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A Puzzle About Moral Responsibility May 6, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Ethics.

I recently attended a talk at SDSU on moral responsibility by John Fischer, Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside.  Fischer’s work is compelling and is the cutting edge of research on this topic. However, there is something that bothers me about the way this debate is framed.

In ordinary discourse, we often say that a person is morally responsible for an action if she wasn’t forced to do it–if she acted freely. Thus, if someone steals an item from a store, and was not in the grip of some irresistable obsessive/compulsive disorder, she is responsible for the action.

Part of the philosophical debate on moral responsibility is about what we mean by free will. Some say an act is free if the agent had alternative possibilities available to her. Others, Fischer among them, argue that alternative possibilities may not be available if it should turn out that our actions are determined. Thus, an act is free if in the actual sequence of events causing the action, the agent had guidance control over her action, if the agent’s capacity to respond to reasons was coherent. (The agent must also see herself as an agent, a complication I will ignore here) If an agent is morally responsible, in this sense, then she is an appropriate subject of reactive attitudes such as praise, blame, indignation, etc. What is important about this approach is that it defines what it means to be a moral agent and what sorts of beings qualify as moral agents.

But we also use the  term “morally responsible” to refer to a person who performs a right action or a good action as in “she was being responsible in taking care of her neighbor’s kid”. In this sense of “responsible” the agent not only acted freely but conformed to a moral requirement as well.

In addition, we call a person morally responsible if we expect her to comport herself vis a vis others with the appropriate level of concern and with the recognition that others depend on her, as in “She is responsible for not behaving badly in public”. In this sense of moral responsibility there is no causal sequence to evaluate because no action has taken place. We are responsible independently of any action we perform because others have expectations regarding our behavior. Emmanual Levinas seems to understand moral responsibility in this way.

The problem I want to point to is that an agent could be morally responsible in the first sense (Fischer’s sense) without being responsible in the other two senses. If I quite consciously and without coercion ignore someone I should help, then I am responsible for the act of ignoring her, although I have not acted responsibly in either the second or third sense of responsible.

Are these distinctly different concepts of moral responsibility at work here? Or has Fischer perhaps supplied necessary but not sufficient conditions for moral responsibility?

Someone might argue that Fischer has given an account of agency but not moral agency.

On Fischer’s view, an agent is responsible for an action if the mechanisms of practical reasoning are functioning properly. But it seems like there is also a social context that holds us responsible independently of anything we have done or not done. On this alternative view, a person would be morally responsible just in case others have the legitimate expectation that she uphold certain moral standards and she is responsive to their demands. Perhaps, the mechanisms of moral responsiveness involve more than simply a well-functioning capacity to entertain reasons; they also involve dispositions to respond to the needs of others. (I am ignoring the question of whether these dispositions can be reasons alone). On this view, someone who unjustifiably ignores the needs of others would lack moral responsibility, though she would still be an agent subject to the reactive attitudes.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?



1. Nina Rosenstand - May 8, 2007

This deserves a longer comment, but off the cuff I’m reminded of my native language, Danish, where being “responsible” can be expressed with several different nuances (distinct words/suffixes), one implying “guilt,” another implying “caring,” yet another implying that you’re in a managerial position. The core meaning is to “answer to.” Very similar to respons-ible. So is there a bottom line of moral judgment? Probably. I’ll think about it some more.

2. Dwight Furrow - May 12, 2007


Thanks for the comment. It is interesting that the core meaning is to “answer to”. Since one always answers to others, this suggests that responsibility is an interpersonal relationship with someone who has the authority to demand an accounting.

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