Some writers distinguish different kinds, or faces, or aspects of moral responsibility. (Sometimes the distinction is said to be one of senses, or concepts, or conceptions.) Some of this stems from Watson's distinction, in "Two Faces of Responsibility," between attributability and accountability. Where Watson sees two, some see three, or fifteen, or some other number of things to be distinguished.
Consider just one aspect of debate between these multipliers and what we might call monists, who insist there's one kind of (retrospective) moral responsibility. ('Retrospective', to distinguish what's at issue from prospective responsibility, which is duty or obligation.) A monist might hold that the kind of moral responsibility that's at issue with respect to accountability is the only kind, and that the kind of control needed for accountability is the kind of control needed for this (the only) kind of responsibility. The monist might point out that, besides attributions of responsibility, there are other kinds of moral assessment of agents, and other kinds of responses that can be warranted. And the monist might agree with a multiplier about which kinds of assessments (he's stingy, or meanspirited) and responses (revulsion, disdain) are appropriate for various kinds of moral faults. The two parties disagree about whether some of these responses are responsibiltiy responses--whether the agents are responsible for the things for which certain of these assessments and responses are appropriate.
I confess that it often seems to me that there is no substantive dispute here, but a merely verbal disagreement. Is this right?
Let's say that the guilty are those who are blameworthy for moral wrongdoing. Do they deserve to suffer? I say "Yes."
It's fitting that someone who is blameworthy for wrongdoing feel guilty for that wrongdoing. Not all the time, of course, and not too much. But at the right time and to the right degree. And feeling guilty is a form of suffering--it's unpleasant.
If a feeling of guilt is fitting, then it is deserved. This is one thing that desert comes to. Perhaps there can be other kinds of desert. But this is one of them.
Hence the guilty deserve to suffer.
Note that the claim here doesn't imply that the guilty deserve to be made to suffer, or that they deserve to be harmed or punished. That would take some further argument.
The claim here might seem trivial. But here are a couple of ways in which it might be significant.
On the one hand, it seems to count against conceptions of moral responsibility that reject any commitment to desert. On the other hand, those who find responsibility untenable because they take it to have a repulsive retributive element might find at least this little bit not so unpalatable.
Assuming that we're morally responsible for anything, among the things for which we're responsible are actions (helping someone out), events and states that result from actions (someone's suffering), and omitting or refraining from acting (examples to come).
Theories of responsibility commonly focus largely on responsibility for actions, and they often treat responsibility for things of other kinds as deriviative. (This isn't always so, of course; some focus on responsibility for attitudes as the basis for responsibility for actions stemming from those attitudes.) Let's say that one's responsibility for something is derivative just in case it derives from one's responsibility for something else, and one's responsibility for something that isn't derivative is basic.
Question: Can responsibility for omitting or refraining be basic?
If omitting and refraining were in every case performing some action, we might think the answer was affirmative (though responsibility for an action can be derivative). But omitting and refraining aren't in every case performing some action. Examples: (i) Sometimes I omit to turn out the lights when I leave my office for the day. Turning out the lights when I leave is something I ought to do, it's my policy to do it, and I usually do it, but occasionally I forget. (ii) Someone might, as a matter of policy, omit to remove his hat during the singing of the national anthem. He has a policy of not removing the hat, and he intentionally omits to do so, with no decision needed on each occasion.
When I walk out of my office without turning off the lights, there's some action I'm performing--walking out of the office. And when the fellow stands during the anthem without removing his hat, he's standing. But it isn't plausible that my omission is my walking, and it isn't plausible that the other guy's not removing his hat is his standing. Nor do I see any other actions these omissions might be.
Still, might responsibility for omissions such as these be basic, or should it be seen as deriving from one's responsibility for something else, say, for some actions from which these omissions result?
A problem for the view that it must be derivative is that, in many cases in which we think that agents are responsible for omitting or refraining, responsibility for omitting or refraining can't plausibly be traced to responsibility for prior actions. For example, in the case of my leaving the lights on, it seems that I'm blameworthy (even if only worthy of a tiny bit of blame, and even if no one should ever blame me for this). And if this blameworthiness is derivative, it seems it must trace to my blameworthiness for something else. But it also seems that there might well be no such thing to which my blameworthiness for this omission can plausibly be traced. We might then need to reject many of our responsibility attributions. But it's curious that we're mistaken about so many of these cases.
One problem with the view that responsibility for omitting can be basic is that, in many of these cases, the omission is unwitting. I'm not aware that I'm omitting to turn out the lights, and not aware that I'm doing anything wrong. It seems that there's some kind of awareness requirement for responsibility, and it isn't clear that it's satisfied in this kind of case.
A second problem for this view is that, even in the case of the fellow who intentionally omits to remove his hat, if his omission isn't an action, it isn't clear how any control requirement for responsibility is satisfied.
