Doing and Deserving: Essays in the Theory of Responsibility


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So far as responsibility is concerned, Wallace is a well-regarded attempt to mediate between the two approaches. Rather differently, Pettit uses our susceptibility to reasons as the basis for an essentially interactive account of moral agency. For our purposes, perhaps the most important point is that both positions highlight a series of factors important to responsibility and mutual accountability. These factors include: general responsiveness to others for instance, via moral reasoning or feelings such as sympathy ; a sense of responsibility for our actions for instance, so that we may offer reasons for our actions or feel emotions of shame or guilt ; and tendencies to regard others as responsible for instance, to respect persons as the authors of their deeds and to feel resentful or grateful to them.

Two further thoughts should be added which apply regardless of which side of this debate one inclines toward. One possible implication of this is that some other animals might have a degree of moral agency; another implication is that human beings may vary in the extent of their agency. This seems clearly true of children as opposed to adults. Second, none of these factors has an obvious connection to free will, in the metaphysical sense that opposes free will to determinism.

As we shall see, however, whether we emphasize the rational or the affective basis for responsible agency tends to generate characteristically different accounts of retrospective responsibility, where the issue of free will tends to recur. In assigning responsibility for an outcome or event, we may simply be telling a causal story. This might or might not involve human actions. For example: the faulty gasket was responsible for the car breaking down; his epileptic fit was responsible for the accident.

Such usages do not imply any assignment of blame or desert, and philosophers often distinguish them by referring to "causal responsibility. Among the many different causes that led to an outcome, that action is identified as the morally salient one. If we say the captain was responsible for the shipwreck, we do not deny that all sorts of other causes were in play. But we do single out the person who we think ought to be held responsible for the outcome. Philosophers sometimes distinguish this usage, by speaking of "liability responsibility.

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This judgment typically pictures the person as liable to various consequences: to feeling remorse or pride , to being blamed or praised , to making amends or receiving gratitude , and so forth. This topic is an old concern of philosophers, predating the term "responsibility" by at least two millennia.

The classic analysis of the issues goes back to Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics , where he investigates the conditions that exculpate us from blame and the circumstances where blame is appropriate.


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Among conditions that excuse the actor, he mentions intoxication, force of circumstances, and coercion: we cannot be held responsible where our capacity to choose was grossly impaired or where there was no effective choice open to us though perhaps we can be blamed for getting into that condition or those circumstances. We can be blamed for what we do when threatened by others, but not as we would be if coercion were absent. In each case, the issue seems to be whether or not we are able to control what we do: if something lies beyond our control, it also lies beyond the scope of our responsibility.


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However, although Aristotle thinks that our capacities for deliberation and choice are important to responsible agency, he lacks the Kantian emphasis on rational control discussed in the last section. Aristotle grants considerable importance to habituation and stable character traits — the virtues and vices. On the other hand, how we respond to coercion does reveal much about our virtues and vices; the point is that the meaning of such acts is very different from the meaning they would have in the absence of coercion.

Why should this be so? The person who acts badly does not: she deserves to be reproached, ought to feel remorse, and may even deserve punishment. Since blame, guilt and punishment are of great practical importance, it is clearly desirable that our account of responsibility justify them. Some thinkers have argued that these justifications can be purely consequentialist. For instance, Smart argues that blame, guilt and punishment are only merited insofar as they can encourage people to do better in the future.

However, most philosophers have been dissatisfied with such accounts. For most people, the intuitive justification for the sort of desert involved in retrospective responsibility lies in individual choice or control. You chose to act selfishly: you deserve blame.

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You chose not to take precautions: you deserve to bear the consequences. You chose to break the law: you deserve punishment.

Role of Responsibility in Our LIFE

The question of legal responsibility is considered separately, below. This way of putting matters clearly gives pride of place to our capacity to control our conduct in the light of reasons, moral and otherwise. It will also emphasize the intentions underlying an action rather than its actual outcomes. This is because intentions are subject to rational choice in a way that outcomes often are not. It can be argued that our intentions and choices are conditioned by our characters, and our characters by the circumstances of our upbringing.

Clearly these are not matters of choice. This is why a concern with retrospective responsibility raises the family of issues around moral luck and continues to lead back to the issue of free will: the idea that we are, really and ultimately, the authors of our own choices — despite scientific and common-sense appearances.

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In other words, although the Humean analysis can be understood in terms of individual psychology, it also points to the question: What is it about human interaction that leads us to hold one another responsible? Kantians, on the other hand, tend to think of retrospective responsibility, not as a matter of influencing others, but rather as our respecting individual capacities for rational choice.

