Moral Responsibility and Merit

By King, Matt | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Moral Responsibility and Merit


King, Matt, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


In the contemporary moral responsibility debate, most theorists seem to be giving accounts of responsibility in the "desert-entailing sense." This is meant to distinguish it from causal or legal responsibility and to draw it closer to our other moral concepts. Moral responsibility and desert are natural partners: Morally responsible agents can be blameworthy and praiseworthy--they can deserve blame and praise. This convergence on responsibility in the desert-entailing sense is a welcome development, for it helps secure competing accounts as rival accounts, a status that appears to require having the same target notion in mind. Yet, despite the convergence, it is striking that so little has been said about the notion of desert that is supposedly entailed. One potential worry is that without saying more about desert, we risk merely replacing one difficult concept (moral responsibility) with one just as difficult (desert).

This paper seeks to address this lacuna in the moral responsibility literature. I propose an understanding of desert sufficient to help explain why the blameworthy and praiseworthy deserve blame and praise, respectively. I do so by drawing upon what might seem an unusual resource. I appeal to so-called Fitting-Attitude accounts of value to help inform a conception of desert or merit, one that can be usefully applied to discussions of moral responsibility. I'm less concerned with defending the view than with explicating it as a conjecture and examining what work it might be able to do. As such, this paper is both speculative and overtly noncommittal. I do not seek to argue for a conception of desert so much as to investigate a potential line of thinking about it. I do, however, argue that the candidate view, which I will call Desert as Fittingness (or DAF),1 merits additional attention. I do so by defending two claims: First, that it does better than extant Fitting Attitude accounts of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, and, second, that it has an initial plausibility with respect to informing a general account of desert. Again, these reasons are not intended to support the view as true, but merely to make the case for taking the view seriously.

1. The Basic View

The outline of DAF connects four thoughts.

First, theories of moral responsibility, if they are to account for responsibility "in the desert-entailing sense," need some positive account of the notion of desert being used. We need to know what is entailed by the responsibility relation in order to properly evaluate those theories. Given that the very plausibility of treating moral responsibility as responsibility in the desert-entailing sense rests on there being a natural connection between moral responsibility and desert, it seems at the very least prudent to seek a better understanding of the latter.

The second thought concerns two observations. One, that moral responsibility involves blameworthiness and praiseworthiness. When we talk about moral responsibility we are talking about a way of being related to things so as to make individuals blameworthy or praiseworthy for them. (2) The other observation concerns Fitting Attitude (FA) accounts of value. These accounts provide general explanations of (at least certain) normative properties in terms of the attitudes it is "fitting" to adopt in response to those properties. (3) Part of the motivation for such accounts comes from the fact that there seems to be a semantic connection between the properties and relevant attitudes. So, for example, the "desirable" is not what we are able to desire, but what is fitting of desire. This observation appears to extend to a wide array of similar terms. Thus, the admirable is what is fitting of admiration, the enviable is what is fitting of envy and the contemptible is what is fitting of contempt. Similar but differently constructed terms also seem to call for FA treatments. So, the fearsome is fitting of fear and the awesome is fitting of awe, but also the amusing is what is fitting to find amusing. …

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