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I agree. Hume thought the free will debate was merely "verbal" a long time ago.

My own view is that semantic ambiguity is one explanation for the free will debate (and how intractable it is). The other explanation is the plurality of cognitive biases that relate to responsibility and control.

To address the example that you mention: I completely agree. As another specific example: the debate between "basic desert" and non-basic desert, between Fischer and Pereboom, seems to me merely verbal. They're splitting hairs finer than the English language can support. It's like building Lego castles with boxing gloves on.

In fact, this seems to be a favorite tactic of philosophers: suggest definition X for term Y. Offer interesting and provocative thought experiment that supports X. Declare X the proper definition. This is (to me) a bizarre way to define things. It's flagrantly non-empirical. It doesn't really consult common usage, which is probably the most important determinant of terms' meanings. Contrast how philosophers go about defining X with how Merriam Websters goes about defining X.

This is why I continue to think that (A) exprimental philosophy is important but (B) it needs to investigate how people define keys terms (free will, responsibility), instead of asking people whether A is responsible for Xing in situation Y. And I'm thrilled to see the preliminary, inconclusive results from people like Thomas and Eddy on this front.

And for people who get annoyed with my harping on "the free will debate is a debate about the definition of free will" - watch the new video from Dennett where he makes essentially the same point (the definition is the sticking point) - and concedes that the current definition (to the extent there is a coherent, consensus definition of free will) has essentially incompatibilist elements. His argument sounded very Vargasian to me. :)

Hi Randy,

If the debate between the pluralists and monists is a merely verbal dispute, why does the monist get to insist that the particular narrow sliver of our total moral practices that they're interested in--the accountability practices--conceptually exhausts our responsibility practices?

Also, suppose someone adopted a key component of what you call monism and said that responsibility is accountability. But now suppose that this person also held that different kinds (or degrees) of control left one accountable in very different ways (or degrees). For example, perhaps this person thinks that reasons-responsiveness is sufficient for being an apt target of the reactive attitudes but in order to be ultimately morally responsible in Galen Strawson's sense, one must be the ultimate causal source of one's actions. This view isn't a multiplier view like Watson's, but it's not clearly a monist view of the sort you describe, since it denies that there's an univocal kind of control connected to responsibility (as accountability). In any case, the differences between this view and either the multiplier or the monist views you describe seems substantive, so even if there are some merely verbal disputes in the multiplier/monist debate, there are some substantive disputes that arise in the neighborhood as well.

As a pluralist myself, I think the debate is substantive, although I occasionally feel the pull in the non-substantive direction. What keeps me in the "substantive dispute" camp, though, is that I take the most widely-held understanding of retroactive "responsibility" to be "worthy of praise and/or blame," or something in that ballpark, an understanding that highlights the crucial link between being responsible and being the appropriate target of an array of "responsibility responses." These are responses that take as their object agents *for* something (typically an action or attitude) and *in virtue of something* (control, reasons-responsiveness, expression of deep self, quality of will, or something else). This last is some feature of practical agency, and it's typically something that we care about insofar as it has some important effects on our interpersonal engagement with one another. So, for example, I may respond to you with resentment for your stepping on my foot in virtue of its expressing disregard for me. Regard/disregard is a feature of your practical agency that really matters to our interpersonal dealings. I will alter how I interact with you in the future on the basis of your (dis)regard for me.

If we accept something like this picture of responsible agency, then we can soon come to see that there is a very wide range of responses falling under this rubric. Far beyond the standard "resentment, indignation, guilt" trinity, there are responses like admiration, disdain, contempt, shame, regret, disappointment, disapproval, pride, warm feelings, hurt feelings, gratitude, and more. These too aim at certain features of practical agency that matter for our interpersonal engagement. BUT: some of them target very *different* agential features and capacities. Some of the responses (e.g., admiration and disdain) are aretaic, and so tend to be fitting for good/bad quality of character. Others (regret, e.g.) seem to fit quality of judgment. And others (resentment/indignation) seem to fit quality of regard. But if all of these examples of responsibility implicate different capacities, then you've got different *types* of (retroactive) responsibility on your hands. Or so I argue, as you know....

