The Hopelessness of Moral Irresponsibility

What would it be like to live in a world without moral responsibility—a world where there was no commendation or condemnation, no praise or blame, no reward or punishment? I have recently read a book by Bruce N. Waller entitled Against Moral Responsibility, and it is for such a world that Waller argues vigorously–a world in which no one is ever held morally responsible because, as he maintains, no one ever is morally responsible.

Waller is truly against moral responsibility. His argument is grounded on a naturalist presupposition that understands life as a random series of chance happenstances over which we have no control and hence no moral responsibility. Our existence is governed by sheer luck—or lack thereof. In that light, he insists that our system of moral responsibility is merely a primitive visceral emotive reaction, supported by belief in “gods and miracles and mysteries” but unsupported by our scientific knowledge of human behavior which leaves no room for such a concept.

The majority of the book is oriented towards dismantling and defeating various claims for moral responsibility. Waller methodically critiques many arguments in its support, addressing issues of free will, the ability to “take responsibility” without being morally responsible, character development, and the social entrenchment of the “benefits” of moral responsibility.

But there are difficulties with his arguments. Waller confuses “influence” with “causation,” a significant flaw in his argument; and the distinction he attempts to make between “take charge” responsibility (which he claims we can assume) and “moral” responsibility (which he claims we cannot possess) is a construct that renders responsibility meaningless. Moreover, he paints portraits in dualistic black and white colors: backgrounds and historical forces are either “fortunate” or “unfortunate;” individuals have either been “blessed” or “cursed.” But human life is never that unambiguous, and deficiency or lack of human resources does not justify moral irresponsibility as he repeatedly implies. Despite his religious upbringing, he has forgotten (or refused to acknowledge) that we ALL are broken and fallen.

He ends by attempting to construct a world without moral responsibility but is unable to provide a concrete, well-developed alternative. He insists that once character flaws are acknowledged, strides can be made to change those flaws, to protect others from those flaws, and to change the systems that shaped the flawed characters, all apart from any allusion to moral responsibility. But how to do so remains unanswered, since to do so would entail self-transcendence, which by his naturalist account he has repeatedly stated we do not possess. Ultimately, his blameless system amounts to blame shifting.

But Waller is against more than moral responsibility; he is also vehemently against God. Sadly, there is profound irony in the preponderance of biblical quotes in a book whose philosophical presuppositions deny the reality of God. Waller cites a Southern Baptist upbringing and gives abundant evidence of scriptural knowledge, making frequent allusions to Biblical and theological concepts. Yet he does so with derision, sarcasm, and flagrant hostility. One can only wonder at the forces that have shaped and “flawed” his understanding of God.

Waller does, however, make several valid points in his argument against moral responsibility. Indeed, there is a need for compassionate consideration of the powers that shape those whose behaviors are violent or consistently socially unacceptable, and there is a need to seek systemic solutions to systemic problems where they exist and can be identified. But such grains of wheat are so widely scattered among the tares of his religious antagonism that they are often too difficult to glean. Moreover, there is no reason why this cannot be a “both/and” situation, rather than an “either/or”–why a broader, social perspective on moral problems cannot exist alongside an insistence on moral responsibility.

As a physician, I should rejoice at his proposed system; it would spell the end of medical malpractice! But I would not want to live in “Waller’s World,” a world where no one is morally responsible and everyone is merely a victim of circumstances; where there is no justice for victims because the perpetrators are held to be victims as well; where there is no encouragement for virtue; where, despite his claims to the contrary, there is no hope for change since we are unable to transcend the forces that have shaped us. In the end, Waller’s world is a hopeless one, for hope is anchored in the transcendent One from whence our moral accountability flows and by whose power we can indeed be transformed. But that requires that we first take responsibility…

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Steve Phillips

From what you have written it sounds like Waller has rediscovered the conclusion that goes back at least to Nietzsche tht the logicsl conseqence of philosophic naturalism is moral nihilism. The problem with that is that none of us live as if there there are no moral values. We live as if there are things that are universally right and wrong. The philosphic naturalist is left with a choice between keeping his philosophy and not being able to live with it or accepting that the premise that there is nothing beyond the physical may not be true.

Joe Gibes
Joe Gibes

The self-contradiction of the Naturalist: If Waller is correct, then we have no reason to believe that he is correct. If everything is a result of luck, then his thoughts and writing about moral responsibility must be the result of “random series of chance happenstances over which we have not control.” If his thoughts are indeed the result of such happenstance, then there’s no good reason to believe them. If they are not the results of mere luck, if he actually has something to say that commends itself to our reason and consideration, then he has refuted his own premise.