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.

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