With No Power Comes No Responsibility

Does evolutionary psychology erase moral responsibility? The short answer is no, but the long answer is more complex than we like to think.

Disclaimer: I discuss some weighty and sociopolitically charged topics in this post, so I want to be sure that I’m not misunderstood. To be clear, as I explain in my conclusion (and especially in endnote [ii]), the issues I discuss here with respect to the concept of moral responsibility do not imply that I think nothing is immoral; that I would not take action to prevent what I view as immoral behavior; or that I have no emotional reactions to immoral acts. My system of ethics would take up its own epic blog post, especially my explanation for how I hold moral beliefs in light of my arguments in this one. But suffice it to say that, in practice, I hold moral beliefs similar (in the broad strokes) to the average American progressive millennial. I may write that epic post at some point, but for now, I hope this is enough to ensure any wary readers that I am not, in fact, a heartless psychopath.

Scapegoating the Naturalistic Fallacy

A common reaction to hypotheses put forward by evolutionary psychologists is to worry that many human behaviors could be excused or justified by deflecting blame onto evolved psychological adaptations. The evolutionary psychologist’s stock response is often to point to the naturalistic fallacy. A common example of David Hume’s “is-ought” problem, the naturalistic fallacy is a type of appeal to nature: a fallacious assumption that something is desirable simply by virtue of being natural. For example, claiming that organic foods are inherently better or more healthy than those treated with artificial products or processes would be a fallacy through appeal to nature. But more specifically, the naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is natural is morally good, or at least cannot be morally bad. To claim, for example, that we couldn’t condemn violence if humans were violent by nature would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

It should be obvious upon brief consideration that equating the natural with the desirable is fallacious. A clear example is the contrast between diseases and vaccines: smallpox is natural, but no one will jump to its defense on this account. Correspondingly, a sane person would recognize that the smallpox vaccine cannot be worse than the disease itself simply because it is artificial (although the ease with which anti-vaccine propaganda has spread should speak to the allure of appeals to nature). Therefore, it must be something other than naturalness that determines merit in these cases. To challenge an argument on the grounds of committing an appeal to nature is to identify a flaw in the criteria used to determine something’s worth — and in the case of the naturalistic fallacy, its moral worth.

As I said before, diagnosing moral fears about evolutionary psychology as instances of the naturalistic fallacy is an extremely common defense of evolutionary hypotheses. However, I believe this might be a misdiagnosis. If you listen closely to the objections of many people — particularly those with progressive, egalitarian ideals — their concern seems slightly oblique to whether or not we can determine moral merit from claims about human nature. Let’s take a common worry as an example: the possibility of a lawyer using evolutionary psychological arguments to excuse or diminish the actions of a rapist.

If one were to cite the naturalistic fallacy to defuse the apparent tension in this example, the underlying assumption would be that the objector is concerned that the lawyer will persuade the jury to view the moral merit of rape in light of its naturalness. But is this so? Even if the lawyer could convince the jury that rape is “natural” for humans, I doubt that such an argument would genuinely persuade most jurors to abandon the belief that rape is morally wrong. Instead, I think the objector is concerned that the lawyer may influence opinions on the rapist’s moral responsibility, rather than the moral merit of their actions.

Thus, it is in the relationship between evolutionary psychology and moral responsibility that we must seek our answers to this objection. The debate in evolutionary psychology about whether men have adaptations for rape is long and complicated (see Thornhill & Palmer, 2001) — and the scales seem to be tipped in favor of it being a byproduct, not an adaptation — but it is not relevant here. For now, let’s imagine a world in which scientists have established beyond a reasonable doubt that men do have psychological adaptations to rape women. How would this (hypothetical) fact bear on the moral responsibility of a rapist?

If a lawyer appeals to an evolved mechanism to defend the actions of a rapist, the intent of such a tactic seems readily apparent: to reduce the rapist’s punishment by making it appear that he had insufficient control over his actions, and is therefore less morally responsible for them than jurors would otherwise assume. I think a key unspoken assumption here is that, if a behavior is “evolved,” it is somehow more causally deterministic than other behaviors — or at least less subject to self-control.

