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//[Y]oung children’s agency can be “essentially a borderline” case of responsible agency[....]

[I]t would seem plausible to think that even if they were not apt targets for the full range of human reactive attitudes, they could be apt, deserving targets of (at least) some of these attitudes[....]//

Yes. Children (even young ones) are responsible for their (voitional) actions. However, due to non-culpable ignorance, they are not responsible for nearly the same range of the consequences of their actions. And likewise due to non-culpable ignorance, they are not deserving of the full range of reactive attitudes that apply to (competent!) adults. The same rules of responsibility apply to children as to adults, but the child's circumstances are distinctly different than those of most adults, meaning that the application will differ markedly. Children are ignorant and accident-prone, and it is only in that sense that they are "less responsible" -- responsible /for/ less than non-ignorant and more capable (older) people are.

The mistake, as I see it, is to see "responsibility" not merely as a precondition for "desert", but as being coextensive with it. Thus we take "not deserving to be punished/blamed for X" to mean "not responsible for X", and "not deserving as much punishment for X" as being "less responsible for X". Responsibility, as I see it, is entirely about the actor. Desert, in spite of being attributed to the actor, is primarily about the re-actor. To say that A deserves R is to say something about the appropriateness of someone else doing/giving R to A (or of taking/withholding R from A). The difference between reacting to a child and reacting to an adult is not founded in differing amounts or kinds of responsibility for their actions, but in the appropriateness of those reactions to that actor.

For example, the response to kindness from a child should be even warmer than response to the same kindness from an adult. And not just because we are training the child to be kind. The adult knows that kindness is (or should be) repaid with kindness, and such knowledge mitigates not their responsibility for the kindness shown, but only the warmth of our reaction to it. The child is (presumably) free of such knowledge, and so acting from purely altruistic motives, and so deserving of more warmth in our response, even tho' they are exactly as responsible for their action as the adult is.

The same reasoning, contraposed, shows why responses to children's misbehaviour should be less warm than responses to corresponding behaviours of adults (and older children). Same rules of responsibility; same rules of reaction; differing circumstances leading to differing results.

I'll do you one better, Justin. I'm inclined to say that certain non-human animals may be responsible for what they do, indeed praiseworthy for what they do, so long as they are able to entertain certain representations. So, supposing that dolphins know they are saving the sailor's life, I'm inclined to think they could be praiseworthy for that, though, of course, there would be no direct point in actually praising them.

Hi Justin-

I'm super sympathetic to the basic view here. I've even expressed my affection in print! Check out /Building Better Beings/ pp. 229-230, where I explicitly note that the account there suggests that children and non-human animals may be responsible in some cases, in light of some considerations. (I've likely been influenced by conversations with Matt King about related stuff, so h/t to Matt!!)

Maybe relevant: in a paper draft that responds to a great paper by these Coates and Swenson dudes, I explicitly defend the view that children can be responsible in "patchy" ways—w/r/t to some considerations and not others. Partly, this follows out of the "circumstantialist" approach of the picture of responsible agency in the book. Very sorry if I haven't already sent it to you, and happy to do so.

In short, yes, and I think the "patchiness" of blame in kids (and maybe non-human animals) has the shape that it has because kids (etc.) may be able to adequately self-regulate in light of some considerations, and not others, and when those considerations are live then they are responsible agents with respect to those considerations in those contexts.

Mark that's an interesting point about desert being about the reactor. I take it that what you're claiming is that desert, which many folks take to be a three part relation between an agent, his action, and the thing he deserves in response is actually a four part relation between an agent, his action, the thing he deserves in response, *and* who it is that's providing that response. This would certainly make sense of objections to blame along the lines of "I don't deserve that from you."

But why not think that responsibility has this fourth element built in as well?

I'm not sure I completely share your intuitions about "warmness" of response. It's true that adults can appreciate how being nice will affect them for the better in the long run. And Kant might be right that given this, we can never be sure that we aren't self-deceived about our motives, since it's always epistemically possible that whenever we take ourselves to be acting from the motive of duty, we're actually being moved by self-interest. But I think a lower level of credence concerning it's X's concern for me and not his concern to benefit himself in the long run to be sufficient for a warm response. So I suspect that many adults deserve pretty warm responses.


I believe it's possible to hold that so-and-so deserves such-and-such without committing to there being any person who has the moral standing to deliver such-and-such to that so-and-so. In that sense I think I disagree that desert should be modeled as a four-part relation. On the other hand, it's also possible to hold that your wife deserves an apology *from you* -- that no other person can give her what she deserves. If that can't be modeled by a three-part relationship, then so much the worse for three-part relationships.

What I mean by "desert is primarily about the re-actor" is that, while morality is a guide to acting, desert is a guide to reacting. Desert is an aspect of morality, and partakes of its whole structure. Does a moral obligation have four relata? A moral permission? If so, then it'd be appropriate to model desert the same way. But I'd rather remain agnostic about how it's modeled. (Or rather, I'm a pluralist -- all I care about is that the model does a good job of giving suitable answers.)

Responsibility, on the other hand, is not about other people at all. You can't be (so far as I know) morally responsible for X *to* anyone, *for* anyone, *from* anyone, or *by* anyone. You just *are* responsible for X. That fact may have consequences for how other people may or should react to you -- and those consequences are what we're talking about when we talk about desert -- but the responsibility itself is merely "for X".

As for the warmth, I'm not entirely sure *I* agree with what I said :-). Nevertheless, I'm leaning toward the conclusion that it is sometimes appropriate to give fulsome praise to a child for an act that would not merit fulsome praise to an adult. Not for the consequences (a better-behaved child), but because adults *should* carry out that act (and should know that they should), whereas children would not know that they should do it, and cannot reasonably be expected to know that they should do it, and so for them it is super-erogatory (if I understand that term correctly). The adult is responsible for meeting a moral obligation, but the child is responsible for an act beyond what she's obliged to do.


Very cool! It's nice to know I'm not completely out there on this.

The dolphins case is a nice one. I think I was convinced of something similar when I read Frans de Waal's *Peacemaking Among Primates*.


I read a manuscript draft of BBB, but it looks like I need to check out the real thing. I also want to get my hands on the latest version of that paper you were talking about. Do you think that young children's "patchy" responsibility also extends to deserved blame (or some more minimal forms of blame)?


I agree with you that desert is part of morality, but I'm not sure that means how we model it must be symmetrical with how we model other parts of morality, like obligation.

I'm also not sure that responsibility "is not about other people at all." I'm with Strawson in thinking that our notion of being responsible arises in the context of ordinary human relationships, and this gives it what Darwall has called a second-personal character. Now maybe that's not the sense of "about other people" that you had in mind, but it seems relevant to me.

A related thought is that independently of the *responses* that I might be open to in light of my actions, I lose a grip on just what it is to be "responsible for X" simpliciter. I think this is what pushes folks to characterize that relationship in terms of desert, fittingness, propriety, etc.

However things come down, this is all very helpful.


My point is that it's not the *particular* responses (what you deserve) that make you responsible; it is merely that you *are* open to responses. The *particular* responses will differ based on what it's morally appropriate to expect from you, and thus (I say) responsibility should not be characterized in terms of desert, nor in terms of what's a fitting or appropriate response.

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