Blog Coordinator

« Unjust Just-Deserts? | Main | Are We Just a Bunch of Busybodies? (A Dialogue) »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Hi Tamler,

What do you find plausible about Fiery's suggestion? I, at least, don't find it at all plausible. The view that Dan (in the previous thread) attributes to Frankfurt strikes me as much more palatable. That you were among the causes of this tragic event is a legitimate source of regret. You should feel bad about killing the neighbor's dog, but I don't see any reason why you should blame yourself? Perhaps, though, I'm missing something.

I'll be first out of the gate...

Tamler, could you say more about why I should hold myself responsible? Relatedly, could you say a bit about what perspective-relative facts make it the case that I am blameworthy (from my perspective)?

My initial reaction is that we often feel responsible for things we are not responsible for, and that this can even be appropriate, though for the "wrong" kinds of reasons. Dan's observation that there may be moral reasons to take the tragedy seriously and be, to use a technical term, "bummed out" about it, don't by themselves push us toward a relativism grounded on perspective. Or so it seems to me.

What Justin and Matt said.

Matt and Justin, yeah I figured there would be resistance along these lines. I find it plausible because I'd feel all the things that are associated with blame and responsibility. I'd feel a lot of guilt if I did this, beyond (I think) regret that I happened to part of this unfortunate course of events. I'd also feel like I owed some kind of compensation if that were possible. I might think I should offer to buy them a new dog once the grief had passed a bit. (And they might feel they ought to refuse that offer and assure me that it's not fault.) I'd understand that this was not something in my control but from my perspective, my causal responsibility would more easily translate into moral responsibility than in other cases.

I'm not sure about the example, but I totally buy the general thought.

Consider that traditional accounts of desert treat it as a three-place relation between an agent, an action, and a deserved response, such that S deserves [praise, blame, etc.] for x-ing. More plausibly, I think, desert is a four-place relation between an agent, an action, a deserved response, and an agent or agents from whom I deserve that response. On this view, S deserves [praise, blame, etc.] for x-ing from some agent(s) of desert. Since the fourth relata is so often taken by all members of the moral community, we often forget that it's there. But whereas I do think I would deserve blame from my wife if I failed to take out the trash after promising her that I would do so, if Tamler blames me for not taking out the trash, it seems perfectly appropriate to reply "I don't deserve that from *you*!"

No doubt, you could explain the propriety of this response by appeal to the pragmatics of blaming. But a more natural explanation is just that I don't deserve Tamler's blame even if I deserve my wife's blame for the very same action.

Justin, you just hate dogs. Just to be clear: are suggesting that there's no such thing as "deserves blame" simpliciter--that there's only "deserves blame from Steph/Tamler/X.."? I'd buy that.

Dan, Matt, Justin--would you all at least agree that I should hold myself MORE responsible than my neighbors should hold me?

Leaving my feelings for dogs aside (for the record, they're great), yeah, I'm thinking there's always someone person(s) from whom I deserve blame for acting badly. Of course, it's plausible that in most cases, it's the moral community from whom I deserve blame, and so pretty much anyone can blame me. But in some cases, where the transgression occurs within a more circumscribed relationship, I only deserve blame from those within the circumscribed relationship.

I find plausible what Scanlon says about these sorts of cases: that although you may not have done anything impermissible in accidentally backing over the dog, the fact that you've backed over your neighbor's dog still has an importantly different meaning for the owner of the dog (and for your relationship with that owner) than it does to the other people who live near you. And since, for Scanlon, blame is a response to meaning rather than impermissibility, it may be appropriate for your neighbor to blame you (and for you to blame yourself for the damage you (accidentally and not impermissibly) caused to your relationship with him) even if it's also true that you've done nothing wrong.

I know that's not the conclusion Fiery wanted to draw, but I like it.

"...would you all at least agree that I should hold myself MORE responsible than my neighbors should hold me?"

Shoot, I don't know, Tamler. I think you should be regretful and (in some attenuated sense) apologetic; and your neighbor should be concessive and (in some attenuated sense) forgiving. But I'm tempted to think that responsibility (moral responsiblity, at least) isn't at issue here. Some evidence for this might be found in what I would take to be an acceptable response if the neighbor was neither concessive nor forgiving and continued to treat you as if you had violated some moral norm. Maybe you would be saintly enough, and sufficiently sensitive to the effects of the trauma upon your neighbor, to bear up under this gracefully for awhile. But if the neighbor continued to target you with reactive attitudes associated with moral blame, I think it would be reasonable for you to object and emphasize in response that you did nothing wrong... genuine agent regret notwithstanding. I suppose it is for this reason that I don't find the Scanlonian account that Neal gives especially compelling.

More importantly, did everyone notice the cagey (see what I did there?) way that Coates hid his dog hatred behind ambiguity? "Leaving my feelings for dogs aside (for the record, they're great)..." The casual reader will think that the "they're" refers to dogs and so draw the false conclusion that Justin is a dog lover; when, in fact, the "they're" refers to his feelings about dogs, which of course, he happens to think are great even though they are feelings of antipathy. He's a sneaky philosopher.

