Article

Give People a Break: Slips and Moral Responsibility

Authors:
To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the author.

Abstract

I examine the question of whether people are sometimes morally blameworthy for what I call ‘slips’: wrongful actions or omissions that a good-willed (or at least no ill-willed) agent inadvertently performs due to a non-negligent failure to be aware of relevant considerations. I focus in particular on the capacitarian answer to this question, according to which possession of the requisite capacities to be aware of relevant considerations and respond appropriately explains blameworthiness for slips. I argue, however, that capacitarianism fails to show that agents have responsibility level control over their slips and, consequently, fails to show that it is reasonable to expect agents to avoid this kind of wrongdoing. I conclude that people are typically not blameworthy for their slips, but only regarding the backward-looking, desert-entailing type of blame that has been at issue in this debate. I suggest that ordinary intuitions about blameworthiness for slips can be accommodated by appealing to other types of responsibility and blame.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the author.

... One might worry that the epistemic conditions of the indirect capacitarian control account are too demanding (Rudy-Hiller, 2019;Vargas, 2005). It is necessary that the agent is aware of her opportunity to exercise her control and is aware of the risk of forgetting if she adopts the wrong strategy for encoding her intention. ...
Article
Full-text available
Assuming that an agent can be morally responsible for her forgetting to do something, we can use recent psychological research on prospective memory to assess the psychological assumptions made by normative accounts of the moral responsibility for forgetting. Two accounts of moral responsibility (control accounts and valuative accounts) have been prominent in recent debates about the degree to which agents are blameworthy for their unwitting omissions. This paper highlights the psychological assumptions concerning remembering and forgetting that characterise the accounts. The paper then introduces and reviews recent empirical literature on prospective memory. Finally, it uses the literature to assess the various assumptions. One important implication is that a direct capacitarian control account implies implausible assumptions about the psychological capacity for remembering. A second important implication is that an indirect capacitarian control account and a valuative account highlight different but complementary aspects of remembering and forgetting.
Article
Full-text available
We sometimes fail unwittingly to do things that we ought to do. And we are, from time to time, culpable for these unwitting omissions. We provide an outline of a theory of responsibility for unwitting omissions. We emphasize two distinctive ideas: (i) many unwitting omissions can be understood as failures of appropriate vigilance, and; (ii) the sort of self-control implicated in these failures of appropriate vigilance is valuable. We argue that the norms that govern vigilance and the value of self-control explain culpability for unwitting omissions.
Article
Full-text available
In this paper, we focus on whether and to what extent we judge that people are responsible for the consequences of their forgetfulness. We ran a series of behavioral studies to measure judgments of responsibility for the consequences of forgetfulness. Our results show that we are disposed to hold others responsible for some of their forgetfulness. The level of stress that the forgetful agent is under modulates judgments of responsibility, though the level of care that the agent exhibits toward performing the forgotten action does not. We argue that this result has important implications for a long-running debate about the nature of responsible agency.
Article
Full-text available
Ignorance usually excuses from responsibility, unless the person is culpable for the ignorance itself. Since a lot of wrongdoing occurs in ignorance, the question of what makes ignorance culpable is central for a theory of moral responsibility. In this paper I examine a prominent answer, which I call the ‘volitionalist tracing account,’ and criticize it on the grounds that it relies on an overly restrictive conception of responsibility-relevant control. I then propose an alternative, which I call the ‘capacitarian conception of control,’ and on the basis of it I advance an account of culpable ignorance that avoids the skeptical upshots of the volitionalist proposal. If correct, my account establishes three important truths: agents can be directly in control of their ignorance, they can be directly responsible for more than actions and omissions, and their moral obligations extend beyond the performance of intentional actions and omissions.
