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Manuel Vargas (University of San Francisco), “Building a Better Beast,” with commentary by Eddy Nahmias (Georgia State University). Both the paper and the commentary can be found here.
Posted by tnadelhoffer on May 14, 2006 | Permalink
Some fairly random questions:
(1) The view holds agents responsible for acting in the light of the moral considerations they actually recognize. There are possible problems lurking here. Consider the case of the frazzled driver, who leaves his infant daughter in the backseat of his car while he goes to work, forgetting to drop her off at the childcare centre. Or the nurse who is supposed to check her patient every two hours, but plain forgets…. There is no reason to think that tracing must be helpful in these cases. Here’s another counterexample, employing tracing:
Suppose that I deliberately set about to inculcate in myself insensitivity to moral considerations (perhaps as a foreseen byproduct of preparing myself to engage in morally necessary but distasteful activity. When I do so, I have a reasonable belief that I will never actually encounter the relevant considerations, I do, and I overlook them. Not responsible?
(2) As I understand the view, you claims that the aim of a system of moral responsibility is fostering our sensitivities to moral considerations. If that’s the aim, what distinguishes our blame practices from blame emulation (which, according to you, we engage in with regard to children)?
(3) You appeals to tracing to circumvent the challenge from Doris and Stich. But also want to avoid a historical condition. This means you’re committed to a balancing act: some tracing, but not too much. Isn't this a little unstable?
May 14, 2006 at 07:27 PM
For agreeing with me so much, Eddy raises a LOT of hard questions. Thanks to Eddy for his terrific comments, and to Neil for the additional questions. I don’t think I can adequately reply to all the issues raised by these guys (short of writing another paper!), but I’ll try to say something about most of what has been raised thus far. In this post I’ll reply to some of the “big picture” stuff. In the next post I’ll reply to some of the details.
1. On my purported compatibilism: I don’t have a big investment in whether my kind of view gets treated as compatibilist or anything else, as long as it is clear what I mean by the view. I clearly want my prescriptive account to be compatibilist, although my diagnostic (or descriptive) account is incompatibilist. That said, I think I am still officially agnostic about whether or not the property of being responsible is compatible with determinism. There are some tricky semantic issues here, and I’m (currently) willing to entertain the possibility that in some strict sense responsibility is not compatible with determinism, although I am increasingly skeptical about this possibility. I do think that even if the property of being responsible (understood in a strict sense) were incompatibilist, there would still be considerable pressure to revise the strict notion in the direction of the kind of account I favor (so, my view would be a replacement view — responsibility*—, if the semantics work out to be incompatibilist). I’m okay with this, though, because I think my account does all the work we can reasonably hope for from an account of responsibility. So, even if it is responsibility*, I do think it raises questions why we should be at all concerned with responsibility, properly speaking, even if it is incompatibilist.
2. On why we should care if a theory is revisionist: Coming from me, it may sound a bit crazy but I’m inclined to think that, at the end of the day it shouldn’t matter (much) if a theory is revisionist or not. What should matter is whether the theory does the work it is supposed to do (guide practice; explain the justification of the responsibility-characteristic attitudes, practices, and judgments, and so on, to the extent that they are justified; etc.). So why insist on the revisionist label? I think it is important to acknowledge that we do have incompatibilist intuitions, because of the role that intuition-pumping has played in the literature on free will. Too much of the debate, I think, has been hung up on arguments about what our intuitions are and what the shape of our shared concepts are about these things. These are not, by themselves, interesting issues unless you think the world maps on neatly to our concepts. Nevertheless, you get lots of folks — compatibilists and incompatibilists — worried about trying to capture all the intuitions in the free will debate. This is less obviously a concern in fields like normative ethics where almost all parties are prepared to admit some degree of counterintuitiveness in favor of various other principled advantages. You don’t see so much of that in the free will debate, and so (for the moment, anyway) I think it is important to mark out when one views one’s account as hostage to the full set of our pre-philosophical intuitions about freedom and responsibility and when one is not so constrained. This seems like a small point, but I think it has big consequences for how one can handle things like Frankfurt cases, the Consequence Argument, and various skeptical arguments like Pereboom’s Four Case Argument or Galen Strawson’s Basic Argument.
