Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility

29 Apr 2019

Philosopher Al Mele summarizes for STI the thrust of his latest book. It concerns autonomy and free will, into which Mele has delved in many projects - STI’s Is Science Compatible with Our Desire for Freedom? experts meeting among them.

I see that your new book, Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility (Oxford University Press, 2019), is the twelfth book you’ve written. How does this book fit in with the others?

The closest fit is with my books on autonomy and free will, especially Autonomous Agents (1995), Free Will and Luck (2006), and Aspects of Agency (2017). A common assumption in the philosophical literature on free will and moral responsibility is that in a world without free will, there is no moral responsibility. This assumption makes free will and moral responsibility tightly connected.

What do you mean by moral responsibility?

Here’s the general idea. Being morally responsible for an action one performs is a matter of deserving blame or credit for it from a moral point of view. If you accidentally collide with a stranger on a crowded train, through no fault of you own, you are not morally responsible for doing this and you deserve no blame. If you intentionally collide with her to move her out of the way of a large piece of luggage that is falling from an overhead rack, you might deserve some credit for this from a moral point of view.

What is the thesis of Manipulated Agents?

It is that differences is people’s histories bear on differences in their moral responsibility in a certain way. Suppose that two men, George and Manny, are in very similar states of mind when they take out a huge loan to finance their daughter’s education at an Ivy League school – Harvard in George’s case and Yale in Manny’s. Over the years, George had developed admirable parental values. Manny, however, had cared little about his daughter’s welfare until this morning. What happened is that, overnight, alien scientists had replaced Manny’s long-standing parental values with new ones that match George’s. In this case, if I am right, George deserves credit for his decision and Manny does not. Despite their similarities, the difference in their histories makes for a difference in moral responsibility. There are some alleged theoretical obstacles to this judgment of mine, and much of the book is aimed at surmounting them. The goal is to shed light on the nature of moral responsibility.

I noticed that your books – especially Effective Intentions (2009) and Self-Deception Unmasked (2001) – pay close attention to a wide range of scientific work on your topics. Is this also true of Manipulated Agents?

No. This book is an exception in that regard. It is almost purely theoretical. Many experiments are discussed in the book, but (with the exception of a brief appendix) they are all thought experiments. The thought experiments feature science fiction rather than science. Reflection on them promotes progress in understanding what it is to be morally responsible for things we do.

Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility is available from Oxford University Press. Dr. Mele’s other work is listed on and linked from his personal web page.