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Dissertation Part 6: What are the limits of responsibility?

a zoomed in line that marks the edge of a tennis court

Can we give a clear set of criteria that tells us who is responsible and who isn’t?

In this final chapter, I propose a methodology for thinking about the limits of responsibility and reject attempts to build taxonomies that clearly delineate who is responsible from who is not.

Character as a Mode

As I argued last chapter, deploying the moral mode and constructing narratives of character is itself a kind of activity done for particular reasons, most notably those with interpersonal import. In this chapter, I follow Kate Abramson’s (2016) view in "Character as a Mode of Evaluation" that rejects the idea that we can cleanly separate virtues and vices from mental health and illness or natural abilities/inabilities as different natural psychological kinds. Instead, “questions about how to classify a psychological attribute depend on the suitability of various modes of evaluation including moral, medical, and natural ability modes, which differ in content, normative implications, and conditions of application” (56). Ultimately, the “choice of mode of evaluation is itself an ethical choice (57).

There are internal norms to each mode of evaluation that partially determine the appropriateness of their application:

  • To regard someone as having a natural ability is to mark that attribute as a desirable accident of birth, as natural disabilities are undesirable accidents of birth (66).

  • To regard a person’s attribute as a virtue is to respond to it in a way that marks it as worthy of positive moral attitudes, especially reactive ones: certain forms of praise, love, gratitude. A vice is worthy of (some) negative reactive attitude(s): guilt, shame, anger, resentment, indignation, contempt (66).

  • To regard someone as having a mental illness, or as having a healthy psychological attribute, is to say that they are well or ill, could benefit from medical intervention, and the like (66).


More than one mode can be applied in a given situation: grief at the death of a loved one could rightly be deemed both a matter of depression and a matter of character. And the question as to whether something should be considered a mental illness or disability “is already, in part, an ethical question” (71). Even the concept of disability itself is grounded in background ethical debates about whether disability should be framed in terms of an individual problem that requires medical intervention and/or a collective and social failure to provide adequate accommodations.

Additionally, both the medical mode and the natural ability mode can be used to obscure the ethical and matters of character. Is it just hysteria? Or is a woman rightfully angry over being repressed in a patriarchal society? Is the vocal soloist’s ability reduceable to pure talent? Or have many years of effort and dedication been devoted to the development of that skill? Even deploying the natural ability mode requires some understanding of the ethical considerations at play (72).

Abramson groups the considerations that help us determine which mode is appropriate into three categories:

  1. considerations focused on the psychological facts about the agent and the fit between those facts, on the one hand, and the mode of evaluation on the other;

  2. the interpersonal import of adopting a given mode of evaluation in situ; and

  3. the comparative appropriateness of adopting one mode of evaluation rather than another in terms of the first two sets of considerations (70).


With regard to (1), certain kinds of basic bodily states do not fit with the mode of character, such as feeling itchy after being assaulted by a number of mosquitos on a hot summer evening. Nor does a fleeting daydream about a flying elephant with a monocle warrant any medical intervention.

With regard to (2), the interpersonal import can be quite expansive, including “not only relations between appraiser and appraised, but also others with whom the appraised and appraiser interact, as well as general features of social dynamics perhaps not reducible to interactions between particular persons” (72). This changes from context to context, and different matters of interpersonal import might cut against each other.

With regard to (3), though it may sometimes be perfectly appropriate to deploy multiple modes, sometimes one mode is clearly more appropriate than another. The therapist has good reason to deploy a different configuration of modes of evaluation with their client than that client’s close friend would deploy when told the same story from the client’s childhood.

I will let Abramson sum up this section:

In all these ways, deciding whether to regard any given attribute as a virtue or vice, a natural ability or defect, a mental illness or a feature of psychological health involves complicated and nested ethical questions all the way down, and at every level. The facts of the agent’s psychology on which contemporary ethicists have focused are only one small piece of a complicated puzzle (76).

Carving Off the Bounds of Responsibility

There is a common strategy in contemporary accounts of moral responsibility that attempts to clearly show how the view can deal with a range of standard cases where it appears that responsibility is mitigated or removed altogether.

David Shoemaker’s (2015) book Responsibility at the Margins presents perhaps the most nuanced version of this strategy, as he explores a variety of cases of marginal agents in the “perverse sweet spot” where we have ambivalent responsibility responses towards them. Shoemaker proposes that we have roughly three different responsibility concepts that can apply in different degrees to different kinds of agents: attributability responsibility (character), answerability responsibility (judgment), and accountability responsibility (regard). Shoemaker works to determine to what extent individuals with autism, psychopathy, dementia, and other psychological conditions can participate in each of the three kinds of responsibility in Shoemaker’s taxonomy.

