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Thomas Nadelhoffer


Thanks again for the great talk. I had a few questions, but I will start with this one: In a few places you used the phrase "one's own" in discussing the reasons responsive mechanisms that undergird moral responsibility. You also suggested that in manipulation cases, it is sometimes true that while autonomy is undermined, responsibility is not. But in what sense can my actions flow from mechanisms that are my own in context where I am sufficiently dominated so as not to be autonomous? It seems to me that the decisions and actions of a fully dominated agent do not flow from the agent in a way that allows for responsibility. If my decision architecture has been shaped entirely by manipulative forces (whether distal or proximal)--such that I can't be said to be autonomous--in what sense is this architecture (and the actions that flow from it) appropriately mine? After all, this architecture was forced upon me.

Gregg Caruso

Thank you for the excellent talk John! I really enjoyed it. I guess my main question is that, on your taxonomy autonomy requires more than moral responsibility--i.e., it is more demanding. For me, on the other hand, autonomy is a weaker notion than moral responsibility--i.e., it can come in degrees, one can have various degrees of autonomy without being morally responsible, etc. I wonder if there is a way to adjudicate which is the correct taxonomy, or do you just view this as a stimulative matter? In terms of common usage, I would have thought autonomy-talk is more in line with my usage. That is, we talk about agents having various degrees of autonomy even if they may not be fully morally responsible for their actions--perhaps because they do not satisfy the epistemic conditions on MR or for some other reason. Additionally, it's unclear to me what additional conditions you think need to be satisfied for autonomy that go beyond moderate reasons responsiveness. Are you suggesting that autonomy requires, for instance, leeway freedom or the ability to do otherwise? If so, that again, doesn't seem to fit with the way we ordinarily think of autonomy.

Perhaps the problem is that we are just taxonomizing things differently. For me, for instance, the kind of moral responsibility in dispute is best defined in terms of the control in action required for basic desert moral responsibility. And for me that requires more than moderate reasons-responsiveness. I know you do not share that. Hence, I have a more demanding notion of moral responsibility in mind than you do. But that means, autonomy can be less demanding and may only require certain notions of competency, reasons-responsiveness, etc. So in essence, the hierarchy is flipped. I don't think we'll ever agree on which of these ways of defining things is correct, but why think autonomy must meet conditions beyond reasons-responsiveness? And what, exactly, are the additional conditions that need to be met?

Not sure if any of that makes sense. Thanks again for the wonderful talk. It was great to see you.

John Fischer


Thank YOU for creating this wonderful site for sharing ideas and continuing to build, and celebrate, the great community of scholars interested in "agency," broadly construed. And thanks again for the invitation; I enjoyed, and learned from, the occasion. Of course, I always think of things I should have said but didn't... Oh well.

As to your excellent question, first I think it important to distinguish initial design from manipulation (strictly speaking). I just don't think initial design undermines ownership--at all. But it is very hard for me to prove this, especially to people (like you, and many of my super-great former students, and many reading this blog) that this is so. I try to do this in my contribution to a recent symposium on Al Mele's book Manipulated Agents (is that the exact title), that appeared in Journal of Criminal Law and Philosophy. Well: how can the intentions of someone who existed (and/or had those intentions) before your birth matter, apart from creating distortions or impairments in your capacities in life? That would imply that your moral responsibility does not supervene on your entire life! And if a perfect God exists and created this as the BPW, then no one would be free and morally responsible. Yikes!

But I do want to distinguish between initial design and hands-on manipulation. Typically (at least in the hypothetical scenarios that are relevant) manipulation does rule out responsibility so far as the agent has not taken responsibility for the mechanism that issues in choice and action.

This is a short version of the much-longer and ultimately not decisive story/"proof".


John Fischer

Thank you! Btw, I'm currently using your moral responsibility debate book with Daniel Dennett in a senior seminar, and it is really a wonderful book for teaching (and of course for the teacher too!)

The words are not so important to me as the ideas (roughly speaking). I do think that the words themselves suggest (but do not imply) the ideas: "self-governance" v "response-ability"), but I don't place much weight on that.

How about thinking about it this way: There is a more robust and less robust (and in-between, but leave that out for now) notion of freedom-implicating notions. One arguably admits of degrees and the other doesn't. Call one M and the other A. My claims is that the threshhold for M is lower than for A, althugh A admits of degrees. Is the minimal kind of A "more robust" than M? Dunno. My claim is that M piggypbacks on one kind of freedom, and A on another. They piggybacking works in different ways, but the freedom(s) in question have the same core--guidance control. And using this apparatus can illuminate certain central and important and otherwise intractable debates in Agency Theory.

Gregg Caruso

Thank you for the response John! And thank you for the kind words about my book with Dennett. It’s wonderful to hear you’re using it in your senior seminar.