The main point, though, is that I think there is much more than mere appraisal going on in the non-accountability cases; it's rather a range of interpersonal responses very much akin to the types of responses we have in the accountability cases. And that's a substantive matter.

Kip, I think there are a number of substantive debates in this area. For example, although the difference between John's and Derk's views might be small, it seems to me substantive. I think John accepts much if not all of what Derk says about the relation between desert and responsibility. They disagree about whether the required desert is compatible with determinism.

Justin, I don't take the monist to hold that accountability practices exhaust our responsibility practice. (For one thing, it seems to me that talk of kinds of responsibility is rather different from talk of aspects of our responsibility practices.) But why think that accountability is even included? Well, doesn't everyone?

And if accountability is in, we might wonder what else is. That's how I see the issue getting started.

Of course, one could say that there's no accountability-conferring kind of moral responsibility, though there are other kinds of moral responsibility. I can't think of anyone who does, though.

Justin, I agree, it sounds to me as though someone who says that with a different kind of control you get accountability of a different sort has a substantive dispute with someone who says you don't. Something I find puzzling about the G. Strawson example, though. If ultimate sourcehood is impossible, it isn't possible to get a different kind of accountability with it.

Dave, yes, I think you have a very well worked out view of the sort I called multiplier. Let's agree that there are different kinds of moral responses to agents for various things, in virtue of various features of those agents. Are all of those responses responsibility responses? Or: does every moral response that fits this pattern count as a responsibility response?

I'm not sure I have a good grip on what would make the question substantive (or not).

Perhaps we can ask: what would count as a good reason for a negative or an affirmative answer? Perhaps the existence of good reasons of this sort would count in favor of a view of the dispute as substantive.


I agree that there is a substantive difference between Derk's basic desert and other kinds of (non-basic) desert. That differences emerges in (sometimes) dry, highly technical, and extremely subtle philosophy articles in the academy. When I suggest that the difference is merely verbal, what I am suggesting is that:

A. Although there is a substantive difference between these two kinds of desert, both are competing for limited semantic real estate - both Derk and John are competing for terms like "moral responsibility" and "free will." In some sense, competing definitions for the same terminology is the paradigmatic case of a merely verbal dispute.

B. The far more important point, in my view, is this: although a very subtle and technical substance difference can emerge in the writings of philosophers, this distinction is (in my view) likely far too fine to have any real connection to ordinary responsibility and language practices of human beings in the real world. In other words, the lack of precision of the English language means that substantive differences can be so subtle that they become (effectively) merely verbal.


I guess from your initial description of the monist, I was thinking that she took accountability practices to exhaust retrospective responsibility and that other assessments of moral faults weren't strictly speaking matters of moral responsibility. If this is the view, it seems unmotivated to artificially stipulate that *only* accountability practices are *real* responsibility practices and that all these other retrospective moral assessments aren't.

Like Dave, however, I'm doubtful that this is just a verbal dispute.

The G. Strawson example does have that odd feature, though you could just accept G. Strawson's conception of what it is to be responsible (i.e., deserving of heaven or hell) and argue that he's wrong to think that being causa sui is necessary for it (perhaps being the substance that caused the event is sufficient (of course, I'm doubtful that this is true of any human agent, but it's not obviously impossible)). But even if we bring responsibility back to Earth, you might also think that the kind of control sufficient for be deserving of your victim's resentment is not identical to the kind of control that renders one deserving of a lifetime in prison. Perhaps, for example, one does not deserve lifetime imprisonment if causal determinism is true, even if determinism is compatible with you genuinely deserving of resentment.

Randy: Yes, if both sides agree completely on the range of the relevant responses to (what I take to be) the different types of responsibility, then it's just a non-substantive terminological dispute about the range of the "responsibility" referent. I was, however, trying to urge that there may well be a substantive dispute between the two parties over what the range of the relevant *responses* is, i.e., are we just talking about moral appraisals here that are equivalent to expressed predications, are we talking about emotionally tinged predications, or are we talking most fundamentally about emotional responses around which many other practices are organized, e.g., altering the forms of our interpersonal engagement? I think it's the last, so I take part of my task to be to show the monist the wider range of interpersonal practices in which she is engaged and how these share critical similarities with the uncontroversial responsibility-zone "accountability" practices.

