Determinism, Moral Responsibility and Retribution

Elizabeth Shaw* (Corresponding Author), Robert Blakey

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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In this article, we will identify two issues that deserve greater attention from those researching lay people’s attitudes to moral responsibility and determinism. The first issue concerns whether people interpret the term “moral responsibility” in a retributive way and whether they are motivated to hold offenders responsible for pre-determined behaviour by considerations other than retributivism, e.g. the desires to condemn the action (as opposed to the actor) and to protect society. The second issue concerns whether explicitly rejecting moral responsibility and retributivism, after reading about determinism, would have any impact on “implicit” retributivism when recommending a sentence for a hypothetical offender. We will report the results of an exploratory study that investigated these questions. Our preliminary findings raise the possibility that a significant proportion of participants either i) may not interpret “moral responsibility” in the basic, retributive sense of the term, which is at issue in the determinism debate, or ii) may be unconsciously motivated by non-retributive considerations to judge that the offender is morally responsible, in the basic, retributive sense. If this is confirmed by future research, a wider implication would be that theorists’ arguments against retributivism are more likely to affect public attitudes to punishment when non-retributive ways of achieving important punishment goals are emphasised. Our preliminary findings also suggested that explicit retributivism did not correlate with implicit retributivism (although it seems that the explicit rejection of retributivism did correlate with more lenient sentencing). If this is confirmed in future research, it would imply that free will theorists who wish to affect public attitudes toward punishment should, when communicating their research to the public, give detailed consideration to the implications for sentencing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-113
Number of pages15
Early online date29 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020

Bibliographical note

We are grateful to the Carnegie Trust for funding this research and to the journal editor and reviewers for their comments.


  • Moral responsibility
  • Experimental philosophy
  • Motivated reasoning
  • Determinism


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