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 third and final installment of the interview; the first part is here, and the second part is here. A video interview with Dave is available here.—AJC
Tell us about what you’re up to in Part II of the book.
The whole book is motivated by our ambivalent responsibility responses to many marginal agents, agents who seem to have one foot in and one foot out of the moral responsibility community. In Part II, I discuss a range of psychological disorders that implicate different agential capacities (e.g., mood disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, intellectual disabilities, autism, and dementia).
In that discussion, you use an interesting phrase: “the perverse sweet spot.” What’s that?
This is a phrase suggested to me by Dan Jacobson, in writing comments on an earlier paper of mine on dementia. But it applies to many of the marginal cases I discuss. All of these disorders come in degrees, and we tend to respond with ambivalence to their bearers only in a subrange of spots on their various spectrums. This subrange is what I refer to as the “perverse sweet spot.” Normally, of course, hitting “the sweet spot”—on a baseball bat, or in a band—is a good thing, but as these agents typically suffer from the disorder in question (not always, but often), hitting the subrange motivating the ambivalent responses is a perverse version of that sweet spot.
The subrange I have in mind is typically thought of as the “mild” to “moderate” form of the disorder in question. Were one at the far end of the spectrum, one would typically be completely outside of the community of morally responsible agents, as evidenced by our purely “medicalized” responses to those with extreme depression (who typically report having “lost their self”), profound intellectual disabilities, or end-stage dementia. But in the mild to moderate range, these are agents who still have and are able to exercise some of the range of capacities relevant to responsibility. My job in Part II of the book is to try and figure out what responsibility capacities their very different disorders undermine or preserve.
Here we have neither time nor space to examine all of those disorders. Is there one (or two) of those cases that you would point to as a particularly good example of how the “sweet spot” functions, and of how our intuitions about such cases support your theory?
I think the case of Alzheimer’s dementia is a good example of the kind of thing I have in mind. In cases of mild to moderate dementia, various psychological and physical capacities have diminished to varying extents. Somewhere in there, I think, the responses of caregivers to the responsibility-status of these agents (and I’m thinking here particularly of familial caregivers) tend to become ambivalent. So when the agent they are caring for does something “bad,” say, some responses seem to feel inappropriate, whereas others may still feel appropriate. That general sort of ambivalence is what motivates my overall project, but I take my task in the second part of the book to be to vindicate that ambivalence by showing what the theory predicts are appropriate responses in specific cases, and we are to test these predictions against our intuitions again once we have come to see what capacities in particular seem affected by the disease.
The tripartite theory predicts that patients with dementia in this “sweet spot” are likely to be neither accountable nor answerable, but nevertheless attributability-responsible. Their memory and executive impairments, insofar as they undermine their empathic and identifying capacities, undermine their accountability to others. Their executive function impairments, insofar as they undermine their deliberative and decision-making abilities, undermine their answerability. But insofar as they are very often still capable of caring about things and expressing those cares, some attitudes and actions may still be attributable to them, as they may reflect their persisting character traits.
I think this fact is buttressed by reported responses of caregivers, that even though anger or moral disapproval may no longer make sense for their actions, admiration and some forms of disdain may still be appropriate. Grandpa may still be mean, for example, or kind, and those character traits render appropriate various aretaic responses. But more importantly for caregivers, many of them also report guilt at having ambivalent responses, as if the condition should render all such engaged interpersonal responses off the table. My more nuanced account should reveal how such responses may well be appropriate after all, and so help ameliorate those self-berating thoughts and attitudes.
Earlier in our conversation, you said that “Strawson’s essay was revolutionary in that it . . . rendered that metaphysical debate [about whether free will was compatible with determinism] otiose.” As you recognized, that’s a very controversial claim; the free will/determinism debate is still going strong. Galen Strawson’s paper “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (discussed in Episode 93) is one example; Bruce Waller’s book Against Moral Responsibility is another. Both of these authors count as “hard determinists,” but in neither case is their main project to present a vigorous argument for determinism, in the sense that, for example, they’re not presenting the latest evidence from neuroscience that’s alleged to support determinism. Rather, the main thrust in each case is to argue against holding people morally responsible, on the grounds that to do so is morally wrong. How would you respond to these folks to try to convince them that they’re rehashing an otiose discussion?
I think there has long been a trend in the literature to glom together talk of the attitudes involved in holding responsible and certain practices and treatments involved in holding responsible. One thing that comes out of (P.F.) Strawson is the suggestion (one that goes by in a flash!) that the practices and treatments are founded on the attitudes, which are more fundamental. That’s what I think too, so when I focus on what I call our “responsibility responses,” I have in mind only the natural emotional reactions we have and most explicitly not the practices built on top of them. Indeed, these practices and treatments are, I think, something we consider to be expressive of the attitudes. But that is compatible with a wide array of such expressions (as we see in various cultures and eras), and it is also compatible with treating those expressions as being, first and foremost, ethical matters, and not about responsibility per se, which is instead a function (I would maintain) purely of our emotional responses and the contours of our emotional commitments.
This is all by way of saying that people like Galen Strawson, Waller, Derk Pereboom, and others are (rightly) concerned about harsh treatments and sanctions associated with moral responsibility, but I wish to argue instead that their concern is a straightforward ethical concern about how we ought to express the emotional responses that are actually what carve out the most fundamental arena of responsibility.
This is a shift from what I used to think, which lined up with most of the literature. But I no longer think that responsibility responses necessarily implicate any harsh treatment/sanctions/pain/punishment. Consequently, I am much less concerned about the moral worries people have thought must attach to our responsibility responses (at least as a theoretician about responsibility!), worries that they have thought must motivate metaphysical revision or generate concerns about determinism. If responsibility doesn’t necessarily implicate punishment, say, then the question of desert, or ultimate sourcehood, or determinism generally need not be of serious concern (again, at least with respect to responsibility in and of itself).
I’m not sure I completely get what it means for certain practices to be “ethical matters” but not about “responsibility per se.” Could you elaborate on that?
As Tamler Sommers nicely reminds us in his book Relative Justice, there are many different practices around the world associated with responsibility. For instance, there was widespread shame in the Korean community after a young man shot several students at Virginia Tech several years back, as well as a motivation to apologize. Why? Because the shooter was Korean. There are many stories of bizarre responsibility responses in ancient Greek society, e.g., Oedipus gouging his eyes out with guilt and shame for killing his father and sleeping with his mother, despite his lack of knowledge that he was doing either (under those descriptions). In some honor cultures, one must repay violence with violence, but the violence need not be directed to the original offender; rather, it can go to anyone in the offender’s family or community.
To the contemporary Western eye, these practices may seem baffling. Indeed, it may well be thought that they undercut my thesis, that there’s a universal conception of responsibility. But they don’t, because I think in each case the practice involved is just a cultural local expression of the universal responsibility sentiments. So the Koreans depicted here are obviously expressing shame, albeit in a way that may seem foreign to non-Koreans; Oedipus is expressing guilt, albeit in a very dramatic manner; and the honor culture members are expressing anger, just in a violent and more capacious way.
Our fundamental responsibility responses are emotional appraisals. How we express our anger, shame, regret, guilt, gratitude, etc., are ethical matters, though, about the ways we ought to treat our fellows, and these expressions could go in a wide variety of directions, as they in fact do. And the question of desert—as in “What does he deserve for what he did?”—is fundamentally an ethical question, i.e., “How should we treat those who do angersome things?” But the form of this question applies equally to all sorts of “non-responsibility” arenas as well, i.e., “How should we treat those who are economically worst off in our society?” or “How should we treat people with Huntington’s disease?” We can answer these questions in a variety of ways—it’s what I occasionally try to do myself with my ethicist’s hat on—but I don’t think any of them, even the question about what to do with the angersome, necessarily piggybacks on our responsibility responses.
An important part of your argument is that, as you put it: “We could no more stop holding people responsible than we could stop being human.” Obviously, people like Galen Strawson and Waller disagree, since they think there’s a point to offering the arguments they do in the public arena. I myself am very skeptical of the claim. For one thing, it strikes me as an empirical claim, and hence a candidate for empirical confirmation or disconfirmation.
I am certainly up for, and open to, empirical confirmation or disconfirmation. That’s one of the things I think is exciting about the account: it makes certain testable empirical predictions. There has been some empirical work on whether thinking in a hard determinist way undercuts motivation to blame, although one major study suggesting that that was the case was caught up in the recent replication study and shown not to replicate. But there have been other studies by empirically-inclined philosophers attempting to identify whether people are, for instance, more inclined toward libertarianism or compatibilism about free will and determinism, or whether they are inclined to blame more or less depending on whether the world is deterministic or not. These are fascinating, but (a) I’m not entirely sure we’ve reached any real consensus on any of them, and (b) whether they would contribute toward an understanding of the psychological possibility claim I make, as they are only really studying people’s judgments about responsibility and not their actual responses (which is what my claim is about). One can make all sorts of theoretical or practical judgments, but whether it will actually have an impact there hasn’t been anything that I know of along those lines. Perhaps some fMRI work could help on this score as well, as we may not be able to take seriously people’s self-reports on what they’re feeling.
But at any rate, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that if people can indeed stop responding in the (negative) emotional ways to the attitudes and actions of others, they would at least need to be exercising very sophisticated yogic abilities, and that’s just not something most of us have the time, inclination, or abilities to pursue successfully, I suspect. But again, it’s just a suspicion that I’m happy to say is subject to empirical investigation.
A few months ago, Eric Schwitzgebel created a moderate-sized stir on the Internet with an essay reporting the results of a study conducted on the actual behavior of moral philosophers. Unsurprisingly, he found that they act exactly like everybody else. (Schwitzgebel titled the essay “Cheeseburger Ethics,” in reference to the professor who claims to believe that eating meat is morally wrong, but eats the cheeseburger anyway.) He claims that most philosophers aim, at best, for a ethical B+, and asks whether they ought not set their sights higher—at least an A-, if not a solid A. What are your thoughts: Is a B+ good enough?
No one I know who teaches ethics thinks they are better than anyone else in terms of telling people how to live or to live well themselves. Rather, what we are trying to do is to teach people how to think well about such matters in their own lives. But there should be no surprise that it’s difficult to do what one judges best, especially when it involves a significant change in behavior (e.g., moving from omnivorism to vegetarianism). And there’s nothing at all about going to grad school in philosophy that trains us in improving the strength of our will in such matters! I am imagining a Master’s exam involving actual trolleys and a large man on a footbridge, and I suspect there might not be a close correlation between judgments and motivations/actions (so perhaps this is how the question is related to the previous one). Nevertheless, with that being said, I do have some practical suggestions in the book, primarily about how we should react to our own reactions to others, and I’m hoping that in that arena we aim for an A.