I started to post something on what omissions are, but I see I did that four years ago! So I'll start with something else, a topic I've thought a little about and so far find puzzling.
Several writers (and it seems many recently) have said that the powers of agents are distintive in that they are two-way powers. (Sometimes the claim is made just with respect to free will: free will is distinctive in that it is a two-way power.) I wonder: is there some respect in which agency (or free will) is a two-way power and in which run-of-the-mill powers aren't?
There seem to be at least two conceptions of a two-way power: (i) as a power that can be manifested this way or that, or (ii) as a power that can be manifested or not.
It might be objected that the first conception clashes with the idea that powers are individuated by their manifestations: different manifestations, different powers. So a power that is manifested this way, and a power that is manifested that way, must be different powers.
Of course, one might respond that a power to decide is always manifested in deciding, but it can be manifested in deciding to A or in deciding to B. But such a power isn't obviously different from, say, a power to bend, which might be manifested in bending this way or in bending that way. What we have here, we might say, is just a generic power. But these are plentiful.
Similarly, one might recognize that a given power manifests differently with different power-partners. The fragile glass shatters this way if struck and that way if dropped. But, again, this kind of two-way-ness doesn't distinguish the powers of agents from run-of-the-mill powers.
Alternatively, one might insist that the two-way power of agency is one that can be manifested differently even given exactly the same circumstances, or that it can be manifested or not even given exactly the same circumstances.
But, again, it seems easy enough to imagine run-of-the-mill powers (the power of a slit to deflect a photon) that can manifest this way (deflecting the photon upward) or that (deflecting the photon downward), or that can manifest or not, even given exactly the same circumstances, if we suppose indeterminism of a certain sort.
In the latter cases, it seems a fundamentally chancy matter whether the power in question manifests this way or that, or whether it manifests or not.
Perhaps this is what is supposed to be distinctive about the powers of agents: they can be manifested this way or that (or they can be manifested or not), even given exactly the same circumstances, and it isn't a chancy matter whether they're manifested this way or that (or whether they're manifested).
Many thanks to Thomas for inviting me to host some discussions here. Some things I might post about: omitting and refraining, negligence, the causal theory of action, kinds of moral responsibility, agency and "two-way" powers, agent causation. I'll get something going in a day or so. Feel free to add posts of your own during May. Looking forward to some lively discussions.
As you all know, it has been a few months since we had a Featured Author here at Flickers of Freedom. I had two motivations for the lull: (a) First, I was hearing rumors that folks were understandably getting a bit burned out—as there is only so much excellent philosophical blogging one can take! Second, I wanted to give non-Featured Authors the chance to share their ideas without feeling like they were stepping on anyone’s toes. But after a much needed pause in the action, things are now going to be back in swing for the next few months.
First up, we have Professor Randy Clarke (FSU). Professor Clarke’s research has focused primarily on human agency, particularly intentional action, free will, and moral responsibility. He’s also written on practical reason, mental causation, and dispositions. He favors a causal theory of action, on which something counts as an intentional action in virtue of being appropriately caused by mental events of certain sorts, such as the agent’s having an intention with pertinent content. This kind of action theory takes human agency to be a natural phenomenon, something of a kind with (even if differing in sophistication from) the agency of many non-human animals.
Many philosophers have thought that free and morally responsible action would be ruled out if our actions were causally determined by prior events. In Libertarian Accounts of Free Will, Professor Clarke examines whether indeterminism of any sort is more hospitable. Although he defends libertarian views (accounts requiring indeterminism) from several common objections, he argues that none of these accounts is adequate. If responsibility isn’t compatible with determinism, then, he thinks, it isn’t possible.
Professor Clarke is currently working on a book emtitled Omissions: Agency, Metaphysics, and Responsibility. Omitting to act isn't typically acting, but it shares many features with it: we can deliberate about whether to omit or refrain, we can omit or refrain for reasons and intentionally, and we can be responsible for not doing certain things. Professor Clarke will be looking at this phenomenon from the perspectives of agency, metaphysics, and ethics.
Needless to say, I am excited to have Professor Clarke as this month’s Featured Author (FA). Since our last FA, there has been a bit of a lull here on the blog. Hopefully, Professor Clarke will breathe some new life back into our little corner of the blogosphere! Per the new format, Professor Clarke has the month of May to himself to divide up as he sees fit. So, if there is a lag between posts, be patient. He’s doing us all a favor by dedicating his time to stimulating our thoughts this month! That said, please join me in welcoming this month’s FA—Professor Randy Clarke.
Also, I have some additional FAs lined up for the upcoming months—with a focus on up and coming junior philosophers. Here is the tentative schedule. Now that I have several people in the queue, I will also be inviting some additional contributors to participate in the series. So stay tuned!