Direct and Derivative Moral Responsibility. An Overlooked Distinction in Experimental Philosophy

Book ChapterInvited
Pascale Willemsen
Direct and Derivative Moral Responsibility. An Overlooked Distinction in Experimental Philosophy. In T. Nadelhoffer (edit), Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. London: Bloomsbury Press.
Publication year: 2021

Moral philosophers draw an important distinction between two kinds of moral responsibility. An agent can be directly morally responsible, or they can be derivatively morally responsible. Many scholars in the debate believe that direct moral responsibility for an action presupposes that the agent could have acted other than she actually did. However, in some situations, we hold agents responsible even though they could not have acted differently, such as when they recklessly cause an accident or do not take adequate precautions to avoid harmful consequences. Moral philosophers often argue that what we ascribe in these cases is derivative moral responsibility for the action, which results from direct moral responsibility for some other, earlier action. In this paper, I apply this conceptual distinction to the experimental debate about so-called folk-compatibilism or, more precisely, to the question of whether the folk reject the Principle of Alternative Possibilities. I argue that experimental philosophers have failed to consider this distinction when designing experiments and interpreting their results. With the help of three experiments, I demonstrate that intuitions which seem to conflict with the Principle of Alternative Possibilities are best explained by the attribution of derivative moral responsibility. For this reason, these studies do not speak in favour of compatibilism.

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

Book ChapterPeer-reviewed
Pascale Willemsen
Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy
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.

Causal attribution and corpus analysis

Book ChapterPeer-reviewed
Justin Sytsma, Roland Bluhm, Pascale Willemsen, Kevin Reuter
In E. Fischer & M. Curtis (edit.), Methodological Advances in Experimental Philosophy, London: Bloomsbury Press. doi: 10.5040/
Publication year: 2018

Although philosophers have often held that causation is a purely descriptive notion, a growing body of experimental work on ordinary causal attributions using questionnaire methods indicates that it is heavily influenced by normative information. These results have been the subject of sceptical challenges. Additionally, those who find the results compelling have disagreed about how best to explain them. In this chapter, we help resolve these debates by using a new set of tools to investigate ordinary causal attributions—the methods of corpus linguistics. We apply both more qualitative corpus analysis techniques and the more purely quantitative methods of distributional semantics to four target questions: (a) Can corpus analysis provide independent support for the thesis that ordinary causal attributions are sensitive to normative information? (b) Does the evidence coming from corpus analysis support the contention that outcome valence matters for ordinary causal attributions? (c) Are ordinary causal attributions similar to responsibility attributions? (d) Are causal attributions of philosophers different from causal attributions we find in corpora of more ordinary language? We argue that the results of our analyses support a positive answer to each of these questions.