This assumption is profoundly misguided, but for deeper reasons than we might think. To unravel it, we need to discuss where self-control — and by extension, free will — fit into developmental biology.

Nature, Nurture, and Free Will in a Physical World

I’ll take for granted that anyone reading this (a) is a physicalist — believes that only the physical exists, implying there is no “soul” or anything like it — and (b) agrees that humans are one species in a lineage of organisms, all of which developed from a previous stage in the same lineage according to natural selection (and other evolutionary forces). In other words, I’ll assume we all accept that there is no dividing line that separates humans from other animals, that we evolved by the same processes and from the same materials as other organisms, and that the entire evolutionary process consisted of nothing but physical components. (If either of these are not the case for you, I hope you’ll try to engage with the following argument using them as assumptions.)

These assumptions are not prima facie at odds with free-will libertarianism — the belief that humans are uncaused causers, autonomous and morally responsible. For example, Lemos (2002) attempts to integrate libertarianism and Darwinian naturalism. However, in the course of his arguments, he reveals a common fallacy in the framing of physicalist forms of free will.

The libertarian can even concede that genetic and environmental factors incline a person to act one way or the other in the face of [alternative courses of action]. But what the libertarian will not concede is that all human decisions among such alternatives are ultimately controlled entirely by genetic and environmental factors. While our genetics and environment might incline us a certain way, they cannot be completely determinative of our actions when we are acting autonomously… [M]uch of the evidence we have for the truth of the libertarian position appeals to our own subjective awareness of moral struggles against inclinations that we have acquired due to genetic and environmental factors.

(Lemos, 2002, p. 475, emph. added)

It’s not inherently fallacious to talk about internal struggles: in many situations, agents are pulled in different directions by multiple motives. But in cases like this, people like Lemos seem not to realize that the agent essentially disappears once they are posited as struggling against genetic and environmental factors in particular. What arguments like this seem to overlook is that, if you don’t believe in anything like a soul, humans just are the product of the interaction between genetic and environmental factors — because there is nothing else. In a purely physical world, genetic and environmental factors are exhaustive. If this seems like an extreme claim, consider the process of human development from the very beginning.

Accepting the earlier premises (a) and (b), from the second a human is conceived, they are solely the product of the genes they inherit and a birth environment that cannot meaningfully be said to be under their control. In fact, strictly speaking, everything that is not a gene would be considered part of that gene’s environment, including other genes in the same genome (Dawkins, 1982). Genes can only produce phenotypic effects through the medium of the environment, and those phenotypic products become part of the environment in turn. Of course, the line between environment and gene is fuzzy — no surprise, given that the definition of a gene itself is fuzzy. The gene-environment divide becomes even more complex when considering epigenetics, but epigenetic factors do not constitute a departure from the purely physical processes at hand. Epigenetic markers could be classified as part of the environment, part of the genes, or a little bit of both — it doesn’t really matter. The point is simply that, at an organism’s conception, genes and environment definitionally exhaust all potential factors influencing the organism’s development.

If everything about an organism’s environment and genes is physical, then everything that occurs during their development is ultimately the result of natural laws. The laws of physics govern the laws of chemistry, which — along with some element of randomness — govern the stitching together of a human being from chemicals in the environment according to the chemical “instructions” of DNA. Under normal environmental conditions, this process eventually produces sense organs. Some of these interact with the environment in non-chemical ways, like using light-sensitive chemicals in the retina or kinetically gated ion channels in the skin. But these stimuli are still physical, and their transduction is ultimately also determined by natural laws. The information transduced is then carried along a series of neurons, themselves made up of chemicals. The neurons then collectively conduct calculations — what we might loosely call “cognition,” including all subconscious processes — in a network that feeds back into other types of cells in the body, ultimately generating behavior.

