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Dissertation Part 4: What is the role of history for understanding responsibility?

a branching river empties into the sea with lush greenery at its banks

How much does history matter for responsibility? How does it potentially shape or mitigate responsibility?

In this chapter I consider Susan Wolf's Reason view of moral responsibility and Fischer and Ravizza's guidance control view in order to push back against two common views about how history shapes responsibility.

Susan Wolf's Reason view winds up letting people off the hook if they had a bad upbringing or lived in a time where immoral things were accepted as moral by the majority. Fischer and Ravizza's guidance control view winds up requiring knowledge that we couldn't reasonably have in our day to day interactions.

Wolf's Reason View

According to Wolf in "Freedom Within Reason" (1990), the central “ability that is crucial to responsibility is in fact the ability to act in accordance with Reason” (68). The ability to act in accordance with Reason requires that the agent “is able to form her actions on the basis of her values and she is able to form her values on the basis of what is True and Good” (75). To determine the responsibility of bad-acting agents, “we need to know whether she could have known better and whether, knowing better, she could have acted better” (88).

Wolf claims that the ability to act in accordance with the True and the Good requires that one “be sensitive and responsive to relevant changes in one’s situation and environment—that is, to be flexible” (69). These claims together entail that people whose values are shaped by traumatic upbringings in ways that make them less likely to see the True and the Good are less responsible, and that people whose reasoning is inflexible due to mental illness are also less responsible. Insofar as an agent has some inability to see the True and the Good or change their values in accordance with it, whether due to upbringing or mental constitution, they are less responsible and perhaps not even responsible at all, depending on the severity of the inability (87).

So, on Wolf’s view, agents are responsible for actions that they could have performed in accordance with Reason, which requires that they are flexible in their reasoning, able to acquire the right values, and can govern their behavior in accordance with right reason. In what follows, I challenge Wolf’s view based on three types of historical cases Wolf discusses (that are not mutually exclusive): the case of mental illness, the case of a poor upbringing, and the case of hardening one’s own heart.

Responses to Wolf

Take the first kind of case, that of mental illness. In "Character and Responsibility" (2015), Wolf claims that we are only responsible for those acts which flow from our character and that certain mental illnesses are not part of our characters due to their lack of flexibility and context-sensitivity.

For example, Wolf claims that the vice of dishonesty should be separated from a pathological urge to lie (367). Since pathological lying is not flexible and hence does not flow from an active intelligence, it is not a vice (and subsequently not an aspect of character). On Wolf’s view, both vices and virtues—which are within the realm of the responsible self—require context sensitivity. However, it seems that many vices display a lack of context-sensitivity and flexibility and, more strongly, that some might be vices in part because of their inflexibility.

Think about someone who is exceptionally legalistic and follows the rules to a T without considering the reasons behind them. I imagine many of us know someone like this and find it frustrating when they can't seem to understand when an exception might be called for or when their adherence to the strict letter of the law violates its spirit. When this kind of behavior creates significant problems, resentment may well be appropriate and we may reasonably hold that person responsible for their vice.

Take the second kind of case, namely that of a poor upbringing. In this kind of case, we might imagine that an agent’s childhood was so traumatic that once they reached adulthood, they could not recognize the True and Good or form their values in line with it. Take Wolf’s (1987/2003) case of JoJo presented in her paper "Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility" as an example. JoJo is the son of a dictator and is brought up to torture others and condemn them to death. Furthermore, JoJo values these activities and sees himself as following in the footsteps of his father (379).

Since JoJo presumably cannot see the True and the Good because his sense of morality has been so warped by his early experiences, Wolf claims that “it is dubious at best that he should be regarded as responsible for what he does” (380). Wolf thinks that it is unlikely that anyone with an upbringing like JoJo’s could have turned out differently, and that this too tells against JoJo’s responsibility (380). And yet, while I agree with Wolf that JoJo has been strongly shaped by his upbringing, it is unclear to me that he lacks responsibility.

For example, as a child, JoJo might have been horrified by the things his father asked him to do. Perhaps he was punished severely enough for this response that he learned to mask it and even came to somewhat enjoy these activities because of his father’s praise. It still might be possible, in adulthood, for JoJo to rediscover the feelings he had as a small child and begin to work to reform his value system in accordance with what is True and Good. Granted, that challenge will be a much greater one for him than for a child who had a good moral education, but it is unclear that JoJo completely lacks the ability to form his values on the basis of the True and the Good.

Turn now to the third case, that of an agent who hardens her own heart. Assume that despite a good upbringing, in adulthood this agent slowly becomes entrenched in a corrupt and violent organization, justifying her participation to herself bit by bit while ignoring evidence that would show the organization to be immoral. After doing this for a sufficient amount of time, she becomes wholly loyal to this organization and refuses to consider any possibility that it is corrupt or that her actions are suspect in any way. In doing so, she has made herself willfully ignorant and intractable in her beliefs. And, as such, it seems that she has made herself less flexible in her thinking and less able to see the True and the Good (at least with respect to her loyalty to this organization). As such, on Wolf’s view, she should be regarded as less responsible.

