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Dissertation Part 1: What kind of responsibility?

Updated: Feb 29

I've been in dissertation hibernation for a few months, but I now have a complete, edited draft of the dissertation with only a few rounds of revision left before the defense. So, I can get back to blogging!

Before I took a break to focus on the dissertation, at least a few of you were interested in reading about my dissertation on responsibility for character. My next few blogs will attempt to break down the dissertation, chapter by chapter. It will be a good exercise for me to try to communicate my ideas to a general audience, and I hope you find it interesting.

A note before I begin: I'm writing in a literature that has crystallized around a lot of jargon with very specific technical meanings, and I'm going to do my best to try to break it down for you. If you have any questions, let me know! I've been so deep in these weeds that I sometimes forget what is common knowledge and what isn't.

The task of the first chapter is to lay the groundwork for the rest of the discussion in the dissertation. Its main question is roughly: What kind(s) of responsibility am I concerned with? That question has to be answered before we can start talking about responsibility for character.

First, there are a lot of things the word responsibility can mean:

  • a duty (as in "it's your responsibility to take out the trash")

  • claiming ownership (as in "I'm taking responsibility for my restaurant serving sub-par food" even though it may have been your subordinate who caused the issue)

  • being the author of something (as in "you were the one who took responsibility and helped me")

  • being blameworthy for something (as in "you're responsible for ripping your brother's hair out")

  • holding someone to account (as in "I'm holding you responsible for failing to turn in your projects on time")

Second, responsibility can also come in many different kinds:

  • causal responsibility (your neurons caused the motion in your arm that raised your middle finger at another driver)

  • aesthetic responsibility (you are the perceptive artist who made a series of beautiful paintings)

  • legal responsibility (you can be held liable by the state according to its legal statutes)

  • moral responsibility (you are to praise/blame for your right/wrong actions)

Neither of these lists are exhaustive. For my project, I'm roughly concerned with the last three meanings of the word responsible (authorship, blameworthiness, accountability) within the realm of moral responsibility. Unless I specify otherwise, assume I'm talking about moral responsibility when I use the word responsibility.

Attributability vs. Accountability

In 1996, the philosopher Gary Watson wrote a paper titled "Two Faces of Responsibility" that has strongly shaped the more recent literature on moral responsibility. In that paper, Watson distinguishes between the attributability face of responsibility (roughly the authorship meaning of responsibility) and the accountability face of responsibility (roughly the accountability and/or blameworthiness meanings of responsibility).

When we judge someone to be responsible in the attributability sense, we consider how her actions reflect upon her character, her practical identity, or the ends she has adopted.

Accountability, on the other hand, has to do with questions about when it's fair to sanction or punish someone for their misdeeds. It requires some kind of control that the agent can exercise to avoid those sanctions.

These two can come apart. We might judge someone to be a tacky person but see no reason to sanction or punish her (attributability without accountability). Or, a restaurant owner might be legally sanctioned for the restaurant selling contaminated food, even if the restaurant owner followed all reasonable guidelines and isn't to blame (accountability without attributability).

The thing is, they start to look more connected within the realm of moral responsibility.

Why Moral Accountability Needs Moral Attributability

When it comes to the moral domain, Watson suggests that accountability requires attributability. Focusing on sanctions alone treats “moral accountability as a legal-like practice,” which “leaves out crucial features of moral blame” (280).

By contrast, philosopher Robin Zheng (2016) argues in "Attributability, Accountability, and Implicit Bias" that, in cases of implicit bias, we should think of moral accountability as totally separate from attributability. Instead of blaming people or making any judgments about their character, we can just try to fix the problems caused and assign them certain reparative duties given their roles and the harm done.

There's something attractive about Zheng's picture, especially because it's sometimes unclear how much implicit bias says about the person's character. Getting rid of blame might make it easier for people to change and fix the harm they've caused. But I think Watson is right that something weird happens when we think about moral responsibility this wayit loses something important.

If we understand accountability in the way Zheng suggests, we end up with the following consequences, each of which illustrates different ways in which the role or task-based version of moral accountability loses its distinctive interpersonal address and expressive function:

  • The moral reactive responses we have to each other (whether they be reactive attitudes, a lessening of trust, a breaking of relationship) are irrelevant to accountability, or icing on the cake at best.

  • The communicative/expressive aspect of moral accountability seems to be lost on this view of accountability, as there is no specific address to the person. There is merely a distribution of burdens or sanctions.

