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Reasons-responsiveness and degrees of responsibility

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Ordinarily, we take moral responsibility to come in degrees. Despite this commonplace, theories of moral responsibility have focused on the minimum threshold conditions under which agents are morally responsible. But this cannot account for our practices of holding agents to be more or less responsible. In this paper we remedy this omission. More specifically, we extend an account of reasons-responsiveness due to John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza according to which an agent is morally responsible only if she is appropriately receptive to and reactive to reasons for action. Building on this, we claim that the degree to which an agent is responsible will depend on the degree to which she is able to recognize and react to reasons. To analyze this, we appeal to relations of comparative similarity between possible worlds, arguing that the degree to which an agent is reasons-reactive depends on the nearest possible world in which given sufficient reason to do otherwise, she does so. Similarly, we argue that the degree to which an agent is reasons-receptive will depend on the intelligibility of her patterned recognition of reasons. By extending an account of reasons-responsiveness in these ways, we are able to rationalize our practice of judging people to be more or less responsible.

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  1. In fact, if Thomas’s explanation did lead you to revise your response, it would probably do so by heightening your resentment since his action was not simply motivated by forgetfulness or neglect but by callous disregard.

  2. Some theorists, e.g., Fischer and Ravizza (1998), hold that moral responsibility is merely a threshold concept, while maintaining that blameworthiness comes in degrees. We diverge from these theorists on this point, thinking that although an account of moral responsibility should specify the minimum threshold conditions on responsible agency, it should be consistent with thinking that among agents who satisfy those conditions, they enjoy differential degrees of responsibility. More controversially, we believe that a full account of moral responsibility must actually specify the conditions under which agents are more or less morally responsible for their actions.

  3. There are at least two further ways in which it is plausible to think that the degree to which an agent is morally responsible can vary. First, an agent’s degree of responsibility might depend on the degree to which she satisfies the epistemic condition on moral responsibility. Second, her degree of responsibility might depend on how onerous or demanding the agent’s obligations are. One plausible way of accounting for this might be by appealing to the claim (recently defended by Erin Kelley [forthcoming]) that an agent is excused when it is unreasonable to demand that she comply with moral principles. If the reasonableness of demanding that an agent act morally comes in degrees, then plausibly, an agent’s responsibility will be scalar as well. Unfortunately we do not have space to explore these issues further in the present discussion.

  4. Fischer and Ravizza’s account of control is particularly well suited to the account we will develop because the components of control they identify clearly come in degrees and have the requisite modal properties our account requires. We suspect that with suitable clarification, the reasons-based accounts of moral responsibility due to Susan Wolf (1990), Jay Wallace (1994), and Dana Nelkin (2011) could adopt accounts similar to ours. But we will not explore this here. Moreover, nothing in our discussion here presupposes the truth of compatibilism (or of Fischer and Ravizza’s semi-compatibilism), and so incompatibilists who accept that some form of reasons-responsiveness is a necessary condition on moral responsibility can make use of the account we offer here. Of course, the incompatibilist would need to accept reasons-responsiveness as an independent requirement for moral responsibility in order to accept our account. Favored incompatibilist components of control, such as the ability to do otherwise, do not appear to have the modal properties needed to play the role that reasons-responsiveness will play in our account. (See note 15).

  5. We want to emphasize that even if Fischer and Ravizza’s analysis of reasons-responsiveness is incorrect, something in its neighborhood is true, and our account can apply, mutatis mutandis, to the correct analysis of reasons-responsiveness.

  6. Of course, as we’ll see, in cases of clinical depression, agents are less reasons-receptive. Thus, it’s plausible that a full explanation of Marcia’s mitigated blameworthiness will require a discussion of the reasons-receptivity of those mechanisms that issue in her actions.

  7. Again, a full account of teenagers’ mitigated responsibility will require a discussion of not only their reasons-receptivity but also their reasons-reactivity.

  8. Obviously, satisfying these conditions is not sufficient for moral responsibility, but it is necessary, and so it will be true of any responsible agent that she is appropriately reasons-receptive and appropriately reasons-reactive.

  9. We model this case on a case found in Fischer and Ravizza (1998).

  10. Similarly, Todd and Tognazzini (2008) suggest strengthening the standards for regular reasons-receptivity.

  11. As we will see in the remainder of the paper, this will be especially relevant to the degree of Marcia’s responsibility, even though, as we argue here, it does not undermine her ability to meet the minimal threshold conditions on moral responsibility.

