Functionalism and moral responsibility

As I read Churchland – Matter and Consciousness, I was gravitated to the theory of functionalism. Functionalism is a branch off of dualism with a very specific difference. Functionalism says, “ … A reductive definition solely in terms of publicly observable inputs and outputs is quite impossible” (Chruchland). The key difference is that functionalism believes that mental states in the mind play a key role in determining what the output is going to be. So a diagram would include an input into the brain, a very complicated series of events with casual relation, and finally an output as a behavior. Why I became so interested in this theory because what does this theory have to say about moral responsibility.

Moral responsibility is the idea or concept that a human is responsible for their actions because they were able to make a conscious decision over different alternatives. For example, I can choose a red shirt or a blue shirt to wear tomorrow. It seems very weird to say I am morally responsible for choosing to wear a red shirt, but take the example and change it: I can either choose to kill someone tomorrow or I can choose not too. In today’s society it is the overwhelming idea that I am morally responsible if I choose to kill someone tomorrow. However, if the functionalist view is taken I was not given a choice in some instances. A certain input was placed in my brain and certain mental states occurred that led me to kill someone. Can it be said that in every case I was able to be in control of all of my mental states and thus I can be held responsible for my actions. In my opinion, the answer to this question is no. For example: I could be diagnosed with schizophrenia. In this instant, I was unable to tell the difference between what is real and what was not real. It is wrong to say that I was morally responsible for this crime. This example was very extreme because there was a mental diagnosis that shows that I was not able to control my mental states.

Most of the cases in court do not have specific evidence that the defense can point to and say there is proof that my defendant was not in control of his mental states at the time the crime was committed. In these cases, are all of these people still morally responsible for their actions and should be sent to prison? I believe the average person or American would answer yes to this question. I however believe this to be wrong. The environment in which a person is placed has been show in many instances to change their mental states. For example: if a child is raised in a family where hunting animals is acceptable and apart of their cultural, they would most likely see nothing wrong with killing an animal to gain food. Now take the opposite example, if a child is raised in a family where hunting animals is frowned upon and deemed and inhuman, the child is mostly likely going to say killing animals is wrong. This is a prime example of how the environment in where a human is placed can change their mental state about a certain idea. Since environment plays a role in human mental states, it calls into question if anyone should be morally responsible for their actions. This is really an issue in the court of law. Why would people being sentenced to death or life in prison if they are not morally responsible for the crime that they committed?






Churchland, Paul M. Matter and Consciousness a Contemporary Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999. Print.


Jones, Lucy. “Philosophy of the Mind Episode Seven: Functionalism.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 June 2013. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.

4 thoughts on “Functionalism and moral responsibility

  1. I agree with your overall functionalist argument, in that by following functionalism, there exist stimuli (such as environmental stimuli) that are the inputs that lead to our behavioral outputs. However, I want to challenge your moral responsibility argument. Now I agree with the fact that the individual who has schizophrenia isn’t morally responsible for their actions (how could they be, their mental processes are all scrambled), yet if this individual were to kill another, perfectly healthy individual, yes it is still valid that he isn’t morally responsible for this other individual’s death, but he is still responsible. Regardless of the morality behind the argument, this schizophrenic individual will still face charges in the face of the law as he is the one responsible for the crime as stated in the law. Laws are structured to be morally just so that moral arguments don’t come into play in the courtroom, yet many still do. I feel (and I think you would agree) that courts and lawyers should focus more of their effort on the environmental factors that led these individuals to commit crimes, as they more accurately reflect the inputs that led the individual to the heinous behavioral output according to the functionalist.
    Your statement at the end is also one I think many would question (myself included): “should [anyone] be morally responsible for their actions” (Smith, Post). This ties in a lot about our past discussions in class about fate/free will and determinism. This also ties in with our discussions on Ayer’s argument with determinism. In short, saying that no one should really be held morally responsible for their actions does make sense when seen through the functionalist lens, but in society, that would cause many problems as there would be severely reduced incentive for individuals to be genuine people. I feel that we should be judged morally responsible for our actions (and that is what laws try to do) so that individuals will act morally. This is where my agreement with the functionalist’s philosophy ends as I believe that the environment isn’t what dictates the individual’s behavior, rather the individual has a certain space in which to map out his or her morals and thus should be judged morally responsible for them.

  2. I agree with a large majority of what you discussed. The examples brought in were strongly executed. The question being raised is one to ponder. I would like to focus on the aspect of environmental conditions and standards shaping one’s behaviors. From a sociological perspective, the environment in which one is raised in impacts behavior to a large extent. In a society where it is acceptable to skip school, do drugs, and steal, an individual may be in a grouping of people who do these actions, but in another society, the opposite could be the case. This further emphasizes whether or not we are responsible for our actions.

  3. I also agree when you said that it is false that “in every case I was able to be in control of all of my mental states and thus I can be held responsible for my actions.” There are certainly some special circumstances in which a person has no control of their mental states and thus can not be held responsible for their actions. It is not a person’s fault if they have no control. For example, someone with Tourette syndrome involuntarily says or does something. It is something that is uncontrolled because of the mental disability.
    The environment in which a person is raised is more of a sociological problem than a biological problem. It is more difficult for a person to change their behavior/actions when they have a biological/mental disability than when a person is simply raised in a different environment. Sociological factors obviously cause people to act differently, but it is more likely to be controlled.

  4. Taking the stand as an eliminative materialist, the idea of functionalism is flawed in the idea that there is an inexplicable process that happens in the brain that is followed by a behavioral output. According to modern day neuroscience as well as eliminative materialism, there should be no problem in explaining the science behind brain states. Functionalism is still trying to explain the relationship between biology and cognition. However, neuroscience is able to do this in a more reliable fashion. Eventually, neuroscience will replace the need to explain behavior, and behavior will be able to be explained in strictly biological terms.

    With your example of the court case, the judges wold be able to tell exactly why one committed a crime. There would be no guessing of what the cognitive processes were before the crime was committed because science would be able to explain. However, environment in which people are raised does pose an interesting debate in eliminative materialism. For now, just assume that neuroscience would be able to explain differences in cultures and environments. If this is the case, cognition would still be explicable in terms of science.

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