This respect may still have harsh consequences, as it involves granting people their just deserts, including blame and punishment. A different use of "responsibility" is as a synonym for "duty. Sometimes we use the term to describe duties that everyone has — for example, "Everyone is responsible for looking after his own health. He is responsible for sorting the garbage; she is responsible for looking after her baby; the Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for monitoring air pollution; and so on.

In these cases, the term singles out the duties, or "area of responsibility," that somebody has by virtue of their role. This usage bears at least one straightforward relation to the question of retrospective responsibility. We will tend to hold someone responsible when she fails to perform her duties. A captain is responsible for the safety of the ship; hence he will be held responsible if there is a shipwreck.

The usual justification for this lies in the thought that if he had taken his responsibility more seriously, then his actions might have averted the shipwreck. In some cases, though, when we are entrusted with responsibility for something, we will be held responsible if harm occurs, regardless of whether we might have averted it.

This might be true if one hires that is, rents a car, for instance: even if an accident is not your fault, the contract may stipulate that you will be responsible for part of the repair costs. In order to hire rent the car in the first place, one must accept — take responsibility for — certain risks. We may think that everybody has a duty that is, a prospective responsibility to make recompense when certain sorts of risks materialize from their actions. Consider a standard example: suppose John accidentally slips and breaks a vase in Jane's shop.


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  • This is probably not something John had control over, and to avoid the risk of damaging any of Jane's possessions, John would have to avoid entering her shop altogether. Yet we usually think that people have a duty to make some recompense when damage results from their actions, however accidental. From the point of view of our interacting with one another, the issue is not really whether a person could have avoided a particular, unfortunate outcome, so much as the fact that all our actions create risks; and when those risks materialize, someone suffers.

    The question is then — as Arthur Ripstein has put it — whether the losses should "lie where they fall.

    But we often think that losses should be redistributed. For that to happen, someone else has to make some sort of amends — in this case, the person who caused the accident will have to accept responsibility. In terms of prospective responsibility, then, we may think that everyone has a duty to make certain amends when certain risks of action actually materialize — just because all our actions impose risks on others as well as ourselves.

    In this case, retrospective responsibility is justified, not by whether the person controlled the outcome or could have chosen to do otherwise, but by reference to these prospective responsibilities. Notice, however, that we might want to distinguish the duty to make amends from the issue of blameworthiness. One might accept the above account as to why the customer should compensate the owner of the broken vase, but add that in such a case she is not to blame for the breakage.

    There is clearly some merit to this response. It suggests that retrospective responsibility is more complicated than is often thought: blameworthiness and liability to compensate are different things, and may need to be justified in different ways.

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    However, this question has not really been systematically pursued by moral philosophers, although the distinction between moral culpability and liability to punishment has attracted much attention among legal philosophers. The connection between prospective and retrospective responsibility raises another complication. This question of moral disagreement is not often mentioned in debates about responsibility, but may be rather important. To take an example: people have very different beliefs about the ethics of voluntary euthanasia — some call it "mercy killing," others outright murder.

    Depending on our view, we will tend to blame or to condone the person who kills to end grave suffering. One might even argue that many of our moral disagreements are actually brought to light, and fought out, when actors and on-lookers dispute what responses are appropriate.

    Joel Feinberg

    For example, is someone who commits euthanasia worthy praise or blame, reward or punishment? These disagreements, often very vocal, are important for the whole topic of responsibility, because they relate to how moral agents come to be aware of what morality demands of them. Kantian ethics typically describes moral agency in terms of the co-authorship of moral norms: the rational agent imposes norms upon herself, and so can regard herself as an "author" of morality.

    This element of Kantian ethics can be difficult to appreciate, because Kant is so clear that everyone should impose the same objective morality on themselves. Hence, we do not tend to describe a dutiful child as responsible. This is because he obeys, rather than exercising his own judgment about what he ought to do.

    Importantly, people can recognize one another as responsible in this way, even in the face of quite deep moral disagreements.

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    By the same token, we know how disrespectful it is of someone, not to take her moral judgments seriously. As the example of childhood suggests, there can be degrees of responsibility. Ascribing different degrees of responsibility may be necessary or appropriate with regard to different sorts of decision-making. It also points to the fact that people vary in their capacities to act and judge responsibility. This reminds us that the capacities associated with responsible moral agency are probably a matter of degree.

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