Holding Responsible and Taking Responsibility

Abstract

In matters of responsibility, there are often two sides to the transaction: one party who holds another responsible, and the other who (ideally) takes responsibility for her conduct. The first side has been closely scrutinized in discussions of the nature of responsibility, due to the influential Strawsonian conjecture that an agent is responsible if and only if it is (in some sense) appropriate to hold her responsible. This preoccupation with holding responsible – with its focus on the second-personal perspective and on responses like blame – contrasts with a relative neglect of the perspective of the agent and the role that she has to play by taking responsibility. I aim to show that this neglect is undeserved – that taking responsibility is both distinct in character from holding responsible and fundamentally important in its own right. I develop a conception of taking responsibility that reveals an under-explored dimension of our responsibility practices.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The conjecture originates in Peter Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment,’ in Gary Watson (ed.), Free Will (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, 2nd ed.), pp. 72–93.

  2. 2.

    See, e.g., R.A. Duff, Punishment, Communication, and Community (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); John Tasioulas, ‘Punishment and Repentance,’ Philosophy 81(2) (2006): pp. 279–322; Christopher Bennett, The Apology Ritual: A Philosophical Theory of Punishment (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Hannah Maslen, Remorse, Penal Theory and Sentencing (Oxford and Portland, Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2015).

  3. 3.

    See, e.g., Margaret Urban Walker, Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations After Wrongdoing (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Nick Smith, I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Linda Radzik, Making Amends: Atonement in Morality, Law, and Politics (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  4. 4.

    See, e.g., Bernard Williams, ‘Moral Luck,’ in Moral Luck: Philosophical Papers 1973-1980 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 20–39; John Deigh, ‘Love, Guilt, and the Sense of Justice,’ in The Sources of Moral Agency (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 39–64; Gabriele Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment (Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1985).

  5. 5.

    For discussion of this question see, e.g., Gary Watson, ‘Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme,’ in Agency and Answerability (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 219–59, 222; R. Jay Wallace, Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 1, 85–95.

  6. 6.

    Or perhaps praising, crediting, and feeling gratitude, among a variety of other positive responses. There is an active controversy in the responsibility literature concerning whether praise, credit, and other positive responses count as ways of ‘holding responsible,’ or whether only (some limited set of) negative responses (often identified as resentment, indignation, and guilt) have that status. See, e.g., Wallace, supra note 5, p. 61; Coleen Macnamara, ‘Holding Others Responsible,’ Philosophical Studies 152 (2011): pp. 81–102, 89; Gary Watson, ‘Peter Strawson on Responsibility and Sociality,’ in David Shoemaker & Neal A. Tognazzini (eds.), Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility, Volume 2:Freedom and Resentmentat 50 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 15–32, 28. While I incline towards the view that for many purposes it makes sense to count positive responses like praise and credit among the ways in which we hold one another responsible, there are also important differences between the negative and positive responses that make the question a complex one. As I do not intend to defend a view on this question here, I will focus throughout on negative responses.

  7. 7.

    Or perhaps feeling pride and claiming credit; but for the reasons discussed in the previous footnote, the focus here will be on negative responses.

  8. 8.

    In fact, Strawson conceived the reactive attitudes as a broader category, including in addition responses like hurt feelings and shame, as well as positive responses like gratitude, forgiveness, and love, see supra note 1, pp. 75, 79, 83–85. In the responsibility literature it has become common, due to the influence of Wallace and like-minded theorists working within the Strawsonian tradition, to limit discussion to negative attitudes, and specifically to resentment, indignation, and guilt. See Wallace, supra note 5, pp. 62–73. On the question of whether positive responses should be counted among the ways in which we hold one another responsible, see supra note 6.

  9. 9.

    The term ‘agent’ is used here not in any technical sense but simply to designate the active party – that is, the party whose conduct or activity is the occasion for the attitudes and responses in question. At this stage, for purposes of establishing the distinctness of the relevant types of response, we do not need to inquire further into the kind of agency or agential capacity that is necessary for the responses to be intelligible or appropriate.

  10. 10.

    See Wallace, supra note 5, p. 43.

  11. 11.

    Such as those referenced supra in notes 2–4.

  12. 12.

    Williams, supra note 4, p. 28–29. More specifically, Williams suggests that it is natural in agent-regret, as it is not in impersonal regret, to feel that one should offer compensation oneself, regardless of whether the damage is also covered by insurance.

  13. 13.

    Taylor, supra note 4, pp. 97, 100.

  14. 14.

    Ibid. pp. 103–104.

  15. 15.

    Ibid. p. 99. A broadly similar way of distinguishing between guilt and remorse can be found in Deigh, supra note 4, p. 48, though Deigh does not attribute to remorse the further features discussed below that are found in Taylor. Deigh does, however, ground remorse directly in feelings of love or identification in a way that distinguishes his conception of remorse from my conception of contrition.

  16. 16.

    Taylor, supra note 4, pp. 99, 107.

  17. 17.

    For versions of several of these claims in a recent and sophisticated discussion of remorse, see Maslen, supra note 2, especially pp. 5–12.

  18. 18.

    Also contrast my sense of ‘taking responsibility’ with the sense at issue in David Enoch, ‘Being Responsible, Taking Responsibility, and Penumbral Agency,’ in Ulrike Heuer & Gerald Lang (eds.), Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes from the Ethics of Bernard Williams (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 95–132, and ‘Tort Liability and Taking Responsibility,’ in John Oberdiek (ed.), Philosophical Foundations of the Law of Torts (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 250–71, in which ‘taking responsibility’ is conceived as a (possibly mental) action by which someone assumes responsibility for something that would otherwise not be their responsibility. This sense of ‘taking responsibility,’ consisting in the exercise of a kind of normative power, is not my topic.

