There have been a number of very interesting and insightful comments on my original post about responsibility and identity (regarding the fission case). In order to keep my sanity (and my day job!), I’ve had to force myself to refrain from commenting more than twice on any original post, so I’ve let the opportunity pass to talk about several of the comments made. Nevertheless, I think the conversation has been interesting and fruitful, and I thought that a recent comment by John Fischer deserved attention sufficient to warrant a new post. John remarked that we could perhaps find reason to doubt the original “platitude” (that one person can’t be morally responsible for the actions of someone else) by thinking of much more ordinary cases, specifically those involving children. So I as a parent would, it seems, be responsible for the actions of my child (say, if I let my 13-year-old drive the car around the neighborhood and he crashes into something). Ordinarily, those wanting to defend the platitude will say something like, “Well, you (the parent) are still responsible only for your own actions, which in this case were to allow your not-yet-responsible child to wreak havoc in the neighborhood.” I suppose this would be akin to letting your pet monkey loose: he’s not a responsible agent, so we attribute responsibility to you for letting him loose.

This answer doesn’t quite do justice to John’s case, however, because he seems to be insisting that you are responsible for the actions of the child (and not, as it were, responsible just for your lax parenting). But I actually find this to be not quite right. You are clearly appropriately subject to blame for allowing the child to do what he did, but are you really appropriately subject to blame for what the child did? This goes to the heart of the view on responsibility I really want to advocate (but won’t do so quite yet here), namely, that it’s a matter of being appropriately subject to the reactive attitudes (e.g., resentment, anger, etc.) with respect to your general character, and not necessarily with respect to any particular action you’ve performed. Now there’s much involved in that formulation that I won’t go into just yet, but for now I’ll simply say this: it seems that we don’t appropriately react with resentment towards the child because he has yet to develop a moral character, whereas we do react with resentment towards you (the parent) because you (ostensibly) have, and because the action of letting your child run amok reveals certain negative aspects of your character, ones that indicate a willingness to ignore the basic demand for goodwill towards your fellows. But in any event, we’re still reacting negatively toward you for that aspect of your character revealed in the (in)action of lax parenting, and not with respect to any aspect of your character revealed by your child’s actions. This is what distinguishes the parenting case from the original Adam/Brett/Carl case: we hold Brett/Carl responsible for the actions of Adam insofar as their character is exactly similar to his (and is causally produced by his); no such resemblance of character obtains between you and your child, though, so I think the parenting case can be accounted for by the defenders of the original platitude.

9 Replies to “Responsibility and Identity, Part Deux

  1. Dave, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I am not sure how to resolve such disputes about what exactly we hold someone responsible for. It is clear that we both would hold the parent responsible for SOMETHING. The question is, what? I am inclined to agree that we do hold a parent responsible for his lax parenting, but also for the reasonably forseeable upshot: the child’s actions that wreak havoc in the neighborhood. This is parallel to holding someone morally responsible for the reasonably forseeable consequences (which may be his own actions) of his drinking too much (his intemperance).
    What do you think of the following kind of case? Suppose I trick you into doing something by deceiving you. I tell you that this is a can of good dog food, but I have (unbeknownst to you) poisoned it. When I tell you to feed the dog, and you do, I am morally responsible for your poisoning the dog, aren’t I?
    Anyway, the above are just quick thoughts, and I’d be interested in your reactions. Of course, I suppose it is always better to come up with uncrazy counterexamples to platitudes, when possible (although, as you know, I am not entirely adverse to the crazy ones)!

