David Shoemaker is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University in New Orleans and on the faculty of the Murphy Institute Center for Ethics and Public Affairs. He is the editor of Oxford Studies in Agency and Responsibility and founder and co-editor of the Pea Soup blog. I recently interviewed him via e-mail about his new book, Responsibility from the Margins (Oxford University Press, 2015). In this first installment of the interview, Dave explains the general themes and ideas of his book.—AJC
In the first paragraph of the book, you tell us that you've frequently stated that the greatest philosophical paper of the 20th century is P.F. Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment" (subject of PEL Podcast 93). Clearly, implicit in that claim is a particular view about what philosophy is, what's of philosophical interest, and what the contemporary tasks of philosophy are. At the Partially Examined Life, we've got a lot of listeners and readers who are interested in philosophy, and very knowledgeable and well read both in the history of philosophy and in some contemporary philosophical schools and approaches, yet who may never have heard of P.F. Strawson. How would you explain to those readers the conception of philosophy that informs this book?
I am most fundamentally interested in philosophy as it pertains to and illuminates our humanity. Call this "anthropological philosophy." This explains my interests in the nature of the self, ethics, and our accountability to one another. Strawson's essay was revolutionary in that it addressed a deeply entrenched, longstanding metaphysical stalemate about whether free will was compatible with determinism, but by focusing our attention back on our distinctively human practices of praise and blame, desert, condemnation, justice, and so forth, he rendered that metaphysical debate otiose. (This is a contentious description, of course, but one I'll run with anyway, as that was my take on it that sparked my interest in responsibility.)
Strawson's primary point (for me) was that we humans are simply born into, given the fact of our humanity, a framework of emotional responses that shapes our responsibility exchanges with one another, and we could no more get an external justification for these emotional responses and practices than we could get a justification for being human. Among the emotional responses that structure our interpersonal relations are resentment, indignation, and guilt, but also gratitude, hurt feelings, forgiveness, and love. The first three are those people think are most important for moral responsibility. These emotional responses appraise their objects in certain ways, and they are fitting to the extent their appraisals are correct. What renders them unfitting, though, are factors having nothing to do with determinism; rather, they have to do with the attitudes of the targeted agents—did he mean it, or was it an accident?—and whether the targeted agents are psychologically abnormal (Does she have schizophrenia? Is she a child?). The metaphysical question of determinism, therefore, is just a red herring, and one we no longer need to worry about.
This fundamental redirection—moving our attention away from the musty metaphysical debate to our actual human relations with one another—was the radical move Strawson made that deeply inspired me. I have thus been trying hard to keep my focus on my fellow humans in my work on responsibility, and it's what has led me to explore what I've called the marginal agents among us, those with clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychopathy, autism, intellectual disabilities, or dementia, as they seem to have one foot in the responsibility community and one foot out. I think we can learn a great deal about the nature of responsibility (that deeply human practice) by focusing on such agents.
One of the major strands in your work is what I've heard referred to as "neosentimentalism": a renewed interest in moral sense theories of the sort traditionally associated with Hume and Adam Smith. Could you say a little about how your project is located within that tradition (both the canonical authors and the contemporary discussion)?
Yes, the sentimentalist tradition traces back to Hume and Smith, and it is about the nature of value. According to Hume, for instance, value “depends on some internal sense or feeling which nature has made universal in the species.” Consequently, we can’t understand what’s valuable without essential reference to our human sensibilities, to what we humans were built to respond to (forgive the teleological talk; nothing spooky hangs on it). Contemporary sentimentalists—neosentimentalists—of various stripes (such as John McDowell, David Wiggins, Allan Gibbard, and Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson) have been attempting to fill in this story in great detail, sometimes aided by evolutionary insights, for a wide variety of values. The relevant value-determining human sensibilities are most often thought to be emotional. Sentiments are dispositions to specific bouts of a kind of emotional response. Neosentimentalists thus tend to think that values like the fearsome, the disgusting, or the amusing are determined by (or consist in) what it would be fitting for us to respond to with, respectively, fear, disgust, or amusement.
Contemporary sentimentalism purports to provide a tenable middle position between dispositionalism about value and response-independence, or robust realism, about value. The dispositionalist says, “Yes, our values are a function of our attitudinal responses, but this is a purely causal descriptive story, namely, what it is that we are in fact disposed to respond to with the emotion in question.” On the dispositionalist story, there is no normativity, i.e., we couldn’t tell someone—as we often do—that he is wrong to value that thing, as it’s not really valuable. It would also mean our correcting children in their determination of “values,” or the notion of value development in general, would be mistaken. This seems quite misguided, however, as normativity is surely built deeply into our concept of values. When we disagree over whether something’s valuable, for instance, we’re not at all disagreeing over whether people in fact tend to find the thing in question valuable.
So we need normativity in our characterization of value. But then response-independent realism has seemed quite attractive to many as a result. On this construal, for example, what makes my fear of the dog fitting is that the dog has a response-independent property that antecedently renders my fear fitting, namely, the dog is dangerous. Neosentimentalists think that you cannot provide a clear and counterexample-free characterization of “the dangerous,” however (or whatever property is supposed to be the relevant response-independent one our fear tracks), without covertly smuggling in response-dependence. What ultimately counts as “dangerous” is really going to be “whatever strikes us in the scary/feary way.”
