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Chapter 1 - Moral Responsibility

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 August 2021

Jim Baxter
University of Leeds


The aim of the chapter is to develop an understanding of what moral responsibility is, so that this can, in later chapters, be applied to the case of the psychopath. I begin by distinguishing moral responsibility from other senses of responsibility, including causal, virtue, and obligation responsibility, and elucidate the various connections between these senses. I then consider the relationship between moral responsibility, praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, and the range of phenomena for which it is possible to be morally responsible. Next, I proceed to consider two major theories of moral responsibility: the Strawsonian ‘reactive attitudes’ account and the ‘reasons-responsiveness’ account. I consider the advantages and disadvantages of these, and their ability to account for a range of cases. Finally, I argue for an account adapted from R. Jay Wallace’s version of reasons-responsiveness.

Moral Responsibility and the Psychopath
The Value of Others
, pp. 8 - 35
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2021

1.1 Introduction

The word ‘responsibility’ in English is used in several different ways. For example, its meaning in the sentence, ‘Nigel is a pretty responsible sort of guy’ is clearly different from its meaning in the sentence, ‘Anastasia is responsible for the death of my rabbit’ or ‘Hurricane Sandy was responsible for millions of dollars’ worth of damage’. On the other hand, while the word has several distinct meanings, it is not merely by coincidence that we use the same word in each of the sentences, or in others in which its meaning is different again. These meanings are related, though distinct. If we are to make enquiries into the nature of responsibility, we would do well first to clarify exactly what sense (or senses) of responsibility we are interested in.

In this initial section, I will try to put the idea of responsibility into focus by examining some of the different ways in which it is used and exploring the relationship between these. This groundwork will be helpful later on because it will allow me to separate out and begin to explicate the idea of moral responsibility, which is my primary focus. By the end of this chapter, I will have set out what I believe to be the best available account of moral responsibility. I will then be able to begin to answer the question of whether it is an account which applies to the case of the psychopath.

1.2 Senses of Responsibility

Let me start, then, by identifying some different senses of the word ‘responsibility’.

As in the example of Nigel, who is ‘a pretty responsible sort of guy’, the word ‘responsible’ is sometimes used to refer to someone who has a particular virtue which manifests in a tendency to be trustworthy, consistent and so on. They are ‘a responsible sort of person’; they take their responsibilities seriously; they do not act irresponsibly. To describe someone as having responsibility in this sense – virtue responsibility – is to praise their character.

There is a very different sense of responsibility which is purely about causation; it has no moral dimension at all. A claim of causal responsibility is a claim about the causal history of an event or a state of affairs. The Hurricane Sandy example is an example of mere causal responsibility: it makes no sense to speak of holding a hurricane morally responsible for the damage it causes. Similarly, if a computer virus wipes my hard drive and destroys the only copy of my book manuscript, I might say that the virus was responsible for this destruction, but not in a sense that implied any moral assessment of the virus itself (any moral assessment of the people who created the virus would be additional to this immediate judgement of causal responsibility).

This contrasts with the sense in which the word ‘responsibility’ is employed in sentences such as ‘I hold you responsible for the damage you caused’ or ‘through his negligence in not holding on to the lead properly, Eric was responsible for the damage caused by his dog’. If a person is responsible in this sense for an action, then the person is liable for various moral repercussions arising from the action. For example, it might be that the person can be either blamed or praised for the action. It might also legitimise other attitudes and emotions, including resentment and indignation. In some cases, it might mean that social sanctions, such as shunning, are appropriate. It might also lead to expressions of disapproval (or approval), remonstration with the person or ‘taking them to task’. All of these crucial elements of our social interactions rely on a judgement, whether implicit or explicit, about the person at whom they are directed: that they are morally responsible for some relevant action or state of affairs.

This sense of responsibility is what philosophers generally have in mind when they write about moral responsibility, and I will hold on to this term for convenience, although it is, of course, not the only sense of responsibility with a moral dimension (consider, for example, the aforementioned ‘virtue responsibility’).

Moral responsibility has a legal parallel in the idea of criminal responsibility. To say that someone meets the criteria of criminal responsibility in relation to a particular crime is to say that they should answer to the law in respect of that crime. It may be that someone who is causally responsible for a crime may yet not be criminally responsible, for example, because they are too young or because they have a mental illness which exempts them from criminal responsibility (the ‘insanity plea’). It is also possible that someone might be criminally responsible without being causally responsible, as in cases of ‘strict liability’. It may also be that criminal responsibility and moral responsibility come apart in at least some cases of strict liability.Footnote 1

Nicole Vincent, from whose paper, ‘A Structured Taxonomy of Responsibility Concepts’, I have taken these labels, also identifies a concept, separate from moral responsibility, which she calls ‘capacity responsibility’. This has to do with the capacities people may or may not have which would make them candidates for judgements of moral responsibility. A judgement of capacity responsibility is a judgement of the entity as a whole, not in relation to any particular act or state of affairs. Clearly, there are some entities that are never capable of moral responsibility. We might say, for example, that a stone, or a baby, lacks capacity responsibility, in the sense that there is nothing for which the stone or baby is morally responsible. In this sense, the stone or baby lacks whatever capacities allow an entity to be ‘in the game’ for attributions of moral responsibility in the first place.Footnote 2

However, there are also cases in which people can lack moral responsibility for some things, or types of thing, but not others, because of certain capacities that they lack. The parallel concept of ‘capacity’ in medical ethics is illuminating here. Judgements about people’s medical capacity are, in practice, always judgements about their capacity to do something in particular, for example, to consent to a medical intervention. In many cases, it is likely that moral responsibility operates in the same way. If someone suffers from paranoid delusions, it would not be appropriate to hold them morally responsible for insulting me if I know that one of their delusions has convinced them that I am a persecutor. If, on the other hand, none of their delusions apply to me at all, a judgement of responsibility does seem appropriate. They might, after all, simply not like me. Capacities, then, enter into judgements of moral responsibility for individual acts, as well as judgements of ‘capacity responsibility’ in Vincent’s sense.

Finally, there is a sense of ‘responsibility’ which is roughly equivalent to ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’ – what we might call an ‘obligation responsibility’. To say that a referee has a responsibility to ensure that a game is played fairly is just to say that they have an obligation to do so. Sometimes these responsibilities are generated by the roles – social, contractual and so on – which we occupy, but this is not always the case. It makes sense to say that I would have a responsibility to rescue a drowning child if I could do so easily, and this would not be generated by any role I occupy (I would not need to be a lifeguard, for example, or to have any familial or other relationship with the child).

1.3 Moral Responsibility, Praiseworthiness and Blameworthiness

In relation to moral responsibility, I noted that this idea is linked to attitudes including praise and blame. There is clearly a link between the state of being morally responsible and the state of being either praiseworthy or blameworthy – of being a proper object of praise or blame. But are they merely linked or are they in fact the same thing? It is not clear whether moral responsibility and blameworthiness/praiseworthiness can come apart. Some examples may help to think this question through.

Imagine I am visiting your house and knock over your valuable vase, breaking it. Depending on how this comes to pass, several implications of the event may differ, including your verdict over my blameworthiness or otherwise, how I would feel about it, and whether reparations on my part would be appropriate or not. Here are some possible cases:
  1. Vase 1: I knock over your vase intentionally because I don’t like the vase (or maybe I don’t like you).