One of the benefits of Shoemaker’s version of this strategy is that it allows for agents with differential ability to participate in one or more of the kinds of responsibility to certain degrees, if not all three. This makes responsibility something that isn’t merely on or off but allows for a plurality of notions of responsibility. My own view is amenable to multiple complementary conceptions of responsibility, though I have focused primarily on character. At the same time, I suspect that even the most nuanced taxonomy that lays out degrees of responsibility and recognizes the diversity of human agency is a strategy that is doomed from the start.

First, it’s unclear to me that Shoemaker avoids stigmatizing agents who fail to meet the standards for participating in one or more faces of responsibility. At the best points in Shoemaker’s book, like in the discussion of dementia, there is a recognition of the experiences of people with dementia and of their caretakers (210). At the worst points, like in the discussion of psychopathy, it’s unclear that Shoemaker avoids making unwarranted moral assumptions about medical conditions. The studies of psychopathy that Shoemaker most thoroughly discusses are of psychopaths who are already in prison, and successful psychopaths are defined as “‘successful’ only in the sense that they are not in prison … yet” (161). In places, the approach can come off as something like a “philosophical freak show,” carving off the bounds of moral agency by looking from the outside at the various inabilities that mark each condition.

Second, the sheer range of knowledge that one would have to have to understand the limits of the medical models and the vast range of experiences of individuals who express these conditions differently is near impossible to have for a team of researchers, let alone one author. But the apparent clarity of a taxonomy obscures this vast range of nuanced experience. Even if a taxonomy is helpful on some level as a starting point from which individual moral agents and medical practitioners can deviate in individual cases, it often encourages us to see through that lens and over-simplify cases in terms of the categories we have already been given. I think the particularities of our lives are too rich to be fully captured by such a general frame.

Third, this kind of conditions-internal-to-the-agent framing fails to recognize that disability cannot be understood as entirely internal to the agent. As Joel Michael Reynolds (2019) writes in "The Meaning of Ability and Disability," "if there is such a thing as the ableist fallacy, it is the idea that abilities are individual, that individual bodies ‘have’ abilities. ‘Ability’ is a concept that picks out the relations of body and context, and once one sees it so, the idea of a direct bind between body and worth and the idea of the verdict of bodies is shown to be both unfounded and ethically deplorable" (443).

For all of us, disabled or not, our ability to function (which is itself a complex, value-laden notion) is dependent in part on accommodations, supports, and environment. An amputee who has access to an excellent prosthetic has different modes of functionality than a similar amputee without access to a good prosthetic.

There is also an exceptionally close connection between disability and oppression. Those in oppressed communities are generally more subject to mental health conditions like depression and ongoing trauma responses because of adverse treatment and hostile environments. And, being disabled opens up more possibilities of becoming further disabled through lack of access to resources or active discrimination.

Reynolds (2022) notes in "Disability and White Supremacy" that while it is well-known that Black Americans are much more likely to be killed by police, it is less well-known that “nearly half of all people killed by the police are people with disabilities” (48). Reynolds argues that white supremacy also “functions as a process and apparatus of making abled and disabled” (48). As this illustrates, questions of when the mode of natural dis/ability should be employed and how social expectations and realities should be considered are already embroiled in ethical considerations.

Fourth, in part because of all of these complex considerations and in part because of my own convictions that good judgments of responsibility require experience and practical judgment, I have abandoned the project of developing a framework that can, from a god’s-eye perspective, clearly identify all cases in which people are fully responsible, partially responsible, or not responsible at all. Even if it were possible, I’m unconvinced that such a totalizing project would track what we’re doing when we’re making judgments of responsibility—as I’ve argued in Chapter 5, I think that the project of determining who’s responsible for what is an active, constructive project that we are always engaged in and that we cannot predetermine.


It’s a very complicated thing to read philosophical theories that make you out to be a less than fully responsible agent because you have a mental health condition. While there is a relief in being removed from the obligations of responsibility when it is genuinely unfair to impose them, there is also a very reasonable worry of being cut out of meaningful interpersonal relationships, mutual regard, and love.

There is a tendency to think about morally responsible agents in terms of some statistically normal psychological baseline and to then determine how any departures from that baseline impede responsibility. However, I think this is the wrong approach. The core question, I think, is not whether an agent is sufficiently psychologically abnormal or broken to be unable to participate in our practices of moral responsibility but instead whether it is good, appropriate, and helpful to apply the moral mode or other modes in a given case.

Photo Credit: Ben Hershey

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