The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility

The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility

By Bruce N. Waller

An examination of the powerful social and psychological factors that hold the belief in moral responsibility firmly in place.





An examination of the powerful social and psychological factors that hold the belief in moral responsibility firmly in place.

The philosophical commitment to moral responsibility seems unshakable. But, argues Bruce Waller, the philosophical belief in moral responsibility is much stronger than the philosophical arguments in favor of it. Philosophers have tried to make sense of moral responsibility for centuries, with mixed results. Most contemporary philosophers insist that even conclusive proof of determinism would not and should not result in doubts about moral responsibility. Many embrace compatibilist views, and propose an amazing variety of competing compatibilist arguments for saving moral responsibility. In this provocative book, Waller examines the stubborn philosophical belief in moral responsibility, surveying the philosophical arguments for it but focusing on the system that supports these arguments: powerful social and psychological factors that hold the belief in moral responsibility firmly in place.

Waller argues that belief in moral responsibility is not isolated but rather is a central element of a larger belief system; doubting or rejecting moral responsibility will involve major adjustments elsewhere in a wide range of beliefs and values. Belief in moral responsibility is one strand of a complex and closely woven fabric of belief, comprising threads from biology, psychology, social institutions, criminal justice, religion, and philosophy. These dense interconnections, Waller contends, make it very difficult to challenge the belief in moral responsibility at the center. They not only influence the philosophical arguments in favor of moral responsibility but also add powerful extraphilosophical support for it.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262028165 304 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • This book is a spirited and engaging broadside against ordinary belief in moral responsibility. Specifically, Bruce Waller challenges the entrenched belief that people bear the kind of moral responsibility for their conduct that would justify punishing them on the grounds that they deserve it.

    Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews


  • Mix a wealth of psychological knowledge with a keen philosophical mind, stir, and apply liberally to the intransigent belief that we are morally responsible agents. The result is Waller's provocative new book that argues that the foundation for the pervasive conviction that we, on some occasions, are morally responsible for our behavior is far less secure than we typically believe. Anyone even remotely interested in the question of whether we are ever truly deserving of praise and blame should explore Waller's accessible monograph.

    Mark Bernstein

    Joyce and Edward E. Brewer Chair in Applied Ethics, Purdue University; author of On Moral Considerability

  • Skillfully weaving discussions of philosophy, psychology, history, and sociology, and leavening the discussion with numerous real cases, Waller examines the various forces that make commitment to the system of moral responsibility so stubborn. The book constitutes an important challenge to those who think that philosophical arguments justify our holding one another morally responsible and should be required reading for everyone concerned with injustice.

    Neil Levy

    Head of Neuroethics, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

  • Bruce Waller's new book is a powerful, informed, and thoroughly accessible indictment of the idea that blame and punishment is fair and just. Waller draws widely from sources in philosophy, psychology, criminology, and religion to make his case. His book challenges us to achieve clarity on the sources and justifications of our ingrained belief in moral responsibility, and to accept an alternative view of ourselves that is at once more accurate and more humane. This book should command a broad interdisciplinary audience.

    Derk Pereboom

    Susan Linn Sage Professor in Philosophy and Ethics, Cornell University