When each step in the process can ultimately be attributed to either a law of nature or randomness, then at what point in this developmental process can this organism be said to have developed some form of control that is separable from genetic and environmental factors? Is there some special undiscovered type of neuron that steps in and suddenly makes autonomous choices for the previously deterministic brain? As far as I can tell, no one has ever been able to identify some Rubicon past which an organism made up of cells made up of chemicals would break free from the long series of physical causal interactions that produced the organism in the first place.

Even if we wanted to claim that we developed (at some unspecified point) something we could call free will, how far back in the causal chain would you have to go to say that you are responsible for your behavior? If you’ve been responsible for the past 1000 decisions you made, what could have changed between the last decision that was out of your control and the first one that was within it? Trying to insert something like free will into these physical processes produces an infinite regress (Strawson, 1994).

I am far from the first to make this general argument, best known as the consequence argument (van Inwagen, 1983). My point here is more specific: the fact that genes and environment exhaust the factors influencing and ultimately determining behavior precludes the existence of a causal “agent” that can be thought of as distinct from those factors. In other words, it’s incoherent for humans to “[struggle] against inclinations that we have acquired due to genetic and environmental factors” when the agent doing the struggling is also nothing more than the interaction between those factors. If we struggle internally, that can only be a clash between different emergent components of the same genetic and environmental endowment.

While I doubt most scientists would take issue with this point directly, even the most intelligent and educated researchers sometimes discuss the “nature-nurture problem” and related ideas in the same, fundamentally misleading terms. K. Paige Harden devoted an entire book to cogently arguing for the presence and importance of genetic luck; and yet the allure of this fallacy is so strong that even accomplished and brilliant behavioral geneticists like her occasionally seem to make the same implicit mistake:

Take the power of the genetic lottery seriously, and you might be faced with the realization that many of the things you pride yourself on, your high vocabulary and your quick processing speed, your orderliness and your “grit,” the fact that you always did well in school, are the consequence of a series of lucky breaks [both environmental and genetic] for which you can take no credit.

(HARDEN, 2021, P. 254, EMPH. ADDED) 

This seems to imply by contrast that there are some things that we pride ourselves on that cannot be attributed entirely to genetic or environmental luck. But to what, then, can they be attributed?

I have read many physicalist defenses of free will, in both deterministic and indeterministic universes, but none of them seem to escape the immanent mysticism in describing some agent operating on the myriad factors that constitute their psychology. From what I can tell, the authors of these accounts don’t seem to realize that the agent just is that very psychological constitution. Even while challenging the existence of free will, Levy (2011) claims that

[people] can end up with a set of dispositions and values very different from those that were the direct joint product of their genes and environment.

(Levy, 2011, p. 96)

No, they can’t. That’s all there is.

Now, Levy might argue that he said “direct” in the previous quote. But there can only be one direct product of a gene and its environment: “all genetic effects are ‘byproducts’ except protein molecules” (Dawkins, 1987, p. 300). To argue that any behavioral disposition is the “direct” product of a gene is “pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale” (Dawkins, 1987, p. 31). It might be possible to argue that some behavioral dispositions are more direct products of genes than others — a claim that I suspect would still turn out to be mostly false or incoherent. But even this would not save the idea of changing your genetic and environmental predispositions from the same infinite regress we saw before, as Levy demonstrated in the rest of his book.

Contrary to intuition, in a physical world, the burden of proof falls on those who would claim that we have free will. Most people feel and act as though they do (myself included), but that fact alone fails to convince me that its existence should be taken for granted, or that we should search for a way to preserve the notion when our past justifications for it collapse. Humans have been proven time and again to be pretty terrible reasoners under many circumstances, and countless aspects of our conscious experiences have been exposed as systematic illusions. I see no reason that free will should be different; it seems to me that people simply refuse to surrender their conception of themselves as truly, purely free agents in a metaphysical sense.