Article
Full-text available
Recently, a number of authors have suggested that the epistemic condition on moral responsibility makes blameworthiness much less common than we ordinarily suppose, and much harder to identify. This paper argues that such epistemically based responsibility skepticism is mistaken. Section 2 sketches a general account of moral responsibility, building on the Strawsonian idea that blame and credit relates to the agent’s quality of will. Section 3 explains how this account deals with central cases that motivate epistemic skepticism and how it avoids some objections to quality of will accounts recently raised by Gideon Rosen. But an intuitive worry brought out by these objections remains. Section 4 spells out this remaining worry and argues that, like traditional metaphysical responsibility skepticism, it has its source in a non-standard explanatory perspective on action, suggesting that strategies for explaining away the intuitive pull of traditional skepticism are applicable in this case too.
Article
Full-text available
My primary target in this paper is a puzzle that emerges from the conjunction of several seemingly innocent assumptions in action theory and the metaphysics of moral responsibility. The puzzle I have in mind is this. On one widely held account of moral responsibility, an agent is morally responsible only for those actions or outcomes over which that agent exercises control. Recently, however, some have cited cases where agents appear to be morally responsible without exercising any control. This leads some to abandon the control-based account of responsibility and replace it with an alternative account. It leads others to deny the intuition that agents are responsible in these troublesome cases. After outlining the account of moral responsibility I have in mind, I look at some of the arguments made against the viability of this theory. I show that there are conceptual resources for salvaging the control account, focusing in particular on the nature of vigilance. I also argue that there is empirical data that supports the control account so conceived.
Article
Full-text available
Recently T. M. Scanlon and others have advanced an ostensibly comprehensive theory of moral responsibility—a theory of both being responsible and being held responsible—that best accounts for our moral practices. I argue that both aspects of the Scanlonian theory fail this test. A truly comprehensive theory must incorporate and explain three distinct conceptions of responsibility—attributability, answerability, and accountability—and the Scanlonian view conflates the first two and ignores the importance of the third. To illustrate what a truly comprehensive theory might look like, I investigate what it would say about the difficult case of the psychopath.
Chapter
Self-control can involve more than just impulse inhibition. For some notions of self-control, especially those concerned with moral responsibility, sensitivity to reasons is the idea central to self-control. For these accounts, it is not obvious how to capture the idea that people are responsible for negligence and other instances of apparently non-volitional culpability. One blames people for failing to take into account some important moral consideration in deciding what to do, for failing to remember some commitment, and for failing to recognize situationally relevant things. This chapter proposes an account of this broader notion of self-control, one that solves the problem of control in non-volitional culpability cases, and that retains the idea that people in such cases could have complied with the demands of morality.
Chapter
Attributionists believe that moral responsibility has mainly to do with how a person is, and with what can be attributed to her for the purposes of moral assessment. Critics of the view have tended to charge that it proposes a standard for blameworthiness that is too easily satisfied. This chapter defends Attributionism from an opposing criticism—one that notes that many agents who are judged blameworthy by common-sense morality do not fulfill the necessary conditions on blameworthiness that Attributionism proposes. In this context, the chapter pays particular attention to cases in which agents commit apparently blameworthy unwitting omissions. It argues that such agents are often not blameworthy and offers an explanation as to why common-sense morality delivers a contrary judgment.
Chapter
Unwitting omissions pose a challenge for theories of moral responsibility. For common-sense morality holds many unwitting omitters morally responsible for their omissions, even though they appear to lack both awareness and control. People who leave dogs in their car on a hot day or forget to pick something up from the store as they promised seem to be blameworthy. If moral responsibility requires awareness of one’s omission and its moral significance, it appears that the protagonists of these cases are not morally responsible. This chapter considers and rejects a number of influential views on this problem, including a view that grounds responsibility for such omissions in previous exercises of conscious agency, and “Attributionist” views that ground responsibility for such omissions in the value judgments or other aspects of the agents’ selves. The chapter proposes a new tracing view that grounds responsibility for unwitting omissions in past opportunities to avoid them.
