Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On Rosen's MR-Skepticism

[I might end up expanding the following sketch into a real paper at some point, so any feedback would be most welcome...]

In 'Skepticism About Moral Responsibility', Gideon Rosen argues for the view that confident positive judgments of blameworthiness are (almost) never warranted. The argument proceeds in two parts. First he argues that blameworthiness can only originate in akratic action, whereby the agent acts in full knowledge of their wrongdoing (and its normative significance). In the second part, Rosen suggests that we rarely have sufficient grounds for confidently attributing such full-blown akrasia to agents who have acted wrongly. I will focus only on the first part of the argument, since this is where the main philosophical action takes place.

Why think that blameworthiness can only originate in akratic action? Rosen's argument is quite intricate, but the core idea is that non-akratic wrongdoing is merely done “from ignorance”, and is thus excused unless the agent is to blame for her state of ignorance. But if the agent also acted from ignorance in bringing about this prior state, then that act will likewise be excused, unless ... etc. The agent's excuses will only run out if we can stop the regress at a point where she acted in full knowledge of her normative error: that is, if she acted akratically.

More precisely: Rosen begins by distinguishing derivative and original responsibility for an act or event. For example, if Jekyll intentionally takes a pill that makes him berserk, then he is (derivatively) responsible for the resulting damage in virtue of being (originally) responsible for the negligent act of taking the pill. Rosen then claims that “an action done from ignorance is never a locus of original responsibility.” Let's call this the RAID principle (responsibility for actions done from ignorance is merely derivative). Rosen supports this principle by appeal to ordinary examples of factual ignorance, such as accidental poisoning. If someone secretly plants arsenic in my sugar bowl, it is not my fault that I end up poisoning you. But if I routinely store arsenic in unlabeled sugar bowls in my pantry, this prior negligence puts me back on the hook for causing the accident. Crucially, Rosen takes the RAID principle to be fully general, applying to normative as well as factual ignorance.

The RAID principle tells us that an act done from ignorance cannot be a locus of original responsibility. But any agent who non-akratically acts wrongly thereby acts from ignorance of some kind: either they aren't aware of the factual considerations that make the act wrong, or they aren't aware of the normative significance of those facts: that they make the act wrong, and that they thereby count decisively against so acting. If an agent were to know all these facts and yet still perform the act, then their act would qualify as 'akratic' by Rosen's definition. RAID thus straightforwardly implies that blameworthiness can only originate in akratic action. That is: for X to be blameworthy for A, A must either itself be an akratic act (if X is originally responsible for A), or else be the upshot of an akratic act (if X is derivatively responsible for A). To avoid this conclusion, we will need to undermine RAID.

In order to see why RAID is false, we need to clarify our understanding of 'original' and 'derivative' responsibility, which will bring to light two very different kinds of culpability in ignorance. In particular, I will distinguish 'diachronic' and 'synchronic' cases of culpable ignorance, and argue that RAID holds only of the former. The intuitive plausibility of the principle derives from neglecting the latter class of cases, which – we will see – provide ample intuitive counterexamples to the RAID principle. I will close by considering what Rosen might say about these neglected cases.

Rosen's loose talk of 'original' and 'derivative' responsibility suggests a picture on which responsibility is a two-place relation, between an individual and the acts or outcomes that they are “responsible for”. But this occludes some important structure which I want to bring to the fore. Responsibility is better understood as a three-place relation between an agent, an act of theirs (which I will call the 'focal act'), and an event (or set of events) for which the agent's action renders him liable. Intuitively: we are responsible, in acting a certain way, for various outcomes. The focal act is the exercise of agency in virtue of which we become liable for praise or blame. That is to say: it is the locus of original responsibility. But we can now see that there is no such thing as a locus of 'derivative responsibility', so that old distinction seems inapt (or at least potentially misleading). Rosen would have us say that Jekyll the pill-popping berserker is derivatively responsible for vandalism due to being originally responsible for pill-popping, but the “responsible for” locution is used here equivocally. It would be clearer just to say that Jekyll is responsible, in taking the pill, for the subsequent damage.