  2. Vase 2: I blunder into the vase accidentally because I am not being careful, and I don’t really care about your possessions or about the effect of my actions on your feelings.

  3. Vase 3: I fall over onto the vase because your enemy pushed me into the vase with the intention of breaking it.

  4. Vase 4: I have a heart attack and fall against the vase, knocking it over.

  5. Vase 5: Your dog jumps up at me, and, being afraid of dogs, I back into the vase and knock it over.

In Vases 1 and 2, it is quite clear that I am blameworthy for breaking your vase. In Vase 1, it is my intentional act that leads to the vase being broken, and there are no special conditions that should deter you from blaming me for it. In Vase 2, it is my negligence – my failure to act in a way in which I ought to have acted – that leads to the vase being broken, and again there are no special conditions that should deter you from blaming me for it. In both cases, while I may not, in the case as described, feel bad about what I have done, it is clear that I ought to feel bad about it, and all other things being equal I am presumably liable for making reparations of some kind.

In Vase 3, it seems clear that I am not blameworthy. In this case, it was not my action that caused the vase to be broken, but your enemy’s. I was used – and the blame for breaking the vase lies with your enemy, and not me. Nonetheless, I might feel some need to apologise to you. After all, it was my body that caused the vase to break. I was involved. However, the appropriate response on your part is surely, ‘don’t be silly!’ rather than, ‘apology accepted’. Regardless of my involvement in the scene, it was not my fault, and you should reassure me that there is nothing to apologise for.

Something similar seems to apply in Vase 4. I am not to blame because, again, the vase did not come to be broken through any action of mine. In this case, no one acted. An unfortunate event occurred which resulted in the vase being broken. This time (at a stretch) I can perhaps imagine being moved to apologise for the broken vase (assuming I survive the heart attack of course). You would (I hope!) move even more quickly to reassure me that there is nothing to apologise for.

In all four of these cases, it appears that blameworthiness goes hand in hand with action. In Vases 1 and 2, it is my actions that cause the vase to be broken. In Vases 3 and 4, this is not the case, either because (in Vase 3) it was your enemy who acted and I was merely a passive object upon which they acted, or because (in Vase 4) nobody acted.

In Vase 5, I do act – I back into the vase – and my action causes the vase to be broken. Let us assume that my act was voluntary – not that I voluntarily broke the vase, but that I voluntarily moved to get away from the dog. However, not only have I acted without intending to break the vase, but it would also not be right to say that I have acted thoughtlessly or without due care. Is the breaking of the vase, then, an action for which I am blameworthy? Probably not. It is an accident, and it is my accident, but it is not one in which I am negligent or careless. It would seem unreasonable for you or anyone else to blame me, given the way I have described the case. Even more than in Vases 3 and 4, however, I would certainly feel the need to apologise, and to offer to make reparation for the broken vase.

What do these cases tell us? First, perhaps that my feeling the need to apologise does not imply that I accept blame for the incident, and also that its being right that I should apologise does not imply that I am blameworthy, or even that you would be justified in accepting my apology. Sometimes, it would appear – at least given the cultural norms that affect my own intuitions – that my proper action is to apologise, and your proper response is to reassure me that there is no need to apologise. It would also appear that, for this to be true, all that needs to be the case is that I have some place in the causal chain resulting in the event in question. This is a very minimal requirement of causal responsibility: not that I need to have chosen to act, or even acted at all, in such a way as to bring about the event, but merely that I am involved in some way, even if only in that my body was one of the physical objects involved in the event’s coming about.

The really difficult question is where moral responsibility fits into all of this. Personally, I find that attempting to test my intuitions about moral responsibility against cases such as Vases 1–5 is of only limited help. In the simpler cases, it seems fairly clear that moral responsibility tracks blameworthiness: I am both morally responsible and blameworthy in Vases 1 and 2, and neither morally responsible nor blameworthy in Vases 3 and 4. In the more difficult Vase 5, I find it hard to discern a clear intuition regarding whether I am morally responsible or not. This is perhaps because moral responsibility is a concept whose meaning and application are actually somewhat unclear. If this is right, then I will have to make a decision about what I take moral responsibility to mean, and it will be reasonable to take this decision at least partly on pragmatic grounds: what definition of moral responsibility is most likely to play a useful role in my overall argument, and confer clarity on the debate that is to come?

In these cases, the vase’s breaking is an event, the vase being broken is a state of affairs, and the breaking of the vase is, in some variations at least, an action. Typically, we are responsible for events and states of affairs that are the result of our actions, or sometimes of our failure to perform certain actions. And, again typically, we are responsible for events and states of affairs that are the result of actions for which we are morally responsible. There are exceptions here, as perhaps when we are responsible for an action which leads to an event or state of affairs which we could not reasonably be expected to have included in our deliberation about how to act. Nonetheless, in the typical case, if we are responsible for the act, we are responsible for its consequences – for the events and states of affairs that result from it. At least, if we are to determine whether A is responsible for some given event or state of affairs, then we will need to know what action or failures to act on A’s part have led to that event or state of affairs coming about, and we will need to know whether A is responsible for those actions or failures to act (and we may need to know some other things as well). The primary locus of responsibility, in this sense, is actions.

One option, then, is to link moral responsibility to action: if an action is attributable to me as an agent – if it is my action – then I am morally responsible for it.Footnote 3 In Vase 5, this would mean that I am morally responsible for breaking the vase, because the breaking of the vase is my action – I broke the vase – in contrast to Vases 3 and 4. But I would plausibly not be blameworthy for it. So linking moral responsibility to action broadly fits our intuitions about these cases. However, in these cases it is my control over my actions that is in question. Beginning with Aristotle, lack of control is typically thought to be an excusing condition, with another being ignorance.Footnote 4 Equating moral responsibility with action, it turns out, fares better with cases in which lack of control is the excusing condition (including the five ‘vase’ cases) than with cases in which ignorance is the excusing condition. While filming the movie The Crow, the actor Brandon Lee was killed by a bullet from a gun which was fired by an extra – the gun was supposed to contain blanks but somehow a live round had found its way in. It is surely true to say, then, that the extra killed Brandon Lee. But was he morally responsible for doing so? To say that he was is to abandon the idea that ignorance is an excusing condition on moral responsibility since the extra was surely blamelessly ignorant of the most relevant fact in the case – that the gun contained a live round. This would not be disastrous – we would need to talk in terms of blameworthiness and praiseworthiness, at least when discussing matters which touch on the knowledge condition rather than the control condition – but it would put us at odds with the way moral responsibility is typically discussed by philosophers, and it is not clear that there would be any advantage to make up for this.

The better option, I think, is to link moral responsibility closely to blameworthiness or praiseworthiness. We are morally responsible for something if certain conditions (the exact nature of which we have yet to determine) are met, and we are praiseworthy if these conditions are met, and praise is due to someone for the thing in question – blameworthy if blame is due. Taking this option allows us to retain the traditional view that there is a knowledge, as well as a control, condition on moral responsibility. However, it does raise two issues which I will deal with in turn before proceeding.

