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.