This makes it clear that (in the described case) there is only one occasion of Jekyll exercising his agency in a blameworthy manner. His berserk vandalism is not itself a blameworthy act (assuming it is an act at all), it is merely an event for which his blameworthy act of pill-popping renders him liable. (Notice that he would still be blameworthy in exactly the same way even if he had slipped the pill to an innocent third party who then went berserk in the china shop. The innocent person's berserk vandalism isn't blameworthy, and neither is Jekyll's. It's his pill-popping, in either case, that is the sole blameworthy action, though it makes him liable for downstream events – including the event of himself or others acting in berserk fashion.)

Rosen may grant all this, but ask why the terminological precision matters. Well, for one thing, it helps us to see more clearly what sorts of considerations are eligible to excuse the agent. Sometimes ignorance is a legitimate excuse, but only if it is concurrent with the focal act. It would clearly be absurd for an agent to plead innocence on the grounds that, despite knowing full well the risks of their action as they performed it, they later forgot this (by the time the risked outcome actually eventuated). And this remains true even if the risked outcome in question was another act of theirs. Granted, their ignorance – like Jekyll's incapacity – might excuse the downstream act from qualifying as a second occasion of blameworthiness. But it obviously does nothing at all to excuse the earlier “benighting” act (to borrow Holly Smith's term), or to cast doubt on whether the “unwitting” outcome falls within its scope of liability (that is, as an event for which the agent, in performing the benighting act, became liable). So, in many of Rosen's examples, the kind of 'ignorance' involved – whether culpable or not – was never even prima facie eligible to serve as an excuse, at least insofar as we are treating the earlier act as focal. To properly understand the excusing potential of ignorance (and its limits), we need to instead focus our attention on cases of ignorance concurrent with the focal act or exercise of agency that is to be assessed.

Let's return to the original case of the accidental poisoning. We can imagine two very different ways in which an agent might be 'culpable'1 for their failure to recognize the risk of arsenic poisoning. In one case, the culpability is wholly 'diachronic': suppose I planted the arsenic myself, and then took a pill that wiped my memory of this event. My subsequent decision to spoon white powder (now reasonably believed to be sugar) into your tea is itself an intrinsically innocent, blameless act. As in the Jekyll case, it is only my earlier 'benighting' action that is blameworthy (and renders me liable for the eventuating damages). This sort of case supports the RAID principle, which effectively claims that actions done from ignorance are never themselves blameworthy [qua act], but are at most events which some earlier blameworthy act may render us liable for.

Alternatively, we can imagine a case of 'synchronically' culpable ignorance, where my unwitting poisoning no longer seems even intrinsically wholly innocent. Suppose my roommate left the arsenic in a labeled bowl in the pantry. When I grab what looks like a sugar bowl, my eyes flit briefly over the label ('arsenic'), without fully taking it in or consciously registering the significance of this. Further suppose that the reason why I don't fully process the visual evidence available to me is just because I don't really care very much about you. Maybe I even want you dead, on some subconscious level. In any case, we can stipulate that there is evidence available to me that the bowl contains arsenic, and my ignorance depends upon my callous disregard for your welfare. If I cared more, as I morally ought to – or if I had all the beliefs that I rationally ought to, given my evidence – then I would never have so thoughtlessly spooned the white powder into your tea. I didn't appreciate the risk at the time, but I should have,2 and so in this sense my ignorance is 'synchronically culpable'. Intuitively, in this sort of case, I am still blameworthy in acting so thoughtlessly. Unreasonable ignorance does not (fully) excuse.

We thus have a counterexample to the RAID principle. It may be true that acts done from merely diachronically culpable ignorance, being intrinsically (synchronically) reasonable, are never blameworthy. But, intuitively, it looks like we can be blameworthy – 'originally responsible' – in acting from 'synchronically culpable' or unreasonable ignorance. So the fully general RAID principle lacks intuitive support after all, leaving us with no reason to think that blameworthiness must originate in akratic action. It can just as well originate in unreasonable action. And note that even if we're rarely in a position to attribute akrasia to wrongdoers, we're very often in a position to know that they acted unreasonably. Hence Rosen's argument fails.

At this point, Rosen might respond by giving up his claim to ordinary case-based intuitions, and instead seeking to defend RAID on purely theoretical grounds. As he observes in a footnote, it's one thing to say that a person “should have known better”, and another to say that they are culpable for this failure. So he at least has the theoretical resources to coherently reject the commonsense view gestured at in my previous paragraph. It just remains to motivate his more radical view. As with most skeptical arguments, this will require appealing to intuitive-sounding abstract principles (rather than cases). Here are two that together imply RAID:
  1. “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.”
  2. “X is culpable for failing to know that P only if his ignorance is the upshot of some prior culpable act or omission.”
Why believe (2)? It follows from the general principle that only acts (including mental acts, but excluding internal 'occurrences' with respect to which we are 'passive') are eligible to serve as loci of responsibility. Since ignorance isn't an exercise of agency – something you do – it can't be a site of blameworthiness. At most, it can be an outcome that some prior act made you liable for. (It may also indicate that one is vicious, much as a brain scan might, but to be a bad person is not yet to be blameworthy, since the latter kind of evaluation concerns what you've done.)

Suppose we grant all that. Why would we then accept (1)? It might be confused with the more plausible claim that reasonable ignorance excuses, and hence that an act done from ignorance is blameworthy only if the agent was unreasonable in believing as they did. But (1) is a much stronger claim since, we are supposing, even unreasonable ignorance can't originate blameworthiness. Even so, we may still think that an act done from unreasonable ignorance, manifesting a lack of good will (in case of motivated ignorance), may yet serve as a locus of blameworthiness. If we think this is possible – as certainly appears to be the case in the 'synchronic' cases I've highlighted – then we will reject (1).

Our final assessment of skeptical arguments typically depends on whether we are more inclined to trust intuitions about cases or abstract theoretical principles (e.g. that knowledge requires certainty, that an epistemic [e.g. inductive] rule cannot justify itself, etc.). In this instance, though premise (1) may be prima facie plausible-sounding, I think that once we see understand what it actually claims, and how radically opposed it is to our ordinary case-based intuitions, we should simply reject it as unmotivated.

1In a broad sense; we'll later see that this isn't quite the right term.

2Limitations of space prevent me from further exploring whether it is the moral or the epistemic vice that is relevant here. I will use the term “reasonable” broadly to cover both kinds of normativity. I should also mention that the alternative label 'synchronic culpability' turns out, as explained below, to be something of a misnomer.


  1. Interesting post. two questions:
    First, on your view (where the agent is not responsible qua act in the derivative cases) will it still be true that Jekyll is blameworthy for vandalizing? This seems seems like the intuitive thing to say but it also makes it sound like Jekyll is responsible for the act.

    second, do you think that the reason we find it so plausible that in cases of 'unreasonable ignorance'the agent is responsible might be because we assume the agent's past choices contribute to his believing unreasonably, and thus that he is culpable for his ignorance. Imagine an agent who prior to making any choices at all forms an unreasonable false belief which leads him to then make a bad first choice. He is clearly not culpable for the false belief. Would you say that he can be blameworthy for his bad choice?

  2. Hi Philip,

    (1) I think the claim "Jekyll is blameworthy for vandalizing" is ambiguous. If understood as claiming that he is blameworthy qua vandalizing actor, then it is false. If instead understood as claiming that Jekyll is blameworthy for the event of vandalism occurring, then it's true.

    (2) No, I don't think we need to assume that past choices contributed to our present unreasonableness. So yes, I think the agent you describe could be blameworthy for his bad first choice. (It helps if we imagine that his false belief is partly caused by malicious motivations -- as I mention in a footnote, it could be the moral vice, not just the epistemic one, that's doing the work here.)

  3. Hey Richard, thanks alot for the reply.

    Re (2): I wonder if going the way you suggest might yield a funny result. Suppose jones finds himself with a bad character (which he does not have because of prior free choices). Due to his character he forms an unreasonable belief which leads him to think that he is obligated to perform impermissable act X. Suppose also that he can't currently change his belief. It seems plausible that an agent is blameworthy if he refrains from performing an act he believes to be morally required of him. But if we say that Jones would also be blameworthy for doing X then it appears that there is nothing he can do(or could have done) in order to avoid being blameworthy. But then if we were to blame Jones, couldn't he legitimately complain "but what would you have had me do"?

