The Relevance of Alternate Possibilities for Moral Responsibility for Actions and Omissions

Book ChapterPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen
forthcoming with Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy, edited by Tania Lombrozo, Shaun Nichols and Joshua Knobe. Oxford University Press
Publication year: 2019

In this paper, I present three original, pre-registered experiments that test the relevance of alternative possibilities for the attribution of moral responsibility. Many philosophers have argued that alternative possibilities are required for an agent’s moral responsibility for the consequences of omitting an action. In contrast, it is argued that alternative possibilities are not required for moral responsibility for the consequences of performing an action. Thus, while an agent can be morally responsible for an action she could not have avoided, an agent is never morally responsible for omitting an action she could not have performed. Call this the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis. In this paper, I discuss various strategies to challenge the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis. I identify the predictions those strategies make about the conditions under which an agent will be held morally responsible for an unavoidable action or omission. These predictions are subsequently tested in three experiments to evaluate their respective plausibility. I demonstrate that whether there is an Action/Omission Asymmetry strongly depends, first, on the type of moral judgment we consider relevant for the Action/Omission Asymmetry Thesis, and, second, the scale we use to test the folk’s intuitions.