Saturday 28 February 2009

NYU/Columbia Graduate Student Conference in Philosophy

Saturday, March 7th, 2009 at NYU
5 Washington Place, Room 101 (Ground Floor)

Conference schedule:

Breakfast 9:30-10:00am

"Modality: Norms and Naturalism" Sean Aas, Brown University;
Commentator: Jeff Russell, NYU

"The Concept of Belief and Epistemic Rationality" Ivy Tsoi, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Commentator: TBA

Lunch 12:45-2:00pm

"New Dynamics for Epistemic Modality" Malte Willer, University of Texas-Austin; Commentator: Katrina Przyjemski, NYU

"Why Do the Numbers Count?" Tom Dougherty, MIT;
Commentator: Michael Seifried, Columbia

Keynote Speaker: Karen Bennett (Cornell)
"Putting Things Together"

Thursday 26 February 2009

Towards a Plausible Control Principle (Part 3)

The final type of moral luck I wish to consider is what Nagel refers to as constitutive luck, or luck with respect to what one is like. Roughly, the problem of constitutive luck arises from the alleged fact that we typically hold agents morally responsible for aspects of their character—such as emotions, beliefs and predispositions—over which they have no control. This again gives rise to a paradox since the ‘alleged fact’ conflicts with widely held intuitions in favour of the control principle. It is common ground to both sides of the constitutive luck debate that there are at least some aspects of our character over which we do have control. Otherwise, constitutive luck simply collapses into causal luck. The disagreement between both sides, then, turns on whether or not it is legitimate to hold agents morally responsible for aspects of their character over which they have no control. Opponents of the control principle insist that it is.

In her paper, “Control, Responsibility, and Moral Assessment”, Angela Smith sides with those philosophers who “question the commonly held view that choice or voluntary control is a precondition of moral responsibility.”(Smith (2008), p. 367.) Instead, she defends what she refers to as the “rational relations view”, according to which an agent is morally responsible for some thing just in case it is appropriate, in principle, to ask her to defend or justify it. In her paper, Smith defends her view against the charge that, by impugning the control principle, she eliminates the distinction between moral responsibility and weaker non-moral types of responsibility. Emphasising the robust nature of the types of moral assessment supported by her rational relations view, she makes the following claim:
If a person’s judgements, as manifested in her actions and attitudes, appear to violate certain normative standards (whether those be moral, philosophical, prudential, or whatever), it is appropriate (in principle) to ask her to reassess those judgements and to explain, justify, modify, and in some cases apologise for her actions or attitudes in light of this reassessment. Criticism, in this case, is not mere unwelcome description, but calls upon a person to re-evaluate the grounds of her attitudes and intentions and to modify them if those grounds seem faulty or insufficient. (Smith 2008, p. 386., Italics mine)
As the above passage makes clear, Smith’s rational relations view includes the claim that a person’s judgements can only be said to violate a normative standard if it is appropriate (in principle) to ask her to modify those judgements in the light of criticisms. However, it is only appropriate to ask someone to modify φ if it is possible for them to modify φ. Moreover, if it is possible to modify φ, then φ must be under one’s control. Thus, Smith appears committed to the claim that one is morally responsible for a judgement only if making that judgement is under one’s control. Smith anticipates this objection in a footnote following the above passage:
It might be thought here that a demand to “modify” one’s attitudes implies that one must have volitional control over them. But this is a mistake. We cannot modify our attitudes “at will,” though we can re-evaluate the grounds upon which they are held and we may come to see that those grounds are mistaken. In making such an assessment, our attitudes will usually change; but we have not changed them “at will.” (Smith 2003, footnote 23)
It is clear from this passage that Smith takes the defender of the control principle to be committed to something like (CP2)—namely, the claim that we are only morally responsible for φ if φ is under our direct control. However, as the blood pressure example illustrates, (CP2) is a highly implausible version of the control principle to begin with, since we typically hold agents responsible for things over which they only have indirect control. Thus, by depicting the defender of the control principle as committed to (CP2), Smith erects a strawman. Moreover, since Smith stipulates that the judgements in question are open to modification, then they must (at the very least) be open to something like the kind of indirect control one has over one’s blood pressure. The upshot is that, by my lights, Smith’s talk of “at will” amounts to little more than a red herring, since neither side of the moral luck debate need be committed to the claim that we are only morally responsible for what we can control “at will”.

