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Dan Homer: preserving moral responsibility in a determined world

  • Dan Homer
    Dan Homer
    Dan Homer's grant-funded summer research seeks to prove the compatibility of determinism with moral responsibility.
    Steve Salpukas

While many students spend their summers working seasonal jobs in their hometowns or studying abroad, Dan Homer '10 chose to do philosophy in Williamsburg.  Dan received a Summer Research Grant from the Charles Center, an award funded by the W&M Parents' Association.  Applicants for Summer Research Grants must write an essay detailing the focus and particular importance of their proposed work, provide letters of recommendation from two faculty members and submit a current academic transcript.  Professors Laura Ekstrom and Kevin Honeycutt provided recommendations for Dan's summer research.

Dan's work focuses on what philosophers call "moral luck."  Philosopher Thomas Nagel coined the term in an essay of the same name.  Nagel pointed out that causes outside of our control determine all of our decisions.  When confronted with a decision, it seems that our character and unique desires determine what choice is made.  But our character and desires, Nagel points out, can be traced back to our genetics and early nurturing environments, factors outside of the individual's control. Because we lack control over these factors that determine our actions, Nagel concludes that we could never do otherwise than we in fact do.

Although Nagel's essay introduced Dan to the topic, Professor Ekstrom's Advanced Ethics course fostered his intense interest in it.  In the context of this course, Dan learned that the discussion of moral luck not only proves relevant to systems of ethics, but proves essential to a basic understanding of the nature of human agency.  Nagel's conclusion holds weighty implications for the common intuition that we possess free will.  Many philosophers think that if all our actions must happen, then we lack the freedom to make genuine choices.  Moreover, because our intuition informs our apparent freedom of will, determinism, if true, seems to prove our intuitions deceptive.

This discussion has particularly poignant implications for our legal system.  If individuals cannot make decisions other than the ones they make, it seems we cannot hold those individuals responsible for their actions.  In turn, punishing people for doing things they could not help but do seems unjust.  Indeed, our current legal system often withholds full punishment from individuals who could do nothing other than they did.  The law frequently makes exceptions for individuals coerced by others to do something, for insanity and for those influenced by other unique medical conditions.  If all individuals lack free will and cannot be held responsible for their actions, then it seems the law must make exception for all individuals.

Dan believes, however, that although determinism implies the absence of free will, we can still be held morally responsible for our actions.  In philsophical terms, he takes a compatibilist viewpoint.  Although Dan believes we lack free will, he believes our intuitions correctly hold people responsible for their actions.  Indeed, he believes we can preserve our current justice system even though we lack free will in its traditionally understood sense.  In short, Dan's work explicates a theory of moral responsibility that posits determinism, yet excludes free will.

Dan's interest in topics relevant to the legal system, however, moves beyond the confines of his summer writing.  After graduating from W&M next May, Dan hopes to attend law school.  In keeping with the caliber of his undergraduate education, he will apply to Stanford University in California.  Dan will also apply to the country's oldest law school here at W&M.