One issue is a potential lack of clarity around the distinction between justifications and excuses. This distinction, which has been much discussed by philosophers,Footnote 5 would need to be clarified in any case, but I shall need to make sense of it in the context of an account which links moral responsibility closely to praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. The basic form of this distinction is that if someone has a justification, then they have done nothing wrong, whereas if they have an excuse, they have done something wrong but are not to be blamed for it (and, I would have to add given my understanding of moral responsibility, are not morally responsible for it). When trying to apply this distinction to cases, however, the water becomes muddied very quickly. Did the extra in the Brandon Lee case do anything wrong? The answer to this perhaps depends on how we describe the action in question. It seems odd to say that they did anything wrong in pulling the trigger, since that was their job, and they had no reason to think that anything bad would result from it. But did they do anything wrong in killing Brandon Lee? Well, it was surely wrong for Brandon Lee to be killed. Furthermore, if it is supposed to be the case that someone who does nothing wrong by acting in a way which might have been wrong has a justification, then this does not seem to be the natural way to talk about this case. The extra was not justified in killing Brandon Lee. Better, then, to say that the extra did something wrong in killing Brandon Lee, but that they were not to blame for it. Because I am linking moral responsibility closely to praiseworthiness and blameworthiness, I am therefore committed to saying that they are also not morally responsible for killing Brandon Lee. Since this seems to me a perfectly natural thing to say about the case, I am happy to be so committed.

The other issue raised by the move to link moral responsibility to blameworthiness and praiseworthiness has to do with acts that are neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy in themselves. There are actions which are morally neutral (e.g. going to the shop to buy some milk) and for which it would make no sense to use terms such as ‘blameworthy’ or ‘praiseworthy’. In cases which are not morally neutral, moral responsibility on my suggestion would be the state of being the proper recipient of praise and blame. Certain conditions would need to be fulfilled (that the agent is in control of their action, knows what they are doing, etc.) for them to be morally responsible in this sense. In cases which are morally neutral, those conditions still exist, but this does not legitimise praise or blame, because neither praise nor blame is appropriate in morally neutral cases. Am I then to be described as morally responsible for going to the shop for some milk, or not?

On the one hand, I can see that there is something strange about describing someone as morally responsible for something which has no moral dimension to it at all. On the other hand, it is possible to describe such a case in a way that exactly mirrors how one would describe a case which did have moral implications. If I went to the shop for orange juice, and picked up a carton marked ‘orange juice’, which for some reason contained milk, there is a sense (other than causal responsibility) in which I would not be responsible for buying the milk. In fact, not much rides on whether we choose to call this sense ‘moral’ responsibility or to allocate some other name to it. By definition, nothing of moral consequence depends on attributions of this kind of responsibility in morally neutral cases. However, since what is being described is the type of state which justifies praise and blame where there is praise or blame to be justified, and since it is only in cases where praise or blame is appropriate that we are likely to find ourselves discussing this type of state, it at least has the virtue of simplicity to maintain the same term both for cases which have moral dimensions and for cases which do not. I will therefore take this approach.

1.4 Moral Responsibility for Mental Phenomena

I have been talking so far largely about actions, and have also alluded briefly to events and states of affairs. However, we are also, interestingly, often thought to be responsible for mental phenomena, including attitudes, emotions and beliefs. Here, briefly, is an example of each of these mental phenomena: ‘Stephen thinks that Johnny takes him for a fool, and demands an explanation.’ ‘Dave demands an apology from Ray because he believes Ray’s anger at Dave is unjustified.’ ‘Neil takes Chris to task for his racist beliefs.’ In each of these cases, the attitude, emotion or belief in question is attributable to the relevant person – it is their attitude, emotion or belief. This contrasts with the case in which an attitude, emotion or belief is not really attributable to me – say I have been slandered or misquoted.

Now, as with actions, there will be cases where states of affairs, attitudes, emotions and beliefs are attributable to me, but I am not morally responsible for them. So, in the Vase 5 case, the fact that the vase is broken is a state of affairs that is due to an act of mine, but I am not morally responsible because of the excuse provided by the dog. If Stephen takes Johnny for a fool because he has (through no fault of his own) mistaken Johnny for someone else who is a fool, then he is not morally responsible for his misdirected attitude. If Ray is angry at Dave because he thinks Dave has burned his hat, when in fact Pete has burned Ray’s hat, and created a plausible situation in which it looks as though Dave burned it, then Ray is not morally responsible for his anger at Dave. If Chris has been brought up in a very isolated community, fed propaganda about the supposed inferiority of some races and not been exposed either to any real members of those races or to any opposing views, then he is (plausibly, I suppose) excused from moral responsibility for his racist views.

Thus, in the case of attitudes, emotions and beliefs, as in that of actions, there are conditions which must be met before someone is morally responsible for the thing in question, and it is only when they meet those conditions that any praise and blame can legitimately be attached to them. The most important question of this chapter is, how should we describe those questions?

I will turn to this question shortly, but first I would like to revisit the different senses of the word ‘responsibility’ I set out earlier, and consider some relations between them.

1.5 Relations between Senses of Responsibility

First, virtue responsibility appears to be loosely related to both moral responsibility and obligation responsibilities. Someone who has virtue responsibility is likely to recognise that they have certain obligations, and to recognise their moral responsibility (to take responsibility) for fulfilling, or failing to fulfil, these obligations. This is partly what we mean when we say that someone is a ‘responsible sort of person’. Conversely, when we say someone ‘abdicates responsibility’, we tend to mean that they either fail to recognise or take seriously their obligations, or to act in a way that suggests that they accept moral responsibility for the fulfilment or non-fulfilment of those obligations. This is a good indication that they lack virtue responsibility.

Second, there is clearly a link between causal and moral responsibility. In many cases, it would be strange to say that someone was morally responsible for something while maintaining that they were not causally responsible for that thing. If Lee Harvey Oswald did not fire the gun that killed President Kennedy, then he was not causally responsible for Kennedy’s death and therefore could not be morally responsible for it either. However, as some of the brief examples I have given show, it would be wrong to think that causal responsibility is always a necessary condition of moral responsibility. The problem with Eric and his dog is not that Eric caused the damage. The dog caused the damage, but Eric is still responsible for it because he failed in a duty to prevent the dog from doing so. Generally, we tend to think that parents bear at least some of the moral responsibility for the actions, or things caused by the actions, of their children. This is why a parent might apologise on behalf of their child, or offer to pay for damage and so on. We can also be morally responsible for omissions – for things that we fail to do. A driver who fails to signal when turning right is morally responsible for this failure. The driver in this case has not caused anything to happen (this, if you like, is the problem).

Both of these examples also highlight a relation between moral responsibility and obligation responsibilities. We hold the driver morally responsible for failing to signal, partly because we believe they had a responsibility (obligation) to do so, and we hold a dog owner morally responsible for damage caused by their dog when they fail to keep it on a lead, partly because we believe they have a responsibility (obligation) to keep the dog on a lead. The fact that the protagonists in these examples are morally responsible is an indication of the existence of an obligation that each has. However, it does not seem to be the case that being morally responsible, or being in a position to be morally responsible (in cases where the act in question has not occurred yet), for an act is a necessary condition of having an obligation responsibility to perform, or not to perform, that act. Imagine a football referee who sees a player fall over after being tackled in the penalty area, but, though no fault of their own, the referee is unable to see whether the footballer was fouled or not. Perhaps another player passed through their line of sight at the critical moment. Now, it seems to me that this referee is not morally responsible for failing to judge correctly whether a foul has taken place. However, I do not think it is the best explanation of this case to say that the referee does not have an obligation to make this judgement correctly. It seems rather that the obligation stands, but that the referee is not morally responsible for failing to fulfil it in this case.