Once the requirement for direct control has been appropriately dispensed with, I believe the domain of things over which we have control becomes significantly larger. In fact, if the above arguments are correct, then it can even accommodate the very types of judgements that Smith’s rational relations view countenances. The defender of the control principle may freely acknowledge that there are some aspects of our characters over which we have neither direct nor indirect control. However, her principled position is that we may not legitimately hold an agent morally responsible for those aspects of her character.

Friday 13 February 2009

Towards a Plausible Control Principle (Part 2)

In my previous post, I articulated the following control principle:
(CP3): A is morally responsible for φ only if φ is under A’s direct or indirect control.
I now wish to explore the implications of (CP3) for the problem of moral luck. I begin by considering what Nagel refers to as resultant luck, or luck with respect to how things turn out. Although Nagel acknowledges that most of our moral intuitions favour a version of the control principle, he maintains that we frequently make moral judgements about people based on factors that are not within their control.

For example, consider the case of two equally skilled gunmen who are equally determined to murder someone. While the first gunman succeeds, the second, due to factors outside his control, fails to kill his target. According to Nagel, we would hold the successful gunman to be deserving of greater blame than the unsuccessful gunman. Given that the difference between the two gunmen is due to factors outside of their control, the fact that we assess them differently entails that facts outside their control may make a moral difference. Since this fact about our moral assessments conflicts with our intuitions about such assessments (or so it is alleged), Nagel labels the moral luck problem a paradox.

I believe the account of moral responsibility articulated above provides a potential solution to Nagel’s paradox. First, I wish to grant Nagel’s claim that we tend to view the successful gunman as deserving of greater blame. This seems to follow from the fact that we hold the successful gunman morally responsible for something (i.e., killing another human being) that we do not hold the unsuccessful gunman morally responsible for. However, I maintain that this poses no challenge to the control principle. According to the control principle, one is morally responsible for φ only if φ is under one’s control, where control is understood as one being free to do otherwise.

Now, in the case of the successful gunman, it is clear that he was free to do otherwise. Thus, according to the control principle, the successful gunman is morally responsible for his actions. Luck only enters in the case of the unsuccessful gunman. Since, ex hypothesi, the fact that unsuccessful gunman missed is due to factors outside of his control, then his failure to kill his target is a matter of luck. But, and here is the rub, the unsuccessful gunman is not held morally blameworthy for missing his target. Nor is he held morally praiseworthy for missing his target. In fact, he is not held morally responsible for missing his target at all. On the contrary, he is only held morally responsible for the one thing he had control over—namely, his attempted murder. The upshot is that the present account (1) preserves the intuitively plausible claim that one is only morally responsible for φ if φ is under one’s control, and (2) allows for our differential treatment of the successful and unsuccessful gunman.

I believe the above resolution to the problem of resultant luck generalises to cases of circumstantial and constitutive luck. Roughly, circumstantial luck has to do with how being at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time may influence the way one is morally assessed. Nagel gives an example of a person living in Germany during the Second World War who “behaves badly”. Undoubtedly, we would hold such an individual morally culpable for his actions. Nagel invites us to contrast this person with a German national who moves to Argentina for business just before the war. Stipulating that the expatriate would have acted the same way as the person who remained in Germany, Nagel observes that we would not hold the expatriate blameworthy for the actions of his counterpart.

