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TROYMOORE 002-01-8020


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TROYMOORE 002-01-8020

  1. 1. 0 Moral Responsibility and Epistemic Vice: A Reply to FitzPatrick on Rosen’s Moral Responsibility Skepticism By: 002-01-8020 Georgia State University 1/16/14
  2. 2. 1 This paper focuses upon a reply by William J. FitzPatrick (2008)1 to a skeptical argument concerning moral responsibility and blameworthiness first developed by Gideon Rosen (2004).2 In essence, Rosen’s argument attempts to undermine our epistemic justification for making positive attributions of moral responsibility. Rosen’s skeptical argument attempts to make us question whether the blameworthiness that accompanies most bad acts is in fact justified. Rosen develops an excusing condition that he argues must be met if any judgments of blameworthiness are to retain epistemic, and moral, legitimacy. Rosen’s excusing condition utilizes the concept of akrasia. An act is considered akratic when one knowingly acts against one’s better judgment, despite knowledge of the potential consequences. Rosen argues at length that we can never know for certain whether an act is genuinely akratic or not; hence we are never justified in our positive judgments of blameworthiness. In other words, Rosen is asking how it is possible to blame someone for something if we cannot look back into their past and find instances where they were acting akratically, i.e. in a willfully ignorant fashion. Rosen thinks that if we cannot find instances in a person’s past where they acted against their better judgment that bear on whatever action they are now being treated as responsible for, then we cannot hold them morally responsible. Rosen thinks that since we cannot actually locate any such instances in people’s causal histories we are left with skepticism regarding moral responsibility claims. FitzPatrick thinks that Rosen’s skeptical conclusion is mistaken; he thinks that it is in fact possible to locate instances of akrasia in people’s causal histories. FitzPatrick argues that guilt is a reliable 1 FitzPatrick, William J. "Moral Responsibility And Normative Ignorance: Answering A New Skeptical Challenge." Ethics: An International Journal Of Social, Political, And Legal Philosophy 118.4 (2008): 589-613. Philosopher's Index. Web. 20 Sept. 2014. 2 Rosen, Gideon. "Skepticism About Moral Responsibility." Nous-Supplement: Philosophical Perspectives 18. (2004): 295-313. Philosopher's Index. Web. 8 Sept. 2014.
  3. 3. 2 indicator of akrasia; he claims that an agent can know they are acting akratically (acting against their better judgment) by experiencing guilty emotions during that action. I will focus on arguing against FitzPatrick’s claim that guilt is a reliable indicator of akrasia. First, I will provide a reconstruction of Rosen’s original argument and discuss FitzPatrick’s primary objection. I will then develop my own objection to FitzPatrick’s argument. Specifically, I will argue that it is possible to lack guilty feelings during an akratic action; thereby demonstrating that guilt is not a consistently reliable indicator of akrasia. If I am correct, then this particular aspect of FitzPatrick’s alternative account fails and the brunt of Rosen’s original skeptical conclusion remains intact. I will now provide a reconstruction of Rosen’s original argument. FitzPatrick summarizes Rosen’s argument as follows: if an agent carries out a bad action of some sort, they either do so with full awareness that it shouldn’t be done (akrasia), or they are acting from either circumstantial or normative ignorance (2008, p. 592-593). If an agent acts akratically they are responsible, but if they act out of ignorance, whether or not they are responsible depends on whether or not their ignorance is culpable (2008, p. 593). The caveat is that their ignorance is culpable if and only if they’re also found to be responsible for whatever caused that ignorance, and so on (potentially) ad infinitum (2008, p. 593). Culpability is not reached until and unless a relevant episode of akrasia can be located, in either the current action under scrutiny or in whatever causal antecedents contributed to the ignorance of that current action (2008, p. 593). But if it cannot be determined whether or not an act is of a genuinely akratic sort, then we are not warranted in attributing blame to any particular bad action (2008, p. 593).
