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Dissertation Part 3: How much does judgment matter for responsibility?

Updated: Feb 29

cylinders of different colors stand at varying heights next to each other, some draped in shadow

In Chapter 2, I argued that we're responsible for some things that aren't a direct result of our choices. In this chapter, I argue that we can't explain responsibility only in terms of judgment—choice matters too. Both judgment and choice are necessary for understanding responsibility.

The philosopher we're looking at this week is T. M. Scanlon, who is most famous for his book What We Owe to Each Other (featured in The Good Place!). I'm drawing from Scanlon's comments on responsibility in this book.

Scanlon's Basic View

Scanlon's (1998) basic view is that people are responsible for their judgment-sensitive attitudes, which are “those attitudes that, in a rational creature, should be ‘under the control of reason’” (272).

For Scanlon, judgment-sensitive attitudes are attitudes we can ask people to justify. Judgment-sensitive attitudes include “beliefs, intentions, hopes, fears, and attitudes such as admiration, respect, contempt, and indignation” (20). These attitudes are “up to us” in the sense that “they depend on our judgment as to whether appropriate reasons are present” (22).

They are “attitudes that an ideally rational person would come to have whenever that person judged there to be sufficient reasons for them and that would, in an ideally rational person, ‘extinguish’ when that person judged them not to be supported by reasons of the appropriate kind” (20).

Responsibility for judgment-sensitive attitudes does not require choice or decision, nor does it require conscious judgment (21-22). A person can be criticized, and asked to provide justification or acknowledgment and apology, for things that seem to have been done inadvertently in a situation in which advertence is called for. Being in principle “under the control of reason,” and arising from conscious judgments or choice, are two different things (272).


If neither consciousness nor choice is required for responsibility, then what aren't we responsible for? Things that we don't need to justify, such as mere feelings like hunger and tiredness or blind urges (20, 273).

Scanlon on Irrational Attitudes

What about irrational attitudes that seem to be impervious to our considered judgments? Or, what happens when “there is a direct clash between the judgments a person makes and the judgments required by the attitudes he or she holds” (25)? Let's look at Thomas Nagel’s (1979) case presented in Mortal Questions in which someone’s attitudes and character are, on the whole, quite bad and yet he manages to act perfectly on the basis of his considered judgments:

A person may be greedy, envious, cowardly, cold, ungenerous, unkind, vain, or conceited, but behave perfectly by a monumental effort of will. To possess these vices is to be unable to help having certain feelings under certain circumstances, and to have strong spontaneous impulses to act badly. Even if one controls the impulses, one still has the vice” (32-33, quoted directly by Scanlon on 273).


Assume that this person overrides his impulses because he holds correct moral judgments and chooses to act in line with those judgments.

Scanlon argues that the spontaneous impulses the agent experiences are “not blind urges but tendencies to see certain considerations as reasons for acting in certain ways” (273). Furthermore, the person who has these tendencies “must see these tendencies as his: as tendencies to take certain judgment-dependent attitudes that he has to overrule and correct” (273).

For Scanlon, these cases are not conflicts in which rational capacities “are overmastered by some other force,” but instead “conflicts within a person’s rational capacities” (273-274). On Scanlon’s account, then, the irrational attitudes (both the judgments the agent tries to overrule and the judgments the agent chooses to act on) are attributable to the agent for the purposes of moral assessment, as it is “appropriate to ask him to defend or modify and retract them” (274).

He concludes that the appropriate kind of moral criticism will be “a boringly mixed one: the agents have governed themselves well in dealing with these tendencies, but they would be better people if they did not have them” (274).

Direct and Indirect Control

Return to Nagel’s case in which an agent has exceedingly bad attitudes but manages to behave in a way that is morally appropriate. On Scanlon’s account, the agent’s attitudes are attributable to the agent for the purposes of moral assessment, so long as it is “appropriate to ask him to defend or modify and retract them” (274).


I agree with Scanlon that the answer is a mixed one. The interesting question is how Scanlon’s view can get at the distinction between what comes naturally to the agent (the agent’s bad attitudes that are under the agent’s indirect control) and what the agent chooses to do (the agent’s morally good actions that are under the agent’s direct control).

When analyzing Nagel’s case, Scanlon seems to recognize the difference between directly overriding/overruling/affirming judgments and merely having the tendency that must be indirectly controlled:

On the one hand, it seems not to be: the greedy person he describes judges correctly that it would be wrong to seek his own advantage in the ways in question, and he governs himself accordingly. On the other hand, the tendency to think that seeking his advantage is what he has most reason to do is also attributable to him, even though he overrules this tendency when it occurs, and affirms the opposite judgment (273).


