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).

If you are interested in the course, please contact Peter Johnson ( and Linda Aronsson (, so that we can estimate the number of students interested in the course and plan accordingly.