Perhaps a clearer exception to the close link between obligation responsibilities and moral responsibility is in cases of moral responsibility for supererogatory actions. An ordinary member of the public who rescues someone from a burning building is morally responsible for the rescue, but not because they had any obligation responsibility to do so.

As I have said, the sense of responsibility which is central to this thesis is moral responsibility. It is this concept that is the object of the philosophical work that has already been published on responsibility and psychopaths, and I tried to show in the introduction why it is interesting to ask whether psychopaths can have this kind of responsibility. It is also interesting to note connections to other senses of responsibility in the case of psychopaths, however. First, it is certainly true that psychopaths on the whole lack virtue responsibility. As we will see in Chapter 2, failure to take responsibility for one’s actions is one of the features by which psychopathy is diagnosed in clinical settings. Harvey CleckleyFootnote 6 sets out a series of case studies of psychopaths who manifestly and repeatedly fail to take responsibility – to recognise that they are morally responsible, both for the consequences of their actions for other people, and for their own lives – in any meaningful way. As I have noted, people with virtue responsibility recognise that there are things for which they are morally responsible. Of course, the fact that psychopaths lack virtue responsibility does not in itself tell us anything about whether they have moral responsibility (or for what, if anything, they have it): it may be that they do, but that they fail to recognise this.

Second, the link to obligation responsibilities is also interesting. If it were the case that obligations were only possible where the person concerned could be held morally responsible for breaking those obligations, then either psychopaths must be capable of moral responsibility or else they could not have obligations. The latter conclusion would be a surprising one. It would mean, for example, that a psychopathic referee, or a psychopathic teacher, had no obligations at all generated by their role. However, it would also be strange to think that this in itself settled the question of whether psychopaths can be morally responsible. Perhaps, then, the example of psychopaths gives us another reason to doubt that there is such a close link between moral responsibility and obligations.

1.6 Theories of Moral Responsibility

My final task in this chapter is to set out what I think is the most convincing account of moral responsibility available. My view is that this account is, broadly, the one set out by R. Jay Wallace as a refinement of the general framework introduced by P. F. Strawson. I will end this chapter by introducing and explaining this account, beginning with Strawson before moving on to Wallace. In doing so, I will be focusing in particular on what the account has to say about when it is right to hold someone responsible for something, and when it is not. This, ultimately, is the question that I am trying to answer for the particular case of psychopaths.

A claim of moral responsibility is, to a great extent, a claim about what should be done in relation to the person or other entity who is responsible. Aristotle, in his discussion of voluntary action in the Nichomachean Ethics, which is a foundational text in the philosophy of responsibility,Footnote 7 takes as central the practices of praise and blame: when someone acts voluntarily, it is proper to praise and blame them. However, it is surely true that several other practices and attitudes are legitimised by moral responsibility. An obvious example is that the appropriateness of rewards and punishment depends on verdicts of moral responsibility. Emotional reactions too can depend on whether we think someone is morally responsible or not. If my friend cooks a meal for me and it makes me ill, I might be upset and even angry towards her. But if it turns out that the food was contaminated by my enemy leaning in through the kitchen window when her back was turned, so that she could not have known what she was serving me, then she is not morally responsible for my illness. I would change my attitude towards her, or if I did not, my continued anger and upset would be misplaced. My emotional reaction to my friend, then, depends on whether or not I judge her to be morally responsible, and the legitimacy of my reaction depends on whether she really is morally responsible.

Judging someone to be morally responsible also allows one to call them to account. This might mean that the person who is judged morally responsible is expected to offer an explanation for their actions, for example, or to make amends.Footnote 8

In short, a multiplicity of social practices, emotions, attitudes and behaviours are provoked and apparently justified by (and, one might say, contain within them) judgements of moral responsibility, implicit or explicit. The key question for my purposes here, the one which will be essential for my overall project, is this: when are such judgements justified and when are they not?

To say that someone is morally responsible for something (an act, state of affairs, attitude, emotion or belief) is to say that they meet certain conditions in relation to that thing. This may include some claim of causal responsibility (though, as we have seen, there are exceptions to the link between these two ideas). It may also include discussion of the obligations that the person has. In addition to these, however, the conditions of moral responsibility are also generally thought to include two other things: a particular kind of control and a particular kind of knowledge. This thought can again be traced to Aristotle, who begins his discussion with the two central claims that ‘feelings and actions … receive praise or blame when they are voluntary’Footnote 9 and that ‘what comes about by force or because of ignorance seems to be involuntary’.Footnote 10 Substitute moral responsibility for voluntary action and we have the basis of much of the discussion of moral responsibility that has followed. It is interesting to note that Aristotle makes no attempt to explain why it is that ignorance and compulsion, and not other conditions, are thought to be adequate excuses. This is simply taken as given. There are also controversies around the application of these conditions, including the difficulty of determining whether or not someone with a mental illness is in a position of ignorance with regard to the nature of their actions. Psychopathy, as we have seen, is a highly distinctive type of mental illness and one whose implications for moral responsibility is particularly unclear. If I want to answer the question of whether psychopaths are morally responsible, I will need to consider first what the conditions of moral responsibility implied by my favoured theory are, and, second, how these might need to be refined in order to yield an answer for the case of psychopaths.

It is worth noting at this point that the majority of philosophical work on responsibility makes no attempt to offer anything like a comprehensive answer to the questions canvassed above.Footnote 11 The very long-running debate about the compatibility or otherwise of free will with determinism, or of a lack of free will with moral responsibility, has not required philosophers to offer a full description of the conditions of application of moral responsibility, nor a justification of the various practices associated with it. Instead, it has to a great extent been confined to questions about the metaphysics of determinism, free will and control. For example, does a lack of alternative possibilities imply a lack of control over one’s actions? Or, does determinism imply a lack of alternative possibilities? The aim of the game is to show either that determinism implies that nobody is morally responsible, or else to escape this charge. Thus, the debate is generally confined to the control condition of moral responsibility – if we can be shown to be in control, in a way that is compatible with determinism, then it follows that our practices of holding people morally responsible escape the very specific charge from determinism, and it is not necessary to look for a more general account of why control (or knowledge, or any other condition) is important in the first place, or of how our practices as a whole might be justified.

Nonetheless, there is a strand within the philosophy of responsibility which, while it too was originally motivated by the need to argue against incompatibilism, has offered a more complete account of what moral responsibility actually is: why it is justified and how it should be applied. In my view this strand of work, which begins with discussion of the ‘reactive attitudes’ before being refined into a discussion of responsibility in terms of responsiveness to reasons, has broadly got the answers to these questions right. In the remainder of this chapter, I will briefly introduce these ideas before offering my own version of the view in question.

