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Responsibility from the MarginsReview - Responsibility from the Margins
by David Shoemaker
Oxford University Press, 2015
Review by Ben Abelson
Jan 19th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 3)

In Responsibility from the Margins, David Shoemaker offers a provocative and compelling new account of the nature of responsibility and applies that account to cases of "marginal" responsibility, which are cases in which we are ambivalent about whether or not it is appropriate to hold someone responsible for his or her actions. The marginal cases are those in which a person possesses, on the one hand, psychological features that ostensibly mitigate or even eliminate that person's responsibility, and yet, on the other hand we still feel that some of our emotions toward them that implicate responsibility are warranted. Examples include: psychopaths, autistic individuals, sufferers of dementia and individuals with mild cognitive disabilities. The book can best be described as a work of philosophical psychology or psychophenomenology, wherein the author reflects on the sorts of reactive attitudes we have towards specific aspects other people's actions and builds up from those reflections, as well as empirical findings from cognitive and social psychology, to construct a conceptual theory of responsibility, which is then tested by the extent to which it helps us make sense of the previously obscure phenomena of ambivalence. It is both technically precise as well as clear and accessible, and should be of interest to philosophers, psychological theorists, mental health professionals and caregivers to those who fit the "marginal" label. It breaks new ground in the philosophy of responsibility by drawing important distinctions between types of attitudes associated with responsibility that have long been overlooked and has major practical significance due to the inclusion of suggestions for how our ways of treating marginal agents can be improved.

The introduction presents the project of the book as continuing in the tradition of P.F. Strawson's seminal book Freedom and Resentment (1974), by offering a "pure quality of will" theory of responsibility. Such a theory purports to explain all of our responsibility responses entirely in terms of the "facts as we know them" about a particular agent without having to appeal to any dubious metaphysical notions such as free will. For such a theory to be successful, such facts must also provide a complete explanation of why in some cases individuals are not responsible for their actions or their responsibility is mitigated. The phrase "quality of will" has been given various interpretations since Strawson, as different writers have offered versions of the theory that appeal to character, judgment, and regard for others as determining the quality of one's will. Shoemaker argues that each of these is only one aspect of what it is we are responding to when we hold someone responsible, one "type of responsibility", and that a complete quality of will theory must include all three. Therefore, he offers a tripartite theory which divides the criteria necessary for appropriately holding someone responsible into three separate capacities: attributability, answerability and accountability, each of which corresponds to one of the three aspects developed by previous quality of will theorists and involves a distinct set of reactive attitudes, or "sentimental syndromes", that are appropriate only when their respective capacities are present. Sentimental syndromes are supposed to be pancultural and cognitively impenetrable reactions and each is associated with a different family of emotion terms. The main payoff of the tripartite theory, for Shoemaker, is that it explains our ambivalence in cases of marginal responsibility, because in such cases some reactive attitudes are appropriate while others are not, given that the agents in question possess some, but not all, of the three capacities. 

          The first half of the book is devoted to developing the tripartite theory, with each type of responsibility getting its own chapter. Shoemaker provides a handy chart for keeping track of which type of responsibility corresponds to which aspect of will and which sentimental syndrome. Attributability implicates quality of character and its sentimental syndrome is agential disdain or admiration. Someone is attributable if and only if that individual has a "deep self" composed of care and commitment clusters which express themselves in that person's attitudes. Answerability has to do with quality of judgment and its associated syndrome is agential pride or regret. Someone is answerable if and only if that person is capable of considering reasons to the effect that the person should perform one action instead of another. Accountability corresponds to quality of regard and the syndrome of agential anger or gratitude. Someone is accountable if and only if that person is capable of recognizing that other people have interests and that those interests are themselves reasons that should play some role in how the person decides to act. Shoemaker's analysis of each type of responsibility includes a plethora of philosophical ideas and psychological data-collection, which is well summarized and interpreted. The book, therefore, serves as a helpful primer on cutting edge research and theorizing on the moral emotions. Furthermore, he makes a powerful case for seeing responsibility as divisible into the three types, by showing that the different sentimental syndromes do seem to fit different aspects of an agent's psychology. 

          The main objection that someone might have to Shoemaker's theory is that it cannot sufficiently account for responsibility without tackling the problem of free will, an issue that Shoemaker admittedly tries to avoid in the book. Many philosophers will be disappointed and even outraged someone would deign to write a book on philosophy that does not tackle free will, but Shoemaker makes it clear that he is not writing for those philosophers. To be sure, he does give some reasons for why responsibility should not depend on free will and that discussion is by itself extremely interesting. For instance, someone might object that it is not enough that a particular attitude fit a particular aspect of someone's psychology, but the person must also deserve to be the object of such an attitude for the attitude to be justified and that such desert requires free will. For instance, your being angry may be fitting given someone's poor quality of regard for you, i.e. when someone has slighted you, in the sense that a slight is the sort of thing one gets angry about. However, if the slighter lacks free will, one might think that he or she is not truly deserving of your anger. Shoemaker counters this objection by claiming that the judgment that someone is responsible such that a certain reactive attitude is appropriate is distinct from the judgment of how severe a reaction the person deserves. The latter, being a separate judgment, might have something to do with free will, but is independent of responsibility. However, one might still take the notion of fit to be an example of an is/ought fallacy. Just because anger is the sort of response we tend to have to someone's poor quality of regard, doesn't mean we ought to have that or any other sentimental response in such an instance. One who finds such an objection compelling will likely fail to sympathize with Shoemaker's entire approach.

          The second half of the book deals with marginal agents and tests the viability of the tripartite theory by investigating the degree to which the theory illuminates our ambivalence about such agents. Shoemaker largely succeeds in explaining why we hold the different kinds of marginal agents responsible in some respects while not in others and how the theory predicts that phenomenon. For example, psychopaths are not accountable do to their lacking the capacity for certain types of empathy, but they are answerable to some degree and fully attributable. He also argues persuasively that an agent's history, particularly his or her poor formative circumstances, play no constitutive role in that agent's current quality of will and, therefore, responsibility, though knowing the agent's history may be useful epistemically as a heuristic for helping us decide what his or her current characteristics may be. Even if one rejects Shoemaker's theory and thinks that it fails to explain our ambivalence, this part of the book is an invaluable resource for up to date research on psychiatric disorders; particularly psychopathy, obsessive compulsive scrupulosity and dementia.

          Responsibility from the Margins is a refreshing new take on an old philosophical issue that also provides a comprehensive, multidisciplinary presentation of new work on the moral emotions and related psychiatric disorders. Anyone who thinks about such issues or has marginal agents in their life, and is unsure of how to relate to those individuals, should find it valuable.

 

© 2016 Ben Abelson

 

Ben Abelson is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, NY.


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