The impulse to kick your leg when the doctor knocks your knee with a rubber mallet is involuntary; cheating on a chemistry exam is a choice… right?
For years, University of San Francisco Professor of Philosophy Manuel Vargas has focused his research on such questions-the long-standing debate referred to by philosophers and scientists as the "free will problem."
His work has garnered him USF's 2012 Distinguished Research Award, a competitive university-wide award handed out annually by the USF Faculty Association.
"On the one hand, a lot of folks tend to think the basis for people being morally responsible is that we have souls, selves, and minds that are separate and distinct from the physical world and can initiate causal actions that are independent from the physical world," said Vargas, whose research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Is cheating on an exam a reflex?
Whereas, many scientists and other free-will skeptics maintain that the same forces of cause and effect that drive the rest of the natural world, whether based on genetic make-up or the laws of physics, also govern human actions. In other words, we don't choose to cheat on an exam any more than we choose to kick when our knee's reflexes are triggered.
Vargas' innovative approach is to shift from trying to resolve debates about free will to focus on how people fit a picture of themselves as morally responsible beings into a scientific world: If we accept the scientific claim that we don't have free will in some conventionally understood sense, is the concept of moral accountability still useful and usable?
The question is the subject of his book "Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility," to be published next year. In it, Vargas makes a case for moral responsibility without discarding scientific evidence. He points to the social purpose that underlies why we're inclined to hold people accountable for their actions-that is, to cultivate citizens who are responsive to moral considerations.
Recasting moral responsibility and free will
For Vargas, then, moral responsibility is society's stick to instill morality, whether it is human nature or not-thus recasting the way we think about moral responsibility and its relationship to free will.
"Vargas makes a distinction between what we actually think about free will versus what we should think about it, which many others working in this area do not," said Kelly McCormick, a doctoral student at Syracuse University whose research on free will and moral responsibility has been influenced by Vargas' work. "This distinction stands to recast the landscape of the debate in a significant way."
Vargas' research, which to date consists of 20 articles and three books, has been highly influential in the field, garnering him a number of fellowships, the first American Philosophical Association Prize in Latin American Thought, and the USF Dean's Scholar Award.
"Professor Manuel Vargas is one of the most prominent scholars working on free will and moral psychology and has gained national and international recognition," said Eileen Fung, associate dean of arts and humanities at USF's College of Arts and Sciences. "His multifaceted expertise adds to the richness and diversity in our curriculum of philosophy and ethics here at USF."