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). This is the second installment of the interview; the first installment is here. A video interview with Dave is available here.—AJC
In the book’s concluding summary, you write:
Instead of abandoning the general quality of will approach for an unwieldy amalgam of conditions on responsibility agency, however (as others have done), I combined these three distinct monistic approaches to quality of will into a single theory that incorporates three distinct qualities of will, which give birth to three distinct types of responsibility.
While reading, I found myself wondering: What makes your tripartite theory of responsibility a single theory in any sense other than name only? In other words, were it to be retitled something like Three Types of Responsibility and rewritten accordingly here and there, how would the important philosophical claims you’re making be any different? And why is a unified theory about moral responsibility desirable, if it requires all the complexity and differentiations that your theory includes?
There are, to begin, a couple of conceptual/theoretical reasons. First, I want to preserve a thin unity of responsibility under the general concept most people have in mind for it, namely as covering those actions and attitudes expressive of our practical agency, more colloquially known as the things that are “up to us” in some broad sense. The contrast is to eye color or height. Second, the things that are “up to us,” tend to provoke a range of emotional responses in others (and ourselves), and these too fall under a unified rubric for us, as our “responsibility responses.” They tend to motivate us in distinctive ways, ways connected with our own agency, having to do, e.g., with improving our own character or changing our judgmental policies.
So I take it that there is a unified concept of responsibility. But there are plural expressions of it. And what I try to show in the book is that our responsibility responses are at their most fundamental emotional commitments tracking, and triggered by, good or bad “quality of will,” where “will” comes in three forms: character, judgment, and regard. These in turn tend to trigger three sets of emotional response pairs: admiration/disdain (triggered by good or bad quality of character); regret/pride (triggered by bad or good quality of judgment); and anger/gratitude (triggered by bad or good quality of regard). As there are three distinct capacities implicated by each quality of “will,” I say there are three types of responsibility implicated thereby.
So why not just call the book Three Types of Responsibility? The main reason, I suppose, is that some of the types of responsibility I articulate and discuss have been thought not to be types of responsibility at all; rather, they have been dismissed as mere “appraisability” or types of nonmoral agency. But this has allowed some marginal agents to be thought entirely “exempt” from the moral community, the community of fellow morally responsible agents. One of the main points of the book is to undermine this facile dismissal and show that marginal agents are actually responsible on some types of responsibility, albeit not all, but most importantly, the kinds of quality of will they exhibit are indeed responsibility expressions. That is, they too are responsible agents, on the very meaning of the general concept most theorists accept. So perhaps my ultimate reason for preserving a unified concept at the most general level is only rhetorical, but the rhetoric aims at greater inclusion.
I’d like to take a look now at the three dimensions or faces of responsibility that you’ve identified: attributability, accountability, and answerability. For the benefit of our readers, I’m going to present a simplified version of a chart from the book that shows the most important concepts at work here and the connections between them:
|Type of Responsibility
|Evaluated Quality of Will
|Emotional Response Pair
Perhaps we could begin by trying to get clear on the differences between them.
To begin with, what’s the difference between answerability and accountability? In other words, what’s the difference between giving an answer and giving an account? You offer a definition of answerability:
Answerability is something agents have in virtue of their ability (in principle) to “answer for” their actions, to respond to others’ demands for justification by citing their judgments about the worth of some reasons over others.
You do say (p. 88) that “to be accountable for something is to be liable to being appropriately held to account for it,” but I couldn’t find anywhere where you said anything about of what kind of account is to be provided. Realizing that you’re participating in an ongoing conversation in which these usages are long established, I got curious about the history of this usage, and my researches took me back to Jonathan Bennett’s 1980 paper “Accountability“:
By “accountable” I shall mean “blameworthy or praiseworthy”; someone is “accountable” for an action, in my usage, if a blame- or praise-related response to the action would not be inappropriate.
I was (mildly) astonished at this: a definition of accountable in which the meaning of the term bears no discernible relationship to giving an account! (A little further research revealed that indeed, there is a large literature in professional and applied ethics in which the term is used in (what seems to me to be) the normal way.
You’re right to notice the divorce in the literature between being accountable and being asked to give an account. I am, you’re also right, trying to preserve as much as possible the terminology as used in the philosophical literature on responsibility. What I’m trying to point out is that each of these labels (attributability, answerability, accountability) actually tracks a different “quality of will,” and insofar as we are to make sense of our ambivalent responsibility responses in marginal cases, we need to bring each of them out explicitly and note that each implicates different agential capacities.
In brief, accountability (as I characterize it) doesn’t necessarily involve giving an account, precisely because that necessarily makes reference to one’s judgments. But accountability as such isn’t about judgments; instead, it’s about one’s regard for others, which, in its purest form is a kind of perceptual stance, where one comes to see certain facts about others in a “reasonish” way, or comes to feel emotionally simpatico with another (via empathy of some kind). What I see or don’t see isn’t something for which I can give a justification, so it doesn’t implicate judgment in the way that answerability does.
Let’s turn our attention now to attributability. Here again, the term has a more more specialized sense than it does in everyday (and legal) usage: not everything that a person does is, in this sense, morally attributable to her. Rather, the acts that are morally attributable are those that somehow reflect or stem from a person’s deep self (which is why you identify your theory as a sort of Deep Self Theory.) To help our readers get a grasp on this idea, I’ll quote a passage from the paper in which Susan Wolf coined the term:
Responsible agency involves something more than intentional agency…. [I]f we are responsible agents, it is not just because our actions are within the control of our wills, but because, in addition, our wills are not just psychological states in us, but expressions of character that come from us, or that at any rate are acknowledged and affirmed by us…. [T]he key to moral responsibility lies in the fact that responsible agents are those for whom it is not just the case that their actions are within the control of their wills, but also the case that their wills are within the control of their selves in some deeper sense.