  4. 4. 3 Essentially, Rosen argues that agents should “suspend judgment” and, hence, blameworthiness, regarding attributions of moral responsibility (2004, p. 295-296).3 One can still concede that an act was wrong, but Rosen thinks we cannot say one is blameworthy for any bad action (2004, p. 295-296). Rosen discusses two types of responsibility, original and derivative. An agent X is derivatively responsible for an act A when X is independently responsible for B, where B is understood as some prior act or omission that lead to A (2004, p. 299). Rosen assumes as a “background principle” that derivative responsibility necessarily presupposes original responsibility. If X is genuinely responsible for A, then A is either a “locus of original responsibility” or some such locus exists in A’s “causal history” (2004, p. 299). In essence, “If X does A from ignorance, then X is culpable for the act only if he is culpable for the ignorance from which he acts” (2004, p. 300). An action committed from ignorance cannot be a viable “locus of original responsibility” because responsibility for ignorant actions is always of a derivative sort (2004, p. 307). Rosen assumes as a further premise that ignorance is culpable if and only if it derives from a failure to attend to the relevant “procedural epistemic precautions,” which are to be understood as “certain steps required to inform yourself about matters that might bear upon the permissibility of your conduct;” they are implicit obligations to inform oneself about what to do and not do when the time to act arrives (2004, p. 301). In essence, responsibility for ignorant action is “doubly derivative,” meaning that an agent is responsible for their ignorant act if and only if it can also be shown that they are responsible for the ignorance that precipitated that act; and they are responsible for that ignorance if and only if they are also responsible for failing to follow the relevant procedural epistemic obligations (2004, p. 303). Normally, actions done from normative and/or epistemic 3 “Responsible” and “culpable” should be treated as interchangeable throughout this paper.
  5. 5. 4 ignorance are assumed to be few and far between, but Rosen asserts “it is a crucial premise in the skeptical argument that [their] proper scope is ultimately much broader” (This broad scope is what FitzPatrick is objecting to in part, but I will turn to that momentarily) (2004, p. 306). Rosen says committing a bad action without ignorance would require that an agent know the relevant facts about the act, recognize that act as wrong, know that they should not do it, and then act regardless (2004, p. 307). For Rosen, then, any act that fits the description above can be considered akratic, i.e. an act done “despite the agent’s considered judgment that all things considered he should be doing something else” (2004, p. 307). For Rosen, the sole possible locus of “original responsibility” is an akratic act; any and all culpable bad actions must be “the causal upshot of a genuinely akratic act or omission” (2004, p. 307). The skeptical worry that Rosen highlights is that when we attempt to assign moral responsibility for any bad action, it cannot be definitively ruled out that the relevant agent be excused of moral responsibility due to acting from non-culpable ignorance. This possibility cannot be definitively ruled out because it cannot be confidently asserted that the relevant agent’s act is of a genuinely akratic sort. Hence, the possibility that the relevant agent’s ignorance is non-culpable cannot be excluded, because it cannot be confidently asserted in any particular case of bad action that it correctly derives “from an act of genuine akrasia” (2004, p. 309-310). I will now discuss FitzPatrick’s specific objection to this argument, before responding with my own objection to FitzPatrick. FitzPatrick finds Rosen’s account unsatisfactory because his akrasia condition is too strong and cannot reasonably be met (2008, p. 590-591). FitzPatrick’s alternative account of moral culpability traces “epistemically debilitating choices” to the indulgence of certain “vices” in contexts where an given agent could have “reasonably” known better and taken steps towards moral improvement (2008, p. 606). FitzPatrick claims the question is always “what we can
  6. 6. 5 reasonably expect a person to know, or to take steps to know, given his or her social context and basic capabilities and given the level of difficulty of the knowledge in question” (2008, p. 612). Essentially, FitzPatrick argues that agents can still be morally responsible and remain blameworthy owing to “culpable circumstantial or normative ignorance,” and that claims of reasonable (epistemic) expectations remain defensible without Rosen’s strong akratic condition (2008, p. 590-591, 603). It is not the case, according to FitzPatrick, that we are incapable of ever determining if an agent is or is not acting akratically (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick supports this claim by motivating the intuition that we do in fact have a consistently reliable way to ascertain whether or not one has acted akratically. The “experience of guilt or shame” that agents often feel while acting, according to FitzPatrick, is firm enough evidence that a given agent was indeed acting akratically (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick notes that these feelings of akratic guilt “will often be mild, as in routine cases of overindulgence or procrastination, and may be overlooked” (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick also notes that “in more serious cases, there will also be psychological pressures to suppress such feelings, especially after the fact: it is more comfortable to tell oneself that one’s thinking just got clouded and that it really seemed the right thing to be doing at the time” (2008, p. 595). According to FitzPatrick, we have “strong prima facie evidence that the act was not done out of normative ignorance,” where normative ignorance is said to arise from ignorance traceable to certain extenuating circumstances, such as poor upbringing or mental illness (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick says that, “if it had been, then we would think, at least at the time of acting, that we were acting well and therefore that we had nothing to feel guilty about or ashamed of” (2008, p. 595). Hence, contra Rosen; there is no skeptical problem when a given agent is honest with both themselves and others.
