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Dissertation Part 2: How central is control to responsibility?

Updated: Feb 29

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How central is control to responsibility? Are we responsible for anything outside of our direct control?

R. Jay Wallace’s (1994) choice-centered account of moral responsibility presented in Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments proposes that direct control is the defining condition of responsibility. This is a pretty common intuition—if you couldn't have helped it, then why should you be blamed or punished for it?

In this chapter, I argue that while choice holds a central place in our understanding of moral responsibility, it does not hold the central place. Sometimes we're responsible for things that aren't under our direct control.

*Note: If you're starting with this blog, these are a bit more technical than normal, and I'm trying my best to break it down. I've been swimming in these waters for so long that it's a real challenge, so don't be afraid to ask questions!

Wallace's Argument

Wallace's main argument directly addresses the starting question of his project: When is it fair to hold people morally responsible?

Here's a rough reconstruction of that argument (skip to the summary paragraph below if you like):

P1. If it's unfair to demand that someone comply with moral obligations, then they can't be responsible (157).


P2. It's unfair to hold someone to moral obligations if that person “lacks the basic power to do the sort of thing that we demand of him” (161). This is because they will “lack the basic capacity to avoid the sanctions to which violating a demand normally exposes one” (162).


P3. If someone lacks either 1) the capacity to grasp and apply moral reasons or 2) the capacity to regulate their behavior by the light of such reasons, then they lack the basic power to comply with moral obligations.


C. So, it's only fair to hold someone accountable if that person has “powers of reflective self-control: the general ability to grasp and apply moral reasons and to regulate their behavior by the light of such reasons” (155).

In other words, it’s unfair to hold people to moral obligations and expose them to the possibility of sanctions if they can’t avoid those sanctions. In order to comply with our moral obligations and avoid sanctions, people must have the ability to act in accordance with our moral expectations. This, in turn, requires that they be able to recognize the reasons expressed in moral principles and control their behavior to conform to those reasons.

How do they control their behavior to conform to those reasons? Through their choices.

Responding to Wallace's Argument

The thing is, it seems that we do hold people responsible for things that they couldn't directly control and that don't trace back to any particular choice. Furthermore, many of these examples don't really strike us as unfair.

Take Angela Smith’s (2005) example of forgetting a good friend’s birthday given in "Responsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life":

“I forgot a close friend’s birthday last year. A few days after the fact, I realized that this important date had come and gone without my so much as sending a card or giving her a call. I was mortified. … But what, exactly was the nature of my fault in this case? After all, I did not consciously choose to forget this special day or deliberately decide to ignore it. I did not intend to hurt my friend’s feelings or even foresee that my conduct would have this effect. I just forgot. It didn’t occur to me. I failed to notice. And yet, despite the apparent involuntariness of this failure, there was no doubt in either of our minds that I was indeed, responsible for it” (236).

It seems reasonable in this case (assuming that this is a standing expectation in the friendship that hasn't been violated up until now and there are no extenuating circumstances) that the friend would be a bit angry and peeved at being forgotten and reasonably impose some form of relational sanction—perhaps she'd be more distant until she received a proper apology and an attempt to make up for the forgetting.

As a second example, take an alcoholic who, when sober, just thinks about getting the next drink but, when drunk, desperately wants to be sober. Assume that, when drunk, the alcoholic wants to be sober because she recognizes how her actions are affecting herself and the people around her. Assume also that this is part of the early stages of the alcoholic realizing that she needs to deal with her alcoholism that culminates in her seeking help after some time.

While drunk and unable to exercise control, the alcoholic can grasp and apply at least some moral reasons and norms applying to her situation. The mere inability to regulate her behavior in this state does not remove responsibility for her internal desire for sobriety. Even if she lacks direct control over her addiction, she still meets at least some of our expectations concerning the regard we should have for each other.

Third, imagine someone who grew up in a very fatphobic environment and still feels disgust at fat bodies even if she explicitly avows that they are beautiful. Perhaps she never chose to inculcate these attitudes in herself, but her environment was strongly fatphobic. Assume that, despite the agent’s best efforts, she slips up when she’s tired and makes a visibly disgusted face at a fat woman getting out of the pool. That may happen at a non-voluntary, reactive level in the absence of any choice, but she is still very plausibly responsible for that reaction.

Finally, when we're judging other people's actions, we tend to care deeply about the reasons why they are acting. Even if someone makes all the right choices, we might justifiably be upset if it turns out that their actions are motivated by selfish concerns rather than by genuine care for others. For example, if someone has been acting as lovingly as possible in a relationship, but it turns out that they are only doing so for their partner’s money, their partner may be rightly hurt and angry. Or, if I find out that someone has gifted me a hat that they hate to get rid of it, when they told me it suited me perfectly, I would be rightly miffed.

Adams and Arpaly

My main worry about Wallace's view is that it still tries to place everything that we are morally responsible for within the realm of what we can directly control.