  2. I think Dave’s (part deux) post speaks to a more general principle that makes me hesitate about John’s cases, since they all involve “agents” with some sort of impaired agency. These “agents” are a not-fully-matured child, a drunk adult, and a not-fully-informed adult. It seems to me that in such cases we normally fault the agent-in-charge-of-the-“agent” (that is, the parent, the adult prior to getting drunk, and the deceiver). But I don’t think that in these cases one agent is being held responsible for the actions of another. Rather, the agent is being held responsible for events that are not agent-originated actions. That is, because they are performed by agentially-impaired persons, the “actions” of the child, the drunk, and the deceived man are not really actions. We hold the parent responsible not for the actions of the child, but for acting in such a manner that led to (reasonably predictable) unfortunate events. And it is in *this* sense that it’s like letting your pet monkey loose.
    But if this is so, then it’s not a case of holding one agent responsible for the *actions* of another *agent*. So to generate that kind of conclusion, we’d need a case where the actions of the other truly are actions, at least in the sense that the other’s agency is not impaired in any way.

  3. Thanks for the reply on this, John and Josh. There are a number of interesting issues that are being raised. One is the issue of methodology: what sorts of cases (crazy or non-crazy) are permissible or legitimate in this sort of investigation, especially when a “platitude” is at stake? I agree with you, John, in your implied principle that the more platitudinous the targeted claim is, the less “crazy” we may want to be in our counterexamples. Nevertheless, given the general acceptance and heavy lifting already done by the fission case in work on personal identity, I have very little reservation about employing it with regard to the patterns of concern normally associated with identity. But you’re still right: the more ordinary the example, the better.
    Nevertheless, I think in this instance that the cases you’ve given won’t be enough to undermine the platitude, primarily because of reasons similar to those Josh has offered (reasons I hinted at in my post). It seems to me that appropriate responsibility-attribution requires an agent whose will is structured in a certain way, typically involving (a) a will to do the action in question (construed as either a desire or belief) (b) with which he’s identified (either through evaluation or via a second-order desire or, in my preferred view, via a dependence relation on his nexus of cares). Children typically lack the former element (where the action is robustly described to include a moral component, e.g., “I want to do X, where I know X is right/wrong”), and in the poisoning case so do I (I didn’t know what I was doing). Now I wouldn’t go so far as Josh as to say these aren’t *actions*, but I would agree that these aren’t performed by *moral agents* (with the properly structured will in place), so that responsibility attribution is inappropriate in their cases. But actions (which I think can also be performed by animals) aren’t then always subject to responsibility-attribution, so it’s not necessary that we always find an agent who’s really responsible for them (e.g., the parents). So in the end, I think these are *actions* for which no one is responsible, but that they were still foreseeable events for which the parent (and the poisoner) are responsible *for having allowed/enabled them to occur* (much in the way God would be responsible, not for causing the destruction of the tornado, but for having allowed/enabled the conditions in which that destruction occurred).

