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Agency and AnswerabilityReview - Agency and Answerability
Selected Essays
by Gary Watson
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Christian Perring
Dec 2nd 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 49)

Gary Watson is one of the most impressive philosophers working in moral psychology.  Not only are most of his arguments convincing but he writes at a level of technicality that is just right, being neither too casual nor too bound up with jargon.  His papers are about the right length, since he does not fill his papers with needless diversions.  Furthermore, he puts all his ideas in papers, and does not force his readers to read a whole book by him in order to understand his main ideas.  Such a combination is quite rare.  One can compare him with those who work in the same area of philosophy, on the connected issues of free will, autonomy, and moral responsibility, and he comes out of the comparison well.  His closest rival is probably Harry Frankfurt, whose papers are always very alluring in their use of apparently straightforward language and plainly delineated arguments, but when you start getting into the Frankfurt literature, it turns out that he uses many terms with quite specific technical meanings.  It is quite telling, reading through Frankfurt's responses to other authors in Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt (MIT Press, 2002) how often he complains that philosophers with whom he has been in dialog for decades still misunderstand his basic views, although the existence of the book has probably helped to prevent subsequent misunderstanding.  Most philosophers in this area tend to have a more technical style that makes understanding their theories much more of a struggle.  A paradigm of such work is Thomas Nagel's first book The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford University Press, 1970), which he wrote when he was 22, and which requires a great deal of deciphering in order to become comprehensible.  By way of contrast, Watson, whose first paper was published in 1975, has from the start been a model of clarity.  The most technical paper in the collection is probably the most recent, "The Work of the Will," republished from the recent collection Weakness of the Will and Practical Irrationality (Oxford University Press, 2003).  One of Watson's great strengths is his ability to write well, a skill that rarely gets enough credit in philosophy, and this skill is demonstrated amply throughout this collection of papers.  All these papers have been published previously, so I will simply aim here to set out some of his views and make a few comments. 

Watson addresses a set of interconnected themes, and the papers are divided into three sections.  The first is on Freedom, Will and Agency, the second on Agency and Necessity, and the third on Responsibility and Answerability.  His early papers on free will are very well known, and are often included in philosophy textbooks used in undergraduate courses.  His first paper picked up issues from Harry Frankfurt's enormously influential 1971 paper "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person;" Watson showed some of the problems with Frankfurt's relating identifying with a desire to wanting to have that desire.  He concludes the paper with a short discussion of compulsive choosing, such as in the actions of kleptomaniacs, and he argues that their actions are unfree not because they are psychologically determined, but because they are actions that the agent does not value.  This leads to the concern of his second paper, about how to distinguish between merely weakwilled actions, such as eating Halloween candy when you know you shouldn't, and the drinking of alcoholics, which is normally characterized as unfree.  Watson shows that the concept of irresistible desires, while probably coherent, is not a very useful in this context, because none of the standard cases of compulsive action involve irresistible desires.  He argues that what we really mean, or should say, when we talk about people acting from irresistible desires is that being weak is falling short of reasonable expectations of what we can expect of people.  Thus the notion of weakness of will is not descriptive, but rather is normative.  Watson is happy to retain the concept of irresistible desires, properly filled out, but that in a sense, weakness of will also involves compulsion, albeit compulsion that one could have overcome if one had better self-control. 

In some of these papers, Watson considers the topic of addiction and compulsion in more detail.  "Disordered Appetites: Addiction, Compulsion, and Dependence" is from Jan Elster's important collection Addiction: Entries and Exits (Russell Sage, 1999).  Here he expresses some reservations about the account of addiction as a failure of reasons responsiveness guidance control as proposed by Fischer and Ravizza, because this makes it more of a cognitive problem, rather than a motivational one.  He makes some basic but useful distinctions between different kinds of dependency, and spells out how to make sense of them.  He is quite frank abou the indeterminacy of the concepts of addiction and appetite, and thus the difficulty of providing a philosophical theory of them.  What's impressive about Watson's approach is that he stays at a level of discussion that leaves the moral issues apparent.  One of the problems that has occurred in so much recent discussion of addiction, especially with neuroscientific approaches, is that it bypasses our ordinary notion of moral responsibility, and leaves us no way to distinguish behavior for which the addict is responsible from behavior for which he or she is not responsible. 

In his discussion of Frankfurt's work for Contours of Agency, Watson discusses volitional necessities, and tries to elaborate the different kinds.  His main conclusion is that there are 3 motivational structures, distinguished by

  1.  Sources of motivation whose force is independent of one's endorsement or of what one cares about.
  2. What one cares about.
  3. What one values or endorses as a project, principle or end.

Since these can be misaligned in various ways, there are many different sorts of internal struggle we can have.  (It is interesting to see that in his reply to Watson's paper, Frankfurt accuses him of having a too evaluative interpretation of human agency: Frankfurt says that people do not need always to evaluate or measure their desires.  However, it is doubtful that Watson himself is wedded to an intellectualized view of human action.

A few other papers in the collection also take their start as discussions of the views of other philosophers.  One is on Robert Kane's The Significance of Free Will, another on Susan Wolf's Freedom within Reason, and one is a straight book review of Fischer and Ravizza's Responsibility and Control.  His discussions are always careful and generous, looking for the strengths in other authors, pointing out problems, and not pretending that there are proofs that any views are true or false.  Watson avoids overreaching claims about the scope of philosophy, while still managing to bring out the richness of the discussion. 

In the final section, Watson addresses responsibility for action.  He is very sympathetic to a Strawsonian account of moral responsibility, which says that our moral practice is constituted by our having reactive attitudes such as resentment towards people who harming us.  He does not defend this theory, but he does explore it in "Responsibility and the Limits of Evil," by discussing how our reactive attitudes change towards someone who has committed terrible crimes as we learn about those crimes and then we learn about their previous history and how they came to be so indifferent to the welfare of others.  Here more than elsewhere, Watson does not really have a strong thesis to defend, but rather he aims to investigate our moral psychology using several provocative real life examples. 

In his discussion of Wolf's book, in which she argues against the "real self" view common to Frankfurt and Watson, Watson is ready to combine their approaches.  While he is inclined to say that an action is praiseworthy or blameworthy insofar as it represents a person's real self, Wolf argues that what is important is the person's ability to understand the good or bad in an action.  These two different views lead to different verdicts regarding particular actions.  On the real self view, if an action is an expression of the person's true desires, then the person can be blamed for it.  However, for Wolf, if that action does not result from an understanding of its morality, then the agent should not be blamed.  Watson sees these two approaches to moral responsibility as complementary, and so is not inclined to see them as competing with each other; they are both central to ethical life. 

The final paper in the collection focuses more on the law, and addresses whether addiction can be an excuse for behavior.  It builds on much of the work in other papers in the book, but goes into much more detail regarding different court cases, and it links Watson's previously stated views to the legal structure regarding excuses and diminished responsibility.  He rejects the proposal of using addiction as a form of insanity defense, and endorses the suggestion to see addiction as a form of duress.  He concludes, however, that there are both strong moral and practical reasons for not creating a separate defense regarding addiction.  He is agreeable to a suggestion from Stephen Moorse to allow a new verdict of "guilty but partially responsible" that could accommodate cases of addiction. 

Watson's philosophical contributions have been distinctive and impressive.  While he has not published a large volume of work in the last 30 years, what he has written has been influential.  Having most of his papers collected in one volume will help to solidify his reputation and should help ensure his continued standing in the field.  His readiness to integrate discussion of mental disorders into his examination of freedom and responsibility is especially important. 

© 2008 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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