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Responsibility: A Puzzle, Two Theories, and Bad Background

From: Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology
Volume 13, Number 2, June 2006
pp. 167-176 | 10.1353/ppp.2007.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Responsibility:
A Puzzle, Two Theories, and Bad Background
Keywords

responsibility, selves, reasons, deprived background

This paper advances further three of the matters dealt with in "Reasons and Selves: Two Accounts of Responsibility in Theory and Practice" (Cartwright 2006). It discusses the two theories of responsibility at the center of "Reasons and Selves" in the light of remarks made by the two commentators. It takes the sort of person who provided the practical example in "Reasons and Selves," namely the delinquent with a disastrous background, and assembles a variety of possible ways of thinking about the responsibility of such people. It begins by developing further some brief remarks in "Reasons and Selves" about the conventional and variable nature of responsibility.

Responsibility: Discovery or Decision?

In "Reasons and Selves," I briefly remarked that there is no one place at which the threshold of responsibility must be fixed. It can be pitched at different levels in different cultures for varying reasons (Cartwright 2006, 154). This suggests that responsibility is not just something to be discovered, but something to be decided on. If this is correct, it is bound to affect our understanding of what theories of responsibility can be and our estimation of them. For this reason, I begin by investigating this matter in more depth, tracing it to the underlying structure of responsibility, before commenting further on the two theories of responsibility examined in "Reasons and Selves."

It seems evident that to be responsible is to possess certain capacities. What those capacities are, however, is open to dispute. Disagreement about this seems to be precisely what is at issue between the two theories considered in "Reasons and Selves." The reflective self view holds that responsible agents are able to reflect on their desires, evaluate them, and then act on the ones they endorse. By contrast, the reason view asserts that it is the sensitivity to reasons and the capacity to conform conduct to them that characterizes the responsible agent. These various capacities come in degrees: agents can possess them to a greater or lesser extent. Responsibility by contrast seems to be an all-or-nothing affair, a threshold concept: one is either responsible or not responsible. There is a puzzle here: how can something that is all-or-nothing rest on or involve phenomena that are matters of degree? Is this not intellectually [End Page 167] incoherent? If the constitutive capacities are matters of degree, it might seem that in consistency responsibility would have to be so as well.

This would cease to be a puzzle if responsibility was, after all, not an all-or-nothing affair. Certain phenomena may seem to suggest this and we do apparently judge people to be more or less responsible. But appearances here are misleading. Talk about responsibility is sometimes just talk about a person's causal contribution to an outcome. If a number of people make varying causal contributions to an outcome, then we can talk about them being responsible for it to different degrees. But this is a special feature of causal responsibility, and the notion of responsibility at stake in this and the earlier paper—moral responsibility, if you like—is a wider notion, although causal responsibility is frequently a part of it. Even if causal responsibility is a matter of degree, it does not follow that the wider notion is as well.

Talk about degrees of responsibility may also be encouraged, but again erroneously, by the phenomena of excuses and mitigating circumstances. People able to make such pleas may be said to be less responsible. But if someone has an excuse, then the precise way to put it is that he is not responsible. Excuses strictly exempt from responsibility. By contrast, where there are mitigating circumstances, the person is responsible, but it seems appropriate to moderate the sanctions that follow the judgment of responsibility. In the one case, then, the person is not responsible, whereas in the other he is, but in neither case is it correct to describe the agent as less responsible.

A third case, which might seem to support the claim that responsibility can be a matter of degree, is where a person is held responsible...