Friday, December 18, 2009

Reprehensible but not responsible?

At last year's Eastern, I picked up a copy of Zimmerman's Living with Uncertainty at the Cambridge sale where I was spotted by someone I knew who confessed to being a bit jealous that I had my mitts on the thing since he had to write a review of it. I told him he could have it (I hope I did!), but I recall he declined saying that he was supposed to get one from the journal he's reviewing it for. Karma is a funny thing. Now I'm to review it and I let the wrong person know that I had a copy already, so no free copy for me. I'm really glad that I get an excuse to read the whole thing carefully and have taken this as an excuse to order Zimmerman's earlier work, The Concept of Moral Obligation. (Among my resolutions for the new year is to stop putting so many books on my credit cards.) In the last chapter of Uncertainty, Zimmerman argues that if you don't know that your behavior is wrong, you are not morally responsible (in the backwards looking sense) for that behavior. The view seems, well, counterintuitive. But, there's an argument for it that we should consider:

(1) Alf did A, A was wrong, but Alf was ignorant of this fact at the time he did A because he did not believe it was wrong [suppose].
(2) One is culpable for ignorant behavior only if one is culpable for the ignorance on or from which it was performed.
(3) So, Alf is culpable for having done A only if he is culpable for the ignorance on or from which he A'd.
(4) However, one is culpable for something only if one was in control of that thing.
(5) Alf is culpable for having done A only if he was in control of the ignorance in which he did A.
(6) One is never directly in control of whether one believes or does not believe something..
(7) Moreover, if one is culpable for something over which one had merely indirect control, then one's culpability for it is itself merely indirect.
(8) Furthermore, one is indirectly culpable for something only if that thing was a consequence of something else for which one is directly culpable.
(9) So, Alf is culpable for having done A only if there was something else, B, for which he is directly culpable and of which the ignorance-the disbelief-in or from which he did A was a consequence.
(10) But, whatever B was, it cannot itself have been an instance of ignorant behavior because then the argument would apply all over again to it.
(11) Thus, Alf is culpable for having done A only if there was some other act or omission, B, for which he is directly culpable and of which is failure to believe that A was wrong was a consequence, and B was such that Alf believed it at the time to be wrong.

What is true of Alf is true of Brenda, Charles, Doris, Edward, Frick and Frack, etc... (176).

What about the Nazis? Zimmerman says that we cannot say they are morally responsible (unless, I guess, we assume that Hitler believed that he was acting wrongly which I guess we shouldn't assume) but adds, "there are a variety of ways in which a person is open to moral evaluation; attributions of moral responsibility constitute only one such way. Thus, we may indeed say that the beliefs and actions of the youthful Nazi are morally reprehensible, and even that he is morally reprehensible in light of them, without saying that he is morally responsible for them" (179).

I want to get back to the argument, but I first want to try to understand this distinction between moral responsibility in the backwards looking sense and these others forms of moral evaluation. Can you be blameworthy for something we know you're not morally responsible for? (Oops, that was a mistake.) Can you be morally reprehensible for doing deeds that we know that you're not morally responsible for? We can futz around with the assumptions concerning control and control over our attitudes, but my first reaction is to say that our judgments about blame and about what's morally reprehensible (and not just bad or of negative value) are going to serve as the basis of our judgments about moral responsibility, so to the extent that it's plausible to say that you can be reprehensible for doing something you didn't know you shouldn't do it's plausible to say that you're responsible for those same things. If we're comfortable with the idea that you can be reprehensible for A-ing when you don't have the sort of control that Zimmerman has in mind, why not say that (4) is false?

Zimmerman says that we can imagine sadists that cannot control their sadistic impulses who are morally reprehensible but uncontrollably so, and this seems to cause trouble for those who would say that we can have responsibility without control. But I think there's an important difference between cases of moral ignorance and cases of uncontrollable impulses and the kind of failures of control we're considering when we compare the person who cannot resist an impulse to do something sadistic and the sadist who identifies with the sadistic action but could resist if they tried. I don't see that it's all that bad to say that those who truly cannot control their impulses are not responsible in a backwards looking sense, blameworthy, reprehensible, etc... whereas those who act on or from moral ignorance without being compelled to act by some irresistible impulse can be responsible for doing what they don't know they oughtn't because they identify with the wrong values. Like our nazis.


Richard said...

Yeah, I think either (2) or (4) is false depending on how we understand the locution 'culpable for'.

Suppose that one is blatantly irrational in failing to believe that p. If the irrationality of one's ignorance suffices to qualify it as 'culpable ignorance' (in contrast to, say, 'reasonable ignorance'), then (4) is plainly false. One can be irrationally ignorant without being 'in control' of that ignorance in any strong sense.

Alternatively, suppose that more is required to count as 'culpable for' ignorance. In particular, suppose that this requires that one has previously performed some free action which foreseeably led to the present state of ignorance. Then (2) is false. One does not have to be 'culpable for ignorance' in this strong sense in order to be culpable for a blatantly irrational action.

[Note that I develop this counterargument in more detail in my response to a similar argument from Rosen.]

Brandon said...

I think (1) forces the meaning of 'ignorant' to be problematic throughout the whole argument; ignorance of a fact and disbelief that it is a fact are not the same thing, and in the way we use 'ignorance' in moral cases (something like 'not having been in a position to take it into account') there is reason to think that the two are mutually exclusive. But if that's set aside, I think you're right that if A-ing is morally reprehensible, and A-ing is not under our control, rejecting (4) does become a genuine option.