"this seems […] (b) not able to be captured in virtually all theories of moral responsibility that I'm aware."

I do not agree with b). We discussed already the multi-layered approach of Greek authors to morality (there is not a single Morality, one has different sets of obligations, which may contradict each other).

---One might add Levinas' "paradox of responsibility": I am more responsible the more I feel I am responsible, so that a superficial driver will immediately forget about the killed dog and a more sensitive one will start asking herself whether she should not have checked carefully under the car before starting it (or should not have taken her bike, given that cars are so dangerous).

---The Jaina** view of action and responsibility has only the outputs of the action count, not the intention. If you plan to kill the dog, but fail, you are not guilty, and vice versa. Why so? Because intention is hardly seizable (you could always think you did not *really* intend to kill your neighbor, now that you see how much pain this causes to his daughter) and because actions have cumulative effects on the agent, so that if you end up actually killing, it means that you did many other things which brought you there (aka "theory of karman").

---What about the Christian account of providence? If the Providence rescued you from accidentally killing a dog, you might legitimately think that God helped you because you somehow deserved it. If He did not help you to avoid such a terrible output as the death of an innocent dog, should not this entail that you did not deserve it?

**Who are the Jains? An Indian religion who developed its own ontology, epistemology, ethics, etc.)

Aren't there unforseeable accidents in which one plays a part but bears no responsibility? When I was much younger riding my motorcycle a dog suddenly came out of nowhere chasing me. The dog ran into the street--and I saw in my mirror that it was run over by a car behind me. Who is responisible? Me? The driver behind me? The "owner" (I hate that word) who allowed the dog to run loose? I'd say the latter if that was the case. But if the dog escaped despite best attempts to control it, then no party bears any responsibility. S***t happens in such cases and that's all there is to it.

Of course in that case I felt awful. I was the immediate cause of endangering the dog, and felt overwhelming guilt. But guilt psychologically is too often sociologically implanted for no good reason and to no reasonable purpose, other than perhaps to remember we are all too human in being able to make the world better than it turns out to be. Too much guilt in the world is the consequence of the curse of minds to conceive otiose counterfactuals.

I like dogs, but not dog owners (qua dog owners). Of course some of my best friends are dog owners. That said . . .

An answer no one has quite given: 1] Feeling bad is evidence that you are a decent person. If you didn't feel bad we'd appropriately give you a moral side-glance, but not because you violate a proper norm, but because we'd have learned something about you (like, that you're a psychopath). 2] Feeling bad, if you do, is a fairly immediate and uncontrollable emotional response. It's not something you should do, in the sense of should that requires minimal behavioral control over the doing. 3] You should immediately forgive yourself/get over any thoughts of self-blame (and your neighbor should, too) even as you continue to feel bad. No use putting more unjustified blame in the world (enough of that already).

In the legal assessment of blameworthiness of a driver, there is the idea of what the "average" driver would have done in this situation. There are hyper-cautious drivers who have installed cameras or mirrors to avoid such accidents. You may well regret not being one of these people.

Justin Coates, I'm like the 4-place relational account of desert, but I'm not so sure about your case. It seems plausible that intuitions about whether you deserve blame from Tamler can be affected by such things as (1)the manner of blame he delivers and (2) his experiences with respect to the type of wrong that you committed. Let's grant that the moral transgression took place within a circumscribed relationship. Still, if the manner in which Tamler blames you is relatively tepid - maybe feels only mildly disappointed in you - then there might be nothing wrong with saying that you deserve blame from him. You did something wrong after all, and if he cares about morality even a little bit, he'll be disposed to at least feel some disappointment when he finds out moral reasons are flouted. Also, what if, for some reason, people in Tamler's life serially break promises they make to him. And, then here you are breaking a promise too. Wouldn't this also up the plausibility of the claim that you deserve blame from him? Even blame of a less tepid form?

This may relate to the Cushman case. It might not be so weird to say either that Tamler should have a relatively tepid self-blaming response to his actions or that he is right to self-blame if he's had to repeatedly endure the same type of suffering that his neighbor is going through.

I can accept that two people who both hold me responsible for some wrong can be justified in taking different attitudes to me on that basis - it might be that only one of them is justified in punishing me for it, for instance. But I'm not so keen on the idea that there can be two people who both know of my wrong, one of whom is justified in holding me responsible, while the other isn't.

My motivation is this: say that A is justified in holding me responsible, but B isn't (in Tamler's case I'm identical with A) - what is B's attitude towards A's holding me responsible meant to be? Say A failed to recognise their justification for holding me responsible. Perhaps they want to forgive me prematurely, or feel bad about holding me responsible. If A asks B for advice on this front, B would be wrong to say anything other than 'Don't let CJ off the hook, you're justified in holding him responsible.' But in doing so, it looks to me as if B is taking an attitude towards whatever wrong I did that amounts to holding me responsible for it. Alternatively, imagine me complaining to B that A is holding me responsible. What is B meant to think except 'Dude, it's your own fault for that wrong you did A!' - I can't see how B approves of A holding me responsible without implicitly taking the same position as A.


