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Why should we allow S & E, presumably largely ignorant of matters philosophical, to have the definitive word on a matter paradigmatically philosophical? Why shouldn't they be grateful to hear what someone who has thought deeply about responsibility has to say on the subject, applying his expertise to their own case? And here's the best part- if he is a true philosopher, the highest compliment the ladies could pay him would be a principled rejection of everything he has to say, i.e., telling him for good, solid reasons that he's full of garbage. (That way he'd could add another section to his latest paper.) But mind your own business? Such a response seems linked to the insidious notion of relativism, the thought that whatever S & E come up with by way of resolution of their dispute is sacrosanct, beyond criticism by others. Like who are these philosophers to suggest that their thoughts may be confused or simply false? We might as well close up our books and begin excising philosophy from curricula once that attitude becomes prevalent.

Surely, on most theories there is a lot of openness: responses that are permissible but not obligatory. This would leave lots of room for Sarah and Emma to work out their own distinctive solution. What am I missing?

I can see your point to some extent; it does seem kind of busybodyish to try to tell others which of their emotional reactions are or aren't warranted or appropriate, instead of just letting them figure out for determine for themselves what is appropriate given the details of the situation they find themselves in. But I think there are at least a couple of factors that can mitigate the busybodyishness of formulating theories of moral responsibility.

For starters, I think Paul make a great point; many theories of moral responsibility seem to allow room for a lot of openness. For instance, one could be a compatibilist and think that an attitude of resent would be fitting or warranted, without holding that an attitude of resentment is obligatory (indeed, a compatibilist could hold that letting go of resentment, even in a situation in which it would be justified, could be a good thing to do). It also seems that some approaches might have more room for openness than others (skeptics, insofar as they argue that most of our natural reactions are inappropriate, seem to be less open).

Also, it seems to me that the busybodyishness comes more in deciding to intervene rather than in formulating the theory. Just because a belief is true (or well justified) doesn't mean it's always appropriate in all situations to offer that view. To take a different kind of example - I think I am pretty well justified in believing that there is no afterlife. But if we grant that (for the sake of argument), it still wouldn't be appropriate for me to offer unsolicited advice to a grieving mother who has just lost a young child, telling her that she is being irrational in finding solace in the belief that her child has gone on to a better place. That would make me a busybody (and horribly insensitive).

Similarly, what makes Saulace seem like such a busybody in your dialogue is that he's decided to intervene, offering unsolicited advice to two people in the grips of a personal conflict. Even assuming that his skeptical beliefs are correct, and well justified, it could still be inappropriate for him to intervene. What would seem more appropriate is for him to offer his views to willing and receptive people in moments of peace, when they can engage in cool reflection about what kinds of reactive attitudes they think they should endorse and why - and maybe that could work to help them temper their unjustified reactions in future situations (just as, by analogy, encouraging willing and receptive people in moments of peace to recognize and reflect on the impermanence of life might help them to more authentically cope with future loss).

Interesting question! I just wonder how to let Sarah and Emma determine whether they should feel responsible or not. They just feel like it or they have some sort of rule when playing the game of responsibility in daily life. At least they seem to agree with each other, right? (although the difference between S&E and philosophers is emphasized here in a caricature way)

However, I may still see the point of the moral criticism to some extent. it is one thing to say that there could be a set of conditions or rules for moral responsibility. It is another to say that the notion of moral responsibility and its associated conditions are a priori fixed (rather than e.g., invented and cultivated by certain culture). I find it difficult to decide which one make more sense.

(Apologies for the length of the following. Also, on refreshing the page, I see that Ryan has said some similar things, but I'm sure he won't mind backup.)

It's clear that Saulace is being obtuse and tactless, and is violating some interpersonal norms. Likewise, an intuitionist would be wrong to jump into an argument between two strangers and chastise one for using a proof tactic they consider invalid. Socrates was probably a bit out of line in challenging Euthyphro. Even if Saulace had received all the truths of philosophy through divine revelation, he'd be wrong to try to impart them to others in this manner. But the wrong is clearly in the imparting, rather than in the having of opinions on the matter. Saulace wouldn't be wrong to merely overhear the dispute and silently think to himself that blame was unwarranted for incompatibilist reasons. He'd be even less wrong to hold forth to students on incompatibilism in the abstract, in the same way that merely favouring intuitionism isn't immoral and Plato was blameless in writing the Euthyphro (even if Socrates wasn't in inspiring it).