1.7 The Reactive Attitudes

As I have already noted, it is not only the attitudes of praise and blame, and the practices of reward and punishment, that are closely linked to judgements of moral responsibility. There are also a range of emotional attitudes that only seem appropriate if we think of the people at whom they are directed as morally responsible. The strand in philosophy in which these attitudes are taken seriously when talking about moral responsibility begins with P. F. Strawson’s 1962 lecture, ‘Freedom and Resentment’.Footnote 12 This lecture is rich and provocative, and Strawson’s argument in it is complex and open to interpretation. Broadly, however, the argument proceeds like this.

Holding people morally responsible, as Strawson rightly points out, is not a simple, unitary practice, but is inherent in a complex, variable set of attitudes which include praise and blame, but also resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, love and hurt feelings, as well as self-directed attitudes such as pride, guilt and shame. These attitudes, which Strawson calls the ‘reactive attitudes’, are ‘something we are given with the fact of human society’,Footnote 13 and as such are a basic, inescapable part of our nature, though we are capable of withholding them towards specific kinds of people, or in specific circumstances. We do this withholding, first, when actions have been performed through ignorance, compulsion, lack of choice and so on. In such circumstances, we do not ‘view the agent as one in respect of whom these attitudes are in any way inappropriate’.Footnote 14 Rather, we view the specific action as one in reaction to which such attitudes held towards the agent would be inappropriate. Second, we sometimes do withhold reactive attitudes towards the agent as a whole, but only in unusual circumstances, such as when they are under abnormal stress, or under hypnotic suggestion, and are temporarily ‘not themselves’ in some way, or because they are abnormal in a relevant way (e.g. mentally ill or a child). Finally, we are able to withhold the reactive attitudes voluntarily and temporarily towards someone, ‘as a refuge, say, from the strains of involvement; or as an aid to policy; or simply out of intellectual curiosity’,Footnote 15 and not because of any fact about the person who is the object of the attitudes, or because of any fact about any action which they have performed.

Having set out these three categories of situation in which we are capable of suspending the reactive attitudes, Strawson goes on to claim that no thesis which applies to people indiscriminately – including the thesis which states that moral responsibility is incompatible with causal determinism (the incompatibilist thesis) – either could or should lead us to withhold reactive attitudes in any of these ways. The incompatibilist thesis could not imply that all human interactions would fall into the first category (ignorance, compulsion, lack of choice, etc.) because we ought to be looking for a justification for suspending reactive attitudes towards the agent, not towards the act. Nor could any thesis (including the incompatibilist thesis) ever show that all people are always ‘not themselves’, or that all agents, at all times, are abnormal (the second category). This leaves only the voluntary suspension of reactive attitudes, which Strawson believes is ‘practically inconceivable’Footnote 16 as a long-term, general strategy, because of the strain of withholding reactive attitudes in this way, and the way in which attempting to do so would impoverish our lives. Further to this, although Strawson’s overall approach is in some sense to eschew discussion of the rationality of responsibility attributions – he claims that the full set of reactive attitudes ‘as a whole … neither calls for, nor permits, an external “rational” justification’Footnote 17 – he apparently does believe that it is rational to hold the reactive attitudes in broadly the circumstances in which it is natural to do so. It could not be rational, according to Strawson, to behave in a way that is so unnatural as to be practically impossible and which, were we to attempt it, would impoverish our interpersonal relationships to the point where they would become unbearable: ‘we could choose rationally only in the light of an assessment of the gains and losses to human life, its enrichment or impoverishment; and the truth or falsity of a general thesis of determinism would not bear on the rationality of this choice’.Footnote 18

What does Strawson have to say about the question of when the reactive attitudes are natural, or appropriate, and when they are not? Strawson begins the part of the essay that deals with this question by talking about the types of situation in which we typically withhold reactive attitudes, describing categories of cases in which this usually occurs. The categories that Strawson gives are, I think, open to question. Strawson writes in terms of a distinction between withholding reactive attitudes towards the act, and towards the person, and includes cases of mental illness in the second category. This is similar to the distinction made by Nicole Vincent between ‘capacity responsibility’ and what I have called moral responsibility. I noted earlier that this distinction is not a simple one, and it is not entirely clear what to make of Strawson’s reading of this. Strawson presumably cannot, for example, mean that suspending reactive attitudes towards the person involves suspending those attitudes in relation to every act by that person, because this is rarely what happens in the types of case described. It is only in very extreme cases of mental illness, for example, that we suspend all reactive attitudes in this way. Surely, in most cases, we suspend reactive attitudes towards the mentally ill person only with regard to those actions which we can attribute to the mental illness in some way. To adapt the example I used earlier, if someone suffers from paranoid delusions, it would not be appropriate to resent their insulting me if I know that one of their delusions is that I am a persecutor. On the other hand, if none of their delusions applies to me at all, I might have a different attitude. They might simply not like me, and if so, I might be justified in resenting them. How, in general, would one go about deciding whether to take personally an insult from someone with a psychological or neurological disorder? One might look for evidence that their insult was caused by some delusion that denied them full knowledge or control of what they were doing (e.g. they are paranoid and thought they were insulting their nemesis; in fact, they were insulting their friend). Alternatively, one might look for evidence that they lack control over their actions in some relevant way (e.g. they have a form of Tourette’s syndrome which manifests in coprolalia – the condition which causes compulsive swearing). Either way, we would be looking at conditions relevant to the act, and not the person generally. The capacities of the person are only relevant insofar as they bear on the person’s responsibility for the act.

Strawson’s general explanation of when and why we hold some people responsible for some actions, though, is that we do so when the actions in question are expressive of ‘goodwill, its absence or its opposite’, and we do not when they are not:

If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard of my existence or with a malevolent wish to injure me. But I shall generally feel in the second case a kind and degree of resentment that I shall not feel in the first. If someone’s actions help me to some benefit I desire, then I am benefited in any case; but if he intended them so to benefit me because of his general goodwill towards me, I shall reasonably feel a gratitude which I should not feel at all if the benefit was an incidental consequence, unintended or even regretted by him, of some plan of action with a different aim.Footnote 19

In other words, part of what separates those actions that are appropriate targets of reactive attitudes from those that are not is that the actions in question are expressive of some quality of will on the part of the agent: either goodwill, ill will or an absence of the ordinary level of regard that we demand from people as part of normal human relationships.

One advantage of this suggestion is that it provides a ready explanation for why we hold people morally responsible not only for actions, but also for emotions and attitudes. Goodwill and ill will are themselves attitudes, and other attitudes can be partly constituted by goodwill or ill will. Emotions too can be expressive of attitudes towards others. For example, we might think it praiseworthy that Patti frequently feels compassion for her friends when they are undergoing some hardship or other, implying that she is morally responsible for her emotion, because it is expressive of a general attitude of goodwill towards her friends. In general, for the majority of cases, it seems to me that Strawson’s appeal to goodwill and ill will provides a very plausible explanation of why responsibility ascriptions are sometimes justified, sometimes not.

However, it is interesting to note that consideration of how this would apply to psychopaths calls into question the intuition upon which the appeal to qualities of will is based. The problem is that in the vast majority of cases, we can assume that the person in question is perfectly capable of understanding that other people are due some degree of goodwill, or at least an absence of ill will. Because of this, it makes intuitive sense to hold them morally responsible when they fail to exhibit this quality of will. However, it is not at all clear that psychopaths have the same understanding. In turn, it is not at all clear that they can be held morally responsible when they fail to exhibit those qualities of will. Again, what seems like a solid intuition in the vast majority of cases becomes harder to discern when applied to psychopaths.

1.8 Responsiveness to Reasons

Beginning after Strawson, and partly inspired by Strawson, there have been several attempts to elucidate moral responsibility in terms of the ability to recognise and respond to reasons. My own view is of this kind, and builds on that of R. Jay Wallace, which seems to me to be the most plausible of the responsiveness to reasons views, and the most powerful in terms of its ability to explain and justify our attitudes and practices which imply responsibility ascriptions. In what follows, I will draw on Wallace’s account in order to explain my own.

The central insight of the responsiveness to reasons approach is that for an agent to be morally responsible is for them to be able to grasp, respond to, and control their behaviour in the light of certain kinds of reason. Why are we justified in holding someone responsible – in adopting one of the reactive attitudes to them, or in believing some kind of sanction would be appropriate, say – when they exhibit this ability? Wallace’s contention, with which I agree, is that we should be looking for a normative answer to this question: specifically, we should be looking for whatever conditions make it fair to adopt these attitudes towards them. Now, it cannot be fair to expect someone to act in line with a set of reasons unless they can, first, recognise that those reasons exist, and, second, control their behaviour in such a way that ensures that they do act in line with those reasons. The conditions that one must fulfil in order to be morally responsible, therefore, are ‘the powers of reflective self-control: (1) the power to grasp and apply moral reasons, and (2) the power to control and regulate [one’s] behaviour by the light of such reasons’.Footnote 20

These conditions can make sense of the typical cases in which we hold someone responsible for acting in a way in which we are justified in expecting them not to act, that is, cases in which they act against an obligation that they have. In such cases, the obligation supplies reasons for them not to act in such a way that breaches the obligation. If they are aware of and understand those reasons, and are capable of controlling their actions to avoid acting against them, and yet they act against them anyway, then we are justified in holding them responsible for doing so.

The powers of reflective self-control can also make sense of omissions – cases where someone has apparently broken an obligation not by performing a certain action, but by not performing a certain action which they had an obligation to perform. In such cases, the agent has failed to act in conformity with a genuine reason which they had, which they knew about and were capable of understanding, and which they could have controlled their behaviour to fulfil.

We also, of course, hold people morally responsible for good acts, and for refraining from acting badly. In some cases, good acts are simply those acts which the agent was obliged to perform. In these cases, the agent acts in conformity with reasons which are generated by the obligation in question. As long as they knew what they were doing – knew about and understood the reasons in conformity with which they were acting – and were in control of their actions, then any attitudes or practices (praise, for example, although of course praise is not always appropriate for the fulfilment of an obligation) are justified. (Conversely, we can imagine a case in which the agent acts in conformity with the reasons generated by their obligations, but not because they are aware of them and able to control their actions to conform with them, but only, as it were, by sheer luck. In such cases we would, I take it, not hold them morally responsible for doing so, or believe them to be an apt target for any attitudes and practices which would imply them being morally responsible.) In the case where the agent refrains from acting badly, the agent is obliged, and therefore has reason, not to act in a certain way, and indeed does not act in that way, again justifying those attitudes and practices directed at the agent which rely on moral responsibility and which are otherwise appropriate and justified.

Responsibility for supererogatory acts, too, can be explained through this general schema. In these cases, the agent has no obligation to act in the way they do, but we nonetheless think their act is morally worthy, and we hold them responsible for it if they are aware of and understand, and can control their actions in conformity with, the reasons that speak in favour of the supererogatory act. These reasons are not generated by any obligation, but nonetheless must exist in any case in which the agent is to be held responsible for such an act.

A type of case which perhaps puts pressure on the responsiveness to reasons account is the type in which an outcome is predictable but not intended. Imagine, for example, a purely selfish entrepreneur who starts a business solely in order to enrich themself. If they could have generated a significant profit as a sole trader, they would have done so. However, they find that their business will be much more profitable if they take on a few employees. As a result, though this was not their intention, they create several jobs that are beneficial to those they employ. Are they morally responsible for bringing these benefits to the people in question? My own intuition is that they are, and the fact that they are can be explained by the (presumed) fact that they have the powers of reflective self-control with regard to the reasons which bear on their choice, and they act in conformity with those reasons, even if they are not motivated by them. Moral responsibility for a morally worthy act, therefore, would appear to depend on being responsive to the specific reasons that are generated by that act – the considerations that make it morally worthy – even if it does not require that those reasons actually influence the agent.Footnote 21

There is a possible confusion raised by the kinds of cases I have been discussing, which it will be helpful to clear up here. As we saw, Wallace’s description of responsiveness to reasons as a condition of moral responsibility has it consisting in ‘the powers of reflective self-control: (1) the power to grasp and apply moral reasons, and (2) the power to control and regulate [one’s] behaviour by the light of such reasons’.Footnote 22 Yet the agent need not lack a general rational power of this kind in order to lack moral responsibility for a specific act. For example, in the ‘vase’ cases, the relevant question is whether I was able to control the specific movement of my body which resulted in the vase being broken. Similarly, one could imagine a case in which I am non-culpably ignorant in a way that excuses my smashing the vase: perhaps due to some comedy of errors, I came to believe that you wanted me to smash the vase (let us call this case Vase 6). In that case, I would not be suffering from some general inability to grasp that I had reasons not to destroy other people’s property; I would simply be ignorant regarding the particular reasons applying to this specific case.

Thus, the aspect of the global condition of responsiveness to reasons which has to do with knowledge or understanding – the ‘ability to grasp and apply’ reasons – is continuous with local examples of ignorance or lack of understanding in cases such as Vase 6. The reasons which I cannot ‘grasp and apply’ might be highly specific to the case in question. Moreover, even in cases where I lack a global power to grasp and apply reasons, it is the specific reasons in specific cases which matter, from the point of view of determining moral responsibility. A general inability to ‘grasp and apply’ reasons is excusing because it renders the agent non-culpably ignorant of the reasons that bear on individual choices that they make.

Something similar applies in cases in which someone’s moral responsibility or otherwise depends on whether they have control of their actions in the case. This includes cases of coercion and of involuntary movement. For example, in the variation of the ‘vase’ case in which you push me into the vase, I am not morally responsible for breaking the vase because I am not in control of the action which leads to the vase being broken. More generally, someone who lacks control over their bodily movements (say because they suffer from a neurological condition involving violent ‘tics’) might lack moral responsibility for a broad range of things resulting from those movements. But what matters from the point of view of determining whether that person was responsible for smashing the vase is whether they were in control of specifically those movements which resulted in the vase being smashed.