3. On moral theory neutrality: I do think that there is something appealing about offering a “(moral) theory-neutral” account of responsibility. However, I also think that we must recognize some limits to how much a theory-neutral theory can say about responsibility, because much of the content of the responsibility norms will fall out of whatever the True Theory (or is that the Right Theory?) of normative ethics says. My aim is to describe the general logic of moral responsibility but to acknowledge that some of the details will necessarily get settled only when the theory of responsibility is embedded in a theory of normative ethics. Some of these issues come alive in interesting ways when we talk about desert, fairness, and retribution. Although I can’t articulate a full defense here, I do think that one can remain MOSTLY theory-neutral while defending a prescriptively revisionist compatibilist account of responsibility, and that in doing so, one is in no worse shape than most (including many libertarians) with respect to fairness, desert, and retribution. In particular, I think it is an open question how these notions are to be understood, what their conditions are, and whether we must suppose that these things exist prior to human sociality and human normative practices. I’ve written about this, a bit, elsewhere but I’m still mulling over the issues. For what it is worth, though, it seems to me that too many of us working on free will have simply helped ourselves to one or another naive view about how the normative issues stack up, without really wading into these issues in any serious way (I count myself among the folks I’m criticizing). Or, to put the point a bit more provocatively, I don’t see why we can’t make sense of fairness in some way that is metaphysically thin, post-social, and dependent on aspects of human institutions or normative practices (think Rawls on justice). This is not to deny that we can’t get worked up about more metaphysically loaded conceptions of fairness. Still, if you grant that fairness can be made sense of this less loaded way, then it looks like there can be a way of talking about fairness that does not depend on libertarian metaphysics. It might not be all the fairness someone could want, but it still would be fairness, and it might be all the fairness we can reasonably hope for. (Hey, moral luck isn’t just a problem for me . . . !)
4. For the record, I am not a consequentialist, even though I know some of what I write perhaps invites this suspicion. I really do think my account is compatible with, for example, a contractualist or broadly deontological account. The norms of those accounts will fill in the details of the conditions of praise and blame, of fairness and desert (and any other moral notions). Indeed, I don’t at all mean to disallow that these accounts could provide justification for praise and blame in some way that is above and beyond the second-order moral influence account I favor. My point is that one can accept a forward-directed account of the justification of the practices without having to think that it is the ONLY possible way to justify these practices, and without thinking that this is the only possible justification for normative concepts more generally. There is nothing, for example, that obviously prevents a Kantian from thinking that a system of praise and blame that fosters morality-responsive agency is justified on forward-looking grounds. Indeed, to engage in these sort of practices is precisely a way of reflecting one’s specific and general commitment to moral (and thus, rational) agency in oneself and others. And, even better, this sort of commitment precludes blaming an innocent person even when there might be socially desirable effects to be had from scapegoating. Of course, the Kantian might have other justifications for praising and blaming, but the presence of alternative justifications does not mean that the justification I offer is not sufficient to account for the bulk of our responsibility-characteristic practices and attitudes.
May 15, 2006 at 07:58 PM
The following comments are replies to some of the more particular details raised by Eddy and Neil.
1. On Eddy’s case of Ralph, who in very specific contexts (child porn on the internet) lacks the capacity to regulate his behavior in light of the relevant norms: it depends on the details. Does Ralph know it is wrong, and have the capacity to arrange things so as to avoid the temptation? If so, then he is responsible for standard tracing reasons. If not, then I guess I’d want to signal openness that it might turn out that he is not responsible. It seems to me this is simply a case where we get the details clearer and apply the theory. (This does not in any way imply that what he is doing is not horrible, immoral, etc. It just means that he would not be a responsible agent, and thus not blameworthy. But that one cannot be appropriately blamed does not mean that one’s behavior was virtuous, noble, or good. It might well be despicable, vile, and repugnant.)
