Instrumentalism about Moral Responsibility

Third-cycle level | 7.5 credits | Course code: NFPF301
HT 2021
Study period: 2021-09-20 - 2021-09-24
LANGUAGE OF INSTRUCTION: The course is given in English
Application period: 2021-08-09 - 2021-09-08

Course description

Theories of moral responsibility try to explain what it takes for an agent to be morally responsible for their behaviour and when it’s appropriate to hold them responsible for their behaviour. Instrumentalist or forward-looking theories try to justify our responsibility practices, especially blame, as means to other valuable ends. For example, one might defend the practice of blaming agents for their offenses by arguing that doing so encourages them to act better (individual level) or that doing so promotes social cooperation (social level). The aim of this course is to examine and evaluate instrumentalist theories of moral responsibility, from its early proponents in the mid-20th century to the recent resurgence of interest in these theories during the last decade.

This course will cover: 

-Early instrumentalist theories: early instrumentalist claims and arguments; the motivation for these accounts in the context of philosophical debates about free will and moral responsibility; and normative ethical frameworks often deployed by instrumentalists. Key readings: Moritz Schlick (1939) and J.J.C. Smart (1961).

-Objections to instrumentalism: prominent critiques of instrumentalism, both its normative ethical commitments and as a way of understanding moral responsibility. Key readings: P.F. Strawson (1962), R. Jay Wallace (1994), and T.M. Scanlon (1998). 

-Recent instrumentalist theories: the motivation to rehabilitate instrumentalist accounts in light of recent developments in debates about moral responsibility and the ethics of blame; the parallel development of background normative ethical frameworks. Key readings: Richard Arneson (2003), Manuel Vargas (2013), and Victoria McGeer (2015). 

-Competitors: a brief survey of prominent alternatives to instrumentalism, including reasons-responsiveness, normative competence, and self-expression theories; the structure of instrumentalist and non-instrumentalist theories. 

-Applications: contemporary challenges to moral responsibility and the justification of blame (e.g. cognitive bias, implicit bias, ignorance, and difficulty); possible instrumentalist responses to these challenges; possible applications of instrumentalist theories to questions in applied ethics of responsibility (e.g. medical decision-making, criminal law, and psychiatric care).

Required readings:

1. Schlick, M. (1939). Problems of Ethics (chapter 7).  

2. Smart, J.J.C. (1961). “Freewill, Praise, and Blame.” 

3. Strawson, P.F. (1962). “Freedom and Resentment.” 

4. Wallace, R.J. (1994). Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (chapter 3).

5. Scanlon, T.M. (1998). What We Owe to Each Other(chapter 6).

6. Arneson, R.J. (2003). “The Smart Theory of Responsibility and Desert.” 

7. Barrett, J. (forthcoming). “Optimism about Moral Responsibility”

8. Vargas, M. (2013). Building Better Beings (chapter 6). 

9. McGeer, V. (2015). “Building a Better Theory of Responsibility.” 

10. McGeer, V. and P. Pettit. 2015. “The Hard Problem of Responsibility.” 

11. Jefferson, A. 2019. “Instrumentalism About Moral Responsibility Revisited.” 

12. Miller, D.E. 2014. “Reactive Attitudes and the Hare-Williams Debate: Towards a New Consequentialist Moral Psychology.”

13. McCormick, K.A. 2017. “Anchoring a Revisionist Account of Moral Responsibility.”

Recommended readings:

14. Talbert, M. 2019. “Moral Responsibility” in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [good introduction to the responsibility debate]

15. Vargas, M. 2013. Building Better Beings (chapters 5, 7, and 8) [a closer look at Vargas’ theory]


Requirements and Selection

Entry requirements

General and specific entry requirements for third-cycle education according to Admissions Regulations and the general syllabus [allmän studieplan] for Practical Philosophy. 


Doctoral students from other universities are welcome to apply for the course. Students enrolled at a Faculty of Humanities will have priority.

In the event of the course being oversubscribed, candidates will be prioritised using the following criteria:

1. Doctoral students enrolled at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Gothenburg

2. Doctoral students enrolled at other Swedish universities

3. Doctoral students enrolled at other universities

Course syllabus



Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science



Type of course

Subject area course


Instrumentalism about Moral Responsibility

CONTACTPer-Erik Milam