  7. 7. 6 In fact, even if they are dishonest (either with themselves, as in cases of self-deception, or with others for whatever reason), FitzPatrick still thinks we have “enough circumstantial evidence” to attribute akrasia because oftentimes the “alternative of ignorance is just so implausible that the principle of charity requires the attribution of akrasia” (2008, p. 598). In other words, there is often enough evidence to confirm or make a solid inference that someone acted akratically even if they lied to themselves or others about doing so in some way, be it through trying to willfully deceive others or by trying to hide evidence of their having acted akratically. This is because it is assumed that if someone acted akratically and then attempted to deceive themselves or others about doing so, that they must have felt guilty about that akratic act, and it is this experience of guilt that provides the circumstantial evidence noted above. So, generally speaking, if we can reliably determine whether or not a person felt guilty we can also determine whether they acted akratically or not. Doing so purportedly provides a consistently reliable method of making positive attributions of akrasia in agents. Hence, there are numerous concrete cases involving our own actions and others where it is possible to know “by any reasonable epistemic standards” whether or not an action can be traced back to an akratic episode (2008, p. 599). Therefore, according to FitzPatrick, the conclusion of Rosen’s argument must be rejected (2008, p. 599). With an understanding of both Rosen’s original argument and FitzPatrick’s objection in mind, I turn now to my objection of FitzPatrick’s account of guilt in making positive attributions of akrasia in agents. FitzPatrick’s objection to Rosen’s skeptical conclusion crucially depends upon an agent experiencing guilt during a bad act. FitzPatrick thinks that guilt co-occurs with instances of akrasia often enough that it can function as a reliable indicator of akratic action in all agents. However, I do not think that guilt can form the basis for a consistently reliable indicator of
  8. 8. 7 akrasia in any given agent. My objection is that it appears plausible that an agent could possess an “epistemic vice” of the sort discussed by FitzPatrick such that they either lacked feelings of guilt entirely, or could successfully suspend any influence upon their actions that such feelings might otherwise have. By utilizing FitzPatrick’s own account of epistemic vice I hope to undermine his objections validity through a demonstrated case of self-contradiction. My claim is not that agents lack the experience of guilty feelings entirely. Rather, I do not think that the mere possibility of an agent sometimes experiencing guilt during some action can be reliably used to identify particular instances of akratic actions. I will now develop my objection more fully. Rosen’s skeptical conclusion leaves us unable to make justifiable attributions of moral responsibility and FitzPatrick attempts to refute Rosen’s skeptical conclusion by demonstrating a possible way to reliably discern instances of akrasia in an agent’s causal history. FitzPatrick provides examples of “mild” cases where guilt is indicative of akrasia (such as procrastination or overindulgence) (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick utilizes such cases to ground his claim that, “the presence of guilt or shame at the time of acting is therefore often good evidence of akrasia, which diminishes the plausibility of general skepticism about attributions of akrasia” (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick is committed to advancing guilt as a reliable indicator of akrasia because it is how he argues against Rosen’s skeptical conclusion (that we cannot make justifiable claims of moral responsibility because we cannot trace the causal etiology of an action to an instance of akrasia). Without FitzPatrick’s account of guilt functioning as an indicator of akrasia, Rosen’s final conclusion concerning our inability to make positive judgments of akrasia and, hence, attributions of moral responsibility and blameworthiness, remains intact.
