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Being and holding responsible: Reconciling the disputants through a meaning-based Strawsonian account

Abstract

A fundamental question in responsibility theory concerns the relation between being responsible and our practices of holding responsible. ‘Strawsonians’ often claim that being responsible is somehow a function of our practices of holding responsible, while others think that holding responsible depends on being responsible, and still others think of being and holding responsible as interdependent. Based on a Wittgensteinian reading of Strawson, I develop an account of the relation between being and holding responsible which respects major concerns of all parties in this debate. I characterize the way in which being responsible depends on holding responsible as genealogical, and the way in which holding responsible depends on being responsible as justificatory. I show how my account cuts across received ways of carving up the debate, and how it allows for all the kinds of fallibility about moral responsibility that are worth wanting.

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Notes

  1. I focus in this paper on the influence of Wittgenstein’s ideas on meaning. I have argued in other work that Strawson’s account of responsibility is influenced by Wittgensteinian ideas in epistemology (De Mesel 2018b) and the philosophy of mind (De Mesel 2021).

  2. I characterize Strawson’s account as ‘broadly Wittgensteinian’, because Strawson (2008b) distances himself from Wittgenstein at some points. The disagreements between Strawson and Wittgenstein are unimportant for my argument. My reading of Wittgenstein is inspired by Baker and Hacker (2005, 2009) and Hacker (2019). For an excellent summary of Wittgenstein’s views on meaning, rules and conventions, and the place of these views within subsequent developments in the philosophy of language, see Glock (2009).

  3. See Bangu (2021: 454; see also 456): ‘There is no hidden property of these rules that puts them on the list. […] It is precisely the rule’s previous public, successful “career” as a regularity that puts it on the list’.

  4. For a convincing account of Strawson’s methods in ‘Freedom and Resentment’, see Heyndels (2019).

  5. Strawson does not make this biconditional explicit, but it is clearly assumed. Smith (2007) has pointed out that there are cases in which agents are responsible, while holding them responsible would be inappropriate because others do not have the standing to blame, the action was insignificant, etc. This is why, following McKenna (2012: 36–38, 47–48), I have added a pro tanto clause. Watson (2014: 16) calls the biconditional an ‘age-old commonplace’. Although I hope to reconcile disputants in the debate about being and holding responsible, I can only hope to reconcile those who can accept the biconditional in some form (but this goes, as far as I can see, for most participants in the debate).

  6. If Strawson wants an overview of the rules of ‘responsible’, then why does he not look directly at the use of ‘responsible’, instead of looking at our practices of holding responsible? For Strawson, the direct approach is bound to mislead, because it takes us immediately into well-worn, abstract philosophical discussions. Wittgenstein suggests that the question ‘What is meaning?’ should be dealt with by examining how we explain what something means, and that ‘What is length?’ can partly be answered by looking at how we measure length. According to Baker and Hacker (2005: 147), these moves ‘operationalize’ the original questions. They point to what we do and prevent the temptation to reify meanings. In Wittgenstein’s (2009a: § 107) words, operationalizing brings us ‘back to the rough ground’. In Strawson’s (2008a: 25) words, it prevents us from overintellectualizing the facts.

  7. Beglin (2018: 613) writes that his concern-based view ‘holds that what it means to be morally responsible is determined by the basic social concerns of which our practices are an expression’. Although he refers to meaning and being responsible, his actual argument is primarily about the relation between our practices of holding responsible and basic social concerns, ‘deep-seated features of human psychology and sociality’ (Beglin 2018: 620). As he puts it, ‘our moral responsibility practices and the reactive attitudes undergirding them are an expression of certain basic social concerns, and these concerns thus normatively structure our practices’ (Beglin 2018: 617–618). Watson (2014: 21) explains how our responsibility practices express our social sentimental nature: ‘The starting point of the argument [Strawson’s argument in ‘Freedom and Resentment’] is of course that our practices bottom out in sentiments and concerns, the susceptibility to which defines our sociality’. Hieronymi’s (2020) defense of Strawson’s position does not rely on conceptual or semantic points (terms such as ‘concept’ and ‘meaning’ do not occur in the index of the book), but it relies heavily on Strawson’s social naturalism, on the idea that ‘some or another system of demands and reactions will be given with the fact of society and that a system of reciprocal demands will be given with the fact of human society’ (Hieronymi 2020: 29; see also 97 and 105). I do not mean to suggest that there are no important differences between the views of Beglin, Watson, and Hieronymi, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate which of these views comes closest to Strawson. The crucial difference between Strawson’s view and these naturalistic views is the former’s attention to the conceptual strand in Strawson’s argument.

  8. The idea that grammar is arbitrary, in the sense that it cannot be justified by reference to an independent reality, is controversial. Some think that concepts aim to carve nature at its joints, that there is a structure in reality which our concepts aim to reflect (Sider 2011). A reviewer has rightly pointed out that, if preserving this thought is an important concern of those who think that holding responsible depends on being responsible, then there is at least one important concern that Strawson’s view cannot respect. From a Wittgensteinian/Strawsonian perspective, our concepts do not aim to reflect the independent structure of reality, because there is no such concept-independent structure. (This claim may have to be nuanced with respect to natural kinds.) There is an independent reality, but it is not structured. Boghossian’s (2007: 37–38) image of ‘basic worldly dough’ and deflationary positions in contemporary metaphysics, such as Thomasson (2015), fit the Wittgensteinian/Strawsonian perspective much better than Sider’s structural realism.

  9. Shoemaker uses ‘blameworthy’ instead of ‘responsible’, ‘anger’ instead of ‘holding responsible’, and he adds ‘under standard conditions’ to the formula. These changes, though significant, are not important for my purposes.

  10. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  11. I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing this question.

  12. While having radically different rules means not having a concept of moral responsibility at all, one might say that having less radically different rules only means having another concept (maybe ‘conception’ is a better term here) of moral responsibility. I take Strawson to suggest that only practices expressing a concern for the quality of will with which people act and a demand for interpersonal regard count as practices of holding morally responsible. Our concept of moral responsibility, determined by rules about knowledge, control, etc., is rooted in our practices of holding morally responsible, and these practices represent one way (but not the only possible way) of expressing a concern for quality of will and a demand for interpersonal regard.

  13. On Strawson’s relation to what is now called conceptual engineering, see his discussion of Carnap’s methodology (Strawson 1963).

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Acknowledgements

An earlier version of this paper has been presented at a workshop organized by the Lund/Gothenburg Responsibility Project (LGRP). I am grateful to Anton Emilsson and Paul Russell for the invitation. I would like to thank the LGRP audience, Matthew Talbert, Caroline Touborg, Wlodek Rabinowicz, Olle Blomberg, Sybren Heyndels, and two anonymous reviewers for extremely helpful comments, and Alex Chituc for proofreading the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Benjamin De Mesel.

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De Mesel, B. Being and holding responsible: Reconciling the disputants through a meaning-based Strawsonian account. Philos Stud 179, 1893–1913 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-021-01737-7

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Keywords

  • Moral responsibility
  • Being and holding responsible
  • P.F. Strawson
  • Genealogy
  • Justification
  • Meaning
  • Wittgenstein
  • Response-dependence