Hi Randy and Dave,

This is an interesting exchange between you two. Might the following observation help? In paradigmatic cases of accountability-blameworthiness, an agent does morally wrong. As most accept, there is a distinct fitting blaming response to the agent over and above any response in light of the wrong act. Think in terms of the subject of responsibility and the object of responsibility—the agent and the act, respectively.

Note two things:

First, this blaming response involves an evaluation the agent in light of her wrong action. It is what Ish Haji calls an agent-based evaluation. It is not exhausted in the evaluation of her action’s moral wrongness (the action-based evaluation). It involves a distinct evaluation, one reflecting poorly on her in relation to her wrong act. Strawsonians would say that in doing wrong her will or regard for someone or something was poor, ill, bad, or insufficiently good. (Note, these are axiological terms about her will, not deontic ones about her action.)

Second, sometimes an agent is excused for her wrongdoing, and so it is judged that she is not blameworthy even though she has done wrong. In those cases, there are still reasons to respond to the agent in certain ways. (She did wrong, after all, even if she was excused.) And the wrong-doing agent also has reasons to respond to her own wrongdoing, even if it is granted that she really is not blameworthy for having done it. (Recall Bernard Williams’s notion of moral residue.) So, some sort of non-blaming response remains fitting in virtue of the evaluation of the (putative) object of responsibility, the act, regardless of whether the subject of responsibility, the agent, really is blameworthy.

Now consider Dave’s own appeal to attributability-responsibility and answerability-responsibility as distinct kinds of responsibility from accountability-responsibility. One way to show, I think, that we genuinely have different kinds of responsibility is to ask whether there are distinct fitting evaluations of and responses to the subject of x-type of responsibility in relation to distinct evaluations of and responses to the objects of x-type of responsibility. Moreover, can those come apart?

Consider, for instance, attributability-responsibility for some act. Take van Invagen’s example of a colleague who did a shoddy thing, and suppose that what is at issue (as Watson suggests) is attributability-responsibility. Now, is there a distinct sort of evaluation of and fitting response to the agent as the subject of responsibility for the act over and above a distinct sort of evaluation of and response to the object of responsibility (in this case, the act itself which is alleged to be shoddy)? Moreover, can these come apart? Can we make sense of the agent’s act being shoddy but her not being attributability-blameworthy for doing the shoddy thing? And are these subjects and objects of responsibility different in kind from the sort pertaining to, say, accountability-responsibility? Do they warrant different sorts of social alterations to our practices? If so, I think we have grounds for identifying a genuinely distinct type of responsibility.

(Sorry that was so long.)

Would someone be willing to take a stab at offering an analogy to help illustrate the options on the table here? Is there some X (preferably non-philosophy example) such that some people are pluralists about several varieties of X while others are monists about X, and what would it mean for it to be a verbal dispute vs a substantive dispute about X?

Justin, my original question concerned responsibility. You've referred to responsibility practices. I'm not sure what this encompasses. Do the practices include thoughts and emotions that are never expressed? Or only overt behavior of certain sorts? I'd guess both. But responsibility isn't the thoughts and emotions and behaviors. It's something that might warrant them.

I'd think that the kind of responsibility that renders one deserving of resentment and the kind that renders one deserving of life imprisonment (if anyone is so deserving) is the same kind of responsibility. You do something worse you can be deserving of more. But that's not a matter of a different kind of responsibility.

I don't think that determinism can make any difference to what people deserve.

Dave, I agree, what you aim to show concerns substantive issues. I hope the monists agree with at least a great deal of what you say!

Hi, Randy. Another excellent post and discussion! These posts are timelier for me than you could imagine. I wish I had the time to engage further. In any event I had a few questions.

In your last response to Justin Coates you said "I don't think that determinism can make any difference to what people deserve". I wonder, do you feel the same about indeterminism?

Another question I had is this: in your paper "Some Theses on Desert" you endorse (T10) "feeling guilty at the right time and to the right degree is fitting for one who is guilty". But, if we read "is guilty" as more than just "being causally responsible for X" then it seems that determinism and/or indeterminism could become a problem depending on how you cash out the conditions that makes "is guilty for X" more than just "causally responsible for X".

