I do not believe in the existence of free will in any deep sense. Everything we observe in nature happens because of some prior cause. A puddle of water cannot decide to freeze; it is, rather, caused to freeze when reaching a certain temperature. Human beings are products of nature as well – simply a collection of atoms (note that there is no valuation implied in this use of the word ‘simply’), although our brains are infinitely more complex than a puddle a water, which means that most of our actions are infinitely more unpredictable than the ‘actions’ of most other objects in nature. So even a determinist (i.e., those who do not believe in the existence of free will in the abstract) should concede that, in practice, there is not much difference between a belief in free will and determinism.
Some would, however, claim that it makes a great moral difference whether you believe in free will or determinism. On this account, we cannot punish or reward anyone if they are not acting out of free will. As a utilitarian hedonist I must disagree with this statement. If the consequences of punishing or not punishing someone were the same, then it would not matter what we did. But the consequences are (almost) never the same. Even if the actions of a ‘rapist’ were determined by prior processes in the brain (i.e., they were not the result of ‘free will’), it still makes a difference whether we punish him or not. Among the most important consequences are that the streets will be safer with the rapist behind bars, and that other potential rapists will be deterred from raping. The last point is especially important; it indicates that our actions (even if they, in turn, are not the result of free will) can create new determining factors for the behavior of other people.
Thus, I view the question of punishment, blame, reward, and praise as wholly separate from the question of determinism or free will. Even though we could, at least in principle, describe everything that caused someone’s actions, we can still discuss how much this person should be blamed or praised, or how much personal responsibility we should ascribe to them. A general rule might be that the more we can actually assess the determining factors of someone’s behavior, the less responsibility we can ascribe. For example, if I were to watch someone get pushed into the street in front of a car, I could easily predict that this person would get involved in an accident, and so I could not ascribe responsibility to the person being pushed for the consequences of this accident. I could, however, ascribe a heavy responsibility to the pusher, because I could not predict her actions at all (unless, perhaps, there was another pusher behind her).
What about the responsibility for poverty or unemployment, which might be important to assess in order to decide who ‘deserves’ assistance from the state? Here we must apply sliding scales, since it would be highly unusual to find someone who is not responsible at all for their situation, as well as someone who is completely responsible for their situation. Again, the test would consist in predictability. We might predict that someone with a certain disability can be expected to have a hard time finding a job, which means that responsibility for this unemployment cannot be total. On the other hand, we might be able to find a not insignificant number of people who have succeeded in finding employment in spite of this disability, which would mean that our ability of prediction will decrease (at least ceteris paribus), while the level of personal responsibility will increase.
While certain disabilities would decrease the level of responsibility for unemployment drastically, there are other things which would increase it drastically. An example of this would be laziness. While it is certainly true that laziness, as well as other personal traits, are endowed to us by nature, it it still the case that we can find many examples of lazy people who are able to control or overcome their laziness in order to get a job. In other words, it is very hard to predict whether someone who exhibits lazy tendencies early in life will succeed in finding employment or not. Thus, when it comes to lazy people, their laziness does not remove very much of personal responsibility. Furthermore, while the lazy person might claim that he is lazy for certain reasons (that he cannot remove), we can create other reasons for him to counteract this laziness by, for instance, nagging at him or threatening to remove unemployment benefits. This does not exclude the possibility that we might find rare cases of extreme laziness that cannot be overcome by any means, but in such cases we would probably not call it ‘laziness’ anymore, but refer to it as mental disorder.
So my suggestion is that the level of predictability regarding people’s actions should determine the level of personal responsibility we ascribe. Right now I am just throwing this out as an idea which, in the end, might prove to be untenable. In any case, the theory seems to fall in line with many of our standard practices in deciding whether we should accept someone’s excuses or not. If you are late to a meeting and make the excuse that you were late because you had to finish playing a game on your phone, people would probably not accept your excuse, because they could point to so many examples of people who like to play games on their phone, but still manage to get to meetings on time. If your excuse is that your train was late because of a terrorist attack, we would accept your excuse, because it would be very hard to find examples of people who would make it to work on time under these circumstances. It would, in other words, be easy to predict that a person stuck on a train during a terrorist attack would not make it to work, while it would be extremely difficult to predict whether someone caught up in a game on her phone will manage to make the time or not.
I guess the obsessive phone gamer would be able to say that once she started to play the game it would be very easy to predict that she would not make it to the meeting in time, given that we know how long the game usually lasts. Thus, we should not ascribe much responsibility to her. Here one could probably reply that even thought it was predictable that she would be late once the game has started, it was very hard to predict that she would take up the phone and start to play in the first place. Thus she had a very large responsibility for starting to play in the first place. And since she, presumably, knew of the risks that she would be late if she started playing, the responsibility for the tardiness remains high.
In the end, however, it must be added that praise or blame should only partly be determined by level of personal responsibility. The most important thing is always the consequences of punishing or not punishing. If we see many good consequences of not reprimanding the phone gamer in any way, in spite of high levels of personal responsibility, then we should not mete out any blame or punishment. Conversely, the consequences might be such that it is beneficial to punish people in spite of low levels of responsibility (indeed, we do sometimes lock up people who are dangerous to other people, even though they are very mentally ill and not responsible at all for their actions).