Yeah, the nature of the morally significant response will certainly affect who fits into that fourth relata of the desert relation. After all, we say things like "I don't deserve *that* from *you*," which leaves open in my view that we might deserve *that* from someone else and also that we might deserve something else from *you* (e.g., relatively tepid blame from Tamler in the case above).


Notice from Dan's adept parsing of casual language that he's been hanging out with big city lawyers too much these days!

I think Josh Shepherd has the right idea: you're not in any way at fault, so any regret or guilt you feel is unfitting. Nevertheless, to the extent you feel one or the other, you exhibit a virtue, and to the extent you don't feel one or the other, you exhibit a vice (a kind of insensitivity to the losses of others in which you've played a purely causal role). And the virtuous feelings should be recalcitrant: were I to say to you (as I would), "Hey, it's not your fault, don't beat yourself up," and you immediately replied, "You know, you're right!" and your bad feelings immediately disappeared, we'd think you're vicious as well.

Incidentally, Neal, in the case as described, there's no fault, so insofar as the action didn't depend on any of the agent's judgment-sensitive attitudes, there's no meaning in it, for Scanlon. It's a case where any self-directed feelings he calls *similar* to blame, but not blame; rather, it's a case of "objective stigma" (125). Nothing was revealed about the agent's attitudes that impaired a relationship with anyone.

Alright, I've got a workshop to get ready for.

Thanks for all the comments everyone--I have a jam packed day today so I won't be able to weigh in until this evening. (And you seem to doing quite well without me.) Dan, thanks for calling out Justin's sinister bit of grammatical deception. I'll be on the lookout for that in faculty meetings.

Dave: Good point, thanks for the correction. I guess I was just thinking that I wouldn't think the neighbor is irrational if he finds himself unable to have quite the same relationship with you after you back over his dog, even if it wasn't your fault, precisely because of what your action means (in Scanlon's "broader" sense of meaning, p. 53) for the neighbor and his relationship to you.


Sorry I missed your earlier question. No, I don't think you should hold yourself more responsible than your neighbor should. At least if by "responsible" we mean "to blame". I don't think you should blame yourself at all, though, as several others have suggested, I think there are norms governing situations which call for regret on your part. Perhaps, too, you should at least offer some form of compensation, but I don't think this is because you're to blame.

Consider a different sort of situation. I accidentally step on your toe in a crowded airport or mall. I didn't mean to, and wasn't negligent, etc. It seems to me that I ought to apologize, not because I'm not blame for the pain I caused you, but because doing so signals to you and others that I didn't have an objectionable quality of will.

Many good comments above but I'd like to pick out CJ's as my jumping-off point because it touches on the relationship between responsibility and blame/punishment, which is something that always gets me agitated. I think that what seems like a problem here only seems so because responsibility and punishment are too tightly coupled in many of the views expressed here. I hold that the offender is not responsible for the punishment; the punisher is responsible for the punishment. It follows that if the punishment is inappropriate, it's the punisher who's at fault. It's important because some actions may be inappropriate for some people but not for others -- and that includes punishment actions.

Suppose Justin does (deliberately or negligently) break a promise to his wife (and about something somewhat more important than taking out the garbage). Take it as given that Justin is morally responsible for breaking his promise. It would be appropriate for both his wife and Tamler to blame him for breaking his promise, and for both of them to trust him less in the future. But while it might be appropriate for Justin's wife to make him sleep on his sofa that night, it would be inappropriate for Tamler to do so. Tamler (presumably!) has no standing to decide the sleeping arrangements in Justin's house, regardless of what Justin deserves. It would, however, be appropriate for Tamler to say "It serves you right" if Justin complains of having to sleep on the sofa, because (as CJ said) Tamler does hold Justin to blame, and holds that his wife's response was appropriate.

As for the example of the dog, I'm with those who say there's no moral blame to be had, but that you should feel bad. If the neighbour insists on punishing you, then the neighbour is out of line. But for you to carry on as if nothing important had happened would be inappropriate -- it would show a lack of feeling in you that, while not morally culpable itself, could indicate that your ability to reach appropriate moral decisions is compromised.

Just to be clear, the view I was suggesting (and that I think is right) is that there are no legitimate norms governing your reaction to backing over the dog. I do not think that you should feel bad. Just that if you didn't we'd have learned something about you, and it'd be permissible to respond in turn.

Josh: There are norms and then there are norms. That is to say (less cryptically), there are demands of regard (which you haven't violated) and demands of virtue or character (expectations for a kind of sensitivity which you would surely let down if you didn't feel bad).

Dave and maybe Josh,

I'm not sure I understand this idea of an emotion that (a) is not "fitting," yet (b) feeling it is virtuous and (c) not feeling it is a vice. Don't (b) and (c) give you good reason to question (a)?

There may be a reason. But it would be the wrong kind of reason.

Briefly, fittingness is about whether the target of the evaluating attitude (regret, say) has the properties the attitude evaluates it as having (in this case, one's own faulty decision). But virtues and vices attach to states of character. There may thus be states of character whose virtuous exemplars would feel unfitting emotions. Kindness, for example, may require a kind of sensitivity to the plight of others that tends to misfire in certain circumstances.

The comments to this entry are closed.