Responsibility on a spectrum



In my last three entries, I have been arguing that blogs may function to buffer responsible agency against the rapid social changes that have emerged over the last 35 years, because blogs can reinforce character and control – two hallmarks of responsible agency. Millenials have witnessed rapid changes in the nature of their relationships and the workforce, and these social factors are (arguably) critical to responsible agency. If character and control are heavily dependent on underlying social structures, and these structures are in flux, we can expect a concomitant weakening of character and control in the general population. So it is reasonable conjecture that Millenials in the aggregate have weaker agency than previous generations. However, they may be able to use technology to counteract these effects.

This is a very generic claim about agential capacities in general and in the aggregate. I realize that Millenials likely have enhanced agency in some respects and diminished agency in others. For example, they likely have enhanced agency in the sense that they are less susceptible to problematic implicit biases, in light of general knowledge of this phenomenon. Still, I think it is legitimate to say, in general, agential capacities may be threatened by social instability, provided that we understand this as a very blunt statement.

Now, one might accept the gist of my proposal and yet argue that responsibility is a zero-sum proposition, not a comparative notion in the way that I am suggesting. Millenials, that is, have just as much responsible agency as their parents, because they are above the threshold for responsibility, and any additional capacities above this threshold are irrelevant. So we cannot say, for instance, that 30-year-old Smith is less responsible for a particular type of antisocial behaviour because he lacks a stable family structure, compared to 50-year-old Jones who has a strong support network, if Smith has enough social resources to count as a responsible agent. There are no grounds for drawing interpersonal comparisons, in other words, except between responsible agents and non-responsible agents. Interpersonal differences above the minimal threshold are irrelevant. Those below the threshold are not moral agents at all: they are outside of the participant perspective, “objects of social policy,” as Strawson put it (1963). This applies to children, non-human animals, severely mentally ill people, and others who lack basic moral competence.

It may seem intuitive to see responsible agency in this way. Some fall below the minimal line, and others are responsibility-apt. We can deploy the reactive attitudes to this latter population. But it is no longer standard to see responsibility in this light. More and more, responsibility theorists are insisting that responsibility comes in degrees. One example is Faraci and Shoemaker (2010), who argue that Wolf’s famous example of JoJo, the evil dictator, would benefit from the addition of an explicit ‘spectrum’ conception of responsibility. They administer a survey in which subjects can rate JoJo’s degree of responsibility from 1 (least responsible) to 7 (most responsible). This spectrum notion of responsibility fits very nicely with Strawson’s account of the reactive attitudes, on reflection, since the reactive attitudes, inasmuch as they have emotional content, surely come in degrees. I can feel resentment very strongly or relatively weakly, depending on the precise quality of a person’s will and the consequences of the person’s action. By introducing degrees of responsibility, we can rate evil dictators like JoJo across varying situations, allowing that situations can modulate responsibility even if the agents are basically the same. So if JoJo1 is an evil dictator on a remote island, whereas JoJo2 is an evil dictator in a well-connected, modern country, JoJo1 is less responsible (blameworthy) than JoJo2.

Another example comes from Washington & Kelly (2015). They present three examples of explicitly biased people: one who lives in the distant past, one who lives in America circa 1980, and one who lives in America circa 2014. They say that, ceteris paribus, the third person is more blameworthy than the second, who is more blameworthy than the first, based on the social resources available to each person. Because the third agent has access to more remediating measures for implicit bias (e.g., IATs, counterstereotypical exposure, implementation intentions, and so on) than the other two, he is proportionally more blameworthy.

I think that this is how we actually blame people when comparative examples and salient social information are available, and when we are being judicious judges (as we should be). Sometime we make a hasty judgment without taking into account the context, but this is an incomplete and error-prone assessment. We make better responsibility judgments when we are more careful and mindful of contextual information. My initial judgment might be that 25-year-old Jack is a lazy, self-entitled loafer, but if I consider his context, and the fact that his generation is relatively economically disenfranchised compared to his parents’ generation, I may revise my judgment and hold him less accountable (or not accountable at all) for his lack of initiative. When I compare his situation against other contexts, I get a better picture of his quality of will and agential capacities. In light of my comparative judgement, my absolute judgment of Jack is modified: in realizing that he is less responsible for failing to contribute to society compared to the average Baby Boomer, I realize that he less blameworthy in absolute terms – and perhaps not blameworthy at all.

In this way, the comparative examples offered in the recent literature lend credence to the view that we can make cross-generational and cross-cultural comparisons of responsible agency.

It might seem like a mystery why one would ever think of responsibility in all-or-nothing terms, but this view makes sense on certain pictures of responsibility. Some theorists, like Scanlon (2014), think of responsibility (in the accountability sense) as a relationship-modifying practice, with blame consisting of an attenuation or suspension of a relationship. On a strong reading, this may seem to suggest that responsibility is zero-sum: we can continue a relationship or end it. We can continue support it or withdraw it. This might be fine for a certain conception of responsibility, but it does not work for a Strawsonian picture, since Strawson thinks of responsibility as a practice of deploying reactive attitudes like resentment and indignation, and these attitudes (surely) come in degrees. Scanlon’s view is arguably too blunt. Modifying a relationship is an extreme form of blame: we have recourse to a vast range of reactive attitudes first. If these don’t work, then we can end the relationship, but this is arguably a case of taking the objective perspective, i.e., withdrawing responsibility. In any case, if we endorse Strawson’s view for whatever reason, and we understand the reactive attitudes as cognitive-affective in nature, there is good reason to see responsibility, in its affective content, as a matter of degree.

It is worth noting that in some institutional contexts, it makes sense to see responsibility as all-or-nothing. For example, in determining whether someone is clinically mentally ill according to DSM-5 standards, we have to make a yes-or-no determination. Either the person should have access to mental-health resources or not. Similarly, in court, either the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Sentencing is proportional, but the verdict is either-or. This is not an objection to the spectrum conception of (moral) responsibility, though, since reactive attitudes are not like psychiatric diagnoses or criminal sentencing. They are reactions within interpersonal communication that can come in kinds (resentment, indignation, etc.) and degrees (strong, moderate, weak).

If this is right, then the story about responsibility, blogs, and social change is that much more plausible.


One thought on “Responsibility on a spectrum

  1. Hi Michelle–

    First, great blog! Glad to see philosophers out there changing social schemas.

    A note on the example from the Washington & Kelly paper… we describe those characters as being equally *implicitly* biased, but only the distant past guy as being explicitly biased (hence why it’s so easy to push the intuition that he is more responsible than the other two). But if responsibility is graded, I do think you’re on the right track to wonder whether characters with identical psychological profiles are differently responsible merely as a matter of context. What do you think?


    Liked by 1 person

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