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Summary of Manuel Vargas on Responsibility

Traditionally, the problem of moral responsibility rests on whether free will exists. As a question, the problem is “how can we hold others morally responsible for their actions in a world without free will?” Philosopher Manuel Vargas (2021) develops a unique approach to explaining and justifying responsibility while avoiding commitment to free will. Vargas' approach is to focus on our practices–how we hold others responsible–and justify these practices by their consequences–whether the practices promote valuable outcomes.

Constitutive Instrumentalism

The instrumentalist justifies standards, norms, and practices by the goals they achieve. Instrumentalist accounts have been held in disrepute since the latter half of the 20th century, especially beginning with Strawon’s views on freedom and resentment. Some objections are that a focus on goals justifies scapegoating and that a focus on goals is not the right kind of justification for our practices. Vargas (forthcoming) shows that instrumentalism is enjoying a renaissance as developments show that these and other important objections can be met. Here, I start with Vargas' (2021) view, which he calls constitutive instrumentalism.

Vargas takes a phenomenological-practice account of responsibility. The alternative is a conceptual account, where one starts with the concept of responsibility to try and learn about responsibility. According to Vargas, one issue with the conceptual approach is that it assumes that our convictions about the concept of responsibility can settle questions about responsibility. By contrast, the phenomenological account begins with the phenomenon and practice of responsibility. The challenge with this approach is to explain how the practice can go wrong when it does and why we should care about the practice. As with the above worries, we will set them aside (see Vargas, forthcoming).

Vargas starts with the observation that cooperation provides important social goods, and some of these require members to cooperate even when doing so is costly. The practice of responsibility can solve this problem. By having a cultural set of norms, and by holding each other accountable to them, we can stabilize cooperation around those norms. This suggests that we can locate the value of responsibility in the practice itself.

The norms around a responsibility practice do the following four things: secure cooperation and coordination, shape our moral sensibilities, enable moral competence, and provide efficient responses to issues that arise in these domains.

What makes this instrumentalist view constitutive is that these practices constitute moral agency. Without such practices, it is unclear that we could be moral agents. The idea here is that humans learn to be moral people by a process of social-cultural learning.

Costly Signaling

Vargas thinks of blame as a costly signal. When I blame someone, I am sending the signal that I am normatively competent, that these norms are important, and that I support their enforcement. What makes this signal costly is that it isn’t easy to acquire (e.g., it takes an acculturation process) and that commitment to the norm (say via resenting a person) is costly. For example, by blaming someone, I take on confrontational costs. Blaming signifies both where one stands and the type of cooperative agent that one is.


How can there be responsibility without free will? For Vargas, holding people responsible is possible as long as they are the kind of person who can learn norms, can apply them, understand them, and so forth. The justification of these norms is that they allow for coordination and cooperation.


Manuel Vargas (2021). Constitutive Instrumentalism and the Fragility of Responsibility,

Manuel Vargas (Forthcoming). Instrumentalist Theories of Moral Responsibility. In The

Oxford Handbook on Moral Responsibility. Ed Nelkin and Pereboom, Oxford:

Oxford University Press.

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