Who Knew? Responsibility without Awareness

Who Knew? Responsibility without Awareness

Who Knew? Responsibility without Awareness

Who Knew? Responsibility without Awareness

Synopsis

To be responsible for their acts, agents must both perform those acts voluntarily and in some sense know what they are doing. Of these requirements, the voluntariness condition has been much discussed, but the epistemic condition has received far less attention. In Who Knew? George Sher seeks to rectify that imbalance. The book is divided in two halves, the first of which criticizes a popular but inadequate way of understanding the epistemic condition, while the second seeks to develop a more adequate alternative. It is often assumed that agents are responsible only for what they are aware of doing or bringing about--that their responsibility extends only as far as the searchlight of their consciousness. The book criticizes this "searchlight view" on two main grounds: first, that it is inconsistent with our attributions of responsibility to a broad range of agents who should but do not realize that they are acting wrongly or foolishly, and, second, that the view is not independently defensible. The book's positive view construes the crucial relation between an agent and his failure to recognize the wrongness or foolishness of what he is doing in causal terms: the agent is responsible when, and because, his failure to respond to his reasons for believing that he is acting wrongly or foolishly has its origins in the same constitutive psychology that generally does render him reason-responsive.

Excerpt

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that agents are responsible only for what they do voluntarily—that “[a]cts that are voluntary receive praise and blame, whereas those that are involuntary receive pardon and sometimes pity too.” Aristotle also observed that “[a]ctions are regarded as involuntary when they are performed under compulsion or through ignorance.” Following Aristotle, most subsequent philosophers have agreed that responsibility has two distinct necessary conditions: one pertaining to the will, the other to knowledge. Although

1. Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle: the Nicomachean Ethics, trans. J. A. K. Thomson (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1955), 111.

2. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 111.

3. Thus, for example, in the introduction to their influential anthology on the topic, John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza have written that “[t]he first condition, which may be termed a ‘cognitive condition,’ corresponds to the excuse of ignorance. It captures the intuition that an agent is responsible only if she both knows (or can reasonably be expected to know) the particular facts surrounding her action, and also acts with the proper sorts of beliefs and intentions. the second condition, which may be termed a ‘freedom-relative condition,’ corresponds to the excuse of force. It captures the sense that an agent is responsible only if his action is unforced, that is, only if he acts freely” (John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza, eds., Perspectives on Moral Responsibility [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993], 8).

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