Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

E. J. Coffman

Committee Members

David Palmer, Markus Kohl, Jeffrey Kovac


Is moral responsibility compatible with the truth of causal determinism? One of the most influential arguments that moral responsibility is incompatible with causal determinism is the so-called ‘Direct Argument,’ developed by Peter van Inwagen in his An Essay on Free Will. Informally put, the Direct Argument goes as follows:

If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But we are not responsible for what went on before we were born, and neither are we responsible for what the laws of nature are. Therefore, we are not responsible for the consequences of these things (including our present acts).

The Direct Argument is highly significant. If it is successful, we have an argument for incompatibilism about responsibility and determinism that does not make use of two controversial claims typically invoked by incompatibilists: (i) a person is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have done otherwise, and (ii) if the person’s action is causally determined, then she could not have done otherwise. Since compatibilists typically deny one or the other of these claims, the Direct Argument offers an intriguing way to argue for incompatibilism about responsibility and determinism that sidesteps many of the traditional battlegrounds between compatibilists and incompatibilists.

The Direct Argument relies on two rules of inference, both of which have been questioned by the Argument’s opponents. In my dissertation, I defend the Direct Argument from some of the most pressing recent attacks against these rules. But, there is a further objection, an objection called the No Past Objection, that I argue successfully undermines the Direct Argument. So, I go on to revise the Direct Argument in light of the No Past Objection, and I do so in a way gets around this objection without sacrificing the Argument’s inference rules, or the spirit of its metaphysical assumptions. The result, what I call the Direct Argument*, is a successful argument for incompatibilism about moral responsibility and causal determinism.

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