You might have heard that I have a new book out. On a per-page basis, it is one of the better deals out there among the new books on free will and moral responsibility. However, as T-Dog has rightly noted, one of the suboptimal features of the book for ballers like ourselves is that many of the Big Payoffs of the book are buried in the second half of the book. So, I want to take the opportunity here to foreground one of the features of the account in the book, and to talk about some potential consequences of it (i.e., stuff not in said book).
The idea I have in mind arises from a broadly anti-“atomistic” or anti-individualist strand of thinking in the book, which holds that we theorists of responsibility spend too much time thinking about individual features of agent, and not enough about agents in contexts. The anti-atomist idea gets developed in different ways, including an account of how to think about the capacities underpinning freedom and responsibility, but also in the idea that moral ecology is important. By moral ecology, I mean the circumstances that support and enable exercises of agency in ways that respect and reflect a concern for morality. I argue that moral ecology matters a great deal for responsible agency, both in its development but also in its ongoing effectiveness.
I’m inclined to think that questions about moral ecology are partly questions of political philosophy and our obligations to other agents. But, there are also some meat and potatoes issues in interpersonal responsibility and legal responsibility that seem to me to arise when we focus greater attention on moral ecology. I want to reflect on one instance where the ecological conditions of responsibility matter—deprivation cases (think: economic, but presumably the basic ideas generalize). To put it bluntly, can poverty make people less responsible for the bad things they do?
First, suppose that responsibility requires the ability to suitably recognize and respond to moral reasons. On conventional accounts, there are two standard ways in which deprivation could matter for responsibility:
(1) Deprivation is detection-capacity damaging. That is, conditions of deprivation may (in at least some circumstances) reduce the agent’s capacity to respond to moral considerations (of sorts x, y, or z, in some contexts) by damaging his reasons detector, whatever that comes to.
(2) Deprivation is volitional-capacity impairing. On this picture, the detection capacity might be intact, but deprivation might swamp an agent’s attentional capacities or other elements that seem pertinent to the ability to form and sustain action on the basis of reasons. For example, people under conditions of scarcity may find that their attention and concern for personal needs is so great that it more frequently tends to swamp or distract from giving moral considerations typical weight in guiding action, even when the agent is aware of such considerations.
I take it any standard reasons-responsiveness account can accommodate these sorts of cases. But I wonder if these capture all the cases, or potentially misdescribe the cases. Let’s focus on agents with ordinary capacities who lives in conditions of deprivation, and that such deprivation is no fault of their own. It seems plausible that at least some conditions of deprivation will be such that those agents will, with their ordinary capacities, be subject to vastly more opportunities for failure of that capacity. There are different ways the opportunities for failure being ramped up by contextual features. Here are some candidates:
NO RENT: If you are not worried about being able to pay rent or make your mortgage payment, it will be easier to return the extra money the cashier accidentally gives you. But if you aren’t sure you will be able to keep your family from going homeless, it will be vastly more difficult to return that extra money the cashier accidentally gives you. As I’m imagining the case, the intrinsic capacities of the agent (to recognize and respond to reasons) are the same as yours and mine, but the circumstances strain those capacities more. If you have a sense that there is diminution of responsibility (and of course, one reply may be that you do not have that sense, you affluent bastard), it looks like it isn’t because the intrinsic capacities are defective, but because they are strained in circumstances like these.
THUG LIFE: You and I aren’t regularly invited to participate in criminal endeavors (let’s suppose). But some people are because of where they live or other forces not easily under their control. Suppose everyone can resist the temptations of petty crime 99% of the time. By hypothesis, you and I are fortunate to live in places where we are invited to perpetuate such crimes on rare occasions (except sometimes, your program assistant encourages you to take the ream of office printer paper home). But some people in conditions of deprivation are subject to invitations for wrongdoing, say, 100 times more frequently. Over time, you and I will remain proud of our resilience to temptation. And, because we are Americans, we will condemn our peer who, with the same intrinsic capacity, is simply subject to temptation a great deal more frequently than we are. Yet, once the extrinsic factor is brought to my attention, at least this guilty liberal will wonder whether we should be so quick to blame our colleague subject to deprivation (recall: through no fault of her own).
I’d love to hear what you think about any of this. Three points: (1) these cases are underdescribed, and one interest I have is the range of ways we might try to describe (or redescribe them) within the framework of broadly reasons-responsiveness accounts; (2) For what it is worth, I think we can develop a principled story about what some minimal threshold of effective capacity across contexts turns out to be, but it requires either re-thinking how we understand the capacities implicated in responsible agency or it requires an independent story about how to think about the functioning of capacities across unequal contexts of opportunities for failures of the capacity. That's one aim of the account of capacities in Building Better Beings, but I won't try to inflict that on you here because (3) There are surely other strategies lurking, and I'm all ears about what you are inclined to say about such alternatives.
(also: h/t to Tadros and Lippke, whose work on deprivation and temptation in law has been one source of my thinking about these things).