Moral Responsibility for Actions and Omissions: The Asymmetry Thesis Rejected

Abstract

There is an important contemporary debate in moral responsibility about whether the following asymmetry thesis is true: moral responsibility for actions does not require alternative possibilities but moral responsibility for omissions does. In this paper, we do two things. First, we consider and reject a recent argument against the asymmetry thesis, contending that the argument fails because it rests on a false view about the metaphysics of omissions. Second, we develop and defend a new argument against the asymmetry thesis, one that avoids the problem with the first argument by not resting on any assumptions about what omissions are metaphysically.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Fischer rejects this early view in Fischer and Ravizza (1998), arguing there that neither moral responsibility for actions or omissions requires alternative possibilities. But in more recent work (Fischer 2017), he returns to the asymmetry view, defending a nuanced version of it according to which responsibility for actions and for simple omissions does not require alternative possibilities but responsibility for complex omissions does. (See note 11 for the difference between these two types of omission).

  2. 2.

    These cases are not uncontroversial. For instance, there has been a well-known dilemma developed concerning the cogency of these cases (see Ginet 1996; Kane 1996; Widerker 1995 for presentations of this dilemma, and Fischer 2010; Hunt 2005; Pereboom 2014 for responses to this dilemma). We set the dilemma aside here.

  3. 3.

    Of course, Eda is arguably blameworthy for something in this case (if not for failing to save the child), and what she’s arguably blameworthy for is failing to try to save the child (something that she could have done).

  4. 4.

    As we noted in footnote 2, whether these sorts of cases can be coherently described is not uncontroversial. We set aside these issues, however, for the sake of argument.

  5. 5.

    Clarke (2014) responds to this sort of concern by saying that a person could be responsible for something under one description but not morally responsible for that same thing under a different description. Cyr (2017) criticizes this proposal on the grounds that if an action and omission are identical, and the agent has the same knowledge and control over both (as seems true in the Ben* case), then it is implausible to hold that the person can be responsible for the thing described in one way but not described in the other way. For the sake of argument, we will grant that Cyr is correct about this and, hence, that Clarke’s response does not work.

  6. 6.

    Tiehen (2015) draws on work by Lewis (1986) to propose a multiple realizability type objection to the view that absences more generally (and not just omissions) are identical to positive events. He argues that absences and their realizing positive events have different counterfactual dependencies which supports the claim that absences are not identical to positive events. He does not, however, develop this argument in detail. In what follows, we take this general approach in a new way by applying it specifically to the issue of whether any omissions are ever identical to actions and developing and defending the multiple realizability criticism in significant detail.

  7. 7.

    It might also be objected that in the paralysis case, we do not have an omission at all. But this is not plausible. True, if he were paralyzed by fear, then perhaps Ben’s omitting to raise his arm would not be intentional, but this is different from its not being an omission. Almost all writers on omissions agree that there are such things as omissions that are not intentional.

  8. 8.

    Nelkin and Rickless (2015) make a similar point, responding to Clarke’s (2014) claim that omitting to move is identical to holding still. Although they do not frame the point in terms of multiple realizability, they imply that another way that someone could omit to move her body, if not by holding it still, is by being “very relaxed (and immobile)” (p. 4). Furthermore, Nelkin and Rickless also raise doubts about another line of representative cases—refraining from refraining—in which omissions (refrainings from refrainings) are identical to actions. For instance, both Clarke (2014) and Cyr (2017) adopt the view that in a case in which a person refrains from refraining to call her brother, this refraining from refraining is identical to her action of calling her brother. In response, it might be argued that refraining from refraining to call one’s brother isn’t, properly speaking, an omission (since outside intervention could always prevent the call from occurring). Rather, what’s more plausibly the omission, on this view, is refraining from refraining to try to call. But even if we agree that refraining from refraining to call one’s brother is an omission, Nelkin and Rickless argue that there might be other ways in which the agent might refrain from refraining without her actually calling her brother, e.g., the agent “might decide not to refrain from calling her brother, but just as she picks up the phone she gets distracted and doesn’t call” (p. 4). In this way, Nelkin and Rickless’ questioning of these action-omission cases of refraining from refraining supports our view of multiply realizability. (For an interesting formal treatment of refraining from refraining, set within a broader formal theory of agency, see Belnap et al. 2001).