Still, if there are cogent reasons for believing in some version of free will, it may be worth preserving for other reasons; and some philosophers have mounted rebuttals to the consequence argument.

Luck and Fairness

In his 2015 book, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, Daniel Dennett describes a line of reasoning similar to the consequence argument that I defended here: essentially that if you didn’t have control over the initial causes of your personality, how could you come to have control later? Dennett challenges the argument by pointing out that,

by parity of reasoning, there couldn’t really be any mammals, since every mammal must have a mammal for a mother, and if you go back far enough in the family tree of any apparent mammal, you must find a manifestly nonmammalian ancestor, whose offspring just couldn’t themselves be mammals, and so forth. Since we know perfectly well that we are mammals, we take this argument seriously only as a challenge to discover whatever fallacy it is that is lurking within it.

(DENNETT, 2015, P. 92)

Dennett here is illustrating that the vagueness of the concept of self-control (and I think, by extension, free will and moral responsibility) is a Sorites paradox. I do agree that, resolutions to the paradox notwithstanding, this point slightly undermines the consequence argument when it comes to delineating the concept of free will. His overall argument against the idea “that one could not take full responsibility for something unless it was entirely of one’s making” (Dennett, 2015, p. 92) steered me slightly away from the conclusion that we could not possibly have concepts like self-determination, self-control, free will, or moral responsibility in a physical world.

What Dennett did not provide, in my opinion, was any satisfying conclusion to the question of whether or not it’s fair to hold people morally responsible, even if we do arrive at some satisfactory-yet-fuzzy definition of self-control. For the first time when reading one of his books, I came to a point where his argument entirely lost my support: I think he failed completely in his approach to luck.

His argument against attributing our skills to luck can be summarized as follows:

[W]hile we cannot take personal credit for the success of our ancestors, our genes can. …And since the skills of self-control and deliberation have been put to a fairly severe test over the eons, there is a real basis in fact for our having high expectations about the deliberative skill, and more generally the capacity for self-control, of our fellow human beings.

(DENNETT, 2015, P. 102)

I agree with the point that we are not simply lucky in existing, since natural selection has shaped us in such a way that we competently self-perpetuate. But he seems to put a lot of emphasis on the luck of our collective existence as a species, to the exclusion of the luck that determines which extant organism you happen to be. It is not so much a matter of luck that you exist, but it is entirely a matter of luck which combination of genetic and environmental factors happen to create the mass of cells that you embody. As K. Paige Harden says, summarizing the arguments of John Rawls,

if one found inequalities stemming from environmental luck disturbingly unfair, one might also find inequalities stemming from genetic luck just as disturbing: Once we are troubled by the influence of either social contingencies or natural chance on the determination of distributive shares, we are bound, on reflection, to be bothered by the influence of the other. From a moral standpoint the two seem equally arbitrary.

(HARDEN, 2021, P. 161)

Dennett attempts to address the issue of such luck endowments with the following example:

Imagine a footrace in which the starting line was staggered: those with birthdays in January start a yard ahead of those born in February, and eleven yards ahead of those born in December. Surely no one can help being born in one month rather than another. Isn’t this manifestly unfair? Yes, if the race is a hundred yard dash. No, if it’s a marathon. In a marathon such a relatively small initial advantage would count for nothing, since one can reliably expect other fortuitous breaks to have even greater effects.

(DENNETT, 2015, P. 103)

But his blithe response about the difference between a marathon and a sprint misses a crucial statistical concept: the standard error of the mean. What he seems to ignore is that there will always be a distribution of the number of lucky breaks that people receive. Dennett’s point that luck “washes out” can only mean that the absolute range of the distribution is narrower: it does nothing to alter the relative ranking of the number and degree of lucky breaks each person gets. No matter what, there will be a luckiest and unluckiest person in the world — and I’d be willing to bet that they would have been, respectively, January and December babies in Dennett’s race. This point is nicely illustrated in this video.