Now, what I really believe and what I’m doing in the book are two different things. I will come clean:
What I really believe is that (neo)sentimentalism of some sort is true of the values associated with responsibility, in particular, the blameworthy. What merits/fits blaming emotions like anger, for instance, are properties of agents to which our human anger sensibilities were built to respond. This is not a dispositionalist notion, as there can be good and bad sensibilities, and that’s reflected in the way we talk and engage with one another. But it’s also not a response-independent (robust realist) notion, as one can’t get a clear or counterexample-free understanding of the relevant agential blameworthy properties without covert appeal to our anger sensibilities.
What I say in the book, however, is supposed to be agnostic between the response-independent and response-dependent views of responsibility. Nevertheless, both sides must take seriously our emotional responsibility responses. The response-independent theorist must take them seriously as the best epistemic markers of the true response-independent responsibility properties, whereas the response-dependent theorist has to take them seriously as they are what constitutes responsibility. So regardless of one’s theory, our emotional responses are prime data. But in addition, we have to have normativity here, as we don’t think any old emotional responses matter. My anger at you might be inappropriate, as I merely dreamed you did me wrong. So the emotional responses will be relevant to the theories only to the extent that they are fitting. And therein lies the real theorizing: if we’re to figure out the nature of responsibility, we must figure out first what makes our emotional responsibility responses fitting. And that’s the project of Part I of my book.
One of the terms you use for those "emotional response pairs" is sentimental syndromes. Among the characteristics by which you identify sentiments, as opposed to other types of emotional phenomena, is that they are partially encapsulated from judgment (or as you also put it, recalcitrant); that is, our sentiments don't always change even when the information we have about the objects of those sentiments changes. On the other hand, it's crucial to the whole (Strawsonian) project you're up to that certain kinds of facts about people cause us to exempt them from our reactive attitudes. In other words, moral sentiments are revisable in certain respects, yet resistant to revision in other respects. Can you say something about what the relevant distinction is there?
As you say, sentiments are often encapsulated from judgment. I may judge that the object of my anger did what he did accidentally, and so exhibited no poor quality of regard to me, yet I remain angry with him. Or Bernard Williams’s lorry driver, who kills a child through absolutely no fault of his, may continue to regret turning down that street for many years to come. These emotions don’t always “snap to” when ordered by judgment. Now, these are emotions that aren’t fitting, as they are appraising a situation incorrectly (e.g., the driver’s regret appraises his judgment as poor, but it wasn’t). They are thus irrational.
But the fact that emotions are encapsulated from judgment doesn't in and of itself make them irrational. For example, if Mike Tyson is my neighbor and continually wakes me up in the middle of the night by playing smooth jazz loudly through his open window, I’d best not show my anger to him. Indeed, it would be best for me not even to feel said anger; after all, that’s the best way not to show it. So I may judge that I shouldn't feel angry, but I feel it nonetheless when I hear Kenny G start up at 2 a.m. In this instance, my anger is perfectly fitting and rational: Mike Tyson is slighting me, that is, not taking me and my ends seriously.
Now, judgments about what it would be best for me to feel are called “wrong kinds of reasons,” as they don’t pertain to the relationship between the emotional appraisal and the object of appraisal. That relationship gives rise to the reasons of “fit.” So to the extent Tyson is slighting me, I have a reason of fit to feel anger. To the extent that he could beat the shit out of me if I show my anger (despite his vows of pacifism to the contrary), I have a “wrong kind of reason” (in this case, a prudential reason) not to feel anger.
What I’m trying to identify are these reasons of fit, what it is that makes some specific emotional response fitting or unfitting. One excellent way to do so is by looking at exemption cases, cases in which our (informed and sophisticated) responsibility sensibilities don't deliver the emotion in question. These ostensibly include people with certain serious mental disabilities, young children, those with dementia, those from poor formative circumstances, and so forth. Looking at such cases enables us to figure out what they’re missing that explains why our responsibility sensibility wasn’t triggered. And so we can build from there the necessary conditions for responsible agency in paradigm cases.
So here’s the scaffolding: our human responsibility sensibilities determine the relevant (normative) target of our specific emotional bouts. Any specific instance of anger, e.g., ought to target poor regard—slights—as that is what the sensibilities themselves were built for (sorry for the teleology, but don’t read too much into it). We thus use exemption cases to get clear on what our general sentimental sensibilities target, and that knowledge allows us to justify or correct any individual deployment of the emotion in question. These latter justifications/corrections appeal to reasons of fit. Insofar as that is the appeal and not an appeal to wrong kinds of reason, then given my speculation above, our emotions are more likely to get in line.
To give an example: We can determine, by thinking about exemptions, that our general anger sensibilities target poor quality of regard (in my lingo). That’s what the sensibilities were built for. So if you slight me, that just means I have a reason of fit to be angry with you, even if I have plenty of moral and prudential reasons not to be angry with you (you’ve already been through a lot, you’ll hurt me, etc.). What’s revisable, then, is that specific bout of anger, even though it might take a while. But our general anger sensibilities (our sense of “slight”) is not revisable, at least not without the kind of incredible training and focus that some Buddhists and perhaps Stoics have ostensibly managed, but in a way that makes them, in certain important respects, not human anymore.
One final thought to bring this back to Strawson. It may be that, in the language I’m using, the question of whether determinism is compatible with moral responsibility just smuggles in a wrong kind of reason. For regardless of whether or not determinism is true, the various responsibility emotions we have could still be fitting. But I haven’t pursued this point in the book, and others (e.g., Paul Russell, Stephen Darwall) have done so in far more insightful ways before me.
In the next installment of the interview, Dave will get into the details of his views on what moral responsibility is and how it's related to our reactive attitudes.