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Responsibility for Forgetting To Do

Abstract

Assuming that an agent can be morally responsible for her forgetting to do something, we can use recent psychological research on prospective memory to assess the psychological assumptions made by normative accounts of the moral responsibility for forgetting. Two accounts of moral responsibility (control accounts and valuative accounts) have been prominent in recent debates about the degree to which agents are blameworthy for their unwitting omissions. This paper highlights the psychological assumptions concerning remembering and forgetting that characterise the accounts. The paper then introduces and reviews recent empirical literature on prospective memory. Finally, it uses the literature to assess the various assumptions. One important implication is that a direct capacitarian control account implies implausible assumptions about the psychological capacity for remembering. A second important implication is that an indirect capacitarian control account and a valuative account highlight different but complementary aspects of remembering and forgetting.

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Notes

  1. In this paper, I will first consider a version of the direct control account of forgetting and only later in the paper (in Sect. 5) will I consider a version of the indirect account of forgetting.

  2. Terminology varies in the literature. According to McGeer and Petit (2015), the conjunction of the agent’s general capacity and the opportunity to exercise it is the agent’s specific capacity. According to Cyr and Swenson (2019), we should understand a specific ability to φ as the opportunity to φ plus some epistemic condition (awareness or know-how). For the purpose of this paper (and using the terminology of Cyr & Swenson, 2019), I will assume that a specific ability equals an opportunity + relevant knowledge, where an agent has opportunity to φ in the actual world roughly when there is a possible world W in which the agent ϕs and, at the very least, everything except S’s ϕ-ing, is the same as in the actual world. To really work, this rough definition would need some refinement (see, Cyr & Swenson, 2019; Franklin, 2011; Swenson, 2016). Cyr and Swenson argue that a specific ability to φ does not entail a general ability to φ and that in some cases the general ability is not necessary for blameworthiness. For the sake of the argument, I will assume that the general ability is necessary (but nothing in my argument really hangs on this assumption). The important assumption is that the specific ability is necessary for moral responsibility. If I omit to open the door when someone knocks because I am tied to a chair, then I am not blameworthy for the omission.

  3. I will set aside this type of situation. It could occur if the agent falls asleep, falls into a goalless drowsiness, starts involuntarily to mind-wander, or some similar non-intentional state or process.

  4. I am grateful to a reviewer for helping me understand and express this point.

  5. Maybe one could worry (as one of my reviewers did) that the notion of subjective importance in the psychological literature does not match the notion of importance in valuative accounts, where importance is often tied to notions such as “quality of will”. I would rather turn it around as a strength. The psychological notion of subjective importance understood as (subjective utility x probabilitycost) disambiguates and specifies what could be meant by “evaluative attitude”. It relates the notion of an evaluative attitude to factors that can be manipulated concretely in psychological experiments and estimated in models.

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Acknowledgements

The author is very grateful to Olle Blomberg, Denis Buehler, Stephen Butterfill, Mark Schram Christensen, Dawa Dupont, Julia Hass, Alexander Heap, Jiwon Kim, Søren Kyllingsbæk, Myrto Mylopoulos, Victor Lange Nielsen, Elisabeth Pacherie, Paul Russell, Joshua Shepherd, David Shoemaker, Filippos Stamatiou, Matthew Talbert, Hong Yu Wong, and Wayne Wu for reading and commenting on previous versions of the paper. The material has been presented at seminars and workshops at University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, University of Tübingen, and Australian National University. The research for this paper was supported by funding from the Independent Research Fund Denmark, grant number 6107-00058, “Intentions, Selection, and Agency”.

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Independent Research Fund Denmark, grant number 6107–00058, “Intentions, Selection, and Agency”.

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Correspondence to Thor Grünbaum.

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Grünbaum, T. Responsibility for Forgetting To Do. Erkenn (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-022-00554-6

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