Moral responsibility and manipulation: on a novel argument against historicism


Taylor Cyr offers a novel argument against, as he puts it, “all versions of historicism” about direct moral responsibility (Philos Stud., 2019). The argument features constitutive luck and a comparison of manipulated agents and young agents performing the first actions for which they are morally responsible. Here it is argued that Cyr’s argument misses its mark. Alfred Mele’s historicism is highlighted.

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  1. 1.

    My use of “value” is pretty undemanding. In Mele (1995), I offer glosses on the verb and the noun. As I understand valuing there, “S at least thinly values X at a time if and only if at that time S both has a positive motivational attitude toward X and believes X to be good” (p. 116). When values are understood as psychological states, I take them to have both of these dimensions by definition. This account of thinly valuing and the corresponding thin account of values are not meant to be contributions to the theories of valuing and values; their purpose was to make my meaning clear. I use “value” in the same way here.

  2. 2.

    Frankfurt would not resist the assertion that Betty’s desire to kill George is “well integrated into [her] general psychic condition.” Betty, in this story, is an agent of the sort Frankfurt has in mind in the following passage: “A manipulator may succeed, through his interventions, in providing a person not merely with particular feelings and thoughts but with a new character. That person is then morally responsible for the choices and the conduct to which having this character leads” (2002, p. 28).

  3. 3.

    A potential source of confusion should be identified. Cyr’s mention of mental health here echoes an element of an alleged sufficient condition for free action offered in Mele (2006) and quoted by Cyr (2019, p. 4). Cyr mistakenly treats this condition as though it were also offered as a necessary condition for free action (see the sentence in Cyr (2019) that immediately follows the quoted condition and the first sentence of his note 4). Neither Chuck nor post-manipulation Betty seems mentally healthy. But given that I do not make mental health a necessary condition for directly free action nor for directly morally responsible action, that is not a problem for me.

  4. 4.

    Suppose that, in my original story about Beth, the manipulators implanted in her (in addition to the Ann-like values) a belief that a life organized around hard philosophical work would make her happiest, which belief played a significant role in producing Beth’s endorsement of her new values the next morning. A referee asked for a comparison of this belief with a similar belief that Beth has a year later—the belief that a life organized around hard philosophical work makes her happiest. Notice that Beth acquired the implanted belief in a way that bypasses her capacities for control over her mental life, whereas the latter belief, a year later, is acquired in an experience-based way that does not bypass those capacities.

  5. 5.

    “Instant agents” is David Zimmerman’s term for agents “who spring full-blown into existence…. Mele’s ‘Athena’ and Davidson’s ‘swampman’ are vivid examples” (1999, p. 252). For Athena and swampman, see Mele (1995, pp. 172–73) and Davidson (1987). I return to instant agents in various places, including, most recently, Mele (2019).

  6. 6.

    For comments on a draft of this article, I am grateful to Taylor Cyr and an anonymous referee.


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Correspondence to Alfred R. Mele.

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Mele, A.R. Moral responsibility and manipulation: on a novel argument against historicism. Philos Stud 177, 3143–3154 (2020).

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  • Luck
  • Manipulation
  • Mele
  • Moral responsibility
  • Young agents