While Kevin Timpe and I were trying to hold off on going public with the new blog we're putting together, the cat has already been let out of the bag (see here). So, we figured we might as well go ahead and start formally spreading the word about Discrimination and Disadvantage. Here is a brief statement concerning our goals and motivations:
In recent years, philosophers have increasingly reflected on how various kinds of privilege and advantage are at work in the profession with an eye towards improving the lot of the disadvantaged. This blog is a space for philosophical reflection on various kinds of disadvantage (e.g., discrimination based on racism, classism, sexism, hetero-sexism, ableism, and the intersectionality of these and related phenomena) as well as discussion of such disadvantage within the philosophical community.
The impetus behind the blog begain with a simple question posted by Kevin on Facebook concerning the perceived need for a group blog or FB page for discussing these and related issues. We both agreed that a blog could be an important vehicle for encouraging an ongoing discussion concerning the philosophy of discrimination and disadvantage as well as the role that discrimination and disadvantage play within the discipline of philosophy. In this sense, the blog has a theoretical as well as a practical purpose. While our initial motivation was focused more narrowly on the philosophy of disability, we soon realized it was important for us to broaden the scope to include not just ableism but also other forms of discrimination and disadvantage.
For now, the blog is still under development. Not only are we working to add more resources and books to the sidebars, but we are also still trying to line up more contributors. If you or anyone you know would like to contribute, please just drop me a line. Hopefully, there will be some new posts up within the next week. So, please help spread the word! Thanks in advance!
Experimental philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists have all become increasingly interested in the psychology of believing in free will and moral responsibility. Because there has been a ton of exciting work being done on this front, I thought I would post a list of just some of the papers that are piling up on my reading list. See below the fold for details. If you have other readings to suggest, please post them in the comment threads!
Massimo Pigliucci's online philosophy magazine Scientia Salon is having a special "free will week" this week. Check it out! If you've never visited, Scientia Salon is a highly-trafficked site whose mission is to share professional philosophy with the broader public. Also, keep an eye out for a Flickers contribution to the Scientia Salon discussion this Friday! ;)
Mental illness affects how we perceive the actions of others and with good reason. Consider two scenarios. In scenario 1 a person crashes into you because they had a non-epileptic seizure while driving. The seizure was due to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder (the person never had a seizure prior to this one). In scenario 2 a person crashes into you because they want to harm you, they do not have a mental illness of any kind (let's assume). Surely, almost everyone would agree that we are more likely to deem the agent in scenario 2 as morally responsible for crashing into you but not the agent in scenario 1 (MR skeptics aside). I would cite the anxiety order as the exculpating factor in this scenario. The illness left the agent without control over their actions. Now, this is not to say that I think anxiety disorders exculpate in every scenario, far from it! But rather than get bogged down with the details of any one disorder I'd like to speak in more general terms to get the conversation going (though I'd be happy to discuss such details when explaining why we think some disorders exculpate and others do not).
In the last post I focused on psychopathy. My claim was that psychopaths are morally responsible because their disorder does not leave them without requisite control or with an inability to meet one's favored epistemic condition. In my previous line of work I worked with many that were afflicted with addiction, PTSD, depression, various mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychosis, schizophrenia, ADHD, and others. Many of these disorders are on a spectrum and some are more dehabilitaing than others. Now, I ask you all: which disorders are exculpating and why? For me, disorders that have as part of their diagnosis hallucinations seem to be excupating in many scenarios (but not all). But the fact that a person has any particular disorder is not exculpating in itself (or is it?), and I think this is an important point. Consider scenario 1 again. This time, let's build into the case that the agent has had 3 such episodes in the last few weeks (call this scenario 1B). Let's further stipulate that the agent can sense when a seizure is coming on and that such seizures can be prevented by taking medication and that the doctor recommended that the agent not drive until the agent had a month without seizures (just to be safe and to make sure the medication was working). Now, it seems that if the agent wasn't taking their meds (because they simply did not want to) and they were feeling as if a seizure was on the verge of coming on but decided to drive anyway, then this agent is morally responsible. Thus, the disorder in and of itself is not doing the work here, at least it doesn't seem to be. Notice that the same thing occurred in scenario 1 and 1B, an agent crashed into an innocent person due to a cognitive disorder that the person was not culpable for (the agent did not ask to have this disorder). In other words, that the agent has this disorder is not *their fault* in either case. What is the agent's fault in scenario 1B, at least at first glance, was a failure to adhere to doctor's orders and for risking driving when the agent felt the seizure coming on. Do folks think that the anxiety disorder exculpates in scenario 1B? These sorts of questions can be generated with any mental illness/disorder and I find it fruitful to use such scenarios to get a grip on what it is about any one disorder that exculpates. I also think that this gets us to deeper questions about the nature of morally responsible agency as well.
