We sometimes fail unwittingly to do things that we ought to do. And we are, from time to time, culpable for these unwitting omissions. We provide an outline of a theory of responsibility for unwitting omissions. We emphasize two distinctive ideas: (1) many unwitting omissions can be understood as failures of appropriate vigilance, and; (2) the sort of self-control implicated in these failures of appropriate vigilance is valuable. We argue that the norms that govern vigilance and the value of self-control explain culpability for unwitting omissions.
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The notion of responsibility is a multi-headed beast. In this paper, we’re interested in the accountability sense of responsibility, where an individual is responsible in the accountability sense only when the individual’s conduct makes it appropriate to resent or be indignant toward that individual (see Shoemaker 2015). Hence, we are interested in a kind of responsibility implicated in making it appropriate for individuals to bear certain Strawsonian reactive attitudes toward one another. In what follows, our use of the term ‘responsibility’ tracks this phenomenon. While there are interesting issues surrounding alternative kinds of responsibility (such as attributability, answerability, legal responsibility, etc.), we set these aside to focus on accountability. Thus, the use of ‘responsibility’ functions as shorthand for ‘the accountability kind of responsibility’.
This formulation presumes that the objects of responsibility are states of affairs. However, nothing substantive hangs on this presumption. We could easily translate this into an action-centered view, where an agent is responsible in virtue of her control in acting so as to bring about a certain state of affairs.
Despite controversy about the source of these limitations, nobody disagrees that there are such limitations. Try as hard as you want, you’ll never be able to do two two-digit math problems simultaneously. Whether this is a matter of limited metabolic resources, functional limitations, structural limitations, or whatever else is irrelevant to our account.
Many philosophers likely understand this division of computational labor as the division between System-1 and System-2 processing (sometimes labeled the Dual Process Theory). While the label is useful, many cognitive scientists question the System-1/System-2 framework and the presuppositions of that framework. Since the original proposal of the two-system division over 40 years ago (Posner and Snyder 1975), the hypothesis has been criticized and significantly revised (see Cohen et al. 1990 for overviews; see Cohen 2017 for criticisms). These advancements and revisions, however, do not affect the points that we make below. Our view does not depend on any substantive formulation of the Dual Process Theory or a specific view on the mechanisms or circuits that realize these information-processing structures or the sorts of processes that count as either habitual or controlled are irrelevant to our argument.
Sometimes, as they say, it’s better to be lucky than to be good. But we want to set aside cases where Randy gets lucky and has the relevant thought in some way that is disconnected from any interesting notion of cognitive control. We suspect there are interesting things to say if he has the thought because he is hit by a stray cosmic ray, or because of the workings of a bourbonic thought induction field of a mad scientist, or even the more pedestrian case of a mechanism disconnected from cognitive control. Whatever the proper verdict in those cases, however, they are not the phenomenon that is of interest to us.
In what follows, we build our account on the presumption of a species-typical neural system. There could be either modest departures from this species-typical set-up or localized functional deficits at the neurobiological or mechanistic level that raise interesting questions about how culpability interacts with shifting environmental conditions. A full theory should have something to say concerning agents with non-typical cognitive control mechanisms or alternative computational bases for vigilance. However, our interest is in ordinary, paradigmatic cases of unwitting omissions, so we are (reluctantly) putting aside those intriguing varieties of cases.
There could be alternative, bottom-up kinds of processing relevant to vigilance (see Gadziola and Wesson 2016). What is important for our account is that there is at least one plausible, coherent story about the realization of vigilance in some kind of neural machinery. We do not suggest that it is the only story or the full story. So, for example, this is compatible with the idea that agents that lack species-typical neural architecture—or have completely different sorts of neurobiological structures—can be vigilant.
This is based on a case in Zimmerman (1986: 205).
The inference here relies on a simple blame-implies-can principle (cf. Buckwalter and Turri 2015; Henne et al. 2016). If S is blameworthy for A-ing, then S can avoid bringing it about the A-ing occurs in virtue of her agency. If S can avoid bringing it about that A occurs in virtue of her agency, then whether A-ing occurs in virtue of her agency is not a matter of luck. Hence, if A-ing occurs as a matter of luck, then S is not blameworthy for A-ing. We rely on the idea that individuals cannot be held to account for occurrences outside their control. If an occurrence is a matter of luck, then whether there is such an occurrence lies beyond the agent’s control.
Of course, one’s self-conception will include much more than this. Perhaps one’s self-conception divides into normative and descriptive elements. If that is the case, then the aspects of one’s self-conception that are important for this paper are the normative elements. Also, the notion of ‘self’ at issue here likely varies cross-culturally, as Heine et al. (1999) suggest.
Amaya and Doris (2014: 258–260) also discuss an agent’s “zone of secure competence” with respect to similar cases (what we call ‘unwitting omissions’ they call ‘performance mistakes’; as far as we can tell, performance mistakes appear to be a subclass of unwitting omission). However, Amaya and Doris claim that normative competences constitute the zone of secure competence, and equate these normative competences with appropriately reasons-responsive mechanisms. Our discussion of competence provides a fuller characterization (we think) of what these normative competences are, how they link up with other aspects of our psychology, and why these competences are considered normative.
Of course, there will be some question as to how we sort out the excusing kinds of ignorance from the non-excusing kinds, though some of that machinery will derive from a more systematic account of the norms of vigilance. In spite of this problem, it remains true that there are relatively clear-cut examples of ignorance that make a demand unreasonable and thereby furnishes the agent with an excuse.
While our discussion of competence is indebted to Raz’s (2011) account, we depart from him in significant ways. One notable way is that Raz’s account of competence focuses entirely on the agent’s beliefs about her competence and self-conception. Some have criticized Raz’s account on just this point (see, e.g., Watson 2016) since it seems that agents can be and are deceived (perhaps systematically) about the abilities that they have and the degree to which agents can reliably exercise these abilities (see Kruger and Dunning 1999). Our account, however, avoids this criticism. While we incorporate agential beliefs into our story, we think that de facto reliability is more fundamental. While beliefs about one’s abilities and competence has some downward influence on de facto reliability, empirical research suggests that beliefs cannot account for the full range of facts about agential competence and reliability (see Protzko and Aronson 2016; Flore and Wicherts 2015). In this way, we take it that our account of competence is better suited to the empirical facts than Raz’s account.
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We thank the audiences for helpful comments, especially those at the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control Conference. Special thanks to Al Mele, Adina Roskies, Katrina Sifferd, Felipe De Brigard, and Chandra Sripada for many conversations on different parts of this project. Finally, special thanks to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Santiago Amaya for providing written comments on multiple drafts of this paper that helped us correct many deficiencies. We also want to acknowledge the insightful criticisms of an anonymous referee at Philosophical Studies that helped us make this paper better. Research for this paper was supported by a Philosophy and Science of Self-Control grant from Florida State University through the John Templeton Foundation awarded to both Samuel Murray and Manuel Vargas. The views expressed in this paper are our own and do not reflect the opinions of the other grantees, Florida State University, or the John Templeton Foundation.
The views expressed in this paper do not reflect the opinions of the other grantees or Florida State University.
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Murray, S., Vargas, M. Vigilance and control. Philos Stud 177, 825–843 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-018-1208-2
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