Free Will and Moral Responsibility

Shaun Nichols (University of Arizona)

27, 29, 31 May 2019

600 Renwen Building
Renmin University of China
Time: 2-5 pm

This short course will focus on work that Shaun Nichols did for his book, Bound: Essays on Free Will and Responsibility.

Lecture 1 (27 May 2019)

Moral Rules and Moral Learning

Bound (ch. 1, 4, 5)
“Process Debunking and Ethics”, Ethics (2014)
“Folk Intuitions on Free Will”, Journal of Cognition and Culture (2006)

People think that it is bad when a puppy falls off of a cliff and that it is wrong when a person throws a puppy off a cliff. There are important differences in these moral representations. The representation of the badness of the puppy falling is naturally taken to be a representation of the value of the event. (It’s a bad value.) The representation of the person throwing the puppy will also involve a value representation since the puppy is injured in that scenario too. But it’s possible that the characteristic representation for the second case involves something more than registering a bad value. It might involve a structured representation of a rule against injuring innocents, composed of abstract concepts like impermissible, harm, and knowledge. Judgments about responsibility and judgments about the propriety of punishment plausibly also draw on such representations of rules. In this session, we will explore how value representations (Railton, Cushman) and rule representations figure into the emergence of our practices of moral evaluation.

Lecture 2 (29 May 2019)

Retributivism and Reactive Attitudes

Bound (ch. 6, 7)
“Brute Retributivism”, in The Future of Punishment (2013).
“After Incompatibilism: A Naturalistic Defense of the Reactive Attitudes”, Philosophical Perspectives (2007).

Recent empirical work confirms what many have long believed – ordinary people endorse retributive punishment. And these judgments seem to be grounded in representations of rules or norms of retributive justice. Norms of retributive justice are, however, notoriously difficult to justify. This leads many philosophers to reject the legitimacy of retributivism. Other philosophers attempt to justify retributivism by adverting to some universal objective moral footing (e.g., Kant, Moore). In this session, we will explore the prospects for retributivism in the absence of universal objective morality.

Lecture 3 (31 May 2019)

Moral Responsibility and Revisionism

Bound (ch. 3)
“Free Will and Error”, in Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (2013).
Bound: Book Discussion, Philosophical Studies (2017).

Are we free and responsible? According to free will eliminativists, people have deeply mistaken beliefs about free will and this entails that free will doesn’t exist (e.g. Pereboom; Strawson). However, an alternative reaction is that free will does exist, we just have some deeply mistaken beliefs about it (e.g. Vargas). In this session we will consider the prospects for eliminativism and revisionism. One prominent idea is that we can settle the issue between eliminativists and revisionists by settling the theory of reference (in this case, the question is, what is required for “free will” to refer to something). We will explore the possibility that different conventions regarding reference are available to speakers. This would afford the interpretive flexibility to maintain that the sentence “free will exists” is false in some contexts and true in others. In addition, if there are different reference conventions available, we might take advantage of this in deciding which reference convention to use in a conversation.

This course is free but we require all participants to register ahead of time. If you would like to register please email the following address:

In your email be sure to include your: (i) full name, (ii) program of study (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and (iii) institution.

We have funds to support travel and accommodation fees for select students in China who reside outside of Beijing. Please specify if you would like to be considered for a travel / accommodation grant and include an explanation of how this short-course is related to and will benefit your current research along with your most recent CV.