Moral Responsibility and Desert: Social, Scaffolded, and Revisionist

Philosophical Studies, 2015, Forthcoming

Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper 2015-12

38 Pages Posted: 1 Mar 2015 Last revised: 23 May 2015

Manuel Vargas

Philosophy Department, UCSD

Date Written: February 1, 2015


The idea of moral responsibility is central to a wide range of our moral, social, and legal practices. It underpins our basic notion of culpability. Yet the idea of moral responsibility is regarded with considerable skepticism by researchers and scholars in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and the law. So, it is a social practice in want of justification.

This article presents an account of the justification of moralized praise, blame, and punishment. On this account, the normative basis for moral responsibility depends on the effects that participation in the practice has upon us. Roughly, responsibility practices help to make us better people. One advantage of this picture is that moral responsibility does not require a “spooky” or otherwise mysterious picture of human agency. That is, responsible agency is compatible with a broadly scientific picture of the place of humans in nature, even one where psychology and neuroscience give us reason for thinking that we do not have the kind of free will that figures in (metaphysical, not political) libertarian theories.

This article goes on to consider a variety of objections to this account, centered on concerns about moral desert and whether and how we can justify practices of holding one another to account.

Keywords: moral responsibility, desert, libertarianism, retribution, consequentialism, methodology, free will

Suggested Citation

Vargas, Manuel, Moral Responsibility and Desert: Social, Scaffolded, and Revisionist (February 1, 2015). Philosophical Studies, 2015, Forthcoming; Univ. of San Francisco Law Research Paper 2015-12. Available at SSRN:

Manuel Vargas (Contact Author)

Philosophy Department, UCSD ( email )

United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views