  9. 9.

    As we explained earlier, Clarke (2014) and Fischer (2017) hold a hybrid view, proposing that while some omissions are identical to actions, others are absences—they are metaphysically nothing at all. Both argue that if there are any cases of omission-action identity, then a case like Ben*—in which a person omits to move by holding still—will be one such case (Clarke 2014, p. 27; Fischer 2017, p. 156).

  10. 10.

    What if a critic was to say that the relevant identity claim between Ben’s omission and action isn’t a type-identity claim (which multiple realizability would refute) but rather a token-identity claim (which it would not refute)? While interesting, the claim that Ben’s token omission is identical to an action-token of some type or other (but not to any one particular action-type) runs into three problems. First, multiple realizability might in fact refute the token-identity claim after all. For example, as we saw earlier, there are plausibly cases in which Ben omits to raise his arm without performing an action of any type at all (if, for instance, Ben omits to raise it by being paralyzed by fear—where being paralyzed isn’t an action of his but rather something that befalls him). Of course, the token-identity proponent might reply that, in a case of paralysis, it’s not Ben’s paralysis nor his holding his arm still but, rather, some other token action that he was performing then that’s identical to his omission. But this response—trying to find a different token action that could be identical to the omission—leads to a second problem. The token-identity view would inherit the well-known difficulties (from philosophy of mind) with token-identity claims more generally. For instance, the theory would be mysterious in the sense that it would provide no way of determining which action-tokens are identical to which omission-tokens. Finally, if, in the light of this criticism, we try to determine which action is relevant to a person’s omission by asking “How did the person omit to raise his arm?”, the answer (“He omitted to raise his arm by holding it still”) would be most plausibly taken to reveal the thing that constituted or realized his omission. But constitution is (arguably) not the same as identity. Moreover, as we explain shortly, if Ben’s omission is only constituted by (but not identical to) his action, then we don’t get the contradiction in moral responsibility that Cyr seeks.

  11. 11.

    More recently, Fischer (2017) has modified his view. He now proposes a hybrid position according to which simple omissions—which involve nothing more than the body of the agent—are either constituted by, or identical to, positive actions. Complex omissions, however, which involve something more than the body, are simply nothing—an absence. We discuss the absence view shortly.

  12. 12.

    In response to a criticism by Fischer (2006) that the W-defense assumes ought-implies-can (a principle Fischer rejects), Widerker (2005) argues that the W-defense does not assume ought-implies-can. In fact, Widerker argues that in many cases ought does not imply can (although in other cases it might). He does, however, think that expectation-as-demand implies can. To illustrate, he gives an example of a person who promised to return a book to a friend by a certain time but, through no fault of his own, the book is stolen prior to that time. Widerker says that the person still ought to return the book by the original time (even though he cannot). But the fact that he cannot return the book by that time means that it would be morally unreasonable to expect or demand that he does so. For then we would be expecting him to do something that he cannot do, which—says Widerker—would be morally unreasonable.

  13. 13.

    To whom must it be morally reasonable to expect S not to have done A? Widerker says that it must be morally reasonable “for someone who is morally competent and knows all the relevant non-moral facts pertaining to the situation the agent is in” (2005: 297, footnote 20).

  14. 14.

    We thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this concern.

  15. 15.

    For one such case (from Palmer 2013), suppose someone flips a switch in order to turn on a light. The switch is where light switches normally are and there is no sign to the contrary. But the switch in fact activates the fire alarm. Intuitively, the person wouldn’t be blameworthy for setting off the alarm (even supposing that she could have done otherwise and not flipped the switch) and the reason for this is that, given that she didn’t know (nor should have known) that flipping the switch would activate the alarm, it would not be morally reasonable to expect her not to have acted as she did.

  16. 16.

    Recall, from the previous section, that we argued that it’s not question-begging against proponents of the Frankfurt cases to argue in this way. In fact, as we explained when introducing the W-defense, Widerker originally devised the W-defense to challenge the judgment that the agent is responsible in Frankfurt-style action cases. He did not, however, extend it to Frankfurt-style omission cases, as we do here.

  17. 17.

    We would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

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Palmer, D., Liu, Y. Moral Responsibility for Actions and Omissions: The Asymmetry Thesis Rejected. Erkenn (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-019-00151-0

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