It's hard to even construe this case without thinking about the agent’s choices as being opposed to the agent’s judgments. If we try to think about this case as simply a conflict between judgments, it becomes difficult to see how the agent is greedy—if he is sufficiently internally divided and his correct judgments always win out, is he greedy or is he instead remarkably circumspect and self-controlled?

As Robert Adams (1985) argues in "Involuntary Sins," it can be helpful to have a more complicated picture of self-governance with a division of powers through which the non-voluntary can push back against the voluntary, and vice versa. This distinction is necessary to understand conflicts within the agent between the attitudes that the agent has rejected (that they can only indirectly control and adjust) and the attitudes the agent has chosen and endorsed (that they have direct influence over). Scanlon’s account of self-governance seems to cover both under the broader category of judgmental activity, and his account could be expanded to allow for this interplay.

Varieties of Indirect Control

Additionally, because the focus is so narrowed to judgment-sensitivity, Scanlon’s view tends to problematically collapse different kinds of judgments that may be more or less reasons-responsive into the same category. Take the case of an arachnophobe who judges that spiders are relatively harmless yet remains deathly afraid of them. According to the judgment-sensitive view of responsibility, it appears that both attitudes are equally attributable to the agent.

At best, it seems that this agent can indirectly control the arachnophobic thoughts, as they are not extinguished when they normally should be. In this case, the agent has no direct control over whether the rational connections between their judgments and attitudes hold, but they do have direct control over taking actions that should help to change their arachnophobic attitudes to fit with their considered judgments.

The agent may, for example, choose to try to extinguish their fear of spiders by exposing themselves to terrifyingly accurate plastic spider figurines. But note that at this point we’re operating at the level of brute conditioning and not at the level of thinking about reasons that count in favor of or against the arachnophobia. While we all likely have to engage in some form of conditioning or habituation to change features of ourselves, some judgments are much more sensitive to reasons than others.

The mere fact of arachnophobic attitudes does not tell us much. The recalcitrance of the arachnophobic attitudes + the agent’s reflective judgments + the agent’s chosen courses of action tell us much more. The agent may be doing everything we could reasonably expect, even if the irrationality is still relevant to telling a full narrative of character.

Historical Context

A final place of departure from judgment-centered views is from their narrow focus on the content of and relations between the attitudes and judgments themselves, which separates out the context that informed them. What happens if two people come to hold the same evaluative judgments or attitudes from very different historical contexts?

Take a case in which there are two people, both who hold identical racist attitudes. The first grew up in a racist enclave with no outside information or contact with people of other races. The second had a good upbringing but sought out racist organizations and arguments in adulthood. Intuitively, it seems that our judgments of blameworthiness might differ in this case, but what might explain that difference, given that the evaluative judgments are the same?

Scanlon wants to separate out the question as to “whether it is appropriate to take [an agent’s] actions as indicating faulty self-governance” from the question as to whether “he has negligently allowed himself to fall into habits and associations that have undermined his character” (284-285). In other words, Scanlon's account can tell us that both people are responsible for their racist attitudes, in the sense that those attitudes are attributable to them, but that this should be separated from any questions as to whether they are responsible for becoming the kind of person that they are.

This kind of stance makes sense in certain contexts. For instance, it is sometimes the case that someone’s background or history will be used to excuse them of wrongdoing or distract from the wrong that has been committed. That is something to be avoided. And, sometimes it may be more useful to just address the content of the judgment at hand.

At the same time, I think it is important to be able to make more fine-grained moral judgments about what information someone had available to them and how well they reasoned and chose within their circumstances. I think it’s possible to do this without separating out the historical question.

If we build in context into our assessment of the agent’s attitudes, we can see why there might be a moral difference between the two racists. I think it’s plausible that the sheltered racist may have reasoned about as well as we could reasonably expect given the information available to them. The second racist, however, has clearly reasoned incredibly poorly. They had access to information that challenged their views and still chose to endorse their racist attitudes. They should have known better.

We never make our judgments within ideal circumstances—all of our attitudes and judgments are context-dependent to some degree. We aren’t interchangeable rational beings with propositional sets of attitudes, we’re human beings who live in particular communities and have certain histories.

Upshots and Next Chapters

When constructing narratives of character, it matters to us what the agent actually chose to do as well as what underlying judgments informed the agent’s choice. It seems that in order to get a full picture of who we are as moral agents, we must recognize the importance of choice. This more direct part of self-governance is not merely an expression of the set of judgment-sensitive attitudes that we already hold; it is an executive decision about which of our attitudes to endorse in action. If we look to the agent’s choices, we can see which attitudes she is working to cultivate, which ones she continually chooses to act upon, and which she is seeking to eliminate. This is not a choice from nowhere; it is a choice within the reasons and attitudes the agent has.

Up next:

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: Jigar Panchal

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