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Reviewed by:
  • Responsibility from the Margins by David Shoemaker
  • Robin Zheng
David Shoemaker, Responsibility from the Margins, Oxford University Press, 2015

David Shoemaker's highly innovative and intricately argued new book brings much of his previous work together with substantial original material to form a detailed and cohesive treatment of responsibility. The book is engaging, crisp, and admirably clear. It is marvelously ambitious in its strategy and framework, engagement with multiple literatures, and decidedly novel approach to Strawsonian theory. Moral philosophers, psychologists, clinicians and practitioners, and anyone who has ever [End Page E-9] wondered about "marginal agents"—people with dementia, autism, (manic-)depression, OCD, and psychopathy—will find much to entice them in this thorough and accessible treatise.

Shoemaker's starting point—the phenomenon he aims to explain—is the observation that many of us feel a certain ambivalence toward marginal agents of the sort mentioned above. When we interact with or read case studies of marginal agents, we feel a "profound unease," which Shoemaker diagnoses as caused by the fact that "these agents seem worthy of some responsibility responses but not others, which suggests that they are responsible in some ways but not in others" (3). This is the foundational premise of the entire book. For Shoemaker, responsibility responses include but are not at all limited to the standard praise, blame, and resentment; admiration and contempt, approval and disapproval, pride and shame, anger and regret are all brought in under this unusually wide conception of responsibility responses (a point I'll return to in my final remarks). The idea is that psychopaths may deserve contempt but not anger, patients with dementia may deserve admiration but not resentment, and so on and so forth.

Starting from responsibility responses puts Shoemaker squarely in the Strawsonian camp of moral responsibility theorists. Put in the simplest of nutshells, P.F. Strawson's revolutionizing argument for sidestepping the free will problem in "Freedom and Resentment" was that we should stop thinking of responsibility responses as only justified by certain metaphysical facts—i.e., by the fact that we are agents with free will and instead think of our responsibility responses as justified by their role in (unavoidably necessary but also intrinsically valuable) social practices of caring about and responding to others' manifestations of goodwill or ill will toward us (Strawson 1962). In Part I, Shoemaker introduces three main modifications1 to Strawson's view. The first is that Shoemaker draws a tripartite distinction amongst the "attitudes and intentions towards us" or the "quality of others' wills towards us" that Strawson takes to be the object of reactive attitudes (Strawson 1962 48, 56); he distinguishes between the quality of others' character, the quality of others' judgment, and the quality of others' regard for us. The second is an account of responsibility responses in terms of "sentiments" (along the lines of metaethical and aesthetic sentimentalism), where sentiments are dispositions to feel a special type of emotions that are culturally universal and recalcitrant to judgment.2 The third, following closely from the second, is slipped into an unobtrusive argument that if the appropriateness of [End Page E-10] our responsibility responses are not justified by metaphysical facts then "it must be a matter merely of how the responses somehow fit with their objects" (19). In other words, Shoemaker understands the justification of responsibility responses in terms of fittingness. Responsibility responses are justified when they are fitting to their objects, just as emotional and aesthetic responses are appropriate when they are fitting to their objects.3

Shoemaker thus identifies three paradigmatic pairs of sentiments (and other related emotions) that correspond to the three different objects of our responsibility responses: agential disdain and admiration (along with contempt, abhorrence, awe, veneration, etc.) are the fitting positive and negative responses to good and bad character; agential regret and pride (etc.) are the fitting responses to good and bad judgment; and agential anger and gratitude (etc.) to good and bad regard. These correspond to what Shoemaker calls responsibility as attributability (directed at character), answerability (directed at judgment), and accountability (directed at regard). Part I of the book is devoted to laying out this theory and defending the distinctiveness of each of...


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