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Free Will and Moral Responsibility (Level 5)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenor and tutors: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: a 750-word essay (25%), 1000-word essay (35%) and short-answer take-home examination (40%)

Module description

The idea that people can be held accountable for their actions is central to much of our moral and political thinking. Yet a little reflection on it reveals some deep philosophical problems. We know that we are shaped, to a very large extent, by forces beyond our control, such as our culture, genes, upbringing and even luck. Perhaps worse, the unfolding of the universe is either determined by the past and the laws of physics or it isn’t. If it is, are we simply cogs in the grand machine? And if it isn’t, how do we insert our agency into a random world? In short, what room, if any, does this leave for personal responsibility and the freedom of will that seems to underwrite it? Can we be fully accountable for our actions? Can we be praised and blamed? This module explores contemporary research on these and other problems. The module delves into the metaphysics of free will and considers the implications for our personal relationships and attitudes such as indignation, resentment, gratitude, praise, blame and love, for our practices of punishment, and for our theories of distributive justice.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Challenges to freewill and moral responsibility
  • Causal determinism
  • Leeway incompatibilism
  • The consequence argument
  • Frankfurt-style counterexamples
  • Compatibilism
  • Source incompatibilism
  • The manipulation problem
  • Event-causal libertarianism
  • Agent-causal libertarianism
  • Responsibility and moral ignorance
  • Moral luck
  • Scepticism about moral responsibility in personal relations
  • Scepticism about moral responsibility in political relations

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate detailed knowledge of different accounts of free will and their relation to moral and political thinking
  • demonstrate an awareness of different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by contributors to debates over freedom and personal responsibility, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • analyse and compare different philosophical theories of the metaphysics of free will, including both compatibilist and incompatibilist approaches
  • select appropriate criteria to evaluate philosophical accounts of moral responsibility, reactive attitudes, punishment and justice as they relate to free will.