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Still guilty


According to what may be called PERMANENT, blameworthiness is forever: once you are blameworthy for something, you are always blameworthy for it. Here a prima facie case for this view is set out, and the view is defended from two lines of attack. On one, you are no longer blameworthy for a past offense if, despite being the person who committed it, you no longer have any of the pertinent psychological states you had at the time of the misdeed. On the other, you can cease to be blameworthy if you sufficiently experience guilt or remorse, suffer enough punishment, or are forgiven for your misdeed. Although several points made in support of the second challenge are accepted, they are entirely consistent with PERMANENT. Neither line of attack, as so far presented, undermines the plausibility of this view stemming from the prima facie case.

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  1. For commitments to this view, see Tognazzini (2010, p. 160) and Fischer (2014).

  2. For these counts, respectively, see Watson (2004), Shoemaker (2015), and Zimmerman (2015).

  3. It is a matter of debate just what conditions can render one worthy of moral blame of this kind, but it is generally agreed that the following would suffice: one violated an all-things-considered moral obligation, acting freely when one did, knowing that what one was doing was morally wrong, moved by malevolent motives, and with no history of extreme deprivation or manipulation that excused one’s conduct. In discussion of cases, it will be supposed that conditions such as these are satisfied.

  4. Theorists of emotion (e.g., Goldie [2000, pp. 12–16]) note this possibility for emotions, and some who take attitudinal blame to be emotional (e.g., Pickard [2013, p. 615] and Menges [2017, pp. 258–259]) make the same point about blame.

  5. Zimmerman writes: “Moral appraisability has to do with that type of inward moral praising and blaming that constitutes making a private judgment about a person…. Someone is blameworthy if he is deserving of such blame; that is, if it is correct, or true to the fact, to judge that there is a ‘debit’ in his ‘ledger’” (1988, p. 38). Appraisability, as characterized by Zimmerman, is not the kind of moral responsibility at issue in the discussion here.

  6. This is so even in the case of feeling guilty. The feeling is unpleasant, but feeling guilty is not inflicting that suffering upon oneself.

  7. One might say: “I used to cheat on my taxes, but I’m no longer guilty of that.” This is not a denial of guilt for the past offenses but, rather, a claim that one no longer commits similar ones.

  8. Khoury and Matheson also say that “Leon-530 is personally identical with Leon-30” (2018, p. 215). If these are two stages, they cannot be one self-identical thing. They might instead be genidentical, two stages of one and the same person.

  9. Tognazzini (2010) provides a good understanding of this fact; see esp. p. 157. He responds to several arguments meant to show that responsibility is incompatible with a four-dimensionalist view of persons. Khoury and Matheson apparently take the compatibility for granted.

  10. More than one. For example, it would seem to imply that a serial rapist could escape responsibility for his crimes by taking a pill that, as he foresees, turns him into a serial murderer thoroughly committed to respecting others’ wishes regarding sex. Carlsson (2022, p. 182) raises a similar objection to Khoury and Matheson.

  11. Khoury and Matheson (2018, p. 205) suggest that even theorists who hold that blameworthiness is forever will want to qualify their claim, limiting the blameworthiness of an individual to the period during which that person exists. I see no need for the qualification.

  12. All the same, there might be a point to blaming both: one might thereby show solidarity with their victims. A further point to blaming Leon might be to bring him to recognize what he has done. However, as I observe in the text, whether there is any point to blame is not what is issue.

  13. Thus, Carlsson (2022, pp. 178–180) rejects the view that blaming attitudes represent (just) that an agent has acted wrongly, with ill will, and with control sufficient for responsibility.

  14. Coleman and Sarch consider it “a good question whether one can diminish one’s blameworthiness for a particular action by apologizing for it, atoning, making things right, and so on” (2012, p. 106). But they take no stand on the issue.

  15. Brink and Nelkin reject the idea that to be blameworthy is to deserve blame. Nevertheless, they hold, blameworthiness and desert are essentially connected, in that “one who is blameworthy is also, and for the same reasons, deserving of a setback of interests or a harmful response” (2022, p. 191). Assuming that one who is blameworthy for a given misdeed might be harmed all that she deserves for that offense, on reaching that point she would cease to be blameworthy. However, if there can be setbacks of interest or harms that do not involve suffering, this view, unlike those described in the text, does not make blameworthiness contingent on desert of a form of suffering.

  16. For example, at his 2019, p. 414, n. 17; and 2022, p. 58.

  17. In pronouncing sentence on the convicted murderer of nine people shot during bible study at a Charleston, South Carolina church, Judge Richard Gergel said, “The defendant will now pay for his crimes with his life” (Hawes 2019, p. 283).

  18. Boxer (2013, p. 5) makes a similar suggestion, as do Arpaly and Schroeder (2014, pp. 159–160).

  19. There might be comparative injustice if one accords moral credit to someone who does not deserve it while also failing to accord the credit to one who deserves it. (Thanks to Neal Tognazzini for bringing this point to my attention.).

  20. Brink and Nelkin (2022) escape this criticism if (as many think) there are non-experiential harms or setbacks of interests. For then the no-longer-existing dead might remain susceptible to harm or setbacks to their interests. They can then deserve such things and, given Brink and Nelkin’s view of blameworthiness, be worthy of blame.

  21. Compare representation by perceptual experience. There is plausibility to the claim that there can be non-conceptual perceptual representation of an object as green. But it is not credible that there can be such representation of something as a green leaf attached to a Sugar or Norway Maple greater than sixty feet tall.

  22. I have discussed posthumous blameworthiness on the assumption that death is annihilation. The view that blameworthiness entails desert of suffering faces a different problem if we survive in an afterlife. Francisco Franco suffered no great remorse for his crimes during his lifetime, and most of his victims never forgave him while they lived. What has occurred since? We have no clue. If he is blameworthy only if he continues to deserve to suffer, it would appear that we are unwarranted in blaming him. But we are not.

  23. See, for example, Moller (2007), Marušić (2018), and Na’aman (2021).

  24. On the idea that background conditions can affect the reason-provision of conditions that supply reasons, see Dancy 2004, pp. 38–41; Schroeder 2007, pp. 27–31; and Scanlon 2014, p. 48.


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For comments on earlier versions of this paper, thanks to Andreas Carlsson, Doug Portmore, Neal Tognazzini, Michael Zimmerman, Andy Khoury, and Ben Matheson. Work on the paper was supported by a fellowship from the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University.

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Correspondence to Randolph Clarke.

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Clarke, R. Still guilty. Philos Stud 179, 2579–2596 (2022).

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