Robert Adams (1985) wrote this great paper on "Involuntary Sins" in which he likens the soul to the state:

“[T]he order of the soul is not a pure democracy, and certainly not mob rule, but something more like the American system of representative government with ‘divided powers,’ with opposing tendencies and competing interests retaining an independent voice and influence …. It is important for the individual, as for the state, to be able to act fairly consistently over time in accordance with rationally coherent policies subjected to ethical reflection. But it is also important for the individual, as for the state, to have potential sources of dissent within …. The ever present possibility of internal conflict is not only a vexation and a potential hindrance to resolute action; it is also a wellspring of vitality and sensitivity, and a check against one-sidedness and fanaticism” (10-11).


If we lose responsibility for these sources of dissent that may be outside of and contrary to our choices, we lose responsibility for instances in which our desires and feelings point us in a better direction than our considered evaluative outlooks. 

In Unprincipled Virtue: An Inquiry into Moral Agency, Nomy Arpaly (2003) highlights the moral importance of cases of what she terms “inverse akrasia” or “doing the right thing against one’s best judgment” (9). These are cases in which internal sources of dissent guide the agent towards what is virtuous against the agent’s endorsed views. Think about a character like Han Solo who ostensibly cares only about his own profit and yet consistently acts against his self-interest to help Luke and other members of the rebellion. This is plausibly explained by some level of recognition of what is good, even if, in Han’s best judgment, he should be prioritizing his own interests.

It seems that we want to preserve responsibility for these non-voluntary wellsprings of sensitivity, especially if they can guide us in the right direction and towards right action. This holds even if we in fact choose the wrong thing in line with our reflectively endorsed views. In some cases, this can make the judgment worse: “you knew on some level!” “you could have done the right thing but you still chose wrongly!”

Tracing Accounts

So you've read along to this point, but you're thinking "all these cases can be traced back to some prior choice, and that's what you're responsible for!"

Tracing accounts often try to explain responsibility for non-voluntary reactions and feelings in terms of past choices. The reaction is thus “traced” back to the choice that engendered it. The clearest tracing cases involve a direct connection between the initial choice and the resulting non-voluntary actions or feelings. A drunk driver is responsible for endangering others because they chose to drink heavily that night and did not take measures to prevent themselves from driving, even if at the time of the accident they were severely inebriated.

What is wrong with tracing accounts then? Why can’t they get us what we want (namely control, avoidability, and fairness) and also recognize responsibility for feelings and attitudes that came out of our choices?

I think tracing accounts rightly capture that there is an important difference in our moral assessments if the attitudes and emotions in question are a direct result of the agent’s choices. An attitude that I have cultivated says something different about me than an attitude I have simply absorbed. It is unclear to me, though, that we should exclude the latter category from the set of things for which we are responsible. Our unchosen emotions and non-voluntary reactions can still appropriately elicit the moral reactive attitudes as they did in the case of the fatphobic friend at the pool. Prior choices matter if they are part of a pattern or otherwise bear on the present context, but you can also be morally responsible for non-voluntary attitudes that don’t trace back to a set of clearly related choices.

Tracing accounts don’t exclusively get us responsibility for non-voluntary states. As Smith (2005) argues, our judgments and reactions

“do not always arise from conscious choices or decisions, and they need not be consciously recognized by the person who holds them. Indeed, these judgments are often things we discover about ourselves through our responses to questions or to situations. For example, I may not realize, until I am faced with a choice, that I value the intellectual freedom and autonomy associated with a career in academia more highly than the economic rewards and benefits associated with a career in law” (252).


Finally, our attitudes and emotions often arise incidentally as a result of our choices, in a way that does not get us the sufficiently tight connection that tracing arguments require. Am I responsible for developing unhealthy attitudes about thinness as well as anti-fat bias because I have chosen to go out in the world, where I’ve incidentally encountered numerous billboards, advertisements, and other depictions of beauty as a particular kind of thinness? No. That choice does not plausibly explain responsibility for this unintended, unrelated, and unknown outcome.

Upshots and Next Chapters

In this chapter, I’ve gestured towards considerations that might point us away from a choice-centered view like Wallace’s, though not from the insight that choice is important for understanding moral responsibility and character. Our choices matter, and they matter in a different way than our unreflective attitudes, but they're not necessary for responsibility.

As much as we like to think that we can, potentially, control all our actions and learn all the moral rules and avoid any blame or sanctions, that's not really how responsibility works. It's not really how we work either.

We are imperfect and messy and have limited control and choice over how we turn out, and our practices of responsibility are sensitive to that. As I'll argue in later chapters, a lot of our judgments about people and responses to them depend quite a bit on context (could she have known better? could she have acted better?), and we tend to extend grace for little foibles if the person is on the whole following our moral expectations.

Perfection isn't possible, and it's not what we expect of people.

Up next:

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: Martin Sanchez

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