There are some ideas connected to the notion of moral responsibility that are often taken for granted even when the topic is being discussed in depth. They are considered so natural that, typically, people do not even notice they’re making these assumptions.
- (Retributivism:) If a person has done something morally wrong, then it’s right to punish said person in some way that is proportional to the seriousness of the offence. This counters the normal duty not to harm others.
- However, the above only applies if the person is responsible for their act.
- A person is responsible for their act only if they committed it freely.
- A person only commits his act freely if they could have done otherwise.
- Some people are not responsible anyway (and sometimes not free either), depending on the definition — for example children, the mentally ill, etc.
Why do we so often assume these notions? Should we accept them, and if so, why? How are the notions to be understood exactly, and how are concepts such as “punishment”, “responsibility” and “freedom” to be understood? Why do these concepts stand in the relationships postulated for them above?
These questions have answers. (Some of them are found in this and this article here.) In this short article I just wanted to point to the fact that these are quite substantial ethical assumptions in their own right. One should note this if, for example, they’re ready to say that death penalty is justified for severe enough crimes due to their severity (employing thesis 1 above as a hidden premise). Why?