foreign to them.


  3. That is an excellent post by JW Wallace. Excellent.

    It’s interesting especially when atheists say objective morality “just exists.” That murder is wrong because it “just is.” Usually I find out these atheists are also naturalists. On naturalism, if objective moral values just exist, they would be non-natural, that is abstract, and I have no reason to believe that we could know of them or should know them, i.e. that we would have an oughtness to know them as we do today or a moral responsibility. On naturalism I find it hard to believe that these unexplainable objective moral values existed unchanging during the whole process of evolution, not dependent on anything for their survival and that, somehow, man became aware of these moral values and found out what they are? If naturalistic evolution is true and objective moral values do indeed “just exist” I find it very hard to believe that man would evolve in that perfect way as to be able to know what those moral values are. Given that scenario, it’s as if the moral realm “knew” that just such a man was coming. It’s as if man was “rigged” to know the moral realm, care about it, feel responsible to its demands and subscribe to its values; like there was a design or something. Strange.

    Of course, a non-natural moral realm cannot be personal because it’s impersonal. In order for man to know about such abstract objects, it would have be personal. The theist is in a fine position to say that if God exists, then as a personal being He could choose to let man know of His existence by divine revelation and/or by letting his existence be known via reason, those human beings who are functioning properly. God is personal therefore knowable, whereas non-natural moral values/a moral realm is impersonal therefore unknowable.


    1. That’s an excellent comment, Seth. If atheists want to talk about as if it is more than just arbitrary customs, they owe us an explanation of how these moral values exist during the time where there were no humans around. Where are these objective moral values and duties on atheism? And why do they apply to humans?

      One might add another question: why would atheist act in line with the moral duties when it ran against their self-interest? Without life after death and accountability, self-sacrificial goodness is irrational.


      1. The best explanation I’ve encountered is that “morality just exists and is objective just because it is.” This was in a conversation with a guy who tried to explain morality but the best he could do was applied ethics which doesn’t answer the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of actions or answer the intrinsic value of human beings.

        Life after death and accountability play a role in theism, but I don’t think theism even needs to bring up those answers because theism can answer that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Why does a person jump in front of a bullet for a stranger? Because that person recognizes the intrinsic worth of that stranger. We are valuable. We are moral agents. We are personal. Why? Human beings are made in the image of God (who is personal) therefore we are valuable and are morally aware. We don’t perform selfless actions for rewards. We perform selfless acts because our fellow neighbor is valuable, he is worth saving because he is a human being, he is worth caring for because he is a human being, etc. (the list could go on)


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