Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility

February 16, 2015

I just read an interesting and thought-provoking argument from Dana Kay Nelkin [1] to the effect that psychopaths – understood here as agents which are morally blind in a particular way – could not be cruel, no matter what they do to people. I’m worried that this argument is too cautious in its application of that term, but in order to express my worry I’ll need to first talk about responsibility generally.

I’ve always thought that there are three kinds of responsibility discussed in Gary Watson’s seminal “Two Faces of Responsibility” [2]: the attributive kind, the aretaic kind, and accountability. Watson yokes the first two together, and I wish he had fleshed out the relation between them.

Attributability is a matter not of attributing properties like blame- and praiseworthiness to agents, which is the usage some of the literature following Watson seems to have settled on – after all, Watson intends to argue two kinds of blame need to be distinguished – but of attributing actions to agents. My going to the grocery store reflects my aims in a way that my accidentally dropping a vase does not. Accounts of attributive responsibility differ along what is required for an action to be attributable to me: must it reflect my deep self, my practical identity, or merely be something I do for a reason? So understood attributive responsibility is not a moral notion, except in the broadest of senses, for to assign this kind of responsibility is not yet to level censure or give praise. It’s also important to note that the appropriateness of ascriptions of this kind of responsibility do not obviously require anything more than bare agency: an ability to set (some) aims and act for (some) things seen as reasons.

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