Hard Incompatibilism and Ethics: Some Concerns

Posted on July 1, 2013 by

If we think that ethics is supposed to tell us what we ought to do (this is the common understanding of ethics see here), and, if our conception of right and wrong is derived from our sense of moral obligation then the thesis of hard incompatibilism poses a serious threat to any ethical system that incorporates these traditional concepts (obligation, right, and wrong).

Hard Incompatibilism is a thesis that defends two central claims; (1) that if an action is completely determined by factors beyond an agent’s control then it cannot be freely willed in the sense required for moral responsibility. And, (2) all of our actions are determined, at least this is what our best science has indicated. Derk Pereboom adopts a similar view in his book Living Without Free Will (2001), though his incompatibilism stretches to indeterminism as well. He thinks that we have no free will whether the world is indeterministic or deterministic.(click here for some explanations regarding some terminology)

FreewillraptorI am not a hard incompatibilist but I will not be focused on refuting the thesis here. My aim will be to try to make sense of some ethical concepts in light of accepting hard incompatibilism. Pereboom argues that a world without the free will required for moral responsibility not only has robust meaning but might be a better world when compared to a world where people believe in free will. Sam Harris, who has adopted a view eerily similar to Pereboom’s, recently claimed that “it could only produce a more compassionate, equitable, and sane society” if we truly believed that free will was an illusion” (see here for his blog post on the topic). Both Harris and Pereboom seem to be misguided. A genuine belief in hard incompatibilism threatens most of our ethical concepts, for example – deontic judgments of moral obligation,  right and wrong actions, and permissibility would be imperiled if we were to have a genuine belief in hard incompatibilism, and because of this our lives would be negatively impacted. I will touch on some reasons why such concepts would be imperiled before asking for your thoughts on the matter. Would ethics and the central concepts that make up our ethical system be imperiled without free will?

Consider moral responsibility: As Ish Haji has put quite nicely “there is a widespread concurrence that the following principle captures an essential metaphysical element of responsibility: …one is either morally praiseworthy or blameworthy for doing something only if one has control regarding or one is free in doing it” (Haji 2012). In other words there is a conceptual connection between a person’s blameworthiness and their ability to act from their own free will. The same connection to one’s free will seems to hold with deontic judgments as well, judgements of obligation, moral right, and moral wrong. Given the ought-implies-can principle (OIC): if one morally ought to do something, then one can do it. Put another way, if a person morally ought to do something then one has the freedom to do it. If this connection holds then hard incompatibilists lose the ability to utilize the very important deontic judgements of moral right, moral wrong, and moral obligation. Here’s how (very briefly).

Keep in mind that we are assuming hard incompatibilism. Consider ‘Boston Bomber’ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev . He was determined to commit the atrocious acts that occurred on April 15th, 2013. Factors beyond his control caused him to set the bombs. Because of this he is not morally responsible. Now, both Pereboom and Harris concede this point. What they do not concede is that we would lose other valuable deontic judgments. For those who may agree that the bombers were not morally responsible would you also be ok with saying that what they did was also morally neutral? That is was not morally wrong for them to do what they did? That they were not obligated to refrain from setting off the bombs? If one is committed to hard incompatibilism then one cannot say that what Tsarnaev did was morally wrong. Given that Tsarnaev couldn’t have done otherwise, a requirement for (OIC), then it is not true that he was obligated to refrain from setting off the bomb. Hard incompatibilists are committed to not only absolving Tsarnaev of all moral responsibility (and everyone else—input the most repulsive criminal you can think of here -Hitler, etc.) but they are committed to saying that what Tsarnaev did was not morally wrong. Hence my concern.

If we lose our ability to call any act morally right or wrong and our ability to make judgments of moral obligation we seem to lose a truly prescriptive ethic. Whether you are a consequentialist, a Kantian, or a Virtue Ethicist, it seems the views you espouse regarding the above mentioned deontic judgments are imperiled. And, if these concepts are needed to make sense of a coherent ethical framework, then so much for the claims made by Harris and Pereboom that a belief in hard incompatibilism would not affect our system of morals. In fact, in subsequent posts, I will show why such a belief also threatens our interpersonal relationships and meaning in our lives.



Haji, Ish. 2012. Reason’s Debt to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harris, Sam. 2012. Free Will. New York: Free Press

Pereboom, Derk. 2001. Living Without Free Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.