I’m travelling today and have little time to post, but I wanted to add one comment to what I said yesterday. That is this: I favor the notion of holding people responsible for good and bad actions, but not morally responsible. That is, people are held accountable for, say, committing a crime,because punishing them simultaneously acts as a deterrent, a device for removing them from society, and a way to get them rehabilitated—if that’s possible.
To me, the notion of moral responsibility adds nothing to this idea. In fact, the idea of moral responsibility implies that a person had the ability to choose whether to act well or badly, and (in this case) took the bad choice. But I don’t believe such alternative “choices” are open to people, so although they may be acting in an “immoral” way, depending on whether society decides to retain the concept of morality (this is something I’m open about), they are not morally responsible. That is, they can’t be held responsible for making a choice with bad consequences on the grounds that they could have chosen otherwise.
That said, all the strictures and punishments I mentioned yesterday still hold, and retributive punishment is still out. But moral responsibility implies free choices, and those don’t exist.
Now someone will ask this: “Why not punish innocent people because that could also serve as a deterrent?” I don’t agree with that because such a strategy is bad for society for two reasons. It removes two of the three justifications for punishment (rehabilitation and removal from society of dangerous elements), and has the additional deleterious effect of making everyone scared that they can be arrested and punished even if they’re completely innocent. That casts a bad pall over society, making everyone paranoid.
On the way back from the natrualism conference in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I argued this point of view with Dan Dennett for 2.5 hours. Dan maintained that, despite determinism, it’s valuable to retain the notion of moral responsibility, while I saw nothing that it adds to society. I know Dan knows a lot more about philosophy than I do, but when I feel that I’m right, I’ll hold my ground, always trying to see if there’s some way I could be wrong. In this case I don’t think I was.