2. On Neil’s cases of culpable forgetfulness: These are really good cases— puzzling and yet very ordinary. And, I am inclined to think that these cases aren’t ordinarily going to be handled by tracing. My initial reaction is to think that these cases are really about how to handle breakdowns in the detection of moral considerations. Again, here’s where that annoying capacity talk re-enters. In the cases Neil describes, I’m inclined to think that these are cases where one had the (revisionist, prescriptively compatibilist) capacity to detect the relevant moral considerations, but that there will be other cases that are structurally similar where we will say that the agent did not have the capacity. What drives the difference? First stab at an answer: some fact about our practical interests and the norms with which we expect people’s behavior to comply. Sometimes detection capacities are broad, sometimes narrow. In cases where there is significant moral risks, or familiar circumstances, we favor broad construals of the capacity to detect. In cases with low moral risk or in unusual circumstances, we will tend to favor narrow construals. I don’t know what to make of the last case Neil raises, though, but the answer will turn on how we specify the epistemic condition on moral responsibility (for example, was the unlikely condition reasonably foreseeable? If our epistemic condition is one that only requires reasonable forseeability, then the agent will be responsible even if he thinks the relevant context is unlikely.) Nevertheless, I think the case is an interesting one that merits more reflection.
3. On the difference between semi-structural and historical theories: On my way of labeling the views, a historical account thinks that we always need to check the history of an agent. A semi-structural (or, if you like, semi-historical) account insists that we only need to check history when BASRA is absent. (For more than you want to know about these issues, see my recently published paper “History and Responsible Agency” in Phil Studies.) Relatedly, on Neil’s question about my constrained use of tracing: tracing only comes up when BASRA is absent, and only to settle the issue of whether the agent is culpable for the absence of BASRA. No tracing is required when BASRA is present. So, no instability worry, I think.
4. Does my account of capacity talk let in dogs and kids? Eddy and Neil both raise a version of this question, and I think I’m not nearly clear enough about this issue in the paper. As I imagine it, for someone to be a responsible agent, that agent has to be capable of detecting the relevant moral consideration, and that consideration has to be capable of playing the appropriate sort of role in what the agent decides to do. (By “appropriate sort of role” I simply mean to highlight the supposition of normally functioning practical reason and to exclude cases where there is a perverse connection between consideration detection and the role the consideration plays in deciding what to do— for example, an agent that responds to moral considerations, but is capable of responding to them only in ways contrary to what is recommended by the consideration.). I am doubtful that dogs and infants detect moral considerations, and that if they do, that those reasons can play a sound deliberative role in what they decide to do. If, however, we were to learn that at least in some contexts infants and dogs can detect moral considerations and can appropriately respond to them, then I’m prepared to acknowledge that IN THOSE CONTEXTS (and only in those contexts where that is true), those agents would count as responsible agents. But this would be a surprising discovery, I think, and not just for me. But maybe Lassie is more common than we thought. I just don’t know enough about animals. However, at least in the case of young children, I do think that as they get older they get better and better at developing the right capacities, and that in some contexts genuine praise and blame are justified. Like all of us, their capacities are spotty and vary in reliability across contexts. By the time we are adults, though, our capacities are usually pretty good for many of the issues that concern us and those immediately around us, and the relevant capacities are in place for most of the contexts in which we find ourselves.
5. On a related point, much of child-rearing (mine, anyway) involves feigning genuine praise and blame as a way of trying to cajole kids into learning how to track what moral considerations there are (or the one’s I’m aware of, anyway). This is not genuine praise and blame because I don’t think that (strictly speaking) the norms of responsible agency apply to them in most cases. After all, I’m feigning the praise and blame precisely because I don’t think they have adequate capacities of detection and self-regulation.
whew! Now hopefully I'll get time to post on someone else's paper . . .
May 15, 2006 at 08:00 PM
Come away from those papers. That's it. Now sit right there, we're not done with you yet.
Actually, just a quick one. Perhapts its clarifactory, more than an objection.
I'm not clear on what role the aims of responsibility play in your view. On one reading, they seem to be doing a lot of work - suggesting something like this:
Attributions of responsibility are tightly normatively constrained, by the kind of role we want a theory of responsibility to play. Inasmuch as that's the case, whether we hold someone responsible is, at least in part, a function of whether doing so achieves the relevant aims.
But other comments seem to suggest another view, according to which:
There is a fact of the matter whether an agent is responsible for an event - the agent must stand in some sort of appropriate causal role to that event, and must have psychological capacities a.....n.