    I suppose this would only be a problem if something like PAP is true.

  4. "It seems plausible that an agent is blameworthy if he refrains from performing an act he believes to be morally required of him."

    Not necessarily. Consider Huck Finn, who believes that he ought to return runaway slaves to their "rightful owners", but is sufficiently responsive to Jim's humanity that he ends up acting against this belief. In so doing, he seems entirely praiseworthy. There's nothing at all blameworthy about being moved by [what are in fact] genuine moral considerations (even without recognizing them as such). Being so moved by sympathy as to override one's explicit (false) judgments seems entirely appropriate in this situation.

    (Of course, if he instead refrained out of sheer laziness, or some such, then that would reflect less well on him...)

  5. I need to think about this some more Ricard, but here's a couple of immediate thoughts. (I'm not sure about the second, perhaps I'm misunderstanding the dialetic here):

    1) This reminds me a lot of Galen Strawson's well known argument against the possibility of responsibility - it might be worth comparing what you want to say against Rosen with what others have said against Galen.

    "Responsibility is better understood as a three-place relation between an agent, an act of theirs (which I will call the 'focal act'), and an event (or set of events) for which the agent's action renders him liable. Intuitively: we are responsible, in acting a certain way, for various outcomes."

    This strikes me as philosophically perplexing. Often we describe actions in such a way as to be identical with their consequences. In writing a PhD, you might be "securing yourself a job", or "revolutionising the discipline", or "ruining your life". Actions come under descriptions, and some such descriptions seem to just be the consequences of the relevant act. So it's not clear that we can distinguish actions and their consequences so sharply as you wish.

    It's true that it's harder to blur this line for the Jekyll case. But this is precisely why the example looks a little fishy. It looks like an extremely non-standard case, of which multiple interpretations might be possible. ("Hard cases make bad law", and all that.)

    As I say, I'm not sure about this, but it looks like more could be said in favour of distinguishing actions from their consequences, and that less contestable examples might serve you better.

    Let me rephrase this: I'm not really objecting to what you say, but I do wonder if there are better ways to make the same point.

  6. Hi Alex,

    Would it help if I spoke of an 'exercise of agency' rather than an 'action'? I'm really only wanting to use this distinction for very clear-cut Jekyll-type cases, so I don't think it should be considered at all fishy. But I'm very open to suggestions about how to make this clearer to readers.

    "This reminds me a lot of Galen Strawson's well known argument against the possibility of responsibility"

    Maybe, though I should stress that Rosen isn't committed to any kind of strong 'ultimate sourcehood' requirement on actions. It is merely passive occurrences (e.g. ignorance) for which being responsible requires being responsible for bringing it about. I actually think the underlying structure and central issues for the two arguments will turn out to be pretty different (despite the surface similarity). But yeah, I should probably look into this a bit more, just to be sure.

  7. Coming really late to this but I wonder if you're begging the question by distinguishing between "reasonable" and "unreasonable" ignorance. Rosen could reply that ignorance is only unreasonable if one is morally culpable for that ignorance, or if the actions (or lack thereof) that lead to that ignorance are morally blameworthy. If establishing that is similarly difficult, we're unjustified in judging a particular case of ignorance unreasonable, and therefore, because it might be reasonable, there's stronger cause for believing it exculpates morally wrong conduct.

    1. I'm using "reasonable" here in an epistemic sense, and it should be uncontroversial that one can be epistemically unreasonable (or irrational) in making a certain judgment regardless of whether or not one's current irrationality is traceable to some past moral failing.

    2. (At least, it's open to us to run the argument using the epistemic sense of reasonableness. I guess in footnote 2 of the paper I remain officially neutral on that. But even if we run the argument in terms of moral reasonableness, we shouldn't collapse this into blameworthiness -- as Rosen agrees, it's one thing to say a person "should have known better", and another to say that they're culpable for this failure.)


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