Does Hard Incompatibilism Really Abolish ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’? Some Thoughts in Response to Larry Alexander

6 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2017

Date Written: March 14, 2017


In a challenge to recent writings of Derk Pereboom and Gregg Caruso, Larry Alexander makes the following claim: If one accepts the Pereboom-Caruso “hard incompatibilist” view of choice, which regards blame and retributive punishment as morally unjustified because free will is an illusion, then “normativity completely disappears.” In making this claim, Professor Alexander appears to hold that the moral distinction between right and wrong conduct (“normativity”) cannot effectively exist unless those who do wrong “deserve” to receive blame and punishment in response to their misbehavior. This is not, however, necessarily so.

It is not our feelings of blame or urges to punish that give rise to the differing moral qualities or properties (good/bad, right/wrong) that we perceive in different kinds of conduct. The concept of “wrongful conduct” seems to imply, rather, that right and wrong are perceptible qualities or properties of conduct in much the same way that colors and shapes are perceptible qualities or properties of physical objects. These moral qualities or properties of conduct must have a different and independent foundation (e.g., consequentialist or deontological); otherwise moral probity would be little more than an expression of aversion to undesirable personal consequences. As long as the normative qualities or properties of conduct (good or bad, right or wrong) are perceptible and have a foundation independent of negative reactive attitudes and fears of punishment, they can be as firmly entrenched, well expressed and (as far as we know) efficacious in a hard incompatibilist world as they would be in a world with free will.

Suggested Citation

Humbach, John A., Does Hard Incompatibilism Really Abolish ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’? Some Thoughts in Response to Larry Alexander (March 14, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

John A. Humbach (Contact Author)

Pace University School of Law ( email )

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States
(914) 422-4239 (Phone)
(914) 422-4015 (Fax)


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