Responsibility for forgetting

Abstract

In this paper, we focus on whether and to what extent we judge that people are responsible for the consequences of their forgetfulness. We ran a series of behavioral studies to measure judgments of responsibility for the consequences of forgetfulness. Our results show that we are disposed to hold others responsible for some of their forgetfulness. The level of stress that the forgetful agent is under modulates judgments of responsibility, though the level of care that the agent exhibits toward performing the forgotten action does not. We argue that this result has important implications for a long-running debate about the nature of responsible agency.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Brett, in interviews, never explained why he forgot; but oftentimes when caregivers forget children in cars, there is a familiar pattern of events that occur. The caregiver is normally breaking a habit or routine in taking the child in the car, and usually the caregiver is rushing off to work. See Amaya (2013) for more discussion of these patterns that underlie everyday cases of slips and forgetting.

  2. 2.

    It is an open question whether care is just one kind of valuative state relevant to responsible agency or whether care is equivalent to the whole class of valuative states relative to responsible agency. Some philosophers disagree about the nature of caring itself. For instance, is caring just the relation of desire (as in Arpaly and Schroeder 2014)? Or is caring a more complex, interconnected group of dispositions to be in certain emotional states and exhibit certain patterns of attentional focus (as in Jaworska 1999)? There are other issues (raised in Darwall 2002; Frankfurt 1999; Sripada 2016), but we set those aside because substantive disputes about the nature of caring are orthogonal to the present discussion.

  3. 3.

    Sripada (2015: 261) provides a case called Mrs. SmithForgets: “Mrs. Smith is playing cards with her friends and someone happens to mention today’s date. Unfortunately, this doesn’t trigger Mrs. Smith’s remembering that it is her grandson’s birthday. As a result, she does not give him a call even though she has done this is year’s past. Billy is sad.” Sripada continues with his own diagnosis of the case, claiming: “Mrs. Smith—Forgets is, I believe, a case where the ability to express one’s self over a suitably wide range of cases is preserved, but the manifestation of the ability in the actual circumstances is compromised; that is, her self fails to be expressed in what she does in the actual situation. Moreover, I believe that intuitively she is not morally responsible for her forgetting Billy’s birthday.” In the terminology of this paper, Sripada concedes that Mrs. Smith fulfills the capacitarian conditions on responsibility (having the ability to express herself), but she fails to express herself in forgetting (thereby not fulfilling a certain version of the valuationist theory of responsible agency).

  4. 4.

    There are two dimensions along which this issue gets complicated. The first has to do with the relationship between false belief, credence, and fragmented belief (e.g., do I have a false belief with respect to your foot if I have a credence of .12 that your foot occupies the part of the subway car on which I’m about to step?). Second, do mistakes ever involve culpable false belief? Suppose that there is such a thing as culpable belief (another complicated issue). If I believe (falsely) that your foot is part of the subway car, and I am culpable for believing falsely, then do I still make a mistake in stepping on your foot? Thankfully, we can sidestep these complications in our discussion.

  5. 5.

    This picture is complicated by the fact that absence of care does not always mitigate. This is because sometimes, an agent may occupy a role or be under an obligation that requires her to have certain cares. In these cases, the valuationist would not predict that absence of care results in reduced responsibility (e.g., a parent is not excused for neglecting her kids simply because she doesn’t care about them). We have chosen vignettes that do not run into this complication. That is, in the vignettes we present below, it is not the case that the agent is required to care to some degree about the action that he forgets to perform (it is the case that the agent is required to do the action, but this does not entail that the agent must care about the action).

  6. 6.

    These fitting affective responses will sometimes have a distinctively negative valence (as in cases of negative stress), though we leave open the possibility of positive stress, so that fitting affective responses require the agent’s coming to be in some positively valenced affective state. See Maxwell and Racine (2012) for more on the idea that stress requires some affective component.

  7. 7.

    For example, if someone is stressed about an upcoming performance, the cause of the stress might be, in part, the fact that one is unsure about how the performance will go and the fact that one is incapable of resolving this uncertainty until the event occurs. The role of uncertainty in stress matches Reynolds, Owens, and Rubenstein’s (2012) definition of stress as a psychological state grounded in uncertainty about fulfilling certain duties or roles.

  8. 8.

    Further issues about the scope of stress are discussed in Sect. 5.2.

  9. 9.

    In the HCLS and LCHS vignettes, we substituted the appropriate care or stress element into the same spot in the vignette to maintain relative symmetry between the vignettes.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Sara Johnson for help with some of the statistical analysis. Also, thanks to Manuel Vargas, Santiago Amaya, Dylan Murray, and Paul Henne for discussion of various points in the paper. Members of MADLab and the Imagination and Modal Cognition lab at Duke University gave critical feedback on the vignettes and analysis of initial results (especially Aaron Ancell, Jesse Summers, Jana Shaich Borg, Luka Ruzic, and Bryce Gessell). This project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to Felipe De Brigard and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and a grant from the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control project at Florida State University to Samuel Murray. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation, Florida State University, or the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control project.

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Murray, S., Murray, E.D., Stewart, G. et al. Responsibility for forgetting. Philos Stud 176, 1177–1201 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-1053-3

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Keywords

  • Responsibility
  • Omissions
  • Negligence
  • Forgetting
  • Value
  • Stress
  • Fault
  • Guilt
  • Blame
  • Capacity