  4. Hi Dave. I’m a bit out of my comfort zone here, so forgive me in advance if I’ve missed something. At the end of the comment, I will have both a substantive and methodological question.
    As I understand it, the platitude being addressed is this: “One person can’t be morally responsible for the actions of someone else.” John wonders whether the platitude can be undermined by rather simple examples like this: “I tell you that this is a can of good dog food, but I have (unbeknownst to you) poisoned it. When I tell you to feed the dog, and you do, I am morally responsible for your poisoning the dog….” If I understand your reply on behalf of those who would defend the platitude, you believe (i) that you have performed the act of poisoning the dog, (ii) that your act of poisoning the dog is not an act for which you can be held responsible (and, hence, your act was not a *moral* act, i.e., you did not perform the act as a moral agent), and in fact, (iii) that no one is responsible for the act of poisoning the dog. Because no one is (morally) responsible for your act of poisoning the dog, then of course the deceiver is not (morally) responsible for your act of poisoning the dog.
    Now I agree with John that his is a rather simple counterexample to the platitude. It seems to me that the deceiver in his example would be morally responsible for your act of poisoning the dog. (I also intuit that most people’s intuitions would be the same! Perhaps this is a job for our friends at Experimental Philosophy. So what do I think might be wrong with your defense of the platitude? Your suggestion that neither you nor the deceiver (nor anyone else) would be responsible for poisoning the dog seems to be based on the acceptance of a substantive theory of responsibility according to which the following is a necessary condition for an agent’s being held morally responsible for an act:
    (a) an agent A is morally responsible for an act x only if A has a desire to perform x and a belief that performing x is right/wrong.
    So, because, in John’s example, no one had a desire to poison the dog, then no one was morally responsible for poisoning the dog.
    Now, even if we assume that the deceiver in fact lacked a desire *to* poison the dog (and I’m not convinced that the deceiver did lack that desire), we can certainly attribute to the deceiver at least the following: (i) the desire *that* the dog be poisoned, (ii) the belief that an act of poisoning the dog performed by a moral agent would be right/wrong, and (iii) performance of the act of telling you to feed the dog, which, in part, caused you to poison the dog and which was *intended* to, in part, cause you to poison the dog. And these seem to me to be the most pressing conditions present for assigning responsibility to the deceiver for your poisoning the dog. That is, these three conditions, together, seem to indicate that perhaps (a) is too strong. Perhaps the weaker claim (a’), rather than (a), is what is required (in addition to some other requirements—you mention at least one other one) for being morally responsible for performing an act:
    (a’) an agent A is morally responsible for an act x only if (i) A has a desire that x be performed, (ii) A has a belief that a performance of x by a moral agent B (which may or may not be identical with A) would be right/wrong, and (iii) A performs (or fails to perform) an act y the performance (or failure to perform) of which, at least in part, causes some agent C (which may or may not be identical with A or B) to perform x and which is intended to, at least in part, cause C to perform x.
    The substantive question is whether you see any significant problems (other than that we would have to give up the platitude) for a theory of responsibility that holds (a’) rather than (a). The methodological question is this: on the assumptions that most people believe that the platitude is true, that most people believe that the deceiver in John’s example is, in fact, morally responsible for your act of poisoning the dog, and that the two beliefs are inconsistent, which of the two beliefs would you be more willing to give up?

  5. It seems like some of these problems might be simplified if we talked about responsibility for *outcomes* rather than *actions*. If you trick someone into putting poison in the dog food, then you’re responsible for the death of the dog, just as you would be if you’d programmed a robot to serve the poison dog food or if you’d served it yourself. If you let your kid run wild & wreak havoc on the neighborhood, then you are (at least partially) responsible for the resulting havoc. If you move your index finger a bit, which causes a contained explosion to send a small projectile at an extremely high speed through the back of someone’s head, then you are responsible for that person’s death. The last action is customarily called a shooting, and the serving of poison food is customarily called a poisoning, and these are generally considered actions for which the agent is responsible. Instead of using a complex definition of “action” that involves a variety of contextual details (like a loaded gun being in your hand), though, it may be easier to create a general account of responsibility if we consider a person to be responsible for foreseeable outcomes that are made more likely by what he intentionally does. The details still need to be worked out more precisely, but this outcome-based definition seems more general and more intuitive to me than (a’) and it has the advantage of covering cases where it is hard to isolate a single wrong act x that has caused a bad outcome.

  6. The questions is whether or not we actually pass judgment on outcomes… Someone is no less evil if they fail to kill someone by shooting at them with the intention of killing them. We would seem to hold someone responsible, and attribute moral blame to them, is case where the “outcome” would be no different had they done nothing. Think of the following… Man A shoots at man B in an open field where man C is walking his dog. Man A is a horrible shot, and empties an entire magazine without even hitting B. B, being deaf is unaware that any of this is going on, but C looks on with moral disapprobation.
    We think A an evil man, and punish him for attempting to kill B, but the outcome here, save the disposition of C, is no different than if A did absolutely nothing at all. B is not harmed since he is not even aware of the attempted murder… He had no feelings of dread, or mental trauma, and had A not been there at all, B would feel no different. So what outcome are we holding A responsible for? Seems that in practice we hold people responsible for what they do, whether or not a causal story leads to some efficacious outcome.

