Thursday, December 10, 2009

What my master's thesis was about

Back in 1984, I wrote a master's thesis under Dr. Michael White at Arizona State University entitled "Moral Theories and Free Will."

I defended the claim that on the assumption that what we are utilitarians looking for ways to modify behavior, compatibilism makes some sense. Even if determinism is true, we might want to cause people to act in certain ways, and we might want to figure out who brought about an action, so that we can change a pattern of behavior. Thus, punishing criminals for various utilitarian reasons makes sense even if determinism is true.

However, if we are retributive deontologists, then compatibilism makes no sense. If we are not trying to modify behavior, but are asking whether someone is really to blame for what they did, then compatibilism doesn't make sense. The ultimate causes of our actions are beyond our control, and we are not responsible for those causes.

If you read many compatibilists, such as Moritz Schlick, and J. J. C. Smart (these were two that I mentioned in my thesis), you find that they have a concept of responsibility that is quite different from the concept of responsibility that is involved when we say that a person deserves to be punished in hell (or even in prison) for what he or she has done.


Anonymous said...


Issues of moral responsibility and how to fit in what you called a "retributive deontologist" view on responsibility into a deterministic framework are something about which I have not done any reading. I am wondering if there are any theists who are compatibilists who've written on this very issue.

Anonymous said...

This is Steven. I suppose my last speech act was a dismal failure but noting that I was wondering if any compatibilist theists had written on the issue, I intended you to understand that statement as a question, the answer to which I hope you have the answer.

Gregory said...


John Calvin
Jonathan Edwards
Greg Bahnsen
Rousas Rushdoony
Gary North

Dr. Sean Choi, a compatibilist theist at UCSB, has published a book critiquing the metaphysics of libertarian freedom (i.e. his Doctoral thesis). It's available on a hefty price :P

I haven't read the book.....and I'm not sure the subject of retributive justice plays a role in his assessment......but you might want to check it out.

jade said...

None of them had background in my topic either. For the first year I spent all my time working on a curriculum project for my advisor. Annoying, MBA Research Proposal 

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