Both the ‘knowledge’ and ‘control’ conditions of moral responsibility, then, can apply either to specific actions, or generally to an agent in a way which renders that agent morally responsible (or not) for a broad range of actions, and the agent’s position with respect to the reasons that bear on their actions is what makes the difference between responsibility and non-responsibility. The agent is either in a position to engage with these reasons in their actions or they are not, because of conditions that apply either specifically to the case in question or generally across a range of cases. Wallace’s formulation of responsiveness to reasons has to do with ‘general rational powers’, and so is focused on the latter conditions. However, given that the former conditions also have to do with whether the agent can respond to the reasons that bear on their choice, I see no reason not to refer to these conditions also in terms of responsiveness to reasons. Therefore, I will use the term to refer to both types of condition in this thesis, distinguishing when necessary between global responsiveness to reasons and local responsiveness to reasons.Footnote 23

The idea of ‘culpable ignorance’ mentioned above would also bear some exploration. When one acts from ignorance, but one ought not to be ignorant, is one morally responsible only for being ignorant, or also for the act that was done from ignorance? Wallace states that excuses arising from ignorance ‘may not be accepted at all if the ignorance that makes what one did unintentional is itself culpable’.Footnote 24 However, this turns out not to be a complete description of what he has in mind:

In that case it will be taken not for a valid excuse, but for evidence of one of a different family of moral faults that includes negligence, carelessness, forgetfulness, and recklessness. Thus, if [on the way to the refrigerator, I tread on the hand of] a baby I am supposed to be looking after, then I am presumably under an obligation to keep track of where the child is and what he is up to, and so my ignorance that I would be treading on the child’s hand by going to the refrigerator would not excuse my treading on his hand. More precisely: it might excuse me from responsibility for directly treading on the child’s hand, but only by making me vulnerable to the different charge of negligence, which led to the hand’s being damaged.Footnote 25

However, it seems to me that Wallace’s first description of the case is actually more accurate than that following the phrase ‘more precisely’. Surely in this case, I am indeed morally responsible for treading on the child’s hand, and not just for the negligence which led to my treading on his hand. The fact that I have a specific responsibility to look after the baby in this case means that, although I may not be aware of the presence of the baby’s hand, and the reason this supplies which bears on my choice to put my foot there, I can reasonably be expected to be aware of this. We are, it seems, morally responsible for failing to act on those reasons, and only those reasons, of which we can reasonably be expected to be aware. (This result has implications for my broader project, since to show that psychopaths are not morally responsible for failing to act on a certain class of reasons will involve showing, not just that they are unaware of these reasons, but also that they cannot reasonably be expected to be aware of them.)

One important implication of the responsiveness to reasons account is that one can be responsible for some consequences of one’s actions, and not for others, depending on what particular reasons bearing on that act one is responsive to. In fact, one can be responsible for an act construed in one way and not for the same act construed in another. Imagine a slapdash chef serves undercooked seafood to a number of different customers. Unknown to them, one of their customers is a terrorist, who is planning the next day to carry out a number of murders. As a result of the slapdash chef’s undercooking the seafood, all of the customers are incapacitated with severe food poisoning, and the terrorist’s murders do not go ahead. In this case, the chef is morally responsible for harming their customers, because they can reasonably be expected to be aware of the reasons that speak against harming customers, and are capable of controlling their actions in conformity with those reasons. Similarly, they are morally responsible for harming and incapacitating the terrorist. They are not, however, morally responsible for preventing the murders since, not knowing that their customer is a terrorist, they are not aware – and cannot be expected to be aware – of the reasons bearing on this (preventing the murders) as a construal of his actions in serving undercooked seafood to this particular customer.

In my modified, ‘neo-Wallacean’ version of the responsiveness to reasons view, being morally responsible for an act is a matter of being responsive (globally and locally) to the reasons that bear on that act. This account allows us to see why qualities of will are important indicators of moral responsibility. If we are unable to control our behaviour in the light of the reasons that bear on an act, then we have not exercised the kind of choice to perform that act that would demonstrate a quality of will, either good or bad, or the absence of a quality of will that was rightly expected of us. However, in some cases (the selfish entrepreneur is an example), I would be able to exhibit the powers of reflective self-control in the choice without having a relevant quality of will, or lacking a quality of will that was expected of me. Thus, the link between moral responsibility and qualities of will is indirect and defeasible. We would expect qualities of will to figure in very many cases of moral responsibility, but not in all, and indeed this is what consideration of cases reveals.

For convenience, I have so far in this section been talking about moral responsibility for actions, but it is worth noting that the responsiveness to reasons account can also make sense of the other things for which I argued, in Section 1.4, that we can be morally responsible, namely, states of affairs, attitudes, emotions and beliefs. There are reasons that speak in favour of or against our bringing about states of affairs, having certain attitudes and emotions, and holding certain beliefs. For each of these, responsiveness to reasons represents a plausible way of distinguishing between cases where we are or are not morally responsible, in the same way as for actions. So, to develop the three cases I outlined when discussing this issue earlier:
  1. (1) If Stephen knows Johnny well, he is responsive to facts about Johnny’s character, which generate reasons which bear on Stephen’s choice about whether or not to take him for a fool. If he does not know Johnny, then he is responsive to reasons that bear generally on the choice one has to take someone for a fool when one does not know the person in question. If, however, he has (through no fault of his own) mistaken Johnny for someone else who is a fool, then he is responsive to none of these reasons – to the reasons that bear on this particular case.

  2. (2) If Dave has burned Ray’s favourite hat, and Ray knows about it, then Ray is responsive to the reasons that speak in favour of his being angry with Dave. The same is true if Dave has not burned the hat or done anything to incur Ray’s wrath, and Ray is well aware of the situation. However, if Pete has burned Ray’s hat, and created a plausible situation in which it looks as though Dave burned it, then Ray is not responsive to the actual reasons for and against anger directed at particular people with regard to the burned hat.

  3. (3) If Chris’s racist beliefs are simply the result of his own irrational hatred and prejudice, then he is responsive to the reasons that bear on whether one should hold such beliefs. If, however, he has been brought up in a very isolated community, fed propaganda about the supposed inferiority of some races and not been exposed either to any real members of those races or to any opposing views, then he is not responsive – because he cannot reasonably be expected to respond – to the relevant reasons and is therefore (plausibly) not morally responsible for holding beliefs that are contradicted by those reasons.

The idea of responsiveness to reasons offers what I think is the best analysis of how we, as a matter of fact, naturally and instinctively arrive at ascriptions of responsibility. This is why it gives the most intuitively plausible results in the range of cases I have been discussing. It is the best analysis of what we mean when we say that someone is morally responsible for something, which is distinct from their being blameworthy or praiseworthy, but also from that thing’s merely being attributable to them as an agent, since there are many cases in which an act, say, is attributable to someone as an agent, without their being responsive to the reasons that bear on that act. Vase 5 would plausibly be an example of this. In this case, the act of breaking the vase is an act which is attributable to me as an agent, and I am aware of the reasons which bear on that act, including the fact that it is your vase and an expensive one. However, I did not in this instance have the power to regulate my behaviour by the light of these reasons, and therefore I lack local responsiveness to reasons in regards to the act of breaking the vase.

The responsiveness to reasons account shows how the distinction between those who are morally responsible and those who are not is related to the question of what we hold people responsible for. We hold people responsible either for acting on (or holding beliefs based on, etc.), or for failing to act on (or to hold beliefs based on, etc.) reasons of which they can be expected to be aware, and to which they can be expected to control their actions (beliefs) in response. If we do not hold someone responsible for failing to respond to a particular reason or set of reasons in this way, it is because they could not reasonably be expected to respond to that particular reason or set of reasons, either because of local conditions in the case, or because they are not globally responsive to a set of reasons that includes this particular set of reasons.

