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Responsibility Without Freedom? Folk Judgements About Deliberate Actions

Frontiers in Psychology 10
Deutschländer, R.Vierkant, T.Sinnott-Armstrong, W.Haynes, J.-D. Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience,
Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany

Universitätsmedizin Berlin, Germany
Corporate Member of Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

School of Philosophy,
Psychology and Language Sciences,
University of Edinburgh,
Edinburgh, UK

Department of Philosophy,
Kenan Institute for Ethics,
Duke University,
Durham, NC, USA

Berlin Center for Advanced Neuroimaging
Department of Psychology
Berlin School of Mind and Brain
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
2019 Consciousness

A long-standing position in philosophy, law, and theology is that a person can be held morally responsible for an action only if they had the freedom to choose and to act otherwise. Thus, many philosophers consider freedom to be a necessary condition for moral responsibility.

However, empirical findings suggest that this assumption might not be in line with common sense thinking. For example, in a recent study we used surveys to show that – counter to positions held by many philosophers – lay people consider actions to be free when they are spontaneous rather than being based on reasons. In contrast, responsibility is often considered to require that someone has thought about the alternative options. In this study we used an online survey to directly test the degree to which lay judgements of freedom and responsibility match.

Specifically, we tested whether manipulations of deliberation affect freedom and responsibility judgements in the same way. Furthermore, we also tested the dependency of these judgements on a person’s belief that their decision had consequences for their personal life. We found that deliberation had an opposite effect on freedom and responsibility judgements. People were considered more free when they acted spontaneously, whereas they were considered more responsible when they deliberated about their actions. These results seem to suggest that deliberating about reasons is crucially important for the lay concept of responsibility, while for the lay notion of freedom it is perceived to be detrimental.

One way of interpreting our findings for the interdisciplinary debate on free will and responsibility could be to suggest that lay beliefs match the philosophical position of semi-compatibilism. Semi-compatibilists insist that the metaphysical debate on the nature of free will can be separated from the debate on conditions of responsible agency. According to our findings the beliefs of lay people are in line with views held by semi-compatibilists, even though we did not test whether they endorse that position explicitly.

The article was published in: Frontiers in Psychology 10: 1133.

Full article

This work was supported (in part) by the Fetzer Franklin Fund of the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust.