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The Nature of Moral Responsibility: New Essays is a collection of exciting essays on moral responsibility, written in the analytic tradition by influential authors working in ethics, notably including articles from Derk Pereboom, Gideon Rosen, T.M. Scanlon, and Michael Zimmerman.
This collection consists of twelve essays, grouped in sections of four, preceded by an excellent introduction from the editors that surveys some of the best and most influential recent work in the field. This introduction was, no doubt, written for general audiences, and is noteworthy for its detail and accessibility. Skepticism aside, they begin by noting that most of us agree that people are "commonly morally responsible" for their actions – both those actions deserving of praise and those deserving of blame. Philosophical work in moral responsibility, they explain, attempts to make sense of these widely held beliefs.
Editors Randolph Clarke, Michael McKenna, and Angela M. Smith don't pull their punches in the introduction, nearly immediately tackling one of the biggest gulfs between scholars in the field – the distinction between being (truly) morally responsible for one's actions (responsibility of the kind discussed by Galen Strawson), and being the appropriate target of certain reactive attitudes from others (attitudes of the kind P. F. Strawson discusses). The divide here is deep, but it is presented as one of many pressing issues worth exploring.
Notably, the editors make a point to introduce the possibility of an agent being morally responsible without being either blameworthy or praiseworthy. This distinction is important, as it suggest responsibility might be determined by the character or capacity in which an agent acts, rather than, say, the moral character of the action itself. This distinction is all too often easy to overlook in discussions of moral responsibility – if only because being morally responsible for something morally neutral or insignificant is less philosophically interesting than responsibility stemming from positive or negative acts.
I would recommend this book on the strength of the introduction alone. The introduction is broken into seven subsections, followed by a page of references. Perhaps my only concern here is that these subsections do not map nicely onto the three sections the book is divided into; however, I suspect this has more to do with the imperfection/incompleteness of the discussion found in the included essays, which do not map nicely onto the thorough discussion of the literature found in the introduction.
The first section consists of four articles on the nature of moral responsibility. The first two essays in this collection jump into the responsibility/reactive attitude discussion, with Neal A. Tognazzini's discussion of reactive attitudes leading, followed closely by Michael J. Zimmerman's discussion of the nature of moral responsibility. The order and interplay between these two articles is excellent; with Tognazzini making a compelling case that we ought to take P. F. Strawson's discussion of reactive attitudes seriously, and Zimmerman nearly effortlessly dismissing that boogeyman, salvaging the traditional, commonsense conception of moral responsibility that is the primary focus of the collection. Zimmerman's analysis is clear and compelling – as one should expect given his work in responsibility and tackling the problem of moral luck elsewhere. That said, I feel somewhat cheated here; as Zimmerman's article reads much like a second introduction, arguing that our concept of moral responsibility is not reducible to Strawson's reactive attitudes. Here, Zimmerman covers relatively little new ground, discussing his own theory – a very practical, instrumental one, if not intuitive – very little. These two cornerstone articles are followed by articles by Gideon Rosen and T.M. Scanlon; both of which are excellent foundational articles that stand on their own.
The second section's articles turn to discuss moral agency, including essays by David Shoemaker, Nomy Arpaly, Julia Driver, and Holly M. Smith, each of which stands on its own. Of these essays, Nomy Arpaly's "Huckleberry Finn Revisited: Inverse Akrasia," stands out. Mark Twain's fictional character, Huck Finn, has become something of a stalwart case in recent years when discussing moral responsibility – or, at least, his choice to help his friend Jim escape slavery has. Twain tells us Huck believes that helping Jim escape is genuinely wrong, but when confronted with an opportunity to turn Jim in, he reportedly cannot do so. Those working in the area of moral responsibility regularly take such reports seriously; look no further than the work Martin Luther's reported "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise" line plays in the free will debate to illustrate this fact. Arpaly's discussion of Finn's responsibility is rigorous, accessible, and interesting.
The third section's articles represent the standard grab-bag of essays normally found in such collections, including articles by Coleen Macnamara, George Sher, Rahul Kumar, and Derk Pereboom. Each is engaging in its own right, but I'd like to end as the collection does, with Pereboom's article, "A Notion of Moral Responsibility Immune to the Threat from Causal Determinism." In a sense, Pereboom's article compliments Tognazzini's, attempting to explore an account of moral responsibility that isn't undermined by the possibility of universal causal determinism. If universal causal determinism is true, then there is only one possible future, and our actions are completely causally necessitated by events that occurred long before our birth; such that none of us can do anything but what we will actually do. P.F. Strawson's account of responsibility as involving appropriate reactive attitudes circumvents purports to be immune here, as holding an agent responsible is a matter of judging their practices to be undesirable, not judging them to be responsible for bringing them about. Here Pereboom examines the prospect that a future-looking account of responsibility, cobbling together a theory that incorporates advances made by other leaders in the field, the result of which is a theory that he believes is immune to the threat of universal causal determining; one where the point of praise or blame is aimed at altering future behavior, rather that identifying some feature of the agent at the time of the blameworthy act.
Fortunately testing whether this theory is consistent with our intuitions about responsibility is easy enough – merely imagine a scenario where, by stipulation, holding a vicious agent blameworthy for his actions creates no future utility nor wastes scarce resources and brings you no satisfaction, then ask if it makes sense to hold such a person accountable. If responsibility is forward looking, there is no point. Recognizing the viciousness of the agent is surplus to requirements. But if responsibility is backwards looking… then blame is appropriate.
In closing, I strongly recommend this collection of essays. The introduction is excellent, the included essays are accessible and with scholarly merit, and the topic well represented.
© 2019 William Simkulet
William Simkulet, Ph.D., University of Wisonsin, Marshfield/Wood County