For another analogy, imagine that two neuroscientists really did manage to demonstrate that humans have no free will. The first one writes a paper on it, perhaps lobbies for reform of the penal system, but doesn't alter his relationships with others in any way. The second one reacts to any mention of blame, gratitude, or whatever, with a Saulacesque rant about how her findings demonstrate all such attitudes to be unjustified. Assimilating academic discussion about, say, incompatibilism to Saulace's busybodying amounts to assimilating the behaviour of the first neuroscientist to the second. In fact, it amounts to assimilating the behaviour of all neuroscientists who are currently studying the will, whatever their hypotheses or results, to that of the second one in my example. Are you really going to defend that?

Of course, there is a problem if it turns out that the positions we (blamelessly) discuss in seminars and so on can't be employed in specific cases without descending into Saulacism, i.e. if Saulace can talk about the blamelessness of the abstract denizens of his thought experiments without doing anything wrong, but becomes a busybody whenever he tries to apply his results to disputes between real people. There are two things to note here. Firstly, the same problem would trouble many areas of philosophy, even logic, as I intended my choice of the intuitionist as an analog to show, and other fields, like neuroscience. Secondly, here is a plan for applying any philosophical position in a non-busybodying way: in cases we directly participate in, we simply live by our principles and explain them as clearly as we can when called on; in cases we don't directly participate in, we take no direct action; however, we do make some effort to advertise and defend our principles in public, so that others can adopt them and choose to live by them. In other words, if Emma shares Saulace's position, she can choose to forgo resentment and gently explain why to Sarah; Saulace should continue to keep his nose out, but is permitted to write a book (host a podcast, etc.) promoting his position, which future Emmas may read and choose to live by. Since this is basically what philosophers do anyway, it shouldn't be much of a challenge to stick to.

All this said, I can still sort of feel that philosophers of moral responsibility really are closer to Saulace than intuitionists are, and I'm searching around for an explanation of that feeling. I think it's probably founded on the sense that, in making claims about our moral behaviour (rather than how we should argue), philosophers are claiming a kind of moral authority over the rest of humanity. I imagine plenty of people will feel it's wrong and ugly to attribute yourself this kind of authority. I can see why it does rankle to have someone claim it over you in a particular dispute, because it seems to imply they are morally superior to you. But I think there is a kind of moral authority that everyone has over everyone else just by virtue of being a moral agent and that doesn't imply moral superiority; it is what allows us to object to moral wrongs when we see them being perpetrated, to make claims to what we and others deserve, etc. Though some philosophers might set themselves up as moral superiors, I don't think that trying to defend a philosophical position on our moral behaviour requires superiority, but only the basic kind of moral authority we all share.

Tamler, your story reminds me a bit of the famous Kurosawa film 'Rashomon,' where there is a trial concerning a woman's rape by a bandit and the murder of her husband. Even when everyone can agree (mostly) on these objective facts, there is fundamental disagreement about what actually happened. Everyone involved has opposing opinions about who did what and why. So what really happened? How can a correct judgment be made given this ambiguity concerning the facts? Or is there no objective state of affairs, only subjective states of affairs, as those in some relativistic corners of literary theory might argue? Or is there an objective state of affairs plus numerous subjective states of affairs at the same time? What language should be used to describe the objective state of affairs? Physics? What language the subjective state of affairs? Folk Psychology?

A problem arises concerning what counts as the facts of the matter. Is a fact only what physically happened? Or do people's opinions and perspectives concerning their own and other's behaviors count as facts? Call these objective and subjective facts. If subjective facts, such as feeling guilty for hurting someone, can influence what the next objective fact will be, for example vocalizing an apology, then the line blurs between objective and subjective facts. If it is a fact that someone feels guilty, it does seem odd that philosophers would say that this fact should be different than it is. A scientist, in contrast, might want to know the subjective facts about moral judgments, but would not want to make moral judgments about moral judgments.