  19. 19.

    Joseph Raz, From Normativity to Responsibility (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

  20. 20.

    See ibid. p. 243. For discussion of the conflict between moral luck and a plausible control condition on responsibility, see generally David Enoch & Andrei Marmor, ‘The Case Against Moral Luck,’ Law and Philosophy 26 (2007): pp. 405–36.

  21. 21.

    Raz, supra note 19, p. 231 (emphasis added).

  22. 22.

    See ibid. pp. 2, 227.

  23. 23.

    With the important qualification, to be explained below, that we are only responsible for failures of our powers that fall within what Raz calls our ‘domain of secure competence.’ See ibid. pp. 244–45.

  24. 24.

    See ibid. pp. 244, 267.

  25. 25.

    On this distinctive breadth, see also Gary Watson, ‘Raz on Responsibility,’ Criminal Law and Philosophy 10 (2016): pp. 395–409, 399.

  26. 26.

    This example is from Angela M. Smith, ‘Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life,’ Ethics 115 (2) (2005): pp. 236–71, 236.

  27. 27.

    See Raz, supra note 19, pp. 244–45, 268.

  28. 28.

    See ibid. p. 250.

  29. 29.

    Ibid. pp. 245, 268.

  30. 30.

    Other important elements of our self-understandings include, for instance, ‘gender or ethnicity and their social meanings,’ ibid. p. 239.

  31. 31.

    Ibid. p. 245.

  32. 32.

    Ibid.

  33. 33.

    Ibid. p. 245.

  34. 34.

    Ibid. p. 246.

  35. 35.

    But to lay my cards on the table, I believe the two issues below, and particularly the second, could be developed into serious problems for Raz’s account.

  36. 36.

    Raz, supra note 19, p. 246.

  37. 37.

    Without an answer to this question, Raz’s account would have to sacrifice much of its distinctive breadth. For a related concern, focusing on the uncertain scope of Raz’s proviso that we are responsible for conduct that is the result of failures of our powers of rational agency only ‘provided those powers were not suspended in a way affecting the action,’ see Watson, supra note 25, p. 408.

  38. 38.

    Raz, supra note 19, p. 245 (emphasis added).

  39. 39.

    Ibid. p. 245.

  40. 40.

    I have in mind here again the views of Strawson and those working within the tradition he founded, including Watson, supra note 5; Wallace, supra note 5; Pamela Hieronymi, ‘The Force and Fairness of Blame,’ Philosophical Perspectives (Ethics) 18 (2004): pp. 115–48; Stephen Darwall, The Second-Person Standpoint: Morality, Respect, and Accountability (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2006); T.M. Scanlon, Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 2008); and many others.

  41. 41.

    Another writer who puts first-personal concerns and responses at the heart of her account of responsibility is Hilary Bok in Freedom and Responsibility (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). I cannot do justice here to Bok’s sophisticated account, which is of an entirely different character than either Raz’s account or the proposal I will advance below.

  42. 42.

    The importance of recognition of these competences by others has also been emphasized, for different reasons, in the recognition theory literature. See, e.g., Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Joel Anderson (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995), pp. 121–30; Joel Anderson & Axel Honneth, ‘Autonomy, Vulnerability, Recognition, and Justice,’ in John Christman & Joel Anderson (eds.), Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 127–49, 130–31.

  43. 43.

    Cf. Pamela Hieronymi’s observation, ‘It … seems quite plausible that standing in relations in which the quality of one’s will is recognized, both by oneself and by others, is of considerable importance. A change in what you or another person thinks about the quality of your will, in itself, changes your relations with them,’ supra note 40, 124.

  44. 44.

    Conversely, when our conduct displays our good will or virtue in a way that we perceive to impress or to provoke the gratitude or admiration of those whose perceptions matter to us, this naturally tends to reinforce or even enhance our self-conceptions as agents. Here there is no threat, but rather an opportunity to incorporate these positive perceptions into our self-conceptions by claiming credit and by registering others’ positive perceptions in feelings of gratification and pride. These positive first-personal responses could also be thought of as ways of taking responsibility, though for the reasons mentioned supra in note 6 the focus here will remain on negative responses.

  45. 45.

    Raz, supra note 19, p. 246.

  46. 46.

    Here the useful ambiguity of ‘sorry’ as a possible expression of either contrition or impersonal regret often plays an important role.

  47. 47.

    For a related point about the appropriateness of emotional responses, see Justin D’Arms & Daniel Jacobson, ‘The Moralistic Fallacy: On the ‘Appropriateness’ of Emotions,’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research LXI (2000): pp. 65–90.

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Acknowledgements

For helpful conversations and comments on various versions of this material I am indebted to Alex Dietz, Erik Encarnacion, Pamela Hieronymi, Todd Jones, Greg Keating, Andrei Marmor, Abelard Podgorski, Jon Quong, Alex Sarch, Mark Schroeder, Beth Snyder, Gary Watson, and Aness Webster, as well as participants in the 2014-15 USC Dissertation Seminar and an audience at the 2015 SoCal Philosophy Conference. Special thanks are due to two anonymous reviewers, including a reviewer for this journal who provided exceptionally helpful and constructive comments. Work on this paper has been supported in part by a University of Southern California Provost’s Ph.D. Fellowship and a Ralph and Francine Flewelling Graduate Fellowship.

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Lecturer in Private Law, University of Surrey.

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Bero, S. Holding Responsible and Taking Responsibility. Law and Philos 39, 263–296 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10982-019-09371-5

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