Dennett bafflingly sidesteps this issue by saying that “[in a marathon,] one can reliably expect other fortuitous breaks to have even greater effects [than an initial advantage]” (Dennett, 2015, p. 103). I struggle to see how he could come to this conclusion without making the ludicrous assumption that most lucky breaks will fall in the opposite direction from where their recipients started. It seems self-evident that bad and good luck can both compound. If seven billion people start a footrace staggered by birthdate, some January babies will have more lucky breaks than others, and some December babies will have worse luck than others. These two groups will fill out the tail ends of the distribution of the standard error of the mean for luck.

Neil Levy compellingly argues that constitutive luck — that is, luck in one’s constituent traits and dispositions — “tends to ramify, not even out”:

Badly-off agents, lacking in self-control and other resources [that other agents may have been lucky to acquire in childhood], are unable to take advantage of chance events that might have helped them compensate for their disadvantages: their bad constitutive luck prevents these events from being lucky breaks. A lack of self-control resources at age 5 may not be literally irremediable, for instance, but the events that could enable an agent to acquire such resources later in life will be rare. They will require, most probably, sustained attention by other agents, agents who themselves possess an extraordinary set of skills… Moreover, the material resources that were earlier lacking will be needed as well, perhaps in abundance. Contra Dennett, the agent is extremely unlikely to stumble onto this kind of lucky break.

(LEVY, 2011, LOC. 2599-2608)

Dennett does acknowledge, at least implicitly, that a lower end of the luck distribution must exist:

Of course some unfortunates, though born of skilled self-controllers, are defective, through no fault of their own. We do not consider them responsible. They are excused. But we do expect a lot from the rest of us, and for good reason. We are not just lucky; we are skilled.

(DENNETT, 2015, P. 102)

Yet he never explains why he seems comfortable drawing a line between “those who are singled out as defective” (Dennett, 2015, p. 104) and those at the lower end of the spectrum of “normal” citizens. It seems clear to me that his “defectives” are one of the groups that have received the most compounded bad luck. But Dennett never attempts to justify a cutoff point on the luck spectrum to determine who is “defective” and who is held to “normal” standards of self-discipline. More critically, he seems to ignore the implications of the “defective” group’s very existence in his schema.

As far as I can tell, his claims that “everyone comes out more or less in the same league” (Dennett, 2015, p. 104) and that “no one actually has more luck than anyone else” (p. 105) are based on nothing but blind faith. Worse yet, they appear to be contradicted by simple empirical evidence and mathematical reasoning. Why wouldn’t there be a luckiest and unluckiest person in the world, with a distribution between them? This is an absurd claim, and nothing in his book seems to back it up.

It’s possible that Dennett is working with the assumption that the difference between the luckiest and unluckiest people is small enough to be overcome with sheer willpower. As far as I know, we have no viable way to quantify how big of a difference there is between the two ends of the luck spectrum, so it would be difficult or impossible to make or meaningfully test any predictions about it. But either way, it seems at least conceivable that this assumption is wrong: that the gulf between the extreme ends of the distribution of lifelong luck is too large for any amount of self-discipline to bridge. To the detriment of his argument, Dennett sidesteps the implications of such a possibility.

An illuminating contrast can be drawn between Dennett’s footrace analogy and a similar one from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

It is obvious if a man is entered at the starting line in a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat to catch up with his fellow runner.

(KING, 1964, CH. 8, SECTION III)

The specificity of King’s example provides a strong counterargument to Dennett’s more abstract one. King’s analogy was intended to illustrate the absurdity of expecting outcome differences between black and white people to simply disappear after the abolition of slavery and legal racial discrimination. I would contend that being stripped of 300 years of accumulated generational wealth and born into a society with systemic biases against people like you would exceed what Dennett describes as a “relatively small initial [dis]advantage.” In other words, the amount of unlucky breaks a person receives could easily surpass their individual capacity to fully compensate with willpower and hard work. I would argue this scenario is far likelier than the alternative.

