Feeling Morally Responsible, or Not

At first, we call individual actions good or evil without any concern for their motives, but instead solely on account of their beneficial or harmful consequences.

We soon forget the origins of these designations and imagine that the quality “good” or “evil” inheres in the actions in themselves, without regard to their consequences: making the same error as when language describes the stone itself as hard, the tree itself as green—that is, by conceiving an effect as the cause.

Then we locate the good or evil in the motives and consider the acts themselves to be morally ambiguous.

We go further and no longer assign the predicate good or evil to the individual motive, but instead to the whole being of a person, from which the motive grows as does a plant from the soil.

Thus we make a person successively responsible for his effects, then for his actions, then for his motives and finally for his being.

We finally discover that even this entity cannot be responsible insofar as it is entirely a necessary consequence, a concretion of the elements and influences of past and present things: hence, that a person cannot be made responsible for anything, neither for his being, nor his motives, nor his actions, nor their effects.

F. Nietzsche. Human, All Too Human. Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 47-48. (my emphasis)

Consequence → Actions → Motives → Whole Being → Past and Present Influences

To this list of receding moral responsibility we can now add ‘the Brain’. US courts see rise in defendants blaming their brains for criminal acts, The Guardian, November 10, 2013. Thank the ascendency of neuroscience and the celebrity of the brain for this.

Featured image: Andreas Vesalius, 1543 Source This image is worth thinking about.

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