These two accounts can come apart. I'm worried that they come apart in some of your comments. For instance, you wrote:
2. In the cases Neil describes, I’m inclined to think that these are cases where one had the (revisionist, prescriptively compatibilist) capacity to detect the relevant moral considerations, but that there will be other cases that are structurally similar where we will say that the agent did not have the capacity. What drives the difference? First stab at an answer: some fact about our practical interests and the norms with which we expect people’s behavior to comply. Sometimes detection capacities are broad, sometimes narrow. In cases where there is significant moral risks, or familiar circumstances, we favor broad construals of the capacity to detect. In cases with low moral risk or in unusual circumstances, we will tend to favor narrow construals.
In what you say here, the aims of a theory of responsibility seems to be doing a lot of work. Whether an agent is responsible for an event will depend not only on their causal role and psychological capacities, but also how significant preventing or bringing about that event is for us (people's actual judgments do reflect such criteria, but then *you're* a revisionist(.
You also wrote:
On a related point, much of child-rearing (mine, anyway) involves feigning genuine praise and blame as a way of trying to cajole kids into learning how to track what moral considerations there are (or the one’s I’m aware of, anyway). This is not genuine praise and blame because I don’t think that (strictly speaking) the norms of responsible agency apply to them in most cases.
This seems to suggest the other view: what makes it the case that the child isn't responsible (that attributions are feigned) are facts about her regardless of context.
Of course, I can see how facts about the agent and the context could interact. Here's one story: if the agent has capacities a.....n and stands in the appropriate causal relationship to event e, she is an apt candidate for responsibility attribution. That's a necessary condition of attribution. But it's not sufficient; considerations to do with the aims of the theory come in to complete the condition.
Is that a story you want to endorse?
May 16, 2006 at 01:19 AM
You are right to identify both of these threads in my thinking about these issues. I think they go together, but maybe that's wishful thinking. Anyway, here's how I'm thinking about these things:
There are facts of the matter about whether or not someone is responsible. Putting aside some epicycles about my agnosticism about the propert semantics of responsibility, the way to understand those facts is by appeal to the presence of capacities a . . . n, standing in the appropriate causal relationship to the relevant event, etc. However, one can ask why those conditions are the fact-making ones and not others. To this latter question, the point about the aims of the theory becomes relevant: these are the capacities, etc., that contribute to the aims of our responsibility practices in the right way. So, the appeal to the aims of the practice, when thinking about the facts of responsibility, is indirect, or at a higher order. It does constrain the content of responsibility norms, practices, judgments, but not in the direct way suggested by your initial interpretation.
(It may be useful to think of Jay Wallace's "normative interpretation." I think it is basically right as a replacement view of our ordinary metaphysical intepretation of the conditions of responsibility. However, I don't think Jay really thinks of it as a replacement or revisionist view.)
So, I do want talk of responsibility to be fact-talk (or close enough). And, I think we can give conditions for responsibility. Those conditions, though, are indirectly normatively loaded. The truth conditions are constituted by norms whose currency in the relevant population fosters morally-responsive creatures. In this way, the norms themselves do not need to be forward-looking, even if their justification is. In most instances where we ascribe responsibility and engage in praise and blame, the normative-loadedness issue doesn't really come up, because we assume (mostly correctly, I think), that whatever the normative requirements are, they are satsified in those cases. In marginal cases, though, the appeal to what norms would be conducive to fostering morality-responsive creatures becomes more salient precisely because it is not obvious whether our default norms apply in these cases, or even what the default norms for these cases should be.
Does that help clarify things, or did it only make it worse?
