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Basic Desert, Reactive Attitudes and Free WillReview - Basic Desert, Reactive Attitudes and Free Will
by Maureen Sie and Derk Pereboom (Editors)
Routledge, 2015
Review by William Simkulet, Ph.D.
Jun 28th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 26)

I.

          Basic Desert, Reactive Attitudes and Free Will reprints Philosophical Explorations Volume 16, issue 2, from June 2013, a special issue covering issues surrounding P. F. Strawson's influential essay "Freedom and Resentment" – unfortunately, not reprinted here.  P. F. Strawson argued that both compatibilist and incompatibilist accounts of moral responsibility are mistaken because they focus on an agent's merit rather than on judgments of responsibility.  In "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility," Galen Strawson contends that the account of moral responsibility that compatibilist and incompatibilist alike are interested in, what he calls "true moral responsibility," is merit-based and would require a robust form of control inconsistent with the metaphysics of universal causal determinism (or indeterminism).  P.F. Strawson contends that this traditional focus on true moral responsibility is mistaken, and we should be more interested in judgments of moral responsibility; the expression of what he calls reactive attitudes, such as gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness.  Reactive attitudes, he argues, play an important psychological role with regards to governing interpersonal relationships.  Furthermore he contends that our concepts of moral responsibility can be revised in such a way that they would be indifferent to metaphysical questions such as those concerning whether universal causal determinism is true or not.

II.

          The book is comprised of a short introduction by editors Maureen Sie and Derk Pereboom, followed by nine articles.  The articles tackle an assortment of philosophical questions surrounding the question of whether reactive attitudes are connected with a robust notion of desert, and distinguish between two clusters of questions – first, questions about the nature of desert, and second, questions about the necessary and sufficient conditions for desert.

          Four articles offer distinct metaethical conceptions of the nature of desert, moral responsibility, or reactive attitudes.  T. M. Scanlon – previously a skeptic about desert – argues that wrongdoers deserve others to respond negatively in at least some, limited sense merely on the basis that they have acted wrongly.  After wrongdoing, the wronged party can justifiably withdraw their trust of the wrongdoer and be less inclined to offer assistance in the future, and the wrongdoer cannot legitimately object to this.  Dana Nelkin distinguishes between several different conceptions of blameworthiness, each of which plays different roles.  Randolph Clarke argues that it is appropriate for an agent to see herself as blameworthy and intrinsically good for her to suffer as a result.  Zac Cogley argues that reactive attitudes have different moral aims connected to their psychological function and distinguishes between three functions – appraisal, communication, and sanction. 

          The remaining five articles explore what conditions need to be met for an agent to be the appropriate object of praise or blame.  Adina Roskies and Bertra Malle contend that contemporary metaethical analysis of desert is flawed, arguing that desert rests upon two distinct features – an eligibility criteria and an assignment criteria.  They contend that Strawson's analysis of our ordinary practices hint at these two criteria, and that contemporary psychological research pick out the eligibility and assignment criteria that they advocate.  This research, they suggests, shows, as Strawson argued, that our conceptions of moral responsibility and desert do not depend upon any particular metaphysical theory.

Nicole Vincent offers a capacitarian approach to moral responsibility.  Vincent's position is a response to Harry Frankfurt's influential article "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility," in which he argues that alternate possibilities are not relevant to determining whether an agent is morally responsible for their actions.  She objects to John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza's reason-responsiveness compatibilist capacitarian account, and offers an alternate reason-responsiveness account.

          In contrast, Evan Tiffany argues that the practice of blaming someone rests upon the assumption that they possess the metaphysical conditions necessary for robust, libertarian free will.  He illustrates this by appealing to the case of recovering drug-addict Doug and social worker Pam.  He describes a situation in which unwilling addict Doug fails to attend Pam's birthday celebration because he is trying to obtain drugs.  Pam, he says, is disappointed in and frustrated with Doug, but does not blame him, realizing that his behavior is the result of his addiction.  Similar behavior from an assumed free, non-addict agent would be blameworthy, but Doug's behavior is not blameworthy because Pam does not believe that he acted freely.

          Nadine Elzein examines Manuel Vargas's argument for revisionism about moral responsibility.  She distinguishes between two kinds of revisionism – moral revisionism and morally neutral revisionism – and argues that Vargas's free will revisionism doesn't fit either of these categories.  Primarily concerned with the Kantian principle prohibiting treating moral agents as means only, she argues that a convincing argument against this principle would have to come from within the theory.  In contrast, Vargas's revisionism merely objects to the "expensive metaphysics" required for a libertarian, Kantian conception of free will.  She argues that revisionism of freedom and moral responsibility ought to be motivated by moral concerns, rather than metaphysical concerns; as such Vargas's revisionism seems to miss the point.

          In the final paper, Daniel Haas argues that compatibilists and incompatibilists often talk past each other; incompatibilists work from a merit based conception of desert, while compatibilists work from a fitness conception of desert.  Debate between between compatibilists and incompatibilists that rests upon equivocating between these two concepts of desert is mistaken, but there are discussions worth having.  Many conceptions of desert are compatible with determinism, but conceptions of desert resting upon merit are not.  He contends that compatibilists and incompatibilists should focus on the nature of desert in question, and suggests that it may be more fruitful to ask whether a plausible theory of moral responsibility could be constructed that does not rest upon merit.

III.

          This book contains a number of interesting articles, many of which make substantive contributions to the free will debate.  Notably Elzein offers an interesting, robust criticism of revisionism, Tiffany's account of moral responsibility is worthy of both compatibilist and incompatibilist attention, and Scanlon offers an interesting, minimalist account of desert that, like P. F. Strawson's account, is indifferent to metaphysical concerns.

However, the free will debate is complicated and multifaceted, and has generated a wealth of literature in metaethics and metaphysics, as well as more recent topics with a much narrower focus including Frankfurt-style cases and experimental philosophy, each of which is touched upon only briefly in this collection.  Experts familiar with the debate surrounding landmark articles will find some of these articles worth their time, however the text is largely intractable to non-experts.  Unfortunately the essays in this collection are only loosely connected; as such researchers may be better off tracking down the essays independently than purchasing the book as a whole.  Taylor Francis Online offers a PDF version of the volume for purchase for $150, and each article independently for $41.

 

References

Frankfurt, Harry G., 1969, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility", The Journal of Philosophy, 66(23): 829-839.

Strawson, Galen, 1994/2002, "The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility." Philosophical Studies 75: 5-24. reprinted in Ethical Thoery Classic and Contemporary Readings by Louis P. Pojman.

Strawson, P. F., 1962, "Freedom and Resentment," Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1–25.

 

© 2016 William Simkulet

 

William Simkulet, Ph.D., University of Wisonsin, Marshfield/Wood County


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