It seems the first step is to determine what the facts of the matter are. If that is unclear (and perhaps even if it is clear) leaping to an ought statement such as 'you should not feel guilty, only regretful' would make Hume cringe.

Perhaps 'ought' statements can be true of subjective facts (e.g. it is true that she feels that she ought not have insulted her friend, and it may also true that she ought not feel this way). But perhaps 'ought' statements cannot be as easily true or false of objective facts, which just are. It is an objective fact that a man is dead. But is it an objective fact that he ought not be dead? Can such an 'objective ought' be described in an objective language, such as that of physics? If this line of thought is right, then morality applies to subjective facts first and foremost, and only to objective facts in so far as they are the consequences of subjective facts, but not to objective facts in isolation of the subjective facts that led to them. It is hard to see how ought statements could apply to mere configurations of particles, for example. But if this is the correct way to model objective facts, then ought statements and morality would seem not to apply. It may be that ought statements apply primarily to subjective facts, such as intentions, and only secondarily to the objective consequences of those intentions, like the death of a samurai.

That said, results from experimental philosophy show that people make moral judgments both about subjective facts (it was wrong to intend to murder him) and about objective facts (it is wrong that he is dead). The case usually deemed most deserving of punishment is typically malicious intent combined with bad outcome (premeditated murder). We are more forgiving of unintentional cases with bad outcomes (manslaughter) or cases with bad intent but no bad outcome (intent to speed in a slow zone, but no one luckily got hurt). It might not be rational to make moral judgments about objective facts, but people are not consistently rational. If some philosophers want to tell people that they should think and act rationally, in the moral or any other domain, well, that seems like a recipe for frustration among both philosophers and the people they want to change.

Tamler, Nice post. I'll respond to your probably unfair dialogue with a probably unfair one of my own.

(Standing in line at Preservation Hall after having attended NOWAR.)

Saulace – I just don’t see how reasons-responsiveness can address my central worries about desert.

Fischpaly – Let me try again to spell this out. Like you, I think that these questions are some of the most interesting and important questions ever asked. I do wish you agreed with me, but I’m glad we are at least unified in seeing the value of the philosophical pursuit. So the whole point of discussing mechanisms is…

Tamler (bursting in) – Hey, sorry to interrupt, but, did you read my dialogue post?

Fishpaly – I did read it. I liked it. But I have to say I got the feeling that you were, much like you are right now, meddling in our theoretical affairs. You were, dare I say, being a busybod..

Tamler – But wait! I’m just suggesting that there might be something morally suspect about your theoretical pursuits. You’re insisting that people accept your judgments about moral responsibility whatever they happen to think.

Fishpaly – Well Saulace and I and many others at the workshop are just trying to do our best to come to grips with these issues. Sometimes that effort results in the building of a conditions-based theory or two. And, then, in you come…insisting that we accept your judgments about when an intellectual endeavor is morally problematic, whatever we happen to think. So, if Saulace is being a busybody, aren’t you?

Perhaps this is a more focused response. Take this quote: "What all of us refuse to is to allow Sarah and Emma to determine the features and circumstances that they think are relevant in their own interpersonal conflict. And that seems morally problematic." Since there's no question of any philosopher trying to prevent Sarah and Emma from talking about whatever they think is relevant, 'allow' can't be being used in a literal sense. What is the non-literal sense that is intended instead, then? Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing the meaning that is intended is something like 'Sarah and Emma already do determine what is relevant, because what is relevant in any particular case is just what those affected by the case believe is relevant; philosophers fail to recognise this when they come up with theories about what is relevant to the general case - no such theory can be correct'.

This position sounds to me much like particularism in ethics. It may be correct or it may not. But even if it is correct, and theories as to what is relevant in the general case are all wrong, that doesn't make them morally problematic. If we drop use of the word 'allow' - since it makes it sound as if even in the seminar room we actually interfere with people like Sarah and Emma somehow, which is what would make philosophising into something like Saulace's busybodying - I don't see much of a case for the 'morally problematic' part. As I mentioned above, I do understand the feeling that philosophical theories that would prescribe moral behaviour for others is suspect, but I think at base it is probably a reaction to the appearance of a claim to moral superiority by philosophers, though in fact they don't generally make any such claim.