Many at this stage point to some quality of the will type conditions, but consider a manipulation scenario: if a person was forced to do X (causally responsible)and then was manipulated into meeting the your favored quality of will type conditions, then it would seem weird to say that the same person was “guilty for X”. It seems weird to me because the guilt doesn't seem deserved. This suggests that desert might be a condition on fittingness, this seems even more apparent with other reactive attitudes.

Maybe one could appeal to some compatibilist historical conditions to block manipulation concern and ground the fittingness to show that determinism doesn’t matter? Or maybe one could include some robust authenticity condition that would make the guilt unfitting in the manipulation scenario? I’m thinking aloud at this point, but, as I mentioned in the thread of your last post, I am in the midst of writing a chapter on this very topic in my dissertation. So, my apologies for being a bit cryptic. Maybe forgiveness is fitting in this context? ;)

Hi, Michael. I was going to try and take a stab at your question which I think is quite helpful in thinking about what's been said thus far (if I may). You say:

"Now consider Dave’s own appeal to attributability-responsibility and answerability-responsibility as distinct kinds of responsibility from accountability-responsibility. One way to show, I think, that we genuinely have different kinds of responsibility is to ask whether there are distinct fitting evaluations of and responses to the subject of x-type of responsibility in relation to distinct evaluations of and responses to the objects of x-type of responsibility. Moreover, can those come apart?"

Yes, I think there are distinct evaluations and responses. There are at least two types of fittingness evaluations at play. The first is the fittingness of an attitude - how well your affective state (emotion or feeling) fits the context. Another is the fittingness of the expression of an attitude: how (and where) the fittingness of an attitude or emotion is directed (or handled). But I’m not sure how this gets us to different kinds of responsibility. Maybe you or David could say more here.

Now, there might be times that it turns out that it an attitude is fitting in the first sense but the expression of it (it's directedness) might not be. For instance, you might find out that your car was stolen (a case where you have been wronged) so you may have a feeling of resentment (a general feeling) that could be fitting. Add to the case that you see a man driving away from your house with the same model and color car; it wouldn’t be fitting to direct the expression of your attitude toward him (assuming it’s not yours). So it seems that a further relation must hold when directing an emotional response that isn’t needed to have the affective emotional state in the first place. That said, I am not seeing how this gets us two kinds of responsibility. It sounds weird to say that these different fittingness accounts are getting us different kinds of moral responsibility. It seems more natural to say that there are fittingness conditions for all emotional responses (and emotional states) and holding one responsible is one *kind* of emotional response.

Also, desert seems to be a condition on the fittingness of our attitudinal expressions toward others even if we grant that certain emotional responses are non-instrumentally good (a point that I agree with you on). We wouldn’t want to say that the non-instrumental goods that are constituent of blame, are goods when directed at *anyone*, would we? These goods must be fitting to the situation to be good. If we take one condition of fittingness to be basic-desert, then it seems that your conversational model would need basic-desert as a component, contrary to what Pereboom says in his (2013).

Michael, I like your proposal. As I understand it, it goes something like this. We morally assess agents for various things: acts, attitudes, traits, to mention a few. We might ask: are there cases in which a kind of moral assessment of the act, attitude, or trait is appropriate but not the correlative assessment of the agent? If so, then we're dealing with something like excuse, and that's a reason to think we're dealing with a kind of responsibility. And if it isn't accountability, it must be another kind of responsibility.

I wonder whether the monist might reply: someone might have a wretched attitude that doesn't disclose his evaluative commitments. Still, assessment of an agent for an attitude isn't an attribution of responsibility, if it's not an attribution of accountability. Maybe this kind of response is just digging in one's heels.

Hi Randy, Yes, that’s the idea. Of course, you were able to express it in a brief paragraph. I nearly wrote a brief article. And as for the monist’s response you suggested, that does seem to me to be digging in one’s heels.

I confess, prior to reading Dave Shoemaker’s book manuscript, I was inclined toward monism and toward the view that the only genuine kind of moral responsibility is that identified by the notion of accountability. (I hint at this a bit in my book without committing to it. Taking up a view sketched by Neil Levy, I considered the possibility that the other putative kinds really just identify a kind of moral agency, not morally responsible agency.) But Dave has convinced me that there are indeed different kinds of moral responsibility. It seems to me the distinct kinds of moral responsibility he identifies can pass the test that I am proposing.