But even if the difference between the extremes were as small as Dennett implies, I still don’t think his conclusion is fair. Following my arguments in the previous section, if someone uses “willpower” to overcome initial strokes of bad luck, that willpower must itself ultimately be the product of good genetic and environmental luck, as Levy suggests. Moreover, we can’t fully assess where any given person “started the race” — their initial environmental and genetic endowment — and it would be virtually impossible to quantify how much good or bad luck they receive throughout their life. All we can really see is where they are in the race now. A person’s current ranking is a combination of their hard work, their initial luck at birth, and the further luck they have encountered over their lifetime; but these cannot be isolated or examined independently. So why would it be fair to reward the person in 1st place, when the person in 5000th could have worked equally hard — if not harder — to get to where they are?

Ultimately, where I disagree with Dennett most is on the concept of fairness. This conflict is most apparent in the following quote:

Imagine trying to change the rules of basketball in the following way: if the referees decide that a particular basket was just a lucky shot, they disallow the points, and if they notice that bad luck is dogging one of the teams, they give that team compensatory privileges. A perfectly pointless effort at reform, of course, which would not appeal to anybody’s sense of fairness.

(DENNETT, 2015, P. 104)

While it would be uncharitable to assume this was intentional, I think the validity of Dennett’s point rests on the implicit assumption that the purpose of basketball is equivalent or similar to the purpose of life. But sports are a specific category of human activity, with specific goals agreed upon by the participants: competition, entertainment, personal fitness, proving superiority, demonstrating skill, victory over others. While many of these can be components of a fulfilling human life, it would be much harder to get people to agree that any of them were the purpose of life, let alone the purpose of society as a whole. So yes, in the context of sports, compensating for bad luck might be unfair. But contrary to what some people seem to believe, sports are not life. The game of life has different goals than sports, and therefore potentially very different standards of “fairness.” Maybe if you’re an extreme libertarian, or the personification of natural selection itself, the purpose of life is competition — but I see no reason why it should be, and using that as an assumption to judge what is “fair” would produce a very cruel moral system, in my opinion.

Anyone who cares deeply about fairness must contend with the massive amount of luck that forms the basis of any human life, including the luck in our genomes (and if you’re interested in that subject, I highly recommend Harden’s book). Ultimately, any amount of self-control or willpower that could underwrite a fair implementation of moral responsibility would be traceable through a chain of lucky breaks stretching back to a point before our conception. All forms of behavior will ultimately be caught in what Levy (2011) calls “the luck pincer” — that is, they are either attributable to the luck we experience in the present moment on one side, or our history of accumulated (constitutive) luck on the other. All the constituent traits generating our behavior in the present were originally the result of luck at some earlier point in time.

Until someone demonstrates otherwise, it would appear that any aspect of human behavior that we might think of as freely chosen or under our own control ultimately stems from pure luck on all sides. Regardless of the status of determinism from a physical standpoint, free will doesn’t make sense in a physicalist world. We and everything we do are ultimately the products of a chain of (determinate or indeterminate) physical causation, with no distinct, uncaused, autonomous agents to interrupt it or change its course.

Abandoning Moral Responsibility?

Though I am still searching, I have yet to find a fair, coherent model of self-control and free will that is consilient with developmental biology. While some people (erroneously) describe the existence of evolved mechanisms that produce immoral behavior as a “hard truth” that we must accept, the real hard truth cuts much deeper. If we reject the existence of free will — as I’ve argued is logically inescapable — the concepts of moral responsibility and desert as we know them no longer make sense.[i] As Levy, Harden, and Rawls have argued, it would be unfair to truly give anyone credit for their behavior in such a world. We can’t meaningfully talk about someone earning anything, because it would be unfair to praise or rebuke them for actions resulting from traits they acquired through sheer luck. To moralistically praise and reward an automaton for achieving desirable results through a thoroughly physical causal process is patently unfair, given that the other failing automata were simply built worse[ii] for that task by the same mindless interactions between genes and their environments — neither of which were ever truly up to the automata.