Please feel free to discuss variants of the case I mention with other disorders. I find that the thought experiment is helpful to get clear on the disorder in question as well as getting clear on what we find salient in the moral responsibility literature more generally.
Before concluding I'll ask some further questions (just in case the previous one's were not interesting to you all): (1) Do disorders determine how we will perceive things? Or, do they limit or constrain our salient choices? (2) What is it about an illness that exculpates the person with the disorder?
PS: My stint as FA is coming to a close. However, I do plan on posting a couple more times before handing over the reigns. I'm thinking something on Helen Steward's work re: Agency Incompatibilism, and, a sketch of an epistemic argument against FW skepticism that I'm still working out and would love some feedback on.
I just noticed that the blog recently passed a fairly arbitrary milestone--but I thought I would share nevertheless. As of now, the blog has received 200,000+ pageviews. During this time, there have been 577 posts and 6,425 comments. In general, the blog averages close to 400 pageviews per day! So, I thought I would take a few minutes to thank everyone for their readership and participation. Without you, this wouldn't be the illuminating and entertaining community that it has become! Here's to more fun to come!
In the last post I suggested that moral responsibility may not come in degrees and based on the discussion that ensued it seems that we are pretty torn on whether or not it does. In this post I would like to focus on a different question: are psychopaths morally responsible for their behavior? This debate is dear to me as it is the first debate I weighed in on as a PhD student. In response to Haji 2010, I argued that if we are morally responsible, then psychopaths are morally responsible as well. There is no morally salient difference between *our abilities* (non psychopaths) and those of the psychopath (I'll speak to this a bit more in a second). If one admits that we are sometimes morally responsible for at least some of what we do, then one should conclude the same re: psychopaths. So, where do we all stand on this issue? Morally responsible or not? I'm thinking that like the last question I raised that we will be pretty torn on this front as well. I should note that the philosophical literature seems to weigh in favor of exculpating the psychopath or so it seems,( see Haji 1998;2010; Levy 2007 and 2014; Shoemaker 2011 for a few approaches to why this is so) whereas a commonly held view by non-philosophers seems to be that psychopaths are morally responsible for what they do. Having worked with young adults being treated for an array of psychopathic traits in the past (for 5 years at a residential program), it is also worth noting that many of them hold themselves morally responsible for what they do as well. So, to get the discussion going I'll offer an overly brief summary of the debate and mention why they might not be morally responsible and offer some reasons for thinking they might be. I'll be quick and fast because I know most of you are pretty versed in the literature. In the end, I'd like to hear why folks think they are morally responsible (or not). What condition do they fail to meet? I particularly like this debate because of the interdisciplinary feature of the research, but I digress.
The question of whether the psychopath is morally responsible for his actions has received much attention within psychological, legal, and philosophical circles over the past 20 years. There is debate within each tradition as to whether we should treat the psychopath differently than we do other criminals (assuming the psychopath commits a crime). The psychological debate has focused on the psychopath’s ability to utilize cognitive faculties when theorizing about how one ought to act. The legal debate has focused on the punishment of these individuals and how the insanity plea can be applied to them. Because they seem irrational at times, the term ‘moral insanity’ has been used to describe them (Benn 1999, Levy 2007). This causes friction for the judge and/or jurors trying to justly sentence the psychopath because the insanity plea suggests a different approach to their treatment. The philosophical debate has taken a few different approaches to the problem (though I should note that the aforemetnioned approaches have not been restricted to any one discipline, I am grossly summarizing here).
The first approach tried to assess which kinds of moral knowledge the psychopath could possess (Fields 1996, Glannon 1997, Haji 1998, Levy 2007a). But, this debate seems to be at a stalemate . As Neil Levy notes; “…given that both the truth and the best interpretation of MI (motivational internalism) is extremely controversial, this argument did not serve to advance the debate.” The debate was rooted in discussion about which relevant moral beliefs the psychopath was capable of having given that the psychopath was motivated differently and seemingly without the appropriate motivations .