Stephen Kershnar


As with all your talks, the one on Thursday was excellent. New, very interesting, and well-delivered.

Here is a quick response. Please do not feel any need to respond. Also, I apologize if I misstate your position.

Fischer Taxonomy
(1) Moral responsibility = Self-government by the internal self
(2) Autonomy = Self-government by the ideal self
(3) Authenticity = Self-government by the real self

Kershnar Taxonomy
(1) Moral responsibility = accountability
(2) Autonomy = internal condition for moral responsibility
(3) Authenticity = attributability

The advantage of the second taxonomy over the first is two-fold: it better satisfies how we talk, and it is simpler.

Moral Responsibility

I suspect we agree on (1), it is just that you fill out (1) in terms of self-governance, which in turn is filled out in terms of guidance control. The problem is that external conditions – victim’s calm-and-rational decision in response to an armed robber – is a case in which a person is governed by his internal self, but in which he is not responsible because of what is external to him. Thus, limiting responsibility to the internal self seems to ignore external responsibility-underminers.

You might respond that responsibility is an internalist feature. First, if this is correct, then ‘internal’ seems superfluous because all self-governance is internal. Second, I claim, this is unavailable to historical theorists such as yourself.


On autonomy, note that self-governance in the negative sense – no coercion, fraud, force, or domination by another - is satisfied when a person does things that he is later ashamed of, for example, adulterous sex, failing to stand up for a colleague against an SJW witch hunt, and an Evangelical minister having meth-fueled gay sex.

In the positive sense, in some cases – but not all – when the person who is asked why he is ashamed for doing the above things in at least some cases, he concedes that this is who he is and what he wants (for example, insufficiently loyal, cowardly, or homosexual), but is ashamed of who he is rather than saying that he suffered from weakness of the will or compulsion. Furthermore, he would concede that his action is autonomous. If this is correct, then autonomy need not align with one’s ideal self.

Perhaps ideal self means one’s psychology once various irrationalities – for example, contradiction and self-deception – are eliminated. Still, I think that people would label their and others’ actions ‘autonomous’ even when they have the sort of contradictions found in the minister’s action. That is, we see ourselves as acting autonomously even when we are not at our best.


Authenticity seems to be an issue of integrity – acting in a way consistent with one’s beliefs, desires, values, etc. – rather than responsibility or self-government. Here is a such a case.

Golde Schwartz lived in the late 1800’s in a Russian Shtetl. Although quite bright – her granddaughter would attend Harvard Medical School – she never evaluated her religious beliefs, roles (as daughter, wife, and mother), or political views (this was something for men to consider). When her niece marries a Cossack, she and her sisters (which include the young woman’s mother) sit shiva over the niece. Golde is not self-governed in a significant way. She does not critically reconsider any of her beliefs, desires, values, etc.

I claim that when Golde sits shiva for her niece she is acting authentically, but not in a significantly self-governed way. This is because she acts with integrity, and this is enough for authenticity.

In addition, if people turn out not to be responsible – for example, Galen Strawson’s argument works – people still intuitively seem to have authenticity. That said, I greatly enjoyed and teach your response – Dealing with the Cards You’re Dealt – to Strawson.

Thank you for a great talk.

Steve K

John Fischer

As with all my talks, you offer detailed and thoughtful comments, which I always appreciate, even when they successfully refute me. I do have to think about all of this more, and I appreciate the help.

As regards the armed robber case, the distinction between moral responsibility and praiseworthiness/blameworthiness is relevant. The bank teller is responsible, but not blameworthy, in my view. Responsibility is the "gateway" to the other attitudes/activities.

Autonomy: the two conditions work together in the sense that they both have to be satisfied--negative and positive. Recall the metaphor of the inner citadel--the citadel is strong (positive condition), but it has to be protected by a moat and walls (negative condition).

If someone believes that X is best but later regrets it, they still may act autonomously, meeting the positive condition (at the time of action). In some of your cases the individual may well not be autonomous, but morally responsible and perhaps authentic too.

I'll address integrity in my next post.


John Fischer

I learned a lot from the session, and here are a few preliminary reflections.

I should have been more explicit that especially the negative or "non-domination" (Pettit's term) condition has to be spelled out much more. The work of John Christman, Marona Oshana, Andrea Westlund, and many more is relevant here.

I take the point that integrity and sincerity are important.
How about:
Authenticity: the sincere exercise of guidance control by the self, creating a pattern over time (context-sensitive pattern and length). The pattern over time captures the integrity part, where the relevant notion is the "coherence" sense of integrity, as emphasized in Williams's Jim and the Indians example.

I have to think more about David Shoemaker's point about depth and the "real self".

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