May 16, 2006 at 01:14 PM
You already addressed the issues Eddy raised concerning children and pets--now I want to press you to say something about one of the other interesting issues he raised--namely, psychopathy. On your view, if someone is a morally responsible agent, then they (a) have the ability to detect moral reasons, and (b) it is at least possible for these moral reasons to motivate the agents. Research on psychopathy suggests that psycopathic individuals have two defects--morally speaking. First, they fail the moral/conventional task--e.g., they treat the sorts of wrongs involved in driving without a license and breaking into people's houses as equally authority contingent. Second, they seem not to have normal affective responses when they are exposed to the suffering of others. As a result of the first shortcoming, they seem not to have the adequate capacity to detect moral reasons. And given the second shortcoming it is unclear that moral reasons would motivate them accordingly even if they were able to detect and identify them (for a very concise overview of the moral psychology of psychopaths, see Chapter 3 of Nichols' Sentimental Rules). Presumably, on your view it follows that psychopaths are not morally responsible agents. Yet, according to both folk morality and the law, psychopaths are culpable--since they were aware in some sense that what they were doing was wrong (albeit perhaps conventionally rather than morally). Indeed, because they are aware that harming others is wrong in some sense, they often do a good job of avoiding detection, etc--which is one of the points Eddy made in his commentary. As a result, they often end up acting in accordance with the dictates of morality albeit not for moral reasons (Kant's distinction between acting in accordance with duty and acting from duty comes to mind here). Why isn't this awareness on their part of the social and legal inappropriateness of their actions enough to ground their moral responsibility for these actions?
On page three of your paper, you say: "When a moral consideration is recognized, it need not be recognized qua moral consideration. What matters is that the agent is detecting and responding to the consideration in the appropriate way." This seems to reopen the door to the culpability of psycopaths. Indeed, psychopaths are sensitive to considerations involving praise and blame--considerations that often curb their otherwise immoral behaviors.
So are they morally responsible on your view or not? If so, why? If not, do you nevertheless think they are apt targets of criminal sanctions?
May 18, 2006 at 04:30 PM
Manuel, thanks for the excellent paper and discussion. I beg you to take point 4 from May 15 5:58pm - forward-looking responsibility without consequentialism - and spread the word.
I find "revisionism" to be a red herring. Lewis Carroll's White Queen was a rank amateur: believe six impossible things before breakfast? The average citizen can beat that with both hands tied. All philosophers are revisionists, or had better be, if they want their accounts to be sane.
None of which counts - sadly - as a reason against your practice of warning your audiences that your account is revisionist.
Paul Torek |
May 28, 2006 at 04:52 PM
Sorry about the delay in responding to these last two comments. I was out of town for a bit, but now I'm back.
On Thomas' question about psychopaths: I'm inclined to think that if psychopaths turn out as Nichols and others have described, then they are very often not going to be morally responsible agents. (I say "not very often" to acknowledge that the conventional/moral distinction used by psych researchers might not perfectly carve up the moral/non-moral difference, as some genuinely moral stuff might count as "conventional" in their sense.)
On the "moral considerations qua moral considerations" point- what I have in mind is really something like Arpaly's distinction between moral reasons de re and moral reasons de dicto. An idea of hers that I want to borrow is that there can't be an accidental connection between considerations-tracking and action, but the agent doesn't have to think of the considerations as moral or even to be conscious of them. Your question makes me think I need to just say this, because it isn't clear enough in the paper. Anyway, to answer the question, if psychopaths are as Nichols and others say, then behavior consistent with moral considerations that is not appropriately connected to those considerations won't render the psychopath responsible. And yeah, I expect this will disagree with at least some of the folk.
On Paul's remarks- Thanks for the support about the point about responsibility that exploits forward-looking justifications without requiring consequentialism! As you know, there've been lots of disputes about this at the Garden of Forking Paths, but I've been reluctant to wade in so far. Maybe I'll join in next time now that I know that I won't sound like a total idiot to at least one person.
On revisionism as a red-herring: There are some tricky issues about the extent to which all philosophers count as revisionist or not (e.g., there is some sense in which Strawson's "descriptive metaphysics" are specifically NOT supposed to be revisionist). But, I do think that there is also some sense in which most of us will count as revisionist. Still, I'm trying to use the label in a very specific way, pointing to a difference in the analysis of what we have in mind and what we recommend for a given concept. Part of my reason for front-loading the label or warning is concern about the way counterintuitive results is so often treated as decisive in this domain (or even, as a kind of cost). Sometimes there are good reasons for treating a counterintuitive result as significant, sometimes not, but we typically fail to have conversations about this. By calling my view "revisionist" I hope to make it harder for people to just dismiss the view on the grounds that it doesn't capture their particular intuitions about some or another issue, thus providing some impetus for a conversation about how and why certain intuitions matter.
June 01, 2006 at 11:36 AM
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