The issue of whether vicious agents are rational and responsible is a long-standing difficulty in ethical theorizing and practice. In this book I offer a reconsideration of the extent to which agents can effectively acquire a correct grasp of ethical considerations and guide their actions by it. This involves exploring a number of topics in moral psychology and metaethics as well as the nature of voluntariness.
There appear to be strong reasons in favor of concluding that agents who lack sound understanding of ethical requirements are less than fully rational and perhaps also less than fully responsible. Nonetheless, it also seems that there are vicious agents who know what they are doing, are acting voluntarily, and who merit ascriptions of full-fledged responsibility and liability to blame. This is so even if, given their characters and circumstances, they could not have known or acted otherwise. Think of the deeply vicious agent who has an opportunity to do harm in just the way he cruelly enjoys. Not only does it not occur to him to refrain, but the reasons to refrain may not be acknowledged by him in any practically effective way. Still, he seems to be a voluntary agent enacting values he endorses.
I argue that it is not true in a completely general way that 'ought' implies 'can.' There are agents who cannot do what they ought to do, but the conditions that explain their disability do not defeat their responsibility. The account does not eliminate the perplexities we feel concerning vicious agents. It attempts to diagnose them and keep them at the center of our attention. They cannot be explained away or analytically reduced to something more amenable.
Some of the claims and arguments in the book are developments of ideas I first presented in articles. I am grateful to the editors of the journals in which those articles appear for permission to use portions of them. “Taking Ethical Disability Seriously” appeared in Ratio; “The
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Publication information: Book title: Choosing Character: Responsibility for Virtue and Vice. Contributors: Jonathan Jacobs - Author. Publisher: Cornell University Press. Place of publication: Ithaca, NY. Publication year: 2001. Page number: ix.
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