The second approach focused on the psychopath’s failure to grasp the moral/conventional distinction (Levy 2007a, Levy 2007b, Nichols &Vargas 2007a, Showmaker 2011). The argument there goes something like this; since the psychopath lacks the relevant moral knowledge to be deemed morally responsible the psychopath is unable to control their actions in light of moral reasons because those reasons can only map on to a conventional distinction and not a purely moral one (Levy 2007a). Advocates of holding the psychopath culpable say they may have sufficient knowledge to act morally . Without proof of a lacking of other sorts of knowledge that may be at play when morally theorizing we shouldn’t be quick to revise our intuitions regarding the culpability of the psychopath. I do not think that these two debates are much different from one another. With that said, it doesn’t seem that we have heard sufficient evidence on either side to declare one side wrong, conclusively (even though I find the arguments by Vargas and Nichols a bit more persuasive). This brings us to the third approach and the most current literature within the debate surrounding the responsibility of psychopaths. This approach focuses on three main elements; emotional sensitivity, ethical perception, and a tracing condition centered on an agent’s responsibility of his current dispositional attitudes. This last approach, put forth by IshHaji (Haji 2010), has not yet received much attention.
In “Psychopathy, Ethical Perception, and Moral Culpability”(2010) Haji claims that psychopaths will either 1) not be morally culpable for their actions, or, 2) their degree of moral culpability will be diminished, perhaps considerably so, in light of their lack of emotional sensitivity (recall the relevance of our last discussion on degrees of moral responsibility). Haji offers support for these claims by appealing to a multitude of recent and widely accepted psychological research. The above mentioned two-fold conclusion rests on the conclusions of 3 separate but closely related arguments which he justifies by use of this research. Suffice to say that because psychopaths lack empathy (emotional sensitivity) this has a decided influence on their ethical perception. And, because ethical perception impacts our understanding of moral reasons to act or refrain from acting it follows that psychopaths might not be able to acquire moral knowledge. Assuming that the psychopath is not morally responsible for their emotional insensitivity it follows that the psychopath might not be morally responsible for their actions/behavior.
To see why the fact that psychopaths lack emotional sensitivity (empathy) is relevant consider a case by Gilbert Harman (1977): You round a corner and see a group of young hoodlums pouring gasoline on a cat and igniting it. As Harman remarks, and Haji suggests; “you do not need to conclude that what…(the hoodlums) are doing is wrong; you do not need to figure anything out. You can see that it is wrong” (Harman 1977, Haji 2010). Here, you can see the work that ethical perception is doing. It seems to be informing our moral intuitions or reactions to the igniting of the cat . Anyone “properly morally trained” should recognize through ethical perception, which has as its central feature emotional sensitivity, that the igniting of the cat is wrong. How could we expect a psychopath to see this as wrong if they are lacking the central feature of ethical perception, emotional sensitivity, that allows them to see it as such?
For those who might find this line of argument persuasive, how we perceive the situation has priority over what we decide-- this make sense. However, why think that empathy is the only emotion or faculty bearing on our ethical perception, or that empathy is*necessary* in order to perceive a scenario as moral or not? (once we ask this question we seem to fall back into the debate between Levy and Nichols and Vargas) Further, it might be the case that in passive cases, often ommissions (like Harman's example) empathy is central to our ethical perception, but, in the more interesting cases, the active cases (where there is deliberation involved on the part of the psychopath), it seems that much deliberation is needed to act successfully and it’s not clear to me that an empathetic emotion is *needed* to conclude that one ought not perform an action on moral grounds(Paul Bloom has recently done some work on empathy that favors this line of thinking). This seems to fetishize empathy and I'm not convinced that we need a high-level of it to properly assess a situation as moral or not. I'm much more confident that such an emotion is an important feature that helps us sustain deep interpersonal relationships, but that's a different conversation.
A sports analogy may be apt here; does the budding basketball player need to have a great jump shot to be a good player? I don’t think that she does. She could be good in other facets of the game (recognizing other relevant moral features) and lack a good jump shot (altogether) and still be considered a valuable contributor to the team (or a moral agentmoral community) She may have a hard time playing against teams that allow one to shoot but defend the drive rigorously—but overall, she could still be considered a good player and even in those cases can . Similarly, it seems that the psychopath could be lacking in empathy which could affect her ability to ethically perceive correctly in many passive cases, however, in active cases it seems he could get by just fine. And, in such cases, it would seem appropraite to hold them morally responsible.
Well, I'd be interested to see how others see the state of the debate; are psychopaths morally responsible for at least some of what they do?
