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A Puzzle Concerning Gratitude and Accountability


P.F. Strawson’s account of moral responsibility in “Freedom and Resentment” has been widely influential. In both that paper and in the contemporary literature, much attention has been paid to Strawson’s account of blame in terms of reactive attitudes like resentment and indignation. The Strawsonian view of praise in terms of gratitude has received comparatively little attention. Some, however, have noticed something puzzling about gratitude and accountability. We typically understand accountability in terms of moral demands and expectations. Yet gratitude does not express or enforce moral demands or expectations. So, how is it a way to hold an agent accountable? In a more general manner, we might ask if there is even sense to be made of the idea that agents can be accountable—i.e., “on the hook”—in a positive way. In this paper, I clarify the relationship between gratitude and moral accountability. I suggest that accountability is a matter of engaging with others in a way that is basically concerned with their feelings and attitudes rather than solely a matter of moral demands. Expressions of gratitude are a paradigmatic form of this concerned engagement. I conclude by defending my view from the objection that it leads to an overly generous conception of holding accountable and suggest in reply that moral responsibility skeptics may not help themselves to as many moral emotions as they might have thought.

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  1. See for instance Schlick (1939) or Ayer (1954) on the one hand, and Campbell (1957) on the other.

  2. I am generally following my exposition of the Strawsonian view in Wallace (2019: 2706–2708), with modifications, updates, and further exposition where needed.

  3. If you want, call third-personal gratitude “approval”, and say it constitutes praise in third personal cases as the analogue of indignation. I’ll drop talk of “approval” moving forward and talk as if there is third-party gratitude.

  4. Strawsonians generally take reactive attitudes to express (or constitute) our practices of holding one another accountable for our actions. Other moral emotions, like contempt or admiration, express (or constitute) evaluations of character.

  5. Macnamara (2015b), building on Gary Watson’s (1987/2008) suggestion, offers this sort of argument. See also Darwall (2006), Shoemaker (2007), McKenna (2012), and Wallace (2019). More on Macnamara’s view shortly.

  6. Reactive attitudes normally have this communicative function. There might be abnormal or non-paradigmatic instances e.g., indignation at the dead, which lack this feature (cf. McKenna 2012: 175–178).

  7. An anonymous reviewer pointed out that there could be analogues to excuse and exemption in a case like this, insofar as we could discover that what seemed like an act of good will was not in fact such an act. This is true, and it does show that gratitude is responsive to quality of will, and so is a reactive attitude. Nevertheless, we do not seek out this further information by way of (apparently) holding an agent to account, and so there are no analogous accountability practices of excuse and exemption.

  8. Sher (2006) is also considered at attributionist, but he is a critic of Strawsonian approaches.

  9. Brink (2021: 45–46) suggests that attributability is an actual sequence notion, that is, a notion that appeals only to the actual sequence of events, whereas accountability is a modal notion, one that appeals to an agent’s abilities and capacities. We can understand these abilities and capacities by looking at relevant counterfactuals (2021: 95–96). I agree that accountability is a modal notion. However, it is important to stress that many actual sequence compatibilists, compatibilists who think that free will and moral responsibility are to be explained only in terms of the actual sequence of events and not by appeals to alternative possibilities, are also trying to explain accountability as a modal notion in terms of abilities and capacities. For instance, McKenna (2013) adopts a theory on which free and morally responsible agents are those agents who have an ability to respond aptly to an appropriately rich range of reasons, where we can understand this ability by looking at relevant counterfactuals, but he does not think that the exercise of this ability does not require a further ability to do otherwise than one in fact does. Thus, only a more specific view of accountability that says that accountable agents must an ability to actually do otherwise than they in fact do is inconsistent with the actual sequence view. My suspicion is that many compatibilists, following Fischer and Ravizza’s (1998) reasons-responsive theory of moral responsibility endorse a kind of view where we think about accountability in modal terms while endorsing an actual-sequence view of the control afforded by those abilities. I take no stand here on what the best compatibilist conception of the relevant capacities is; rather, my concern is to note that a modal understanding of accountability is consistent with both actual sequence and alternative possibilities versions of compatibilism.

  10. My thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting the need to discuss this issue.

  11. Or so says this child of the U.S. Midwest, at least. I have been told heartland Canadians may feel similarly.

  12. As Driver (2016) notes, one problem for the kind of communicative view that, for instance, McKenna (2012) and myself adopt is that it cannot handle cases of private blame. McKenna (2012: 69–70) suggests that private blame is a kind of derivative case, but Driver thinks this will not suffice, since private blame involves many characteristic aspects of blame like change in relationship, the removal of trust, the judgment that someone acted poorly, and so on. Notice that the kind of view I develop here helps to blunt the force of Driver’s worry about communicative views of the reactive attitudes, because the right kind of engagement with another person need not, strictly speaking, be overt. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for raising this question about private blame and my view of the reactive attitudes.

  13. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing out this distinction.

  14. This consensus is built around the idea that gratitude has a prepositional sense, the kind at issue in this discussion, and a propositional sense. See for instance Roberts and Telech (2019) and Manela (2016) for discussion.

  15. We can argue about what this subset of actions is, exactly. Strawson (1961) seems to think it was quite minimal.

  16. Abramson and Leite want to construe love as a reactive attitude as a response to expressions of contextually determined character virtues indexed to different spheres of intimacy. This is compatible with my view so long as we believe that different kinds of these virtues will be different ways of being characterologically disposed to respond to the attitudes and feelings of others in a good way. This strikes me as a plausible view.

  17. An anonymous referee pointed out that by offering this kind of reply, I might be “fracturing” the moral emotions. The love that you have for your partner will not be the same love that you have for your child or your pet. I think that this is the right result given that reactive attitudes are cognitively sharpened versions of more basic emotions. It is possible, I think, that when we love children and pets, we are having an emotional response to agency. Maybe you love the very good dog because the dog is a good kind of agent. That seems right. But it seems plausible to think that the dog’s agency falls short of the basic concern standard. (Perhaps if the dog is very good and very smart, it might not fall that short).

  18. Briefly put, one could argue that we to take pleasure in the affection and well-being of a particular person presupposes that we see them as the sort of agent with whom we can be basically concerned.


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My sincere thanks to Rosalind Chaplin, Hannah Tierney, Mark Timmons, and Monique Wonderly for helpful feedback on previous drafts of this paper. Thanks to Cory Davia, Terry Horgan, Max Kramer, Michael McKenna, Dana Nelkin, Jeremy Reid, Jacob Sparks, and Shawn Wang for discussion. Thanks to the audience at the UC Davis Area Group in Ethics and Related Subjects for helpful feedback and suggestions. Thanks especially to the anonymous referees at this journal for their detailed comments and encouragement.

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Wallace, R.H. A Puzzle Concerning Gratitude and Accountability. J Ethics (2022).

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