'If it is a fact that someone feels guilty, it does seem odd that philosophers would say that this fact should be different than it is.' Philip

What if the person in question did nothing wrong? What if she simply mistakenly thinks that she violated some norm and, in so doing, hurt someone else? Nietzsche says that the 'bite of conscience is stupid, like a dog biting a stone.' Do you mean to tell me that this hard deterministic opinion, false though it is, would be 'odd' to express to someone overcome with regret? Why should we stifle our views of human affairs? I wouldn't want to hear such a thing from a neophyte, but should a veteran philosopher bring it to my attention I wouldn't think him out of line anymore than I would be put out by a heartfelt offer of medical advice from someone other than my own physician.

Hi all

Thanks for the great comments! I don't want to respond today because we had a late night in NOLA (and not at Preservation Hall). Dave knows how to throw a conference. But I'll be in the fray tomorrow.

What Saulace says is problematic because he is shallow and wrong – if someone butts in but then is shallow and wrong then this is problematic. Whereas someone butting in and saying things which are constructive, helpful and right to both parties, is generally not problematic.

For example,

“Sarah, Emma, what is done is done. However the question that each of you faces is what is the right thing to do and the right way to think, henceforth. Here are some ideas which you might like to employ, which you might find helpful. My job as a philosopher is to help you learn, not to tell you what to do or what to think.

Sarah, we all recognise that it’s a fact that you said things that were very hurtful and damaging to Emma. It happened in the past and cannot be changed. However, regret is not simply a backward looking emotion. Your regret is also for currently being the sort of people who would act in that way. Your regret shows that you recognise that you need to learn from what has happened in the past, and change, so you do not act that way again in future. In order to learn you will need to undertake a lot of reflection and self understanding, and reasoning, but I suggest if you go through this process then you will change, so that in similar circumstances in future you will act differently. Firstly you won’t get drunk anymore. Secondly, if you have the impression someone is treating you badly you will recognise that she only acts that way out of ignorance, so you will try to educate her and help her learn to act better – and if you do not succeed in that then you will try to help others avoid being harmed by her. You will do this rather than being nasty, aggressive and destructive like you were in the past. Once you change yourself so you are a better person, you will no longer feel the same way about what you did in the past – you will be able to forgive yourself and others will be able to forgive you.

Emma, it is quite reasonable for you to not trust Sarah now, and not feel able to be friends with her. She has shown herself to be the sort of person who acts in a nasty, aggressive, destructive way. However if Sarah does succeed in learning and changing then she will have become someone who is worthy of your forgiveness and trust – and someone who you might consider being friends with..."

Well, I guess I'll butt in here...

Tamler, I just don't see the problem here for theorists. Yes, it can be morally objectionable to butt in to other people's affairs. But theorizing about moral responsibility isn't butting in to anyone's life. Giving an account of responsibility is no more intrusive than giving an account of right action, or virtue, or knowledge, or reasons, or...

In each case, we can imagine a similar dialogue in which a philosopher interposes on some people and challenges their decision, or explains what they really can claim as knowledge, or what their reasons really are, or...

But that would be to do something beyond theorizing about a subject. So I don't see how theorizing about a subject could make one a busybody, since theorizing doesn't involve involving oneself in the affairs of others.

I imagine that the better question here concerns how the specifics of particular relationships can affect what responses may be morally legitimate or justified. That's an interesting question in itself, and one that theorists should probably pay more attention to. But I don't see why theories of moral responsibility are committed to any particular answer to how people in interpersonal relationships should work out their difficulties with one another, except in very broad strokes. And, in any case, endorsing a theory with such a commitment doesn't amount to interposing and so doesn't make one a busybody, so it can't be morally objectionable for that reason.