Many have assumed either implicitly or explicitly that moral responsibility comes in degrees, but why? For me, it seems quite natural to say that I am either morally responsible or I am not. I either meet the conditions of one's particular view, or I do not. Oddly, this has been assumed often times with little explanation as to why moral responsibility is a degree concept and not a binary concept (by binary I simply refer to an either/or concept). Consider this quote from a paper by Al Mele:
Moral responsibility is very commonly and very plausibly regarded as a matter of degree. If young children and adults are morally responsible for some of what they do, it is plausible, on grounds of the sort I mentioned, that young children are not as nearly *as responsible* (my emphasis) for any of their deeds as some adults are for some of their adult deeds. (2008, p. 274)
He states further:
Normal parents eventually come to view their children as having some degree of moral responsibility for what they do. The word degree is important here. Normal four-year-olds are not as well equipped for impulse control as normal eight-year-olds, and they have less developed capacity for anticipating and understanding the effects of their actions (2008, pg. 271-272)
I think Mele is right to say that moral responsibility is commonly regarded as a matter of degree, but I’m not so sure that such an assumption is warranted. And, if the assumption is warranted, I think it’s worthwhile to get clear on why this is so. Investigating this so-called degree feature might help to shed light on the nature of moral responsibility itself. Further, if one holds that moral responsibility does come in degrees it might limit what one can say about the nature of moral responsibility and this conclusion could be fruitful as well for those trying to uncover the the root of the differences between competing views.
The only published paper that I have come across that has tried to make sense of this degree talk in depth is a recent paper by Coates and Swenson (2013, Phil. Studies) though I have read a few unpublished manuscripts that have focused on this assumed feature of moral responsibility in depth (by Manual Vargas, Brandon Warmke, and Gwen Bradford). So, feel free to suggest further work on this topic that I may have missed.
So, the purpose of posting on this topic is simply to get a sense of how can we make sense of moral resposnibility as coming in degrees. Must we assume that blameworthiness and moral responsibility is the same thing to make sense of this? And, what does it even mean to say that moral responsibility comes in degrees?
At last year's Pacific APA I had the opportunity to comment on Gwen Bradford's very nice paper "Difficulty and Degrees of Praise and Blame". In that paper, she argued that one of the most natural ways to make sense of degree talk is to posit what she calls the Blame-Mitigating Thesis (BMT): the difficulty of a morally required action can mitigate the blameworthiness for failing to perform it. She ultimately rejects (BMT) claiming that difficulty can't do the work on it's own (she also discusses a similar thesis with regards to praise). I agreed with her on this point but I took this point to be a knock against the degree feature altogether, a line she did not explore in her paper. If difficulty can't do the work to make sense of when someone is *more or less* morally responsible for doing A then what can? Buildng off Fischer and Ravizza's account of reasons responsiveness Coates and Swenson suggest that to make sense of the degree feature of moral responsibility we could appeal to the degree in which an agent can respond to reasons. But, for those who do not hold a reasons-responsive view how are they to make sense of degree talk? Further, should they try? I'd be curious to see how you all think about moral responsibility. Does it come in degrees? Overt blame surely does but does moral responsibility proper? I'm not sure why I find this degree talk puzzling, but I do nonetheless. I suggest that we can understand moral responsibility instead as a binary concept; we are either morally responsible for some act A or we are not. Am I wrong to think of MR in this way? If so, what would be a downfall for thinking of it in this way? Further, is such a project worthwhile?
So, I ask those that are compelled by this degree talk: what is moral responsibility such that it*could* come in degrees, and further, what is lost if we give up such talk? Notice that in the quoted passage from Mele he says “The word degree is important here”. Should we think that degree talk is important and what would change if we gave it up?
Anyway, I raised lots of questions in this post. Feel freeto answer them all or none at all. I'm hoping to get at least one more post up this week and a handful more before the month is over.
The department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, FLoV, was created 1 January 2009 and consists of the subjects linguistics, practical andtheoretical philosophy, logic and the philosophy of science. The University of Gothenburg received a 10 year grant from the Swedish Research Council for recruiting Professor Paul Russell from University of British Columbia in Vancouver and developing the The Moral Responsibility Research Initiative (MRRI). This funding will be used to employ and support postdocs, PhD students, and distinguished visiting researchers, as well as funding ongoing research activities (conferences, workshops, etc.). Our aim is to establish the MRRI at Gothenburg as a leading center for research in this field. Research seminars will be led by Paul Russell and Gunnar Björnsson. For further details on the Gothenburg Moral Responsibility Research Initiative see here.
Specific subject description
MRRI conducts research on responsibility within action theory, metaethics, and applied ethics, including healthcare ethics, business ethics, and criminal responsibility.