Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 9, pp 2391–2409 | Cite as

When and why is it disrespectful to excuse an attitude?

  • John W. RobisonEmail author


It is intuitive that, under certain circumstances, it can be disrespectful or patronizing to excuse someone for an attitude (even for an attitude one finds objectionable). While it is easy enough to find instances where it seems disrespectful to excuse an attitude, matters are complicated. When and why, precisely, is it disrespectful to judge that someone is not responsible for his attitude? In this paper, I show, first, that the extant philosophical literature on this question is underdeveloped and overgeneralized: the writers who address the question suggest quite strikingly that it is always disrespectful to excuse a sane, rational agent for his attitude, and their arguments rely on false generalizations about what is involved in excusing an attitude. I then sketch an account of respect (something conspicuously missing in the literature on this question) to explain when and why it is disrespectful to excuse an attitude. Using this account, I show that one can coherently (and respectfully) excuse an attitude even in some cases where that attitude was produced by a responsiveness to reasons.


Moral responsibility Respect Responsibility for attitudes Moral ignorance Judgment sensitivity 



I would like to thank Sophie Horowitz, Hilary Kornblith, and Katia Vavova for helpful discussions of the material in this paper and for extensive comments on earlier drafts.


  1. Adams, R. M. (1985). Involuntary sins. Philosophical Review, 94(1), 3–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arpaly, N. (2002). Unprincipled virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bennett, C. (2004). The limits of mercy. Ratio, 17(1), 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Darwall, S. (1977). Two kinds of respect. Ethics, 88(1), 36–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dillon, R. S. (1992). Respect and care: Toward moral integration. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 22(1), 105–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Eagleman, D. (2011). Incognito. New York: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  7. FitzPatrick, W. J. (2008). Moral responsibility and normative ignorance: Answering a new skeptical challenge. Ethics, 118(4), 589–613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Franklin, C. E. (2013). Valuing blame. In D. Justin Coates & N. A. Tognazzini (Eds.), Blame: Its nature and norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Levy, N. (2009). Culpable ignorance and moral responsibility: A reply to FitzPatrick. Ethics, 119(4), 729–741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Moody-Adams, M. M. (1993). On the old saw that character is destiny. In O. Flanagan & A. O. Rorty (Eds.), Identity, character, and morality: Essays in moral psychology. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  11. Moody-Adams, M. M. (1994). Culture, responsibility, and affected ignorance. Ethics, 104(2), 291–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Rosen, G. (2002). Culpability and ignorance. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103(1), 61–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Rosen, G. (2004). Skepticism about moral responsibility. Philosophical Perspectives, 18(1), 295–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Rosen, G. (2008). Kleinbart the oblivious and other tales of ignorance and responsibility. Journal of Philosophy, 105(10), 591–610.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Scanlon, T. M. (2008). Moral dimensions: Permissibility, meaning, and blame. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Slote, M. (1982). Is virtue possible? Analysis, 42(2), 70–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Smith, A. M. (2005). Responsibility for attitudes: Activity and passivity in mental life. Ethics, 115(2), 236–271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Smith, A. M. (2007). On being responsible and holding responsible. Journal of Ethics, 11(4), 465–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Smith, A. M. (2008). Control, responsibility, and moral assessment. Philosophical Studies, 138(3), 367–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Smith, A. M. (2015). Attitudes, tracing, and control. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 32(2), 115–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Smith, H. (2011). Non-tracing cases of culpable ignorance. Criminal Law and Philosophy, 5(2), 115–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Wolf, S. (1987). Sanity and the metaphysics of responsibility. In F. David Schoeman (Ed.), Responsibility, character, and the emotions: New essays in moral psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Zimmerman, M. J. (1997). Moral responsibility and ignorance. Ethics, 107(3), 410–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Zimmerman, M. J. (2015). Varieties of moral responsibility. In R. Clarke, M. McKenna, & A. M. Smith (Eds.), The nature of moral responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, South College E305University of Massachusetts AmherstAmherstUSA

Personalised recommendations