The Good, the Bad and the Blameworthy

By Levy, Neil | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, June 2005 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad and the Blameworthy


Levy, Neil, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


ACCOUNTS OF MORAL responsibility come in two main flavors. There are accounts that hold that an agent is responsible for something (an act, omission, attitude, and so on) just in case that agent has--directly or indirectly--chosen that thing, and there are accounts that hold that an agent is responsible for something just in case that thing is appropriately attributable to her. Each kind of account explains many cases well, and each captures a great many of our pretheoretical intuitions about responsibility; each also yields, occasionally, somewhat counterintuitive results. Call these accounts volitionist and attributionist accounts of moral responsibility. Attributionism has a number of distinguished and able defenders. However, I shall argue, it is wrong: Volitionism is superior, because it alone can accommodate the relatively stringent epistemic conditions that any adequate theory of moral responsibility must recognize, and it alone can accommodate the intuitively powerful distinction between bad agents and blameworthy agents.

Before outlining the contending accounts of moral responsibility, let me say a few words about what they are accounts of. In order to avoid the twin risks of begging the question against either account or simply talking past one another, we need a shared notion of moral responsibility. A fully adequate definition must await the development of a complete theory of moral responsibility, but the following condition upon such a theory will serve to guide our quest: To say that an agent is morally responsible (for an act, omission or attitude) is to say that the Strawsonian reactive attitudes are justified in relation to her with regard to that act, omission or attitude (Strawson 1962). That is, it is appropriate for observers to have certain attitudes in relation to her and her act, especially the attitudes, partly cognitive and partly constituted by emotion, of praise and blame. (1) It is a further question whether it would be appropriate to punish or reward the agent for her act, or even whether it would be appropriate to express the judgment. It may be that the expression of the reactive attitudes is justified under stronger, or merely different, conditions than those under which it is appropriate merely to have them, and it is with the latter that we are here exclusively concerned. (2)

Attributionist and Volitionist Accounts of Moral Responsibility

In a well-known paper, Gary Watson (2004b) distinguishes what he calls the two faces of responsibility. The first, which he calls the aretaic or attributability aspect of responsibility, is intimately linked to a self-disclosure view of moral responsibility. Someone is responsible, in this sense, if her action is expressive of who she is and where she stands on questions of value. The second face of responsibility Watson calls the accountability aspect. Watson argues that someone is accountable for an action if sanctions (or benefits; from now I shall concentrate on the negative case) are fairly applied to them as a consequence of it. We have defined moral responsibility in such manner as to exclude the question of the appropriateness of sanctions. That issue aside, Watson's distinction seems to map neatly onto the distinction between responsibility as understood by attributionism and responsibility as understood by volitionism.

Whereas an act is attributable to an agent if it is expressive of who she is, agents are accountable for actions only if they had a reasonable opportunity directly or indirectly to avoid infringing the standards for the violation of which they are held responsible (Watson, 2004b: 276). Agents are able directly to avoid such an infringement if they are able to conform their acts to the relevant standard; they are able indirectly to avoid infringement if they were able to avoid being held to that standard at all. Thus, agents can be responsible for their failed actions in the absence of a capacity to conform to the relevant standard just in case they could have avoided the requirement in the first place--for instance, someone who accepts the role of a doctor, knowing what kinds of skills are required to occupy it competently, is not excused responsibility for harming her patients on the grounds that she lacked the skill to do better, so long as she had the opportunity to avoid accepting the role. …

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