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Taking Each Other Seriously: Towards a Theory of Morally Responsible Agency


Regarding one another as responsible, and responding to one another accordingly, is an essential part of social and moral life. We resent each other, we feel indignation and gratitude, we have our feelings hurt, and we find ways to forgive. Still, we don’t regard everyone as responsible. Some agents—young children, for example, or people suffering from certain forms of mental illness—aren’t thought to be appropriate objects of such attitudes, aren’t taken to be appropriately held responsible for what they do. What accounts for this? What does it mean to be a morally responsible agent, to be an appropriate object of the various attitudes that characterize our responsibility practices?

In this dissertation, I develop a distinctive approach to accounting for morally responsible agency. I develop my approach in contrast with theorists who, inspired by P.F. Strawson, understand what it means to be a morally responsible agent in terms of the nature of the attitudes that characterize our responsibility practices, the so-called “reactive attitudes.” I argue that we ought to understand responsible agency not in terms of these attitudes themselves but, rather, in terms of the kind of concern that leaves us prone to them in the first place. I call this the "basic concern," and when we have it towards someone, I hold, we take that person's attitudes to carry a kind of authority, to be capable of challenging or affirming our own perspective about what attitudes we should have or that we should perceive as appropriate in the relevant context. Whether it is appropriate to regard someone as a responsible agent, I argue, depends on whether it is appropriate to have this concern about that person's attitudes. A responsible agent, on my view, is thus a kind of fellow participant in social and moral life.

My account of the basic concern illuminates what's at stake in our responsibility practices, and it thus illuminates the distinctive significance that we ascribe to morally responsible agents’ actions and attitudes. It also, I suggest, sheds light on the nature of the various attitudes that the basic concern leaves us prone to feel.

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