Hello Tamler,

this is a great post! And one that from my point of view cuts much deeper than its caricatural style may suggest. I have many ideas in the my head but I will try to confine myself to just a couple for the sake of brevity (which I will still fail to achieve).
First, while I think there is much good sense in the distinction that several people above have drawn between norms of belief and norms of decision, I am not sure that this is enough to put the busybody charge to rest. I want to draw a parallel with theorization in metaphysics. I see there at least two distinct attitudes about the relation between theorization and commonsense. Kit Fine, in ‘The Question of Realism’, recognizes that ‘many of us are inclined to doubt that philosophy is in possession of arguments that might genuinely serve to undermine what we ordinarily believe’, and sets up for himself the task of developing a form of anti-realism that avoids conflict with commonsense. But other authors (Timothy Williamson for example) have strongly and sometimes aggressively restated a conception of philosophy that sees it as essentially directed to the revision or ordinary beliefs. It seems to me that for people like Williamson philosophy is essentially ‘imperialistic’, to put it in Brandom’s terms. I think that a similar polarity is present within the free will debate, where forms of scepticism defended by authors such as Derk Pereboom, Neil Levy and Tamler Sommers’s past self (with the revisionary implications they carry) could hardly be represented in the literature if it were (metaphilosophically) clear that ‘teaching ordinary people how to think’ were not the job of the philosopher. Consider moreover that on this view philosophy is entitled to correct our practices not less than science; and if this were true, this would provide a powerful justification for philosophical theorizing. I think this is false, and that philosophy is not entitled to suggest radical revisions of our practices, be it at the level of personal relations or of the penal system. But admitting this commits me to the necessity to find an alternative justification for philosophizing. For if philosophical theorizing is simply an intellectual divertissement, completely devoid of impact on the life of the broader community (as some of the posts above seem to suggest), are we sure we have the means to justify its existence at the dawn of the 21st century? (see Kitcher’s ‘Philosophy Inside Out’ for a view on these matters inspired by the classical pragmatists).

Robert, it seems like we have diametrically opposed intuitions about this case. I don't think you need philosophical training to resolve a conflict like Emma and Sarah's. On the contrary, it might get in the way and make them approach it too impersonally. (Unless of course they had Strawsonian training...)

Paul, good point. But if Sarah doesn't meet compatibilist conditions for her transgression (and on some theories it seems she wouldn't), then a blame response wouldn't be permissible, right?

Ryan, you're right that Saulace's busybodiness comes from his decision to intervene. (That's why it's a caricature.) And obviously philosophers aren't actually like that. At the same time, it seems like their theories commit them to having an opinion about how Sarah and Emma should handle the situation, even if they never express it. Sort of like a neighbor who is constantly concerned about how their neighbors are raising their kids. "They watch too much TV.." "They shouldn't allow them to watch South Park.." But never say anything to them. That might be a better analogy, but still of course not perfect.

Hi Jijuan, in my book I argued for your latter alternative. But this post suggests an even more extreme view (extreme for philosophy maybe anyway): that we should let individuals apply their own blaming norms to particular conflicts and feel free to change them for other conflicts...

Hi CJ,

Thanks, first of all the Socrates comparison is helpful--I never made that connection. Second, I like that you're bringing in other fields like logic to the discussion. Here's one reason why you might be right that the intuitionist about logic is less of a busybody. Because most people at least in the West share their intuitions about core logical principles. And so what the logician does is help them understand what they believe already. The same isn't true for moral responsibility and blame--not to anywhere near the same degree anyway.

Peter, you're right that it's important to distinguish between the facts of the case and our moral commitments about those facts. That's why I chose a case where the facts were clear. Saulace is only offering his views about whether blame and resentment are appropriate given those facts.

Philip, Touche! My only defense to your point is to say that we're all philosophers and we're supposed to be busybodies about our theories. Would that work?

Dan, you're right that Saulace sounds much less like a busybody with your revision. But I think that most MR theories would commit him to have stronger views that what you suggest.

Matt, see my reply to Ryan. Would that apply to yours too?

Stefano, thanks for stating my point better and more forcefully than I did!

Sure, I get that it's a caricature. I was just wondering if the unrealistic features of the caricature (the actually intervening) were doing all of the work in motivating "busybody" intuitions. I was inclined to agree with what CJ said in his first comment - that if Saulace had just overheard the conflict, and kept his mouth shut while thinking to himself that any blame would be unwarranted, for incompatibilist reasons, that he wouldn't be doing anything wrong.

