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03/18/2014

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Eddy,

Excellent post. Two thoughts. First, you say "Frankfurt cases illuminate that the mere fact of lacking alternatives is not sufficient to undermine responsibility, since after all, that fact can be established with a counterfactual intervener." Of course, there are those of us who would wish to express dissent on this point. I hereby register mine. But, second, setting that aside, let's assume the Frankfurt cases show this. Still, there seems to be something wrong with Strawson's diagnosis, a mistake that, as far as I can tell, Frankfurt doesn't make when he offers his revised PAP-principle. Take someone who acts on the basis of command hallucinations. There might be a sense in which the person "couldn't help" doing what he did, and while this may preclude him from blameworthiness, it needn't be because his lack of alternatives indicated that he didn't act with ill will. Rather, if the person is off the hook, it's because he was exempt from our responsibility practices in virtue of insanity or some other lack of moral competence. That is, he was not a responsible agent in the first place, owing to his mental condition. "I couldn't help it," thus can work as an excuse, something that gets us off the hook or mitigates responsibility, because it can indicate that we didn't act with ill will or lack of due regard. But that's not always how it works. It can also serve as an exemption, showing that we're not in "the responsibility game" in the first place. It's not clear that Strawson recognizes this dual function that that particular "plea" can have.

Hi Justin,

I’d like to defend Strawson a bit here. You rightly suggest that there are certain agents who do not fall under the sorts of excusing conditions Eddy’s post is talking about -- agents like the schizophrenic who acts on the basis of command hallucinations. I think you’re right, but I think that Strawson would agree, too. For Strawson talks about two reasons why our resentment toward an individual might be lessened or suppressed altogether.

The first reason is that, despite initial appearances, the agent does not satisfy the typical criteria for our feeling resentment toward her. Gary Watson (1987) refers to such cases as falling under a “type-one plea,” and Michael McKenna (1998) refers to such occasions as falling under a “local excuse.” Strawson tells us that resentment and the other “reactive attitudes” are “essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others,” such that our targeting another person with these attitudes depends upon the satisfaction of certain criteria, specific to the attitude in question. Roughly, the targeting of another person with a “negative” reactive attitude, whether resentment, indignation, anger, or hurt feeling, depends upon the presence of ill will or indifference in that person’s actions or attitudes toward us. When a person’s action falls under a local excuse, the apparent ill will or disregard that we initially suspected of the agent turns out not to be ill will or disregard at all, as when we are harmed by the agent but “he didn’t mean to,” or “he was pushed,” or “he hadn’t realized,” or “he had no way of knowing.” Also falling under the category of local excuses are the sorts of cases that Eddy’s post discusses: instances when an agent knows what he is doing, but had acceptably overriding reasons to do it, which are often captured by such phrases as “she had to do it,” or “it was the only way,” or “they gave her no choice.” In such cases, the typical criteria for the negative reactive attitudes are not met, resulting in the lessening or suppression of these attitudes.

When a local excuse applies to an agent, it inhibits only resentment and the other negative reactive attitudes. It does not inhibit all of the reactive attitudes, for you might, in the end, feel gratitude for the person who, say, bumps into you in a crowded corridor because “he was pushed” but apologizes to you anyway. This is unsurprising if we consider that, when a local excuse applies, our basic moral demand to be treated with some amount of regard or goodwill still applies to the agent in question. As we have seen, the reason that we do not have or express a negative reactive attitude toward such an agent is not that the moral demand is withdrawn, but that the agent did not fail to meet it in the way we originally suspected. But that the typical criteria for the negative reactive attitudes are not met in a particular scenario is perfectly compatible with the typical criteria for the positive reactive attitudes being met in that same scenario.

Now, the second reason that Strawson gives for why our resentment toward an agent is limited or suppressed altogether is that the moral demands we make of the agent are limited or suppressed altogether. This is the reason you raise in your response post, and it is a reason that Strawson himself gives. For on Strawson’s view, agents who fall into this second category (which Watson refers to as a “type-two plea,” and which McKenna refers to as a “global excuse”) include: the psychotic, children, people acting under great strain, sociopaths, and those who are “peculiarly unfortunate in their formative circumstances.” As you suggest, these agents often do meet the typical criteria for the negative reactive attitudes, but because they are exempt from the basic moral demand to be treated with appropriate consideration, they are also exempt from the negative reactive attitudes.

(Of course, a further question to consider is whether the Strawsonian can give an adequate explanation of why global excuses function in the way that they do -- something that Watson seems to deny, but McKenna seems to think can be done. And since Eddy is recommending one of McKenna's papers, I'd highly recommend the 1998 one; I've included the citation information below.)

In any case, I think that this addresses your concern about the limitations of Strawson's account of excusing and exempting conditions.

McKenna, Michael. 1998. “The Limits of Evil and the Role of Moral Address: A Defense of Strawsonian Compatibilism.” The Journal of Ethics 2(2): 123-42.

Watson, Gary. 1987. “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme.” In Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, edited by Ferdinand David Shoeman, 256-86. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with everything you said. To be clear, though, I wasn't suggesting that the framework for thinking about responsibility that Strawson defends in Freedom and Resentment couldn't handle the cases I discuss. It most certainly can, as you very clearly and eloquently point out. Rather, my claim was that he (and Eddy) are wrong to suppose that pleas like "I couldn't help it" or "I had to" or "I no alternative" exculpate solely by showing that the agent didn't act with ill will or lack of due regard. They also exculpate (when they do) by exempting the agent from our moral demands. In other words, such pleas don't always function as local excuses, to use Michael's language; they can also function as global excuses, as the example about command hallucinations illustrates.

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