Chapter
Early in my teaching career, I made a mistake about when the academic term began and missed the first few days of a semester. Taking my blameworthiness as given, I use this incident to explore the different ways of explaining why agents can be blamed for unintended omissions. In the course of my discussion, I first criticize the tracing and Attributionist approaches, and then present my own positive view: that the reason I was blameworthy is that my omission was caused by a collection of states and traits whose interaction generally gave rise to reasons-responsive behavior. This approach provides a natural explanation of why a merely local incapacity to respond to a given reason does not exculpate while a global incapacity to respond to reasons does. In so doing, it neatly answers a question that is problematic for other forms of compatibilism.
Chapter
Some omissions to act are unwitting: the agent isn’t aware that she isn’t doing something that she ought to be doing. Agents can be blameworthy for such omissions. Can they be directly blameworthy, with their blameworthiness for the omission not deriving from their blameworthiness for any other things? This chapter advances an affirmative answer to this question. A view is developed on which both a cognitive and a control condition for direct blameworthiness can be satisfied in a case of unwitting omission. Further, it is argued that even a good-willed agent, one whose values and motivations are what they should be, can be directly blameworthy in such a case.
Book
This volume explores the moral and legal aspects of omissions, with a view to understanding the principles that govern moral responsibility and legal liability for omissive conduct. Omissions are puzzling because, first, they appear to be nonentities, and, second, it appears paradoxical that one could be responsible or liable for something that, in some sense, doesn’t exist and that one might not even be aware of at the time it occurs. Many of this book’s contributors try to make sense of the possibility of moral responsibility for omissions, including those that occur unwittingly. The disagreements among them concern the grounds of moral responsibility in these cases: the constellation of states and traits that constitute the self, or the quality of one’s will, or exercises of evaluative judgment, or the ability and opportunity to avoid the omission, or the tracing back to a time when one had the witting ability to take steps to avoid future omission. Some contributors consider whether omissions need to be under one’s control if one is to be morally responsible for them, as well as which sense of “control” is relevant, if it is, to the question of moral responsibility. Yet others consider whether it is possible for an agent to be morally responsible for an omission that she could not have avoided. On the legal side, the volume also considers various issues concerning the status of omissions in the law.
Chapter
Can we be morally responsible not only for actions but also for omissions? If we can be morally responsible for decisions to act, surely we can also be responsible for decisions not to act. But can we also be responsible for failing to decide to act? Take as given that we can be responsible for the outcomes of decision and of failing to decide. Can we similarly be responsible for the outcomes of decisions not to act and for the outcomes of failures to decide? Supposing we can, are we ever be responsible for outcomes of failures to decide that we did not foresee? I will argue that we can be morally responsible in all of these various respects, but that countervailing intuitions can be accommodated by noting that our practice involves different senses of responsibility, a number of which don’t involve desert. I contend that the senses that don’t involve desert should predominate in the kinds of circumstances under consideration.
Article
To be responsible for their acts, agents must both act voluntarily and in some sense know what they are doing. Of these requirements, the voluntariness condition has been much discussed, but the epistemic condition has received far less attention. This book seeks to remedy that imbalance: it first criticizes a popular but inadequate way of understanding the epistemic condition and then seeks to develop a more adequate alternative. The popular but inadequate view asserts that agents are responsible only for what they are consciously aware of doing or bringing about. (Because this view takes an agent's responsibility to extend only as far as the searchlight of his consciousness, the book refers to it as the searchlight view.) By contrast, on the proposed alternative, even agents who unwittingly act wrongly or foolishly can be responsible if (1) they have information that supports the conclusion that their acts are wrong or foolish, and (2) their failure to draw that conclusion on the basis of that information falls short of meeting some appropriate standard, and (3) the failure is caused by the constellation of psychological and/or physical features that makes them the persons they are. Because it integrates first- and third-personal elements, this alternative account is well suited to capture the complexity of responsible agents, who at once have their own private perspectives and live in a public world.
