restricted access Reasons, Responsibility, and Fiction
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Reasons, Responsibility, and Fiction

responsibility, reflection, reasons, fiction

Cartwright's article considers two candidate theories of responsibility and examines their relative adequacy by assessing them in light of our reactions to a dramatic and horrifying set of circumstances. Cartwright initiates the dialectic by noting how our intuitions are in conflict. For instance, although we are instantly horrified by the murders Harris perpetrated, we might naturally experience quite different emotions and reach different judgments when we reflect on the miserable and pathetic nature of Harris's upbringing and his experiences in adult life. Although we might think that Harris is responsible in a very clear sense for murdering his victims, we might feel also that his actions were the outcome of factors beyond his control, and for which he cannot be held responsible. In short, we think that Harris is and is not responsible.

Overall, Cartwright's aim is to: "illuminate both the theory and practice of holding people responsible" (2006, 144). In the end, what is illuminated is that "the practice of responsibility unavoidably depends on one sort of pretence or another" (2006, 155). Although the two theories that Cartwright has chosen to consider differ in various ways, they share a common feature of being, in some sense, "fictitious." The article examines in some detail the two theories of responsibility and succeeds in providing insight to some potentially intricate material. In this brief commentary, I cannot address adequately the variety of interesting aspects and implications of Cartwright's paper. I do, however, offer some critical interpretation of Cartwright's construal of the theories under consideration, and also say a little about the status and role of fiction in Cartwright's analysis.

Responsibility and the "Reflective Self"

According to Cartwright, a central commitment of the "reflective self" view of responsibility is that a rational part of the self is responsible for deliberating about and reflecting on desires, and that the reflective self is the author of action (or at least authorizes the origins of action). The critical capacity of this part of the self endorses or rejects desires, and thus determines whether or not desires manifest in action and display constitutive elements of personality. The reflective self is autonomous with respect to the desiring part of the self; the former can arbitrate over desires precisely because it enjoys this sort of rational autonomy. This internalist conception of reflection and rationality has a long tradition, one that has exerted influence in a number of domains including [End Page 161] moral psychology and psychotherapy. It is well known that Anthony Kenny claimed that the very idea of "mental health" was Plato's invention (Kenny 1969, 229).1 The Platonic picture rests on understanding the soul as capable of proper functioning and in a state of health only when the relevant constitutive elements are brought into a form of cooperative harmony.2 Pivotal in reaching this harmony, is the extent to which desires are supervised by the capacity for rational self-governance. For the present context, the important claim is that there exists an autonomous and internal-to-subject faculty that specializes in rational reflection on desires, and that can be brought to bear on desires in such a way so as to motivate and justify subsequent action.

This is close to the central commitment of the reflective self view that considers responsibility as primarily an internal matter of the relation between desires and rationality. Responsibility is connected to the ability of an agent to exercise some cognitive faculty that passes critical judgment on the desires that the agent possesses; such a faculty endorses or rejects desires. The reflective self view has at its center the thought that responsibility is related to the appropriate functioning of some internal process. However, unless the rational faculty of humans is infallible, there needs to be some account of the correctness of each act of desire endorsement or rejection. There must be something that explains why any particular endorsement, say, is justified; some further ground the appeal to which provides guidance and justification for the rational self. But this just pushes the explanatory burden further back and generates, as Cartwright notes, a regress. Nonetheless...