  7. Hey all. Good discussion. I can’t address every point, but here were a few thoughts. First, Dan (B.): I was slightly confused by some of your remarks, which seem to attribute to me the position that I’m defending the platitude (one person can’t be responsible for the actions of another). I’m not, of course. Rather, I was saying that defenders of the platitude could have fairly plausible ways to deny John Fischer’s non-crazy counterexamples. In effect, I’m defending the view that deploying the fission case is really the most plausible way to undermine the “platitude.” But second, your amended view of responsibility seems somewhat ad hoc, where the motivation seems to be finding a way to allow for what you think our intuitions are in the dog poisoning case. But I’m not yet sure I agree with the claim you make that we’d say “X is responsible for Y’s poisoning the dog.” Or if we do, that’s a gloss on “X is responsible for *deceiving y* into poisoning the dog.”
    Furthermore (and here my true colors are really going to show), I’m not sure I want to maintain that there must be a causal connection between my desires and any action at all in order for me to be held responsible (in a sense) for some action/event. All that matters, I think, is the character and structure of my will, whether or not my character/will causes any actions at all! This is why I think that we can legitimately hold Brett and Carl responsible for the actions of Adam, even though they didn’t exist when the action was performed. What matters is that they *would have* performed such an action, given the same opportunity, and so we may feel resentment towards them *in the same mode and degree* that we would towards Adam (because they are exactly like Adam). What we object to is a character that would perform such actions. So action merely reveals to us a person’s character, but the target of reactive attitudes (responsibility-attribution) is to character, at the end of the day.
    One suggestive example that I’ll just toss out there to the blogosphere: a couple (call them David and Marie) is sitting together, and they both witness the husband of another couple doing something rude and insensitive to his wife. Marie turns to David with a scowl (a reactive attitude) and says, “That’s something *you* would do!”

  8. Hi Dave. Two quick thoughts (I’ll save comments about your “true colors” for later). First, I certainly did not intend to suggest that you were defending the platitude, since of course you were trying to give a counterexample to it. I understood you merely to be “replying on behalf of those who would defend the platitude,” and I should have made this clearer throughout the comment. My question had more to do with whether your response on their behalf was a plausible one. I should have asked my question more directly: supposing most people would hold the deceiver responsible for your poisoning the dog, should we have an analysis of ‘responsibility’ that took these intuitions into account (like the amended one tried to do), or is there good enough independent reason to accept the view of responsibility that you were using to defend the platitude (on behalf of those who would defend it)? Second, I’m not sure why you think the amended view is ad hoc—it was intended to be an (incomplete) analysis of ‘responsibility’ that, to be sure, accounted for my intuitions about the dog poisoning case (as well as other cases). But I’m not sure why you think doing so is ad hoc. We take our intuitions about cases into account all the time when analyzing a concept, and not many people think doing so is ad hoc. Now, of course, if you don’t have the same intuitions as I do about some of the cases, we may develop different analyses that reflect these differences in intuition—but I don’t think our analyses would be, eo ipso, ad hoc.

  9. Responding to Dave’s true colors…
    Maybe I missed the point of your last example with “Dave and Marie,” but here I think we’re a bit of course. Her reactive attitude may be one of dissatisfaction with “Dave’s” character, but that is far from her having the belief that you are morally responsible for something. Someone tells me they are a racist and I look at them with moral disapprobation, but I can’t really say (coherently anyway) that I hold them responsible for anything. I do not believe they deserve any sort of punishment as they would if such hate led them to harm another. Now maybe this is a conflation on my part, but one which I think most share. There maybe some truth to the idea that we have disapprobational attitudes towards people merely based on their character (or nexus of cares) but that is entirely distinct from the notion of moral responsibility. The must be an object on is responsible for. I say “Frank is responsible.” The intuitive clarifier is “For what?” He’s responsible for his nexus of cares? Well, that (if true) is trivially true… and more to the point isn’t what we mean when we talk about responsibility. They need to DO something for which I hold them responsible. A racist may invoke a sense of disapprobation in me, and though I may do what I can to discuss the issue with him to change his mind, I feel unjustified in punishing him for having such a care structure. I DO feel justified in punishing that same person if the commit some sort of racist harm. I am not unique in this regard, so I am somewhat curious how the notion of responsibility can disregard some sort of casual connection between character and action…

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