The account of moral responsibility outlined above preserves our differential moral assessment of the German resident and expatriate. Recall, one of the necessary conditions for moral blameworthiness is that one be guilty of wrongdoing. Since, ex hypothesi, the expatriate has done nothing wrong, then he is not blameworthy for the actions of his counterpart. This acknowledgement may seem to pose a challenge to the control principle since the fact that the expatriate does not find himself in the same circumstances as his counterpart is due to factors outside of his control. But this appearance is misleading. We do not hold either of the two agents in Nagel’s example morally responsible for whether or not they happen to be in Germany during the war (a fact over which they are presumed to have no control) but for how they react to the circumstances they find themselves in (something they presumably do have control over).

Admittedly, the fact that they are faced with the particular circumstances with which they are confronted is a matter of luck. And since the difference in circumstances gives rise to a moral difference, then presumably luck has contributed to his difference. But the problem of moral luck is not simply that luck may make a moral difference. Rather, it is that our differential moral assessments appear to undermine the intuitively plausible control principle. But since both gunmen in Nagel’s example are only held responsible for what is under their control, the control principle is preserved.

Monday 9 February 2009

Towards a Plausible Control Principle (Part 1)

In the next two posts I will be attempting to articulate a philosophical account of moral responsibility that (1) preserves the widespread intuition that one cannot be morally responsible for something that is not one’s fault, and (2) avoids Nagel's criticisms with respect to resultant and circumstantial luck. In this post, I will begin by attempting to arrive at what I take to be a plausible control principle.

According to Nagel, the problem of moral luck arises out of a conflict between our ordinary practice and a widely held intuition about morality. Nagel summarises the intuition in question as follows:
Prior to reflection it is intuitively plausible that people cannot be morally assessed for what is not their fault, or for what is due to factors beyond their control.
I will refer to the intuition that one cannot be morally assessed for what is not one’s fault as the pre-philosophical position. Nagel expresses the pre-philosophical position in the form of a disjunction, with “what is not their fault” as the first disjunct and “what is due to factors beyond their control” as the second. One may read these two disjuncts as being independent of each other, in which case they would constitute a pair of independent necessary conditions for moral responsibility. However, given the context, I believe it would be more natural to read the second disjunct as an elaboration of the first, in which case Nagel can be seen as supplying a single necessary condition for moral responsibility (albeit expressed in two different ways).

On this reading, Nagel is committed to there being a constitutive connection between X being one’s fault and X being under one’s control such that X is only one’s fault if and only if X is under one’s control. If one buys into the present reading—which equates X being’s one’s fault and X being under one’s control—then the pre-theoretical position is equivalent to the following control principle:
(CP1): A is morally responsible for X only if X is under A’s control.
I take the claim that X is under one’s control (at least as it features in the control principle) to mean that one was free not to do X. The paradigm case of something that is under one’s control is the act of raising one’s arm at will. I will refer to any act one may perform ‘at will’ as being under one’s direct control. This allows for the following revised version of the control principle:
(CP2): A is morally responsible for X only if X is under A’s direct control.
However, I do not believe that (CP2) is a plausible formulation of the control principle since we routinely hold individuals responsible for things they do not have direct control over. For example, we can imagine a doctor chastising a patient because he failed to lower his blood pressure as he was instructed to do on a previous visit. Of course, no one can lower their blood pressure “at will”. However, one can take indirect steps (such as exercise, making the appropriate changes to one’s diet, etc.) to lower one’s blood pressure, and this seems to be sufficient to make one responsible for lowering one’s blood pressure. Moreover, it is not clear that there is any reason why (in principle) there could not be moral cases like the physician case. I therefore propose that (CP2) be reformulated to include indirect control:
(CP3): A is morally responsible for X only if X is under A’s direct or indirect control.
In my next post, I will attempt to show how the control principle articulated here avoids the problems of resultant and circumstantial luck.

Friday 6 February 2009

New York Philosophy Events Wiki

A new wiki has been created for keeping track of New York and
surrounding area philosophy-related events. You can find it here.