If, like me, you see similarities between this example and the participation of ordinary people in atrocious moral acts throughout history, you might worry that Wolf’s account lets, for example, Nazis and slave owners off the hook. And this is precisely what Wolf takes herself to be committed to. Wolf (1987) claims that we should give less than full responsibility to Nazis, slave owners, and male chauvinists because their values “may have been inevitable, given the social circumstances in which they developed. If we think that the agents could not help but be mistaken about their values, we do not blame them for the actions those values inspired” (382).

As Michelle Moody-Adams (1994) rightly argues in "Culture, Responsibility, and Affected Ignorance," it is a strong claim to think that people in these historical contexts had no other choice but to have the values they did. By the historical presence of those who resisted the Nazis and opposed slavery, we can see that it was not inevitable that someone become a Nazi or a proponent of slavery. It is a strange consequence of Wolf’s view that an agent who makes herself less able to see the True and the Good can make herself less responsible. You should not be able to get off the hook for your actions by making yourself more evil.

Fischer and Ravizza's View

Fischer and Ravizza’s (1998) “guidance control” view of moral responsibility put forth in Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility conceives of moral responsibility in terms of responsibility for a mechanism that must be the agent’s own and that also must be responsive to reasons (89). (By mechanism, they're getting at something like a reasoning ability or ability to make decisions.) On this view, “moral responsibility is an essentially historical notion,” because certain historical conditions are required to determine whether, say, an action is the agent’s own (170).

Fischer and Ravizza claim “that some sort of process of taking responsibility is necessary for moral responsibility [and for (say), an action to become the agent’s own]. And (of course) a process is essentially historical” (200). This helps to ground the agent’s responsibility for their reasons-responsive mechanism, as:

When an agent takes responsibility, then, he obviously is not accepting responsibility for only those actions whatever their source; rather, he is accepting responsibility for only those actions which flow from a certain source. This idea can be framed more precisely by saying that an agent takes responsibility for acting from a particular kind of mechanism (215).

This kind of framework helps them block “a wide range of intuitively ‘responsibility-undermining factors,’” including brainwashing, hypnosis, or direct stimulation of the brain by a meddling scientist (197). When the agent’s mental states are “produced in these ways, the mechanism that issues in the relevant behavior is not, in an important intuitive sense, the agent’s own” (197).

But, I think Fischer and Ravizza's historical requirement for responsibility is too strong. Again, let's look at three cases to see where this view might go wrong: coffee shop, total passivity, and rejecting resentment.

Responses to Fischer and Ravizza

First, imagine that I’m sitting and drinking coffee at my local coffee shop/workspace and a fellow patron decides to sit down and start hitting on me despite my protestations that I’m working and don’t want to be bothered. If I am trying to figure out whether this person is responsible, it does not seem likely that I should ask myself “did this man take responsibility at some point in his upbringing such that he is responsible for the mechanism that has causal efficacy on his current actions”? Requiring this sort of historically-distant mind reading seems too stringent a condition on responsibility.

Second, imagine a young who woman considers herself to be totally passive in her life, seeing everything as determined by the positions of the stars. Instead of realizing her own complicity in pushing away her former best friend, she instead blames it on the movements of celestial bodies. Fischer and Ravizza consider such a case and defend their view as follows:

The basic idea is that an individual who really does not see himself as an agent and a fair target for the reactive attitudes cannot be deemed genuinely active and morally responsible. In not seeing himself in a certain way, he fails to be a morally responsible agent. Lacking the required view of himself, he is essentially passive, buffeted by forces that assail him…. But an individual who fails to take responsibility (in our sense) is a bit like a sailor who does not believe his rudder is working; he allows the boat to be buffeted by the strong winds. He does not guide the boat. The boat’s movements are no reflection on him; rather, they are entirely attributable to the winds (221).


Perhaps the boat’s movements are no reflection on him, but the fact that he is holding the wheel and failing to recognize that he is guiding the boat may still reflect on him. If the young woman complains that her best friend has left her due to fate, it may still be reasonable to protest “but you were the one who said mean things to her—that’s why she’s no longer friends with you! Why can’t you just accept the consequences of your actions?” The failure to take responsibility itself may sometimes be culpable.

Third, imagine a case in which someone only ever accepts the reactive attitudes of love and gratitude but never sees himself as an appropriate target for resentment or indignation. Someone like, for example, a chauvinist boss who blames his female secretaries for any mistakes he makes while taking all the credit for their successes. This partial rejection of the reactive attitudes may reasonably cut these people off from meaningful, reciprocal human relationships, but it does not necessarily seem to block the appropriateness of resentment. As I noted when discussing Wolf’s view, you shouldn’t be able to escape responsibility by making yourself a worse person or refusing to take responsibility.

Upshots and Next Chapters

For my own view of character, I am much more concerned with how an agent’s history conveys vital information about how the agent’s patterns of choice and attitudes unfold within an ongoing, developing historical context. This historical information allows us to make rich interpretations about an agent’s values, projects, and trajectory.

Additionally, whether the agent has taken responsibility can also matter for how we assess their character. Things the agent has endorsed or accepted as belonging to them often lend to different interpretations than things that the agent has not endorsed or do not see as belonging to them (even if, at the end of the day, they do). History matters for coloring many stories we tell about character; our histories are not necessarily a precondition for being able to deploy the mode of character.

You can be the victim and the villain at the same time.

Up next:

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: Dan Roizer

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