Implanted Desires, Self-Formation and Blame

Article excerpt

SOMETIMES A PERSON SEEMS less blameworthy for her actions when we learn how she came to be the sort of person she is. Consider, for example, how often novelists and scriptwriters invite us to reconsider our feelings toward an unlikable character by showing us crucial facts about the formative influences to which that character was subject. In the philosophical literature on responsibility, one of the best-known accounts of this phenomenon is Gary Watson's discussion of the convicted murderer Robert Alton Harris. (1) Harris committed brutal crimes, but our initial reactions toward him are called into question when we learn about the abuses he suffered as a child.

We see Harris initially as a victimizer, but a more complete account of his story reveals him to have also been a victim. Placing Harris simultaneously in both these categories makes it difficult to sustain unequivocal emotional responses toward him. Other factors evoke a similar reconsideration of our attitudes toward wrongdoers. In some cases, we may imagine that had we been exposed to certain influences, we would have turned out like the person we condemn. This awareness may make our condemnation seem inappropriate because the bad behavior in question now seems partly a function of bad moral luck. Alternatively, we may suspect that some formative situations distort a person's understanding of right and wrong. This happens in Susan Wolf's "JoJo" example. (2) JoJo was raised by a vicious dictator and as a consequence he lacks the resources to recognize the status of his own immoral actions. To the extent that moral understanding is a condition on responsibility, JoJo is an unfit target for blame.

There are, then, different ways in which considerations about an agent's past can bear on his present blameworthiness. Note, for instance, that in Wolf's example the facts about JoJo's past are only indirectly related to his exemption from blame. What really matters for Wolf is JoJo's incapacity in the face of moral reasons. In this paper, I will argue against a picture of responsibility that is somewhat different from Wolf's--a picture on which an agent's past has a direct impact on his blameworthiness, unmediated by considerations about moral understanding. I will call the view I have in mind "historicism." Historicism contends, roughly, that if an agent is not responsible for the fact that she has certain action-guiding values and desires, then she is not fully responsible for acting on those desires and values. Historicist theories may differ in their details, but a central implication of the view is that a given agent might be morally responsible for her behavior while that agent's psychological twin is not responsible for apparently identical behavior. According to the historicist, this difference in responsibility may have nothing to with any difference in how the two agents produced their actions; instead, the difference in responsibility may be due simply to the fact that the first agent, but not the second, fulfilled whatever historical conditions properly apply to moral responsibility. (3)

In the philosophical literature on the relationship between personal history and moral responsibility, realistic cases of childhood abuse or corrupting social contexts often give way to fanciful scenarios involving Skinnerian conditioning and other overt manipulations of subjects' desires and values. Historicists offer these extreme cases as instances in which an agent's history seems obviously relevant to his responsibility. One well-known example of this sort, devised by Alfred Mele, involves a woman named Beth who is subjected to covert psychological manipulation that turns her into a psychological duplicate of Charles Manson. (4) By hypothesis, Manson is morally responsible for his value-guided, vicious deeds. The question is whether Beth is also responsible for acting on her strangely acquired values.

Against the historicist, I argue below that it would be reasonable to hold someone like Beth morally responsible for her actions. …