  9. 9. 8 FitzPatrick argues that guilt can function as a reliable indicator of akrasia, but I do not think that it is able to function or serve as a consistently reliable indicator of akrasia. By this I mean that guilt can, at best, function as an indicator of akrasia only in the sorts of “mild” cases that FitzPatrick discusses; but it cannot function cart blanche as an indicator of akrasia. I think that a lack of properly guilty feelings could form the basis for an epistemic vice that is consistent with FitzPatrick’s account, but nevertheless undermines it. One can understand what I mean when I posit lack of guilt as an epistemic “vice” more clearly by understanding the opposite, i.e. the epistemic “virtue” of honesty. A person who possesses the epistemic virtue of honesty would, presumably, recognize the feelings of guilt that may arise during an akratic act and reflect upon them accordingly in moderating their current and future conduct. In contrast, a person who possessed an epistemic vice such that they could not recognize guilt, suspended feelings of guilt at the time of acting, or lacked guilty feelings entirely, would necessarily fail to reflect upon any such guilty feelings during an akratic act. I realize that “failing to recognize”, “suspending”, and “lacking feelings of guilt entirely”, are subtly different from one another. Lacking feelings of guilt seems to entail an inability to recognize guilt, but suspending guilty feelings remains different. It is a further question whether such a person would also fail to reflect upon guilty feelings before and after an akratic act. Here, my objection focuses specifically upon guilty feelings’ arising during the performance of an akratic act, since that is the time period both Rosen and FitzPatrick appear to focus on. However, I do not see any immediately apparent reason why my objection would be inconsistent with failing to reflect upon guilt before or after an akratic act; especially when one considers that given that said person necessarily fails to recognize guilt they could not, presumably, reflect upon it before an akratic act any more so than they could during or after said act.
  10. 10. 9 Let’s say that, broadly speaking, person X fails to attend to or acknowledge feelings of guilt that might arise during the course of any of their actions, akratic or otherwise. For whatever reason, person X simply does not recognize the feelings of guilt that more epistemically virtuous people recognize while committing some bad act. Person X might recognize what others process as guilt at the time of performing some action, but nevertheless suspend attending to those considerations at that time. In extreme cases, Person X might entirely lack guilty feelings altogether, such that they could neither recognize nor suspend any such guilty feelings even if they did experience them. An agent with such an epistemic vice would not actively attend to whatever “guilty” thoughts might accompany or result from any given action. They would passively receive those thoughts and feelings without actively qualifying them as being of a “guilty” sort. Let us further assume that even if they did recognize guilt they would suspend attending to it at the relevant point in time. In other words, they would ignore those guilty feelings at the time of acting and they would do so without having to actively think about it. In essence, an individual with this (crippling) epistemic vice would lack the capacity to have or to usefully reflect upon the experience of guilt. Hence, it appears safe to infer that an agent with this epistemic vice would lack feelings of guilt during an akratic action. Conceivably, an agent could routinely exercise this epistemic vice to their detriment, just as they could for any other epistemic (or moral) vice. Moreover, they could do so without being subject to FitzPatrick’s qualification that because an agent could have been “reasonably” expected to educate themselves and “repair” their epistemic vice, that they should have done so, and if they failed to do so they are culpable for its continued exercise (2008, p. 607-608). In other words, FitzPatrick’s account implicitly assumes that because an agent “could” have
  11. 11. 10 remediated their vice, that they “should” have done so. But the vice I developed above is not subject to this qualification. I will now explain why this is so. The thoughts and emotions that I presently experience are at least partially shaped by what sensory data I receive. But I do not actively control the thoughts and emotions that I experience as a result of this passive reception of sensory data. When I have a thought or experience an emotion (or vice versa), I do not control its appearance, i.e. its formation and momentary existence in my mind. Which is not to deny the possibility of actively bringing or maintaining some thought in mind; this is something we can clearly do and is a necessary component of thinking in general. This is just to say that at least some thoughts and emotions arise without cognitive activity on my behalf. The thought of a pink elephant that arose in my head just now did so without my actively willing it, I made no cognitive effort to bring it to my mind. My claim is that agents are not wholly responsible for how or when they experience any given thought or emotion that is not a result of their having actively thought or felt it. So, it seems vague at best to say that I am responsible for the thought of the pink elephant that I just had because I did not control its appearance in my mind. Similarly, agents are, at the very least, rendered less responsible for failing to feel any given thought or emotion. If I watch a sad movie and fail to experience any feelings of sadness we would not necessarily say that I am responsible for that emotional failure; rather, it is simply the case that for whatever reason the expected emotion did not arise within me. Similarly, if agent X fails to experience the emotion of guilt during their actions, it seems unfair to attribute responsibility for those actions to them, especially if guilt is supposed to function as an indicator of that actions negative status, as FitzPatrick would argue it does.