The example of constantly fussing over how your neighbors are raising their kids, even while still keeping your mouth shut, is more compelling though; we don't want to be like that either. My initial thought is that some theories of moral responsibility seem more like that others - especially skeptical theories that say that our ordinary practices of praising and blaming are *always* unjustified. Of course any theory of responsibility is going to force us to judge that *sometimes* people are blaming/praising when they shouldn't, but maybe that's not so bad, especially if it is a theory that is sensitive to the difference that *taking* responsibility for some behavior can make, as many theories do (and similarly, maybe it's not so bad to *sometimes* be concerned about the ways that the neighbors are raising their kids, under certain circumstances).

Tamler, I like your response to Ryan (and, by extension, me). It's true that one who is constantly concerned with some (relatively) private aspect of their neighbors life is subject to some moral criticism. But there are several elements that may contribute to this fault that do not apply to the theorizing we do.

First, it's the particularism of the neighbor's concern. They don't think, "Kids today watch too much TV", it's focused specifically on a particular subset, which is to draw unfair attention, perhaps, to one offender. The former thought looks more like general theorizing that happens to extend to their neighbor.

Second, part of the above problem is the constant attention to the particular supposed offense. It isn't that they've come to a judgment about their neighbors and then move on to other matters (which looks fine). Rather, they are constantly focused on it which makes it look more like a fetish (even if their judgment is accurate). We theorists certainly are focused on coming to judgments about moral responsibility and its conditions, but even we aren't constantly focused on any particular faults of actual persons.

So, it doesn't seem to me (to risk repetition) that theorizing about a topic, even with its commitments for specific actual cases, turns us into busybodies, provided we aren't going around involving ourselves in the lives of others. A medical researcher whose theory commits them to the judgment that those who eat lots of dairy are increasing their risk of heart disease, is not thereby being a busybody with respect to Charlie, who is a person who eats a lot of dairy.

I wonder, then, whether this idea of being a busybody isn't just an implication of your own brand of relativistic skepticism, one that only makes sense under the picture where the correct conditions on, say, blameworthiness are determined by the local community (even super-local, as in the two people involved).

This is a far too long-winded way of asking whether you think this charge of being a busybody extends to all theorizing, or whether it is limited to theorizing about moral responsibility for some reason? And if it's the latter, why that is?

Tamler, you say: “My only defense to your point is to say that we're all philosophers and we're supposed to be busybodies about our theories. Would that work?”

I’m not sure it does, and this gets to my underlying point. There is a similarity between the reasons that support the permissibility of philosophers being busybodies and the reasons that support Saulace being a busybody. Let’s assume you think your busy-bodying around is permissible because you believe:

(A) it is morally problematic to do what Saulace (and anyone else developing condition-based theories) is doing.

Your meddling is justified, if (A) is true - if (A) is true, it shouldn’t matter what your interlocutors think about the permissibility of what they’re doing. It’s morally problematic and that’s why they shouldn’t do it.

But, Saulace probably believes:

(B) it is morally problematic to have undeserved reactive attitudes towards others.

Now, Saulace’s meddling is justified, if (B) is true - if (B) is true, it shouldn’t matter what his interlocutors think about the permissibility of what they’re doing. It’s morally problematic and that's why they shouldn’t do it.

Since the justifications for Saulace and your respective busy-bodying are identical – curtailing morally problematic actions – we can only resolve this dispute by figuring out who is right. But, if that’s where the dispute leads, then the force of your point in this post is lost. What you thought was a distinctive moral problem with Saulace and others actually boils down to a theoretical problem. You must think that Saulace’s conditions-based account is false. If his or some other conditions-based view were true, then tactful meddling (if that’s even a thing) would be permissible. And it would be permissible for the very same reason your own meddling seems to you to be – it promises to curtail moral wrongs.

Or maybe your claim is stronger - that even if we had our hands on a true theory, it would still be morally problematic to meddle. If that’s your claim, it would be distinctively moral, but I wonder how far we should go. Should philosophers who discovered the true moral theory also just sit on it?


All good points. I agree that some theories of moral responsibility are more busybodyish than others. P.F. Strawson's, for example, probably isn't at all. But is it a theory? That's a different question. Scanlon's also probably less vulnerable depending on how you interpret his idea of relationship types. And yes, I agree that under certain circumstances judging other people's conflicts is a appropriate. (By analogy, if the parents are constantly beating their children, you should probably judge and maybe intervene.)