Building on this, the responsiveness to reasons account also provides what Strawson’s account alone cannot provide: not simply a justification for targeting the practices and attitudes involved in holding people responsible wherever happens to be natural, but a justification for targeting them precisely where we do naturally target them. If holding people responsible implies believing them to be responsive to reasons, then when we hold someone responsible who is not responsive to reasons, we are being irrational, and we are treating them unfairly (assuming we are aware, or should be aware, of the fact that they are not responsive to reasons). But when we hold them responsible and they are responsive, the attitudes we hold, and the practices we engage in, have the chance of being justified, assuming they are themselves sensitive to the relevant set of reasons arising from whatever the person at whom they are directed has done.

Let us explore how this works for the reactive attitudes, using anger as an example. If A is morally responsible for φ-ing, an action which they had an obligation not to perform, then B may be justified in being angry with A for A’s φ-ing, assuming B is in a position to be angry with anyone for φ-ing. This is because A either was, or should have been, aware of the reasons arising from their obligation not to φ. It is fair to expect A to take proper account of reasons arising from obligations which they genuinely have, if they are responsive to those reasons, and anger can be partly a matter of believing someone not to have taken proper account of reasons arising from their obligations. (That anger has cognitive content is a controversial idea, but it is one with which I agree and for which I will argue in Chapter 4.) Thus, particular reactive attitudes can be justified in the sense that the beliefs upon which they depend are justified beliefs, and part of what makes them justified beliefs is the fact that the person concerned is responsive to the reasons that bear on whatever it is about that person that is prompting the reactive attitude (i.e. they are morally responsible for it).

A similar story can be told about practices that depend upon responsibility ascriptions. So, for example, having justification for punishing someone for a crime may depend on having a justified belief that they are morally responsible for that crime. Whatever it is that justifies punishment (and there are of course conflicting accounts of this), the reasons justifying punishment of the individual will be related to the reasons to which the person must be responsive if they are morally responsible. If they did not have the powers of reflective control in regards to the crime, then punishing them is unjustified because the reasons that would normally justify punishment do not apply.

In short, the justification for each case of performing a practice or holding an attitude which is involved in holding people responsible is to be found in that particular practice or attitude, and is sensitive, in the right kind of way, to considerations about the person whom one is holding responsible, and whatever it is one is holding them responsible for. Strawson’s point about the psychological strain and impoverishment of relationships which would result from abandoning the reactive attitudes is a plausible additional justification of them taken as a whole, but this is not the whole justification. The refinement offered by the responsiveness to reasons approach is therefore an improvement on Strawson’s account.

1.9 Conclusions

In the latter part of this chapter, I have set out a ‘neo-Wallacean’ account of moral responsibility as consisting in the ability to recognise and understand reasons, and to control one’s behaviour in conformity with those reasons.

The particular consequence of the account I have endorsed, which is relevant to the central argument of this book, is that someone cannot be held morally responsible for failing to act on reasons which they are incapable of recognising as reasons. As I have argued, to be morally responsible for an action, it must be the case that one can reasonably be expected to recognise those reasons. Whatever makes it the case that one can reasonably be expected to recognise a reason, one condition must surely be that one is capable of recognising that reason or, if not, that the conditions which make it the case that one cannot recognise the reason are not themselves within one’s control. This second condition excludes cases where someone has, either intentionally or through negligence, brought it about that they are incapable of recognising an important reason – for example, I have blindfolded myself while driving my car and, as a result, cannot see the child in the road or recognise that I have a reason to apply the brakes. As we will see in later chapters, this is relevant to the case of psychopaths because, if psychopaths are to be judged non-responsible, the conditions which lead to their unresponsiveness to reasons must not be under their control in an analogous way.

I will go on to argue that psychopaths are indeed unresponsive to a particular class of reasons in a way that renders them not morally responsible for failing to act on those reasons. However, before we can see why this is, we first need to have a good understanding of what is unusual about psychopaths, and particularly of what it is about them that might lead us to doubt that they are morally responsible for the normal range of actions. Developing this understanding is the aim of Chapter 2.


1 See Chapter 6 for further discussion of the relationship between moral responsibility and criminal responsibility.

2 There are also controversial cases in this area. For example, there is an ongoing debate within business ethics about whether an organisation is the kind of entity that can ever be morally responsible, that is, which has capacity responsibility in this sense (see Reference FrenchFrench (1979, Reference French1984), Reference WerhaneWerhane (1985), Reference List and PettitList and Pettit (2011), Reference RönnegardRönnegard (2015)).

3 There is some ambiguity here around what it means for an action to be my action, or to be attributable to me as an agent. This depends on one’s understanding of action. Whether it is enough simply for me to have performed the action, or whether some further conditions need to be met, I think the result will be too thin a concept to be equated with moral responsibility, as I hope the following discussion shows.

4 Aristotle (1985), Book ii, chapter 9, section 3.1.

8 See Reference WatsonWatson (1996) and Reference OshanaOshana (2004) for discussions of this aspect of moral responsibility.

10 Footnote Ibid., 1110a. 1–2.

11 A notable exception is the mid-twentieth-century attempt to explain moral responsibility in utilitarian terms (Reference BrandtBrandt (1969), Reference SmartSmart (1969)), according to which responsibility ascriptions are justified by their tendency to produce good outcomes. However, this attempt ultimately fails due to the availability of copious counter-examples in which apparently justified responsibility ascriptions do not lead to good outcomes, or in which apparently unjustified responsibility ascriptions do lead to good outcomes.

13 Footnote Ibid., p. 25.

14 Footnote Ibid., p. 8.

15 Footnote Ibid., p. 10.

16 Footnote Ibid., p. 12.

17 Footnote Ibid., p. 25.

18 Footnote Ibid., p. 14.

19 Footnote Ibid., p. 6.

21 However, see Reference KnobeKnobe (2003a and Reference Knobe2003b) for a discussion of how cases like this put pressure on our intuitions about moral responsibility. I should note also that this discussion assumes that one’s reasons are, broadly, the facts that bear on one’s choices, as opposed to what one takes to be the facts that bear on one’s choices. Thus, one can believe oneself to have reasons that one does not in fact have, and one can be unaware of reasons that one does have. This view, which I endorse, is subject to some controversy, but defending it would require a lengthy diversion for which I do not have the space. For an opposing view, see Reference GibbonsGibbons (2010).

23 The use of the word ‘global’ should not be taken to imply that someone lacking one of these conditions must be unresponsive to all reasons. Clearly, it is possible for an agent to possess general qualities which make one unable either to recognise or to control one’s behaviour in the light of some reasons or kinds of reason, but not others. Indeed this is precisely my conclusion in this book.

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  • Moral Responsibility
  • Jim Baxter, University of Leeds
  • Book: Moral Responsibility and the Psychopath
  • Online publication: 27 August 2021
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  • Moral Responsibility
  • Jim Baxter, University of Leeds
  • Book: Moral Responsibility and the Psychopath
  • Online publication: 27 August 2021
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats

Send book to Google Drive

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  • Moral Responsibility
  • Jim Baxter, University of Leeds
  • Book: Moral Responsibility and the Psychopath
  • Online publication: 27 August 2021
  • Chapter DOI:
Available formats