  12. 12. 11 For instance, if an agent in possession of the epistemic vice developed above were to act akratically they would not experience any guilt. Guilt, broadly construed, is generally considered a negative feeling. Guilt is often a motivator for changing a behavior, or the thoughts that lie behind a given behavior. However, if one possessed an epistemic vice such that the experience of guilt was consistently suspended or unrecognized, then it seems plausible to claim that such an agent could not reasonably be expected to “repair” said epistemic vice, precisely because they lack one of the key precursors to an important form of motivation in changing behavior (i.e. guilt). If an agent lacks guilt as a motivational precursor for changing their behavior, then it seems to follow that they also lack the ability to change specific actions that fall under the broader scope of that behavioral pattern. Hence, it seems incorrect to attribute responsibility or blame to an agent for that akratic action because they lack a key motivating force (guilt) in changing the behavior that contributed to that akratic action. FitzPatrick might object at this point on several fronts. First, he might object on the grounds that there are other possible motivations at work in changing behavior besides guilt. Second, he might object that an agent who possessed the epistemic vice I developed above “could reasonably have been expected, in the circumstances, to take steps that would have corrected his moral ignorance and improved his character but that he instead chose to behave in ways that merely indulged and reinforced his character defects” (2008, p. 608). To the first objection I happily concede that there might indeed be other factors at play that govern how behavior and actions are changed. However, they are presumably not as relevant as guilt is as an indicator of akrasia to FitzPatrick; if they were, it seems that FitzPatrick would have at least mentioned them. To the second objection, I would argue that correcting one’s moral ignorance is, arguably, easier than correcting one’s epistemic ignorance, and that correction of the former
  13. 13. 12 depends heavily upon correction of the latter. Guilt may serve as an effective motivational force for changing one’s moral vices, but I doubt that it would be as effective for epistemic vices, especially of the particular sort that I developed above. Remediating an epistemic vice involving the lack of recognition or suspension of guilt at the time of any given act would, presumably, require a different set of motivations. FitzPatrick does not, so far as I can adduce, offer any potential examples of the sort of alternative motivations that would be needed instead of guilt to “take steps” needed to change such an epistemic vice (2008, p 608). Therefore, I think it is safe to conclude that FitzPatrick’s account does not achieve its goal of denying the final skeptical conclusion of Rosen’s argument because his alternative account is subject to the concerns raised by my objection above. This paper discussed an objection by William J. FitzPatrick to a skeptical argument concerning moral responsibility and blameworthiness first developed by Gideon Rosen. A brief reconstruction of Rosen’s original argument was provided before moving to a discussion of one of FitzPatrick’s key objections. In turn, I provided my own objection to a key aspect of FitzPatrick’s objection to Rosen’s linkage of moral responsibility and akrasia. Essentially, FitzPatrick argued that guilt is a reliable indicator of akrasia, he argued that it is in fact possible, contra Rosen, to know whether or not akrasia was involved in the history of some action performed by a given agent; hence we have justification for denying Rosen’s overall conclusion (2008, p. 599). I disagreed with FitzPatrick’s vice-based account and his appeal to guilt as an indicator of akrasia by arguing for an epistemic vice that remains consistent with his account whilst simultaneously undermining its validity. An individual with the epistemic vice I argued for would lack the capacity to usefully reflect upon the experience of guilt. They could not recognize guilt or might lack it entirely in extreme cases. If they did recognize what others might
  14. 14. 13 call guilt, they would suspend attending to it until some later time apart from the action that precipitated it. Thus, at least for these individuals, guilt could not serve as a consistently reliable indicator of akrasia, as FitzPatrick argued it could. So, contra FitzPatrick, the presence of guilt is not good evidence of akrasia and we still have reason to take Rosen’s skeptical conclusion regarding attributions or moral responsibility seriously (2008, p. 595). FitzPatrick’s account leaves room for the sort of “vice” I developed above, thereby diminishing the pull of his objection to Rosen (2008, p. 595). In the future, attention might turn to the metaethical question of the relationship between epistemic and moral vices and the question of whether or not it is possible to feel guilty for not feeling guilty.