Philosophical Studies

, Volume 176, Issue 10, pp 2705–2727 | Cite as

Responsibility and the limits of good and evil

  • Robert H. WallaceEmail author


P.F. Strawson’s compatibilism has had considerable influence. However, as Watson has argued in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil” (1987/2008), his view appears to have a disturbing consequence: extreme evil exempts an agent from moral responsibility. This is a reductio of the view. Moreover, in some cases our emotional reaction to an evildoer’s history clashes with our emotional expressions of blame. Anyone’s actions can be explained by his or her history, however, and thereby can conflict with our present blame. Additionally, we too might have been evil if our history had been like the unlucky evildoer’s. Thus, our emotional responses to the evildoer compromise our standing to blame them. Since Strawson’s view demarcates moral responsibility by moral emotional responses, his view appears to be self-defeating. In this paper, I defend the Strawsonian view from the reductio and self-defeat problems. I argue that two emotions, disgust and elevation, can be moral reactive attitudes in Strawson’s sense. First, moral disgust expresses neither blame nor exemption from responsibility. Instead, moral disgust presupposes blameworthiness but is instead a distinct response to the extreme wrongdoer. Secondly, moral disgust involves self-directed attitudes that explain away our apparent lack of standing to blame the evil agent. The structure of disgust as a reactive attitude is mirrored along the positive dimension by the emotion that Haidt (2003a) has called “elevation”, a feeling of moral inspiration. I conclude by defending my view from objections about the moral appropriateness of disgust.


Moral responsibility Compatibilism Moral psychology P.F. Strawson Disgust Evil 



I would like to thank Mark Timmons, Jeremy Reid, and David Shoemaker for comments and feedback. I would especially like to thank Michael McKenna for his generous assistance. Finally, thanks to an anonymous reviewer at Philosophical Studies for thoughtful and constructive suggestions.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy DepartmentUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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