People would be no more or less responsible for their behavior if it were ultimately caused by “environmental” factors or “genetic” ones. (Traits also can’t be attributed to either type of factor independently, or be caused more by one type than the other, but that’s a topic for another post.) Saying that behavior stems from an evolutionary adaptation should no more predispose us to blame or praise the actor than if it stemmed from an early environmental event out of their control, like trauma. Genetic factors are no less luck-dependent, and ultimately no more controllable, than environmental ones. Discussions of genetic and environmental contributions to behavior cannot be used to settle issues of free will and moral responsibility, and we should not look to genetic and evolutionary studies for answers to how and when we should hold people responsible for their actions.

Upon first considering that free will might not exist, an initial sophomoric response would be to conclude that we might as well lie down and rot if we have no control over our actions — or worse, give ourselves license to behave as cruelly as we like (a suggestion that I suspect is made only by people with crueler intentions than they want to publicly admit). But few if any people would truly adhere to such courses of action. Insofar as we can be said to be unitary agents in the first place, our decisions are still our decisions. We don’t know what they will be until we make them; and neither do we know the outcomes. Even if we could not truly have made decisions otherwise than we have, and neither are we the ultimate source of our decisions, we still make those decisions, and we still have to live with the consequences. Knowing that our choices are not truly our responsibility doesn’t rob us of our desires and feelings as sentient beings, and as organisms that evolved be to extremely prosocial. Rejecting the existence of free will doesn’t change the fact that we can experience pain and happiness, and we can affect the suffering and wellbeing of ourselves and those around us. From the relatively parochial perspective of human beings, we can and should go on trying to make the best world we can — because it’s all we have.

A final note: at the moment, and for the past decade or so of my life, I’ve believed everything I’ve said in this post to be true. However, to make a more pragmatically compelling argument against the idea that evolved psychological mechanisms can reduce moral responsibility, it might be more productive to make an intellectual compromise: to find a way to properly understand developmental biology while coherently defending the practical and fair use of a concept of moral responsibility. Beyond that, nothing in this post has truly addressed why it is evolutionary psychology in particular that provokes these concerns. And to be honest, what I’ve said here isn’t a very satisfying answer to the inciting question, even for myself. What really lies at the heart of the moral fear surrounding evolutionary psychological hypotheses? …Well, that’s a far more complex topic — one that requires its own post.


Dawkins, R. (1987). The extended phenotype: The long reach of the gene. Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (2015). Elbow Room, New Edition: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. MIT Press.

Harden, Kathryn Paige (2021). The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

King, M.L. (1964). Why We Can’t Wait. New York: New American Library.

Lemos, J. (2002). Evolution and Free Will: A Defense of Darwinian Non–naturalism. Metaphilosophy, 33(4), 468-482.

Levy, N. (2011). Hard luck: How luck undermines free will and moral responsibility. OUP Oxford.

Strawson, G. (1994). The impossibility of moral responsibility. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 75(1/2), 5-24.

Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2001). A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion. MIT Press.

Van Inwagen, Peter (1983). An Essay on Free Will. Clarendon Press.

[i]There are arguments in favor of moral responsibility in the absence of free will, but covering those theories and my objections to them would constitute its own blog post.

[ii] This statement seems to imply a level of essentialism and inevitability in our dispositions that I plan to debunk and undermine in my later post on the concept of innateness. I can understand how the statement that some people are “built worse” for a task than others may sound very elitist and fatalistic, but I hope to eventually decouple such conclusions from the argument I’m making here. Thinking of ourselves as unchangeable automata only works at the high level of analysis at which I’m operating in this particular post: in our everyday lives (and particularly in policymaking), I think we should behave as if we can change the course of the future, as I explain in my second-to-last paragraph above. But operating as though we have power over the future does not necessarily entail holding people morally responsible (favorably or punitively) for their actions in the past — except to the extent that it would effectively prevent future harm.

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