Matt, thanks, very helpful. You write: "I wonder, then, whether this idea of being a busybody isn't just an implication of your own brand of relativistic skepticism, one that only makes sense under the picture where the correct conditions on, say, blameworthiness are determined by the local community (even super-local, as in the two people involved)."

That's a good way of looking at it actually. And like I say to Juajin, I think the people involved can define their own blame norms (within reason) but only have them apply to a particular conflict. They might apply different norms in other situations.

"whether you think this charge of being a busybody extends to all theorizing, or whether it is limited to theorizing about moral responsibility for some reason? And if it's the latter, why that is?"

No I don't--I'm just most concerned with MR theorizing because that's my field and I am/was as much of a busybody as anyone. Someone at UBC when I gave this talk suggested that this charge could be leveled at most of normative ethics. That's probably right. (And like in this case, it will be more or less forceful depending on the normative theory.)


Thanks, I agree with a lot of you what you say here. A couple things though.

first, if I'm wrong about (A), then my unwarranted busybodiness extends to under 100 people. If I'm right about (A), then the theorists' unwarranted busybodiness extends to all of humanity.

Second, all joking aside, if I'm right that the systematic theory-based approach is misguided, then this would have important social implications. I think that our criminal justice system presumes a kind of objectivity about blameworthiness judgments that doesn't exist. And people suffer as a result. If I'm right, then a system that incorporate restorative justice elements would probably be a lot more appropriate because it allows the relevant parties significant leeway to work out their own conflicts. (And just to preempt a possible objection, I'm not saying that no theory of moral responsibility is compatible with a more restorative approach. I'm only saying that many would provide an obstacle by promoting the illusion that objective moral responsibility judgments could be determined by third parties.)

You are inviting moral chaos, Tamler, exacerbating the injustice wrought by capitalism. What reason do we have for thinking individuals left to their own untutored devices are going to set matters aright when those same parties exhibit the very vices that collectively create injustice in the first place? Are you that sanguine about human nature that you expect most folks to anything but neo-Thraymachuses when it comes to conflict resolutions? (Here, if anywhere, is where all knowledge gained from watching mob movies should give you pause.) Matt is right: only a relativist what throw out the objective baby with the morally impure bathwater. Why shouldn't philosophers try instead to steer the state in the right direction, a la Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, et al, rather than stand on the sidelines witnessing and suffering mistreatment at the hands of a system they believe to false and corrupt? Do we not know considerably more than the average disputant about reasoning and justice?

Your suggestion seems to be that what is rational or irrational with respect to responsibility related emotions and practices is ultimately determined by the parties involved. But stated this way, this is an objectionably subjectivist position. It’s implausible to think that Emma and Sarah could simply decide (on their own or together) what the correct responses would be in this situation. (More on this in a minute).

A central feature of the case that makes your position plausible is the tremendous amount of normative agreement between Sarah and Emma (and your audience) about what happened, why it was bad, and who was at fault. These background agreements allowed Emma and Sarah to resolve (or mostly resolve) their interpersonal dispute and reach a satisfactory resolution, after apologies were issued and good will was expressed by the transgressor in the form of flowers and DVDs). Everyone involved agreed that Emma had been treated in a way she didn't deserve, both agreed that Emma's initial resentment (and Sarah's subsequent guilt) were rationally appropriate, and both ultimately agreed that amends had been made by an exchange of verbal apologies and other tokens of good will. (I’d wager that most [non-skeptical] philosophers would also agree on all of these points, though they would surely disagree on the precise explanation for them). Emma and Sarah might quibble a bit about some of the details like whether Emma should feel grateful for the DVDs of The Wire, but by and large there’s a consensus. Given all of this agreement (and the fact that it ultimately resulted in a resolved conflict) there’s nothing for a busybody philosopher to add from her outsider stance.

But suppose the parties didn’t agree. Suppose Sarah believed she shouldn’t feel guilty or that she didn’t owe Emma an apology. Or suppose that Emma believed the only acceptable way Sarah could atone for her wrongdoing was by either giving Emma a billion dollars or committing seppuku. Here, a busybody philosopher might have something important to say. Or more to the point, suppose that they both agreed on one of these absurd positions… say, that Sarah should commit seppuku to make up for her drunken insults. At this point, a philosopher might even be warranted in being a bona fide busybody and intervening to prevent the imminent suicide.

