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Responsibility Beyond Belief: The Epistemic Condition on Moral Responsibility


Under what conditions is a person morally responsible for something they have done? Two conditions commonly endorsed as requirements for moral responsibility are freedom and knowledge. The person must have acted freely, and they must have known what they were doing. Corresponding to the two main requirements are excusing conditions. They absolve agents of moral responsibility for what they have done. A common excuse condition on the freedom side is external causal forces. If a strong gust of wind blows my car door into someone thereby injuring them, then I am not morally responsible for injuring them. I did not have the right sort of control over the car door hitting them to be responsible for injuring them. A common excuse condition on the knowledge side is ignorance. If I did not know that I was spooning cyanide instead of sugar into someone’s coffee, then I am not morally responsible for poisoning them. But, there’s a catch. External forces and ignorance fail as excuses when I am culpable for the forces having their influence or for putting myself in a position to be ignorant. In this dissertation, I focus on whether ignorance is an excuse. This move is strategic. Under the influence of the perennial free will debate, most of the focus in the literature on moral responsibility has been on the freedom or control condition. This is unfortunate. It has left the knowledge or epistemic condition massively underdeveloped by comparison. My dissertation aims to contribute to rectifying this imbalance in the literature.

In the introductory chapter, I clarify the concept of moral responsibility at issue. It involves holding people morally responsible for bad behavior because they deserve blame for what they have done. Deserving blame is a matter of it being appropriate to target the person with certain reactions. These reactions are attitudes, such as being indignant or resentful that the person performed the bad action. On this model, moral responsibility is a decidedly social concept and is reflected in our everyday practices of judging people blameworthy for bad behavior. I round out this chapter looking at the nature of ignorance and the skeptical challenge that is the motivator for searching for a better characterization of the epistemic condition.

The first chapter presents the skeptical challenge. It claims that we are never warranted in judging with sufficient confidence that someone is morally responsible. This is troubling because our ordinary practices assume that we can form warranted or justified judgments of responsibility. If we cannot judge with reasonable confidence that a person is blameworthy for bad behavior in any specific case, this undermines a foundational way that we conduct ourselves morally. We regularly and naturally respond to bad behavior with reactive attitudes. This dissertation fleshes out a reasonable and permissive epistemic condition on moral responsibility to argue that we are warranted in our ascriptions of responsibility in all sorts of cases, even when a person is ignorant that bad behavior is in fact morally bad.

Chapter two gets into the nitty gritty of the literature on the epistemic condition. In this chapter I defend a position called “externalism” from an objection. I argue that culpable ignorance (i.e. ignorance that does not excuse) originates not just in an act whereby a person knowingly did not do something they thought they should do, such as knowing they should investigate something but failing to do so. The origin of culpability is also found in acts of vice, even if a person does not think of their vices as vices. And, acts of vice afford warranted ascriptions of responsibility.

In the third chapter, I embrace a view of moral responsibility that supports the thesis that moral ignorance never exculpates. I consider a defense of this thesis by Elizabeth Harman. However, Harman’s view is subject to a counterexample. I accept this counterexample and propose my own modified position. This position supports the thesis that moral ignorance never exculpates. Thus, this chapter is a further widening of the conditions under which the epistemic condition is satisfied, and this affords another avenue for justified ascriptions of responsibility.

The final chapter considers a counterexample to the view of moral responsibility developed in chapter three. Given that the concept of moral responsibility at issue is constituted by our ordinary practices of judging people blameworthy for their bad behavior, I look at an empirical study indicating how people ascribe responsibility in relation to the supposed counterexample. This neutralizes the counterexample, and it leads me to develop my own principle capturing the epistemic condition on moral responsibility. Then, I show the theoretical utility of my epistemic condition on moral responsibility by showing how it affords a novel approach to the problem of moral luck.

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