Moral Responsibility

Sentencing a Spiritual Machine

I should waste no time in arriving at the point. It is argued that humans cannot be held morally accountable for the actions that they commit, since, on account of the deterministic or stochastic nature of the universe, these acts cannot be said to originate from a free agent. It ostensibly follows, then, that we may dismiss any conception of God that entails reprobation upon death, as he could not conceivably punish such actions.

This argument is the lynch-pin of intellectual objections to divine judgement. It is not that the wrath of God is excessive, but that it is altogether unwarranted. Einstein wrote that a God who rewards good or punishes evil is inconceivable since, in God’s eyes, man is no more responsible for his actions than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. The objection has been rephrased in many ways, and it has never come undone.

Some believers in moral responsibility appeal to ontological free will and pure, unadulterated emotion. Does it not seem clear that we are free to do as we please? Is a child killer not morally responsible for his crimes? I do not claim these arguments as my own, however, as I cannot conceive of such free will, and I cannot rest my conclusion solely upon emotion, however compelling.

I espouse a belief in moral responsibility, and I will defend it, though not by rejecting determinism (though I am indifferent to the truth of that proposition). I maintain a belief in moral responsibility because I see no reason why the above arguments should negate it, and I do not believe that God is obligated to judge us on our terms.

The materialist objection is incoherent, treading on its own assumptions. It states that “we” cannot be held morally responsible for our predetermined actions; as if these actions were somewhere off in the distance, while we, with our free will, stand off to the side. Yet if we accept the materialist outlook, there is no “you” to separate from your actions. You are not an innocent soul that is forced to commit predetermined crimes, because these actions—these thoughts—are everything that you are. You are, in essence, the inextricable moral behaviour. To appeal to any form of dualism in the mind and body is to return to the place from which you came, where the conventional notions of moral accountability are already valid.

What Einstein refused to appreciate is that we do hold inanimate objects for the motions they undergo. If a pendulum will not swing, we undertake to repair it; if it cannot be repaired, we discard it.

You will say to me then, “Why does [God] still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honourable use and another for dishonourable use?

[The Apostle Paul, Romans 9:19-21, ESV]

Thousands of years before the advent of modern science, it was possible to understand that all things are responsible for what they are, inasmuch as they are responsible for anything. We hold objects responsible for the state they are in, but we do so in ways that are appropriate for objects. We hold humans responsible for the state they are in, and we do so in ways that are appropriate to humans. That many people embrace the moral law in their everyday lives—despite having renounced it intellectually—is indicative of more, I believe, than a simple failure to reach enlightenment.

This perspective alone does not satisfactorily explain the state we are in. Neither does it suggest that a God exists who will execute divine judgement in any particular way. It suggests only that this God would be perfectly justified in dealing with human beings in a way that is commensurate with their deeds, thoughts, and state of being. Not that he requires such justification, but that we cannot find it lacking.

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2 Responses to “Moral Responsibility”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    From a writerly perspective, your thoughts would flow better if you switched the positions of the last two paragraphs (any quote is best served when followed up by a clear application or explanation of it in your own words).

  2. I’ll think about that, maybe switch them when I compile them. The last paragraph isn’t just addressing the quote, though, it’s summing up the whole thing–I could perhaps change its wording.

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