Monday, June 10, 2019

Two thoughts on moral responsibility

Audun Benjamin Bengston has a nice paper here (in the latest issue of Philosophical Investigations) on Strawson on reactive attitudes and on the relevance of Wittgenstein's work for understanding what Strawson is and isn't saying. Here's the abstract:
This paper defends P.F. Strawson's controversial ‘reversal move’, the view that the reactive attitudes determine what it means to be responsible. Many are critical of this account, arguing that it leads to the result that if we were to start to hold very young children responsible, they would be responsible. I argue that it is possible to read Strawson as providing a grammatical analysis of our moral responsibility language‐game by drawing two parallels between Strawson and Wittgenstein. This interpretation shows that the formulation of the problem associated with the ‘reversal move’ rests on a grammatical mistake.
I kept waiting for something like this thought to come up, and eventually it does (the quote is from p. 297):
Just as we can imagine a scenario where the game begins with the end, it is perfectly possible to imagine a culture in which young children are regularly held responsible, but the further question we need to ask is whether our expressions related to our moral responsibility language‐game would be applicable in such a scenario. For what seems to be the case in the formulation of the worry that young children will be seen as responsible is that a different world is imagined, with quite different needs and concerns that in turn will go on to determine a rather different notion of responsibility than the one we have. In order for it to be the case that young children are seen as responsible, we would have to imagine quite a different set of circumstances; our needs and concerns to be quite different from the ones we currently have. Once we do this, then, perhaps, will it become intelligible to us that young children can be held responsible. But crucially, the concept of moral responsibility that they operate with will be quite different from the one we currently possess because the needs and concerns that condition the meaning of moral responsibility are sufficiently different in this imagined scenario. This means that its meaning would be different. This also entails that when we worry that young children would be responsible if we were to start to hold them responsible, we are no longer talking about the same concept. 
Of course, if holding children "morally responsible" involves punishing them then we can still think that doing so is unfair or cruel, but if the words "moral responsibility" are used very differently from the way we use them, then we aren't necessarily dealing with the same concept any more.

My other thought is a response to this:
In ‘Freedom and Resentment’, Strawson draws a distinction between two categories of when moral responsibility attributions are inappropriate: excuses and exemptions.
In the case of excuses, an agent is seen as the appropriate target of moral responsibility attributions, but excused from a particular action he or she performed. In the case of exemptions, the agent is seen as exempted from moral responsibility attributions altogether.
This almost makes it sound as though either one is not morally responsible at all for anything or one is (completely) excused from some individual action because of a reason that applies to (only) that particular action, or one is (completely) responsible. Maybe no one makes the mistake of being this simplistic, but, just in case they do, I want to muddy these waters, at least a bit. Excuses can be partial, after all. That is, a person might be partly excused, their culpability diminished, for some reason, without being wholly excused. And excuses can apply to multiple actions, perhaps even to everything a person does, without their being completely exempt from moral responsibility attributions altogether. For instance, if someone is under a lot of stress this might be a mitigating factor in assessing any bad thing they might ever do, without it meaning that they have the same status as children and the severely mentally ill. And someone might be under stress all the time, perhaps because of a physical disability or poverty or being a member of some low-status group.


  1. Oddly, I have Strawson's "Freedom and resentment" lying on my desk right now as a "next paper to read", although it's unrelated to any research I'm doing. On the face of it, I don't find any problem with the idea of holding very young children morally (i.e., ethically) responsible (in their interactions with others), while recognizing that we adults are ethically responsible for the child's welfare, including their future welfare. And holding young children ethically responsible does not involve or require punishing them (in order for their becoming ethically responsible adults to be effective); I would in fact say that punishment is only a practical, not an ethical concept, and any coherent system of ethical principles would enjoin us to avoid punishment of those who are ethically dependent on us. (Alternative formulations of this principle are of course possible.) And, it works, in the sense that the child becomes a responsible adult, kind and with no hang-ups. I don't know yet, of course, if this is what Strawson is talking about, but I think this idea is important. (There is no stress on the child and no lingering resentments, and no possibility of a Trump-like figure emerging.)


    1. Good point(s). I think the worry is less that we might hold very young children responsible for actions that it is unwise to hold them responsible for (doing bad things that they are too young to understand, for instance) and more that we might hold anyone or anything responsible and thereby, on a certain reading of Strawson, make them responsible.