Thanks for the shout-out, Michael! Just a quick follow-up: I'm interested in morally responsible *agency*, i.e., what it means to be someone eligible for a variety of responsibility responses. Where these take different objects, then, the agent may be responsible *in virtue of* some things (quality of character) but not others (quality of regard, say). As I understand it, though, you are proposing distinct types of responsibility generated via consideration of excuses (not exemptions), such that one may morally assess acts, attitudes, or traits in some way that doesn't correlate to our assessment of agents. Is that right? This is interesting, and I hadn't thought of my proposal in these terms, but it does make quite a bit of sense. One could then say that, even though one's quality of character wasn't implicated in some nasty action (one was under duress, perhaps), nevertheless a certain type of judgment was exercised that is sufficient for grounding another type of responsibility (what I would think of as answerability).

Question: one would still be assessing the *agent* in such a case, though, wouldn't one? Just in virtue of a different type of quality of will? Or am I just missing something?

Eddy: Good questions, but I can't think of any good analogous cases. Anyone else?

Justin Caouette: It seems to me that the kind of responsibility we might have if determinism is true is the only kind of responsibility we might have. Making things indeterministic or adding any possible kind of causation wouldn't make us deserving of more or deserving in a different way. Just a statement, of course, but that's how it seems to me.

At the start of "Some Theses" I say that I'll take a guilty person to be "someone who is blameworthy for some moral wrong." That's the sense in play in T10. We assume, then, that whatever control and other stuff is needed for blameworthiness, the agent in question had it with respect to this moral wrong.

In the manipulation case, are you thinking that the agent isn't blameworthy? If he isn't, then he wouldn't count as guilty, as I'm using the term.

Dave, perhaps this is the kind of thing Michael had in mind. A very ugly thought pops into my head. It doesn't express any of my cares or evaluative commitments. So I'm not responsible, in the attributability sense, for having the thought. No responsibility response to me for it is appropriate. But it's a very ugly thought. That assessment of the thought is appropriate.

Hi Dave, I think Randy’s comment answers your question to me effectively. This is what I had in mind, Randy. Thanks!

Justin Caouette: Sorry I did not respond to you earlier. I appreciate what you had in mind when you wrote of the fittingness of an attitude and the fittingness of the expression of an attitude. (Matt King had some useful things to say about this in Randy’s previous post.) But as important as that is, I take that to be orthogonal to what is at issue here. Let me give just one example: Dave Shoemaker thinks that disdain is a fitting response to a shoddy or cowardly act for which one is blameworthy in the case of attributability, and that the disdain is directed at an expression of what the attributability-blameworthy agent stands for. It is a response to a feature of that agent’s character as revealed in her unvirtuous action. Resentment, on the other hand, is suited for accountability responsibility and is a response to poor quality of will in the sense of poor regard for others. It has a different target, different relevance and success conditions, and so on. Hence, we have reason to think we have here a genuinely different kind of responsibility. I was basically seeking a supplementary argument to help support a pluralist view like his.

Eddy--you ask a great question and I want to try and address it.

Within philosophy, an obvious analogue is the question of the intrinsic good(s) of morality--some are pluralists (Moore) and some are monists (Mill), and certainly they think the difference substantive. Of course, there are distinct referents in this case, and that certainly moves the dispute away from merely being verbal.

Outside philosophy--is there anything outside philosophy?--the closest analogue I can think of is from (what I can understand) the status of string theory. Adherents argue that the internal coherence of the reduction of all known forces to strings testifies to a monistic explanation (unified theory) of them all. Skeptics want the experimental goods, which are hard to come by given the theoretical energies necessary to test string theory, and so might wonder if some forces are non-reducible and thus fundamentally plural. Given that wide division, some skeptics might question whether "strings" refer to anything, and thus take the math to be merely conceptually constructive without reference, whereas string theorists believe references to separate forces miss the fact that they are mere referential facets of the same thing. I would point out that what makes this more closely analogous to what's going on here with respect to moral responsibility is that both instances are empirically underdetermined to pry apart issues of reference and truth, where at least with intrinsic goods difference of reference are tolerably distinct. FWIW.