  12. Describing his own experiences with depression, Andrew Solomon wrote:

    I ran home shaking and went to bed, but I did not sleep, and could not get up the following day. I wanted to call people to cancel birthday plans, but I could not. … I knew that for years I had taken a shower every day. Hoping that someone else could open the bathroom door, I would, with all the force in my body, sit up; turn and put my feet on the floor, and then feel so incapacitated and frightened that I would roll over and lie face down. I would cry again, weeping because the fact that I could not do it seemed so idiotic to me, [Solomon (1998, pp. 46–49); emphasis from Watson (2004, p. 93)].

    The fact that Solomon is so upset over his inability to do the things he needs to do to take a shower suggests that he is able to see himself as having reasons for taking a shower. After all, when we cannot do something that we see ourselves as having no reasons to do, we rarely take our inability to be “idiotic.” Thus, it’s plausible to suppose that Marcia would have been able to recognize her reason to pick you up (even if she, like Solomon, had real trouble acting on that reason).

  13. Although this case is indeterminate with respect to the other conditions on moral responsibility, it would be possible to extend Marcia’s story in a coherent way that would allow for her meet all the minimal threshold conditions on moral responsibility even though she suffers from depression.

  14. Obviously, our discussion of counterfactuals borrows heavily from David Lewis’s 1973 influential account.

  15. Admittedly, what counts as minor or trivial is contextually dependent, but given the aims of this paper we can ignore this further complication here.

  16. This example comes from Alvin Plantinga (1994).

  17. Despite the fact that we cannot give a complete account of comparative similarity we do want to highlight one important principle that governs judgments of comparative similarity in the context of moral responsibility. One might worry that cases involving Frankfurt-style counterfactual interveners make trouble for our suggestion that the nearness of the world where the agent reacts to a reason to do otherwise is relevant to the agents responsibility. Following a case developed by Harry Frankfurt (1969), suppose that agents A and B both commit a murder as the result of identical causal chains. In the case of A (but not B) let us further suppose that there was an evil neuroscientist prepared to causally intervene, should A show any sign that she might decide to not go through with the murder, and ensure that A commits the murder. However, as it happens, A carries out the murder without the need for any prompting from the neuroscientist.

    Two things seem plausible here. First, A and B are equally blameworthy for the murders they commit and second, the world where A reacts to a reason to not commit the murder is much further away than the world where B reacts to such a reason. How can we account for these two claims? In our view cases like this show that what matters for comparative similarity in the context of moral responsibility is the similarity of the actual sequence causal chains leading to the action. Facts about portions of worlds that are causally isolated from the agents act (such as the presence of a merely counterfactual intervener) do not matter in this context. The nearest causal sequences in which A and B react to a reason to refrain from the murder are equally similar to the actual causal chain. This accounts for their equal blameworthiness.

  18. Thanks to an anonymous referee for bringing this case to our attention. To some extent, our statement of the worry tracks a problem that Gary Watson (1987) raises for Strawsonian theories of moral responsibility.

  19. Plausibly, just as you cannot legitimately avoid an obligation by tying yourself to a chair, thereby making it impossible to fulfill the obligation, neither can you mitigate your responsibility by deciding to diminish your reasons-receptivity in the way described above.

  20. Unfortunately we do not have an account of what “the right sort of way” amounts to. However, it is often taken to include a foreseeability requirement. And we think something like this is on the right track.

  21. Obviously, we are not claiming that Robert is not responsible or blameworthy for his racist attitudes—he certainly is. But it does seem as if, given his cultural context, his repugnant actions display less ill will than do those of David. And the best explanation for this difference in the quality of their wills is simply that Robert is less sensitive—i.e., less reasons-receptive—to reasons issuing from a demand of mutual regard that extends not only to caucasians, but to persons of all races.

  22. Indeed, Fischer and Ravizza (1998) make this exact point.

  23. We apply our account to the case of psychopaths in “Mitigated Blame and Marginal Agency,” [MS], and we explore implications of our account of differential degrees of reasons-reactivity for the manipulation argument against compatibilism in “Reasons-Responsiveness and Manipulation,” [MS].


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For helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper we would like to thank John Martin Fischer, Christopher Franklin, Ben Mitchell-Yellin, Jonah Nagashima, Michael Nelson, Garrett Pendergraft, John Perry, Patrick Todd, Neal Tognazzini, and a very helpful anonymous referee.

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Correspondence to D. Justin Coates.

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Coates, D.J., Swenson, P. Reasons-responsiveness and degrees of responsibility. Philos Stud 165, 629–645 (2013).

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