  • We start treating others based on their roles, not who they are as individual persons.

This is not a death knell for Zheng's view. I think she's getting something right, I just don't think we should conceive of accountability responsibility in this way when it comes to the moral domain. Maybe there's another kind of responsibility that Zheng is talking about that is still useful in some of these cases. I just think accountability responsibility needs the expressive function.

If I'm right that accountability requires some expressive function and an address to the particular person, then it looks like accountability actually requires attributability within the moral domain. Thus, moral accountability necessarily invokes questions about practical identity and character.

[A dialectical note: A lot of authors in the literature want to say that responsibility for character is totally different than the normal kinds of responsibility relations we have in which we blame others and sanction them. One of the aims of this section is to push back against that and say, no, character actually is tied up in these questions of accountability and isn't a different kind of moral assessment that takes second place to the really important stuff.]

Do We Really Just Care About Blame and Sanctions?

You may have noticed that I haven't yet said anything about praise and rewards. Why focus so much on blame and sanctions?

Well, most contemporary philosophers start their inquiries about moral responsibility with some version of the following question: “What conditions would make it fair/appropriate to blame someone, impose sanctions, or otherwise demand either justification or restitution?” They are mainly concerned with the fairness of blame and sanctions to the person being blamed.

I think that's an important question, but it leaves out questions like: “When is it fair/appropriate to expect others to express blame, impose sanctions, or otherwise hold the offender responsible?” The burden of responsibility is commonly treated as if it only falls on the person being held responsible, even though it is also frequently an unpleasant and difficult task to hold others responsible.

But both of these questions assume that responsibility is a burden. Is responsibility just this painful thing we have to take up in order to get other things that are good, like social esteem? I don't think so.

One of the key problems with these starting questions is that the practice of responsibility goes beyond blame and the distribution of sanctions; holding responsible also includes praise, gratitude, love, and the distribution of benefits. Our actual questions about responsibility and character make the most sense within the immediate, context-sensitive features of our relationships, which can genuinely bring us joy.

But being able to have meaningful relationships with others isn't a burden, nor is gratitude or love. Responsibility can be a boon sometimes.

The Core of Moral Responsibility

If moral responsibility is relational and closely tied to the project of living well with ourselves and others, then what is its scope? What separates moral responsibility from other kinds of responsibility?

My approach is informed primarily by P. F. Strawson’s (1962) following remarks in "Freedom and Resentment":

I want to speak, at least at first, of something else: of the non-detached attitudes and reactions of people directly involved in transactions with each other; of the attitudes and reactions of offended parties and beneficiaries; of such things as gratitude, resentment, forgiveness, love, and hurt feelings…. I have mentioned, specifically, resentment and gratitude; and they are a usefully opposed pair. But, of course, there is a whole continuum of reactive attitude and feeling stretching on both sides of these and—the most comfortable area—in between them.


Like Strawson, I take the reactive attitudes of gratitude and resentment as paradigmatic instances of holding responsible. I do not prioritize resentment over gratitude or gratitude over resentment. I also take it that there is a wide range of reactive attitudes between and around the paradigmatic pair that admit to moral responsibility. And, there may not be a clear line that fully separates moral responsibility from other kinds.

Additionally, while gratitude and resentment are core to moral responsibility, they need to be fitting or appropriate. You can wrongly feel resentful or grateful towards someone. I do not think, however, that there is a single reductive rationale that makes the reactive attitudes appropriate.

Upshots & Next Chapters

Now that we know what kind of responsibility we're talking about (accountability), we've expanded questions about responsibility beyond the fairness of blame, and we've shown that accountability already invokes questions of character, we can turn to what other authors have said about what kinds of things we can be held responsible for and why.

In Chapter 2, I assess R. Jay Wallace's (1994) view that moral responsibility requires control, and that we're ultimately responsible for our choices.

In Chapter 3, I look at T. M. Scanlon's (1998) view that moral responsibility requires judgment-sensitivity, and that we're ultimately responsible for our judgment-sensitive attitudes.

In Chapter 4, I turn to Susan Wolf's (1990) and Fischer and Ravizza's (1998) historical views of moral responsibility.

In Chapter 5, I take insights from each of the views considered thus far to build an account of character as narrative, drawing on Peter Goldie's (2012) philosophical account of narrative.

In Chapter 6, I consider edge cases of responsibility and try to determine whether we can ever successfully build a taxonomy of who is responsible and who is not based on ability.

Photo Credit: Scott Webb

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