I'd say Aristotle vs. the Moderns on causation is an example of an analogous pluralist vs. monist debate in philosophy.

Some earlier discussions of attention in psychology sounded like a debate between monism vs. pluralism. Kahneman is in my mind a prime example of a monist.

Sorry to join late (crying babies don’t pause for blogs!).

I think a giant issue that has mostly remained in the background is the whole normative versus non-normative conceptions of moral responsibility thing. If you adopt a normative conception (and I believe that Dave and Michael both do, though Michael’s is nuanced) then you think something like the following:

N: The conditions for *being* MR are in part determined by the conditions under which is fair to *hold* someone MR by means of reactions of a certain class.

There are a wide variety of reactions that could fall in the relevant class ranging from 1) mild disapproval embedded in aretaic appraisals; 2) reactions that involve changing one’s relationships with the target; 3) overt condemnation; 4) punishment, i.e., hard treatment (this list is meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive)

If you adopt N, then you there is inevitably strong pressure to say there are lots of kinds of MR. This is because the conditions in which it would be fair to issue 1-4 are quite varied, and N says that MR *itself* builds in the conditions for when it is fair to issue reactions of the 1-4 type. If we think simplicity is a theoretical virtue (and I think we should), then this proliferation of MR concepts could be seen to count against the normative view.

I prefer the non-normative view, for this reason but also many others. One version of this view (inspired by Fischer and Tognazzini, but different from theirs) goes like this: Responsibility/blame assessments proceed in roughly two stages. The MR phase assesses whether the agent “owns” the action in a distinctive and agentially important way. This is a purely *descriptive* question, and in particular meeting this ownership condition does not depend on the question of what kinds of reactions towards this person are fair. If phase one completes with an assessment that the person is indeed MR, then phase two begins. This phase takes up the question of what sorts of reactions are fair to issue.

On this picture, there is just one kind of MR (meeting the ownership condition), even if there are a diversity of reactions of types 1-4 and correspondingly a diversity of conditions under which issuing them would be fair. In short, non-normative views of MR are much easier to combine with monism about MR, and in my view, this counts in their favor.

Chandra: How dare you devote more time to your offspring than to us?!

Two points. First, one might hold a normative view without appealing to the *fairness* of holding responsible. Instead, one might gather together various emotional responsibility responses and look for the conditions of their *fittingness*. To the extent there were different subcategories of these responses, they might take as their objects different agential features with different conditions. This restricts the range of relevant responsibility responses, and it sidesteps the "wrong kind of reasons" problem associated with some of the other reactions you cite, but it allows for multiplicity in types of responsibility.

Second, and more importantly, why assume that on a non-normative view you won't be open to multipliers as well? Suppose what we do in our "descriptive" enterprise is determine whether the agent "owns" the action in a distinctively important way. Why think that the ownership relation doesn't also fraction into multiples? In other words, why couldn't one account of ownership implicate my character, another implicate my judgment, and another implicate my regard for others? (Just to take three random examples. :-))

Hi Dave,

Following your admonishment, I am ignoring my hungry, crying baby in order to write this. :-)

I agree with your first point. Your second point is also well taken and raises additional interesting issues. I didn’t mean to say that a non-normative view of MR must necessarily be monist. Rather, I wanted to suggest that a normative view will *very likely* have to be pluralist, and a non-normative view has a *far easier time* of being monist. I see that you think there are several types of MR-conferring ownership relations. I tend to think there is just one: An action belongs to the agent in the way required for MR if it is expressive of the self (and character, regard, and judgment end up being aspects of the self, properly understood). But your point seems quite correct that if you believe the relevant ownership relation is itself plural, then you can end up being a “non-normativist” and a pluralist.

Bringing all this back to Randy’s opening question, the dispute between the normative versus non-normative view of MR appears quite clearly to be a substantive one. Since the debate about monism and pluralism about kinds of MR seems entwined with the normative versus non-normative debate, the debate between monism and pluralism is itself likely to be substantive as well.

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