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05/06/2014

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Thanks for this thoughtful post.

I wonder if the most plausible view of the omissions/refrainings you mention here is to see them as derivative of some attitude or disposition rather than a prior action. For example, I might forget to turn out the light because I'm in a hurry to get home for the evening, or because I'm distracted by my cell phone, or because I'm being absentminded and am lost in thinking about a paper I'm working on. Likewise with the case of refusing to remove one's hat. This refraining might derive from my defiant attitude or from my being too vain to show my bad hair day to those around me.

If we think of the cases this way, I don't see anything all that implausible about supposing that I am responsible for being distracted or absentminded. It also seems correct to say that I'm responsible for being defiant or vain in the latter case. There are several stories that we could tell about what this kind of responsibility consists in, but it seems likely to me that these omissions are derivative from an attitude or disposition rather than being basic in the sense that you specify.

A methodological question, Randy: Suppose we can find no adequate account of derivative responsibility in these cases. Why view the control and epistemic requirements as problems for the view that omitters and refrainers are responsible rather than view their responsibility as problems for the control and epistemic requirements? I confess that my intuitions of their responsibility "feel" stronger than my intuitions about the necessity of control/knowledge.

An unfairly large question, I know, but still....

Nice conundrum.

Why not relax the awareness requirement in a similar way to many legal issues? In the lights-out case, even if you didn't know, you should have known that you were supposed to turn them off. You should have known that they were on, and that you were the last to leave. Parallels to legal negligence might be apt.

I'm puzzled about the control condition and removing one's hat. Can you give a sketch of an argument that suggests a control condition is not met?

Answer: yes.

Solution to problem 1: Not all omissions are unwitting.

Solution to problem 2: the control condition is satisfied if he could have done the thing he omitted to do (and was responsive to reasons, etc.)

Nate, sure, we might try the strategy you propose. Some questions about it: If I'm responsible for my omission because it results from some attitude or disposition for which I'm responsible, is my responsibility for that attitude or disposition basic, or does it derive from my responsibility for something else, say, some actions from which it resulted? We might also wonder about awareness requirements for tracing. I'm not aware that my omission is resulting from the attitude or disposition in question. (I might not be aware that I have the disposition.) And, in the case in which I'm blameworthy for the omission, it might be that the attitude isn't one I'm blameworthy for, because there's nothing wrong with me having it. I'm thinking about stopping to get milk on the way home, which I promised my wife I'd do. It's good of me to think about doing things I've promised I'll do. So how does my blameworthiness for the omission derive from my responsibility for an attitude that I'm not blameworthy for having?

David, an entirely fair question. Indeed, I think we ought to adjust the control and awareness conditions so that they give us responsibility in these cases. So, what should they be?

Paul, I agree with you. What should the revised awareness requirement say?

Of course, some folks run the argument the other way. We don't have moral responsibility in cases of unwitting omission, because the awareness requirement isn't met, and we don't have criminal responsibility unless we have moral responsibility, so we should revise many of our judgments about criminal responsibility. There are arguments that are advanced for this kind of view that I think have to be met.

About the control condition in the case of not removing one's hat: the fellow has the intention, and he doesn't remove his hat (which is just as he intends), but his failure to remove his hat isn't an action, so in what way is the omission an exercise of control? Perhaps we can say the following: He was able to remove the hat, his having the intention came about in a way that involved no freedom-undermining factors (insanity, brain manipulation, etc.), and his intention figured causally in what he DID do on this occasion (standing with his arms at his sides). But perhaps this leaves out something obvious. What do you see as constituting the agent's control in this case?

Justin, yes, I think that's part of the solution to problem 2. But I think there's more to be said (which I've just sketched).

Thanks for responding, Randy. Those are really good (and helpful) questions. The first two (re: basicness and the awareness requirement) are tough, and I'll have to think more about them.

Regarding the issue of blameworthiness, we might just be able to explain this by saying that the attitude needs to be specified more carefully. So, you may not be blameworthy for thinking about keeping your promise but you may be blameworthy for doing so singlemindedly such that you neglect other things which you have a policy to do. Admittedly, this feels like kind of a dodgy response, but it might work. It's also worth noting that this isn't a problem for omissions only as it may be that blameworthy actions often result from blameless attitudes. A lying promise might be a good example here: Suppose my strong desire to start a charitable organization causes me to lie to a friend about my ability to pay him back for loaning me the start-up money. The desire seems blameless, but the lie is blameworthy (it's not even clear that the desire could be mitigating factor for blameworthiness in this case).

Randy: One way to get a grip on the relevant sort of "control," or the general sorts of capacities, at issue is by thinking about the type of response to these omissions we would tend to feel and find appropriate. On your own part, in leaving the office lights on, regret or embarrassment; on the part of the cap-omitter, pride. These are likely best thought of as responses to judgment, or what Scanlon calls "self-governance." To the extent the forgetting or the cap-removal-defiance intention were sensitive in some way to judgment, they were "up to" the agent in the way of rational control.

But these sorts of cases also reveal aspects of agential character, for which neither rational nor volitional control may be necessary; rather, all that's needed is a kind of *ownership* of the traits in question, something that may obtain independently of judgment or volition. This might be indicated by the appropriateness of various aretaic responses, such as that the office guy is "forgetful" and the cap wearer is defiant or someone of integrity, and so, respectively, shame or admiration may be rendered appropriate.

Nate, I'm inclined to think that blameworthiness hinges on whether you did or didn't respond to moral reasons in the appropriate way. When I tell the lie to get the loan for the charity, there are some moral reasons I'm responding to well, but others I'm not responding to well. So I'd think I'm blameworthy.

David, yes, there are various kinds of responses that might be appropriate in these cases. The control that one needs to have if a certain response is appropriate might well vary depending on the kind of response.

Some think we ought to distinguish different kinds of moral responsibility here. I'm not so sure. I might post something about this a little later in the month.

Here's an awareness condition that I propose in OMISSIONS, ch. 7:

Provided that the agent has the capacities that make her a morally responsible agent, she is blameworthy for a wrongful omission that isn't intentional and of which she is unaware if (i) she is free in failing to do the thing in question and (ii) her lack of awareness of her obligation to do it--and of the fact that she isn't doing it--falls below a cognitive standard that applies to her, given her cognitive and volitional abilities and the situation she was in.

The first part here is meant to capture things like: the agent was able to do the thing in question, her not doing it didn't result from freedom-undermining factors such as phobia, brain manipulation, etc.

The second part here is meant to capture an idea that Paul suggested--one that comes up often in these contexts. The agent should have known that she ought to do the thing in question, and should have known that she wasn't doing it. The force of the 'should', I think, is neither that of moral obligation nor that of a mere ideal. (We aren't obligated to have beliefs, and one might be blameless even if ideally one would have realized that one ought to do the thing in question.)

I have a bit more to say about this in the book, but that's the basic idea.

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