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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Mitigation, Deliberation, and Moral Assessment

  • Author(s): Cvrkel, Tiffany
  • Advisor(s): Herman, Barbara
  • et al.

Many philosophers have explored what it is to commit a moral wrong and how to understand the violation of moral obligations. Many more have written about the nature of blame and agency. But much is left to say about the most common kind of moral wrong, the type of wrong that populates our everyday interactions. These are the wrongs performed by agents who are in the grip of anger or fear. Or who undervalue their obligations. Or who are intoxicated, or impaired, or coerced. When we morally assess wrongs like these, we don't get clean black and white declarations of moral success or failure. We get a lot of muddy gray. We get mitigating circumstances.

It is easy to consider mitigating circumstances rare and exotic - cases that exist in courtrooms and police procedurals. But this is a mistake. Moral mitigation, cases where the circumstances of an agent's moral performance make it appropriate to reduce the amount of blame she deserves for her wrong act, might be the norm and not the exception. And so figuring out how mitigation works will tell us how to get moral assessment right in the real world.

I will argue that mitigating circumstances can best be understood as circumstances that affect the deliberative part of action, and that successes and failures in the component parts of deliberation must be taken into consideration during moral assessment. In Chapter 1, I offer an introduction to the context of the project, discussing the scope and aim of this dissertation. Here I offer a number of preliminary remarks to set up the discussion to follow.

Chapter 2 focuses on the moral assessment process itself. I discuss the nature of the moral assessment process and suggest that approaching the moral assessment of action from the outside in - from the obligations that bind the agent all the way back to the deliberative parts of intention-formation - will offer a number of advantages when assessing action. This method will allow us to make room for a common sense notion of mitigation that includes reduction in blame, and it will also make way for us to draw moral distinctions between actions that differ in their inner-deliberative content and process.

In Chapters 3 and 4, I expand the picture of moral assessment I offered earlier, arguing that mitigating circumstances will turn out to be circumstances that cause or reflect distinctive kinds of performances in the inner-deliberative content and process. I will explore how this approach can handle a number of intuitively mitigating circumstances, such as coercion, adolescence, and intoxication.

And finally, in Chapter 5, I will situate this picture within the larger landscape of moral assessment, orienting this approach to mitigation alongside excuse and justification. I conclude with an appeal to consider this expansion of the moral assessment process as a means to handle complex and nuanced moral cases.

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