Article
The concept of luck has played an important role in debates concerning free will and moral responsibility, yet participants in these debates have relied upon an intuitive notion of what luck is. This book develops an account of luck, which is then applied to the free will debate. It argues that the standard luck objection succeeds against common accounts of libertarian free will, event-causal and agent-causal, but that it is possible to amend libertarian accounts so that they are no more vulnerable to luck than is compatibilism. But the book also argues that compatibilist accounts of luck are themselves vulnerable to a powerful luck objection. Historical compatibilisms cannot satisfactorily explain how agents can take responsibility for their constitutive luck. Non-historical compatibilisms run into insurmountable difficulties with the epistemic condition on control over action. Because a failure to satisfy the epistemic condition on control is excusing, the book argues, if there are any actions for which agents are responsible, they are akratic actions; for non-akratic actions, agents either fail to satisfy the epistemic condition on moral responsibility or lack control in some other way. But akratic actions are themselves unacceptably subject to luck. The book ends with a discussion of recent non-historical compatibilisms. Some of these new compatibilisms hold that agents are morally responsible for actions just in case these actions express the agent's attitudes. The book argues that accounts of this type do not offer a viable alternative to control-based compatibilisms. Finally, the book argues that other kinds of non-historical compatibilism have no resources to deploy against the hard luck view because the latter does not entail that instant agents have a different degree of moral responsibility than agents who have a history.
Article
Philosophical accounts of moral responsibility are standardly framed by two platitudes. According to them, blame requires the presence of a moral defect in the agent and the absence of excuses. In this chapter, this kind of approach is challenged. It is argued that (a) people sometimes violate moral norms due to performance mistakes, (b) it often appears reasonable to hold them responsible for it, and (c) their mistakes cannot be traced to their moral qualities or to the presence of excuses. In the end, the implications for discussions of moral responsibility are discussed. Associated Press report Posted: 01/25/2013 08:18:46 AM MSTCOLONIE, N.Y. (AP) – Authorities say a New York man who left his 1-year-old son in his car for eight hours in frigid weather only realized his mistake after a call from his wife. Police in the Albany suburb of Colonie say the man forgot to drop off his son at day care and left the child strapped in the backseat of the car when he parked outside his office Thursday morning.
Article
The idea of moral responsibility is central to a wide range of our moral, social, and legal practices, and it underpins our basic notion of culpability. Yet the idea of moral responsibility is increasingly viewed with skepticism by researchers and scholars in psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and the law. Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility responds to these challenges, offering a new account of the justification of our practices and judgments of moral responsibility. Three distinctive ideas shape the account. The first is the agency cultivation model, which holds that a system of responsibility practices can derive its justification from the way it supports our agency. The second idea, circumstantialism, is a new way of thinking about agential capacities. This is the view that the capacities required for moral responsibility are functions of agents in circumstances, rather than basic features of agents considered in themselves. The third idea is revisionism, or the idea that a satisfactory theory of moral responsibility will conflict with some aspects of ordinary commitments about freedom and moral responsibility.
Article
The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn't want any sedation, that he didn't deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die. The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer --beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone --he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July. It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.
Article
Responsibility, blameworthiness in particular, has been characterized in a number of ways in a literature in which participants appear to be talking about the same thing much of the time. More specifically, blameworthiness has been characterized in terms of what sorts of responses are fair, appropriate, and deserved in a basic way, where the responses in question range over blame, sanctions, alterations to interpersonal relationships, and the reactive attitudes, such as resentment and indignation. In this paper, I explore the relationships between three particular theses: (i) the claim that one is blameworthy to the extent that it is fair to impose sanctions, (ii) the claim that one is blameworthy to the extent that one deserves sanctions, and (iii) the claim that one is blameworthy to the extent that it is appropriate to respond with reactive attitudes. Appealing to the way in which luck in the outcome of an action can justifiably affect the degree of sanctions received, I argue that (i) is false and that fairness and desert come apart. I then argue that the relationship between the reactive attitudes and sanction is not as straightforward as has sometimes been assumed, but that (ii) and (iii) might both be true and closely linked. I conclude by exploring various claims about desert, including ones that link it to the intrinsic goodness of receiving what is deserved and to the permissibility or rightness of inflicting suffering.
