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Freedom, Voluntariness, And Responsibility Notes

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This is an extract of our Freedom, Voluntariness, And Responsibility document, which we sell as part of our Ethics Essays collection written by the top tier of Cambridge students.

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What is the relationship between freedom, voluntariness, and responsibility?
In this essay, I will argue that there is a sense in which both compatibilists and incompatibilists both provide sound arguments concerning the link between freedom, voluntariness, and responsibility. I will do this by reference to a distinction between, on the one hand, attributability of responsibility, and on the other its accountability. I will take freedom as the state of being genuinely causally influential on one's actions, and voluntariness as having acted in such a state. In performing/failing to perform a morally significant action, we often want to respond in a certain way. For instance, we might praise someone for helping an old lady across the street, or we might blame them for kicking her in the shin. Regarding agents as worthy of one of these reactions ascribes responsibility to them on the basis of what they have done or left undone. Hence, to be morally responsible for something is to be worthy of a particular kind of reaction --- praise, blame, etc. This type of moral responsibility is to be distinguished from the mere causal connection ascribes to 'responsible', in saying, for instance, that new international laws are responsible for the decline in high seas piracy. In the case of moral responsibility, we mean to say that certain duties or obligations follow from making ethical judgements on certain actions. Moral responsibility seems to be central to a widely-shared conception of ourselves as members of a distinct class of individuals. We often want to make this distinction between people and animals, which many attribute to a person's status as a morally responsible agent. This might be seen to follow from the apparent control only we can exercise over our actions. However, supposing a person's behaviour can be explained purely in terms of causal chains from the big bang, over which we have no actual control but must rather submit to the physical states of the universe and the laws governing changes in those physical states, it is debatable whether we can truly call agents morally responsible at all. This, I think, is the basis of the drive to theorise on moral responsibility. I will start with the problem of defining moral responsibility. There are two common ways in which moral responsibility is interpreted. Firtsly, there is the merit-based view. This states that praise/blame are an appropriate reaction towards an agent if, and only if, she deserves such a reaction. Secondly, the consequentialist view, by which one ought to be praised/blamed if, and only if, such a response would lead to a beneficial alteration in the behavioural patterns of an agent. Theorists generally recognise inner attitudes and emotions, their outward expression in blame or praise, and the imposition of corresponding sanctions or rewards, as a crucial part in the practice of holding persons responsible. These inner attitudes, emotions etc. are generally seen to rest on some more fundamental judgment about an agent's being responsible. That is to say, it is typically accepted that blame and praise depend in some way on a judgment/belief that the agent in question has satisfied conditions for being

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