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Aristotle (384–323 BCE) seems to have been the first to constructa theory of moral responsibility. In the course of discussing human virtues and their correspondingvices, Aristotle pauses in Nicomachean Ethics III.1–5 toexplore their underpinnings. He begins with a brief statement of theconcept of moral responsibility—that it is sometimesappropriate to respond to an agent with praise or blame on the basisof her actions and/or dispositional traits of character(1109b30–35). A bit later, he clarifies that only a certain kind ofagent qualifies as a moral agent and is thus properly subject toascriptions of responsibility, namely, one who possess a capacity fordecision. For Aristotle, a decision is a particular kind of desireresulting from deliberation, one that expresses the agent's conceptionof what is good (1111b5–1113b3). The remainder of Aristotle'sdiscussion is devoted to spelling out the conditions under which it isappropriate to hold a moral agent blameworthy or praiseworthy for someparticular action or trait. His general proposal is that one isan apt candidate for praise or blame if and only if the action and/ordisposition is voluntary. According to Aristotle, a voluntary actionor trait has two distinctive features. First, there is a controlcondition: the action or trait must have its origin in the agent. Thatis, it must be up to the agent whether to perform that action orpossess the trait—it cannot be compelled externally. Second,Aristotle proposes an epistemic condition: the agent must be aware ofwhat it is she is doing or bringing about (1110a-1111b4).
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Since the Stoics, the thesis of causal determinism, if true, and itsramifications, have taken center stage in theorizing aboutmoral responsibility. During the Medieval period, especially in thework of Augustine (354–430) and Aquinas (1225–1274), reflection onfreedom and responsibility was often generated by questions concerningversions of theological determinism, including most prominently: a)Does God's sovereignty entail that God is responsible for evil?; andb) Does God's foreknowledge entail that we are not free and morallyresponsible since it would seem that we cannot do anything other thanwhat God foreknows we will do? During the Modern period, there wasrenewed interest in scientific determinism—a changeattributable to the development of increasingly sophisticatedmechanistic models of the universe culminating in the success ofNewtonian physics. The possibility of giving a comprehensiveexplanation of every aspect of the universe—including humanaction—in terms of physical causes became much moreplausible. Many thought that persons could not be free and morallyresponsible if such an explanation of human action turned out to be true. Others argued that freedom and responsibility would not be undermined by the truth of scientific determinism. In keeping with thisfocus on the ramifications of causal determinism for moralresponsibility, thinkers may be classified as being one of two types:1) an incompatibilist about causal determinism and moralresponsibility—one who maintains that if causal determinism istrue, then there is nothing for which one can be morally responsible;or 2) a compatibilist—one who holds that a person canbe morally responsible for some things, even if both who she is andwhat she does is causally determined. In Ancient Greece, these positions were exemplified in the thought ofEpicurus (341–270 BCE) and the Stoics, respectively.