Article
In “Control, Responsibility, and Moral Assessment” Angela Smith defends her nonvoluntarist theory of moral responsibility against the charge that any such view is shallow because it cannot capture the depth of judgments of responsibility. Only voluntarist positions can do this since only voluntarist positions allow for control. I argue that Smith is able to deflect the voluntarists’ criticism, but only with further resources. As a voluntarist, I also concede that Smith’s thesis has force, and I close with a compromise position, one that allows for direct moral responsibility for the nonvoluntary, but also incorporates a reasonable control condition.
Article
Recently, a number of philosophers have begun to question the commonly held view that choice or voluntary control is a precondition of moral responsibility. According to these philosophers, what really matters in determining a person’s responsibility for some thing is whether that thing can be seen as indicative or expressive of her judgments, values, or normative commitments. Such accounts might therefore be understood as updated versions of what Susan Wolf has called “real self views,” insofar as they attempt to ground an agent’s responsibility for her actions and attitudes in the fact (when it is a fact) that they express who she is as a moral agent. As such, they seem to be open to some of the same objections Wolf originally raised to such accounts, and in particular to the objection that they cannot license the sorts of robust moral assessments involved in our current practices of moral responsibility. My aim in this paper is to try to respond to this challenge, by clarifying the kind of robust moral assessments I take to be licensed by (at least some) non-volitional accounts of responsibility and by explaining why these assessments do not in general require the agent to have voluntary control over everything for which she is held responsible. I also argue that the limited applicability of the distinction between “bad agents” and “blameworthy agents” on these accounts is in fact a mark in their favor.
Article
The paper has dual aim: to analyse the structure of negligence, and to use it to offer an explanation of responsibility (for actions, omissions, consequences) in terms of the relations which must exist between the action (omission, etc.) and the agents powers of rational agency if the agent is responsible for the action. The discussion involves reflections on the relations between the law and the morality of negligence, the difference between negligence and strict liability, the role of excuses and the grounds of duties to pay damages.
‘Methodological Conservatism and the Epistemic Condition’
  • Levy
  • Clarke
  • Vargas
‘Theories of the Common Law of Torts’
  • Coleman
  • Levy
‘No Excuses: Performance Mistakes in Morality’
  • S. Amaya
  • J. Clausen
  • N. Levy
Theories of the Common Law of Torts
  • J Coleman
  • S Hershovitz
  • G Mendlow
Coleman, J., Hershovitz, S. and Mendlow, G. (2015) 'Theories of the Common Law of Torts', in E. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition) <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/tort-theories/> accessed 12 April 2019.
‘Methodological Conservatism and the Epistemic Condition’
  • N. Levy
  • P. Robichaud
  • J. Wieland
Desert, Fairness, and Resentment', Philosophical Explorations
  • D Nelkin
Nelkin, D. (2013) 'Desert, Fairness, and Resentment', Philosophical Explorations, 16/2: 117-32.
Moral Responsibility for Unwitting Omissions: A New Tracing View', in Nelkin and Rickless 2017b, 106-30. --(eds.) (2017b) The Ethics and Law of Omissions
  • D Nelkin
  • S Rickless
Nelkin, D. and Rickless, S. (2017a) 'Moral Responsibility for Unwitting Omissions: A New Tracing View', in Nelkin and Rickless 2017b, 106-30. --(eds.) (2017b) The Ethics and Law of Omissions. Oxford: OUP.
Two Faces of Responsibility', Philosophical Topics
  • G Watson
Watson, G. (1996) 'Two Faces of Responsibility', Philosophical Topics, 24/2: 227-48.