Another thing that might be lurking in the background here is the view that a unified theory of responsibility must yield a single result about what, exactly, is appropriate in any given circumstance. Tamler does a great job of caricaturing this view through the character of Shelly Hurka, who runs in with his chart and explains why it is only rational for Emma to have experienced 65.9632 units of resentment in response to Sarah’s harm. But there’s no reason to think that a general theory of responsibility ought (or even could) provide such precision. Any plausible theory of responsibility will offer general principles which can be used to identify a range of rational responses to particular situations, not a single response.

I’d like to have a better grasp of your position (forgive me if I have not yet read your book). In your last post you seem to hint at series of connections between A) the wrongness of the systematic theory-based approach, B) lacking objectivity in blameworthiness judgments, C) problems in justifying the current penal system, D) which could be solved by incorporating restorative justice elements. It seems to me that all of these connections are far from evident. But I find the first step particularly problematic: I can’t see why the wrongness of the systematic theory-based approach should entail a lack of objectivity in blame. It seems to me that one can reject systematic theorizing while remaining committed to the idea that there is something objective in blameworthy behaviour. Alternatively, one could also be a systematic subjectivist. Aren’t these two positions somehow orthogonal?

Yeah, I'm not seeing a connection between my post and capitalist injustice, Robert. In fact, Jeffrie Murphy in a great early paper called Marx and Retribution argued that modern desert theories are keeping established bourgeois norms in place. I'm agnostic on that point. But I definitely have more confidence than you do that individuals can work out their own conflicts much of the time. It happens every day.

Brandon, thanks. You're right that I chose this case carefully and that much of the plausibility derives from the progress they've already made in working things out. But I don't agree that most non-skeptical theories would sanction the guilt and resentment that Sarah and Emma feel. Libertarians would have to know first whether determinism true. And it's hard to see how deep-self compatibilists could think that Sarah is responsible. Clearly, her actions did not flow from her values or higher-order desires. Even reason-responsiveness theories might balk at saying that Sarah was responsive to reasons at the time.

Stefano, all good points--I'm trying to work out how all of that is connected. Right now, I working off not much more than a hunch. One impediment to restorative justice, however, is that people don't want to see people who are equally culpable punished differently. If there is no fact of the matter about culpability, though, then this would be less of an obstacle. Theories that hold that there is a fact of the matter tend to be systematic and condition-based. (Setting aside the approaches that Elisa mentions although those might not be fact-of-the matter approaches.) That's the best I can do for now.

Not to belabor the point, but I'm not sure that libertarians or deep-self compatibilists would have trouble endorsing Sarah's guilt and Emma's resentment. Presumably libertarians already believe that determinism is false or else they'd fall into the skeptic camp as hard incompatibilists. And while deep self compatibilism might seem, on its face, more difficult to reconcile with S&E's responses, I don't think it really is. It's not far-fetched to think that moderate (or even somewhat heavy) alcohol consumption is not sufficient to completely alienate an agent's actions from her deep self (or wholly negate her ability to respond to reasons). If that's right, alcohol might act as a partial excuse but wouldn't absolve Sarah from all culpability. (A person who was so intoxicated that they were not conscious of their actions - a blacked out person or someone exhibiting alcohol induced automatism - would have a stronger claim to complete alienation and lack of reasons responsiveness.) But even if we concede that Sarah's action was completely alienated from her deep self, it still seems like she should exhibit negative attitudes toward her conduct and make efforts to repudiate what she had done to show that it did not express her true commitments. That is, she should feel bad about what happened and attempt something that would behaviorally resemble an apology. That is, Sarah should explain herself to Emma, express negative attitudes at her past behavior, and plea that she was not herself when she made the hurtful remarks. Whether we call this a moral responsibility practice, or we call Sarah's bad feelings "guilt" or "schmilt" or "agent regret" is primarily of academic interest. In substance, the deep-self compatibilist would agree that what transpired between Emma and Sarah was rationally justified.

But leaving this issue aside, how would you respond to the charge that your position is objectionably subjectivist? Don't the metaphysics of agency - whatever they are - act as constraints on what individuals should feel or how they should act when it comes to responsibility?

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