Next, let’s consider the difference between attributability and accountability. I’d like to quote a short passage the end of Chapter 3:
Attributability is… unnecessary for accountability, as anger may be fitting to me for some attitude or action even if it does not express one or more of my cares and commitments. One example is whims; I may be moved by a desire to steal something of yours, where this desire is not dependent on either my emotional dispositions or my evaluative stance. It is thus not attributable to me, my deep self. Nevertheless, the action revealed an “out of character” lack of regard. Similarly, I may say something mean off the cuff without being a mean person.
That being the case (and it certainly seems to me to be the case), why bother with attributability and the deep self at all in giving an account of moral responsibility?
The reason to bother with attributability and the deep self is that a wide range of our responsibility responses go precisely to the quality of character it implies, and I think it would be utterly arbitrary to exclude them from what counts as “responsibility.” Most theorists do focus on what I call “accountability” (in a different guise), as they think that’s what implicates our practices of punishment and sanction generally, and so is what real moral responsibility is about. But with respect to the reactive emotions themselves, that’s not true. My anger at you doesn’t necessarily motivate any sanctions at all (contrary to what I used to think). But once we prize apart sanctions from the emotions that ground (some of) our responsibility practices, there’s no nonarbitrary reason to exclude admiration, disdain, contempt, regret, pride, and other non-accountability emotions from the realm of our investigation.
Let’s consider now the statement with which you concluded the Mike Tyson example earlier in our interview:
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.
(My first impulse on reading this was to want to respond, “‘Are called’ by whom?”—except that, having read your book, I know that this is a position developed in a series of papers by Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson.) More to the point: Judgments about what it would be best for me to feel seem to me to be examples—I might go so far as to say the best examples—of (to combine terminology from several philosophers) second-order volitions that stem from one’s strong evaluations and hence reflect one’s deep self. So I sense a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between the account of moral personhood offered in Chapter 1 and the discussion of accountability responses in Chapter 3.
I’m not entirely sure I get the purported tension/contradiction. “What it’s best for me to feel” is about what emotional response it would be best for me to have, whereas you’re referring to the product of strong evaluation, which would be desires. But at any rate, I’m talking in Chapter 1 about what makes some attitude/action attributable to someone in a way that grounds fitting admiration and disdain. In the Mike Tyson, I’m talking about when it might be best for me not to feel anger toward someone, despite the fact that it would be fitting (because he had slighted me). But I don’t discuss the attributability of our responsibility responses. So you’re right: it could well be that were I not to feel anger at Mike Tyson for a “wrong kind of reason,” but a reason nevertheless involving my strong evaluation, then that response would indeed be attributable to me (and perhaps render me admirable qua courageous), as it flows from a commitment. What would be the tension involved in saying that?
OK, I see that my question confused the issue by introducing my strong evaluations about my own responses. Let me try another tack:
In the proposed scenario, I find myself getting angry at Mike Tyson. In your terms, Tyson is accountable for playing Kenny G. at 2 a.m. That act may or may not be attributable to him, in this very specific sense of attributability; i.e., it may or may not be reflective of Mike’s deep self, his strong evaluations about what’s important in life. (I’m not sure what sort of strong evaluations such an action would be expressive of; perhaps—shifting musical genres here—he’s an advocate of the creed expressed in “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right to Party.” In earlier phases of my life, when I used to boorishly disturb my neighbors with loud music in the wee hours, I think I implicitly adhered to such a creed; even though the Beastie Boys weren’t around yet, “Get Off of My Cloud” expressed the same normative ideals and commitments. But I digress.)
So if I’m sitting there thinking about how I feel about what Mike’s doing and what to do about it, one of the factors that’s going to enter into those deliberations is whether he’s done this kind of thing before, and whether I’ve asked him before to keep the music down after a certain hour. I may ask myself, “Is he even aware that I’m over here trying to get to sleep (or to read Kant, or write a philosophy blog post)?” And, although I’m not likely to use the term (unless the blog post I’m trying to write is about Responsibility From the Margins), these thoughts, it seems to me, are basically about whether Mr. Tyson’s current inconsiderateness is attributable to him.
So my question is: On your view, are these thoughts relevant to the fittingness of my anger? To whether and how I hold Mike responsible? (And if those are two distinct questions, how are they related?) Or, on the other hand, are such thoughts the wrong kinds of reasons with regard to one or both of those issues?
What I think you’ve raised is actually a nice illustration of various aspects of my view! My aim in the first part of the book was to isolate “pure” cases of the different types of responsibility in question, but most of the time all three (or at least two) are in play. So Tyson could be both accountable and attributability-responsible (and probably is). He’s surely accountable, given his lack of regard for you, and that renders anger fitting. And if he’s been inconsiderate like this before, or if even this one time is egregious enough, he’s an inconsiderate person, so some form of disdain is likely fitting, too.
But your question is really about my deliberations of what it’s “best for me to feel” toward Tyson, and this could be seen as ambiguous. What I meant by “best” was “prudentially best,” and so implicated a wrong kind of reason, namely, prudential reasons. The type of deliberation of what to feel that you’re articulating is deliberation about the right kind of reason, namely, what it’s fitting for me to feel. But this deliberation can take place in any or all of the three arenas of responsibility.
(In the third and final part of the interview, Dave will discuss more general philosophical issues related to moral responsibility.)